Thursday, July 21, 2011

North Face Endurance Challenge 50K

My First Ultra Marathon!
The North Face Endurance Challenge 50k (June 4, 2011 - Sterling, Va.)

Quote of the Race
: Paramedic 1: Looks at Paramedic 2 with great confusion and concern while taking blood pressure reading.
Paramedic 2 to Paramedic 1: "It's okay, that is normal for 'these people,'" after seeing Jenny's finish line blood pressure of 100 (systolic) over 65 (diastolic).

- Sterling, Virginia (Washington D.C. area)
Cost - $75 to $110 for 50K based on sign up date. More for 50 mile and less for all other distances. See website here.
Year of Running - 4th year at this location.
Sponsor/Race Directors - The North Face, Gortex, Jeep, Nuun, Gu, and various local sponsors.
Charity - Karno Kids, Challenged Athletes Foundation, Leave no Trace, Bonneville Enviromental Foundation and runners have option to run for their own cause/beneficiary.
Number of Participants - 325 finishers (50K), 211 finishers (50 mile), 199 finishers (marathon).
Available Races - 50 Mile, 50K, Marathon, Marathon relay, Half Marathon, 10K, 5K and kid's race spread during two days.
Course Condition - Mostly single and double track trails. Little or no pavement surface. Moderate to advanced technical trail with some steep inclines and declines involving switchbacks, rocks, gravel, mud, stream crossings, tree stumps, and lots of dirt/sand!
Pace Groups - N/A. Pacers are allowed for 50 mile participants toward the end.
Expo - Not really. Packet Pickup is held at the North Face retail store in Georgetown.

ORGANIZATION, SUPPORT & SPECTATORS: - Great! I felt The North Face did an excellent job for this event. Everything from registration to packet pickup to getting home after the race went smoothly for us and as described on the event website. Race organizers described the event accurately on the website and made available a super informative and environmentally friendly race package downloadable in .PDF format. They also didn't provide any plastic bags upon packet pickup and encouraged participants to bring their own reusable bags to promote a message of sustainability. Everything seemed simple and easy as it should.
Support was adequate if not above par for a trail race. Aid stations were well stocked, manned and seemed to be placed at "just right" distances along the course. Volunteers and organizers were visually "in touch" with each other using radios and cell phones and I witnessed paramedics along the course multiple times.
Due to the nature of the course spectators are very limited to access. There's an area in Great Falls Park where there were hundreds of spectators camped out and then also at the finish line, but that's about it. A few times I came upon day hikers that looked more confused about the runners than anything else. In my opinion it was just right for a trail race.

Not bad at all. Instructions regarding this were very clear in the race package. As instructed we arrived at an offsite parking lot and were easily taken into the park to the start line in a school bus. The location of this race is accessible from multiple airports including Dulles International, Regan International and Washington/Baltimore International. We had family members to give us a ride, but there are plenty of car rentals available. I'm not sure if the Metro goes close to the start line. I'm guessing it does not.

Awesome! The North Face is one of my favorite apparel companies for a number of reasons, mainly because their high quality products and their corporate responsibility. Depending on the distance each participant races they receive some or all of the the following swag with each registration: The North Face Technical running T-shirt, The North Face arm warmers, The North Face water bottle, personalized bib number and timing chip, hot meal ticket and finisher's medal. Living up to their environmental friendliness, The North Face asks that runners bring their own reusable bags to packet pickup instead of giving out hundreds of plastic bags that will end up in landfills or worse.

Yummy! Each participant gets a meal voucher. The meal was catered with several options for hot meals. We also received and used our vouchers for a free beer that tasted oh so good! There was also the normal bagels, bananas, water, etc., as much as you want. The post race awards were held on a small stage and done in an appropriate manner. There was an "ice bath" area with multiple tubs, horse troughs, buckets and coolers full of ice water. Runners could chose how much icing they prefer. Paramedics were standing by at the finish line in case anyone needed help. Multiple venders/sponsors also had display tents around the finish area.

Welcome to my first 50 kilometer race! I should probably write a disclaimer at the bottom of this warning "do not try this at home." I really don't recommend anyone go about their first ultra marathon the way I did. Buy a book, get a training plan and follow the route that experts recommend. However, for entertainment value only; here is what I did. Please also keep in mind that Jenny actually trained for this race correctly with several long runs in access of 26-miles and a proper taper, but that's her story.
Most of the winter and spring since the Donna Half Marathon was spent recovering from my nagging and ongoing Achilles Tendinitis that has plagued me for two years now. After the half marathon I continued getting weekly treatment at a chiropractic clinic and by doing physical therapy. All this meant no real long runs, speed training, hills or anything abusive or interesting. Jenny's goal since her 35th birthday was to run 35 miles at one time. This spells ultra marathon all of it. She started training for it before picking a race. When it came time to decide upon a race it was looking like the final contenders were a trail race in North Carolina or a trail race in northern Virginia (The North Face). At that time (only a couple months) I decided that it would be a good idea for me to also participate in said ultra marathon. I mean, surely I should be able to come up with a strategy only focused on finishing without injury and still be able to finish, right?
When I told Jenny she looked extremely concerned. With some effort and reassuring I "think" I was able to get her to not worry about me and focus on her own race as this race is about her more than me.
In the few weeks leading up to the race I was able to get in a couple long runs, but nothing longer than 11 miles. Mixed into that was the Bay to Breakers 12K race, which my cousin and I actually ran at a respectable pace. I also concentrated on running a lot of 5-and 6-mile runs during the weeks leading up to the 50k. Thinking back, this was completely insufficient and naive for ultra marathon training. Other than being completely retarded my major concern was further injuring my Achilles tendon. It's an overuse issue with me and it seems to get angry every time I increase my mileage so this ultra was in part an experiment to see what the minimum amount of training I could do without injuring myself, but still being able to finish. Yes, I know. I'm stupid.
Fast forward to race day!
We arrive ultra early (it is an ultra) and the sun is rising over the Potomac River. The air is cold and I can see my breath. There is steam fog rising across the glassy water of the river. Just last week temperatures in the metro D.C. area were topping out in the upper 80s and I'm thankful for this unusually cool weather for this time of year. Jenny is covered in goosebumps as we wait in line for the bathrooms. We stretch. We eat. We check in our bags. We eat some more and then we wait near the start line trying to stay warm. Jenny sees some rays of light and moves into the grassy patch of sunlight. I see that she is standing right next to Dean Karnazes and I do not follow. She is looking right at him nearly 6-feet away and doesn't recognize him. He is a small man. Shorter than you'd think until you see him. Jenny looks back at me like I'm insane for not sharing the warm sunlight with her. Then she looks again at Dean. Her face slowly changes from confusion to "oh my God," as she realizes who he is and she hurries back to where I'm standing. The entire situation causes me to laugh out loud. While we respect Dean for the good that he does for the sport, charities and how well he markets himself, we've never really been a fan of his ever since watching his documentary.
A few speeches are made. A few hundred runners that would be considered crazy by an average Joe gather around the start line. Finally, a feeling of "this is completely normal" is in the air around me. An air horn sounds and we're off just as the 50-milers started two hours before and as the marathoners will start two hours later. It's simple. It's easy actually. I tell myself that my only mission is to keep a constant state of forward motion no matter what happens.
Starting only a few dozen runners back, I'm tall enough to see the lead runners blazing down the trail at a pace that would kick my ass in only a couple miles. It's crowded the first few miles. The trail is double track at the most and each time we happen upon a narrow section it bottlenecks slightly, but eventually it thins as everyone settles into their own comfortable paces. I run with Jenny for about two miles in the crowd. It's very apparent that she wants to start passing people and run a faster pace. I tell her to go kick some ass as my strategy is much more reserved. For the next two or three miles I keep catching glimpses of Jenny ahead in the distance, but soon she is gone.
My strategy is a simple one. Run 5-miles. Then walk 1-mile and then repeat until finish. The idea is to sustain a respectable pace without injuring myself. My brilliant plan works for about, oh, I don't know, two or three miles and then is blown out of the water when we encounter our first large hill. It's single track at this point and all the runners in front of me start walking up it. Apparently, their strategy is different than mine and there's no good way to pass them at this point. As I start to walk and realize how damn steep this hill really is I decide that their strategy is far more superior than mine. Yes, walking all the steep hills is definitely the way to go. If I ran up this sucker my legs would be trashed in no time! We sure as hell don't have any hills like this in Florida!
The race continues on and I'm amazed at how friendly the people running around me our. Small talk and conversation commence. One guy is running his first ultra just like me only the longest other race he's ever ran is a half marathon. The runners thin out after the first aid station 5 or 6 miles in and soon I've got lots of breathing room around me. I turn on my iPod and start jamming out to some tunes. I start eating my Sports Beans. Before the race I dumped two packages (24 count) in my pockets and decided that after mile 6 or 7 I would eat one each time my Garmin indicated another mile ran. It is my reward. My pockets are bulging with all these beans and lots of other nutrition. It's hard to imagine that by the end of the race it will all be gone.
At around the 10 mile mark (I think) I start to see 50-mile runners heading back. It's the leaders! The first guy is all alone. Then I see two guys a few hundred meters behind. Then I see a face I recognize. There's a friend of Jenny and mine that is part of the Florida Track Club named Andy Robinson. He's super friendly and happens to be super fast as well. I'm not sure if it's really him so I don't say anything. Who ever it is he's only a few minutes off the leader and he's looking strong with only 10 miles to go after running about 40. Amazing!
The North Face uses ribbons tied to tree branches to mark the trail. Each event distance has a different color. As long as you see the color of the race you are running you are on the right trail. At first there's a ton of ribbons at each marker. As we progress they start disappearing. At the aid station near what would be the half marathon distance there's only three ribbons left; marathon, 50k and 50-mile. This aid station is in the Great Falls Park and it's where the marathoners will turn around. It's also the most accessible spot for spectators on the course. From here we go into the park and run a loop. Those 50-mile freaks run the loop multiple times before heading back. After running 13 miles of trail it's nice to see civilization again. People are cheering us on, there's tons of food and drink to be had at the aid station and the weather is still good. As I leave the aid station I notice only two ribbons remain, mine and the 50-mile color.
"Wow, I'm really doing this," I say to myself.
I'm officially beyond the marathoners, which just seems nuts to me at the time.
I'm not tired yet and I've done a great job of pacing myself. I know from the topo maps that there's some crazy hills ahead of me. I create a mantra at this point to tell myself again and again until the end of the race.
It's simple. It's true and it's easy. I must continue forward at all costs.
Great Falls Park is absolutely beautiful. I'm not sure why I never visited this place when I lived up this way. The trail is anything but boring. There are tree stumps and boulders to jump over, creeks and mud puddles to avoid or cross and the river is heavy with rapids. At one point I'm so in awe of the view I start going the wrong way. The guy that is running his first ultra follows me and a woman behind us yells we're going the wrong way and saves disaster. Part of the loop requires runners to go on a short out and back before rejoining the second half of the loop. During this section I see Jenny running back. She looks strong. I yell "hey Jenny" as she almost doesn't see me. We turn as we pass each other. She says she's good and I tell her I'm fine. I also tell her I think I saw Andy Robinson. At this point Jenny is about 15 minutes ahead of me.
I make it back to the aid station at the park and with the loop behind me it's time to start heading back, but first I decide to refill my hydration pack and change my socks. I anticipated that changing my socks would help avoid blisters and perhaps make my feet feel better. It's an old hiking trick I've used in the past on all day hikes. This takes me about five minutes and then I'm back on the trail and still feeling strong.
It's about 5-miles or so until the next aid station. The air temperature is quickly warming up at this point. I'm also doing the math in my head and at my current pace I might be able to beat 6 hours. I don't have a time goal, but that sure sounds good for my first ultra and at this point I'm feeling way better than I thought I would and there's no hints of impending injury. I decide it will be a good idea to pick up the pace a little. Hell, maybe I'll even run up a hill.
All goes well for a few miles and then I discover I'm low on water. In fact, I'm freaking out of water! Hydration pack status = EMPTY. According to Mr. Garmin it looks like I've got about two more miles to the aid station. I guess I'm at around mile 23 or 24ish where I should be hitting "the wall" in a marathon situation. Only thing is, I'm not hitting a wall. I'm just thirsty. REALLY thirsty. My body confirms this with my first cramp. It happens in my left calf muscle. It's not what I call a full on "Charlie horse" style cramp, but more of a mild "you can still run, but I'm going to speak to you with each step," type cramp. I've been carrying with me a package of Shot Blok 3X Sodium that is Margarita flavored.
"Why the hell not," I ask myself as I tear into it and start eating the little gummy cubes one by one. It's hard to take Shot Bloks without water and it's definitely not recommended, but for my plight it beats the alternative. I soon start to feel better and I have to admit I'm now a believer in Shot Bloks.
I finally reach the aid station and refill my hydration pack and force myself to eat some food. I start running again and now I'm officially past the "marathon" distance. It's a bizarre feeling that I don't think I can describe with words. For so much of my life I felt that marathoners were crazy and that 26.2 miles was the ultimate distance. I never imagined that I would run a marathon. Then I did one. Then I did another. Then I felt that ultra-marathoners were crazy and that I'd never do one. Well, I must be crazy because now I'm passing 27 miles and looking for 31.
Miles 28, 29, 30 and 31 are surreal. I seem to lose perspective of time. I tell myself forward, forward, FORWARD, but it's slow going. I hit a series of "mini walls" and find ways to get past them. At the last aid station with two miles to go I ask "how much further," and upon hearing the answer I confidently say, "I can do that!" With two miles left I don't think food is going to do me much good. I take some water and dump it on my head and start running, or at least trying to run.
I become somewhat irrationally emotional with myself in the last couple miles. Everything seems to blur together. At one point there's a small levy with about 6-inches of water slowly flowing across the top. It's about 100 feet long. There's a wooden bridge off to the right that most runners use to cross. A girl in front of me that is running the marathon distance runs straight through the water. I weight my options. If I go to the bridge that will require two steps up and two steps down. If I run through the levy my shoes will be soaking wet. I'll take soaking wet shoes over two steps up and two steps down at this point. I charge through the water splashing wildly and it feels refreshing on my legs.
With less than a half mile to go I can see the parking lot and finish line. Just before the finish line I see Jenny walking with her father. They have their backs to me as I approach. At this point I actually start crying a little bit. I'm really going to finish a 50K! Jenny turns around and sees me. She yells my name and jumps up and down. I run up to them and start walking next to them to chat. It's wild to think I'm 100 yards to the finish line and I'm walking and it doesn't bother me one bit. Jenny has just finished doing an additional 4-miles after finishing to accomplish her goal of running 35 miles for turning 35-years-old. I hand her my camera (yes, I carried my camera with me) and she runs ahead to get a picture of me crossing the finish line.
I approach the finish line and they announce my name. By now it's about 80 degrees and I'm ready to finish! I cross the finish line and I'm all alone. It's amazing how spread out runners get over 50 kilometers. A couple of paramedics ask me a few questions, determine that other than being crazy I'm physically ok and then I'm awarded my finisher medal, given a North Face water bottle and released into the finish area.
In retrospect, I didn't beat 6-hours as the last 10 miles were incredibly slow for me, but I did accomplish my real goals. I finished an ultra marathon and I did not injury myself. Jenny and I would also learn that it really was Andy Robinson that ran past me earlier in the race. We didn't see him again that day, but later learned he took 4th place in the 50-mile race. See his recap on his blog here.

My official stats:
145th out of 229 male finishers
48th in my age division (30-39) out of 78 (ouch!)
Chip Time: 6:46:37
Average pace: 13:03
The North Face Endurance Challenge 50K TallGuySurfing grade = A

And I'll close with a few pictures!

My nutrition that I carried along with me. Here's a list of what I actually consumed during the race:
4 Gu energy gels
2 whole bananas
1 orange
An unknown amount of potato chips
An unknown amount of pretzels
2 packages of Sport Beans
1 whole package of Shot Blok 3x Sodium
1 hydration pack full of Gu Brew (2 tablets)
2 hydration packs full of water
2 cups of Gu Brew per aid station
1 bagel (Blueberry flavor)
1 gulp of Mountain Dew (I thought it was Gu Brew!)

Steam fog on the Potomac before the race start

Jenny and I just before the start

Seconds before the start

Dean says a few words at the start

Brooks Cascadias!

And we're off! (I had the Karate Kid running behind me for a while)

On trail!

Across creeks

Along the river

Only two ribbons left (50K and 50 Mile)

Great Falls Park

Absolutely beautiful!

Running on the edge!

Finishing my first ultra marathon!