I ran 31 miles the other day. OK, 50k if you want to be dramatic about it. Whatever way you put it, it was a fascinating experience. This post is a long one so just sit back and enjoy… as I went to great lengths to get material for this post 🙂
Being my first “Ultra” distance race I was a bit nervous taking a leap into the unknown. Not so much because of the distance as for the multitude of variables an athlete can encounter during 6 hours of running in the trails. Do I have enough fuel? Will it be cold? Am I overdressed? Lets face it, I’m a “tropical” weather kinda guy, I just don’t do well in the cold. So, honestly that was my biggest worry going into this little adventure.
The North Face Endurance Challenge is a series of races which take place in 5 states and Canada. In San Francisco we are fortunate to host the Championship event of the series in the Marin Headlands, about 10 miles from the city. It is a scenic and beautiful but challenging course that puts even the most seasoned athlete to the test. What the terrain lacks in being technically challenging it makes up in elevation. Participants in the 50k take on approximately 6k feet of elevation gain, and those nut cases doing the 50 miler endure over 9k feet. The views up there are amazing.
My plan was to just enjoy the day and experience. Given that the Houston marathon in January is my goal race I couldn’t risk pushing myself too hard. My intent was to use these 31 miles as a training run, no goal in mind – just enjoy the experience and see what this ultra stuff is all about. I was aiming to keep my heart rate under 140 bpm average for the entire race. Doing so would allow me to gain the benefits of a long “easy” run and prevent extended recovery, which I can’t afford given Houston is just a little over a month away.
The 50K started at 7am. It was about 45 degrees but thankfully the wind was nice to us. We climbed the first few miles, then around mile 4 descended into the first aid station where I was greeted by my supporting wife. I stopped to say hi and to remove a rock from my shoe (one of many)… then on we went. I would not see her again ‘till mile 25. Not knowing what to expect I was a bit over prepared with a running vest full of fuel and extra socks just in case. After leaving the first aid station we did some more climbing, this time for about 6 miles up to an area aptly named “Cardiac”. Along the way my stomach decided to start acting up and I kept having issues with my shoes causing me to take longer than I wanted at each aid station. I think my stomach issues were due to too much sugar and not enough water. I quickly replaced the electrolyte drink in my bottles with water and took some salt which seems to help settle my stomach.
Departing Cardiac is when the fun began as the trail rapidly descended into a damp, mossy, wooded area which was the highlight of the race for me. A fast technical single track, which felt like a 2 mile descend; the wet ground and lack of sunlight makes this section slippery. One must take extra care, especially as you navigate over and under downed trees. Wrong placement of your foot and you could twist an ankle or find yourself eating dirt. Which is precisely what happened to me as I stepped on a makeshift wooden bridge and slid into a mound of decaying foliage. What a blast!
I recovered quickly, smiling and enjoying the remainder of this rollercoaster ride. When you reach the bottom you turn right around and you go again. Around mile 20 or so, my legs started to feel fatigued. My stomach had settled down by this point but I kept having a few issues with my shoes. I figured that I just had to deal with the discomfort for a few more miles. Finally, I saw my beautiful wife and our dog at mile 25. Not only did she have an extra pair of shoes, but also a surprise treat of gingerbread waiting for me – delicious! After a quick change of socks and shoes the rest of the run was a lot more enjoyable. Coming out of the aid station we did some more climbing to be greeted by a spectacular view of the ocean and the panoramic landscape of the Marin Headlands. This was about mile 27, the farthest I had ever run. I stopped to admire the views, did a quick self assessment and surprisingly I felt great. My heartrate was getting a little higher at this point, around 150, but that was expected. This was the last major climb, as we descended to the finish I looked at my watch for the first time and wondered if I could make up the time needed to finish in under 6 hours. I tried to pick up the pace a little but honestly my legs were hurting and all I could muster was a 8:30 pace which was not going to cut it. So, I slowed myself down and cruised into the finish line, where I saw my wife smiling and cheering me on as she has done so many times in the past. That is always my favorite moment of every race.
Aside from some minor stomach and shoe issues I had a great race. Finishing with a time of 6:05 (elapsed), running time of 5:42. I was able to keep myself under control by monitoring my heartrate and just playing it smart. I managed to avoid entering the dreaded “Pain Cave” (not a fun place to visit) and going into a dark place as is very common in these endurance events. What helped was not only having trained on the course, but also having put an average of 60 miles a week made for a great base. On the last mile I started thinking about those competing in the 50 mile race. I had just completed 30 miles and the thought of doing 20 more is insane. I have a newfound respect for those athletes. That is a whole other level of crazy which I can’t yet comprehend. Not sure I’m ready to sign up for a 50 mile race just yet… another 50k, yes, absolutely!
Trail races tend to even the playing field for a lot of people and the sense of community is contagious… in the span of a few miles you can get to know a lot about a perfect stranger or help encourage someone who is just having a bad day. It is not about the finishers medal, after party or beer garden; but all about pushing oneself to the limit and welcoming whatever the trail gods have in store for you on that day. I had a great time enjoyed every moment of the race and just took it as it came. Maybe it’s time to sign up for the next one, who’s in?
See you on the trails!