This last weekend, caked in mud, sweat and tears, I completed my very first ultra marathon – something I NEVER thought I’d be able do if you asked me a few years ago. This wasn’t just any ultra, this was the insanity that was The North Face Endurance Challenge Championship 50k race in the Marin Headlands of San Francisco.
By now, some of you may have heard the stories, the gossip, and the legends of this weekend’s race. Well, lemme toss my story into the mix. I’ll do my best to recount (I might still be drunk!) all that I encountered to give you an idea of an average racer’s experience as well as what it was like to race my first Ultra distance.
So after running a handful of marathons and riding 204 miles earlier this year, I figured it was time to dabble in something a little more extreme. I’ve followed Ultras for years, dreamt of the illusive Western States belt buckle, and wished to run alongside Kilian and Krupicka at some point. But I never had the courage to sign up. I didn’t think I had enough experience RUNNING long distances yet. I can hike like nobody’s business, but man, running up and down mountains on repeat is pretty daunting for a beer and sweets addicted Ginger. Well, in June, I did what any stupid runner would do at some point in their career – I signed up for my first ultra.
The North Face 50k seemed like a perfect fit for me. It was just north of one of my favorite cities (San Francisco), it was in a colder month, it had dope race schwag, had plenty of elite runners to ogle at, and offered seemingly endless race day volunteer support. My running buddy, RockHardRunners also signed up so I had a partner in crime. I was set. Now came the time to train.
The course brags about 6000 feet of vertical. Me, being a ginger dumb dumb, thought it seemed like a small enough number that a few weekend trail runs would suffice. Well, after being left exhausted by the SF Marathon this last July and seeing a total elevation change of only 1,007 feet in that race, I knew I had to kick it into gear and get some REAL hill training in.
Weekends started to include longer runs on trails and amongst the SoCal hills. I scoured local blogs and websites promoting which trails ultra runners ran in hopes of gaining some of their knowledge and insight. When training for a marathon, I would make Sundays my LSD, usually capping at 20 miles. For this run, I figured I’d train the same, but double up on Friday and Saturday – Friday being LSD on trails and hills, and Saturday being half the distance on trails as ‘fatigued recovery’ to simulate race-day.
The longest trail run I got in was a 21 miler. Total elevation change of 3400 up, 3400 down. Not NEARLY enough, but that run HURT LIKE A MOTHER FUCKER. Crap, was I going to be ready to DOUBLE that elevation and add another 10+ miles? Was I in over my head? I started realizing this race was The North Face World Championships for a REASON. It was going to be hard as shit for a regular shmoe like me. Tag on the fact that RockHardRunners had to bail on the race for family or drunken partying reasons – still not sure which. Now I was alone, about to take on the unknown and possibly die an embarrassing death of hill-climb-failure.
Where’s the whiskey??
DAYS BEFORE THE RACE
Well, jump ahead to the week of the race. By this point, I had come to grips with running the race alone. Thank goodness my girlfriend, MileLongLegs, jumped on board to be my crew and support (always my rock with a sexy ass, that one!). But I had started to hear grumblings of horrible weather, course changes, and the scariest (or most relieving): RACE CANCELLATION. Thursday night, before the race, I was prepping to fly out to SF the following morning when I got an email that the race had been forced to change the course due to horrible, innevitable weather conditions. I was officially fucked. Now I had no idea what to expect.
Side note: A HUGE amount of props has to go to the RD and staff at TNFECS for making tough calls, communicating with all the runners HOURS before the event, and getting the word out about course changes. Probably one of the best sponsored races I’ve ever run when it came to communication.
Friday morning, I put my fear aside to enjoy the short flight to SF. Unfortunately, the weather was SO BAD in SF that our flight was delayed almost 3 times. Then our pilot had to emergency abort the take-off due to some malfunction with the radio system. ACK! What the hell was happening?! My already rattled nerves, were at near breaking point. I couldn’t stop worrying that everything was an omen to NOT run this race.
We arrived in SF in one piece, grabbed our car and headed to TNF for my bib pick-up. The volunteers there had no idea what the new course was like, only that it would be similar to the full marathon course. So that meant the 50 mile race, the 50k race AND both marathons were running the same trails? Let’s hope there’s passing lanes!
By this point, I just needed to focus one step at a time. Get food. Get hydrated. Relax. Prep race-day items. Study the new course reroute, Sleep. (Oh and stop by my friend Tyler’s chocolate factory, TCHO, for a glass of wine and some of the finest damn chocolate you’ll ever let melt in your mouthhole). But this new course had me worried. Not only about the number of runners that were now going to clog the same 13-14 miles of trail loop, destroying what solid dirt was available and pulverizing it to deep mud, but also about getting lost and being unfamiliar with when the hills would sneak up on me.
All I could count on for race morning was that it was going to be raining, the trails were going to be muddy, I was going to get very wet, there would be plenty of volunteers, there were going to be plenty of hills, I was going to get lapped by the elite 50 milers at some point, I trained all that I could on terrain I had access to, and I was going to take my sweet as time enjoying whatever I could about this race.
After getting as much sleep as I could muster, listening to the pounding rain on my window, we woke up early, got some calories and caffeine in, and made our way to the shuttle station. We boarded the bus in the dark and ventured across the Golden Gate (which we had just run across in the SF Marathon) into the unknown Marin conditions. Once there, we stepped out into pouring rain and were instantly wet. Awesome. It begins.
Just walking to the start-line was a struggle. We were greeted by sloppy mud already deep with footprints from the 50 milers and their friends and family who started 2 hours earlier. And here I am thinking I could keep my shoes clean. Nope, mud-town USA.
We wandered the start, I dropped off my finish bag, and found a bit of warm relief on a nearby school bus. As the minutes counted down to the start of my first ultra, a calm, zen-like state took over. A very similar sensation to what I felt before the Portland Marathon a few months ago. I could handle the rain. I could handle the wind. I would be ready for anything the day threw at me. It was time to beat this beast. And what a wicked beast it was.
START TO TENNESSEE VALLEY
As wave one of the 50k runners lined up for the start, I glanced around and ogled at how many of these men and women looked seasoned, grizzled, and ready for anything. One dude even donned a short pair of shorts, no shirt, and no hat. We were all in this together – clothed or semi-naked (weirdo!).
The sun was starting to illuminate the fog and rain around us so headlamps weren’t a necessity anymore. When we started off on our adventure, I kept it slow and steady, not pushing any pace or objectives, just cruising to my own rhythm, letting those with more experience (or less) pass me without much thought.
I knew to expect some big hills, so when we started our first assent of what I lovingly call, “Blue Ball Loop” (more on this later), to the top of Bobcat, I wasn’t surprised. But MAN was this an early killer. The hill went on for what seemed like forever until finally after miles of up, we dropped into the first aid station (Alta). I quickly went through, grabbed some GU Chomps and headed down towards the mile 6 aid station back near the start.
The fog and clouds obscured what I imagine to be amazing vistas of rolling hillsides and ocean. While I could see a ways up the hills, I longed to look out and see how high we were. By this point, we were snaking our way up even more hills and switch-backs, following the course markings, to mile 9 at Tennessee Valley. I know MileLongLegs was there waiting, so I couldn’t wait for the energy boost of a familiar (and beautiful) face.
Before Tennessee Valley, there were some seriously tricky spots. The trails had been recently traversed by early 50 milers and had started to give way. The mud was in full effect and this was the first instance I felt that my shoe choice may not have been correct. I continued to keep the pace easy and had fun down the descent into TV where MLL greeted me with a beaming, rain-drenched smile.
I quickly grabbed some nibbles, saw Bryon from iRunFar and gave him a creepy, “thank you for doing what you’re doing today!” and pounded on towards Muir Beach. This was the section I was most excited for on this new figure-8, shortened course.
TENNESSEE VALLEY TO MUIR BEACH OUT & BACK
The trail started to ascend pretty quickly out of TV so I opted to slow it down again. I really had no idea what the elevation profile was going to be like on this course so I didn’t want to blow my race by going too hard too soon. This was only mile 9, I had plenty more to go. And this next stretch was…well, let’s just say it was an experience for the books.
What I imagine is some of the most amazing and gorgeous cliff-side single track in all of trail racing, was changed into something much more frightening. Hundreds of people pounding lengthwise across a fire road, turning it to mud is one thing, but the same number of feet being confined to a 24″ wide single track is another.
The trail from TV to Muir Beach was downright treacherous. My shoes could barely keep traction as the trail rolled up and down. My goal was just to stay upright, so I took cautious steps and slowed my pace in many patches of some of the worst trail conditions I’ve experienced. While the rain continued to hammer us runners, the trails were feeling the brunt of all of it.
The final descent into Muir Beach was the worst. The very steep trail may have widened, but every square inch had been decimated, leaving a thick slippery goopy mud that I had to literally ski down. It was all I could do to keep from tumbling down and finding myself rolling over a cliffside. What’s crazy is I was being passed by countless runners screaming down the trail without a worry. How the fuck were they doing it?! Was it just about loosening up and letting your body take you down? Every fiber in my body told me to be cautious and not let speed play a part here. I held back.
I rolled into Muir Beach at a snails pace, grabbed some more nutrition, refilled my bottle, and headed back up the trail. Yes, the SAME TRAIL I HAD JUST COME DOWN. By this point, we were being passed by a lot of the elite 50 mile racers. In my head I realized this was their SECOND trip up and down this same trail. I can imagine how frustrated they were to not only dodge all us wanky 50k runners, but to also deal with all of the destroyed trails a second time.
Side note – while most of the runners in my vicinity and similar pace were awesome, talkative and overall supportive heroes, I made a point to shout a “congrats” or “Nice work” to any elite runner that passed me in either direction. What sucked is NONE of them gave any sort of response or acknowledgment. Look, I’m not asking for a conversation, but maybe some eye-contact or a finger tip to at least know you heard me would be awesome. We’re all kind of in this shit together, right? I want you to do well. Hell, I want you to WIN so I can tell stories to my kids someday that I talked to a winner once! But really, I was getting the same vibe from every runner that I feel when I’m training on my bike in SoCal mountain country. An almost, “you’re not good enough so I won’t acknowledge your friendliness” vibe. I’ll chalk it up to being in the “competitive zone” or because “they don’t speak English”. Regardless, I did get to see/pass some of my Ultra heroes and that was cool.
Back up the trails I went, crawling on my hands at points due to lack of traction. There was a memorable moment when it was all I could do to get footing in the mud when from behind, an elite Salomon racer (realized later it was Miquel Heras – the WINNER of the men’s 50miler), screamed up the slope, hands on his knees, like it was a set of short stairs. A cameraman quickly followed. Fuck my face, they were fast!
Once to the top, I thanked the racing gods I didn’t have to do a second loop like the 50 milers. That was one awful stretch of trail.
My pace had really slowed here. I was getting pretty damn fatigued from all the mud-fighting and steep terrain. I couldn’t make up any time on the downhills due to lack of traction. I could only hope to make it up on the small plateaus and lower flats to come. I heard the distant sound of TV’s crews and spectators so I nutted up and continued down the treacherous single-track into the aid station.
TENNESSEE VALLEY TO ALTA
I don’t remember much from this stretch of trail. I remember there being hills and slopes, lots of mud, very little traction, and lots of wet. I was just using the knowledge that once I got to Alta, I’d only have one more 9 mile loop to complete and I would be done. I thought a lot about beer and food and what I would eat once I finished. I thought about how my feet hurt and what I could do to alleviate the pain. I thought about all the elite runners passing me and if it’d be rude to ask them for autographs. Then I traversed into the forest and knew Alta was just up ahead.
ALTA TO FORT BARRY FAKE-OUT
As I entered Alta, I was joined by an elite 50 miler who was extremely jovial and talkative. Jorge Maravilla (Salomon) joked about having the volunteers whip him up a hamburger as he downed his Pepsi. It was neat to see someone so deep in a 50 miler (and on track for 16th place) have so much positive spirit. I joked with him about finishing strong and leaving me some of the bottom of the keg at the finish as he pounded on down the hill. I envied his strength and closeness to being finished. I still had a long ways to go.
I started to gain more confidence in the mud by this point. I had found a happy place with my shoes speed-wise that allowed for a little bit of grip in the mud and ability to push through. I also realized at this point just how much horrible tension I was holding in my shoulders and trapezius muscles. I HAD to relax on these downhills. So i did. It helped immediately.
As I made my way to the flat stretch before Fort Barry, I began to see more of my environment. The soggy was getting replaced with dry and the fog was more clouds. Man this was a gorgeous course. I can’t imagine how much more gorgeous in sunshine.
From the trail, we cross a bridge and hit paved road as we head up to Fort Barry. Once there, I was greeted with the lovely MLL and the most horrible of fake-outs, the finish-line turn around. You literally run down the finish chute, stop JUST before you cross the timing lines, quickly turn around, and head back out to summit Bobcat again (which I now lovingly call Blue Ball Loop. Just as I was about to cum all over that finish line, I’m forced to hold it in for another 6 brutal miles. Just like college).
On my way back out of FB, I experienced one of my favorite race moments: passing Anna Frosty (Salomon) pacing Emelie Forsberg (Salomon) – who I’d later find out WON the woman’s 50 miler! But, when I passed them, I got so excited at seeing Frosty, that I shouted, “Hell yeah, Frosty!! GET IT! FINISH STRONG!!”. It wasn’t until right after I passed them I realized, 1) Frosty was a PACER and 2) she was pacing the WINNER whom I didn’t even acknowledge. Emelie, if you’re reading this – which I doubt you are – I owe you a beer or 5. Nice strong finish and way to kick serious ass out there!
Ok, now back to blue balls. On my way back up Bobcat for the second time, I walked next to a woman who had just started her second loop for the 50 miler. I forget her name, but she seemed so strong mentally. I was extremely impressed. Not only had she been on the course for almost 7 hours and had 20 more miles to complete, but she still had to go through the horrible Muir mud-zone from hell again AND keep her pace up to keep from being DQ’d for missing cut-off times. I couldn’t even imagine her mental strength and will power. I still don’t know if she finished the whole thing, but hell or high-water she wasn’t going down without a fight! And neither was I.
In addition to her, I met a cool guy I had been leap-frogging with ALL day named Greg. Nice dude wearing Hoka One Ones. He was very positive, and nearing a 50k PR. He just needed to keep the pace up on the downhills. I gave him some of my salt tablets, and we pushed each other to the top of Bobcat pretty quickly. This was a low point for me, so I needed the extra push. Thinking about helping this guy get a PR became my new immediate goal. I just had to finish to get my own PR, so pushing a little harder to get him his was awesome. But after cresting Bobcat and heading into Alta again, he peaced out and screamed down the backside towards the finish without me. GO GREG!
I also passed a struggling female elite 50 miler who not only looked like she was on her last legs, but she was pretty disoriented. I asked her if she was good or needed anything and I got a, “No, I think I’m fine” response. She obviously didn’t want to be bothered and was probably having a rough day, so I pushed on and wished her a strong finish. I later found out it was Megan Kimmel who hand to drop just yards after I passed her due to two blown calf muscles and severe cold. Pretty sure she’s as hardcore as they come.
ALTA TO THE FINISH
Now this was a special moment for me. I looked down at my watch and started to tear up. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I hadn’t noticed, but this was the furthest I had ever run. Ever. 26.2 miles was now a thing of the past. I was almost at 28 miles and on my way downhill towards the finish. It literally was downhill from here. I fought back tears, increased my pace and charged towards that damn finish line.
These last few miles were a whirlwind. I didn’t talk to anybody, just charged my way back into Fort Barry. I had peeled off my orange rain jacket as the temperature had warmed and primped my Train.Race.Beer shirt for the finish line pictures. I was exhausted, spent, depleted, and ready for warmth.
I rounded the last turn towards the finish line, let the tears flow. Nothing was going to stop me.
I pounded down into the finish chute, this time I could continue on over the timing mats and under The North Face banner. I was done. I had just ran 30 miles and I felt great. Best part, I did it in under 6 hours (my gold time for the original 50k course). My watch said 5:34:48 but the official time is 5:47:54. Not sure where the discrepancy is, but I don’t care. I did it. I fuckin did my first Ultra and it was amazing.
So much so, I’ve already signed up for another.
IN THE END
I am absolutely ecstatic at my experience. Not only did I take on something I thought impossible, but every screw was knocked loose, rearranged, and shoved back into this machine to make it as hard and stressful as possible on the runners. Weather, course changes, mud, elements, crowds, everything. And I did it, and felt great doing it.
This to me not only makes this experience that much more memorable, but that much more rewarding. I never would have known this feeling had I not pushed myself to try. As I always say, “You’ll never regret trying something. But you’ll always regret NOT trying it.” This couldn’t be more true. Oh, and a very big thank you to The North Face for being incredibly organized and efficient. Most races would’ve crumbled, you stood out as a prime example of how to do it pro-style. And props for shutting the course down for Sunday races. I couldn’t imagine going out on those trails after the Saturday pounding AND the overnight storms. Well played, TNF.
- Race organization/Communication
- Aid stations/volunteer support
- fairly well-marked course
- Medals/Shirts/Beer/Arm Warmers
- Trail destruction
- Last-minute course change
- Pre/Post race festivities (not really existent)
RACE SUPPORT: 9/10
RACE ORGANIZATION: 8/10
PRICE: 8/10 ($75)
BONUS: 8/10 (Course; Volunteers; Communication w/ racers)
OVERALL TIME: 5:47:54
PLACE OVERALL: 107/347
PLACE IN SEX: 81/213
PLACE IN DIVISION: 29/86
Tags: 10k, 25k, 50k, best, brooks, bryon, ethan newberry, ginger, ginger runner, gingerrunner, gingerrunner.com, grit, half, half marathon, headlands, horrible, irunfar, kilian, Kim Teshima, los angeles, marathon, marin, miguel heras, mile long legs, MileLongLegs, mud, new balance, newberry, newton, pure, race, racing, rain, recap, report, review, run, runner, running, running shoes, salomon, san francisco, saucony, speedcross3, storm, the ginger, the north face, the north face 50k, the north face endurance challenge, tnfecs, trail, training, ultra, ultra runner, ultramarathon, weather, worst