The North Face 50 Miler – Lessons Learned
On December 6, 2014, I ran my first 50 mile race, The North Face Endurance Challenge, held in the Marin headlands outside of San Francisco. Rolling, non-technical yet hilly terrain- this was my battleground.
Spoiler alert: I finished in 10:27:17, 4th female in my age group, and 40th female overall. Considering that my “A” goal was to finish, and my “B” goal was to finish in under 12 hours, I was pretty ecstatic with my results.
Despite finishing well below my time goal, it was still a physically and emotionally exhausting day out there, and the feelings of accomplishment that accompanied me as I stumbled across the finish line, crying huge, wracking sobs that seemed to stem from my very core, will stay with me forever. There is something very overwhelming about finishing a distance that is scary as hell, knowing that I did it all by myself, by simply taking one step after another with my own two feet. For 80 kilometres (and change).
I would be remiss in noting, however, that my coaches Gary Robbins and Eric Carter are largely responsible for making sure that I not only got to the starting line in one piece, but that I finished that way as well. Their training and expertise have made me a smarter and better running this past year, and I can’t thank you guys enough for all of your patience and encouragement along the way. 🙂
There were several “big” factors that shaped my race day, for better or worse. The first one to show up was a spate of bad weather and storms that hit San Francisco the week of the race. To be honest, it didn’t feel much different from a mild Vancouver in October or November, but I was assured by local sources that it was in fact very atypical winter weather for the city. We clued into this when course changes started to appear the day before the race, with talk of washed out bridges and eroded trails dominating twitter conversations. I confess that I trolled weather forecasts for a while on the day before the race, selectively picking which ones to believe (sun and clouds was our best chance, and I ignored those that called for more rain).
Race day morning saw our little Vancouver crew of Shea, Melissa, Candice, Sarah and me all up at 3 am and stumbling into the kitchen to inhale instant coffee and food before heading to the starting line. Cue mistake number 1. I had been reading some recent research the week before the race that declared that for races longer than 50km, one should eat a “solid breakfast of about 800 calories” prior to the race… the theory was that even if you were a bit uncomfortable digesting the meal for the first hour or so, it still paid to have a solid meal in your system prior to living off of viscous calories for 10+ hours. Makes total sense right? In theory, at least.
As I was dissecting my race with Gary afterwards, it dawned on me (literally, as I was telling him what I’d done), what a terrible idea it was. I am not a big breakfast person. During my regular work weeks, I often just start my day with coffee, and don’t get around to eating breakfast before 10:30 am or so when I’ve properly woken up. On the weekends, I often eat a larabar on the way out the door to my runs, and rely on a big meal after my run to refuel instead. I’ve just learned that my gut is much happier that way. So. That said, back to race day. I ate two packets of instant oatmeal, mixed in with a bunch of yogurt, peanut butter, a banana, and washed down with a mug of instant coffee and honey. MMm. In all fairness, it wasn’t WHAT I ate that was the problem…that’s a fairly standard race morning meal for me. It was more the fact that I doubled the quantity of what I ate (and by the time I got to the bottom of the bowl, I felt slightly sick from how much I’d shoveled down). That, combined with the fact that it was 3 AM, six hours earlier than my normal breakfast hour, and I had the beginnings of trouble before I’d even started running.
As we headed to the race, big fat raindrops marked our progress, but by the time we were parked and walking up towards the start line, it was nothing but cloudy dry skies up above us. It was a great start to the race, and my spirits were buoyed by the thought of actually staying dry. I knew there were several other members of my coaching team racing, and there were a few flurries of pictures taken as we tried to find each other amidst hundreds of other runners. I made a couple of nervous trips to the porta potties before the race, noting that my stomach seemed out of sorts, but attributing it to race day nerves.
As the gun went off and we watched the first wave of elite runners disappear at a FAST clip up the hill in front of us, I shuffled towards the start line to begin what promised to be a very long day. Due to the extensive course changes, we ran the first 5 miles of the course as a loop twice, and I soon settled in beside Shea and Melissa in a conga line of headlights that snaked up the hills as far as we could see. With the moon shining brightly above us, and little twinkling headlamps marking our progress, it was a serene way to start the day off, and I felt myself relaxing and staying very present in the moment.
Those 5 mile loops proved to be a great start, as the terrain was a mixture of runnable hills and descents, where we were knocking off consistent 5-6 minute kilometres. Before I knew it, we were through the second aid station, 16km under our belts, and headed towards the next leg of the race, a snaking hill that just kept climbing as far as the eye could see. Shea and Melissa were feeling strong and took off from the aid station in front of me, but by that point I was already having the beginnings of a gastrointestinal storm brewing, so I dialed my pace back a bit and waved them on. By the time I reached the top of the climb, however, I realized that the storm was not backing down. Once I started looking around for bathroom options, I realized a crucial problem with the Marin Headlands – you can see for miles. There is not one piece of scrubby brush big enough to duck behind, and I wasn’t quite desperate enough yet to just stop and go. Half an hour later I started to seriously consider the possibility, as my stomach issues raged on, and nausea prevented me getting any calories in at all. Thankfully there was an aid station coming up ahead, and I shuffled in with a painful gait and headed straight to the porta potty. Unfortunately, after standing there in agony for 5 minutes, I tuned into the fact that there was someone in there who umm, clearly sounded like they were in very rough shape and were probably not coming out anytime soon. I gave up on waiting and pulled out of the aid station, and luckily found a state park washroom at the next trailhead with no lineup at all. Thank god. Between the waiting and the stopping, I ended up being delayed by about 15 minutes, but that stop saved my day… for a while at least.
I finally headed out feeling quite a bit better, but still unable to get much down in the way of fuel. For the next few hours, my run was shaped by stomach cramping, multiple porta potty stops, and pathetic attempts to shove food in as I could. I should add that one of my fuelling strategies going into the race was to focus on whole foods, rather than gels and chews, which I had previously had problems with. With that in mind, I was hauling exactly 11 larabars with me, envisioning myself happily munching on one every hour, and supplementing with aid station snacks and the occasional chew. Well I pulled the first one out after two hours, a “carrot cake” flavoured bar, and realized why this plan wasn’t going to work. Those bars turned to a gummy paste in my mouth, and they just required too much work to try to eat, swallow, and digest. I just couldn’t do it. After four hours passed by and I’d managed exactly one bar, I realized that I was going to have to come up with a plan b. At the next aid station, I chugged about 7 cups of mountain dew in a row, and decided to go back to one of my old tried and true methods- liquid fuelling through pure sugar. It’s saved me before (Squamish 50km, 2014), and it saved me again. From that point on until the end of the race, I drank coke and mountain dew almost exclusively, and miraculously my stomach started to settle down. I got a second wind as the sugar hit my bloodstream, and I started to pick up the pace.
The biggest climb of the day was a series of tight switchbacks that snaked upwards for miles, and because of the rain the path had become a combination of ankle deep clay, with a brand new creek running down the middle of the trail. I tried to delicately avoid the mud for the first few minutes, but soon realized that I was fighting a losing battle and started tromping along, my feet squishing as I went. I caught a glimpse of some neon compression socks up ahead and realized that Shea and Melissa were only a few switchbacks ahead of me at this point. Buoyed by the thought of some company, I kept pushing my pace, and caught up to them near the top of the climb. Melissa was having a rough day but they were both hanging in there, and we yo-yo’d a bit as we wove our way along the hillside. The weather was looking clearer by that point, and we were treated to some stunning views of the California coastline. Truly, the scenery on this course is spectacular. I was riding my pop-fuelled wind, and ended up losing Shea and Melissa for a little while as I powered on, enjoying the fact that my stomach had finally stopped hating on me.
I had been warned before the race that there was a nasty little out and back section coming up, where runners who were heading out to the turnaround point were expected to yield to those coming back from it. As I came out of a wooded section of the trail onto a narrow goat path cut into the side of a steep hill, it was pretty obvious that I’d found the spot. If that didn’t give it away, the elite runners that were hurtling towards me at breakneck speed were another good indicator. I realized that in order to get off the trail, I had to scramble up the side of the hill and precariously wobble there while they flew by me. Not exactly a fast way to travel. Shea and Melissa had by this point caught up to me again, and we navigated this section with some frustration. I completely understand why the race directors made the passing rules as they did, especially since heading to the turnaround was a slight incline and slower going, but for those of us heading out to the turnaround it seemed that you could only run a few feet at a time before having to stop and scramble off the trail again for another runner – a definite buzzkill. I struggled keeping my momentum through these miles, and by the time we got to the turnaround I was trying to keep from crashing. Thankfully we picked up speed on our way back through that same section, but I felt for other runners who were now in our place. I could see the frustration and exhaustion on their faces, and of course by the time I came back through there were way more runners close behind me than there was when I was yielding to the elites on my way out.
We finally made it out of that section, which was definitely my least favourite part of the course, and I tried to keep up with Melissa as she flew down the hills with her signature downhill speed-demon skills. Once we hit Stinson beach and started climbing up again, however, I started to perk up again (thanks to another round of soda at the aid station), and I began to push my pace again.
One of my biggest dilemmas heading into the race had been what shoes to wear. I had recently switched to the Salomon Sense Pro’s, but I’d noticed that after 30km or so in them my arches and Achilles started to ache. I didn’t really have another pair of trail shoes to switch them out for, but as a backup plan I’d sent my Brooks Gels road shoes to the Cardiac aid station (mile 35.8), and I started to longingly dream of their cushioned soles. Funny, but just focusing on how good my feet were going to feel when I changed shoes helped me focus less on the pain my feet were currently in. Interesting little mental game. Just before I pulled into Cardiac, a few minutes in front of Shea and Melissa now after the climb, I ran into Sarah, who was just about to drop due to ongoing knee problems. Post-race MRI results revealed she’d made the right call, but I sure felt for her… it’s a tough call to make at any point during a race, but when you’ve run 60 km and are (only!) 20 km away from the finish line, it’s even harder.
I changed my shoes and socks completely at Cardiac, even sitting down on a chair and taking the time to dry everything off. My feet were pretty nasty and muddy after the wet terrain, and I can’t even describe how great it felt to start fresh again. I rarely take the time at an aid station to totally overhaul my footwear, and it was hands-down the best decision I made all race. Shea and Melissa came into the aid station as I was getting ready to head out, and after chatting with them for a couple minutes I took off, afraid to lose my energy wave.
Heading out from the aid station I suddenly knew were we were, and that the trail was going to spit us back down the muddy river/trail that we had climbed up earlier. My pace soon slowed to a crawl as I realized that in the hours since I’d come up the switchbacks, hundreds of other runners had also done so, leaving miles of ankle deep mud behind them. After watching the runners in front of me slip and fall all over the place, my mission became getting out of there in one piece. The slow, tip toe pace was more punishing to my quads than a flat out run would have been, and that section definitely trashed my legs more than I’d been expecting. Once I finally reached the end of that hill, however, I knew that all I had to do was put one foot in front of the other and I’d finish the damn race. It was the first time I’d allowed myself to count my chickens, and the tantalizing thought kept me going for the next few miles.
One of the problems with all of the course changes, I’d realized earlier, is that the locations of the aid stations were all slightly “off” where they should have been in the race… and no one seemed to know where they “actually” were. I’d also forgotten to change my watch settings before the race to extend the battery life, and so it died 6 hours into the race, leaving me guesstimating where I was on the course. I discovered during that time that my “mile counter” clock is really terrible. I can usually “feel” how many kilometres I’ve gone, but with miles I can’t even do the conversions, let alone have a sense for where I was in relation to aid stations. It certainly messed with my head a bit, and it’s a good reminder to me to be more organized before the race so that my “to-do” list actually gets done.
I hit the last (or so I thought) aid station with “5 miles to go”, as told by a helpful volunteer… and a quick look at my phone told me that I was only 9 hours and 15 minutes into the race. That was the first time I’d checked the actual time, and it kind of blew me away. I just assumed I was well over 10 or 11 hours at that point, and it definitely cheered me up. I wish I could say that I pushed the pace for the last few miles, but by that point I just tried to keep shuffling forward as best I could. My mind was willing, but the body was dealing with more GI problems, and it just wasn’t having any of it. Due to the course changes, this section also wasn’t just “5 miles to go”, it was more like 6.5… which, that far into the race, felt like a long fucking ways to go. I had a couple of really low points there, and the stomach cramping was getting worse by the minute as I finally headed down the last hill to the finish line.
All of a sudden, with about one mile to go, I started being overwhelmed by the fact that I was actually about to finish this race – a distance that two years ago I would have thought absolutely impossible, and one that even in the months before the race I had serious doubts about whether I could complete. I’m not a big finish line crier, but all of a sudden I felt this emotion welling up inside of me, and I started sobbing as I ran towards the sound of the crowds. Not just one single, glistening tear tracking down my cheek, mind you, but big, heaving, gasping sobs that turned my face bright red and puffy. Awesome. I couldn’t stop it if I tried- I was just purely overwhelmed.
Moments like that one remind me of why I run long distances. I was digging so deeply to run those last steps, and now seeing the finish line in front of me, I finally allowed myself to believe that I could do it. That I had done it. And with all of my challenges with GI issues and fuelling, it was still a great day out there, and I felt like really I belonged to this world of crazy ultra-runners, with their insatiable appetites and warm, easy camaraderie. One of my favourite parts of this sport is the fact that no matter how fast or slow a runner you might be, there is so much mutual respect among everyone participating – for no matter what your struggles are, or whether you finished in 6 hours or 16, everyone out there that day had to face their personal demons and battle through them, whatever that looked like to them. It’s a solo sport but a team environment, and I love the combination. And what’s more, at the end of those 50 miles, I knew there would be many more to come. And that I hadn’t found my limit yet. I can’t wait to keep looking.