The Race: North Face 50k Endurance Challenge

“We write to live twice” – Anais Nin

 

My day began at the pre-light hour of 4 am. I started the coffee grinder, put on water to boil for oatmeal; waking up to the day and the challenge before me. FINALLY. I felt like I was waiting for this day to arrive for soooo long. It was finally here. No more waiting.

I packed my Salomon pack with Hammer Gels, Tailwind, & water. I put my “after” clothes and flip flops in my gear check bag, dressed & headed to Larkspur. An empty, quiet drive south on Hwy 101 to the Larkspur Ferry parking lot. The shuttle took a yellow school bus full of 50k runners to the start line in the Marin Headlands. The bus was fairly quiet, everyone pretty much sitting alone with their gear next to them on their seat. Everyone in their own mental space…mulling around pre-race thoughts…(I wonder what that mental playlist would sound like if we could have a listen…)
As we wind our way over near the start, I look to my right and see a most amazing & beautiful sight; I see the big, glowing moon shining above, high above any low lying fog…and I also see an awe-inspiring row of lights in the darkness over yonder. What was it…it was the 50 Mile Runners making their way down the long descent on Rodeo Valley trail at approx mile 4-5. Them, in the hills, headlamps paving their way, against the backdrop of the moon and the blissfully quiet morning in west marin. It was really breathtaking. I wish I had a photo of that moment. Well, I guess I do, in my head! I’m glad to have it. Wow.

Arrived at the start location and handled logistics; gear bag check, bathroom break, etc…there was about 45 minutes til our start time. Glad it wasn’t cold or rainy!!

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Coming into this day, it was hard to gauge how I would perform. I had done very little running in 3 weeks prior, and yet, I felt like my body, especially my legs, were still NOT fresh. This brought about some anxiety and concern. To be honest, the last few times I ran, in Tahoe and then the Thanksgiving day race, at certain points along those runs, I remember just feeling tired of running. Not tired from the particular task at hand, but a more general tired in the bigger sense. I knew I needed a break so that’s why I did so little in the last 3 weeks. The question was how would it effect me? How was my mental state? Would I physically crash at mile 20? Would I just simply not want to run anymore at mile 10? How would the day unfold? Nevertheless, standing there at the start line, I was excited!

The countdown was over and we were off. We began in waves and I was in the last one. Mile 0-2 is flat, downhill, flat-slight uphill. Mile 2-4 is gradually long uphill (Bobcat Trail) & 4-6 (Rodeo Valley) is all downhill, then flat. As you can tell; up, down, up, down…this first part was the same loop the 50 milers did to begin their race and was not part of our original course. The course was modified in the last day due to heavy rains all week. After passing the 2nd aid station, we started the long climb up Miwok. I and basically everyone around me were power hiking this part, same as I did in training. Pretty steep section. Wide fire road trail. Mud not an issue(it would be later)
No one passed me on this climb which is always something I’m happy to see!

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Photo: Climbing Miwok
At the top of the climb, we turned left onto Old Springs and a nice lengthy, fun descent into Tennessee Valley and the next aid station. I did a super quick bathroom break and kept going…I was mindful the entire day of not wasting time anywhere if I could help it. This was about mile 8 and I was feeling good. Legs still kinds tight but overall feeling good. After a quick flattish section, we are back onto another big climb up Coastal Trail. Again, we are all power hiking. No one is running up this climb!

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I’m trying to power hike as fast as a can. I’ve gotten better at this, but still room for improvement. This was something I intentionally worked on in training; using my arms more, taking smaller steps, moving swiftly. On this section, I talked to a fella from SoCal and it was fun to talk with him and share experiences.
After the top of Coastal, we made the steep, short, technical descent into Pirates Cove. Here’s where the mud started to come into play. This trail is narrow, rocky and the mud was very slick and everyone was using caution going down. I’m pretty good at navigating my way down and so I was moving a little bit better than some and it felt good to pass a few people. I knew as soon as I made that descent that my injury would flare up and it did! Every time in this part of the course, that area of my knee gets totally wacked. Pretty painful for a few minutes and then in subsides. We are now on a short flat section, but no one is running, there is simply to much damn mud and it’s super slippery. Crazy!! Made the next short zig zag climb up to Coyote Ridge and down into Muir Beach/Aid Station. This is where we started to see the 1st of the 50 Miler elite men coming the opposite direction. They were flying! Man, their strides were awesome! So many faces I recognized .. Sage Canady (eventual winner), Dakota Jones, Dylan Bowan & my 2 buddies from San Francisco Running Company, Jorge Maravilla & Brett Rivers. Everyone looked good and were moving well. Seeing these  gave me a mental boost for sure. I gave them all a word of cheer!
Quickly we were onto Heather Cut-Off, the super narrow section with a ton of ascending switchbacks. This is where it was muddiest and even dangerous at times. Dangerous because the 50 milers and now the front pack of the 50k group were coming down as we were going up…again, on a super narrow, muddy, slippery trail. It was very crowded and pretty mentally demanding. As people were coming down, I was anxious people were gonna fall and create a domino effect crash of bodies. Thankfully, that did not happen. The boost I got earlier was fading as we climbed this part…it was just not very fun. It was a slog fest. Finally, got to the top and made the still somewhat uphill jaunt over to the top of Cardiac. I could feel myself losing steam. I wasn’t sure what the issue was. I was taking a gel very 30 minutes, water and  tailwind too. Legs were very crampy, tight, heavy at this point. Mile18. Grabbed a few orange slices, handful of potato chips and I departed Cardiac Aid station. We basically turned around and went back the same way we came…down Heather Cut-off and over to Muir Beach. Once I made the turn around at 18, I really started a slow decline in performance that would last the rest of the way. I got slower and slower the last 13 miles. People passed me who I had passed earlier and I wasn’t happy about it, but what could I do…my body was not wanting to go any faster. However, the really cool part about this whole section of about 8 miles is there was an overwhelming amount of camaraderie. Whether you were a 50k or 50 mile runner, going up or going down…someone was always giving you a cheer. It was really awesome. I’ve never participated in a race where I felt so much togetherness. That kept me going. Good vibes.

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Grabbed a few more snacks at Muir beach aid station and headed up the ultra challenging Coyote Ridge. I believe is is the longest ascent in the race. I did it many times in training; it never got easier. And it certainly didn’t disappoint today. Still, quite difficult after 24 miles under my legs! It was a slow climb, although I actually did pass about 2-3 people. I was psyched to get to the top, if only for a minute because as we started the steep descent onto Fox trail, I was in some serious discomfort. In training, this was an area I went down pretty fast. Not the story today; it was a slow, gingerly walk down and it was so frustrating. Something was going on with my right leg that made the steepness of the descent very painful. I had no choice. A few guys were struggling as well. Some of them were walking backwards down the hill.

Let me pause here to say that the course was so beautiful….like all my training pictures showed. The weather at this time was cool, some sun, but mostly gray. It doesn’t really matter what the weather is out there…it’s always visually stunning.

Ok. One more bathroom pit stop at the Tennessee Valley at station, orange wedges and chips and moving ahead to the Marincello Ascent and onto Alta trail. We are almost home now. About 3 miles left. My toes were screaming at this point and I badly needed to stop and empty out the rocks that had accumulated in my shoes, but I could just not do it. I didn’t want to stop moving. All I was focused on was keep moving, keep moving, keep moving.
Moving slower, but still moving.

We are finally onto the final descent, more pain, ouch, ouch, ouch….
Back to flat and a short uphill towards the finish line. I can hear the announcer, I can hear the roars….and finally, I can see the finish shoot…lots of people cheering…very loud. I’m inching towards the finish line. I’m smiling big and bigger and my eyes get weary. I’m done. I did it.
Man, I am so happy! And Muddy!  🙂

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8:01:56 – what a day. what an adventure!

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