Pro Tip: Avoid eating fried and oily foods on race week, especially if it's under cooked spam.
I should have learned from past experience when I paid dearly for eating chicken curry the night before a 20 mile run at Western States Endurance Run Training Camp a few years ago that you should eat clean and simple the day before a long run. I just thought eating a few days before would have allowed my body to eat pretty much anything. I was pretty much dead wrong.
The Thursday and Friday leading to my race at The North Face Endurance Challenge (TNFEC), I was a ball of nerves. Not only did I have to deal with the usual tightness of my heels and back that I notice whenever tackling hills (due to being well over my racing weight), but I was now dealing with stomach issues. Having visited the restroom at work on Thursday so many times due to what I think the whole can of fried spam that I consumed Wednesday night, I decided to take a sick day at work as my stomach was clearly not recovering from my maladies. I ate simple carbs on Friday like oatmeal and pasta with marinara sauce to hopefully set my stomach on a course correction. It seemed to be getting better, but apparently I wasn't out of the woods.
The 2017 TNFEC wasn't announced until later in the year. Some had speculated it was cancelled due to permitting issues. Thankfully, the trail race party still came to be, although some course changes this year might have potentially turned off some trail runner purists, as the race for the 50 mile, 50K, and marathon all have you running down SCA trail towards the Golden Gate Bridge. From there, it's a 2 mile run wherein you have to contend with a potential horde of tourists, happily snapping pictures and walking at two, three or four persons abreast, at times potentially blocking the whole path towards the course finish.
Miles 0 to 3.5 (Sausalito to Tennessee Valley)
The start of the race changed to Sausalito. Buses still took runners from previous gathering points in the Marina Middle School and Larkspur, and they were plentiful and quick (at least to me, as I was on board the first bus, being the usual early bird). The weather for 2017 TNFEC was a little chilly at the start, so I was thankful to bring my warm jacket, gloves and beanie. I hung on to my drop bag until about half an hour to the start time. I also pretty much visited the porta potty a whopping four times, including one time to take care of business. I felt that I took care of some business, but my stomach still felt funny at times. I didn't like the feeling, as GI issues were one of the things that took me down at my first attempt at TNFEC 50M.
Part of the new course have runners going up Alta, and while the views were fantastic all throughout (evidenced by quite a few runners stopping to take pictures), we did have to work for the views. as based on my Strava, we climbed a whopping 749 feet, enough to start inducing cramps for those not used to doing a lot of climbing, much less climbing from the very start of a race.
As we reached Marincello, we saw the 50 mile runners coming up from Miwok, and joining us for the rewarding jaunt downhill. I was running down and encountered a runner who I later learned was 70 years old, and kicked my butt by finishing several minutes ahead of me at the finish. I told him I was in awe of him for doing such a tough race at the age of 70, and I would be ecstatic to just be able to run at that age.
Miles 3.5 to 6.5 (Tennessee Valley to Muir Beach)
As we hit Tennesee Valley, I promptly refilled one of my two water bottles which I had water mixed with Tailwind on. I was on point with my nutrition then, having finished one bottle in an hour, which was about 200 calories. I liked Tailwind in that I took care of drinking and eating in one step, rather than have to do them separately. It pays to be an efficient runner, especially when minutes and seconds count (especially for me, as a back of the pack runner). I didn't put Tailwind on the newly refilled bottle, since I had one other bottle and I could just consume that for the next 3 miles heading towards Muir Beach.
After we exited TV, the 50K runners went up Fox trail while the 50M runners headed further and then up Coastal Fire Road. The 50M runners did so to tack an extra 0.5 mile. While we saved on distance, going up Fox trail is quite a bit of a climb (420 feet, according to Strava). As we were going up, I saw what was quite possibly a runner who's never done a trail race. He had no water bottle, wore absurdly long basketball shorts, which he kept on having to lift up to prevent from giving a show, and he wore sneakers. I'm not sure if it was smart to ask him, but I said, "Is this your first trail race?". He said no, not seemingly defensive. I was going to give him the unsolicited advice to ask for a water bottle at the next aid station, and to get trail shoes next time, but I held back. I have a feeling he didn't finish the race, but I can't be sure as I didn't note his bib number.
After a nice long climb, we were rewarded with a nice downhill run towards Muir Beach. Again, the views were fantastic and lots of runners were taking pictures, some even videos. I had to distance myself or slow myself down from a few of them, lest I run into them while I abruptly stop to take pictures.
I saw my friends Marcia, who was 18 miles into her first 50M, at a good clip of 4 hours. She seemed to struggle a bit, but I was glad to learn she conquered this beast of a race successfully in 12+ hours. I also saw Peach, who kiddingly asked me if I took any pictures yet. I quickly said no. I have made it a rule to not take pictures doing a race, as they take precious minutes and seconds, and I need every single minute and second if I was to finish this race! Peach was lined up for the single porta potty at that aid station. At times I wish we ran through the Muir Beach parking lot, which had 4 real rest rooms for use, but I have a feeling it's due to permitting issues that the route doesn't have us go through that area.
Miles 6.5 to 11.8 (Muir Beach to Cardiac)
I still felt great exiting Muir Beach, running through Redwood Creek Trail and heading towards Heather Cutoff. My plan was to just speed hike Heather Cutoff. I was expecting to be constantly overtaken by other 50M and 50K runners going up the single track for this part, but I was surprised to have very few of them do so. I'm guessing at this point, the 50M/50K runners I was with decided to either adopt the strategy I was using, or that was also their plan from the get go (or an adjustment to their plan). It took me about 1.5 hours going up Heather Cutoff and Coastal Trail to Cardiac, and while it was a long slog, I was surprisingly not tired and still upbeat.
I was dealing with a rotten stomach still, so when I knew I was about 15 minutes ahead of my target time (10:20 AM arrival, 10:34 AM target time), I decided to promptly use the porta potty to clean the decks and I was glad I did, as it would have made for a miserable climb later on through Muir Woods if I hadn't.
Miles 11.8 to 17.7 (Cardiac to Old Inn)
While Muir Woods is magical, this is the part of the TNFEC course that I always dread due to its difficulty. Going down Ben Johnson trail was a nice reprieve from the long climb to Cardiac Hill, but I know having done the previous TNFEC races, that "what comes down, must come up". After getting to the part close to where the Muir Woods Visitor Center is, we turn left, and start climb after climb.
As we reached close to the start of Lost Trail, where there was a bridge with a fallen log that we had to climb and push ourselves up on, I managed to pull my left calf. I let several runners through as I fervently tried to stretch it and rest it. It seemed like an eternity and I probably lost about five to ten minutes as I nursed it, wondering if this would be the start of my downfall on this favorite ultra race of mine. As I felt the left calf start to feel normal, I went back into going across the bridge. But when I ascended Lost Trail, I made sure to use my right calf to start each step, and then followed by my left. I had to two step each step several times to start with until I was comfortable alternating each calf with each step. The steps up Lost Trail seemed endless, not to mention steep. Several 50M runners continued to pass me along the way, but I kept going forward. I felt like my target time for reaching Old Inn would be way off pace.
It was way off pace as I arrived 20-25 minutes past my target time, and started to worry if any of the aid stations would start pulling 50K runners due to how slow they were running. I was discussing this point with another runner at Old Inn, when I overheard another volunteer ask if there were any cutoffs for the 50K. I saw that as a sign to bolt out of that aid station promptly.
I thought we were going down the road from there, but I was surprised we were detoured into going up Dipsea, unlike last year's race. I cursed through the climb, but it felt surprisingly short as I was going down Deer Park road in no time, the sketchy road since Redwood Creek trail across was crossed for a good section, and then back on to Redwood Creek trail as we ended up in Muir Beach.
I ate like a madman at Muir Beach, where I gobbled a few sugar bites that seemed like sugar coated Gu Chews (not sure what they exactly were, but they were delish), downed two half cups of Coke, and took three quarter slices of peanut butter and jelly to go. I figured I needed to down all of these as I felt I was in a calorie deficit, and I needed the energy to muster that climb up Muir Beach back to Tennessee Valley.
Miles 20.5 to 23.5 (Muir Beach to Tennessee Valley)
The climb up Muir Beach and down Fox was long but uneventful. My calves surprisingly behaved the whole time both up and downhill, but then my muscles above my right knee started flaring up. I wouldn't call it sharp pain, but they were excruciating enough to be worrisome. I mentally told myself "Shut up, legs!" as I bared through the injury. I was slightly worried that I was running myself to the ground, but I figured that as long as it wasn't sharp, it was okay. If my legs and suddenly seized and I can't move anymore, well, that's another scenario but I didn't want to even envision that happening.
I saw my friend Patrick who was running the 50M as I walked the small incline towards the aid station. We chatted and caught up for a few minutes, before he raced through the finish. He was having a hard time due to under training but he finished in a very good time nonetheless!
Miles 23.5 to 26.4 (Tennessee Valley to Alta)
While they didn't seem to think twice at holding me at Tennesee Valley due to being slow, I was beginning to worry that they might pull me at Alta. My goal time was to be there at 3:19 PM, and while the cutoff was only at the finish, they do have the fine print saying they can pull off any runner at any time if they weren't going at the "last runner's" predicted average running pace. I hiked up Marincello at a fast clip, seeing the strong 70 year old runner I was running down that same trail just this morning. We were playing frogger for a good time all the way up to Alta, up to where he disappeared as he headed towards SCA.
I was so glad to see my friends Karen (who seemed like she was everywhere), Erica, Jennifer and Zac (who I also saw at the start). I was more glad to sense they weren't going to force me to drop from there, and instead encouraged me on as I ran towards the finish.
Miles 26.4 to 32.4 (Alta to Crissy Field)
It must be my tired runner's math, but I somehow I thought I had EIGHT miles to go, as I was looking at my pace chart for this race. Obviously it was only SIX miles. What made matters worse (or maybe better, in hindsight), was that my watch died shortly before reaching Alta, so I started Strava on my iPhone. I was holding it for a while at SCA, but as I feared dropping it, plus annoyed at carrying it as I still had to drink from my water bottle at the other hand, I decided to place the phone back in my hydration pack and instead "run by feel" towards the end.
I saw what looked like the finish line from the Golden Gate Bridge. I couldn't quite visually assess where it was exactly. I thought it would be closer towards Fort Mason, and if that was so, that feels very far from where I was at. I was resigned to walking the "uphill" part of the Golden Gate Bridge (it's not flat, surprisingly), until another slow 50K runner walked ahead of me, looked at my bib, and smiled (as if to say, "nooninoo, I overtook you). This fueled a fire in me to run all the way to the finish.
I ended up run walking the Bridge, and running almost the entire way from the Bridge to the finish. As I was at the other end of the bridge, I overheard a 50 mile runner who was taking a picture of a tourist who asked him to take their picture that he had 11 hours and 38 minutes on his watch. This fueled my fire even further. I was actually resigned to finishing several minutes past the official finish of 10 hours. While I would still get a medal and probably an official result, I felt that anything less than 10 might not make it a result eligible for a qualifier for the Ultra Trail Mont Blanc - OCC, which I hoped to do again next year.
From that point on, I pretty much ran most of the way, with very short walk breaks, as I saw the finish line arch. I was happy to finish with what I thought was a 9:57 finish, only to find out, it's actually a 9:53 finish since I started with the 7:04 AM wave.
Congratulations to all the TNFEC runners for the 50M, 50K and Marathon! They don't call this race an endurance challenge for nothing!
GI Issues, Pulled Calf, Quad Cramps. I had a lot of obstacles to my finish at this year's The North Face Endurance Challenge (TNFEC) California 50K, but I wasn't about to let any of them stop me!
P.S. If you read this far enough, I have decided that I will try to eke out a finish again at TNFEC 50M, in 2018. I've had two "Did Not Finish" (DNFs) so far, one due to a hard cutoff at Old Inn, and one due to me calling it quits (due to bad and tired runner's math). Hopefully the third time will be the charm!