Sunday, December 8, 2013

North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile Race - 2013

I only had a banana for breakfast. That decision alone started a ripple effect of bad decisions in bad conditions, in a badass trail race course...

(Note: All times are approximate...)

3:00 AM
I woke up at the top of my bunk bed at the Marin Headlands Hostel. My bunkmate at the bottom was snoring and making weird sounds as if someone had put a voodoo curse on him. I decided to slowly get out of bed as I only had two hours before the race anyway, and it's best to at least charge my phone and check messages from last night.

4:00 AM
Bad decision one for me the night before was forgetting to bring food for my breakfast on race day. Luckily I remember my friend Stephanie Douglass, who was staying at the hostel and running her first 50K, offered me any food she had brought for me and my friend Pen Perez. I looked at the paper bag in the shelves, and I saw a banana so I started munching on it. There were also sweet potatoes and chicken breast from the night before. I only ate a few, but now, in hindsight, I should have eaten all of it but I chose not to because I didn't want to run with a full stomach an hour before the race.

4:30 AM
I gave my drop bags for the Cardiac and Tennessee Valley Aid Station near the start line. It was still pretty cold, so I decided to go back up the hostel, just a few steps from the start line, and get my orange Brooks windbreaker. I already had gloves, arm warmers, and my calf compression sleeves, so I think I was dressed warm enough for the freezing weather without feeling too uncomfortably warm underneath.

5:03 AM
Wave 4, which I was in, started. I saw fellow runners and friends Pen Perez, Philip Lee, Brian Ladrillono, and Yvonne Gallegos at the start. Pen started with her friend Alyssa. I decided to start with Philip, Brian and Yvonne who were very experienced ultra runners. They all have done several 50 mile races, and Philip just finished his first 100 mile race a few weeks prior. I was happy with this decision as they started around my pace going up Bobcat and Alta. At Bobcat, I saw fellow SF Tri friend Deirdre Geary, who I ran Mt Tam 50K just a few weeks ago. I also unwittingly flashed a runner who was doing a #2 which he thought he could do under the cover of darkness (I turned away my headlamp quite quickly). I noticed he ducked again just a quarter mile ahead. I was vindicated (at that moment) of eating light, but I would be proven wrong later on. Deirdre and I chatted a bit as we went up Bobcat, until she started running up Alta (at which point I never saw her again until going up Coastal Trail to McKinnon Gulch). I then went with Brian/Philip/Yvonne again up Alta, but when we hit Rodeo Valley, however, the screw on my headlamp somehow got loose and lightly whacked me on my forehead. I had to screw it back enough to still run with it. While I ran down Rodeo Valley at a decent pace (12:56 and 11:26, according to my GPS), the three experienced ultra runners descended it like nobody's business, disappearing down into the night. 

There was somebody who was following me along down the trail, however. I didn't feel like chatting at first, because I was focused on going down and not falling, as we were running in darkness since we started. When we were in level on a rocky fire road, I introduced myself and her name was Sonya. We kept each other company for the length of the fire road, plus the first mile up Miwok. When I saw Brian, Philip, and Yvonne again, as well as Pen and Alyssa, I decided to power hike to catch up with them and keep up with the pace. I might have been slow downhill, but I can fast hike uphill at a decent clip.

As we descended Old Springs Trail, the sun was coming out. I was glad, as while running in darkness with a headlamp was fun, it can be pretty treacherous as you can only see what your headlamp can light up. Once I reached Tennessee Valley (TV) Aid Station, I saw Patty Osorio-O'Dea, who helped me find my drop bag and put my headlamp in it for me. I then blessed the restroom at TV, as I felt bloated from the nuun. Another bad decision, as I used it despite feeling already bloated from it during one of our training runs several weeks ago. I should have stuck to using the electrolytes at the aid station, which was Clifshot Brew, and it worked well for me the whole race (even though the race didn't work well for me).

7:15 AM
As I exited TV, I ran along Coastal Fire Road, climbed up Coastal Trail where I again met up with Philip/Brian/Yvonne. As proven by the Rodeo Valley descent, however, I lost them quickly again as we ran down Coastal Trail towards Pirates Cove. At this part of the race, I started seeing the elites from the 50K race go down Pirates Cove. It was amazing as I was slowly going down the steps, they opted for the trail portion right next to it and went down quickly like nobody's business. That was always one of the highlights for me, seeing how other experienced and fast ultra runners blaze the trails. I'm glad I got to experience that on race day. As we went uphill for a stretch before going down Muir Beach, I saw a runner who dressed and looked like Kilian Jornet. I didn't meet him on Wednesday or Thursday when the Salomon Team visited San Francisco Running Company and Sports Basement Presidio, but it was awesome to see him quickly and steadily climb up Muir Beach. It was also amazing to see a young kid run down Muir Beach, who I overheard later to be a 13 year old running the 50K race! I guess one could never start young enough.

8:15 AM
As we approached the Muir Beach Aid Station, I ditched my nuun and replaced it with the Clifshot Brew. I also grabbed a few Clifshot blocks (which the aid station crew grimaced on, but I just ignored by not looking at her directly). My friend John Hayato was there leading the aid station and I wouldn't have recognized him if he wasn't bundled up (including his face being covered). I made a quick pee stop then marched on to Redwood Creek Trail. I was at about Mile 14 at this point, past a trail half marathon distance, and was still feeling pretty good. Going up Heather Cutoff was okay, but I had to stop several times to let the ones running it go through. It's proper trail etiquette, but it does slow me down, and I was already thinking of where I was at compared to the first hard cutoff at McKinnon Gulch.

As Heather Cutoff turned to Coastal Trail, I started seeing a lot of my runner friends. I saw Andria Bouskous, who I was sad to later on learn that was having knee problems and might have had to DNF the 50K race. I saw Michael Bertman, who was going strong and was nice enough to take a walk break to chat with me a little and ask how I'm doing. I saw Sean Belling, who made a quick comeback from an ankle problem; Vicki Stronge, who gave a quick hug and hi; Trish Sampson, who just did Ironman Arizona a few weeks ago, and was rocking the 50K. Seeing my fellow runner friends was always a boost to my spirits. It gave me the encouragement to keep on going as I knew what's next was what I feared the most: the Coastal Trail portion going up to McKinnon Gulch. 

10:30 AM
After turning left on Cardiac while the 50Kers turned right on to Muir Woods, I started run/walking up to Pantoll. I made a #2 pit stop again as the restrooms were real restrooms here compared to porta potties at Cardiac (some of which were severely violated). I lost several precious race minutes again, but I've learned it's better to listen to the call of nature than to have to do it in the bushes (especially since I wasn't carrying toilet paper, lest I use my North Face gloves to wipe my tush). 

I ran up Coastal until it diverged from the Matt Davis trail down to Stinson Beach. I panicked less this time, but I opted for a fast hike instead of running, even on flats. Runners going down Coastal had right of way, so it slowed me down quite a few times, just like at Heather Cutoff. I wish I had right of way as I'm the one trying to make my cutoff. 

I started feeling my calves severely tighten. No cramps yet, but I kept on sipping my electrolytes which I refilled at Cardiac. Around the halfway point, past the rusty car (which I don't know if it's an artwork, or an actual car that flew down this cliff), I saw Yvonne, who I thought was already quite past me. I was lucky she was there as I cramped shortly after (one of many cramps during my climb up Coastal). She offered to massage it, which I happily said yes to despite grimacing while she did. She also gave me a few salt pills to take. I've never used salt pills, but due to the severe cramps, I decided I needed to take them. Yvonne then proceeded to go, but I was really thankful she was there that day. 

Just a quarter mile in, I cramped again, and in a precarious position as well. I was leaning on the cliff face and the already narrow trail had eroded quite a bit due to the rain possibly the previous day. A runner offered a gu, which I took, but didn't get to consume. Another who was running to the cutoff gave me one of her salt pills (the third one for me to take), and asked for my name. I should have asked her as she was angel like Yvonne as well. I'm sure good karma will reward her. 

The cramp subsided, but it was that point of the race I was questioning whether I should drop at McKinnon Gulch. I'm okay probably to go up there, but I don't know whether I wanted to risk going down and tumbling off a cliff. I saw my fellow runner friends again on their descent going down Coastal, but this time my face and words were lacking confidence and energy as I greeted them. By the time I reached McKinnon Gulch, I expected to be cut off (in some ways I was wishing I was). I was surprised I still had 10 minutes left to cut off and the aid station closure. I ate a few potatoes with salt dipped on it, grabbed a few pretzels and mini clif bars. I then decided to at least keep on going and see whether I could at least get to Stinson Beach, where my friend and pacer Jonathan Lui and crew Cris Lim was waiting. 

12:10 PM
Going down Coastal was easier, as there was no cross traffic of runners going up. I'm super glad about this one, as I didn't want to have to pass on my right (which sounds even more treacherous). I started getting my second wind and I was actually RUNNING down Coastal. I still wasn't looking to my right and admiring the views, however. I was just happy to have somewhat conquered my fear by completing the whole run up and down Coastal, which I didn't get to at all during my training runs. I only ran up it once but stopped half way, because I was mentally and physically out of it that day.

I proceeded to go down Matt Davis trail to Stinson Beach, and I was very familiar with it, having run the Stinson Beach 50K several weeks ago. I actually didn't mind it now, although it's still pretty rough on my quads given the steep steps and descents. 

1:00 PM
I got to Stinson Beach and saw Jonathan and Cris. I decided to make another poop stop (third for the race, but who's counting). Another bad decision made as I decided to switch out my hydration pack here for a bottle (which caused me to be out of electrolytes quicker and dehydrated), and ditching my windbreaker, arm warmers and gloves (it turned out to be still pretty cold when we started running).

Jonathan started pacing me up Dipsea, but since it was a steep uphill (not all the time, but at parts), I decided to fast hike like my strategy was from the start. We were going slower than usual, but I have just ran 27.7 up to Stinson, so I'm amazed I can even run the flats and downhills. As we climbed the Dipsea steps, my quads were screaming again, just like Stinson Beach 50K. I don't like to take painkillers, and I didn't have any, so I mentally ignored the pain. I was amazed I was able to do this, and I'm proud of myself that I can use this going forward in future races.

2:00 PM
We reached Cardiac and the volunteer told us we had 81 minutes, 6 miles to the second cutoff, and it was "all downhill." I knew there was something wrong with that statement though because I had run the Muir Woods portion of the race course several times, and I was pretty familiar with it. The problem I had was I don't exactly remember where Old Inn was. I had confused it with the Deer Park Aid Station location for the Mt Tam 50K. And I KNEW that had a lot of uphill and downhill.

It disheartened me, but I kept on running, as I've surprised myself before with cutoffs, including the first hard cutoff I just did. We ran down Dipsea and Ben Johnson, but sure enough, we had to climb Bootjack, Fern Trail, Lost Trail, and Panoramic Trail. I saw Yvonne again just before going down Sun Trail. She didn't look well and she was having a rough day as well. We ran Redwood and Sun for parts, but as I looked at my watch, I already slowed down at parts and I had already given up hope of making the cutoff. 

4:00 PM
As we went down Dipsea again, we saw the makeshift Old Inn Aid Station, which was just a pick up truck, a few chairs, and some snacks. A few other runners were seated or standing with disappointed faces. We were driven back to the start/finish line. 

My first DNF (Do Not Finish). Not exactly the race I wanted to DNF since it had been the race I had been training for almost 20 weeks now. As you can see, I did make a quite a few bad decisions leading up to and during the race, so I'm sure that could have been a factor. At this point, I'm not sure whether I want to do this race again for fear of another failure, or any other 50 miler for that matter.

I have Big Sur Marathon, San Francisco Marathon, and Ironman Lake Tahoe lined up for next year. I have to admit I'm still stung by the whole thing, and my confidence is pretty much shaken at this point. I have to regroup my thoughts, focus on what I have to improve, and make sure that I can do things better next time.

At the very least, I'm proud I didn't tumble off the cliffs at Coastal! 


  1. This is a great recap - thanks for putting it together, I'm sure it wasn't fun. Speaking as someone who has had a number of DNFs, they aren't fun, but I've learned from each of them. What's impressive is that, when things were going badly, you had an easy out at Stinson Beach, and nobody would have thought badly of you for taking it. Instead, you kept on going - that was awesome!

    You covered an amazing distance with absurd elevation in very cold conditions, and kept going until you were forced to stop. That's a win in my book! Time will make this better and I suspect you will get your revenge on this race.

    In any case, hopefully I'll run into you on the trails in the near future. (And thanks for not tumbling off the cliffs!)

    1. Thanks. I worry sometimes that I'm too detailed or lengthy on my race reports, but I haven't had any complaints so far. Haha. Yes, what I'm most proud of is that I did go until I was told I can't anymore. I believe I could have gone on to finish the race if I wasn't cutoff, but of course they can't let us keep on running without having cutoff times. Yes, I'm glad I didn't tumble off of those cliffs! I don't plan to do NFEC 50M next year, at least I haven't planned on it yet, but I've been known to change my mind! =)