Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Reluctant Race Report: The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile Race

As I heard the cowbells clanging, I saw the fog slowly give way to the volunteers at the McKennan Gulch Aid Station at Mile 28. I told them I was happy that they were cheering, but I have decided to quit The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile Race at that point in time.

I gave up. I was physically, mentally, and emotionally done.

I woke up quite early at 1:00 AM for a race that starts at 5:00 AM. I did this because I wanted to get a good breakfast in my stomach, oatmeal with a spoonful of peanut butter and a cup of coffee. I also needed to take a shower, do some last minute preparations such as putting body glide and sunscreen all over my body, as well as putting on my gear which included the headlamp, shirt, shorts, calf sleeves, windbreaker and shoes. I was debating whether to wear arm sleeves but given the weather forecast was for mid 50s to mid 60s, I decided to just put it in my drop bag for the Tennessee Valley Aid station, in case it got cold at miles 14 and 45. I didn't have extra arm sleeves for the other drop bag at Cardiac at miles 23 and 35, but I didn't consider it a deal breaker.

Preparations were still in the way when I got to the start area around 3:00 AM, understandably so since the start was still 2 hours away. I found my running group's tent, Run 365, and waited for other fellow runners to come. Peter and Nga eventually showed up, as well as other runners arriving through the shuttles. Then came other fellow runners running the 50 mile event: Char, Leilani, Sean, Michelle, Jake, and Trish from our group. I also saw some other fellow runners and friends I met through other groups: Jesse from Golden Gate Triathlon Club and Matt from San Francisco Marathon Ambassadors. It was also a delight to see other friends volunteering: Josephine, Trina and Monica.

The start of the race came soon enough, surprisingly absent the rain that was forecasted to be at the start at 5:00 AM. I took a sneak peak of the elites gathering through the small funnel for the starting line. I can't make out too many of them, but I think I saw Alex Varner, Chris Vargo, and Dylan Bowman. Off they went and three minutes later, my wave, wave 4 started as well.

I intentionally held back to be at the back of the pack as I most often do at a race. Not that I think I'll be the last one to finish, but because I want to start off slow. After all, we are running for 50 miles, not a 5K or a 10K.

Since I was hanging back, I never expected to be running with Peter early on, but he did run with me until a few minutes after we were directed to turn left towards Bobcat trail by my friend and course marshal Laura. Peter and I chatted for a while about race strategies and then I told him he should not feel compelled to hang back with me, as I knew he was way faster than me (which he was, because he finished the 50 miler faster than any other person in our entire running group).

As we started our ascent up Bobcat, most of the runners started running up the hill. I decided to stick to my strategy of power hiking the uphills, and running the downhills and flats. It made for a long climb up Bobcat, but it felt good running once I was going down Rodeo Valley trail. Once we got down to the flats, I kept on running, past the course marshal again and then to the Bobcat aid station, where my friend Madeleine was volunteering to mark the bibs as having done the Bobcat loop once. Yes, we had to do the 5-6 mile loop all over again. Having done loops in races before, I didn't really mind it at all. I arrived doing the second loop around 7:20, even 10 minutes early from my projected 7:30 am arrival for having done 11.3 miles.

The climbs never stop at this race, so the next one was up Miwok trail, which has a steeper climb in a shorter distance than Bobcat. I started power hiking again, and at this time the 50K has already started, so the elites were already scrambling up Miwok to the top. I am always in awe of runners who truly the run the entire ultra distance. While I still do consider myself an ultra runner, I would say that I hike roughly half of the distance I cover, be it a 50K or a 50 Mile. After climbing Miwok, we turned left and ran downhill at Old Springs Trail towards Tennessee Valley.

When I arrived at Tennessee Valley, it was already at mile 14, almost a mile more than a half marathon distance. I was actually doing pretty well. It was warm enough to leave my windbreaker. I kept on with just one hydration bottle in my hand, but I did take a pill case containing roughly six salt stick pills. I had two pill cases stashed at each drop bag station to quickly take a few salt stick pills to take every hour (at least one). At this point, I was in better shape when I was the previous year where I didn't finish the race, because I had GI issues early on last year, and I remember having to go to the porta potties at Tennessee Valley then.

I proceeded running through Coastal Fire Road and saw my friend Jeff, the first one I spotted from those running the 50Ks. He was doing pretty well and asked me which mile I was at. I knew I was around mile 14, but that was just a rough estimate on my part. Jeff vanished quickly due to his usual speed.

We were greeted with another big hill and big climb, before we descended towards a muddy (and slippery) slope towards Pirates Cove. My experience running The North Face Endurance Challenge 2012 came into mind, but at least it wasn't raining, so the mud was a little caked and less slippery, but still slippery nonetheless. After descending the stairs towards Pirates Cove, making a hard right and going up and down a few rollers, we started descending towards Muir Beach. Again, I was reminded about 2012 but this was a much smaller scale. There was not enough mud to slide down happily (yes, I said happily), but there was enough to still give you an occasional slip if you're not careful (or balanced) enough. Luckily, I have good experience running down mud by now given my two years of experience running trails.

The Muir Beach aid station came quickly but I was a little bit disappointed it wasn't near the parking lot where the nice porta potties were. At this point, I wanted to pee already and I didn't know the mileage at the time (we were at mile 18, I would find out later on). I knew the next aid station was at Cardiac and that was a big climb to get up to there, and 5 miles away. I hesitated for a moment, but decided to forge on as it seemed there was only one porta potty and there was already another guy lined up in front of it.

The stretch of road and trail from Muir Beach to Heather Cutoff was actually quite runnable, but I began to slow down. I was fatigued at that point, but in hindsight, I think I was also at the beginning of hitting a wall. I was drinking electrolytes constantly, one bottle's worth through every aid station, but I don't think I consumed enough other food at each aid station to average 200 calories per hour. The fatigue momentarily vanished by watching in awe as the elites like Sage Canaday pass first (who eventually won the race, but by a thin margin of a few minutes). It also vanished when I saw my friend Andrew volunteering as a course marshal as we crossed the road going into Heather Cutoff. I was not all smiles though as I saw the beginning of a muddy climb up Heather Cutoff.

The switchbacks going up Heather Cutoff was a muddy mess. There was a stream of water going down from the very top, cruising towards the middle of most of the trail. There were faster runners wanting to overtake me from behind. There were elites blasting through from the top. It was a narrow trail for the heavy amount of runners going up and down this stretch of the course, and this is where my downfall started.

The climb seemed to take a long time for me but then I was thankful to be at the top, where Coastal trail reconnected. I saw Magdalena Boulet briefly, not knowing it was her exactly until some spectators shouted her name "Magda" as she cruised past me downhill.

Coastal was less muddy, but it was still quite a climb. I was started to not power hike, but just traipse along, which was not what I exactly wanted. It didn't help that I ran out of water and still was a mile or two to the top of Cardiac. I also then decided to eat a mini clif bar I ate from an aid station earlier, but it only temporary helped, and it made me more thirsty in the process given that I had no water to wash it down with.

A half mile left to the aid station, I started getting light headed. I thought this was really bad. I have hit a wall and I'm not even half way done with the 50 miler. I made it to the Cardiac with 20 minutes to spare before the first hard cutoff, but that didn't give me a cause to jump for joy because I knew what was next: Coastal trail from Pantoll.

Lucas took a picture of me (above) as I was drinking a can of coke to get some much needed sugar in me. I didn't really want the caffeine at this point because caffeine messes up my stomach (which it shortly did as I had to go to the porta potty at that point in time for a #2). Before I took my wet wipes to do the dirty deed, Ken advised me to just keep moving forward and my pacer and our common friend Brian should be able to get me back up to speed. Unfortunately, he didn't know at the time I almost decided to drop at that particular aid station. I quickly debated about telling him to contact Brian and dropping at Cardiac, but I felt that I still have the strength to forge on at this point, and I didn't want to let anybody down. It helped that my friends Phil and Angela were cheering me from the top as well. Phil even jokingly told me that "I hope you just didn't eat a banana for breakfast." I smiled weakly as I did eat a good breakfast, but I just didn't keep my nutrition up and regular once I got going in the race.

I decided to keep moving, and this time I had an extra water bottle that I purposely put in my drop bag just for this case where I felt under-hydrated. I also started snacking on the kettle chips as I descended towards Old Mine trail. I saw my friend Amadeo limping and I was concerned, but I cheered him to keep moving on (he spectacularly still finished the race, but posted about possibly being injured, hopefully not a severe one).

When I hit the Pantoll Parking Lot porta potties, I did the dirty deed again. I was getting nervous about Coastal trail, given that is also where I severely slowed down last year. It was the same exact feeling. I was less intimated about the trail this time. It was less muddy than I expected, and given my falling behind and the course changes, there was less runners going up and down the narrow single track trail. Even the spot where I severely cramped last year and learned that I should take salt stick pills for the first time seemed that it was "fixed" to be runnable (not that I ran it).

When I hit the Coastal trail, I started thinking about dropping out again, this time at McKennan Gulch. I did some math and I was going to end up at the aid station by 1:30 PM, which was pretty late considering I told my pacer Brian to expect me at Stinson Beach between 12:30 to 1:30 PM. I realize that as I write this that I totally misread the cutoff time for Muir Beach. I thought it was 3:30, and that would mean I would need to do 13 miles in two hours. The real cutoff was 4:37, and 13 miles in three hours is totally doable. This is a total lesson learned to carry a laminated pace chart with me for all future races. I did carry the pace chart, but I think I was so mentally checked out that I didn't even think to double check the pace charts to see if I remembered the 2nd hard cutoff right.

When I thought about this, that my now incorrect math that I won't make it, I wondered how to get the word to my friend Brian that I won't be able to finish the race. I decided to be on the lookout for my friend Michelle. It was her first 50 miler, and her friend who was supposed to pace her wasn't able to, so I thought at the very least Brian can pace her. I can still change my mind after I told her about this and parted ways, but I wanted Brian's being at Stinson to at least help someone, which eventually did as Michelle successfully crossed the finish line hours later.

The sweepers caught me by the time I was at Willow Camp Trail, and roughly a mile to McKennan Gulch. With my IT band on my left leg tingling, I told them that I will drop at the next aid station. It was a paved road we had to run which was only a mile, but again, like other parts of my run, seemed like forever.

As I heard the cowbells clanging, I saw the fog slowly give way to the volunteers at the McKennan Gulch Aid Station at Mile 28. I told them I was happy that they were cheering, but I have decided to quit The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile Race at that point in time.

I gave up. I was physically, mentally, and emotionally done.