Monday, December 7, 2015

The North Face Endurance Challenge - Half Marathon Race Report

"Smile, and celebrate each mile!". This was what I was telling myself as I power hiked some of the toughest climbs during The North Face Endurance Challenge (TNFEC) Half Marathon: Miwok, Coastal Fire Road, and Marincello.

Race day on Sunday started with virtually no rain despite the weather forecasts (it was a tease though as it started raining about a mile into our run). I arrived at the start line festival covered from head to toe with my beanie, jacket, gloves and sweat pants. As the clock ticked down to the race start though, I quickly ditched all of them, including the windbreaker I wore back in TNFEC 2012 50K when it rained for pretty much the entire race.

There were 495 runners for the half marathon that day, which is a staggering number for a trail half marathon. Similar trail races I have done, especially ultras, were mostly with smaller or medium sized racing companies which would be thrilled or lucky to have that number for their entire racing event and not just a particular distance. I was in Wave 7, but my running friends convinced me to run a wave early at Wave 6. Since all bibs were chip timed, I don't think it mattered, so I went ahead and started with them.

I usually hold back when it comes to racing as a back of the pack runner and as an ultra runner, but since I was doing a half marathon, I decided to push myself early on this race. I ran with some of this year's trainees at Run 365 and it took me a medium effort, not relaxed, to just keep with them. The start was a flat to down hill part of the course until you hit magnificent Miwok.

When I hit Miwok, I decided to keep pushing a little by running for one minute and walking for one minute. I was debating about this race strategy even while I was running, but I felt like I should try to aim for a good finish time since 13.1 miles is not a foreign distance to me. I started overtaking quite a few runners, but I abandoned the run/walk strategy when I was three-fourths of the way on the top as I can feel my energy getting spent and I do still have about ten more miles to go once I reach the top of Miwok.

On the descent to Old Springs Trail, I paid the price for even running a small portion of Miwok. The same runners I overtook (some, not all) now gleefully ran down Old Springs having reserved their energy for the uphill. I was still running down Old Springs Trail but I wasn't running down fast, it was more like a nice jog.

The Tennessee Valley (TV) aid station quickly arrived and I saw volunteers shouting that they had water and electrolytes. Since I had three bottles of tailwind with me (two on my pack, one I carry), I think I have enough to do the four mile loop before I hit this same aid station again. I did decide to grab one of the clif blocks for the additional calories. I had two scoops of tailwind per 20 ounce bottle, but somehow the calories weren't enough for me that morning and I had already emptied one of them as I arrived at TV.

I ran to Coastal Fire Road with zest and pep to my steps. I was clocking in at an 11 minute mile pace, which is a somewhat fast pace for me, but I felt good and wanted to take advantage of the flat run to pick up some speed. I knew when I hit Coastal Fire Road that I will just power hike it, given how steep the climb is. Coastal Fire Road came and most of the group I was racing with power hiked it, except for maybe one woman who was running it. She was slightly ahead but like my time at Miwok, I think she was expending way much energy to just be ahead of me by thirty seconds to a minute. She was a faster runner though as I don't recall seeing her again after that portion of the race.

Going down Fox trail after the climb up Coastal Fire Road was a fun romp in the mud. It wasn't as muddy as I expected, where I would slip and slide but I still made smaller steps going down to have quicker turnover and put my arms out to balance myself on the way down. I wasn't going super fast that I would risk face planting, but I was going fast enough for my comfort level (apparently not fast enough as my pace was 13 and 16 minute miles for that 2 mile downhill segment, I need to clearly work on my down hill running to get my average pace up for these trail races). I still overtook some runners who seem to be more wary of the muddy trail than I was so at least that gave me some boost during this middle part of the race.

Going back to TV, I had emptied all three of my bottles of tailwind (ahead of my goal calorie intake) and decided to only have one bottle refilled by my friend and volunteer Tracy Corbin. I decided one bottle was enough to take me to Alta and I can always refill there if need be. I also made a quick pee stop after having chugged a lot of water since I was feeling bloated (but not hyponatremic, thankfully). From there, I started to power hike Marincello.

Marincello came and went without too much fanfare. I made a decent power hike and some injured runners hiking slowly up (one with a bandana wrapped around his left knee, probably an IT band injury?). I'm surprised to see some runners without even a single water bottle, but either they're experts or they're new to the trail racing field, which one, I'm not so sure.

As I got to the top of Marincello, I started running again towards the Alta station. I even started run/walking again the climb up Bobcat to Alta Trail surprising some other runners. When I reached Alta, I saw friends and volunteers Ken Michal and Laura Bello, but I just waved my hand to signal hi at that point as I was on a mission to see if I could do a sub 3 finish, in addition to just finishing.

I might have regretted bypassing Alta about a mile in as I started cramping. My left and right calves were already twitching after I hiked up Coastal Fire Road, but now they were complaining on why I'm torturing them so much this fine morning. I continued to take salt stick pills and even downed a gel or two as I mentally and physically fought the cramping. I even changed my gait for a while to use my left leg since my right calf cramped first but then both of them started cramping.

At that point, I was debating my strategy for the last two miles of the race. I can either just slow down, walk and ensure a finish, or push through, risk a cramp but still aim for a sub 3 hour finish. I decided to do middle of the road, not enough of a push to risk a full on debilitating cramp, but just enough to fool my legs that I'm taking it easy from this point on. I shook my legs every so often somehow thinking it would shake off the cramp. As I walked on a certain segment when it was twitching again and teasing a full on cramp, another runner egged me on to run. "You have to keep on running, especially with those big muscular legs of yours!". I flashed a big grin and it gave me a temporary boost, and then I wondered, was he hitting on me? I can't tell for the life of me, but at that point I didn't really care to wonder any further.

I kept on running while I reached the end of the downhill portion of Rodeo Valley Trail. I still kept on running a decent pace and even pushed it further when I saw the wooden bridge which signaled the finish was near. I was about a mile away and I had about ten minutes. It was still within the realm of possibility but then I remember that small little hill that we have to climb up again before we reach a flat to downhill finish.

I started overtaking runners again. I kept on running, but a few seconds here and there I slowed down to a quick walk to catch my breath. This is the last trail race of the year for me, and at this point, I wanted to give it my all, sub 3 finish or not. I stopped glancing at my watch and just pushed it.

I crossed the finish. My watch said 3:00:27. It was still a pretty decent time considering I had not run too frequently after my last trail race a month prior. My official time was 3:03:32. I'm not so sure where the additional minutes came from, but I vaguely remember it auto pausing when I stopped moving as I cramped at Rodeo Valley, so that could have been it. Even then, that's still pretty close to where I wanted to finish, even with the cramping issues.

I'm thankful I switched to the half when I crossed the finish line. I was signed up for the 50K initially, but after not finishing a goal 100 miler race, I knew I was mentally out of the game of doing another ultra so soon.

Even if I only ran a half marathon, this race was a tough half marathon with about 2538 feet of elevation gain and loss. I really should be and am thankful to end this year with a great finish and a fun weekend of celebrating with friends from the trail running community.

"Smile, and celebrate each mile!"