The North Face Endurance Challenge 50K Race Report

Thursday, June 7, 2012

The North Face Ultra Endurance Challenge this past weekend was my first ultramarathon, and although it's not a true bragging rights ultra (Those start at 50 miles), I was pumped with my finish and how I felt during the run. 

The short version: I had an absolute blast.  Beautiful course! Fantastic Support from the volunteers!

Long version:

I decided to register for my first ultra this spring after stumbling onto Sabrina Moran's blog (she recently broke the 24-hour American record and to sum it up she's amazing), she made ultra running sound fun and that's all it took. Now, when I first registered for The North Face Endurance Challenge (henceforth TNFEC) I signed up for the 50-mile distance.  After this weekend it wouldn't have been that bad...but after cramping at the Yuengling Shamrock Marathon in March I decided to transfer my registration from the 50-mile to the 50k (31 miles).

My training leading up to the race was good but not great. I was adapting a training plan for the 50 miler and trying to include sandwich runs (long back-to-back runs on Saturday and Sunday) but never really put together a decent weekend. I seemed to make excuses or simply chose to listen to how my body was feeling, I think running the Shamrock marathon in mid-March helped but I'm not sure how fitness carries over two months. Totals for March, April, and May were 93, 132, and 123 miles in 13, 18, and 17 hours and 11, 16, and 17 runs respectfully. I've found that I have commitment issues when it comes to the long runs.  Hopefully for the Marine Core Marathon this fall I'll have a training buddy to hold me accountable. 

I took off half of Thursday and all of Friday before the race to travel. I decided making the whole trip from Charlotte to Blacksburg on Thursday afternoon was our best option, as it allowed me to sleep in on Friday and not stress about making packet pickup/travel issues. THIS. WAS. HUGE. In the future I'll follow the same pattern, and spending extra time with the family was an added bonus. Around noon on Friday Michelle and I made the trip down to Georgetown for packet pick-up. My only complaint about the race, was the location of this packet pickup. Why did they choose Georgetown? There's a North Face store in Tyson's Mall which is closer to the race site and did not require pay parking.  Race organizers (if you're listening) in the future you should really move it away from this store as the only thing I picked up was my bib and included arm-warmers (t-shirts were screen printed and were not ready).

 The North Face Store - Georgetown

Only one away from 9-1-1. Thankfully no one had to call it.

Michelle and I made an afternoon out of the packet pickup and packed a lunch to eat while down in Georgetown. Afterwards we hit the shops.  The skies opened up on our way home which made the normal standstill traffic on 66W even more interesting. As a side note Sterling, VA did have multiple tornado clouds which we avoided by staying in Georgetown slightly longer. These storms that pounded the area Friday afternoon and during the night made for terrible horendous conditions on Saturday.

Photo credit:

On the way home from Georgetown Michelle and I stopped by the race start in Algonkian park. This is really the closest I could ask for a race to start from my house (4.1 miles door-to...erm...door-to-park). It was pretty boring as most of the stuff was collapsed/prepared for the evening storms, but it gave me an opportunity to think about the monumental feat I was about to undertake in just over 12 hours.

The race start all setup Friday afternoon post the first set of storms rolled through.

My mom cooked the family an amazing meal including: penne pasta w/ turkey meatballs and red sauce for me, salad, chicken, and a spinach and cheese tortellini for everyone else...I couldn't help but indulge a little. Afterward I laid out all of my gear for Saturday morning. Below is the photo of what I planned to have with me/what I need to remember to put on (i.e. body glide, band-aids, 3 packs of Clif Shot Bloks, and 18 Hammer Endurolyte pills in two separate plastic baggies). Michelle had a whole separate bag including a change of shoes, two extra dry fit shirts, band-aids, body glide, and extra Clif Shot Bloks if I needed them.

Funny site note - My trail shoes, Brooks Cascadia 7's, only had 10 miles on them before race day. Their mileage tripled.

Due to permit regulations for the race only the 50 milers could park at Algonkian Park, deservingly so, everyone else had to take a shuttle from the Loudoun Tech Center. The tech center is even closer to my house than Algonkian Park, and we arrived just after 5:15 Saturday morning. After waiting around for 30 minutes or so, with about 80 runners arriving in that time period, someone came and told us we were at the wrong spot and that the shuttles were just up the street. Oops! Fortunately I was familiar with the area and with Michelle and my mom in the car I decided to have them just drive me to Algonkian where they could drop me off. We wound up parking at the golf course and walking over to the start which worked out great since they would be leaving just after the 7AM start and wouldn't have to worry about taking a shuttle back to the Tech Center to then drive to Great Falls. So we broke the rules a little...I like to think of it as a home field advantage.

We arrived way to early, just before 6AM which left us standing around for about an hour,  enough time to make the necessary pit stops at the port-o-potties. At this point I just wanted the race to start, however, I was much more relaxed than other races as I knew it wasn't about going fast...instead just not stopping. 

Gorgeous sunrise just as we we arrived at Alognkian ~6AM. The 50 milers were required to have headlamps as they started the dark.

Checking out the race start.

All smiles at this point. Eager like a little schoolboy.

The scene at the race start.

About 10 minutes before we were to go off, Dean Karnazes came out to get us excited for the run.  He's a big name in the ultra running community and while I resisted the photo-op I couldn't help but be amazed at his muscle definition...guess that's the result of running across the country and completing 50 marathon in 50 days in 50 states. Baller.

Dean Karnazes. Nuff said. maybe I have a tiny man-crush.

At 7, we were off and I knew I wouldn't see Michelle and my mom for another 12 miles, well aside from about a quarter mile down the road after we made a loop around a soccer field and turned onto a paved path, then it was just me and the sloppiest-muddiest trail I've ever seen.

Ready. Steady.


Perfect morning for a little jog.

Take note of the spot light in the background from the 50 miler start.

See you in 12 miles babe!

The paved path lasted about a half mile before we turned onto a fire road and quickly hit an aid station, this was actually for the marathon relay later in the afternoon and would serve as the last stop for the 50 mile, 50K, and marathon races about 1.7 miles from the finish. Shortly after the first aid stop we hit the first creek crossing where keeping your shoes dry was impossible...and into the creek I went. Around the two mile mark (I was early) we found the Potomac Hermitage Trail (which I didn't even know existed) and followed the Potomac river through gorgeous scenery for the next 7 or so miles.  The heavy rain during the week leading up to the race and the night before made for a sloppy trail, add to that 250 50 milers having already gone through and what was left was an absolute disaster. Part of me felt really bad, as June 2nd was National trails day and here we were destroying an awesome trail with 1000+ runners covering the trail TWICE as the course was an out-and-back. The mud didn't really bother me, although it did slow down which I think was a blessing as you couldn't really push off as your foot would just slide out from underneath you, consequently it forced me to go out slow. The miles passed quickly as I talked with a guy I ran most of the first 10 miles with who was from Idaho (a Boston finisher from this years brutal heat), he later went on to take 8th.

I began eating as soon as the race started, finishing my first pack of shot blocks before the first "real" aid stop at 6 miles. I was also taking an Endurolyte (electrolyte) pill every 20 minutes, at this point I was three deep plus a bottle of Gatorade. The volunteers filled my bottle with Nuun, an electrolyte erin mix, I grabbed a few pretzels and headed down the trail. The way out to Great falls was pretty quick and I followed the unwritten rule of ultras by walking the two substantial climbs between Algonkian and Great Falls.

Race face on!

When I arrived in Great Falls the aid stop was happening! As the second aid stop on the course and the bag drop for the 50 milers (who were making THREE loops) there were a ton of spectators and crew.  Everyone was cheering on runners as the they entered the park and this was the first place I ran into some 50 milers and saw Michelle and my mom.

I grabbed a banana and a bag of quartered boiled red skin potatoes and enjoyed the atmosphere of the aid stop. I hung out with my mom and Michelle for a few minutes and assured them I was doing well and having fun (I was!) and then went on my way for my first and only (Thankfully!) loop of Great Falls.

Entering the Great Falls rest area!

No. I'm not picking my crack...well..sorta. They asked us to hold onto trash and "reduce our environmental footprint" I stashed my Clif Shot Blok wrappers into the pocket inside the back of my running shorts and emptied here.

Refueling with a banana and quartered boiled red skin potatos.

The 7 mile loop inside the park was pretty quick. It was comprised of paved gravel roads like the photos above, single track, and a few EPIC sections along 50'-80' cliffs no more then 12" from the trail. The photo below, courtesy of The North Face Endurance Challenge Facebook Page, tells all!

This section was just before the 19 mile mark and was simply breath taking, also scary enough that most runners took extra caution and walked most of it (it was almost all boulders).

Boulders. Lots. Of. Boulders.

When I arrived at aid station 4 (also #2) in Great Falls park I said hello again to Michelle and my mom, ate another bag of red potatoes (medium-high glycemic index) and changed socks and shirt. GREAT. DECISION. New socks and shirt was just what I needed and gave me a second wind, not that I was hurting at this point, but not much would beat a fresh pair of socks at that point...maybe Shake Shack...I'll get to that later. Feeling fresh, off I went to tackle another 12 (turned out to be 13) miles!

Having an absolute riot out there!

LONGEST. EIGHT. MILES. EVER! 8 miles was the distance from the aid station 4 to 5, because they moved the 6 mile aid stop from earlier in the day. My handheld was dry at mile 24 which meant I ran three miles without any electrolyte drink or pills, I thought I was done for.  Once I finally arrived I made myself at home and tried to play catch up, finishing a whole bottle of Nuun electrolyte drink, a few cups of Mountain Dew and Pepsi, and some salty potato chips. Yum! They let us know the next and last aid station was 3.3 miles, I was ready to be done, having now run 27 miles the longest I had ever run, the last three of which were without anything to took a lot of willpower to leave that stop. A volunteer kindly filled up my handheld with more Nuun, more trotting ensued. Shortly after aid stop 5 I had my one and only bad cramping spell of the race on a kicker of a switchback.  After some profanity and encouraging words from another runner just ahead of me who had also cramped I limped into a run for about 50 yards before hitting another even steeper uphill. The last five miles felt very long and slow, but when looking at Garmin data they weren't that bad, minus mile 29 which included the aid stop (a 14:55 mile, HA!).

At the last stop I only grabbed Pepsi, and knew I could trot the last 1.7 miles to the finish where my mom, Michelle, and my best friend Jeff would be waiting. As I neared the finish in the last half mile I passed a runner and gave him words of encouragement, he would eventually pass me and finish 4 seconds ahead of me. I decided it was a 32 mile run, and in a race like this, you run your race out on the trail not in the finishing shoot. He led into the shoot and I gave him his camera time. A great surprise was the last 200 meters, where my dad was waiting with everyone else (he's gotta be getting tired of watching me running as he's been at most races since high school, but he was there cheering me on. Thanks Dad!).

Last 200m when I spotted my family!

32 miles later...or so my Garmin says. New shirt.

Stoked to have finished my first ultra! 

Then the pain began to set in.

After crossing the finish line I took my medal and bottle of water (Really? No chocolate milk? Really?) and hobbled over to find my family. It was great to have them there at the finish cheering me on. I was just glad I was in a better mood then when I finished the Shamrock Marathon (angry/miserable face photo).

Finish area.

Crossing the line in the distance.

A few finisher photos were required. The next thing on my list was heading over to the recovery tent, unfortunately there was only one massage station (1000+ runners. REALLY?) but there were large cool water bucks to clean off in and ice buckets. Ice bathes are supposed to shock your legs and reduce the swelling/inflamation of your muscles after long workouts. Meb Keflezighi talks about them helping him recover after hard training and races in his book I just finished, Run to Overcome.  He's much more of a man than me, as I could only stand it for a few seconds (plus he's a two time about to be three time olympian with a silver medal, more of a man...I'd say so!).  I found some food and rounded up the group to head toward the shuttle, as spectators were still not able to park in Algonkian, we took the short 10 minute ride back to Loudoun Tech Center on a school bus.

I'm an ultramarathoner!

Just a little dirty...and this is after 3 more stream crossing on the way back.

Hip cramped raising my leg high enough to get in the "Arctic Glacier."

Cleaning up.

Thinking to myself..."This is a TERRIBLE idea!"

Michelle managed to snag a photo of the brief 30 seconds...or less I was in there.

Food. Pretty decent actually and they had a quinoa mix with fresh veggies that was Awesome!

As we were waiting for the shuttle, Michelle realized my shirt which had been custom printed was a small, when the tag on it said I requested a medium. After a little fuss from the folks at the table (Really guys? I just ran 32 miles, I didn't earn it?) Michelle came back with the right size. Saving the day again. That's my girl.

Screen printing the finishers shirts on site.  Sweet!

The rotating squares that are elevated are for the different distances...they are doing this for all race locations!

Fresh off the press.

Shake Shack had been agreed upon for weeks prior to race day. I was dreaming of the amazing burgers the entire race, which helped carry me through a few of the rough patches. After I was all cleaned up Michelle, Jeff, and I headed out to Dupont Circle in DC via the metro to grab some post-race-amazingness. I pigged out. A double Shackburger, and their burger of the day with spicy relish and applewood bacon...uhh..YES! And of course a chocolate shake.


I could not have asked for a better first ultra. The weather cooperated...for the most part (shaking angry fist at you sky for ruining the trails and sapping all my energy in sloppy conditions) with low humidity and low heat. Perfect. Michelle and my mom were awesome to have out at Great Falls and really kept me going seeing them twice during the race. Seeing Jeff and my dad at the finish was just icing on the cake, really great to have a supportive family and awesome friends! Truly blessed.

Strava data including all mile splits. Time only reflects moving time.

Mile splits.

The elevation data from the run, not a ton...only 1,574ft. elevation gain.

Cadence (Steps per minute), HR, and elevation. The drops in pink are where I walked or stop at aid stations.

I want to do it again next year and the post race survey indicated it could be in March, which would make for even better race long as they put an aid stop between miles 19 and 27! The championship/final location of the 6 race series is in San Fransisco on December 1st. I've got enough miles to fly for free if I were to book soon...and enough hotel points to stay for free...tempting...50 miler...maybe...guess you'll just have to wait and see!


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