The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Miler Race Report - Washington, D.C.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Short version:

  • The race started at 5AM in the dark and a runner was hit by a deer within the first half mile.
  • It was wicked hot and humid.  I'll never look at ice the same way.
  • I managed to finish in 10:56 averaging a pace of 13:08 over 50 miles.

Long version:

For a long time, I have considered writing a post about biting off more than I can chew and not recognizing my limits.  Then I realized the previous statement is a load of crap and the only limit is the one you set yourself, thanks Felix!  And yes, we're on a first name basis.  I have always had a great deal of confidence in my ability to push said arbitrary limits with the exception of running.  I suppose you could say that I err on the side of caution when it comes to knowing where my limit is and going right to the edge but not crossing it.  I believe completing The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 miler this past weekend was me taking that leap of faith (in myself) and crossing that line.

The leap from 50k to 50 miles is big, especially when compared to making the less significant step from  the marathon (26.2 miles) to 50k (31.1 miles), or said another way you're adding nearly four times the difference 4.9 vs. 19.9 miles.  That being said, I think that Promise Land 50k++ (34 miles) helped me prepare for the leap which in hindsight doesn't seem as significant...but hindsight is always 20/20.

The North Face Endurance Challenge was by FAR the most expensive race I have ever participated in but not because of an outrageous entry fee.  No, I can blame this on no one other than myself.  Similar to last year, when I initially registered for the North Face Endurance Challenge this spring, I again registered for the 50 miler ($116.50) but quickly let the stress of such a large undertaking, in combination with a challenging spring course load get to me and dropped down from the 50 miler to the 50k, incurring a charge of $11.50 to change registrations.  After completing Promise Land in late April (which is a challenging 50k with nearly 8000' of elevation gain), I felt more comfortable in my ability to endure 50 miles and decided to re-up my registration.  However, the cost was now growing unreasonable and I was hesitant to spend the additional $28 to change my registration but I eventually caved.  All told, I spent $156.25 on the a race ($116.50+$11.50+$28.25) which should have only cost $116 but I suppose that is better than registering and not being able to run it, or even worse not finishing it!

I was extremely pleased with my training leading up to the race.  Not because I felt that I had adequate mileage or was "well prepared" but instead because the journey was rewarding in that each week was uncharted waters.  The excitement of hitting new weekly high mileage and completing long runs faster and further than in previous training was motivating and helped me stay focused through the duration of training.  Also, I knew that 50 miles was no joke and while you may be able to suffer through a 50k on minimal or inadequate training, 50 miles demands a certain level of respect which I was not willing to challenge.

Weekly mileage buildup to the race where miles are on the left.

Now that I have somewhat set the stage for the race, maybe I should get to the whole race report thing.  Classes started on Tuesday after the memorial day weekend with the schedule for my course being Monday through Wednesday from 4-6:50.  This meant that I could head home on Thursday morning and relax for the better part of two days.  I left early Thursday and completed the four hour drive home before noon, grabbing a quick lunch at home before heading out the door again to meet my mom to head down to Georgetown for packet pickup.  As I mentioned in last years race report and I'll say it again just in case you're listening race organizers/directors, move the packet pickup to Tysons where there is also a North Face store, more abundant/cheaper parking and the store location is closer to the race start and therefore more likely to be closer to out of town participant's hotels.  Just do it!  I digress.

The Georgetown North Face Store.

Washington, D.C. was the second race in the series, the first being Bear Mountain, NY and the final which is also the championship is held in San Francisco.  There are also races in Wisconsin and Georgia!

Of course there was plenty of North Face stuff available for purchase if your luggage didn't make it for some reason.

The shirt that I hoped to receive at the end of a very long day on Saturday but the 50 mile version.

Now, I'll say that the shirts are pretty cool, especially because each race distance shirt is unique, and I really like that they silkscreen them on-site but there is no way the shirt will look as good on me as it does on this mannequin.  I feel like it's setting me up for failure!

Packet pickup was efficient and they had plenty of folks helping but just not enough space...but I bet the Tysons store has more space!

My mom was kind enough to drive down to Georgetown and this is actually the most economical of options, as the cost of a metro ticket and metro parking, of a single rider mind you, exceeds the cost of an hour parking at the Georgetown mall ($10, or $20 for any duration longer than 2 hours for future participants).  The packet pickup didn't differ at all really from last year and we were in-and-out in 10 minutes.  We made a successful stop at the running store a few doors down in my quest to find Rocktane for bottles in Great Falls Saturday and then browsed a few of my favorite home stores, West Elm and CB2, before heading home.

50 mile participants received a shirt (upon completion), a pair of Smart Wool socks, and a handheld.  Also of note was that each of the four races for Saturday (the 50k, marathon, and marathon relay were also held on the same day) had different color bibs which made identifying other runners pretty easy.

Thursday and Friday were very low key, I did my best to keep off of my feet and succeeded except for a trip Friday morning to get the oil changed in the Subaru and a quick trip to REI to pick up a couple Kool Ties in hopes of keeping cool on Saturday, more on that later.

I stopped by the start line around noon on Friday and the North Face folks were busy getting everything ready.  A stark contrast to last year when everything was tied down because of the crazy storms we had in the days leading up to the race.

Per usual, laying out all of my clothes the night before to ensure I didn't forget something essential.  Like to wear shorts.

My alarm went off at 3:15 Saturday morning and the usual initial thought of "why in the hell do I do this again" was quickly replaced with anticipation and excitement for my first 50 miler.  I ate my go-to breakfast of a toasted bagel topped with peanut butter, banana, and honey and enjoyed a cup of coffee before heading out the door around four.  One reason I will continue to come back to this race year-after-year is the fact that the start, Algonkian Park, is 4.1 miles door-to-door from my parents house which is pretty darn tough to beat for convenience.  The 50 mile participants have the privilege of parking at Algonkian while all other athletes must take a shuttle over from Loudoun Tech Center which makes sense with the early start time and is a nice little perk for those going the distance.  Upon arriving, the starting line festival was buzzing with excitement and as I've mentioned in the past the energy at a race start is tough to beat and a large reason why I love "racing."  I recently heard race day described on a podcast as a celebration of lifestyle which I think is terribly appropriate!  The announcer talked for the majority of the time leading up to the 5AM start, most of which I chose to ignore except for his advice of applying sunscreen which I realized I had forgotten to do and thus returned to my car to complete.

Starting the race in the dark.

The parking folks did a pretty good job getting everyone into the lot and parked quickly but I had to laugh at the guy asking me if I was a 50 mile participant "No, I'm just here three hours early for the 50k.  YES I'm a 50 miler!!!"

The starting village.

The arch I would (hope to) see in just a quick 50 mile jog.

A few minutes before five, the announcer called everyone in wave one to starting corral, which I was in, and introduced Dean Karnazes to a rather unimpressed crowd, at least compared the welcome he received last year at the 50k start line.  Dean gave us a few words of encouragement and noted the high temperatures expected for the day and the importance of drinking lots of fluids.  Less than a minute later the starting horn sounded and we were off and man-oh-man did things get exciting QUICK!  The start of the race makes a lap around a couple soccer fields that serve as the parking for the 50 milers and is surrounded by trees at the perimeter and high grass on the inside.  The section of the course we were running on had been mowed and was between the high grass and the trees.  Less than a half mile into the race or roughly 3/4 of the way around the soccer field, I noticed a noise off to my right that didn't sound like a runner, as it was moving too fast and cutting through the high grass, and I quickly made the connection that there was deer to our right and announced to the runners in my immediate vicinity "DEER on our right!" which what the hell are you supposed to do with other than "I hope it doesn't hit me."  I slowed down and watched several deer cross about 20 feet in front of me before beginning to trot again thinking the coast was clear.  However, I quickly realized it was not as I heard the same rustling through the grass and announced "DEER" just as I saw the deer jump out from the grass and take out a runner directly in front of me.  For a runner, I guess your biggest concern is your legs and unfortunately the deer hit him directly in his right knee causing them both to fall to the ground but in hindsight I think this was the best possible scenario as if the impact was higher there would have been concern for a head injury.  A few other runners helped him to his feet, all of us asking whether he was okay.  He was obviously very startled but assured us he was okay and that he wanted to continue.  It was much the like the long grass velociraptor scene from Jurassic Park 2...except with deer.

The rest of the morning was rather uneventful, thankfully, and involved a lot of high grass singletrack before opening up to forest/fire road and entering Great Falls Park.  The race required head lamps for the first couple hours but by 5:45 it was light enough that they weren't really necessary and I eventually decided to stow mine in my Nathan hydration vest around 6:30.  I started the race with 64 oz. of lemon lime Nuun in my vest and finished the majority of it by the second aid station, mile ~8, and filled up with the Clif Shot mix they had as I knew putting away fluids was essential to finishing the day.

The loop around the lake (think lollipop) on the way out to Great Falls, we would do the same loop MUCH later in the afternoon on the way back.

Singletrack on the way out to Great Fall.

I was soaked through pretty early in the way my hydration vest which had my camera, which thankfully is waterproof but because my shirt was drenched it was tough to dry off the lens and hence crappy photos :-(. 

For a majority of the 14 miles out to Great Falls you run along the Potomac which makes for incredible scenery!

I arrived at Great Falls aid station just after 7:30 (2:30 hours into race) to find my parents who were prepared to help me make the transition from hydration vest to handhelds.  I prepared five bottles the night before with Rocktane, which I had not tried before but was willing to take the risk of trying something new on race day because of the expected high temperatures.  My parents had brought of all the bottles on ice in a cooler which proved to be crucial to my success later in the day.  By 7:30, the temperature was well into the mid 70's and I was soaked from head to toe.  Thoroughly prepared, I had several changes of shirts, shorts, and socks as well as another pair of shoes with my parents and let them know my plans to change.  I decided to change out of the compression socks and trail shoes and into road running shoes which I think saved my feet because the Cascadias were pretty wet and could sit out in the sun to dry while I completed the three laps in Great Falls.  I had forgotten how long the lap inside of Great Falls was (6 miles and change) and thought halfway through the first lap, "I have to do this two more times?"  I reached the aid station within the loop after about 30 minutes and announced my concern that nothing looked appetizing which was a bad sign for my stomach.  Thankfully they had ice which I added to my handhelds and trotted on down the course.   The cold ice in my bottles really helped me continue to drink and revitalized me on the second half of the lap before reaching the Great Falls aid station for the second time to find my grandparents!

After making the first lap in great falls!  My awesome grandparents and mom! 

I recall reading somewhere that one way of lowering your body temperature quickly is to run your hands under cold water for a few minutes.  I noted how MUCH BETTER I felt when the aid station worker had put ice in my handhelds and asked my parents to cram as much ice in the next set of bottles as possible.  I attribute this simple step to my success and being able to finish the day.  My dad was in charge of hydrating and changing the Kool Tie's I wore around my neck, another piece of new equipment I dared to try on race day whose effectiveness I'm not entirely sold on, as I came around each lap he would take the one I was wearing and put it in ice water and hand me the other.  Each lap I would grab a banana as I left and a few potatoes with salt but the heat kept me from eating as much as I should have.  However, the Rocktane is designed to be a calorie substitute with simple and complex carbohydrates and 240 calories per bottle so I don't think not eating hindered me too much.  I was able to maintain my goal pace, 12 minute miles, during all three laps in the park putting me well on my way to my goal finish time of 10 hours. As I prepared to begin the 15 mile trip back to Algonkian I put my compression socks and trail shoes back on as well as a dry shirt and found myself really really hot despite all of the ice my parents packed into my hydration vest.  Dunking my head in the cooler seemed like a good the time.

I have to give a HUGE shout-out to my parents.  I'm not sure I would have finished the day without them there.  They did everything I asked and I wasn't always the most pleasant, thanks again!

Dunking my head in the cooler after completing the last lap in Great Falls before making the trip back to Algonkian.  It felt great until I went to stand up and realized all of the blood went to my head.  That did not feel so great.  It took me a while to get started after this.  All told I probably spent 30 minutes at the aid station between the four times I was there.

These folks had the right idea.  I'm pretty sure they were runners but decided to take the photo after I had run by them so I can't say for certain.  Unfortunately, my photo taking SIGNIFICANTLY decreased after this and the next fact I took zero photos after the next one.

I didn't notice this tree on my way out but did notice coming home.  It was just absolutely massive!  The last photo I took before the finish.

I kept the sub 12 minute pace until mile 38 when the heat really started to get to me and my stomach let me know it wasn't okay.  Several runners stopped to ask if I was okay as I vomited a SIGNIFICANT amount of fluid including the cup of chicken broth I took as I left Great Falls.  I assured them I was between violent-audible vomits.  To say that I felt SO. MUCH. BETTER. after watering the immediate greenery would be a HUGE understatement.  I simply had too much liquid in my stomach and my body was not absorbing any of it.  Consequently, I think my temperature increased because of the fluid just sitting there and once it was gone I was able to put in cold fluid from my hydration vest and actually get my temperature under control.  The next few miles were like a warzone with people sitting on the side of the trail and others laying in the middle of the trail cramping with other runners helping them stretch out.  By this point there were 50k, marathon, and marathon relay folks on the course in addition to the 50 milers but there start times were much later 7, 9, and 11 respectively, which meant they were out in the heat the entire time.  I gave some Tums to a guy who had cramped and was being stretched out by two other folks on the trail and my handheld, with some fluid in it that I had no intention of drinking because it was warm, to a lady who had been separated from the folks she was running with and hence had no fluids with her.  The camaraderie of runners really showed through as the day wore on doing anything and everything to help each other to the finish.  If the amount of people stopped on the trail was any sign of the rest of the runners, the second to last aid stations was a slap in the face of how damn hot, and more importantly humid, it was out.  There were people laying on tarps with their arms over their faces and two other people laying in the bed of the volunteer/medical truck.  They were out of ice and nearly out of Clif Shot mix but had enough to hold me over until the last aid station just another 3 or so miles up the trail.  I grabbed two cups of Pepsi and headed down the trail to GET. IT. DONE...except it involved a lot of walking.

Unfortunately, most of the last 10 miles were more walking than jogging.  The last four miles are brutal because you have to do an out and back around a lake (think lollipop) which meant you were heading away from where you knew you needed to be and it was pretty empty for most of the way.  The good thing is that you pass the last aid station as you head out to start the lollipop and when you come back, although I only stopped as I headed out, they had ice which was AMAZING.  You'd think I had never seen ice.  I thought the 11 hour mark was out of reach upon starting out for the lollipop but realized upon returning when one of the aid station workers told me that the finish was 1.9 miles that it was possible if I picked up the pace.  I started by making really small goals, first by jogging a couple hundred feet between tape markings.  I then began looking off in the distance for anything to mark a good place to stop jogging - orange cones, spectators, and fences were all used.  As I made the final turn onto the paved path that cut across the golf course I knew I was going to make it in under 11 hours and continued the walk/jog to ensure my legs didn't lock up a few hundred meters from the finish arch.  I made one last goal ahead, a turn in the pavement, and told myself I would jog all the way to the finish.  I was on pure adrenaline by this point and managed to pick up the pace to sub 10s which I hadn't seen since early on in the race.  The announcer said my name as I went across the finish and I caught of glimpse of my parents as I collected my medal and tried to compose myself.  I've said in past race reports, particularly after marathons, that the first five minutes after crossing the finish line are the worst because your legs are usually just in agony but my legs didn't really bother me very much.  However, my stomach was a different story and let me know that it was terribly angry with me.  I collected my shirt and took a couple finish photos before heading over to the ice bath to rest my legs in.

Shortly after crossing the finish line.  My face showing how I really felt.

Love the race shirt!

The signature two thumb solute.

Last year I could not even keep my legs in the bucket it was so painful, granted I think the water was not as cold this year, but I handled it much better.

We hung around the finish for awhile watching other runners come in.  Eventually, I decided the heat was too much and my dad went to get the car which conveniently was just a short walk away instead of a bus ride back to Loudoun Tech Center.

Later on in the evening, once my stomach had settled down, I uploaded my run to look at the race details and noticed that I had supposedly burned more than 8000 calories during the I had no hesitation doing work on this pizza!

My go-to pizza. Margherita. 

I use Strava to log mileage and track all of my runs and they had started a new competition on Saturday called the Junedoggle.  I enjoyed my brief moment of being at the top of just over 9000 participants with my 50 mile run for the day!

Third in the Junedoggle competition for a brief period!

I took 108/282 for the 50 mile and finished with an offical time of 10:56:34!

Run Details

Despite the brutal temperature and humidity it was another phenomenal experience with the North Face series.  The course was marked VERY well, aid stations were well stocked, and the volunteers were INCREDIBLE!  The three indicators of a well put on race.  Nice job North Face!  I'll be back next year...but lets do it in...say March?


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