Day 2 - The North Face Endurance Challenge Championship San Francisco,CA

Thursday, January 2, 2014

**In full disclosure, I want to note that The North Face Endurance Challenge comped my entry with zero expectation of a favorable review.**

*I am disappointed that it took me so long to write this review especially considering the phenomenal event The North Face put on.  However, the following is an in-depth photo tour at this amazing event*

The North Face Endurance Challenge Championship in San Francisco, CA is by the most beautiful course I have ever run.  The Marin Headlands are absolutely SPECTACULAR! Throughout the day, I thought to myself, "Wow!  This is breathtaking; it can't get more beautiful than this" and then around the corner would be a new view and I would say the same thing again, this process would repeat throughout the day.  Needless to say, the beauty of the Marin Headlands is unparalleled.

I woke up several times throughout the night and by 4AM (actually 7AM for me because I was on east coast time) I was wide awake and decided to get out of bed to begin my morning.  The 50 mile race began at 5AM and after making a pot of coffee, (Thanks to the generous folks of the Marin Headlands Hostel for leaving some grinds out for us along with a note that said "Good luck runners!") I headed out into the cold morning air to watch the elite field start.  The temperature was probably somewhere in the low 40's around 5AM and would rise to high-fortys-low-fifties by the end of the day.

As I wandered around the start village, I noted the large crowds of runners huddled around the propane heaters that were scattered throughout the area and then a particular group of runners caught my attention:

specifically Kilian Jornet (center) who was pacing (rather than racing) Emelie Forsberg (blue).  They were surrounded by a several support team members and other Team Salomon runners; I did my best to not geek out too much.

Eventually, the start announcer called all runners to the start arch and began explaining a few last minute details as well as introducing Dean Karnazes.  It was pretty funny, he didn't get much of a response from the elite field toeing the line when introduced. However, waves two, three, and four were far more receptive to his introduction and he received a louder applause with each subsequent wave.  I've read his book and have a lot of respect for him and I'm guessing he serves as a huge inspiration to the everyman folks in the later waves.

After a brief delay because of interference with the audio system, the elite field went off into the night at 5:02AM.

After the 50 mile folks headed off into the darkness, I wandered back to the hostel to eat breakfast and change into race clothes. As I eluded to in my Day 1 post, I forgot to consider packing a substantial breakfast for the race and had to rely on dates, a Clif bar, and a fig bar for the day.  I had plenty of time to decide on clothing for the race and after speaking to several other 50k runners decided on shorts, a short sleeve shirt, and arm warmers (wise decision!).  About 15 minutes before 7AM I headed out into the very cold but now light morning and walked around to survey the scene.

UltraSportsLive.TV provided live streaming of the event via cameras at the aid stations and a the start/finish line, which was pretty neat because Michelle was able to spot me as I walked around the starting area and snapped this screenshot of me taking a photo of the start arch (I'm just left of middle in the top photo in the white shirt and hat with black arm warmers).  The lower photo is the photo I was taking when Michelle grabbed the screenshot of me.  Pretty cool to have both perspectives!

Cheesin' before the race!

Before too long, Dean Karnazes came out and gave a "pep-talk" to 50k runners, which was far better received than what he delivered to the 50 mile runners.  Shortly after, the announcer called for the first wave to approach the start arch.  I was assigned to wave two (I believe based on my predicted finish time) but after viewing my result probably could have started at the back of wave one but ultimately it didn't matter.  With the sound of a horn we headed down the road toward the hills in the distance.  The pavement section was pretty short and we would eventually run the same section later to finish the race.  This is a good time to mention that although I had an "idea" of the total elevation of the course, I purposefully choose not to look at the course map or elevation profile.  In some ways, I like not knowing what is around the next corner, although I have certainly learned the significance of course familiarity this year.  I think this strategy worked well for me except for my finish later in the day in that if I knew how close I was I would've pushed the last three-quarters of a mile.

In the photo above, you can see the cones that indicate where we turned left off the road and onto the trail.  I'm pretty sure some of the North Face media folks spotted me here but weren't sure it was me because of the beard.  I gave my usual excited yell as we turned left at what would be the last aid station (mile 30?) of the day.  Below is just past the 1-mile mark and if you click on the photo you can see the string of runners weaving up the hill.  Note the road in the center of the photo on the round hill: that's where we were headed.

The below photo is the view looking down to where the above photo was taken.  You can see the gain in just a very short distance.  I thought it was really neat that almost all day you could look both ahead and back to see other runners either where you were going or where you had come from.

Eventually, the sun popped over the hills and made for some really gorgeous photos.  I would say that throughout the race I probably spent 10-15 minutes stopping to take photos and enjoying the atmosphere at aid stations and could have easily chopped a chunk off my time.  As a side note, I did take 400+ pictures during the race, although a lot of them were multiples (shooting burst) to get a good shot while running.


I'm always asked "what are you expectations for a race" and never really quite know how to answer it.  I suppose this is because I've never "raced" an ultra but instead go out with the intention of having fun and completing the distance.  However, as I grow more comfortable and confident in my ability to complete certain distances (i.e. 50k and 50 miles) the idea of racing is more realistic.  That being said, I had zero expectations for running a certain time or shooting for a certain "placing" at the North Face San Francisco Championships.  My goal was to capture the race experience and run in a beautiful new place without concern for placing or pace.  Looking at my paces for the first hour does not support this claim but perhaps I was caught up in the excitement of the beauty of the race.

After the first climb of the day, we had a nice long descent into the Tennessee Valley aid station that I opted to run right through.  Shortly after, we were met by a second climb where we would begin the descent down into Pirates Cove, a part I had been looking forward to from the UltraSportLive.TV course preview video.

As I mentioned earlier, we were met with SPECTACULAR views all day but they were hard earned!

I took the descent down into Pirates Cove WAY too hard and had to recover immediately after blasting down these stairs (right) where I passed several runners on the way down.  This was the first sign that I didn't eat enough the morning of the race and I took the time to eat some bloks that I had in my pack.  One major difference between running here in southwest Virginia and on the trails that comprise the North Face Endurance Challenge Championship course is the lack of technical elements on the course (i.e. rocks and roots).  The stairs to the right were probably the second-most technical part of the course only to the section of the race in Muir Woods.

The photo to the right is by far my favorite shot from the entire day! I love the composition of the photo with the rocks on the trail (which is misleading because this was one of the only sections of trail like this) and the colors of the sky and ocean.   The runner in the photo, I later found out is Liz from Napa.  We ran together for several sections throughout the day, eventually separating on the last sustained climb of the day.
At the top of the next climb, I came around the corner to see these awesome homes built right into the side of the mountain.  Wow!  They have an absolutely amazing view of Muir Beach.  At the bottom of the next descent was another aid station (mile 8ish), which was operated by a high school cross country team.  I hope as a coach in the future I have the opportunity to get my athletes out to an event like this to help them see that their limits are simply what they place on themselves.  I digress.  I was dong pretty well at this aid station so I grabbed a few bites and headed down the road but not before all the mailboxes in the photo below caught my attention.  I suppose all of those homes built into the side of the mountain have to come down to the road to pick up their mail.

After a brief section on the road (between a half and full mile) we hopped back on the trail and began the longest climb of the day, which climbed from ~50ft to ~1350ft in a little over 4 miles.  Not a steep climb by any means but rather a sustained climb.  The photo below illustrates the point that I made earlier, you can see the runners ahead of you winding their way up the mountain and then look back at how much you've climbed in a short distance. (Click to enlarge)


...and up!

One thing that I found fascinating was the change in foliage.  Early in the race, most of the mountains were covered in deciduous plants but about halfway through we began to see conifers as we neared Muir Woods.  I had discussed with some runners staying at the Marin Headlands Hostel the night before the race that if I had energy after the race, I wanted to travel up to the Muir Woods to see some redwoods and they let me know that we would actually run through part of it during the race.  Score!

Between the photos above and the photo below their was an aid station (I think Cardiac Aid Station???) where I grabbed some food and tried to shout out to Mike Wardian, rather unsuccessfully with a mouth full of pretzels, who had just come through.  After grabbing some more food and having my bladder filled, I began the descent into Muir Woods.  I was really taken aback by the beauty of the redwoods and their size.  Unfortunately, most of my photos from this section came out  blurry because of the low light so I only came away with a few okay photos.

I stopped and setup my camera using the timer to take a photo.  While I was waiting for the camera to take the photo another runner came through and asked if I wanted her to take it, which just goes to show how awesome and friendly everyone is running the event!

I ran with the guy ahead of me in the photo above (on the bridge) for quite some time, pretty much the entire Muir Woods section of the race.  The second half of the Muir Woods section was quite the slog as we climbed our way out.  There were endless stairs that reminded me a bit of Apple Orchard Falls on the Promise Lank 50k course.  The guys ahead of me noted the horn that we would hear periodically but never seemed to get closer.  Eventually, after we emerged from the Muir Woods we discovered the source was a spectator blowing a Vuvuzela at the top of the climb in the photo below.  We let him know that the sound carried a very long way and he said everyone before us said the same thing.  Just awesome!

I snagged the above drainage photo for no other reason to say, "well there's something you don't see on an ultra course all the time!"  I was happy to arrive at the below aid station and fill my pack as the temperature had begun to "heat up" throughout the morning (read: was reaching the high 40's maybe the low 50's).  I happened to be in the aid station at the same time Michelle Yates came through, who eventually went on to win the race, and the folks in the aid station let her know she was the first female 50 miler to come through.

I must have been tired at this point in the race because between the aid station to the left and the one below I didn't take any good photos.  The aid station below (mile ~22) was FAR more lively than the first time I came through and some of the aid station volunteers, who were high school cross country runners, were now wearing costumes, specifically banana costumes and a ninja (who is out of the shot)!

The Muir Beach aid station marked the beginning of the second to last sustained climb of the day, which went from ~20ft to ~900ft over the course of a mile and a half (miles 22.5-24).  I wasn't moving very fast at this point in the day but did get some inspiration from the marathoners who were now on the course coming toward us.  The guy below (left) was maybe the second one I saw and was moving! 

The view of Muir Beach as we began climbing:

If you enlarge the photo to the right, you'll see road trail that we follow over the peak in the distance and the small gap where the road trail goes over the hill.

The photo below is taken pretty close to the top looking back down to where this photo was taken. Also, you can see the houses on the hill above Muir Beach and can get an idea of how much climb there was for this small 1.5 mile section of the course.

About 3/4 of the way up the climb, I looked over my shoulder and did a quick double-check to confirm what I thought I saw.  The North Face Endurance Challenge serves as an end of the year "last hurrah" for the elite ultra community and attracts talent from all over the world.  I was correct in what I thought I saw the first time, which was Emelie Forsberg (Norway) being paced by Kilian Jornet coming up the trail behind me.  I think I stopped dead in my tracks and just watched them run up the hill, granted I wasn't moving very fast to begin with ;-)

At the top of the climb, the 50 milers went left and the 50k runners stayed straight onto what I thought was the most difficult section of the race, a the very steep descent back into the Tennessee Valley aid station.  I did hear a few complaints from 50k runners who went the wrong way here because there was only a tiny little sign without a volunteer to point runners in there right direction.  The reason I found this part difficult was the fact that it was just an exposed dirt road trail and at a very steep grade (most in the high teens to low 20%) with nothing to break it up or slow you down.  It. Was.  Brutal.  The type of descent that just destroys your quads from trying to slow down.  On the plus side, I did run a 7:30 mile for this section. (Enlarge the grade photo below to see the 26%)

At the Tennessee Valley aid station, I hit the second to last timing mat of the day, which I thought was pretty silly because we crossed this mat at 3.8 miles and again at 25.5 with nothing between?!?  Perhaps because of the remote nature of the other aid stations but it was a pretty large gap for folks following back home, just over 4 hours for me personally.  I filled up for the last time here and grabbed a couple cups of coke and headed up the trail to begin the LAST climb of the day.

Although we had seen the ocean numerous times throughout the morning, it wasn't until the late 20's that we were finally treated with a view of the bay:

Below: The Golden Gate Bridge popping over the hills of the Marin Headlands (Click to enlarge):

At this point in the day, I wasn't really feeling great and was ready to be done. Sure I was enjoying the amazing views but I was having a bit of a low point.  Right after I took the photo to the right, a runner went by me and told me to keep it up he said, "come on, stay with me.  Remember your form."  I decided to jog a little and realized I had more energy than I thought and began to pace back up to him.  Once he realized I was staying with him, he started giving me encouragement and telling me to "remember my form" and "nice work."  

I realized he was a 50 miler runner but didn't know who he was or if he was associated with anyone but a few minutes after I began to run with him we saw a guy on the side of the road who let him know, "he was in mid-20's in the 50 mile race."  For me, the next few miles are by far the coolest experience of any race I've run (well, maybe aside from proposing to Michelle during Rock 'n' Roll USA).  We began to feed off one another (obviously more to my benefit than his) and began to push the pace on the long descent into the finish, clocking 9:29, 8:18, and 6:41 miles for  28, 29, and 30 respectively.  Right before we made the turn onto the road I let him know I was done and to have a good rest of the race.  As that happened, I thought to myself, "Hey!  Thats Timothy Olson!" and snagged a few photos as the runner I had just been with said hello.  After the race, I found out I his name is Fernando De Samaniego Steta and he appears to be a very competitive runner based out of California, per his UltraSignup results. This is what is so neat about the North Face Endurance Championship, the opportunity to run with some of top talent in a friendly atmosphere.  As I mentioned earlier, I wish I knew when I told him to have a good rest of the race I was within 3/4 of a mile to the finish and I had just pushed myself to stay with him.

I snagged one final photo on the course as I made the turn off the road toward the finish arch.  I was happy to finish in what I thought was descent time considering how I spent the day before the race and approaching the race with a leisurely attitude.  At the finish, I introduced myself and snagged a photo with Mike Wardian who was hanging at the finish festival.  He later posted the photo to his Instagram feed, which I thought was pretty awesome!  Again, it was such an awesome experience to be around such inspiring runners in an atmosphere that is conducive to fostering the community of ultra running.  Well done North Face, well done!

Mike is by far the ultra runner I look to most for inspirationt.  Not only is he a serious serial-racer but he also has a family and a full time job!  He's 39, has a 2:17 marathon PR, and is super friendly and down to earth.  Check out the UltrarunnerPodcasts with him, maybe the only person to be interviewed by them three times?  

When I finished around 1pm, the temperature was comfortable but still cool.  Throughout the afternoon, the temperature continued to drop and as the wind picked up it became quite cold.  I was fortunate to grab a post race massage and then found the food tent.  I pulled up a chair around a (propane) fire pit and enjoyed the warm meal.  It was pretty awesome to look to my right and see a circle of some of the top ultra runners in the world, as well as Bryon Powell of

I did indulge in a post race adult beverage and the photo to the right is the view out from said "tent."

Believe it or not, there wasn't a line for the ice baths.

The Marin Headlands Hostel is the best kept (until now) secret about this race!  It was so nice to walk about 100 yards right to the hostel and be able to take a hot shower to warmup after being out in the cold for the better part of the day.  I took a couple photos to get a persecutive on the proximity of the hostel to the start/finish line.  The photo on the right is the view from the stairs of the hostel, which is basically where the front door is!

To say that I had a phenomenal experience and would recommend this race to anyone is an understatement.  The post race atmosphere alone was AWESOME and throw in the spectacular views and challenging course and it's no wonder why this race serves as the culminating race for most of the elite ultra runners.  Will I be back?  I'd love to go back at some point and perhaps I would change my pre-race schedule/nutrition but the experience as a whole is one that I wouldn't change one bit.

Now, it wouldn't be a race report without a food photo would it?  Post race and shower, I headed out to find an In-N-Out burger because...who knows the next time I'll be in California?  And if for no other reason, I need to continue my tradition of eating burgers post race!

Thanks for another amazing race North Face!


Coach Henness January 2, 2014 at 1:52 PM  

Whoa. I want to do this some day.

TobackpackVa January 3, 2014 at 4:36 AM  

Great that you had some fun during the race. The photos were very interesting. I hope when you start working with high school athletes you can share some of your enthusiasm.

Unknown August 7, 2015 at 10:56 AM  

excellent recap. I'm doing the race this year so really appreciate the inspiration.

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