North Face Endurance Challenge 50-mile 2008 Race Report

16 12 2008

By Jorge Rufat-Latre

Epic is the word that best summarizes this race for me.

The North Face Endurance Challenge – San Francisco includes a 50-miler that takes you through the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. It alternates ocean, forest, and mountain landscapes through 8 major climbs and descents that add up, according to my GPS, to 15,500 feet of elevation gain and loss. The longest, the 5th, about 1800 vertical feet and 17%, comes at mile 21. The steepest climb, the 7th, about 900 vertical feet and 25%, comes at mile 39. The lesser climbs and descents are comparable to Shanahan Ridge.

Here’s my race plan (D’s refer to drop bags):

2008-nfec-jrl-race-plan1

I did not feel ready – I had only run an average of 27 miles per week, I had a cold, I was recovering from a metatarsal injury, I had not seen the rather complex course, and paper descriptions were sketchy. During the race, I got lost (adding 1.3 miles to the 50), I injured my ankle at mile 4, my shoe lace broke at mile 10, I twisted my other ankle at mile 27, and I knocked myself off to the ground by hitting my head on a branch at mile 28 (to be clear, not on purpose).

And yet, it was the most wonderful and fun race I have ever experienced.

Training was already epic for me. Having never run a marathon distance – The Desert Rats ’08 25-miler was my longest race – I suddenly found myself running marathon after marathon week after week. I realized that the most important part of an ultra is not the running, but rather the ability to keep digestive system, kidneys, and the endocrine system in line with the demands of the race. The second most important part is energy management – teaching the body to burn fat, and fine tuning the heart rates that will keep the running going for 10 hours or more.

My support team made an already incredible experience into a once-in-a-lifetime one. They prepared the race by surveying the aid stations the day before – and it took most of the day as each station stood at the end of windy and narrow mountain roads. They equipped themselves into the finest cheerleading racing team. They were with me way before the crack of dawn; they were with me at aid stations and, later in the race, on the course itself. The positive energy of Wendy, Alison, Kevin, and Jan turned an adventure into a life celebration.

Up bright and early at 2:30am (isn’t this epic already?) we all got ready and drove to the shuttle parking, where large school buses took us to the start line. Everything went smoothly as we made the last preparations. The port-a-potties were perched on the edge of a steep incline. It was my first taste of difficult balancing acts to come…

Part of my strategy was to load up on calories before the start of the race, which tempted me into eating a race-supplied bagel right before the start. It had some preservative that made sure I tasted that bagel throughout the first quarter of the race. I had broken the rule of not doing anything different from training on race day but thankfully the price was manageable.

At 5am 172 runners took off for the mountains in the dark. Very soon you could see a long procession of tiny flickering lights up the slopes. The course was marked with white ribbons doubled with Chemlites. Only a couple of miles into the race I noticed pain in my left ankle. It was unexpected, and it was to accompany me and to get worse all through the race. I completed the race even though descents became more and more punishingly painful. I thought of Della and kept going.

Early on, and in spite of the clear course markings, a large group of runners had got lost. I took some perverse pleasure in that – bad karma I balanced out shortly thereafter when I got lost too!

We made it to the top of the first hill and we enjoyed an incredible view in the twilight – the San Francisco Bay engulfed in clouds, only the big tower in South San Francisco and the tippy-tops of the Golden Gate bridge were visible.

Peak 2 was also easy in spite of its 17% grade – it was only 800 feet up. On the way down, I saw several people get injured on the narrow, steep trail. Everyone else had one headlamp only to light their way; I also had an Innova 4.6W in my right hand (per BTR recommendations) which made my night running extremely easy. I spent some time with Theresa Uhrig, who injured herself during this descent. She routinely trained in the LA mountains with 70-mile runs – awesome. She endured until mile 13.

As I descended rapidly towards aid station Tennessee Valley, at mile 9, I heard my support team cheering for the first time after the start – what a sweet experience! The support team took care of replenishing water, Perpetuem and Endurolytes, and off I was to the next climb.

At mile 10 I felt my right shoe come lose – the unbreakable Kevlar Solomon shoelaces had broken! I now had to consider running through very technical descents with a loose shoe. I kept going.

Peak 3 was easy too, except for the fact that I made a wrong turn and climbed more than necessary. I was regaled for a while by Chuck Wilson’s stories. Chuck has run along these trails for 20 years, and has even been “attacked” by a large buck along the climb before. Chuck was keen on enjoying the views and talking to other runners and he finished the race next to last. The descent from Peak 3 took me to Muir Beach, a gorgeous sight.

At the mile 13 aid station, Muir Beach, the team replenished my consumables and I tied my broken shoelace. The shoelace would come apart twice more, and then hold after mile 26. The team’s enthusiasm turned the demanding race into the funnest experience.

Shortly after Muir Beach, I got to run through the most magical forest I have ever seen – dark, criss-crossed with fallen giant redwoods, and in complete isolation. I can’t find words to describe how out-of-this-world that forest felt. And I’m sure my endorphins at the time also help explain how deep and meaningful the experience felt!

Peak 4 did not look like much – it was described as 7% climb. But it was 1500 feet high and considerably more than 7% in many spots. It was sobering but ok. At this point I became very confident – the ghosts of impassable mountains had dissolved through experience. Colorado’s topography had served me well.

At the top of the climb, my excellent team regaled with a regal reception at Pan Toll aid station, mile 18.

The descent was a sensational sightseeing trip – the Pacific Ocean was breaking into big waves on Stinson Beach, the next aid station, at mile 21. It was so beautiful I couldn’t help but holler in enthusiasm all the way down. Fortunately, there were no other runners in sight.

The fifth climb was very long, but far from a heart breaker. More like the steeper climbs into Mesa multiplied by two and with lots of hairpin turns. It did take a lot of freshness off my legs, though. I saw many people lose their spirit along the long climb too.

And then I got to feel psychological pressure too. Miles 23 through 29 were a lollipop stick – everyone turned around at mile 26. It was a narrow, mostly climbing single track over steep terrain, and I jumped repeatedly to the side to let people ahead of me returning from mile 26 pass by. It was hard on the mind to see all these people ahead of me on the descending direction.

I savored the midway point, mile 25, and the turning point aid station, McKeenan Gulch, at mile 26, perched high up the coastal hills and with gorgeous views of the Pacific Ocean. It seemed as if we were at the end of the world.

After mile 26 the track was mostly downhill. It was a happy-puppy part of the race – until I hit a tree branch with my forehead and found myself staring at the sky. No blood, no bones sticking out, so I just picked myself up and kept running. From that point on, I was passing more and more people – race strategy was working beautifully. I felt great!

At mile 30, back to Pan Toll aid station, my support team greeted me again delightfully. My pacer Kevin, a Boston marathoner, joined me. We started on a very technical, steep, and long descent from peak 6. It was so steep we even had to go down a ladder! I was once again deep into the redwoods, surrounded by the majestic giants. At mile 32 I was able to celebrate running further than I had ever run before. My knees and my left ankle were shocked and dismayed at my insistence to keep running. C’est la vie.

Race documentation did not describe the climb to peak 7, so I didn’t know what to expect. I was hoping for mercy from the organizers. I couldn’t have been more wrong – that’s where they were to prove truly sadistic. After the descent from peak 6 ended, we ran over fairly flat terrain – fast and happy miles me and Kevin thoroughly enjoyed. We went by the Old Inn aid station, at mile 36, in good spirits.

But the next aid station, Shoreline Highway, at mile 41, was fast approaching, and that station was supposed to be 1000 feet above us. How much horizontal distance would we have left to make up for that difference? As it turns out, very little! Remember the last 2 miles to Imogen Pass? Or the climb at mile 18 at DRats? Here was a similar climb, going on for 1000 feet. Parts of it were just one deep rut with no horizontal room for my feet to land. Colorado altitude and hill training coalesced to make short of that challenge – I was really pumped up and overtook quite a few people up that crazy climb. My pacer, however, could not follow and I chose to go it alone.

I savored reaching the aid station at mile 41 – peak 7 was clearly a make-or-break proposition and I had summitted with flying colors. And the organizers held a nice surprise: the distance between this station and the next – Tennessee Valley again – was not 3 miles; it was only 2.5 miles. Believe you me, at that point this felt like winning the lottery. Great vistas for most of that distance; the clouds had cleared across the whole bay. The ocean was sparkling blue. We were on a broad, high unpaved road.

I was worried about Kevin and stopped to wait for him, but was advised – very sensibly – by my support team to go on. Soon, a very steep descent that tortured my ankle and knees more than I care to explain took me down peak 7 into the aid station Tennessee Valley at mile 44.

At mile 44 Wendy, Alison, and Jan were there with their best reception yet. With only 6 miles to go I ignored any further nutrition concerns. Wendy and I started on the eighth and last peak. I had been looking forward to run the last leg with Wendy, so much so that mile 44 almost felt like the end of the race. I had been counting down miles-to-Wendy to get there!

So the mild Shanahan Ridge-like climb between miles 44 and 47 was a tough slog for me. I was having trouble getting my heart rate up to race pace and my legs were nothing but pain. Wendy kept me motivated with a well-chosen mix of ego boosters, zingers, and distractions. But shortly before mile 47 the terrain started alternating between short climbs and flat spots, I saw a competitor ahead with a large target on his back – so to speak – and I got a second wind.

I never looked back from that point on – it was a race to the finish, clocking 7:10 pace at times and passing many slower runners. I had trouble controlling the overflowing emotions of the moment as I realized I had made it, to the point where I couldn’t breathe during the last hundred yards.

Wendy and I gloriously crossed the finish line hand in hand and we scared the locals with a triumphant celebratory embrace thereafter. I had finished my first 50 miler, a crazy eight-peak course, in 10 hours and 52 minutes. It was one of the most fun and elating things I had ever done.

137 runners completed the course – 35 started but did not finish. The last finisher crossed the finish line after 13 hours and 59 minutes; the winner, well-known Matt Carpenter, polished off this monster in a mere 6 hours and 49 minutes!

Lessons learned and relearned:

– Something unexpected will happen; thinking of all scenarios and preparing for them will make for a simpler race. Salomons are great, but their unique lacing approach makes repairs more difficult. And apparently, 300 miles is enough to break one of those babies. Next time, I will run with newer shoes identical to the “old” ones. And I might pass on the Salomon lacing system. Extra shoes might be a good addition too.

– Training without pain killers was a great thing to do. There was a lot of pain during the race, but I completely disregarded it. Given how my ankle hurts now, and how I can barely hobble, I can’t believe I pounded on it for 45 miles of rugged terrain. Descents, the places where you must recapture time lost climbing, were particularly challenging.

– Discipline pays off. After mile 20 I did nothing but pass other runners. I had stuck to my cruise heart rate (155) through thick and thin early on and I had energy and glycogen all through the race – unlike many of the people I passed, whose faces looked like graphic descriptions of defeat. At least for me, the psychological satisfaction of passing others vastly compensated for the pain and fatigue that kept knocking at my brain’s door.

– The third part of the race is truly about HEART. Incessant forward motion is good advice, but it is a desperate mantra. Instead, taking in all the glorious elements of the situation (landscape, crazy course, music) and transforming them into happy running generates incessant energy. Purists might not like the idea of running with music, but in my humble opinion it is as important as the soundtrack is in a movie. So much so that I carried a backup player and lots of extra batteries.

– My Garmin was a great friend. Its ability to display 12 variables across 3 screens enabled me to know how I was doing throughout the race at the tactical and at the strategic levels. One screen was dedicated to whole-race data (time, distance, pace, heart rate), another to lap data, and the last one to current, instantaneous data.

– I didn’t think I was going to be able to enjoy the race because I was cutting it so close. I was wrong. I enjoyed myself immensely. Every aspect of the race was a high I won’t soon forget. Every mishap and obstacle did nothing but highlight what a great race this was. When my shoelace broke, I visualized the headline “Completes 50 miler in spite of broken shoe at mile 10.” And so on.

Some training statistics:

I started training on June 2, after total rest recovering from an injured knee at Desert Rats.
Total mileage: 716
Max weekly mileage: 48
Min weekly mileage: 0 (foot injury)
Avg weekly mileage: 27.5
Longest runs: 1×23 miler, 4×26.2 milers and 1×32 miler. The 23-miler was supposed to be 26.2, but I capsized due to the wrong approach to electrolyte replacement (too much sodium per ingestion).

2008-nfec-jrl-training-graph

Approach to nutrition:

Overall philosophy: Hammer argues that it is not possible to replace what is lost during a race – only to minimize the losses. This advice was key for me, because there is only so much my stomach can absorb per unit of time. Water is essential to keep kidneys happy.
I took an Endurolyte every 15 minutes; twice my right half started cramping, and I took 2 Endurolytes each time. At mile 44 I also drank some “magic” chicken soup. I drank 2 scoops or Perpetuem in 17 ounces of water every hour or hour and a half. And I drank between half a quart and 1.5 quarts of water every hour. No solid food.

Weight lifting:

Each time I had a body pain during training I increased my weight training in that area and was able to eliminate the pain – I interpret the pain as a signal that the area muscles are not big enough to put up with the demands of the effort. Lower back, hamstrings, and adductors were the main beneficiaries of this approach. It paid off handsomely.

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4 responses

16 12 2008
Wayne Itano

Jorge, Great race! I’m truly impressed. I’m especially impressed that you managed to do this on low average mileage (but a lot of super-long runs).

17 12 2008
Greg

epic

well.done.

31 12 2008
sam wood

Jorge,

Very interesting reading about your race, training, and nutrition. Outstanding job of it. I have done one desert rats race in 2006 (last 28 mile leg of their fruita Grand jct race). I cannot quite imagine going for 50. Very nice to see you’re apparently alive and still motivated!

Best Regards,
Sam

3 11 2009
adam

Jorge-

great commentary! What shoes did you use, trail specific? Is the terrain negotiable with road shoes like Asics Gel Kayano or Brooks Adrenaline? What do you recommend? Thanks!

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