North Face Endurance Challenge 50K

My first official events were a 5K in 2010 and the Marine Corps Marathon in 2011. Gradually I filled in most of the intermediate metric and statute distances and then added a 50-mile trail event after noticing that, in contrast to pounding pavement, trail running is actually fun, so it makes sense to get more for your registration money.

I was missing a 50K. In addition to doing this “marathon plus 5K and change” distance for the first time, I would be doing my first event during the warmer months, making the heat an intimidating factor. The June 7 forecast called for a high of 84 degrees (29°C). These uncertainties led me to predict a pretty wide spread in my probable outcomes:

5%: DNS
10%: < 7 hours
30%: 7-8 hours
30%: 8-9 hours
10%: > 9 hours
15%: DNF

I thought it wise to carry a water pack, but wasn’t patient enough to wait for an online order. I ended up grabbing a CamelBak Sabre with a two-liter bladder at a military supply shop. I gave it a test drive on a run home from work, about nine miles, feeling a little silly since it was cool and raining. (To complete the image, I was carrying my umbrella, which I thought I might need in the morning.) Two liters did not seem too inconvenient at first, but after going up a long rise I started to notice the weight. I decided to start the 50K with the bag about half full and refill it as necessary.

The weather was great Saturday morning, and I actually felt cold on the drive out to Sterling, making a mental note of the sensation. I was at the parking area early and got some intel from veterans on the shuttle bus. The couple in front of me had done this course and Bull Run Run before and were fans of both. The guy next to me was doing his first 50K and seemed hungry for advice as his experienced running buddy had bailed out.

At the start/finish, I had 45 minutes before the 7 a.m. start to apply sunblock, adjust gear, and drop my bag. I decided to go without bug spray, figuring I should be outrunning them. I carried two caffeinated gels, three or four each of salt capsules and Advil, and a little medkit with Band-Aids and tissues. I was looking forward to a long run with empty hands and no belt.

I saw Robin and her crew; she invited me to their post-finish picnic. I told her of my eight-hour target time and said she didn’t have to wait around, but they were planning to stay and watch people come in from the 50-mile event that had started at 5 a.m.

With my gear sorted, the only remaining duty was Job Number Two: elimination. This is often a challenge so early in the morning, even with a salutary coffee. Focus, determination, and a positive attitude produced the desired output in the end.

And then we were off! I started in Wave 3 at about 7:05, my wave no doubt determined by the back-of-the-pack 8-hour finish estimate I provided during registration. Even eight hours seemed a bit optimistic; I had finished the Bull Run Run behind 77% of other finishers, while at last year’s North Face 50K 72% of finishers took less than eight hours.

I was near the front of my group and soon ran into the rear of Wave 2. The early miles were on a very narrow trail with few opportunities to pass. And because of crowding at obstacles the pace was frequently slow. Thinking I would race smarter, not harder, I found I could walk several paces at a time without losing ground to the runner in front of me. More than once I walked quickly for at least half a minute while everyone around me was running at the same speed.

I found myself behind a guy wearing a shirt with a NPS logo with some Latin on it that I couldn’t make out. He executed some daring passes, bounding through underbrush on the sides of the path, and I kept up with him. We made some small talk about his school and running on the west coast, then he made some more passes and faded ahead.

Somewhere near two miles out, we approached what looked like an old stone house. But as we passed, I saw it was a cinderblock structure under construction with stone walls that had been half completed. I decided that would be a good reminder to kick for the home stretch.

Before long we were running alongside the Potomac. This was the part of the river I had played and paddled in as a kid, though I doubt I ever saw more than a mile of the shoreline in a day. It was sometimes muddy but fairly flat as we approached Riverbend Park. The trail opened up and I made good time, trying to cover some miles in the cool morning and make up for the early walking.

Crude plank bridges spanned most of the streams that were still swollen from recent rains, but one crossing was a major obstacle. I noticed a backup while approaching and surveyed the scene while walking up. People were clambering across a thin fallen tree, getting little support from a climbing rope that had been strung parallel to the makeshift bridge. The stream was too wide to jump over and too deep to cross without getting at least one foot soaked, an invitation for blisters later.

I took my spot in line behind a young guy who was making what seemed rather delicate, whining noises about his shoes. He managed to get across without spoiling his footwear, then within ten steps slipped in the mud and executed a full-body splat into the soft brown earth. The sound was exactly the same as that of a body impacting terrain on Saturday morning cartoons. It was all I could do to postpone my grin until I had made sure that he was okay and passed ahead.

mile / minutes
1 / 13:02
2 / 9:33
3 / 10:45
4 / 11:34
5 / 13:05
6 / 12:25
7 / 11:02
8 / 10:18
9 / 13:55
10 / 10:11

I passed a group of four young guys who had stopped to roll around in the mud and apply it to their faces. I tried to think of a “Predator” reference but came up blank.

A bit farther along I was chugging along a gravel road and some runners in the woods to my right caught my eye. I spotted one of the day’s innumerable arrow signs pointing out a hard right onto the trail and made the turn and heard someone say “oops” behind me. The runner thanked me for saving him from missing the turn and we chatted a while, mostly about nutrition on long runs. He was experienced at long distances but was doing this event for the first time. I mentioned that I usually pop an Advil or two in the second half. I don’t notice that they make me feel any different, but still seem to get a performance boost. “Placebo ergo volvo” came to mind, but I didn’t say it because the tenses were all wrong. Alan told me he was shooting for six hours, and shortly after I told him my target was eight hours, he bade a kind farewell and advanced ahead. We crossed paths once or twice more with a wave and a smile. I think it was Alan Kusakabe; if so he met his goal with a finish in 5:40:56.

The hills began in Great Falls. I was expecting three good climbs, twice each, on the out and back course, but only remember two significant efforts, and only one of them as heartbreaking as the rises that come regularly at Bull Run. The aid stations were welcome breaks, though I had been told to expect rather less than the five-star buffets I had been spoiled by on the BRR 50. Sometimes I found my staple, PB&J sandwich quarters, sometimes I found a jar of peanut butter and some bread scraps. I was conserving my last remaining salt capsules, and took advantage of the “french unfries” I found at most stops. These were chunks of cold, boiled potato served in plastic baggies. Grab a few and drag them through the plate of salt and wash it down with whatever brightly-colored fluid is on offer. Sometimes it was just a can of Morton’s Iodized to dump into your hand with the potato, but the main thing was to get salt in.

At an early aid station I heard a familiar voice calling out bib numbers and recognized my neighbor G. I stopped for an extra minute to chat, while stuffing nutrients and minerals in, and asked if his wife Blair was running. He reminded me that she was five months pregnant and suggested that she is “retired,” but I don’t believe that simply having a kid is an effective cure for this hobby.

Before I knew it I was cruising through the scenic paths in Great Falls Park. I refilled my water pack and wondered how well the runners were faring that were carrying only a handheld bottle. It was warm out but the trail was almost completely shaded and largely level. I came up to a stop where a race official inscribed another checkpoint glyph on my bib. Beyond them was a nearly vertical rocky climb. “Now we go up?” I asked, pointing. No, it was the turnaround point, I was already halfway done and it was just past 10 a.m.

Confident of a finish and a PR, I hadn’t been calculating a finish time, but now realized that the first half had taken me just over three hours. I was feeling good and wondered if six hours was a remote possibility. But I also knew I had started out too fast and would undoubtably slow down in the second half. I saw the Predator guys less than a mile from the turnaround and decided that my only absolute goal was to finish before them.

I overheard a couple chatting behind me, the older guy advising the young lady on what to expect. He said there was some technical rock-hopping ahead, but it was beautiful and his favorite part of the course. I thought I wouldn’t mind an excuse to slow down a bit. We climbed some and came out on a ridge and enjoyed beautiful vistas into the gorge and islands and the water below. I walked and gawked a bit and made a mental note to come again sometime when the clock wasn’t ticking.

mile / minutes
11 / 11:17
12 / 11:04
13 / 11:34
14 / 12:26
15 / 11:26
16 / 12:58
17 / 13:16
18 / 13:04
19 / 14:58
20 / 14:02

We were on the home stretch, and I heard more than one person remark on the psychological benefit of taking steps toward the finish rather than away. I saved a second runner who cruised past a turn, shouting to her to be heard over headphones. I had started into my salt capsule supply and taken my second gel with caffeine. I picked up two more from an aid station, each loaded with 50mg of the wonder drug. All together it was the equivalent of a large coffee and gave a welcome boost. It was time to get to work and grind out the long flat miles, no excuses, knowing that Team Predator was on my heels. I leapfrogged with a very disciplined black jersey with a big white H on the back. I passed him on a pee stop and he passed me again. I passed him at an AS and he passed me again. I kept him in sight for a long time but eventually lost him ahead, and didn’t get to thank him for pulling me along.

My water pack was definitely an asset, but when full it tended to ride up on my left side and rub into my neck. It would have ground down to the collarbone if I didn’t keep adjusting the strap and pulling my shirt up. Serves me right for getting the rugged military version instead of day-glo running kit. I took my last electrolyte capsule and sucked at the tube to wash it down; they always seem to go down sideways. I heard the disheartening sound of a straw at the bottom of an empty milkshake and barely managed to get enough fluid out of the pack to get the pill down. It was nearly a worst-case-scenario — hot and sweating and running, adding salt, and out of liquid — but I hit another aid station soon and had one last fillup and one last pee stop before the final stretch.

Six hours was unrealistic, but I was making good time and felt confident of making seven, well ahead of my target. I remembered 50K was about 32 miles but didn’t know if this course might measure long or short. Around the time my phone announced 26 miles, someone said we had four and a half to go. That would be a nice discount and was easy to believe but would prove a lie. We did the big climb again, me leaning over with my hands below my knees, or else levering each step with both hands on my thighs. This time I had to walk down the other side too. But as we got closer I thought I might make 6:30. The Predator guys were nowhere in sight.

I kept pushing, trying to run a little faster in the sunny stretches to get them done sooner. I started looking for the stone house after six hours, sure it was just ahead. Miles passed, a quarter-hour at a time. Finally we came up on an aid station and someone told us it was 1.6 miles to the finish. This was exceedingly welcome news. I blasted through the station without a pause and began bounding with long strides, no longer avoiding puddles. I kept this up for what felt like a mile. Where was that stone house?! Was the route different on the way back? Everyone in this section was pushing hard, but it wasn’t easy to tell who was who because of the simultaneous events. Bib color indicated who was in the 50-mile event, the 50K, the marathon, and the marathon relay. Some of the relay runners were just starting and ran like 5K sprinters. I obligingly moved to the side when runners came up from behind, and ran through nettles on the left while overtaking.

Finally, the stone house. I was gassed, but kept the steam on. Then the course turned onto exposed blacktop. The last mile was like running through a pizza oven. I saw many runners forced to walk at this point. I caught up to the NPS shirt and very gradually overtook him without a comment. For the next few minutes every spectator seemed to say “good job guys” and I knew NPS was about to pass me back, but it would be someone else. I did not look back for fear of seeing Predator. Someone said “almost there,” gallingly vague. Then someone said “300 meters.” I started counting my strides but lost count. Finally we came to the green lawn and the finish chute and I opened all the valves, sprinting on my toes for a proper showoff finish. I heard the announcer say my name but was cognizant of little else as inertia carried me over the line and toward the nearest source of shade. I stood puffing for a while until I felt confident that my stomach and legs would not betray me, then walked back to the finish line to collect a medal and my prize of a water bottle. It was hot and empty.

mile / minutes
21 / 12:25
22 / 13:22
23 / 14:13
24 / 17:14
25 / 11:30
26 / 12:11
27 / 18:04
28 / 16:00
29 / 14:35
30 / 15:20

It took another twenty minutes or so to stop sweating, while I sat on the ground and recharged my phone and sucked the last water from my pack. I found the picnic and watched other finishers come in. The joke of the day was that we 50K runners were distractions from the main event. At aid stations and the finish it would be a perfunctory “good job good job” to us blue bibs and then “here comes a 50-miler what do you need water here gatorade there!” when an orange bib showed up. I met G again and he bought me a second beer after my free one, which was plenty since it was going in almost like an IV.

I heard a lot of finishers complain of cramping. I saw the guy from the bus, he was stretched out flat and said cramps had really slowed him down. I remarked on his cold hand after a congratulatory shake and he said he was back from the ice bath. Salt intake not to be neglected.

Final time 6:34:06. Runkeeper captured 29 miles before the battery died.

209 of 442 finishers (behind 47% overall)
161 out of 284 among males (behind 56%)
36 out of 57 in my division (behind 61%)