The North Face 50 Mile, San Francisco, 2013
A 50 mile race, all on trails. Through rolling hills, no grueling hills; over 10,000 feet of steep, lung searing, leg burning climbing. Over 20,000 feet of body destroying elevation change along the most breathtaking scenic coastline in the U.S.
This was our first intro into ultra running and it did not disappoint! For a summary of the training leading up to this race and how it worked out with a flight crew’s less than ideal schedule, click First 50 Mile Ultra Trail Race Training. I want to share a brief review of how the event played out and some lessons learned, along with nutrition planning.
The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 mile Championships takes place in December along the Pacific coast line of Marin County, just north of San Francisco. The race began at 5 am, which meant a shuttle pick up of 3:30am. Wake up alarm of 2am. Of course I did not plan ahead well enough and I don’t think you ever can. Thoughts streaming through about things you might be forgetting, what to pack, what to leave at home. It did not help that shin splints crept up the week prior for the first time in my life necessitating a new pair of shoes the day before, breaking them in at the starting line. To keep the the shin splints at bay, I tried running in compression socks which was new also. So already breaking some rules of changing your routine for the race. If any problems were going to arise, running 50 miles was going to amplify any of the consequences.
I was up late preparing. The nutrition products I trained with from Vega included their gels, which coincidentally had run out before the race. I tried tracking down packages for 2 weeks from California all the way to Idaho. Even the company headquarters were fresh out. So I was left to experiment with my own recipe, untested on race day as well. So I was up late getting everything together last minute and did not get to lay down til after midnight, staring at the back of my eyelids just over an hour later.
The evening before the race, a strong cold front blew through, bringing in rain and dramatically dropping temperatures. It felt like a repeat of last year’s storms and what was going to turn out to be another mud fest on the trails. The storm cleared out as we were getting to the race starting line and the temps dropped to a chilling 28°F. With a high pressure building in behind, the winds picked up on the ridge lines to over 20 miles/hour.
My morning breakfast routine changed as well, and this would plague my performance for the first half of the race. I had been dealing with stomach issues for the couple months leading up to the race. I thought it was my morning oatmeal, so last minute, I switched up to slices of quinoa bread with almond butter and banana. This ended up shutting down my digestion before the race even started. I wasn’t even able to get down water until around mile 18 and electrolytes or anything solid until the 27 mile mark. As it later turned out, my digestion issues were not my morning oatmeal, but a nasty little stomach bug known as H-Pylori which meant that I changed my breakfast that had worked unnecessarily.
This proved to be one of the more mentally challenging things to get through. I thought that if I can even make it to the aid station back on top of the Dip Sea climb out of Stinson beach, I would be finished. My pace had dropped off dramatically and I was in such nutrition/hydration debt that I figured it would be impossible to recover from that on a course as demanding as this was.
As luck would have it, I slowly worked down a bar, some of my homemade gel, and a couple electrolyte drinks on the descent of the Matt Davis trail into Stinson beach before one of the toughest hill climbs of the course. My body desperately absorbed that stuff like a dried out sponge, sparking new life to eek my way back up the Dip Sea climb to Cardiac Hill at mile 33. I arrived there to restock my nutrition from my drop bag with a new hope of pushing forward. I exchanged spent bottles of electrolyte mix and empty gel containers for full ones and off I went. Lauren ended up not running the race due to a flare up of plantar fasciitis so she was at the aid station for some much needed support and off I went with a new mental state and hopes of actually crossing the finish line.
In short, I spent the remaining 17 miles on a nutritional roller coaster. While I had improved my situation, I was still badly playing from behind. My stomach was only able to absorb a little at a time. So as I felt muscles wanting to cramp and energy levels plummeting, I could only get down a small rotation of water, then gel mix, then electrolytes. It would bring me back to a break even point to allow me to keep going, but just one step ahead of completely bonking. I could never get ahead of the nutrition game and was just doing damage control. It was mentally draining to stay positive and calm as I hit these lows and felt my body struggle until I was able to absorb the next round of nutrition.
Up to this point, I had all but forgotten about the shin splints, until I crossed the mile 35 mark and the flare ups began. Icing on the cake at this point with 15 miles left to go with a not so friendly pain in my left leg and a shut down stomach. To say the mental focus this last part of the race was zen like would be an under statement. If active meditation exists, I was in another world until the finish line.
The remaining hill climbs felt like they would never end and the shin splints became so painful I could not take full advantage of the free speed of the downhills. The home stretch of the course rewards you with a nice downhill with amazing views and a sense that you are going to actually make it! I dug deep for one last push to the finish line and maintained a respectable pace to the end.
It might not have been the finishing time I was hoping for, but I could not have been happier. To go from a mental state of defeat and despair after training an entire year for this race to pulling through and managing the mishaps and entering a state of mental focus I have never experienced, it ended up being one of the more memorable experiences I have ever had. This is one finisher’s medal that will always have a special place.
I finished 15th for my age group and 74th overall with a time of 9 hours 1 minute.