Thursday, December 12, 2013

The North Face 50 Championship

The hills in the background...that's where we raced.

My 12th place finish at the North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile race was the lowest finish in my ultra career...and I couldn't be happier about it. Perhaps this feeling is a result of my low expectations going in, but I also see a lot of positives following the race. Given the level of competition, the setbacks I've experienced this fall, and a course that did not align well with my strengths, I really think I finished just about as well as I could have expected.

I detailed my adductor injury in my previous blog post, so I won't dwell on it here. Suffice it to say that as my injury spiraled out of control this fall, and my training plans for TNF50 had to be abandoned, it was very frustrating. I knew the 10,000ft of climb in the Marin Headlands would challenge my abilities, and so I had intended to spend much of my time preparing for that. But the injury precluded those plans. I only ran hard a few times in the six weeks leading up to the race, giving my adductor as much time as possible to heal. The week before the race I finally felt like I was turning a corner, thanks in no small part to Andy Shetterly at Peak Performance Sports Therapy. I was quietly confident, but knew my fitness would be lacking.

After listening to the rain pour down and the winds howl the night before the race, the weather cleared just in time for the 5AM start. The stacked field left the start line at a surprisingly comfortable pace. A couple early leaders separated themselves, but a large majority of the serious contenders were content to sit and wait. I was bumping elbows with some big dogs the first few miles, but felt like I was running very controlled. The first 7 miles or so was very runnable despite including 1500ft of climb. We flew through this section and gradually became strung out.

Just before the peak of the second climb I stopped to take a leak. I thought the fire road would continue and I would be able to catch up with my group with little trouble. But the descent was technical and the group seemed to have evaporated in the darkness. To make matters worse, I suddenly realized that my headlamp wasn't very good without all my friends' help. It turns out that my batteries were dying. This was one of my few mistakes during the race. I gingerly struggled down the dark trail as guys like Dave Mackey flew past. At Muir Beach (12.7mi) I stopped briefly to correct my second rookie mistake of the race and applied Vaseline to my nips.

Leaving the Muir Beach aid station I quickly latched on to the shoulder of a runner who passed me as I was waiting on the Vaseline. This runner turned out to be Mike Foote and we began chatting a bit before starting the biggest climb of the day. Mike set a very consistent and manageable pace as we made the 1800ft climb up to the Cardiac aid station. I am still learning how to control my effort on big climbs, so Mike’s pacing was very helpful. It was finally light enough that my dying headlamp wasn’t helping anymore, so I switched it off for the day.

The majority of the ascent occurs in just a mile or two, but the trail continues to climb gently for several more miles. This allowed Mike and I to return to conversation. I’m not usually a big talker during races, but I found Mike really easy to talk to and it seemed to help me settle in to a reasonable effort.  The wind had picked up by now and was blowing into our faces. I wanted to help, but we were still climbing and I didn’t trust myself to manage the pace. Mike and I passed a struggling Matt Flaherty shortly before entering the Cardiac aid station together.

Mike Foote and myself (Photo by Galen Burrell)

I waited a bit for Mike, respecting the fact that he just led that whole climb, then I led the way as the trail flattened out. The wind was quite brutal in this section, so I was happy to still be wearing gloves, arm warmers, a windbreaker and buff. I don’t know how some of those guys ran with bare arms and hands. This should have been a very pretty section of the course, but it was quite miserable for me. In addition to being cold and windy, the trail was very narrow and slightly off camber. This aggravated my groin injury.

This was also an out-n-back section of the course...both positive and negative. Positive in the fact that I found I was only 3 or 4 minutes off the leaders. Negative in the fact that I had to fight two way traffic on the narrowest trail of the day. I lost a big chunk of time at the turn around aid station trying to get my GU powder out of a baggy with frozen hands. Mike didn’t stop at the aid station, so he was long gone by the time I was running again. I gave chase, but hip flexors were not happy. My foot slipped off the soft edge of the trail several times when trying to leave space for passing runners, and that really aggravated my injury even more. I wouldn’t see Mike again.

The descent down to Stinson Beach was nasty...steep, with lots of stairs and switchbacks. All the twisting and turning was increasingly painful and I couldn’t descend like I could have when healthy. I let a couple of people pass without a fight and mentally went from race mode into run mode. I made it down to the Stinson Beach aid station at mile 27.7 where my wife was waiting. I traded my bottle out and told her that I had quit racing, but was determined to finish the race. I was surprised to hear that I was only 5 minutes from the leaders though.

Fortunately, I knew the climb I was about to tackle was a beast because I had a chance to run it this past summer. I was very conservative to start and began hiking the steeper sections. When I hit the stairs, I was hiking almost exclusively. I hiked at least half of the climb back up to Cardiac...anything over 5% grade and I was hiking. I was able to pass someone on this section, and passed through the aid station feeling a little better. I still wasn’t feeling great on the next descent and was passed by someone else. The next section seemed like constant ups and downs. It felt like I was hiking more than I was running.

This would have been a lonely section if not for the 50k runners that were sharing the trail. They gave me something to focus on and chase. I still wasn’t trying to race; I was just trying to get to the next aid station. Around the 37 mile mark I came up on Rickey Gates. He was obviously not having the race he had planned. I ran with him for a few minutes, but a rare flat section allowed my legs to find their happy place again and I slipped away. The flat section was short lived and we started climbing again at mile 40.

My climbing legs were shot. My quads were beginning to cramp. I had nothing. I was hiking almost everything. I turned around and looked down the trail and saw someone catching me. He was climbing really well and I knew it would just be a short time before he caught up. As he passed, he confirmed who I was and mentioned that he had run Stone Steps 50k in Cincinnati. I knew this was Peter Hogg from Michigan and I was not pleased to be getting passed by someone who doesn’t live in the mountains. But he passed me with authority, and I had no response. I couldn’t match his rate of ascent. Although I hadn't consciously noticed, I realized later that my adductor was no longer bothering me by this point.

Soon after, a strange thing happened. Peter quit putting time on me before we reached the top of the 900ft climb. I wasn’t really trying to catch him - I thought he had me - but I just kept moving and he started to come back. Although I wasn’t climbing well, I could still descend just fine. Shortly after cresting, I passed Peter back on the descent. I began to believe again and got my racing mentality back. I flew down into the aid station at 44 miles and traded in for my final bottle.

I still had another 600ft climb to survive. Even though I had put close to a minute on Peter on the prior descent, he quickly made it back up on the final climb. I tried to hang to his shoulder, but my quads started cramping again. I knew the race ended on a long downhill and decided my best strategy would be to bide my time and wait for the descent. I caught Peter sooner than expected on a short descent before the last aid station. I was able to hold my advantage on the brief climb into the final aid. It was there I was told someone was less than a minute ahead of me.

I passed Martin Gaffuri while he was stopped at the aid station. I did not need to stop, and probably would have slipped passed unnoticed if not for his pacer. Dominic Grossman saw me come through and alerted Martin to the fact that I was in the 50 mile race. Martin quickly gathered himself and began to fly down toward the finish. He passed me back quickly, but I was content to manage my energy and stalk him from a distance. I suspected I was still descending really well and the two 5:4x miles recorded on my Suunto Ambit confirmed my suspicions. Martin probably had 20 seconds on me as we hit the paved road with less than a mile to go. It was a slight uphill, but I was giving it everything to catch him. Dom kept turning around to see if I was gaining. It didn’t feel like it, but I slowly was closing. With less than 200m to go, I put my road speed to good use and unleashed my final kick. I eliminated the gap much faster than expected and turned into the finish line in 12th place, stopping the clock at 6:57:10.

Chasing Martin (photo by Dominic Grossman)

I know I didn’t start the race completely healthy or fit, but I’m really excited about the outcome. I broke 7 hours in a trail run with over 10,000ft of climb. A year and a half ago, I didn’t even break the 8 hour mark on the Quad Rock course that had just 1,000 more feet of climb. I would have loved to finish in the top 10, but I was just a few minutes behind A-list trail runners like Dave Mackey and Max King. I made a couple small mistakes, but nothing major. And my nutrition...something I usually struggle with...was great. I didn’t take a single gel the whole race, but my all-liquid nutrition plan worked great, and my energy levels were even all day.

For starting with such low expectations, the final product turned out better than expected. And for the first time in a long time, I’m excited again about what I can do in the future.  But first, I’m going to get completely healthy.

The bridge is awfully exciting.

Sunrise from the houseboat.


  1. Great recap David! It was nice to see your angle as the media was sticking close to the top 10 all morning. I knew even hobbled you had to be lurking near though. Considering the obstacles dealt your way this fall, that was impressive. Can't wait to see what this mental boost will do for a healthy body in 2014! Heal up buddy!!!

    1. Hey look...The US 100mi record holder posted on my blog. Isn't that cool? Thanks for the kind words Zach. And great job yesterday at Desert Solstice. I was rooting for you, but you didn't need my help. You crushed it out there. Proud to say that I've run with you a few times. Keep up the good work!