North Face Endurance Challenge Championships, San Francisco: 50k Race Report

TNF 50k start

 

It’s 4am on Sunday and I can’t sleep. My mind and body are buzzing — my mind with energy and my body with the tingling of muscle fatigue that always follows a long, hard workout.

I was up at the same time yesterday morning too, getting ready for the race. I nervously checked outside. Frost, but no rain, and I could see the stars. After last night’s downpour and reports of possible snow on the course’s Mount Tamalpais, this morning looked to be cool but clear. Relief. The season had been unusually dry so I hadn’t trained in muddy conditions. On top of that, I didn’t have any waterproof gear.

We arrived at the event and I nervously scanned the scene. A bustle of last minute preparations in the dawn light. The 50 milers were long gone, having started at 5am. The 50kers were next up. Time to get in line. I let the fast pack go in Wave One and started a minute back in Wave Two. I didn’t want to go out too fast and get caught up in the rush. I wasn’t wearing a GPS watch, which was a first time experiment, but for this distance and the terrain that lay ahead I thought it better to run by feel.

As we started up the first climb, I checked out the runners ahead. Men and women with lean, hard bodies, bulging calves, flexing with effort. I thought to myself, what am I doing here, running with these people? At the same time I wondered with curiosity what my calves looked like from below. My “peak week” had consisted of close to 100 miles in an eight day period, including three trail runs over 20 miles in that time.  My average weekly mileage had hovered close to 70 miles per week for months now.  Two weeks ago, I surprised myself with a 42 minute flat 10k in a training run, completely without the intention of setting an unofficial 10k PR. As I continued up the hill, I didn’t know what running a hilly 50k would take out of me, but I reminded myself that I was ready to find out.

I had started the race a little enthusiastically, but after the second aid station I settled into a sustainable rhythm, chatting with my fellow runners as we approached the aptly named Cardiac Hill. In a course with 6330 feet of elevation gain, this climb would bite off 1500 feet in less than three miles. It’s my favorite climb on the course, its steepness mitigated by switchbacks but its difficulty enhanced by its long duration and many false peaks. Stunning coastal views made it all worthwhile. A runner named Adrian fell into step just behind me, and we wound our way up while sharing a little of our stories. He was a teacher from Santa Barbara about to move with his girlfriend to Cleveland, Ohio. For both of us, it was our first ultra. I thought I might have lost him as we crested the top and refueled at the aid station, but I was happy when he once again fell in behind me. We ran together for about ten miles and I was thankful for the company. I was reluctant to leave him at the aid station heading back to Muir Beach when he stopped to fill his hydration pack, but he waived me on and wished me luck.

As I came into the Muir Beach aid station, around mile 21, a spectator told me I was in the top ten. I asked her with absolute, flabbergasted disbelief if she was serious. She nodded an enthusiastic yes, and we high-fived as I passed. The spectators and volunteers were, to a person, amazingly encouraging and supportive. I tried to remember to thank each one for their invaluable contribution to the experience.

From that point forward, I was on the hunt. I felt great and knew I had lots left in the tank. I had started the race a minute behind the lead pack in Wave Two, which worked great at the start but ultimately put me at a disadvantage. Runners just a few minutes ahead of me were well out of sight. Still, I spotted one woman 50ker and tracked her up Coyote Ridge, one of the steepest and hardest climbs of the day, finally passing her down the dramatic descent of Fox Trail, leading into Tennessee Valley and mile 25.5.

Robert was waiting for me there, and he gleefully remarked that only five women were ahead of me. The final climb was ahead, as was woman number 5, with a target on her back. I soon passed her and pushed hard up the rest of the hill, then let gravity help my tired legs down Alta Trail with three miles to go. I peeked behind periodically to see if any women were pursuing me. Nothing. Finally, with two miles to go, I turned around and there was a brunette, pushing hard and fast, only maybe 200 feet behind. She had come out of nowhere. I kicked it into high gear and tore along the path, past the last aid station at mile 30 and up the road. There was no way I was going to let her pass after coming so far. There were no women ahead to pick off but I managed to make it across the finish line holding onto 5th place, and couldn’t have been more ecstatic if I had won. I later realized that the woman behind me had been a man with long hair! No matter, it pushed me right where I needed it, and unbeknownst to me, I was only 40 some seconds off fourth place. A few minutes later, Adrian crossed the finish line and I ran up and gave him a huge, joyful hug.

After a running season with more downs than ups, and after a tough year overall, fifth place at my first 50k is beyond my wildest dreams. I truly went in to it with no expectations and a goal of simply finishing. In fact, I had almost decided not to run it all. Robert encouraged me to see it through (thank you!!), but without his support I don’t think I would have even started.

It’s Sunday morning and I’m up at 4am. I can’t sleep because I can’t stop smiling.

 

 

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