From Racing to Surviving: The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Miler Race Report

By on June 7, 2013
Pre Race
After landing in DC at 1:30, my mom and I went to the North Face store for packet pickup. With my race bibs I got two tshirts (one for the 50 miler and one for the 5k), a water bottle, and two pairs of Smartwool socks. I also got 20% off and another water bottle if I made a purchase in the store so I bought myself a new running skirt. Running skirts are my newest obsession because they have the benefits of compression shorts with the flattering fit of a skirt. After packet pickup, we went to the Whole Foods to pick up my breakfast pastries, went home to eat dinner and pack everything up and retired for an early night.

My 2:30am wakeup call jolted me out of the warm cocoon of sleep. Luckily I had packed the car with all my essentials the night before and all I had to do was throw my frozen fruit and Gatorade into a cooler, hop in the car and drive. I arrived at the start with over an hour to spare, which gave me plenty of time to drink my iced tea, eat my apple muffin (seriously go try the Whole Foods gluten-free bakery products – they’re delicious!), and visit the port-a-potty a couple of times. At 5:00am Dean Karnazes gave a couple of tips about keeping cool, I flicked on my headlamp, and we were off!

The Race!!
The race started in Algonkian Regional Park, a beautiful park in Leesburg, VA complete with swimming pool, soccer fields, golf course, and playgrounds. The course ran along the river, through a field, and past a couple of holes on the golf course and the soccer fields. The sun was just being to grace the area with the warm pink glow of sunrise, reflecting off the ripples in the Potomac River, and the honeysuckles released their cloyingly sweet scent into the still air. I was tempted to grab a handful of honeysuckles to round out my breakfast but was still sane enough to remember I had a long way to go and the day was only going to get hotter. I knew I would regret any time wasted smelling flowers this early in the race.

The first ten miles seemed to fly by in an instant and soon I was at the third aid station, pouring a cup of water on my already overheated face. I was slightly ahead of my 9-hour finish pace chart and everything seemed to be working perfectly. A couple miles later, that all changed. I hadn’t eaten anything since my muffin at 4am (it was past 7am at this point and I had run over 12 miles) and my stomach turned into a ravenous beast, protesting loudly with every step. It was also at this time that I realized I was out of Gatorade and the heat of the morning was settling into the forest. I thought I only had a couple more miles until the next aid station so I decided to just tough it out. When my watch read 14 miles, I decided to sprint the last 0.8 miles until where I thought the aid station should be. Unbeknownst to me, my watch was ahead by over a mile and when I got to the 14.8 mile point the aid station was nowhere to be found. Dejected, I slowed to a crawl and mourned the loss of my morning bliss. I continued at a glacial pace until I finally heard the roar of Great Falls and managed to pick up my pace to a respectable jog.

As soon as I entered the aid station I heard my mom and sister screaming for me, waving signs they had made. They graciously told me I looked great, even though I knew that wasn’t true, and quickly refilled my Gatorade, gave my half a scone, and sent me on my way. I walked the entire carriage road section (almost a mile) while munching on my scone, sipping my Gatorade, and popping salt pills like candy in hopes of reducing some of the swelling my hands and feet. The combination of salt and sugar hit my blood stream as I approached the rocky, hilly part of the course and I was able to fast hike up the hills and run down them. I cruised into the next aid station, filled my Gatorade bottle with the melted Gatorade from my cooler, grabbed a bag of frozen watermelon and was on my way. I alternated walking while eating frozen watermelon and running the next section. The course almost returned the Great Falls Aid Station before sweeping back out in another loop, this time running along the Potomac River right below Great Falls. Soon I was back at the Aid Station to refill my hydration pack and Gatorade, pick up some saltines, and continue on my second of three loops in Great Falls.

During the second lap the heat and humidity really started to bother me and I could feel myself slowing down. I had gone from slightly over 9-hour finish pace when I first entered Great Falls, to slightly under 11-hour finish pace after my first lap assuming I would restock my salt and glycogen stores and could make up the loss of time throughout the rest of the race. I had no idea how much the heat and humidity would sap my energy and resolve to finish. It was during this section that I first began to doubt my ability to finish the race. About 2 miles into the loop I witnessed a man collapse from heat exhaustion and start vomiting uncontrollably. Luckily for him the EMTs were close by and were able to pull him off the course, but this further challenged my confidence. I inevitably question my confidence and ability to finish during every race I enter and I usually combat it by doing the math to determine the minimum pace I need to finish the race. I realized that if I could finish the current lap and the last one before 2pm, I would have 4 hours to complete the last 14 miles, most of which were shaded and flat. This temporarily boosted my confidence so I only grabbed a sleeve of shot blocks and poured some water on my head at the aid station. When I got to the rocky part along the Potomac River, I fell in with a group of guys and cruised into the Great Falls aid station feeling good about the race.

Before I had left the Great Falls aid station during the previous lap, I had erroneously told my mom to be ready to run with me the next time I came through since I thought I would be finished with Great Falls. Fortunately for her, I was wrong and still had one more lap. My mom and sister helped me change my shoes and got me a huge block of ice that I put between my hydration pack and my back to help keep me cool because my body was starting to overheat. I forgot to check my hydration pack before leaving the aid station so I ran out of water during the steep up and down section. Luckily I had the ice chunk and could break pieces off to eat/suck on while running. When I cruised into the aid station, I traded out my Gatorade bottle for the frozen one from my cooler. During one of the downhills I saw my mom on the trail. She had come out to see if I wanted to her to start pacing me early. Luckily I was feeling awesome and decided to just walk back with her to carriage road and then continue on my own. I told her I would see her in 30 minutes and continued on down the trail. It only took me 22 minutes to make it back to the aid station where I refilled my water, ate a couple boiled potatoes dipped in salt, and started the 14 miles back to the finish with my mom.

The original plan was to walk until we got out of Great Falls National Park and then run the rest of the way but the heat and 38 miles on my feet were starting to affect me. I locked in the throes of a pain cave and could barely talk much less run. It took all my energy just to focus on putting one foot in front of the other and I was so thankful my mom was there to just keep talking to take my mind off my pain. This continued until we got to the aide station with only 4 miles left. At this point, the course veered off to do an out and back next to Lowes Island. For this entire stretch I felt like my feet were going to fall off but at least my stomach was finally cooperating. When we made it back to the aid station they were just starting to turn people away from the out and back. My mom and I commented to each other about how much it would suck to make it 46 miles and be disqualified but didn’t stop to contemplate it for too long. When we got to the final quarter mile, we broke into a run. I was convinced I was sprinting at full speed but when I looked back on my pace later, it was only about 9 minute miles. We crossed the finish line, took some pictures and headed straight for the ice baths. 

As we were getting into the car I called the BF to let him know I finished. He responded by saying that it said I was disqualified online. My mom and I ran back to the finish line and caught the race director right as he was leaving. We asked him why I was disqualified since I had completed the entire course in fewer than 13 hours. It turned out that the volunteer at the last aid station had marked me down as one of the people he turned away from the out and back even though I had completed it. I offered to send them my GPS data but the RD took my word and re-qualified me as an official finisher. After checking the instant results website to confirm this we headed out for pizza and bedtime.
Post Race
Usually after finishing a new race distance I swear that I’m never running again. In fact, after finishing my marathon last November I didn’t run a step for almost 2 whole months. After finishing the North Face Endurance Challenge I signed up for the same race in San Francisco in Dec. I know that, given better weather (cooler temperatures even if the humidity is still high), I could definitely break 11 hours. Leadville isn’t the race to try to accomplish that goal and with another North Face Endurance Challenge on calendar I’ll only have a short recovery period after Leadville before I restart my 50 mile training. Hopefully with two 50 milers under my belt and 4 months of training I can come out and crush the North Face 50 miler. After that, maybe it will be time to test myself against a 100.

NOTE: All pictures are from UltraRace Photos. As soon as they send me the link to download my pictures I will replace these photos with real ones. I’ve already paid for them so now it’s just the waiting game.