The North Face Endurance Challenge 50K, California 2016. Part 1: The Build Up to 50k

Looking back on November, things seem blurry. Having an actual month of no presidential campaigning seemed like a new and fresh concept, but the exhaustion of paying attention to the process over the past two years left Annie and I exhausted. The day after the election, I went on a cathartic road run with no plan for distance or pace, just to run what felt right to me and to clear my head. Specifically, to run and not think about the world; and take a chance to reflect on what’s important, and what I really enjoy.

build up to 50k

In November, there were two important events Annie and I had on our minds. The first was Thanksgiving dinner. In August we moved to Alamogordo and immediately decided to host people at our town house for Thanksgiving dinner. The reality of having twelve people over for dinner is that it requires preparation, especially when you want to ensure that we can be as hospitable as possible for people who don’t know one another — actually a few didn’t even know us since we made a point to invite young co-workers who live on their own.

Ready to Give Thanks

Although this wasn’t our first time hosting Thanksgiving, we still put a lot of effort to make it as special as we could, and by the time Black Friday came around, Annie and I opted to veg out on our sofa for the entire day and watch the new “Gilmore Girls” series on Netflix. It was much needed!

The second project was finishing out a training cycle and preparing for my first ultra marathon, the North Face Endurance Challenge 50K in San Francisco. This is an extremely competitive and challenging race which I registered for last spring, and I probably started training at the end of September after I ran the Santa Fe Thunder half marathon.

The Santa Fe Thunder is a mostly down hill road run where Santa Fe’s Kenyan African athletes come out to smoke the clock. About four or five male runners went under 1:04 — how’s that for a small town race?

This race was also when I figured out that I could still race smart in the wake of an eight month hiatus. All Spring and Summer I was challenged with maintaining fitness while dealing with patella tendonosis in my right knee. This year was a huge learning process for me about the importance of injury prevention and strength training. The half marathon was nowhere near my fastest, but I was able to finish it exactly the way I envisioned — staying relaxed for the first two thirds and then hammer out the final eight kilometers while ratcheting my pace down each mile.

I finished in 23rd overall in 1:27:22.07 (which is 6:40/mile pace), and 3rd in my age group. Even though I called it a small town race, there were still 1155 finishers!
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After finishing Santa Fe Thunder, I knew that I could start preparing for the North Face Endurance Challenge Series race in San Francisco in December.

Maybe it was an ambitious plan to make a challenging trail 50K my focus race for the fall, especially coming out of an injury. The North Face Endurance Challenge is a series of trail races throughout the U.S. and Canada, with distances ranging from 5K to 50 miles, and San Francisco is the championship where trail elites from around the world convene to close out the year in the flagship 50 mile race which has a payout of $10,000 for the winners. As a fan of trail and ultra running, this race is a big deal, and if I wasn’t running in it, I’d be at home following Twitter and irunfar.com.

One of the many aspects I enjoy about the mountain and ultra trail running community is the array of quality filmmakers who document trail races and consistently post their short films on You Tube. Along with the apparel companies who produce well made films, the individuals who do it alone and regularly post amazing content, and who Annie and I find really interesting, include Billy Yang, Sage Canaday, Jamil Coury, Jason Schlarb, and Ethan Newberry (the Ginger Runner). Specifically, the Ginger Runner films about North Face spurred my interest in the Marin Headlands. The area is muddy, hilly, and gorgeous with ups and downs through gigantic coastal bluffs and redwood rainforest on amazingly maintained trails. With much of the course following the epic California coastline, and the brutal challenge of more than 6000 feet of climbing, I grew more enthused than I have in a long, long time about racing.

Build up to 50k

The timeline I had for training was a little shorter than I would have preferred, about 10 weeks whereas 16 to 20 weeks would be more ideal, so I accepted from the beginning that I would possibly be a little under trained. Trying to establish a goal was also a little challenging because I couldn’t actually identify how I would cope with the distance and the terrain, so I kept the number one goal simple….just FINISH!

To race such a long distance, I knew the key would be to maintain restraint from the beginning, and just deal with suffering and bonking and, then finally, to push to the finish line.

Fortunately for me, August saw us move to the base of a mountain range in southern New Mexico where I had more access to trails and hilly terrain than we had in Clovis (in the high plains of the Llano Estacado).

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At the beginning of November, I ran a tune up half marathon called the Desert Dash, a local event held on trails in the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Park near Las Cruces. Although desert terrain is rocky and sandy and a lot different than potentially muddy and sloppy California trails, I ran this as a long tempo run with no expectations. The race was faster than I expected and in some sections we threw down sub-six minute miles.

Desert Dash Half Marathon in Las Cruces, three weeks before the NFEC. I had no intent or plan to break a course record, yet I did it!

Beforehand, I was only planning to run this in 90 minutes and stay with the lead pack, but at 10 km I broke away from Miguel Perez, a local ultra runner who races a lot and a previous winner of the El Paso Marathon. I was able to keep my pace steady and knowing Miguel was right there pushed me (and raised my competitive hackles). I was able to hold on. Annie will tell you that it’s the closest she has come to missing me finish – I ran much faster than she was expecting too.

I wasn’t really expecting to win in 1:22, let alone break a course record. It was a good day.

This finish validated to me that I’m comfortable racing middle and short distance on roads and trails, especially 13.1 miles.

My remaining weeks of build up involved more hilly training on trails, primarily around Cloudcroft, which is the mountain village about 30 minutes from our house, and a lot of Thanksgiving food — maybe more than ideal. Although my intent was to hold an optimal racing weight for North Face, I didn’t have a problem accepting that calories wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing for race day. Thanksgiving was a chance to hang out with Annie and our friends, and to nail down my racing plans. I felt as ready as I could be.

For a long time I’ve been dreaming about running a long distance ultra marathon in a completely new and scenic place. After a year of dealing with injury, I felt more accomplished than I can remember to make it to a starting line.

Shake out run in Larkspur, CA the day prior to racing. I felt great!

Over the next two days, we’ll publish the rest of my race report (in two further parts).

 

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