The NORTH FACE 50 MILE Endurance Challenge (Hitting the Wall, Bonking & Giving my BEST}
The North Face 50 has been a bucket list race for a long time.
The last race of the season for most runners, it is also the USA Track and Field national championship for the 50 mile distance on trails. It is a 50 miles with over 10,500 ft of elevation gain, on a trail that is not very technical which makes it a relatively fast and painful course!
Some of the best trail runners in the world show up to this race every year, and it is inspiring to see how fast they are!
This year, Katie and I got accepted into the elite field for TNF50 (to apply for it, the criteria is to run a 50 miler under 8h for the women, and 7h15 for the men). Unfortunately, after racing the Mountain Lakes 100 at the end of September, Katie got a knee injury and she wasn’t able to recover in time to race TNF50. So I was going to race and Katie would be crewing.
This year, we signed up for many ultras (more than one per month), so it has been a long season. We both ended up not being able to perform at our best for most of the races because of little injuries, and not being able to train a lot since we were always recovering from a race, or tapering for a coming race.
Coming into TNF50, I felt surprisingly in pretty good shape.
Even though I had completed Mountain Lakes 100 seven weeks before TNF50, I was pacing Katie for her first 100 miler (so not pushing to do my best), and I was able to recover quickly after it. My training volume wasn’t very big leading up to TNF50, being the end of a long season, I didn’t want to risk overtraining. I averaged 65 miles / week and 14,000 ft of gain / week for the 6 weeks before race week.
Come race week, I was feeling up for it and super excited! We traveled to San Fransisco from Sandpoint, Idaho, on Wednesday, driving the first 7 hours to Portland, staying with friends for the night, and then driving another 12 hours to Santa Cruz on Thursday, where we would stay with friends for the weekend.
Friday we did a nice morning shakeout run with the Salomon team and then packet pickup and lunch with our new friends Jim and Jenny, whom we had just met. Trying to rest up for the next day, the big day!
Saturday, 1am, alarm clock goes off, time to head out to San Fransisco (from Santa Cruz) where we would park the car and take a shuttle to the race start. The race was well organized so that we didn’t have to use our car at all during the day. They had shuttles bringing the crew to the different aid stations, so less stress of driving in the insane traffic of San Fransisco.
5am, the gun goes off, it’s on!
Unfortunately, trying to go to the bathroom just before the start and the line was huge, I made it to the starting line seconds before the start and in the hectic process, forgot my handheld water bottle. So here I am, running with the lead pack without my water bottle. The next aid station where I would get a chance to grab my water bottle was at mile 14, until then I would use the previous water stations every 4-5 miles to stop for a second and drink some water. Temperature was pretty chill early morning, in the lower 40’s degF, so at least I wouldn’t sweat too much.
We started right away into a pretty good climb. For that race, I really wanted to push my limits, see what I could do outside my comfort zone. It was definitely not a conservative strategy, but rather an all or nothing tactic. I would either do really well, or I would crash trying.
So going up with some of the lead women (the lead guys were just flying!), I was trying to judge my effort by comparing my breathing with the breathing of those around me. I was talking with some other runners, and my breathing was about the same, so I was thinking that if they can handle that intensity, I probably can too. These lead women have way more experience than I do in racing so I trusted their intensity.
Coming up to the top of the of the first climb, came time to go downhill. The lead women totally took off and I could barely see their headlamp after a few minutes. My split downhill was about 6:30 min/mi, but they were surely going a minute per mile faster! My pace downhill was already outside my comfort zone, not on the cardiovascular system, but on my body frame, a lot of hard pounding I’m not used to.
Mile 14, I reach the first aid station where crew was allowed, so I saw Katie and was able to get my water bottle. I tied my shoes tighter because the downhill was causing a lot of chaffing. But overall I had a great mind state at that point.
Around mile 15, I started to really feel my hamstrings as we were bombing the downhills, but I was thinking that it was just part of the game, not really being too stressed about it.
You can’t reach your full potential without a lot of pain, so I was ready to accept the pain. I wanted to reach a level of performance I had never reach before, so I knew it would only come with a level of pain I had never reach before.
Things took a major turn around mile 25. I hit the wall hard.
Totally depleted, my entire body was hurting, my legs of course, but also my arms, my neck, my back, etc… Along with that, a major slow down, and the reality of the situation like a big wack in the face came. My body was in total pain, but it was not as painful as trying to face the realization that I had failed to achieve my ambitious time goal, there was no way I could possibly finish in the time I wanted.
I was in a dark place and it didn’t seem like their was any way out from there.
The countless runners passing me didn’t help, even though they all had a nice word for me when passing. I wasn’t going to quit though. That was set in my mind. That is a standard that I will not compromise, because it is about respecting the other runners, my crew and honoring the race organization. You can’t just quit when things don’t go the way you want. I totally understand quitting because of injury, but I wasn’t injured and I wasn’t going to pretend I was.
I was depleted, but I had to take responsibility for my actions. I wanted to go big, I went for it, and it didn’t work out like I wanted to. Now, this was where I was, time to regroup.
I saw Katie at mile 27, still in my dark place. I was venting to Katie, which I am sure seemed like a very negative mindset from the outside. But I needed to be by myself to find the solution. So after getting back on the trail. I had to forget about the goal I wouldn’t achieve, forget about the distance ahead, and get back into the present. I assessed the situation. My body hurt so bad, I was moving really slowly. Fine, let’s accept that I can’t go faster, and let’s focus on what I can control. I can still move forward, so let’s just focus on that. I stopped having expectations, I just stayed in the present, and did the best I could with what I had.
It was a slow, painful grind. The most painful race I had ever had.
I was actually visualizing that feeling before the race, it happened, but I was also visualizing a different finish, which did not happen.
I finally ended up crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, tears in my eyes, from what I had been able to accomplish, finding the resources to get myself another 25 miles and 5,000ft of gain, and the emotion from seeing the finish line and knowing my misery would end soon…
9h15 is the time it took me to finish The North Face 50, 2 hours more than my ambitious goal.
But I came out of it learning a lot about myself.
I know I have the potential to achieve this goal. I have to take actions to achieve it, so I will raise my standards. Like Tony Robbins says, I have to turn my “should’s” into “must’s”. I will be back stronger than I was before. This is all part of the journey. There are hard experiences that we have to face in order to become a better person. I faced that one, and I will face the next one, and I will keep grinding my way to my full potential.
You get knocked down, you get up, and you get back after it!