Running to explore the mind, face doubts and overcome pain {Gwen’s experience of TNF50}


“It was the most painful race i have ever done. I went outside my comfort zone from the fun to find my limits. Mission accomplished, I found it!!!! Around mile 25, I totally hit the wall, total depletion, I was toast…But I hate to drop out (unless injury) because to me its about respecting the other runners, honoring the race, put the ego aside, and take responsibility for my actions…”

This post stirred up some emotions and inspiration within our followers, and so I figured I should go deeper to think about it and share.

Last weekend, I ran The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 miler in San Fransisco, and it was a rough experience to say the least.

Here is our Video of the race!

If you have seen our YouTube video from the race, you will have noticed that I did not seem to be myself, I was in pain and my mind flooded with doubt, but that was only what the camera captured.

There was so much more going on in my head between those 3 times I got to see Katie, and I so here I will attempt to collect those thoughts and write them down so that hopefully you can learn from my mistakes, my strengths and my weaknesses.

 The North Face 50 (in San Fransisco) has over 10,500 ft of gain, and a great field of elite athletes. I had set a time goal that was very ambitious and I knew I would have to explore the unknown to be able to achieve this.

My time goal was 7h15-7h30.

A more realistic goal for me would have been around 8h. I was willing to accept new levels of pain to make up the difference between what I was ready for vs my perfect race. My thought process to come up with such an ambitious time goal was that I wanted to explore new places within my mind. 

By following the plan, it would either work- allowing me to achieve my best performance in ultra running, or it would epically fail - sending me into some very dark places within my mind and body…

Either way, I figured I would improve on some levels at the end of it.

The race started at 5am. Right away, we headed into a good climb. Feeling good, I was hanging with the 7h15 group of runners (top women’s field). Like I mentioned in my race recap post, I was comparing my breathing to the runners around me to know where my intensity of effort was. Breathing seemed very similar, I was chatting while climbing with other runners, still breathing fairly hard. All normal. If they can sustain that kind of effort, then I should be able too.

Downhills, I was definitely slower that most runners within that group. I felt like I was moving at a pace that was fast for me, but all the top runners were flying by me downhill.. this was difficult mentally.. why wasn’t I able to keep up on the “easy” parts - the downhill!? 

At about mile 15 started to feel my hamstrings getting tight, but I wasn’t too stressed about it. I knew it would be hard to push my limits, so I didn’t want to back off, but instead, I kept the pace, ready to face the consequences.

But the tipping point came pretty early, at mile 25. 

A new level of pain for me, probably very depleted, I was entering the dark place. 

My determination to keep up the pace wasn’t enough, and runners started to pass me. I was slowing down, the pain was the most intense I had ever experience, my hamstrings were destroyed, my back, my neck and my arms so sore, everything hurts so bad at each step. Not a good situation at mile 25 of a 50 miles race!

At that moment, the biggest fight was in my mind. 

My time goal was slowly slipping away, and it was hard to let it go. It definitely took me a while to accept it. And it took me a while to regroup. Not only my time goal was out the window, but now I was even doubting my ability to just finish

How could I go another 25 miles in this much pain? Even though I was in doubt, the possibility of quitting wasn’t in my mind. I had trained for this race, we had driven 18 hours, had invested time and money, I wouldn’t just call it a day because my ego was taking a beating.

I saw Katie briefly at the aid station at mile 27, and instead of trying to be positive, I was actually pretty negative. I had to express how hard it was, in how much pain I was, I needed to vent.

It’s only after the aid station, when I was back on the trail by myself, that I realized that there was nothing anybody could do for me. Yes, I was ashamed that I even thought I could finish in 7h15. My ego was telling me to go home and hide. 

I failed miserably, and it was ridiculous.

But now what? Here I am, at mile 30, I have 20 miles to go, my body is so painful each step feels horrible, my confidence level is under the ground and my mindset negative.

It was time to regroup, and I was finally ready for it.

It felt like I had press the reset button, I had cleared any expectations, and accepted that this was the situation I was in, and I would “just” try to get the most out of it. I stopped projecting myself into the future and started to be very present. 

Instead of thinking how many miles I had left, and what my time was, I started to focus on what can I do now, and be ok with it. 

I stopped beating myself up and started to be more gentle. 

I soon became much more happy, and looking back at the video I realize that you guys are not able to see the good moments in the race.. you only got to see those moments where I was seemingly angry and venting to Katie! 

It was still so hard, but the question I kept asking myself was: “can you do it right now?”. Not can you do it another 15 or whatever miles. Can you do it (run) now? 

My answer was: “yes but it hurts so bad”. I was being a little “poopy pants”, but nobody cared at that very moment…but the truth was I could run, slowly yes, in tons of pain - yes, but I could move forward.

I would keep checking in often with myself. Can you go a bit faster? If so, great, let’s do it, if not, that’s ok, do your best.

My mind was focusing on each step, I was soon starting to embrace the pain, almost loving the fact that it hurt so bad and yet I was still moving.

My watch was in my pocket, so I would not see the time or the distance. I got a rough idea of the distance with the aid stations, but I was trying to keep myself in the moment.

Mile 47 came, and I was running across the Golden Gate Bridge. I could see the finish line down on the left. It was still pretty far, but I could see it. The emotion really got to me, I had tears in my eyes from the hardcore journey I had gone through.

I had completed many ultras, including two 100 milers earlier this years, but this was the hardest challenge I had faced. 

Crossing the finish line was super emotional, and once again tears came to my eyes, I was done!!!!  Even though I was sad I hadn’t been able to do my best performance at the 50 mile distance (time wise), I had been able to find solutions, and overcome pain and doubt to make it to the finish… and knowing how hard it was to do that, I was proud of that.

I believe that it is important to face difficult situations that are outside your known capabilities  if you want to grow as a person. It’s extremely hard to reach our full potential, and it never comes without failures. The more time we spend in uncomfortable situations, the better at it we become, the more we learn about ourself and life. Nothing replaces the reality of being in it. 

I have been inspired by others stories, I learned a lot by watching others, but unless you experience it yourself, it’s not possible to reach that next level.

Maybe you learned from me sharing this experience with you, but you have to walk the walk to fully get the benefits..

It takes time to get better at dealing with these kind of situations, so I am already looking forward to go back on the trails and push my limits. I didn’t reach my true limits this time, I reached the limits my mind had set.

Our limits are determined by how much pain we are willing to accept, how hard we are willing to push ourselves, how bad do we want it. These are variables that change with time and experience. We can consciously work on it and improve. It’s not in our genes, it’s hard work and it never gets easy… but that makes it beautiful.

One step at a time, we can all reach our full potential if we are willing to take on meaningful experiences ourselves. 

Thanks for listening to me clear my head,