2016 The North Face Endurance Challenge Championships San Francisco!!!

A whole different experience this year and a nice platform for next year’s training….

I checked in with friends and hosts Ashley and Michael on Thursday evening after arriving in San Francisco. We headed to the pre-race event at Equator Coffee. It was exciting to see the elite athletes and feel the excitement of the runners and crews and chat with friends, releasing some of the pre race jitters.

Friday morning I awoke to the lush green hills of Mill Valley and did a little shakeout run. I spied the headlands and trails I would be racing on Saturday and spent much of the day visualizing the course and my 50 mile run on it. I was looking to have a better race this year, I made many fueling and effort based mistakes last year, and felt confident a better day was ahead regardless of my actual finish time….although I did want to beat my time from last year.

Ashley offered to pace me the last 20 miles. This wasn’t planned, and I was nervous the distraction of another person might hinder me. I typically train and run best solo, but I knew Ashley’s competitiveness, ability as a coach, and drive could come in very handy. It also served to reinforce being conservative the first 30 miles, as I sure as Hell didn't want her to see me slog along the last 20. We ate at an amazing Dominican restaurant with fried, salty, oh so tasty plantains. I snagged an extra order of those to put in my drop bags as a treat on the run. We got back to my host’s place and laid out race gear and hit the hay.

The alarm at 3 am race morning was painful, the flannel sheets and loads of covers begged me to stay. I made my way to my hosts kitchen for a bagel with plenty of cream cheese, banana and some coffee. I was gonna need some caffeine for this up/down kinda day!!

We loaded up and headed to the race. 40 degree temps and long lines to the porta potties awaited. I dread the pre race cold, but have learned to bundle up and wait to shed it all until just before the start. I have spent many pre race mornings shivering my ass off, wasting huge amounts of energy trying not to freeze to death.

We started at 5am, I was in the second wave of runners, 5 waves total. Headlamp on, heading briefly down, then up the first 2 mile climb. I kept my effort easier than last year, watching my heart rate, the lights of San Francisco, and my breath in the dark morning.  I reminded myself, “if you must pee, pick the side of the trail UP hill. Last year, looking for a place to pee, I managed to fall down the headlands. I made the mistake of picking what I thought was a bush on my left to hide, coastal side, and stepped off the trail, only to fall straight down about 15 feet through thick lush trees and bushes.. The “bush” I had aimed for was actually the top of a tree clinging to the side of the headland. Fortunately, there was plenty of foliage,including trees, scrubby bushes, and of course, poison oak, to slow my descent and allow me to catch the tree. I hooked my arm on a tree. There would be no falls this year!

Descending down a couple miles in the dark and then back up a mile I was feeling good. I had specific goals for calories and water.  My stomach is always the trick, and usually where my downfall will lie if there is one. I can't take any solids other than a few potato chips here and there. With sport drinks, I swell up like a toad, getting the water to sport drink ratio way out of whack.

I have gone round and round with coach over the past 4 years with this. He never budges, I always swear I don't need/can't tolerate/am not built to get the amount of calories water/hr he recommends...always convinced he is over estimating. In training I can get by with, and do very well with way less (of course my training runs are never over 3-6 hrs). Every time I try to get more calories in my stomach revolts. What I finally learned, and this race confirmed, if I get the water in, yes MORE, then the gels will absorb, and I will race better.

I saw Ashley at mi 9 aid station, the base of the 4th and longest climb (7 miles up).We switched out gels, got rid of my headlamp and I was off. The next aid station is aptly named “Cardiac” as it sits about 80% of the way up the steepest portion of the climb. No crew allowed at Cardiac, so I got there and hunted for my drop bag with my fresh flasks of dreaded gel. No drop bag. I searched for about 2 minutes and realized it didn't make it. “whelp, plan B”, grab some gels from the aid table, fill water up and go.

About 50 feet out of the aid station here comes Michael with my drop bag. Woot! Apparently, my drop bags didn't make it on the truck so he managed somehow to get to cardiac just in time. An amazing feet as he was crewing Jorge Maravilla who blazed the course and came in 4th male. Keeping up with Jorge proved almost impossible in its own right, as he blazed the course almost faster than you can drive aid station to aid station. I know getting me my bag in the mix was no small feat. I whipped out the plantains, so excited for a salty bite. As soon as I put it in my mouth the urge to vomit was quick to follow. I was so disappointed, as they were so yummy the night before, and I was sure they would be a nice treat. I managed to get that one bite down, but unfortunately the rest would be for the birds.

Out of Cardiac and a few more miles of climbing along the sweeping headlands,we started seeing the elite field on their return. This is a tricky and occasionally frightening experience, as the trail is only 12-18 inches wide with a wall of headland on the right and hundreds of feet fall to the left. Those going up yield to those coming down, and a slight nudge, bobble, or misstep could send you for a nasty, even life threatening fall.

Coming into mi 24 aid station, after 7ish miles of climbing, it's time to descend close to the same amount back into Stinson Beach. I allowed myself a little faster effort, but still conserving so that I would have some really good descending the last 20 miles. This downhill section starts with the sweeping headlands and back down the very narrow single-track Trail.  Soon enough, we are in the woods with rocky and rooty, somewhat moist, single-track Trail and stairs, twisting and winding down into Stinson Beach. Each aid station you can hear from about a half-mile out, cow bells, Hoots and hollers, lots of activity and noise. I couldn’t help but smile and feel excited again.

It was good to see Ashley again after several hours, now at mile 29. She was ready to go! Her energy was great and it energized me. She cheered all the runners at least 30 feet ahead of us and thirty feet behind us. I think all of the tired runners took advantage of her pacing coming out of Stinson Beach. The steepest climb on the course is going out from this aid station.  It's two miles straight up the Muir Woods on twisty rocky and rooty trail with lots of steps. I was definitely moving better here this year than last. My fueling was going well I felt very energized and very well hydrated. Ashley proceeded to tell me as we were talking about her last race on these trails where a gentleman nearly knocked himself out hitting a low hanging tree branch. Not even 10 minutes later, with my head down looking at my feet, I managed to nearly scalp myself on one of those branches. A couple inches taller and I would have been toes up, flat on my back. We passes more people as we climbed. As we crested the top of the climb, Ashley ran ahead to meet me at the next aid station with fresh gel and water. She sprinted on ahead much like a little jack rabbit, “Shit, Ashley, could you at least make it look a little harder?!”

 I took the next two miles down the rocky-rooty, step laden trail a little more aggressively, as this was now my time to race. I ran down thinking, “this is what I came here for!” We passed several more people going down, I was moving up steadily. Following the descent is about 3 miles of rolling, some steep, some easier terrain. It's the only stretch of the race thats not totally up or totally down.  I got pretty sick and hot here last year and struggled through this section. This year I was moving much better, although starting to feel just a little queasy at times. I managed to pass more runners as we went, and descended into Old Inn aid station at about mile 38. I had worked to pass one girl in particular who had been somewhat rude on the trail, and I wanted to keep that lead. Ashley and I left the aid station and scooted along at a pretty decent clip over the next three miles into Muir Beach. I felt okay here, but felt like the gels were sitting on my stomach a little bit with intermittent, but very real nausea. I also noticed that my hydration had dipped a little bit, so I started trying to drink a little more and continue to get 200-plus calories per hour in. By the time we got to Muir Beach I was quite nauseated..

What I always feel is the most difficult climb is #7, the one coming out of muir Beach. It's not the longest or the steepest, about a mile and a half, but 800+ feet up that first mile, very steep with short little breaks the whole way followed by false summits.

This is where my stomach really went south. I was not happy on this descent. My stomach was full of gel. I knew I needed to force more water but it was so difficult to even take steps as I would burp up watery gel.  this is where I have a choice, and I almost always choose to stop everything in hopes that my stomach will settle over time and I can restart the fueling again.

Instead I made the very difficult, but smarter choice to drink more, just keep getting more water in to absorb the gel. I just had to tell myself, "until you drink more water, that gel is not going anywhere but up". So I persistently drank a little at a time.  At the top of that nasty climb was the most painful part, with a full, bloated belly….running a couple miles down, jarring my bloated stomach. Getting into Tennessee valley, I forced more water and added a S-Cap in.nd hydration. 

Immediately leaving Tennessee Valley aid station is an immediate up of a mile or two. This would give my stomach a break from the jostling.  I started that climb as a hike. About fifty feet into it, Ashley turns around, all cute and fresh looking, cocks  her head and smiles and says in a disgustingly kind voice, “do you think you can run this?”. Well 

s*** yes I probably can. And then I got a little agitated, and I was like, “fine, you want me to run?!  I'll run!”.  I ran all the way up to Alta aid station at mile 47.  It actually felt pretty good, my stomach was recovering, and my strength returning. I had a good go up that last climb. At Alta aid station, near the top of the very last climb, you can see the Golden Gate Bridge.  I now had less than 3 miles of descending, with one little speed bump at the end. We headed down, and I chased Ashley with all my might, including some 7 minute miles all the way to the bottom. The last little half-mile is a bit of a hill, but hearing the  finish line cheering and the announcer...you know it’s right there. I finished in 9 hours 34 minutes, bested my time from last year, and came in 4th in my age division. Definitely a step up from last year.

Huge, HUGE thanks to Ashley, for knowing just how to pace me….always staying a little out of reach in the right places and joining back with me briefly at just the right times. Perfecto. She was not just along for the ride, she had a job to do and she nailed it…. and provided a lot of encouragement and support to other runners along the way. She provided the perfect amount of distraction from the difficulty, but none from the task at hand.


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