John Muir Trail

John Muir Trail

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Race Report: 2013 North Face Endurance Challenge San Francisco

This is one of a handful of race/run reports that I wrote before I started this blog.

I raced the North Face Endurance Challenge 50-miler this past weekend. It was a blast and a great race for my first 50. Below is the full gamut of race report and stats.
This was an interesting year for my running. I spent the first 3.5 months of the year ramping up for the Boston Marathon, which was a great experience despite the mayhem that ensued about an hour after I finished. I re-qualified for Boston by 1:13 (3:03:47) but after a week of hearing about how everyone wanted to race in 2014 to support the marathon, I wanted to get this faster. This led to me trying to race the San Diego Rock ‘n Roll Marathon 7 weeks later in hopes of decreasing my time a bit to ensure my entry into the Boston Marathon for 2014. I was recovering fast from Boston, but with 3 weeks to go until San Diego, my hip started aching badly and my training was suffering. I raced SD anyway and ended up with a 3:10, but I knew it was too soon and my interim training hadn’t been what it needed to be. Oh well.
I signed up for Santa Rosa Marathon with full expectations that a month off of running seriously would heal me and I’d have a last ditch chance at breaking 3 hours and also essentially guaranteeing myself entry. I was wrong. A month later (July-ish) I still had some hip issues. I saw a chiropractor for all of June and July, which didn’t help much, so I decided to give PT a try. I began seeing a therapist and noticing slow but steady results. As it turns out, I had some muscle imbalances, that when allowed to run free in a repetitive motion sport, caused some motion issues that pressed some nerves in the wrong way. I now have a gamut of exercises and stretches that are part of my post-run or rest day workouts that are designed to keep me moving healthily.
My PT gradually allowed me to start running through late August (I skipped Santa Rosa Marathon) with minimal hills. I knew this would not fly for racing a 50-miler with 10,000 ft. of climbing, but I tried to be patient.
By September, I was back in the swing of things. I hit a 50-mile week with 3000 ft. of climbing and felt pretty good, but I wanted to top out at 70-80 miles with 10k ft. vertical. My basic plan at this point was ‘no flat runs unless you’re recovering’. So I was hitting steep hills, hill repeats, and longer runs with vertical. This turned out to be a bad move. My body was not ready to go headlong into vertical mode on most days of the week, and my hip issue started to peek it’s head out a bit. I realized I had been ramping mileage and vertical for 5 weeks with no rest week, so I immediately took a rest week with minimal to no elevation gain and mileage somewhere in the 30s. I drank some beer and entered the following week feeling great!
This set me up in a somewhat awkward place, however. I wanted to begin tapering with 3 weeks to go, which meant that I had 4 weeks to train before then. This is longer than a standard ‘on’ block in a training cycle (usually 2-3 weeks on, 1 week off, repeat), but I decided to go for it. I also restructured my weeks.
Instead of ‘no flat runs’, I decided that I needed a few key workouts centered around climbing, and the rest filler and recovery mileage to help move on to the next key workout. Each week would feature 2.5 key workouts. The first workout was hill repeats. I have a hill set near my house that allows a ~7.5 mile workout with 1200 ft. of gain over 11 hill repeats. Perfect weeknight intensity to build up some hill chops. The second workout was the long run with vertical. I started with 20 miles and 4000 ft. vertical and worked up to 30 miles with 7000 ft. vertical. The last 0.5 key workout was a mid-long run on the day following the long run. I called this ‘running on tired legs’. It’s a pretty common feature in the ultramarathoner’s game plan, and is designed to help the runner learn to perform on legs that are smoked (which would prove to be invaluable!). The mileage breakouts for the long/mid-long runs for this 4-week block ended up being 20/8(oops, short! Legs were cashed hard and felt bonky), 27/10,30/10,30/15. I topped out at 73 miles in a week in that last week.
‘Taper’ was pretty much a week with reduced mileage but appreciable intensity, followed by 2 weeks of very little mileage and some high intensity sprinkled in. Hill repeats 2.5 weeks out, 15 miles with 5000 ft. vertical 2 weeks out, and the rest is history. I arrived at race weekend feeling well rested and ready to smash some hills.
Race Weekend
Packet pickup is on Friday and the race is on Saturday, so I arrived on Thursday night in San Francisco. I’ve been pretty on top of my diet lately (read Racing Weight!) but the week leading up to the race, I pretty much told myself ‘no portion control’ and just ate when I felt hungry and ate a lot. This worked out quite well, because, despite the reduced mileage, I was starving all the time for some reason! I ate a bunch of chips and guac and some chicken pasta the night before the race. I was super full, but I knew I’d need it the next day.
The weather report had been hemming and hawing on whether it would rain on Saturday or not. First it say 0% chance, then it said 30% chance with 90% chance at 4am (race at 5am), then who knows. I prepared for the worst: pouring rain and 38 degree temperatures. Luckily I packed for these contingencies because that damn weather man, that dude sometimes just can’t get it right!
Race Day
Race Day started at 2:40am. I got up and ate bagel and peanut butter and 2-cups of coffee. Packed a banana in the pocket for later. I got all my gear on/packed and headed to the race around 3:30am. When I stepped out the door, other than it being ass-cold (for coastal Cali) the first thing I noticed was stars! Not a cloud to be seen above, which meant the storm had cleared through in the night. Awesome. The race parking and shuttling setup was a breeze and I was at the starting line in no-time at all. I dropped off a drop bag at the bag tent and went to warm up at the many fires/heat lamps that were scattered around the expo area. I checked a jacket and pants for afterwards and then lined up to run with about 10 minutes to spare. My race kit included:
Long sleeve base layer, running shirt, arm warmers, wind shell, beanie, headlamp, tights, shoes, gaitors, lightweight gloves.
The temperature at the start was quoted on the internet as being in the high 30s, but it felt WAY colder. Good thing I brought layers!
The start was pretty low key. I was in Wave 2, which is behind the elite wave, and started 1 minute after the gun. At 5am, it’s dark out, and everyone was required by race rule to wear a headlamp or carry a flashlight until an hour after sunrise, which would happen at 7:12am. I looked down at my Garmin and my HR was at 114...way high! I double checked with with artery in my neck and it was reading correctly! I don’t know if it was the cold, or if I was super amped (didn’t feel like I had race day nerves), but either way, nothing to be done.
The horn went off and Wave 2 proceeded out. There’s a short, 20 yard slope and then a flat and downhill road to get the runners away from the festival and out to the trails. My game plan was to keep my HR under 170 on the climbs, and under 155-160 on the flats and descents. I purposefully didn’t have a pace data field on the watch in order to keep me from getting tempted by pace. Once we hit the trail it was a gradual climb over a couple miles and then a gradual descent back down another trail to make a loop. I was feeling kind of hot on the climb, so I unzipped my wind shell partway, but then started to feel cold. I was really confused by what my body was telling me, so I just ran through it and hoped things would settle down. This first 5-or-so mile loop passed uneventfully. Very little hiking necessary and my pace was pretty solid (see pace data below). Met a couple dudes, cashed some water, ClifBloks and Gu.
My nutrition plan was for 400 cal/hr: Half a water bottle of Gu Rocktane Endurance Drink, a sleeve of Bloks, and a gel. I knew I’d get tired of this, or my stomach would, so I also had stinger waffles and whatever else was available at the aid stations. Already I could feel my stomach wasn’t too happy with the amount of gel-food that it was receiving, but my hydration was good, so I figured as long as I didn’t throw up or cramp, I was OK. I also had a bag of 20 salt-stick tablets with me. Game-plan was 1 every 30 minutes.
The first aid station was at the bottom of the loop, so I filled water and headed for the next climb. On the next climb, I hiked more than the first, but still not that much. There were slightly steeper sections than the first climb, but nothing of note. I was very wary of burning too many matches early on, so I focused on not getting caught onto a faster runner’s heels and just climbing on my own. This climb dumps the runners onto a pretty cool single track descent into Tennessee Valley where there’s another aid station. I was able to settle on a nice rhythm on the descent, but when I got to the bottom, I could feel that I had taxed my legs a bit with the pace, but wasn’t sure exactly how I should change it up, because slowing down felt harder! The aid station was lit up with flood lights, and the volunteers were hooting and hollering and it was an overall cool station. Loud and bright and excited! Topped up on water, and headed out down the valley towards the 3rd climb. This climb was shorter and was more like a bump in the course to get us over the hill and down to Muir Beach. The descent to Muir was pretty cool. Mildly rocky single track for part, and open fire trail for part. Again, I focused on running my own race. I remember looking back down the coast from the top of the hill and seeing San Francisco’s west coast lit up in the lightening darkness, it was the first of many awesome views of the day. I cruised into the Muir Beach aid station feeling pretty good again. Snagged a cracker, filled up fluid and made another Rocktane mix, and headed out. This is where the crux portion of the course begins. There’s a short bout of single track, a run across a field, and then an 1800 ft. climb up through the Cardiac Aid Station to Pantoll Ranger Station. This climb is always fun, and I’ve raced on it before. It’s gradual enough that I could get a rhythm going with some other guys and we were cruising up it well. I ended up passing these guys at the turn to the ridge after probably 1000 ft. of climbing, and rolling on my own for a while. The sun was coming up and I managed to get my sunglasses out of my bag without stopping. I hiked some of the upper portions of the climb, especially into Cardiac where it steepened up a bit. At this point, I was behind on nutrition plan, but doing well on hydration. The nutrition plan was starting to go out the window because my stomach was not having any of it. As other ultra runners probably know, it’s kind of a battle between ‘Shit, this feels really bad’ and ‘I need to eat or I will crash and burn hard later.’ Again, I figured as long as I wasn’t throwing up, I should just deal with the shitty feeling and mash down calories as necessary.
My parents were waiting at Cardiac and yelled at me and took some pics. Was pumped that they decided to come out and hike around while I raced! I had a drop bag waiting at Cardiac, so I dumped my headlamp, grabbed some more nutrition, and headed out. What’s nice about the Cardiac aid station is that you cross it twice, so you can double-duty your drop bag. At the time, I thought I grabbed too much nutrition out of the bag, but I ended up eating almost all of it by the time I returned, so I guess it was OK. I think I grabbed 3 sleeves of Bloks, 3 gels, 2 stinger waffles and 2 ziploks of drink mix.
After cardiac is a brief climb to Pantoll, followed by rolling single track for the next 7 or so miles. This was great until the out-and-back portion on the Coastal Trail. The pros were already on their way back (some had even finished the out and back already) and so the runners heading out were constantly having to jump up on the steep hillside to get clear room on the narrow trail. This was the right way to do it, because a lot of the time, the other side of the trail was a steep ravine, which could be dangerous to step down into to clear space. I ended up in a 10 or so person line of guys all running the trail. One lady said ‘Whoa, now that’s a Boy Caterpillar!’, lol lady. This single track ended at and aid station where I mashed down some hot broth and grabbed a handful of pretzels for the road. I got back on the trail and ended up with the dudes who I’d race the next 28 or so miles with. We made it back to the Matt Davis trail, where it happened my parents had just walked up to and managed to get a group of volunteers to cheer for us! The group turned the corner and began the cruise down the descent to Stinson Beach, which consisted of a lot of wet, slippery, wood stairs and trail. I remember thinking at this point, ‘Shit, my stomach feels way too good right now, I better take a gel.’ Haha, I think I was right though! I felt great the whole was down the descent! I put my legs in ‘neutral’ and felt relaxed a smooth all the way into Stinson Beach at mile 28, probably right around where that Gu was kicking in. Here, I stretched out, mashed more pretzels, drank more broth, filled up on fluids, packed my shell into my ultra vest and started the climb up the Dipsea trail back towards Cardiac. The dudes I was with had already gone out, but I caught them soon and we climbed the Dipsea stairs in a pack. If you don’t know, these stairs aren’t the most fun portion of the race. Check out mile 30, below. 722 feet of vertical in a mile! Haha! It could have been worse, I think many of us have climbed worse, but there were some choice words going around amongst some of the other runners.
Luckily, after the stairs there is a smooth climbing ridge with EPIC views of the ocean, the headlands, and San Francisco! Always a pleasure to hit that view after climbing those stairs! This ridge led right into the Cardiac Aid Station, where I picked up the rest of my nutrition, ate more pretzels and prepared for another big descent. I put my shell back on thinking it would be cold on the descent, but after bottoming out, I was super sweaty. I didn’t account for this portion of trail being on the inland side of the ridges, so there was no ocean breeze/wind. I took the shell off and packed it away for good.
I caught those dudes again on some stairs, and climbed with them for the rest of the way up the 5th climb of the race (I divided the race into 8 noticeable climbs). These dudes were hilarious and were joking the whole way up, so it was nice to cruise with them. The first half of the race I was singing ‘The Neighbourhood’ in my head because it happened to be on when I was driving to the race, lol. I remember this whole section of the race, but it kind of blurred together. There’s a lot of nice climb and descent, and some good cruising sections of single track as well, but nothing really eventful happened here. At one point near the top of the climb, I was feeling light headed and a little woozy. I’m not sure if I was dehydrating, or overheating, or what. I toughed it out to the aid station and dumped water all over my head and had a few big gulps and a salt tab. This seemed to take care of it. I was still thinking that I might have some fuel left in the tank come mile 40, so I was enjoying keeping it conservative.
The next aid was at mile 36, and I got more fluid and had some Clif Bloks. This was followed by a short climb on mostly stairs, which I hiked. At one point I came up a set of stairs and was 6 feet from a deer on the side of the trail. She was just staring at me and looked really beautiful, stock still. Apparently the deer are unphased in Marin, because I kept running and she did not move an inch. At that point, the trail pretty much cruises through a valley out to Muir Beach again. The guy leading our group of 4 decided that flats are free and upped the pace a bit. We got a little time back, but I could tell my legs were getting tired! More salt tabs, more gels, more water.
Muir Beach pretty much marks mile 40 and the home straight of the race. The only problem is, there’s about 2000 feet of climbing in the home straight, starting with a 1000 footer coming off the beach. We were trading leads and hiking/running as necessary, but the pace had fallen off, and I could sense impending ‘survival mode’ running on tired legs. Good thing I ran all those runs on tired legs in training!
The climb from the beach was uneventful, but our crew was joking pretty hard and hollering and overall making a scene. Yelling “ON YOUR LEFT!” became a joke because the steep climbs were so slow, haha.
This climb dumped onto a steeeeep descent to Tennessee Valley. This descent sucked! I was getting a ton of toe-bang in my left shoe, my knees hurt, I was stiff...overall was not feeling great in my body, but my head was in the game and my attitude couldn’t have been better, so I was OK with pounding myself down into the valley. I tightened my shoe at this aid station, took one more fuel-up and it was hike/run the relatively benign steepness of an 800 ft. climb, 200 ft. descent, 200 ft. climb to the final descent. The descent to the finish is the same one we came down on the first mini-lap of the race, so I knew it already. It was a good one to cruise on. At about mile 48, I started feeling really good, almost fresh! I picked up the pace and ended up dropping a sub 8 minute mile 49 and kept that effort level up through the finish. My newfound buddies hadn’t been able to match my final pace, so I waited for them in the finishing area and we celebrated like mad men. I was pumped! My final time was 10 hours 16 minutes.
Post Race
After the race, I ate a bit of food, but more so focused on getting my jacket and pants on because it was COLD. Calorie deficit makes it that much worse, too. I ate some chicken, and pasta that the race provided, but after getting my shirt, headed for home to eat a burger and put on some compression tights. My legs were wrecked for a day afterwards, but seem to be recovering pretty well now.
I’m pretty pumped with my results. I really didn’t know what to expect, so finishing up close to being cashed out was just about perfect. I know I’ve got some things to work on, namely, more vertical. Lots and lots of it. But otherwise, it was a good first showing at the 50-mile distance for me.
I welcome any suggestions or comments on anything! I’m new to the ultramarathon game, so tips, pointers, etc. are always welcome!

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