The majority of us will never be able to play in the World Series with the Yankees, or join a foursome on Sunday of the Masters. However, as I looked around at 5:00 am Saturday morning December the 5th, I was standing shoulder to shoulder with many of the best ultra-runners in the sport in one of the largest and most competitive races of the year. How cool is it to be able to test yourself against the very best and see how you stack up.
Saturday morning had arrived and my alarm sounded at 2:00 am. I am normally an early riser, but this was ridiculous. I caught the athletes bus at 3:15am and was on my way to the Marin Headlands. The excitement continued to build as I exited the bus and followed the stadium lights to the starting area.
I was aware that The North Face 50 miler was known to go out fast and my plan for the day was to be cautious and run composed for the first 13 miles. I planned on picking up my effort once I hit the climb up Cardiac and would hopefully be able to move up the leaderboard throughout the latter portions of the race.
The gun went off and I stuck to my game plan and ran well within my comfort zone. I made the climb up Bobcat (Mile 6) in the early morning darkness and then it was off to Tennessee Valley. One of the joys of ultra running is being able to see places that most people will never get to enjoy. The best view of the day and one that is now permanently burned into my memory was during the climb coming out of Tennessee Valley. The sun had just begun to rise, the waves were crashing hard against the rocks and I looked back and saw the bright city lights of San Fransisco, a dark purple horizon and a long line of headlamps snaking up the trails in the cool morning air. This was truly amazing!
I made it through Tennessee Valley (Mile 9) feeling great and was now headed out to Muir Beach. I was a little nervous about this race due to the amount of climbing. I had run a 50 miler before, but it had 5,000ft of climbing and this would be over double that in elevation gain. I had now reached Muir Beach (Mile 13) and it was time to take it up a notch. I felt comfortable and cruised up Cardiac quite easily. I thought this climb was going to be much more difficult than it turned out to be, and I was hoping this was going to be a sign of things to come.
After reaching the top of Cardiac (Mile 18) I made my way out to Mckennan Gulch (Mile 23). I was running really well at this point. My pace felt very comfortable and I was sandwiched in between Hal Koerner and Michael Wardian. I was somewhere around 25th place and felt like I had put myself in a good position. I was hoping to maintain my position and make a move up the leaderboard somewhere around mile 40. However, the first 28 miles would turn out to be the most enjoyable of the day. I made my way down to Stinson Beach (Mile 28) and for the first time noticed my quads felt really tight.
The previous night I had watched an interview on irunfar.com with Max King. They asked Max how newer runners cope with The North Face Course. Max responded with, “They don’t have that leg strength built in yet and that climbing ability. This race, in particular, is difficult for someone who is new to the sport to come out and actually have a really good race. The legs can handle the distance, but they don’t have the strength to climb all those hills.”
I reached the bottom of Stinson Beach(Mile 28) and started my climb up Cardiac 2. I had put myself in a good position and felt fairly good despite the tight quads and I was ready to really make a move up Cardiac 2. However, about a half mile into the climb eveything began to change. It is amazing how quickly things can turn from good to bad and this was bad. I had reached a portion of the trail that was so steep that it required hundreds of wooden stairs and this is where I really began to suffer. My climbing no longer felt powerful, my legs and lower back began to hurt, I was passed by several runners and all I wanted to do was lay down and take a nap. There was still 20 miles and thousands of feet of climbing left in the race and I was already falling apart. The negative thoughts were now flowing like a river and they seemed to increase with the grade of the trail. I remember thinking…I just want this to be over. I seemed to really embrace this pity party for about ten minutes, until I finally got bored of myself. I realized my original race goals had now changed and I needed to re-evaluate and go through my options. OPTION 1 dropping out. I thought about it for a moment and this was clearly not an acceptable option. OPTION 2 fight on. I now clearly realized what my options were and the negative thoughts immediately vanished. I had to accept my pre-race goals would not be met and I would need to fight hard the next 20 miles for the best possible finish on this particular day. I made a deal with myself. The only way I would feel proud of myself and cross the finish line with my head held high was if I worked as hard as I possibly could, expressed no whining and kept a positive attitude despite my slow pace.
I was very relieved to reach the top of Cardiac 2 (Mile 30.5) and headed down into Muir Woods to the Old Inn aid station (Mile 36). Unfortunately, the relief quickly passed as I realized my quads were not cooperating. My legs felt locked up. Every single stride felt like I was tearing the muscle off of the bone. At this point, Ellie Greenwood passed by me and I immediately latched on to her. She was huffing and puffing and alternating between running and hiking up the hills and I just copied her routine. We traded leads many times throughout the next several miles. Ellie commented that I looked much better than she felt and I told her I was just good at faking it. I just had no power left in my legs and she eventually pulled away finishing in 28th overall and second woman. I was really impressed with her, but also wished I had felt stronger. What could have been. right?
I made it to the aid station at Muir Beach#2 (Mile 40) and saw my friend Jeff Oswalt. It was a much needed pick me up that helped carry me through the next couple of miles. My nutrition and hydration had been wonderful all day long. My mind was clear and there was no bonk to speak of. It was simply muscle fatigue holding me back. I wanted to go fast…I just couldn’t.
The course opens back up onto wide service roads with long relentless climbs. I would live up to my deal and continue to push as hard as I could for the remainder of the race. I eventually reached the finish line in (7:35:55/40th place) absolutely exhausted. I had not run the race I had dreamed of, but despite my time or place, I could finish with my head held high. And that was enough for me on this particular day.
As I reflect on my first North Face 50 Miler, I initially felt like I didn’t race to my potential and the race was a bit of a failure. Upon second glance. I feel like I performed exactly the way my body was prepared to perform. My cardiovascular system was prepared, but my musculature was not ready for the 10,500ft of climbing and descending. My leg muscles were simply too fatigued to perform and I had to struggle to the finish on heart alone.
One of the things I love about running is that it is very black and white. You have either put in the appropriate work during training or you have not. There is no fooling anyone. There are no judges that determine your score or success. There are no referees that could potential miss a call. There is no boss that likes one person over another. The reality is you race against the course and your competition and you finish where you finish. End of story. It is so pure.