Monday, December 3, 2012

TNFEC 50 Mile by Nate Dunn

I firmly believe that any man's finest hour, the greatest fulfillment of all that he holds dear, is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle, victorious. - Vince Lombardi

Today wasn't supposed to happen. When I first attempted to register for the 2012 North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile Championship race back in June it had just sold out. The race was to be my final tune up before the Rocky Raccoon 100 in February. Resigned to running the 50K instead, I integrated what I believed was going to be a 30 mile race into my training schedule and that was that.

Then a “Pineapple Express” happened.  No, not the movie, an unusual weather pattern that dumped a foot of rain on the course the week of the race. As the rain fell harder and harder this past week I quickly reassessed my inability to get in to the 50 mile race, now considering it as a blessing in disguise.

While sitting at my desk at work the day before the race I randomly checked my junk mail folder. When I looked down and saw an email from The North Face with the subject line “Congratulations!” I knew it could only mean one thing. That I’d been moved off of the waitlist and bumped up to the 50 Mile Division. Less than 24 hours before the race, I’d learned that the race was going to be 20 miles longer than I’d previously thought. Works for me.

Later in the day I learned that the traditional route for the race had been changed, and we would now be running two 23 mile loops around different course. I’ll get to the course itself later.

I arrived at the race site 30 minutes before the start time. It took me 15 minutes to finally get out of the car because the rain was already falling at a pretty steady clip… wonderful. I eventually made it out to the starting line just in time to begin the race and we were off. 5:00 a.m. in the morning, driving rain, headlamps, mud, and hills. It sounds more like more fun than it actually was.

I learned fairly quickly that the jacket that I had brought wasn’t water proof. It wasn’t even water resistant. It just turned into one giant sponge, taking on what felt like 5 pounds of water. I was cold, wet, and not feeling the whole rain thing at all. I quickly let negative thoughts take over. I thought about my car key and how if it continued to get wet that it would stop working and I’d get locked out of my car. I thought about my feet and how they were already sopping wet and we had just gotten started (wet feet = blisters). Quite frankly, I was ready to say screw it and go home.

But I kept going. We made the first loop up Bobcat trail to Alta, then back down to aid station numero uno (5.9 Miles). I refilled my bottle and kept going. We then proceeded up Miwok to Old Springs, and then down into the Tennessee Valley Aid station (3 miles). This stretch was tough for me. For one, the incline of Miwok slowed me to a walk, while the rain picked up. It was during this time that I first thought seriously of walking off the course after the first loop.

It would be so easy, the car would be right there, and this isn’t fun. This isn’t my goal race. Who cares? Then I decided that I cared. Not finishing a race, or at least giving everything I had before being pulled off the course for a medical emergency would have been as personally offensive to me as not tipping a waiter, or worse yet, a dine and dash. It wasn’t going to happen. I decided to just suck it up and keep going.

When we got to Tennessee Valley I lingered for a while. I wasn’t in any particular hurry to get back out there in the rain, and I needed to decide to do with all this crap that was weighing me down. I emptied my pockets, smirking first at what an idiot I was for bringing sunglasses. Then getting rid of other crap that I didn’t need like my mp3 player. I then left Tennessee Valley and jogged down the road towards Pirate Cove via the Coastal Trail, headed to the next aid station at Muir Beach (4 Miles). This is when things started to change for me.

I ran into a guy named John from Arizona. This guy was one of the most positive, upbeat guys I could have hoped to meet and we started up a conversation. Almost instantly I stopped dwelling on the negative and started to focus on more upbeat things, like the fact that we were actually moving pretty fast and we had a chance to come out of this race with a halfway decent time. I continued to chat with John for a while and then, as usually happens, we left each other with a “I’ll catch you down the trail.”

(There were a handful of other random strangers that I ran with throughout the day that helped me get through the race, but I don’t remember all of their names and since we aren’t FB friends they won’t be offended if I just leave it at that)

I was back to my normal, positive self, and I was starting to have fun again. Until I got to the top of the hill leading down to Muir Beach. A foot of rain had turned this hill into a waterslide. About 20 yards in to my decent of the hill I slipped, and when I tried to catch myself I landed sideways face first in the mud. The photographer who was right there heard me fall and quickly turned and snapped a picture. I am sure it is hilarious. I spent the entire day with a face covered in mud. From that point forward everyone who I passed smirked at me. I laughed it off of course, and had other important things to worry about.

Back to the mud-covered waterslide down into Muir Beach. It sucked. It’s not the organizer’s fault, North Face did a great job putting on the race in these conditions, but that part of the route sucked. Anyone who ran the race will agree. We were literally grabbing on to shrubs on the side of the train to keep ourselves from falling. I fell at least 6 times, we all got covered in mud.

The Muir Beach aid station folks were great, all of the volunteers at the race were great. But right when we were done we had to loop around and then head back UP the waterslide. This wasn’t fun. It was almost as bad as going down. When we got to the top of the hill we swung a left up Coyote Ridge and then over to Miwok before heading back down to the Tennessee Valley Aid Station (4.8 Miles).  The climb up Coyote Ridge was almost as bad as up out of Muir Beach. Not as steep, but the trail was the consistency of one of those slime pits that kids would dig through on the TV show Double Dare.

Despite all of this, we successfully navigated back down to Tennessee Valley, up Marincello, and then joined back into Alta trail(2.9 Miles), and then back down towards the start line (2.8 Miles), which marked the halfway point. During this last stretch something really cool happened, I got lapped by Hal Koerner, one of the living legends of ultra running. This is one of the most special things about this sport. Regular, everyday people get to race elite, world class athletes. It’s literally like walking down to your local pick-up game and playing against Kobe Bryant. Hal whizzed by me from behind (And finished more than 5 hours faster than I did), but I caught enough of a glimpse to instantly recognize him and blurt out a “Oh Hey Hal!” Too late, he was already gone. In fairness though, he was less than a mile from the finish line, so he was probably focused on that.

I made the turn around and looked down at my watch 5:10. I smoked that first lap. I was on pace to break 11 hours. Last year I ran this same race, albeit a course 5 miles longer, in 13 hours. I was feeling pretty good about things, and went out for lap two.

What a difference a few hours makes. It had stopped raining, and we caught fleeting glimpses of sunlight. Armed with the motivation that I could run a great time, my sole focus the second lap was running the best race I could. I felt great during that second lap, and even though it went slower, my energy level never dropped and my legs didn’t quit on me. I ran with Ken Michal for a while, but then he dropped me just before the last stop at Tennessee Valley before Marincello. Ken ran a heck of a race (And will win H.U.R.T. this year!)
Nate and Ken at the finish!  Sub 11:00:00!! WSER qualifier?

I finished in 10:53, and I couldn’t be happier with my time. It was a brutal race, but I feel like I won today, and as sore as I’ll feel tomorrow I know that it was all worth it. I believe I am well on my way to achieving my ultimate goal, which is to finish a 100 mile race.

I would like to acknowledge some of the keys to why today went so well:

1. The Endurables – I’ve trained with Jim Vernon’s group the past two years and those long runs could not have prepared me any better for both of The North Face 50 races I’ve done. The Endurables is a great group of folks, and if you live in the Bay Area and are interested in trail running (Not just ultras) I highly recommend one of their training programs or memberships.

 2. Hammer Nutrition – I fueled during this race primarily with Perpetuem. It’s a product that provides exactly the nutrition you need during endurance events, and I never experienced a drop in energy during the entire race. Other Hammer products I used: Race Caps Supreme, Race Day Boost, Endurolytes, Anti-Fatigue Caps. These products work.

3. Lots of 20+ mile long runs - I ran my first marathon in 2002, and I’ve run nearly 20 races of that length or greater since then. Most marathon trailing programs have you work up to 20 miles, then taper, then race. Since I’m currently training for a 100 mile race, I’m running 20 miles or more almost every weekend these days. The biggest change that I’ve seen is that my legs no longer quit on me during races. The take away is that long runs are the most important part of any training program and the more that you can include in your schedule without overtraining, the better your result will be. If you are going to run a marathon: do gradually increase your milage, but once you get to 20 keep up those long runs on a consistent basis over a series of months and you won’t just finish your race, you’ll feel better throughout it.

4. Podcasts –  Ultra Runner Podcast, Talk Ultra, and Running Stupid
 are great podcasts to listen to during long runs. Adam Carolla and Joe Rogan are also in heavy rotation. 

- Nate

Photos from the Event: