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:



  1. Great job Nate! This is/was my first year running ultras and in the latter part of the year, I found myself battling those "who cares if I finish" questions...and yes, I cared and always found myself crossing the finish. The conditions that day of the race definitely weren't even close to ideal. Way to tough it out. (And to answer the task for the RS "contest," I find inspiration from anyone that has the guts to put themselves at the starting line regardless of whether or not the finish.)

  2. Great job Nate, and way to step up to the 50 miler at the last minute. I generally like running in the rain, but that must have been crazy... Best of luck on your journey to the 100 mile distance!
    For the RS contest - I'm constantly inspired by the mid/back pack-runners, who have to tough it out, where things go wrong, very wrong, and they have to literally re-build themselves during a race. When I was in the abyss during my first (and only) 100 miler I recalled the many 50-100 mile stories I had read and just kept taking the next step, knowing I could make it if I just kept moving, and it would all be worth it. And it was!

  3. Awesome post Nate! I just started running ultras about a year and a half ago and joined the Endurables this past May. Without a doubt, I couldn't have completed the Marin Ultra Challenge 50M, nor achieve a WS100 qualifying time at the Headlands 50M. Best of luck to you on your journey to finish a 100!

    For the Running Stupid Contest: My inspiration is drawn from the men and women of our armed forces serving throughout the world. Enduring the pain and putting forth relentless effort, is but a small tribute to their service for our country.

  4. Great job, Nate, especially since the distance was confirmed only at the last minute. In my first 50 mile race attempt I was pulled atop Diablo at mile 41, endured a grueling tortuous ride down the hill, then an ambulance ride to the emergency department where I stayed all night. So you are starting your ultra-50k ultra career more strongly than I did(n't)!

    Ken wants us to hijack your post with comments not directly relevant to your for our potential personal gain. (Evil cackle of laughter).

    What/Who inspires me the most-- Chris touched on this: back of the pack runners who are out there much longer, don't always get that finishers award and for which this craziness doesn't come easily. I usually finish toward the front, but I've also finished DFL twice in my life, and those are among the ultras of which I am most proud.

  5. loved the video Nate and way to go on battling the mental demons! awesome time too despite the horrid conditions it was great to see the Marin Headlands. I ran with Ken in the Muir Beach 50k in 2009 (can't believe it was that long ago Ken!!), and am despriate to return to San Fran (hence my desire to get involved in the RS contest. Who/what inspires me...? inspiration comes from so many places both externally in the form of people you meet, places you visit and situations you find yourself in. Internally too inspiration comes form deep inside when you least expect it, and usually when you are at your lowest. I just which I could find the recipe so I could bottle it up and open it up when I need it most! Which will probably be 85 miles into WSER100!! :-D

  6. Great job out there, Nate. So fun to hear about how other runners deal with certain races. I commend you on not giving up in the beginning and finishing strong.

    For the Running Stupid WSER slot, the person that inspires me the most is my father-in-law. (I love my own dad, but get my inspiration from the in-law). From a non-running perspective, he has shown me how a person can go from nothing (I mean nothing) to having a successful business. No matter what the situation or who the person is, he always has a positive message and shows his pride in you. He has taught me more about the importance of family than anyone. For running, he is one of those guys that is out every day no matter what. During my first ultra (Ohlone 50k), I was basically at my limit with the heat coming into the last few miles. Out of nowhere, coming the other way with a Dixie cup full of water is this crazy shirtless guy to try to movtivate me to finish. Sure enough, he sent me on my way feeling proud as could be. Thanks Nate for letting me hijack the blog and thanks Ken for the chance at a WS slot. - Mike Bohi

  7. Great report Nate.

    For the Western States slot the person who has inspired me most is my running partner Stan Kosaski Stan "invited" me to go along with him on his long runs when he was training for his first 100 Rio Del Lago. about 3 years ago. Pretty soon he had me believing in myself and had me convinced I too could do a 100. Well that was 3 100's ago and he has been my crew and pacer on all three.

    Thanks Nate for the space in your comments and thanks for the chance Ken. - Jay Marsh

  8. for Nate, that was a great recap! I love how it wasn't supposed to happen and next thing you know, you're in the middle of it! I too love that running is a rare sport where you get to do the sport on the same terrain as the elites! congrats on finishing a tough race!!

    for the WS slot, I am most inspired for the older runners. I don't want to call them old because their youthful spirit inspires me. I am talking about the 65, 70, 80 year olds that are still out there it slow or fast. my ultimate goal in life is to be that 70+ year old still running crazy events. :)

    Helen Fong

  9. North Face 50 was the first 50 I ever ran. Like Nate, it took me 13 hours to finish the first time around. I had only run one trail run as practice and had no idea what was in store for me. I remember sitting on a rock and crying for a while from exhaustion somewhere after hitting Tennessee Valley for the second time. Shortly after a nice man jogged up. He was on his way back to his car at TV after pacing a friend who had already finished. He saw I was having trouble and ran with me to the final aid station. It was getting dark and he had no light to get back to his car after he left me, but wanted to make sure I finished okay. He gave his jacket before he sent me off with a big hug.

    This is what inspires me about the Ultra Running community. I have literally had fellow runners give me the shirt off their back more than once in races. Ultra running is filled with small acts of kindness by complete strangers. In the final hours of a an ultra those small acts make all the difference. And lets no forget about the volunteers and crew who spend hours in the cold. Their smiling faces getting you through the night. Even though racing is a personal journey, it takes an entire community of people coming together to get you to the finish line.

  10. Hello Nate, that was recapped very well and very interesting to read. The best thing I love about the running/ultra running community is, EVERYBODY is so willing to help one an other in any way possible. I'm honored and grateful to belong to such a great community.

    For the Running Stupid WSER slot, the people who inspire me are Barbara Elia and Jon Olsen. They are both members in the running club I belong to (Shadowchase Running Club in Modesto, Ca). They both are the nicest and most down to earth people people I've ever met. They are full of knowledge, compassion, and are both very involved in the community. They always have time or make time to talk with anyone about how to better themselves in running and life.

  11. Thank you for the post. I too ran my first marathon in 2002. I ran it with Team in Training in honor of my uncle who survived Leukemia. I had no idea then I would become such a passionate runner.

    I am truly inspired by "Mama Lisa " Felder. She and Coach Al were my first coaches and I have the true honor of coaching with her on Team in Training's Ultra Team. She inspires me by her severe love and dedication to HER runners. When I say HER runners, I am describing any runner on any course anywhere who will accept her loving words, her caring compassion and her unending support. I have never met a tougher woman. One day I will grow up to be just like Mama Lisa!