Saturday, December 6th I had the pleasure of toeing the line at the North Face Endurance Challenge 50k being held up in the Marin Headlands area (this race turned out to be a 50k+, as they told us at the start line that the distance was somewhere between 33-34 miles, not the standard 31...ahh well, at least they didn't charge us extra for the bonus miles!!!). Actually, there were four distances available to runners - 50 miles, 50k, 1/2 marathon, and 10k. The 50 mile race was billed as the "championship," the final race in a series of events held across the country throughout the year. The top male and female finishers would take home $10,000 - the biggest payday in ultrarunning! As such, there were some fast folks lining up for the chance to get paid.
The start was near Rodeo Beach (actually, the start was from Fort Barry), and the 50k course took runners through Tennessee Valley, Muir Beach, and out to Pantoll before turning around and heading back on various trails, including a section of the Dipsea Trail. The views were gorgeous as the day was clear and sunny, though a bit windy in some areas. Cool temperatures made for ideal running conditions, and The North Face did a good job of marking the course and stocking the aid stations with supplies and volunteers.
I started out fairly conservatively, which was not typical of most of my races. About the nine mile mark we started on a long climb gaining about 1,500 feet over four miles. Up till then I was trading places with three friends running together, and just before the climb they passed me. I decided it was a good time to push my uphill pace a bit and attached myself to the back of their "train." They set a comfortable pace and before I knew it we were at the top, at the Pantoll aid station. A little bit before the top, though, I came up on a friend from the Santa Cruz Track Club, Diane Delucchi, who was looking strong. I found out later that she was having a tough time early on, but I would have never known from seeing her steady pace going up that hill. We exchanged cheers for one another – it’s always nice to get a little motivational bump from a friend on the trail.
Speaking of friends, I saw Carol Cuminale at a couple of the aid stations, and she always had a cheer for me as I came through. She was going to be pacing Diane later in her 50 mile quest, and was out meeting her at some aid stations to make sure she had what she needed in the early goings.
Just before arriving at the Pantoll aid station I was running alongside another guy and we started chatting. At one point he took a look at me and asked my age, which I was more than happy to share. He indicated we were in the same age group (40-49), and that he believed there was only one other person in our age group ahead of us. I was somewhat surprised at this, and figured he was being a bit optimistic. As we entered the aid station, I saw him veer off to the drop bag area, while I continued to the tables to get my water bottle filled and grab some food. I was back out on the trail within about a minute.
The next section was a blast, as we lost most of the elevation we had just gained (ain't it always like that?!?) running through the Steep Ravine section, next to a beautiful creek. This was a very technical section of trail, and you really had to pay attention here or you were bound to take a tumble and risk losing some teeth, or skin, or something! Before long, the trail headed back up, then down, then up, then down...there really wasn't much in the way of flat spots on this run - the overall elevation gain for the 50k was about 6,900'.
Winding around here and there, we eventually ended up back in Muir Beach and started a long, steep, grueling climb. This one kicked me in the stomach, so-to-speak. As I got to the top, I had a stitch under my ribcage that pestered me for a little while until it finally went away. I was getting a bit tired (imagine that). From here on out, I ran (if you can really call it that) the downs and what little flats there were, and walked as fast as I could muster on the ups. I passed a few people, and was passed by a few people, but managed to keep up steady forward progress. Hitting the last aid station, the final couple miles (except for the last half mile) were down hill. Though my stomach was a little sloshy, I ran as best my legs would let me, and sprinted the final 800. I crossed the finish line in 6:09, which I was quite pleased with, and immediately looked for a seat.
The North Face had a little "expo" at the finish area, with a nice spread of food. I spent some time chatting with people and sharing stories of the day before my appetite kicked in. After shoveling some food down, I wandered over to check the results, mainly to see who won the big prize in the 50 miler. To my utter amazement I finished in 19th place overall, and 2nd in my age division! I couldn't believe it. Now, I'm a decent runner, not really speedy, but I do posses pretty good endurance, determination and motivation - but 2nd?!? Then I realized why - most of the folks I would typically run against in my age division were in the 50 miler (and another 50k race being held in Woodside), so that left a little softer field. At any rate, I'll take a 2nd place finish any way I can get it, and am not only happy with it, but proud, too. I also got some extra stuff for the age division placement - thanks North Face!
As always, the ultra community was fun and supportive throughout the day. It was great to see all the spectators out along the course cheering the runners on. The North Face did a great job with this event, and if anyone is looking for a fun entry into trail running, or ultrarunning, this could be a good opportunity to give it a go. From what I understand, they will be having the championship event here again in 2009 around the same time. I think I may just have to run it again. Who knows, maybe I can improve my...time? ;-)