Monday, August 6, 2007

North Face Endurance 50k Challenge Recap

A Runner's Ramblings: Volume 2; 18th Edition 
363.52 miles raced in 2007
Race: North Face Endurance 50k ChallengePlace: Great Falls, VA
Miles from home: 21
Course Difficulty: (Describe per section below)
Course Enjoyability: 7 out of 10
Weather: high of 98; humid
Finishers' Medal: 7 out of 10

If you want the short version, allow me to give you what the timing company sent me:

“Congratulations Dane Rauschenberg on finishing the The North Face Endurance Challenge on August 04, 2007. For your records, the weather that day was Low 73 d F, High 98 d F, Avg 88 d F, Avg Dew point 68 d F, variable winds. There were 17 finishers in the Male 30 to 39 age group and 53 finishers in the Accelerade 50K division. Your overall finish place was 5, your age group finish place was 2 and your gender finish place was 5. Your time of 5:06:21.30 gave you a 9:53 pace per mile.”

Tells the story in a nutshell doesn’t it? But I know you want more.

The North Face Endurance Challenge consists of various race distances (10k, half-marathon, 50k, 50 miler) all ran on the same day. The 50 miler is the big draw as each winner of this race, held in 5 different cities wins $1,000. In addition, the top male and female finisher of each regional 50-mile race will receive a cash prize of $1,000 and a travel package to San Francisco to participate in the Championship event where the prize is $10,000. You can see the allure.

I had every intention of running the 50 miler on Saturday. Washington D.C.’s notoriously hot and humid summer had been tepid by comparison as of late. But with a week to go before the race, forecasts changed dramatically, and well, you can see what we ended up getting. While running in heat is something I find difficult, running in humidity is even worse. So seeing the combination of both, I opted for the 50k instead. I simply cannot tell you how glad I am I did that.

The morning of the race I woke up, got ready and shuffled out of the door around 5:30 AM. It was already in the upper 70s. Good Lord. By the time I drove the half hour or so to the start of the race it was well into the 80s. Good Lord part deux. I am rarely a carrier of my own fluid in races, more or less surviving on what is offered on the course. But I knew there were only going to be 4 aid stations (the fifth was 500 yards from the finish) and given the weather opted to wear my 50oz Camelbak hydration unit on my back.

I met and spoke with a few runners after picking my chip up and we were all lamenting the obvious heat wave we were going to be running in but felt it might not be that bad. We were wrong.

Start to Aid Station 1: 3 miles (Difficulty: 3 out of 10)

“This section of the course runs along a fairly wide, flat gravel road called Old Carriage Road for 1.2 miles until it turns left on the Ridge Trail, a double track dirt trail, for .8 miles. This portion of trail has a few small undulating hills, but is primarily flat. Runners will take a sharp right turn onto the Difficult Run Trail which runs along a stream for another mile, ending at aid station 1 and turnaround in the Difficult Run Lot.”

The course description was correct. There were a few hills to contend with during this section and the major hills were downhill which suited me just fine. However, I knew we had to climb back up some of those hills on our return so I didn’t pat myself too hard when I hit the first aid station one minute ahead of the pace I wanted to hit for this point (a 3:59 overall time).

However, within 5 minutes of running, even slowly, I was already dripping sweat. I knew this was going to be a day where I stayed as hydrated as possible. I sipped at my Camelbak whenever the thirst hit me.

Aid Station 1 to aid station 2: 5 miles (Difficulty: 7.5 out of 10)

“…runners will then turn sharply to the left and run for 1.3 miles along the River Trail, a very technical, rocky, and treacherous stretch along the edge of the cliffs of the Potomac River. Runners will reach aid station 3 located near the Start/Finish Line by the Great Falls Visitor Center.”

Holy crap, were they not kidding. From the get-go I was in fifth place behind a pack of four runners running almost Wizard of Oz style shoulder-to-shoulder whenever they could. I was doing my best to save energy and was already walking up the steepest of the inclines. The only other 50k I had done was earlier this year in treacherous icy conditions and finishing in 5:20 made me just so damn angry. As such, I had every intention of beating that time by an hour if not more. To do so, I needed to conserve energy, hydrate and run smart. Because of that, I was running my own pace.

Coming out of the turn-around at the first aid-station (where I simply grabbed one paper towel to wipe my face and a glass of Accelerade) it was enjoyable to see all the other runners coming the opposite way. Lots of “way to go”s and “morning”s were exchanged as runners slipped past each other on the narrow path.

After this, however, I began what was more or less a 28 mile solo run. Every once in a while I would catch a glimpse of a runner in front of me in a long-stretch but they would soon disappear over a ridge or around a turn. This made the section described above in bold to be not only difficult for the fact that is was hard terrain but also because I could not see if I was going the correct way all the time.

You see, for the most part, the course was well-marked. Ribbons of pink and orange were tie to trees or clothes-pinned to branches at most places where a runner may need to know where to go. But when you are literally inches from plunging about 75 feet onto shop rocks below and then having your corpse washed away by the river, your mind is on your footing, not on whether you are actually heading in the right direction. More often than not through this section I would look up just in time to see I needed to veer the opposite direction than I was heading. But with a fair amount of effort, I navigated slowly through this area with just a few trips and no falls and safely popped out the other side. A mile or so later I saw the start/finish line and new I was about to hit the second aid station. Even with the added difficulty of the rocks, I had only lost 3 minutes of total time from my intended pace. I was feeling pretty good.

Aid Station 2 to Aid Station 3: 6 miles (Difficulty: 3.5 out of 10)

“Runners will stay primarily on flat single track running along the banks of the Potomac River. A few sections of dirt road will mix in with the single track along this stretch of the course. Runners will also encounter a mile long stretch of hills where there endurance for climbing will be tested.”

The vast majority of this stretch was indeed a flat track right on the riverbank. On the way out of the aid station I saw my running friend and fellow Georgetown Running Company Team Member Luke Merkel rounding the bend. A young 23, Luke has already posted a 2:48 marathon PR in just three attempts. In the abysmal conditions at the Washington’s Birthday marathon (where I finished the always dastardly FOURTH…arrgh) Luke went on to win. This was his first ultra and we had exchanged a few emails prior to the race about strategy etc. I could see he wasn’t carrying his own hydration system and was hoping it would not come back to haunt him.

I tried to pay particular attention to this section as I knew it would be the final miles on our way back home to the finish. I tried to make mark of certain landmarks and at what time I passed them so, when I was tired as heck on the way back I could gauge how far I had to go.

At the second aid station I was still about half full in my Camelbak so I simply grabbed a bottle of water (my last pee stop showed really yellow pee in spite of my hydration and ergo I knew I needed water) and away I went. Dodging hikers and dog walkers, I soon lost sight of Luke again but was buoyed by passing runners of the 50 mile race. Even though they were running a much longer race, it is always a mental boost to pass anyone. I also noticed that I was feeling well in spite of the heat and humidity but was not sweating anymore. I knew I needed to drink.

Aid Station 3 to Aid Station 4 (Turnaround): 5 miles (Difficulty: 5 out of 10)

“Runners will continue along the flat single track for about a mile until they reach another stretch of hilly terrain, lasting about a mile. Once completed, the course is primarily flat all the way to the turnaround point… Runners will continue past the golf course on a single track dirt trail until they reach a gravel road for the last stretch to the turnaround point, and aid station 5. This stretch of road will be the only stretch of the course that does not provide much of a canopy to shield runners from the sun.”

I will say one thing for certain, the aid stations were well-stocked and very well run by the volunteers. They checked your number off of a list, had everything out waiting for runners to take (including PB&J sandwiches, cookies, crackers, icy cold wash clothes and a plethora of COLD drinks for the runners) and were very attentive to your needs. With my Camelbak empty, I had them empty a few Accelerade into it while I munched on a saltine. I needed to make sure I got some sort of salt in me but none of the other foods present were appealing. Refueling, feeling good, I headed out, thanking all of the volunteers.

Again the description of the next section (above) was quite accurate. A fair amount of flat running provided for each runner the opportunity to get the ball rolling and make up time. It was here I first saw Sam Thompson, soon followed by Dean Karnazes. Sam, as you may or may not know ran 51 marathon distances in 50 days in 50 states (including D.C.). Dean, a friend for a few years, has won Badwater, accomplished a similar 50 in 50 feat and is recognized as one of the premier ultra-runners out there. They were both heading back from the turn-around point at about half-way through their 50 mile race. Having started 2 hours earlier than the 50kers, I was hoping they would make it through the day. I slapped high-fives with Dean as he passed and set about my way.

Soon, I passed through the section with no canopy from the trees and almost immediately wilted. I will get to this later but I can only thank God that 95% of this course was covered by shade of some sort. The temperature by this point (9 AM or so) had to be close to 90 degrees and the humidity was like soup. But when you stepped out of the shade it was like you were a burger in a McDonald’s heat lamp. I sprinted through this section not only for that reason but also because I heard golfers teeing off and balls flying over head. That would be about the last thing I needed today!

I neglected to mention that not only myself but a few other runners made a wrong turn at one section prior to my seeing Sam and Dean. My detour was not as great as theirs as I could see them in the distance backtracking and realized what had happened. I could only hope this would not happen again.

A long straight stretch of gravelly road allow me to see that I was not to far out of first place. All four runners in front of me were either entering or leaving the aid station I approached and I felt good about my chances of moving up. I spent as little as time as possible at the aid station, but again refilled my Camelbak. I had now gone through 100 oz of liquid that I had carried, let alone what I had consumed at the aid stations. With 11 miles to go, I still felt relatively strong and soon was on my way.

Aid Station 4 to Aid Station 5: 5 miles (Difficulty: 6 out of 10)

How can the exact same section we just ran through have a higher difficult now? Simply because most of the hills that were present on the way to the turnaround were much more forgiving one way than the next. In addition, some of the marking had either been moved or misplaced because I once again took a wrong turn. Unfortunately, the wrong turn was down a hill so steep I almost repelled down it. But I had seen a ribbon and followed it. Seeing another on the ground after running for sometime (even though the area looked completely unfamiliar) made me run even further, thinking perhaps the ribbon simply fell off the tree. When the path led directly to the river’s edge with no path going either way, I finally figured out I made a wrong turn. I think a few more raccoons and deer now know how to swear.

Literally hands and kneeing it back up the hill I had basically fallen down in a run just a few minutes earlier, I knew I was wasting precious energy that I just did not have. Obviously a sub-4 hour finish was not going to happen but I felt maybe a sub 4:30 was still in the mix. Maybe 4:45 given the 10-15 minute detour I had just made. But I pushed on.

Hitting the aid station with only 6 miles to go, I told the volunteers about the wrong markings and said that I would not be surprised if I was the only one who was going to make that wrong turn (as it turns out, I was not. They might not have made that exact turn I did but a few other runners definitely followed the ribbons I had seen and ended up where they should not have been). The volunteers very happily refill my Camelbak again (yep another 50oz was drained) and I liquefied myself as much as possible. Opting only for water in my back this time, I took to the path. I figured if I could finish these last 6 miles in about an 1:10 I would at least finish well under 5 hours. A modified goal but a goal nonetheless I thought I could achieve.

Aid Station 5 to Finish: 6 miles (Difficulty: 6 out of 10)

Suffice it to say, this section was also more difficult for the reason stated previously. The hills were harder coming home than they were going out. And once again (although I don’t count this in the difficulty of the course), I took another wrong turn. Not nearly as bad as the previous one but still mentally crushing. Throw in the fact that now I could not keep liquids down and I was in bad shape. I took to actually walking for a minute a time after I would take a sip of my water, just to make sure that it would not come up. I was bleeding time. I asked every walker I ran into how far they thought I was to the entrance to the park (where I was finishing). I have never got more convoluted answers in my life.

I pressed on as best I could, doing everything I could to try and go sub 5. I had neither passed nor been passed by any 50kers (I thought) which made me think they too had been suffering from the heat and humidity. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, I saw the last aid station. I grabbed two glasses of water, one for my mouth hand the other for my head and began to sprint the last 500 yards. Having already passed 5 hours, I wanted to at least keep it in the 5:06s. Luckily I was able to cross the finishline before collapsing in a heap.

It ends up that the winner of the 50k had actually been in 7th place for the vast majority of the race. Not only did he pass me on one of my extra training runs through the woods, he passed EVERYONE as we all got lost at one point or another in the last 6 miles. Not good. But all in all I am pleased with my performance given all of the conditions.

* Aid stations were stocked full and volunteers at the aid stations were very helpful in assisting runners get what they needed and give words of encouragement.
* The course itself was not all that difficult. There were some hilly sections and some technical running but nearly 20 miles of the 31 were probably very flat and forgiving
* The vast majority of the course was shaded from sunlight. Not only was it a rather attractive course to run on, but the planners wisely kept the runners under the canopy of trees as much as possible. I cannot even imagine how hard this would have been if it had been in direct sunlight. I would not have finished.

* The choice of the time of year to run this race. While D.C. had been relatively cool lately, 9 times out of ten this is exactly the weather you will get in August. I have been asked if I was going to run the Drake Well Marathon again this year around Christmas time. To begin, my desire to run a “real” marathon in Titusville far outweighs by desire to run another one around a track (so much that I have actually mapped it out already and have elevation profiles of the whole thing). But more over, the fact that it was 33 degrees with no snow or precipitation on December 23rd in NW PA is astonishing (It was only the second time in 20 years Titusville had a green Christmas). I say that because the point I am making is you have to play the percentages.

*While I do not count weather into my difficulty rating of a course usually, if the weather will always be that way (for example, the Cayman Island Marathon is always going to be hot and humid. As such, the weather is part of the course in my opinion and must be counted as part of its difficult) then it has to be considered. So, if you want to utilize the course here in DC (which I think they most assuredly should) you have to move it to later in the year. Heck October, while not a sure thing to produce cool temps, is a much SAFER bet than August!

* Amenities and aid at the end of the race. Because it was a park of some sort, no unwrapped fruit could be brought into the race. Given the rate with which runners were staggering into the finish in need of potassium and salt and help, the liquids provided were not enough. And while nice and semi-helpful the EMTs on staff really did not seem to have the most solid grasp on how to handle those who were dehydrated and exhausted. Not a knock on the help as I am sure they are good people, they just did not appear to understand the needs of 50k and 50 mile finishers in such extreme temperatures.

Some tweaks need to be made but this race has potential to be a very good one. If run later in the year, I would assuredly run it again. In addition, Luke did finish and lamented not carrying his own water bottle. But some of the best lessons are learned very in the harshest manner. I also made a few new friends, a few new running contacts and ran into a guy, Andy Barrett, who I happened to run against at the PT Cruiser Challenge in early 2005. You may recall this was the race that really set me down the road to running not only Fiddy2 itself but also testing my limits as a runner. To see him was like a small time warp to a time before I even knew what I could possibly do in the running world. It was amazing to me how short of a time ago that was and how much I have actually done and seen since then.

I have two races this week to look forward to and here’s hoping for two new PRs!


klottey4 said...

nicely done in tough conditions.

Brad said...

Heat and humidity can really change the dynamics of a race! The aid stations seem pretty far apart for a 50k. Good luck at your next two races!

adbarrett227 said...

Dane's summary of the race is well said. I enjoyed everything about the race except the weather. I should have adjusted my initial time goal based on the heat, went out too fast and paid for it as the mercury soared. I also made a wrong turn in the same area as Dane. I and 4 other runners searched for the correct trail losing at least 10 minutes contributing to a dismal 6:33:51 finish. My thanks to Dane for the words of encouragement out on the course.

Devon said...

Way to go Dane! You rocked it, especially under not so nice conditions.Congrats!

Yellow Scuba said...

Congratulations on a PR in really ugly conditions. It may not have been the finish time you'd hoped for, but it was still a PR!

Alan said...

Nice run under tough conditions Dane. The weather alone can wear you down physically and mentally but then add the course markings that got you off track a couple of times and it is extra tough mentally.

Congrats on the finish.

Cheryl said...

I am so pleased to have found something written about this race! So far, the North Face has not posted any kind of summary that I can find. I ran (and finished) the 50 mile event and it is really nice to read Dane's description. I agree with every word! It was quite a race :)

Dane said...

Thank you Cheryl.

Did you notice they just TODAY removed the 50 miler in CT? For a varietty of reason that is surprising to me.