Saturday, 25 November 2017

The North Face Endurance Challenge: a shortlived high and many lows

4am in a freezing park in Sausalito, Marin County, 12 hours after stepping off a plane in San Francisco, two days after running a work event in Edinburgh, three days after falling so hard on pavement after the first frost that my knee ballooned purple. I hadn't run more than 3 hours in a single run since the UTMB, and had struggled with training motivation, fatigue and filling life so full of priorities that at times I was breathless with self-imposed pressures. My preparation for this race was far from ideal and I tempered my expectations. Start slow, expect the struggle and stay with it.

Blindingly bright floodlights filtered across the field, lighting registration tents and an aid station. Yup, really; this race has pro facilities before you even set off. Coffee, fruit, bagels and peanut butter together with supplies of Scratch labs energy drink (my new favourite electrolyte. Sorry Tailwind, it's just not working anymore). And for the first time I've seen in any race there seemed to be enough Portaloos provided for runners, something to write home about indeed. 600 anxious bodies huddled around huge patio heaters  spread across the field, waiting for the 5am start and Dean Karnazes to appear for the motivational speech. The RD wasn't wrong when he warned it would be cooler pre-dawn in Marin than San Francisco. The colder we got, the harder I knew it would be to start sensibly slow. I'd been warned by coach Ryan Gelfi that starting paces are suicidal, so I wanted to stay away from the first hundred or so runners, at least. Dean appeared, sending us luck and strength on his local trails. Actually, I have no idea what he said, due to the buzz of nervous chatter on all sides.

Off we went. Leaving tarmac and light behind for darkness, a dusty trail and the first long climb of many, out of Sausalito. I've been coming to Northern California most years since 2010 and am head over heels in love with this state; the redwood forests, Sierra Nevada mountains, pacific coastline, unbelievable marine life and character of San Francisco, unique as cities go. I'd wanted to run on the Marin County trails for years, but was distracted by other challenges in the mountains. Here I was finally, with no shortage of passion for this place yet zero experience of what the trails were really like, where to push and where to ease back.

Ryan's course preview helped hugely, he gave me an account of what to expect from personal experience running the race several years back. So his words were fresh in mind, from the early miles until a milestone climb at mile 19, that the first four climbs were easiest and I shouldn't have a problem running them. I largely did, a snail's pace at times trying to run within a sustainable limit. As predicted, I was far from bursting with energy and strength, legs heavy and strength of mind wavering. The gradients were runnable, certainly more runnable than UTMB, but herein lay the pressure. Everyone running everything! No mental or physical breaks on the climbs, and when it came to the downhill sections that would otherwise provide the respite needed to recharge for another climb, my knee bothered me and I was fully focused on avoiding falls. If you like a level gradient in your ultra, don't sign up here. The course really has zero sustained flat ground, save a mile or two after the rolling Muir Woods section at mile 38 and before the finish in Crissy Field. What it does have is luxurious, butter-smooth trail over open, rolling hills, down dry and shady forest trails and dropping to white sand coves, with some of the best views of the San Francisco skyline I've seen.

On the climb out of Tennessee Valley, mile 13, I finally gave myself a hiking break. These climbs were starting to tear apart my morale already and I didn't feel much of the grit and confidence I had during UTMB. And then we hit the summit before the descent to Muir Beach, at mile 17. Simple beauty, almost too much to take in. It felt a crime to keep running and not savour the panoramic pacific seascape that stretched for miles ahead. I had stopped to take photos earlier, when the sun rose over the San Francisco skyline, and did so again. What the hell, I'm here to enjoy it and a few photo breaks aren't going to make or break my race or place, most probably.

Ryan had said that the climb up to the first pass through Cardiac aid station from mile 19-23 was the longest of the route, and I had this target to preserve and pace myself for. As it started, I reminded myself not to panic that it already felt a struggle. It takes a while to warm back into a climb and once you get going your body adapts and the inner metronome takes over soon enough. The narrow single track trail transitioned to an endless series of switchbacks up the mountain. If this was UTMB...I kept thinking. I'd be hiking hard, poles in hand, committed to a long climb and knowing exactly what was ahead. I suddenly felt the stark absence of poles, and realised what an unhelpful loop of thinking my comparisons to UTMB were. Back to the switchbacks, one by one. If I'm strong I should start passing other 50 milers here, Ryan had forecast. No sooner had I started on the switchbacks than a crowd of chatty runners appeared behind. Being a narrow section, passing was tough so a frustrating stop-start ensued to let them pass. I re-focused. The next set of switchbacks, keep a strong core, keep my head up into the climb. Another hoarde of runners approached, like a herd of charging buffalo. Am I crawling up this? I let them pass. Then yet another 10 or so women danced past, stride smooth and moving efficiently up the trail, as if it were a 10k race. I cast a sideways glance at the next guy passing and noticed his bib, blue for 50k. I'd totally forgotten about the 50k. Turns out it had started a few hours after us, bypassing the first loops of our course and passing through Tennessee at 3.5 miles. So they were just a few miles in, joining our course for several sections before we split. I felt better, but still had passed very few 50 mile runners. Onwards, and finally to the top of the four mile climb and start of a rocky, rooty, woodland descent to Stinson Beach. I found myself able to have more fun down here than I'd thought, passing a few women - including an incredibly noisy one who I am sure spurred speed in many a runner around that section - and a few guys, to reach Stinson and 27 miles.

After Stinson came the first of the much steeper, more technical second half climbs, with deep, slippery wooden stairs set into the hillside. And so began the power hiking. I had known this would come and enjoyed backing off the pedal and settling into a hike. I'd eaten fairly well so far and took the opportunity to take on another Torq gel. So far I'd had a Torq every hour, small bites of flapjacks, a few aid station salt-dipped potatoes and a few slices of banana (whilst wishing aids would just give out whole bananas, the blackening slices always less than appealing), as well as a lot of Scratch drink, still tasting great at mile 30.

Back at Cardiac, I ditched my Salomon gaiters, which kept popping off (despite seeing me through all the UTMB training, they now have a need to escape) and messed around with my drop bag to find some inviting fuel. Giles appeared re-applying sunscreen and I asked if he wanted to run together. I had a stark absence of chat but thought we could push the pace better together. Leaving Cardiac I was looking forward to what sounded like a beautiful 8 mile section through Muir Woods, which was advertised in San Francisco as a stunning place to experience the Marin headlands. The forest was cool and peaceful and I felt the rare fire of endurance for the next few miles. The sort where you feel your energy is boundless and you can pass runners again and again without emptying the tank. Unfortunately my tank was finite. By mile 34 I was struggling up short, sharp climbs again and feeling the fire retreat, despite eating and drinking well. Giles took the lead and I followed for a while, until we popped out next to a road for a mile, the reprieve of runnable flat terrain on tarmac and then on singletrack through thick vegetation. And then there we were back at Muir Beach, mile 39. A few seconds of refilling and refuelling and onwards for another 3 mile section to the penultimate aid. And a stinger of a steep climb from here, the one we'd cruised down much earlier as the backdrop of deep blue ocean opened up for the first time. It was a testing hike, with a few short sections of easier ground in between consistently steep rollercoaster hills.

When we reached Tennessee Valley aid for the second time at mile 40 I was not in great mental shape, having a sense of humour failure at my performance and time slipping by. I knew I could finish a 50 miler so was questioning what I have to prove and why I brought myself here. My right IT band was nagging and my quads toasted. I usually love the feeling of pushing on tired legs in the late stages of an ultra but couldn't seem to tap into that feeling no matter how hard I tried. I'd also miscalculated and thought we had 6 miles to run from here rather than 8. So sub 9.30 was no longer possible. The A goal of sub 9 had slipped out of grasp hours ago. The final major climb leaving Tennessee Valley is a smooth dirt track, and Ryan had said if I was able to run this rather than hike I'd be doing brilliantly. A few short stints of jogging were possible but that was about it. A few guys passed and we kept leap frogging until the final aid station at Alta, where I still felt shocking but decided to push with all I had for the final 6 miles to reach and cross the Golden Gate bridge. 

The trail to reach the bridge access point was nothing short of breathtaking. Winding single track with the towering curves of international orange framing the sky ahead, and the greenspace of San Francisco's Crissy Field and Golden Gate park beyond. On the bridge we were silenced by the roar of traffic and gentle upwards curve of the pavement. It ain't flat! At 1.7 miles long, I left the last of my energy there as we were directed towards the seafront bike trail for the final few miles to the finish in Crissy Field. I pushed hard until we reached the finish, crossed the line with Giles in 9 hours 42 minutes, 150th overall and 31st female, 10th in age category.

With perspective, my race reminds me of the Rules of Being Human (see below): "There are no mistakes, only lessons. Lessons are repeated until they are learned. Learning lessons does not end". Sometimes I feel I have gained mastery over my body and it can perform to my expectations. Sometimes it does not, and it's important to question why and learn from this. Negative thought patterns, IT band issues, general exhaustion do not have to be par for the course, and send me a clear message that to perform at my best this late in the year I needed to allow myself more space for training and preparation, both emotionally and physically. And maybe not fly out with less than a day to adapt to a new time zone. Somewhere between finishing UTMB and November I lost the love of climbing that summer training gave me. After such positive gains in strength from long training weekends in the alps I'd pushed my boundaries enough to enjoy and excel at long, demanding climbs by the time UTMB weekend rolled around. I didn't have the time or the training ground to recover and excel again for TNF. I'm taking away positives too; that it is in fact possible for me to get round a complicated loop course without taking a wrong turn (thanks to incredible course markings); run 50 miles without falling; and know without doubt what my body and mind needs over the next months.

Within half an hour of finishing TNF I was compulsively shaking and curled on the dirt next to an aid table, unable to stand for lightheadedness and waves of nausea. Giles took care of me, collecting drop bags and generally being superhero support despite having raced 50 miles hard himself. I'm pretty sure this is postural hypotension, and I've only ever had it after 100 mile races, West Highland Way and Western States. It's symptomatic enough that my body was working on overtime for this race. It may be connected only to pushing beyond comfort for the final few miles, blood pressure up and heart working overtime, before the sudden stop and no cool down whatsover. No doubt I'll now be aware of this in future races, and try to keep moving over the line to slow the pooling of blood in the legs and make every effort to claim that finish line beer!

A huge thanks goes to Ryan at Trails and Tarmac for keeping me accountable all year long, it's been an adventure. To Giles for looking after me, sacrificing his own post-race treats. And to all the wonderful race staff whose cheer made a difference to some dark places.

Full results here.


  1. Brilliant honest write up and well done on the finish. Sounds like a beautiful race and some good reminder lessons. I love those ten rules and may steal with pride. It’s nice (?) to hear I’m not the only one with low motivation post utmb and that’s a struggle itself. Take care and look after yourself. Ax

    1. thanks lovely :-) Steal away. I love them, need to have them in front of me at all times!

  2. Lovely to read this and reminisce about the bits of the course I've run and marshalled on :-) Well done! Rest up and recover well xx

    1. Oh cool didn't realise you'd been out too. What a place. Would love to give it a rerun one year when fresh :-)


The North Face Endurance Challenge: a shortlived high and many lows

4am in a freezing park in Sausalito, Marin County, 12 hours after stepping off a plane in San Francisco, two days after running a work event...