Friday, December 13, 2013

Race Report: 2013 North Face Endurance Challenge San Francisco - Gore Tex 50 Miler

The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile in San Francisco was my "A" race for the second half of 2013. The race is part of a six race series that includes similar "North Face Endurance Challenge" events in New York, Washington DC, Wisconsin, Georgia, and Missouri. Since its inception in 2007, the San Francisco race has become quite popular, as it incorporates some of the finest trails the Marin Headlands have to offer. A $30,000 prize purse also helps to attract some of the fastest trail runners in the world. The course crosses three separate parks: the start/finish is within the Golden Gate National Recreation Area at Fort Barry while the middle miles explore Mount Tamalpais State Park and Muir Woods National Monument. A nice mix of fire road, single track and stairs (yes, stairs) awaits those willing to toe the line at 5 am on a chilly December morning.

Gore Tex 50 Mile Course

50 Mile elevation chart
My training over the prior two months was spotty. A few quality mileage weeks were interrupted by a bout of food poisoning in November and a chest cold the week of the race. Fortunately, my long runs had been on the race course. I rested in the days before the race, hoping to show up healthy, if a bit under trained. My goal was to break 11 hours, and have fun doing it.

Twirly and David were crewing for me, and Victor Ballesteros graciously agreed to pace me for the last 23 miles. Race morning went smoothly: a couple Picky Bars and a banana for breakfast, and a cup of coffee to bolster that final trip to the honey bucket. Thankfully, the porta-potties were plentiful, and the lines were short. It was cold, around 40 F, but the air was charged with energy.

The scratchy PA system made it somewhat painful to be in the chute, so when my starting wave went off, I was happy to be underway. Four hundred runners trotting off into the dark along a gentle down slope was a nice way to start. The stream of lights stretched out as we began the initial climb. Everyone says it, but it is pretty cool seeing the string of lights ahead and behind. A glance up at the leaders made a fellow runner ask if mountain bikers were leading the pack! A surprising number of people elected to run up Bobcat Trail. I could understand the desire to generate some heat on this bitterly cold morning, but with 48 miles to go, I found it a ridiculous proposition.

That said, a soon as we gained Alta Trail, I picked up a jog. The descent of Rodeo Trail was interesting; I turned my flashlight on its brightest setting (680 lumens) to illuminate the rutted and overgrown dirt road. My light outshone those around me to the point that people were slowing down to let me catch up so that they could see better! I reached sub 9-minute pace on the descent, stretching my legs, before cruising through the first aid station. The constellation Orion hung above the black ocean at the foot of the valley. I was ahead of schedule, but I felt great. My cough had subsided, a body check yielded no niggles, and I was going through the Tailwind I had mixed in my pack. At the foot of Miwok Trail, I opened a Justin's Nut Butter pack and ate it slowly over the course of the climb. The sky was lightening to the east, and I kept glancing over my shoulder to take in the surreal scene of a string of lights coming up the valley, with the scattered pink clouds, barely discernible, hovering above a brightening horizon behind, and darkness and stars ahead. Along the way I met Kyle, from Spokane Washington, who was running his first 50 mile race. We talked a bit about the high desert, and our goals for the race. Kyle said he told his friends to expect him around ten hours.
"In that case, either I'm ahead of schedule, or you're way behind!," I said.
We bombed Old Springs Trail into Tennessee Valley, and I scanned the crowd for my crew. Mrs. CK yelled my name from the side of the timing mat, and I asked her if she'd seen Twirly, which she hadn't. Worst case scenarios began streaming through my head as I continued past the aid station. I finally spotted her at the back of the car, tailgate open, and ran up to refuel. My plan was to refill my hydration bladder, drop off my flashlight, and replace the nut butter I had eaten.

Tennessee Valley 1 split: 1:47/247th
I felt good about having a buffer on my splits, and jogged down the valley floor towards the Coastal Trail and the climb to Pirates Cove. Kyle ended up at my side again, although he dropped me on the climb. The sun was rising, and my headlamp was no longer necessary, even though the descent to the cove is pretty technical. I passed some runners on the descent, only to have them pass me on the climb out, complimenting my descending skills. On one hand, I totally appreciate the confidence boost that comes with other runners recognizing that I do, in fact, have some downhill skills. On the other, what good are downhill skills, if those I pass just pass me back on the climbs?!? I need me some climbing skills!
Pirates Cove conga line
Cresting the climb out of Pirates Cove as the sun rises
From the cove, I kept a steady state through the aid station at Muir Beach and into Frank Valley along the Redwood Trail. The volunteers and spectators were plentiful, and returned every one of my "thank you for being out here" comments with "thank you for RUNNING!" I held my place in a loose conga line all the way up Heather Cut-off Trail. I had wanted to run this climb as I had in training, but it was early and I was gun shy. Once I gained the top of the switchbacks, I did break into a run, and passed Kyle and Coach Ken on the way to Cardiac. The 50k leaders also came screaming by at a 7-something pace, which was cool to see.

Still ahead of my splits at Cardiac, I quickly found my drop bag, swapped packs and stashed my headlamp. A dry hat helped take the chill off, and I resumed an easy jog towards Pan Toll Ranger Station. About three minutes later, I realized I had left my ear buds and the zip lock bag containing my Ibuprofen and salt caps in the pack I had stashed. It was not the end of the world, as I was still feeling good.   I shrugged it off and made a mental note to grab the meds on the second go around in about 12 miles. The ear buds were only there for emergency motivation, and I could tell I wouldn't be needing that today.

Somewhere along the rollers of upper Matt Davis Trail, I realized I had to pee for about the 8th time, so I pulled over and let loose. I was hydrating well; a fine pilsner eluted as a train of runners passed me by. I latched on to the caboose end, and slowly passed each of them by before we took the out-and-back along Coastal Trail above Stinson Beach. The leaders had been through about three hours earlier and had fewer outbound runners to negotiate than us middle runners on the narrow single track. The rains of the night before the race made the downhill edge of the trail soft, and some sections were dicey. Outbound runners were directed to give way to returning runners, and my frustration over the 15-minute mile pace I was reduced to as I stepped to the uphill side of the trail was compounded by a biting, cold wind from the north. I tried to stay calm, finding solace in the fact that on the downhill return trip I would have the right of way and get back into my rhythm.
The leaders on Coastal Trail above Stinson Beach, photo by Galen Burrell
The McKinnon Gulch aid station had hot chicken broth, which took the edge off. I also began eating bananas with my nut butter here, something I would continue for the remainder of the day. I walked out of the aid station, finishing eating and texting Twirly my split and needs for the Stinson Beach aid station:
"Lving McKinnon at 9:50. Need Vit I, tums, hard candy, jacket and gloves"
I still had a 7-minute lead on my goal splits, and looked forward to the return trip along Coastal Trail. Going with the wind made it more comfortable, but the two way traffic continued to frustrate me. It seems about a third of the outbound runners had not gotten the memo about giving way, and it was difficult to determine who was going to step aside and who wasn't. I damn near body checked a couple of runners off the trail, as they took up the center line, forcing me to dance along the downhill edge, dirt sloughing off beneath my feet and shoulders askew. On a positive note, it was cool to see runners I knew, both to lend encouragement and know where I was in the pecking order. My elation at reaching the Matt Davis Trail and the end of the out-and-back bolstered my pace, and the descent to Stinson Beach (my favorite section of the course) felt positively awesome. I set a PR for the Strava segment, improving my best time by over half a minute. It helped that there was little hiker traffic. Either the unsettled weather or the race held the crowds at bay. The trails were blissfully vacant compared to my previous races.

Stinson Beach pit stop, photo by Victor Ballesteros

Stinson Beach aid station felt like a Nascar pit stop. Twirly and David helped me swap out my hydration bladder and clean up with a wet bandanna. Another dry hat, a couple of Tums and a replacement nut butter, and I was off again. The temperatures were so much more comfortable at sea level that I chose not to bring my jacket or gloves. I would rue that decision on the ridge lines for the next three hours. Leaving the aid station, I was still about 7 minutes ahead of my splits, which I knew would dissolve over the course of the ascent to Cardiac along the Dipsea Trail. Victor caught me up on the front runners and local favorites, doing an excellent job of distracting me from the climb. I filled him in on my nutrition and how the day had unfolded thus far. I was surprised by how strong I still felt, and he reminded me to take it easy on the steep climb when the adrenaline of having company had me pushing too hard. I passed a few en route to Cardiac, and remarked that I was feeling stronger than ever on the uphills.

About a mile out of Cardiac, I was passed by a diminutive boy who was just cruising along. Rather than try to keep up, I let him go. We would yo yo over the next ten miles, and I must say that the 13 year old from San Jose was looking fresh all day. It was pretty remarkable seeing someone so young out there crushing the course.

The second trip through Cardiac was brief; I grabbed my meds from the drop bag, and another cup of broth, which was too hot to slam. Victor, being a popular local runner, was greeted by a chorus from volunteers and runners alike ("he's kind of a big deal," says Jorge Maravilla). He flitted like a social butterfly while I added some water to the broth and we headed down the hill towards Muir Woods. Walking the technical downhill felt stupid, so I slammed the rest of the now-tepid broth and got back to running. Victor acknowledged his distraction at the aid station, which I shrugged off. He did an amazing job staying on top of my needs for the rest of the day.

The descent of the Ben Johnson Trail was probably my lowest point in the race. I felt tight, and began scuffing my feet on the technical, rock and root strewn single track. At one point, I caught my right toe and almost went sprawling. Victor counseled me to dial it back a bit, which I did, and try to get some more calories in me.

We hit the valley floor in Muir Woods and once again I found myself in a conga line. The climb that followed incorporated a lot of stairs, and I was able to make a few more key passes as I kept gulping calories from my Tailwind-filled bladder. I had premixed the powder 50% stronger than recommended, as I knew the cold temperatures would decrease my hydration needs. Soon enough, we had crested the steep climb and were clipping off a comfortable but quick pace along the Redwood Trail above Muir Woods. I was trailing a guy running in a lightweight shell, and his hood billowed out behind him like a dragster's parachute. Victor caught some video, and I must say, I was feeling pretty good for 35 miles in.

Passing through the Tourist Club was a bit confusing, as we all thought there would be an aid station there. So, we continued on to the Dipsea Trail and the descent to the Muir Woods visitors center, where the Old Inn aid station was actually located. In hindsight, it was actually ironic, as the aid station was marked on the course map as being in yet a third location. I joked with Victor about taking some of the famous Dipsea shortcuts, and rolled into the aid station needing only a banana and broth. I caught and passed the 13 year old there, as he was stuffing candy in his mouth and soaking up the compliments of the volunteers. I quaffed broth on the short climb of Dynamite Hill, and regained my pace along the floor of Frank Valley. The return to Muir Beach passed a trail junction we had seen earlier in the race. It was attended by hundred miler hallucinations.

Cookie Monster and Lego Man guiding the way, photo by Victor Ballesteros
At Muir Beach, I grabbed a zip lock full of banana and another cup of broth. I was feeling good again, and we ran the road to the hill, then power hiked up Coyote Ridge. It was here, hours earlier, that the front of the race was decided, as Rob Krar sprinted away from Cameron Clayton and Chris Vargo. I suffered a similar fate, as the 13 year old from San Jose trotted by going up the steep fire road. Once again, I let him go, as I alternated banana with Tailwind, and popped an S!Cap about halfway up the hill. The wind had built, and anytime the trail turned north I was wishing I had my jacket.

The climb out of Muir Beach. Coyote Ridge rises to the left, Pirates Cove behind. Hill 88 dominates the horizon.

Gaining Miwok Trail was invigorating, and I ran the descent to Tennessee Valley with good pace, although keeping my form for these few miles was uncomfortable; a blister on my right toe had popped, making for a painful push off. Victor told me to stay symmetrical and ignore the pain, it was temporary. I recognized JB Benna hiking up the trail and managed a quick "Hey JB" as we arrived at the aid station.

Tennessee Valley 2 split: 9:46/191st

After quickly changing into a dry shirt and hat and swapping my pack for two handheld bottles filled with Tailwind, I put my jacket on, grabbed another banana and cup of broth. The last climb of the day, Marincello Trail, stood between me and the finish line. Eleven hours was within reach, but I had become apathetic about the goal, and just wanted to have fun while the race lasted. I hiked at a good pace, although I was passed by a couple of people. Once I gained the Alta Trail, I agreed with Victor that I should run it in for the final four miles, which I did.

Alta split: 10:35/194th

The sun was nearing the horizon, reflecting off the Pacific Ocean, as I descended Rodeo Trail for the second time of the day. My pace was considerably slower this second time around, and a couple people blazed past me in search of a sub 11 hour finish. If the race were still a qualifier for Western States, I would have been right there with them, pushing hard. However, the arbitrariness of 11 hours made it an easy call to simply enjoy the end of the race, so we cruised along at a comfortable pace.

Finish: 11:02:49 198th place

I joked with Victor about where I could have shaved 3 minutes off my time as we approached the finish line. I couldn't believe how good I felt after 11 hours of running. The relief of finishing washed over me as I tried to comprehend the fact that I no longer had to run.

I was extremely pleased with my performance; no significant pain or GI issues, and high spirits for most of the day, except for a couple bouts of apathy, which passed quickly. Tailwind performed spectacularly, especially at the stronger concentration. I felt good, steady energy all day long and only needed two S!Caps in addition to the four cups of broth and two bananas. I wish I had grabbed my jacket at Stinson Beach, but I survived.

My crew and I checked into the Marin Headlands Hostel, I got into dry warm clothes and laid down for a fifteen minute massage. The party got underway as we huddled around a warming fire drinking Auburn Alehouse beer and cheering in the remaining runners.
Overall, the day was beautiful. The weather, despite being very cold, provided crystal clear views of the stellar course. The volunteers were numerous and supportive. The race organization was good, but faltered in a few spots; aid stations ran out of salt (I heard it all blew away!) and had no S!Caps, and the finish line festival ran out of hot food at 5 pm, which I consider to be unacceptable. I registered a complaint with the organizers, who somehow managed to produce more roasted chicken, but in the end the food should have been plentiful, especially for the back-of-the-packers.

Finish line with Victor, feeling good, photo by Chris Jones

I finished almost exactly middle of the pack overall and by age group, and was a little slower compared to all of the men. I know I could have put up a faster time, but I am happy with the results of my second 50 miler.
I am not sure if I will return to North Face 50, but I did enjoy the event. Fifty miles has yet to bring me to the edge that I am seeking through ultra running. Either I must find a more difficult event, I must push myself harder through 50, or I must try longer distance. 2014 holds opportunities for all that and more. Once thing is for certain: running is in my blood, and I hope it continues to open my doors of perception so that I may see what lies beyond.

The Garmin Data:


  1. We (the family with the painted face kids) saw you and Victor coming in that last quarter mile coming in strong! Excellent job and congratulations on the race!

    1. Thanks Brian, it was definitely my most successful ultra yet!

  2. Thanks for your race report! I was googling info on this 50-miler and your report came up, I've read quite a few different takes on this race but I think yours is my favorite for 2 reasons- after checking out your "about" page I see you're not a professional runner, nor have you been running for years and years, and secondly- you seemed to have fun on this course and not think it was too ridiculously hard. Everyone else just seems to try to be saying it's something you shouldn't even attempt without a lot of experience. Which leads me to my question- what would you think if doing this race as a first ultra? I've also been running pretty regularly since 2009, but only one marathon which I took slowly- I wasn't even sore after running it though, despite running it in sandals (prob helped actually), so...sure I could just get faster at marathons, but I do want a challenge. So just looking for the opinion if someone who has actually run this course. I'm interested in it because I'm moving out that direction this summer. Thanks for your report, again, and good luck with your upcoming races!

    1. I know a few people who broke their ultra cherry at North Face San Francisco, and they are all still running! The race covers the best trails in the Marin headlands, but there are a lot of stairs. I would recommend getting a tough 50k or long training run under your belt before the race; something with 6-7 thousand feet of elevation gain. Like any event, if you can put the training miles in, and make sure you are getting enough vertical, you'll do fine. NFEC is a fantastic race, and well worth your time. You'll find that Northern California is FULL of great races. One can find a worthy ultra every weekend!

      Thanks for reading, see you on the trails!