Last May I ran my first 50 miler. It was sort of a personal challenge to commemorate my 60th birthday. This last weekend I completed my second 50 miler. I remember listening in on a conversation during a marathon I was running years ago that went something like this: “Some people run one marathon and then they check it off their bucket list and move on to other things, but after 3 it becomes a lifestyle.” The North Face Endurance Challenge was my 3rd ultra distance run…
I registered for this race knowing that it would be a challenge. In fact, a month or so out I was thinking it was perhaps too much of a challenge! The California version of this TNF Endurance Challenge is located in the Marin Headlands north of the Golden Gate Bridge, and it has what Iowa does not really have: “drastic elevation changes,” as the race description says, along with views of the Pacific Ocean, the San Francisco Bay Area, coastal scrublands, redwood trees and eucalyptus groves. The good news is that while there would be a lot of climbing and descending, there would not be much altitude to contend with because the race literally begins and ends at sea level. That said there were 9 major climbs and descents of 500 to 1,900 feet and the race ended with a run across the Golden Gate Bridge.
My coach Scott Gall had been out here a couple times for this race and so I relied on his recommendations. The race started at 5:00 am so the first couple of hours were run in the dark on fire lanes in the Marin Headlands. The Petzal nao+ headlamp I used was fantastic, and starting early meant that we started a couple hours before the sun rose. Because it was a clear day, we got to experience the sunrise in all of its glory! The fire lane portion of the run continued for most the first half of the race, ending with a section of single track switchbacks up to the high point of the course, an aid station appropriately name Cardiac.
My plan was to run this race based on heart rate staying in stay in zone 2 or lower at least for the first 2/3 of the race. That meant that I walked up plenty of the hills. Scott had told me that the hardest part of the race came in the second half and that was true enough! Leaving the Cardiac aid station at mile 23 the trail switched to a steep downhill single track. This was a 1,900 ft descent to the Pacific ocean with most of the slope in the last mile and a half. I found myself appreciating the downhill treadmill workouts that were the focus of much of the last month of my training, as I was able to maintain my speed downhill through some fairly complicated single track.
The Stinson Beach aid station was at the bottom of the hill and my support crew was there to meet me. I was feeling strong and exhilarated at this point. That was good because the climb back to Cardiac from Stinson Beach was even steeper than the descent. The second time through Cardiac brought me to a little more than 30 miles and to that place where I might start to fade. Leaving Cardiac, the trail was mostly single track through some beautiful old stands of redwood trees. By this point in the race I was hanging with pretty much the same people and probably because we had all been doing this for 8 hours at this point, we started to pace each other. So thanks, Cassie from Brooklyn NY. Your conversation and the 400 mg of caffeine I took at mile 30 made that next 10 miles among the most enjoyable of the race.
The trail went to another aid station we passed through in the morning, Muir Beach, and then up a steep fire lane we had run down in the morning, before coming back to the Tennessee Valley aid station where I again saw my support crew. From there, it was a climb back up the headlands to the Alta aid station and from there a more-or-less down hill single track to the parking area on the north side of the Golden Gate bridge, a run across the bridge, and then another mile or so to the finish at 50.8 miles.
There were some I heard on the trail that thought finishing a trail run with a run across the Golden Gate Bridge was not really in the spirit of trail running, but I thought it was great. You could see the bridge come into and out of view, growing larger and larger each time until the trail became a wonderful side slope single track that brought you down to the bridge filled with all sorts of people doing the things that people always do on the bridge, walking leisurely, taking pictures, standing in the way of others, almost none of them knowing that we just ran 50 miles to get there.
12 hours and 5 minutes and more than an hour longer than the time I completed my 50 miler this past spring, still, its was a race that was planned and executed about as well as I could hope and leaves me thinking there will be more…