Race Report: North Face Endurance Challenge DC 50k Trail Run

I didn't wear closed-toed shoes for four days after this event, but otherwise, felt pretty ok... (this is my doofy-tired-proud face)

There was a time, not so long ago, when I would have proudly stated that I had no interest in ever running any distance longer than a half marathon, thank-you-very-much. And then I ran 15.5 miles at a trail race in the fall, and I was hooked. Moving off roads and onto trails, up mountains, and over streams made something click for me. With very little convincing from some fellow trail running buddies, I signed up for my first take at an ultramarathon: The North Face Endurance Challenge 50k.

The Preparation

I'm not going to lie: training for this thing wasn't easy. It was enjoyable, though, in ways I never would have expected, especially given that the first few months of 2017 were not particularly good ones.* In many ways, the training calendar for this race was the only thing that offered any kind of consistency or reliability in months marked by anything but. The 12-week training plan kept me sane.

After an exhausting but successful 24.5 mile training run, I was feeling as ready as I'd ever be to tackle this monster...

Flat Runner! Pre-race outfit planning.

... until the forecast started to come in. Two weeks out from race day, it looked like temperatures might be in the high 70s or low 80s (in other words, brutally hot for any kind of sustained running effort). The closer we got to race day, the worse the forecast looked: 84 became 87 became 89 became 91 with scattered thunderstorms. With no time to acclimate to warm temperatures (it was 54 and raining just four days before the race), my expectations for the race itself began to wane. I went from hoping to finish strong to hoping to finish to hoping to just be able to start. I altered my outfit plans for the day. I even cut another inch or so of my hair off so I wouldn't have to worry about keeping it out of my face (best haircut decision I ever made).

Pre-race Steeplechasers (though we're missing several in the photo)

Part of the reason I targeted this particular 50k was the fact that so many other runners from my local running club were running it. This meant company on the training runs, of course, but also meant there would be friendly faces at the race itself. With her permission, my Plan A for race day was simple: stick to Nicole's heels for as long as I possibly could. Plan B: Just keep moving forward.

I never had to resort to Plan B. Nicole stuck with me for all 31.7 miles, complete with our unofficial club motto inscribed on the backs of her heels for my all-day viewing pleasure. And seven hours, fifty two minutes and 58 seconds after we crossed the starting line, we were done. But first...

Race Morning

Hats off to North Face: this is one exceptionally well-planned event. Because of limited parking at the race start and finish area (in Algonkian Regional Park), runners and spectators had to park offsite at a nearby business park and shuttle to the start. The parking lot had port-a-potties on hand and the shuttles ran in a timely fashion; we were at the starting line by 6:10am for a 7:00am start. A friend of mine had picked up my bib earlier in the week, but the race morning bib pickup was right by the start, and had a line of approximately two people, so honestly wouldn't have been a problem to do day-of if early pick-up hadn't worked.

Because so many of us were running, the race let our club pitch the club tent near the start/finish, and we were able to stash our stuff there for the day.

Not a coincidence that we all sport the same hydration vest; recommendations go far with this group

After ditching our drop bags at the tent, reapplying Glide (or for some, Squirrel's Nut Butter), and a quick photo op with ultra-legend Dean Karnazes, it was time to line up. Nicole and I started in Wave 4, which kicked off the mat at exactly 7:05am.

Only the best XOSkin Shorts for these ladies

The Race Itself

This was one of the best marked courses I've ever seen--and that includes road races. Colored ribbons hung along the trail and each race distance was assigned a different color; to ensure you were going the right way, you just had to look for your color (the 50k was blue) and follow along to the next ribbon hanging. As an added bonus, turn-offs that weren't part of the course were marked with large "WRONG WAY" signs.

Steeps Eat Hills for Breakfast

The beauty (and difficulty) with this particular North Face course is how flat the course is. With the exception of a few major hills, most of the course is flat, packed-earth single track. This means there are less hills to climb, but also made me worried about setting a reasonable pace and not starting out too fast.

The first 13 miles sort of flew by in a daze. There was a bit of "I can't believe I'm actually doing this," and a bit of "It's not quite as hot as I thought it would be!" and a bit of "Oh this is a nice rain shower" mixed in with "goddamn this hill is steep." Most runners were in good spirits, and the aide stations were well stocked--though somewhat worrying was a lack of ice on display for runners to grab as the day heated up. We started asking for ice to wrap in our headbands by the second aide station, and never stopped (many thanks to Nicole, Paul, Crystal and other experienced ultrarunners for this tip for keeping cool; ice on the back of your neck does wonders for lowering body temperature).

I was unexpectedly hungry within the first 30 minutes--most likely because I'd eaten my normal pre-run breakfast so much earlier in the day than usual for my training runs--so I had downed a pack of beans and a Honey Stinger waffle within the first six miles. This put me in a bit of a bad headspace--I was worried about taking in enough calories, without making myself sick in the heat. But the decision to eat so much early on ultimately worked to my advantage; the hotter the day got, the less food I could stomach.

There was only one aide station where spectators could watch the race, and The Beard met us there when we passed through at mile 13.1 and again on the way back at mile 19. Though I felt pretty strong at mile 13.1, I was surprised at how much coming in to an aide station packed with people--and with my people (person)--really lifted my spirits. That, and I had the chance to split a clementine with Nicole.  It's the little things, I learned.

Re-packing the vest at Mile 19

When we came back through Great Falls aide station at mile 19, I was feeling stronger than I'd have expected, despite a few hot spots on the backs of my heels. I added a little extra glide, restocked my pack with more Clif coconut pouches (about the only thing I could stomach at that point) and shoved a handful of plain Goldfish in my mouth for some salt/carbs. On Nicole's suggestion, we also took out the empty ziplocks we'd been carrying and filled them with ice, which we carried in armpits, shoved into shirt, etc. to keep cool as we headed back towards the finish line. Two-thirds of the way done, and things started to get a little trickier.

As the day got nicer (read: hotter), the park and trails started to fill up. In some ways, this was nice, as hikers offered spectator support that wouldn't have otherwise been available. In some ways, it was a bit annoying, as not all of the hikers were paying attention or yielding the path, and it made for some seriously congested spots. Luckily, the further we got from Great Falls, the less this was an issue. Unluckily, the further we got from Great Falls, the more the cloud cover cleared, sun beamed down, and temperatures peaked.

The longest stretch between aide stations at this race was 4.8 miles, and as we pulled into the aid station after Great Falls, we were more than a bit dismayed to find that they were out of ice. This meant no ice in the headband, no ice to eat, no ice to use to cool off.

Too hot to take in any of my normal edible calories, but fighting off a headache I suspected was due to a need for electrolytes, this is where I broke the cardinal race rule (nothing new on race day!) and started taking cups of Skratch in addition to cups of water at each aide station. I knew I needed calories, and I knew I needed electrolytes, and I couldn't stomach anything I was carrying with me. Luckily, the Skratch didn't backfire (I'd had the chewables in the past, so was hoping the formula was similar enough to be safe), though I was still under-nourished for the rest of the race, by my best approximation.

Because of the heat and lack of ice, we walked a good stretch of the 23-26 mile trail, with a few running intervals mixed in. At one point, an ominous creaking above made me stop in my tracks, only to look up and realize I was standing under the tree that was about to fall. Shouting to the runner behind me to hold up, I moved ahead and we watched it crash to the ground--thankful to be on the far side of it, as I didn't think I'd have had the legs to clamber over it at that point in the race.

With the exception of the hills, most of this course is remarkably close to sea level (and physically close to the banks of the river)--which makes it perfect for muddy, sloppy conditions with the least bit of rain. Apparently, the rain showers we'd run through earlier in the day had been full on downpours closer to the finish, which meant parts of the trail were so sloppy and shoe-sucking that they were impossible to run on (they were barely walkable, really). The mud and the heat really started to take it out of me; I should have been excited about passing both my longest run mark (24.5 miles) and the full marathon mark (26.2 miles) and didn't really notice either. I was counting my steps by 10s to prevent my thoughts from wandering to the heat, my sore feet, and how badly I wanted a chair. I'd have given anything for a chair. I think I may have started daydreaming about ice. I didn't know it was possible to think so highly of chairs (or ice) until those miles.

I don't think I actually believed that I would finish until we hit the aid station at mile 30. That last 1.7 miles felt like the longest of the race (much of it was on asphalt, which killed my already sore feet, and in the direct sunlight as we ran past a golf course). The golf carts along the course did not offer us rides to our destination (how rude), which may have been a product of the fact that I'd run out of water somewhere between 30 and 31 miles and was resorting to drinking the melted ice water in the ziplock I'd been carrying to cool off, looking less than graceful in the process.

Stale (STALE) stale stale stale bagels

And then we were done. We turned a corner, and the finish line was 100 yards away, and I found my legs worked enough to actually run that last stretch.** We pulled into a teensy finisher's corral with browning bananas and the world's most stale bagels, which I tried to chew for about 10 minutes before finally managing to swallow them. See chipmunk cheeks:

THIRTY ONE (point seven) AND DONE: Me & Nicole at the finish, sporting proudly-earned medals and stupidly large smiles. I said it before, but I truly could not have finished this race without her support, guidance, and company.


First off, if you've made it this far... I'm sorry for the rambling. These notes are as much for me as anything else, and I'm realizing how much more there is to say about an eight-hour race than a two-hour race (that sounds so obvious when I write it out that I don't even know where to go from here). 

Secondly, because I've already been asked on multiple occasions: Yes, I'll probably do this again. I learned so much from this effort, not least of which is the simple fact that I am capable of doing this. I will never win races, and I will never place for time, but look: now I have proof that I can run 30 miles. If (when?) I tackle this distance again, I hope to be a bit more conscientious about my training; this round, I was really good about not missing more than one or two long runs, but the mid-week runs were frequently shortened and/or skipped altogether (or, when completed, completed at an easy pace without any tempo or hill work to speak of). In order to do this again without injuring myself, I also hope to maintain a base mileage of 20-30 miles/week through the summer, and work in more strength training to really kick this lingering hamstring issue (an overuse injury caused by lazy glutes and an imbalanced pelvic bone). 

Last, and most important, though, I proved to myself that I can still try something even if I'm not certain at success. For so long, I have stuck with safe goals, things I know I can reasonably attain if I just put my mind to it and give it a little work. Running this 50k--in 90+ degree weather--forced me to face things entirely outside my control (Dave's death, an awful weather forecast, a body that took longer for recovery than the "plan" called for) and take them in stride, adapting as necessary and being willing to try and fail, rather than fail to try.

My mantra for this race, as it is for so many ultrarunners,*** was simple. Relentless forward progress. One foot in front of the other. One set of ten steps at a time. One mile after another. 

Through hard work to the stars.
Or perhaps, through hard trails to the finish.

post-race, with medal


*My stepdad was admitted to the hospital in January with complications from multiple myeloma, and died in early February. In what became a way of marking the weekends in those strange weeks, he died the day we ran ten miles at Little Bennett, half of which I ran on my own and half with the group. I started early that day so I had time to get to his hospice room to visit, and am ever-grateful to have done so.

**In poor runner's etiquette, I actually finished a step ahead of Nicole (when she really should have finished first, since I'd quite literally followed behind her for the entire race as she both paced and coached me through it). But with blinders on and totally and completely focused on being. done., this thought didn't occur to me until the next day (Nicole, if you happen to read this, my sincere apologies).

***This is also the title of a book about ultrarunning that I have yet to read. Speaking of books about ultrarunning, though, I got a ton out of Training Basics for Ultrarunning, by Jason Koop (thanks to Nicole for the recommendation).




(by best approximation & memory)

  • Oatmeal English muffin w/ half banana and peanut butter (pre-race)
  • Lemon-lime caffeinated Nuun + lime juice + sugar cubes + 1/4 cup chia seeds in 24 oz of water (pre-race)
  • One pack of Sport Beans (within first 30 minutes)
  • One Honeystinger vanilla waffle (within first 60 minutes)
  • Two Clif coconut/mango/banana pouches (one within first two hours; one somewhere between miles 13-19)
  • 3-4 clementines (portions at every aide station after 19)
  • 3 1.5L bladders of water + cups at every aide station
  • 2-3 small cups of Skratch lemon-lime
  • Handful saltine goldfish (mile 13.1)
  • Handful stale pretzels (somewhere between 23-30)
  • Huma Chia PLUS Strawberry Lemonade gel (somewhere between 23-26)
  • 2 shot blocks
  • 8ish small boiled salted red potatoes (spread out over miles 13-23)
  • Baggies of ice (every aide station after the first); some of these I drank when they melted, when my pack was low on water
  • Roughly 1/2 cup concentrated Tailwind, frozen in a slushie

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