The North Face 50M – 2009

December 5, 2009

I read for several months in Runners World that there was a 50-mile championship race in San Francisco, put on by The North Face.  While I didn’t fancy myself a “champion,” I figured that there would be a lot of elite runners, but also a lot of regular runners (if running 50 miles could be considered “regular”).

I talked to Laura about this race at length, and it looked like the course would be somewhat similar to Miwok.  Now that I KNEW I could handle 62.2 miles, then how bad could 50 miles be (with a comparable time limit – 16:30 for 62.2 miles, compared with 14 hours for 50 miles)?  Laura even considered running the 50 miles, which she had never done before.

I had already decided to drive up and stay with my folks, and Laura decided to fly up and stay at a hotel.  We tried to make arrangements to meet up with each other, but that never really panned out.  I left Long Beach really early (to miss traffic at both ends) and then napped when I arrived in Oakland.  In the early afternoon, I ventured over to San Francisco to pick up my bib and giveaways (took BART over, walked to the The North Face (TNF) store, walked back, rode BART back).  The bib was oversized and the shirt was not personalized for the race, plus a crappy water bottle that I couldn’t use (like 9 ounces or something?).  Nice start, fellers.

Mom said that the Piedmont Choirs was having a special concert up in the hills, so I agreed to go as long as we did not stay too late.  We didn’t, except, the concert was late to begin with, and I didn’t get to bed until after 11pm!

I awoke less than 4 hours later, so that I wouldn’t have to rush.  I left the house around 3:45, and arrived near the starting line at about 4:30.  We had to park a bit of a distance from the start (glad that I had my number and didn’t have to take a trip back and forth to the car).  Laura was at the start apologizing to me that she had dropped back to the 50K (which wouldn’t start until 7am).  She felt that she hadn’t trained adequately to run 50 miles.  My question was, um, what is ‘adequate training?’

It was extremely cold at the start, so I was decked out in my full coverage – buff around my neck (to hook over my hat for extra coverage), black sleeves, and gloves.  I was wearing my favorite (at least in ultras) green Mt. Disappointment short-sleeved shirt.  I figured that if the temperature warmed up, I could drop off the gloves in my drop bag, and pull down the sleeves.

When the gun went off, I bid Laura a fond farewell, and headed off on the course.  All of us were on a street leading down to the trails and it was pitch-black out.  Our first course of business was a 5-mile long loop, heading up a steep road in the hills and then descending down a long, winding trail just short of the start.  Being dark, it was very nice to look up and see lights heading up WAY ahead of us, and also see a few lights trailing behind.

Heading down the hill was pretty difficult because the trail, although wide, kept curving, and I would step off into the bushes (and a few feet further was a drop-off).  I finished the section in 1:20.  From then on, I set a goal of 1 hour per aid station (regardless of distance) because that would afford me the opportunity to finish under 14 hours.  At times, this goal would be easy and at other times it would be ridiculous.

On the next section, I had a very good chance to reach this goal, as the section was just 3 miles, and I was no longer really in the dark.  Of course, there was quite a bit of uphill, but the course seemed quite familiar, because it now joined up with the early section of the Miwok 100K, and ran along the coast, then descended down switchbacks to Tennessee Valley aid station.

From Tennessee Valley, the course also ran the same section as Miwok.  We headed down a   paved road out from the farm down to the Coastal Trail.  Once on the Coastal Trail (notable because of a sign indicating how far it was to the Oregon border!), a rather steep uphill (my strength) to the top of the hill, a run along the coast and then a steep descent to Muir Beach.

Exiting Muir Beach, we slog along a sandy road, and emerge onto Hwy. 1 (not very busy, so this must be the Old Highway 1).  This is also the same as Miwok 100K (for now).  Volunteers help us across the road, and we turn onto Redwood Creek Trail, which parallels Hwy. 1 and then another street but raised about 10 feet above the road.

At the end of the trail, Miwok would turn right and continue to parallel the road, but here we cross the road and head to the Heather Cutoff, across a great grass field.  Looking off into the distance, I see runners’ heads bobbing up and down along a number of switchbacks.  At this point, also, I am being passed by a number of fast runners.  I assume this must be the 50K runners, who have made up the 9 mile stagger (I am 14 miles in, but they didn’t do the 5-mile loop we did) in a little over an hour.  (That’s either, “Damn!”  or “Damn, I’m slow!”)

The trail isn’t super steep, but it is relentless and there are at least 50 turns.  When we emerge at the top, we get onto a wider trail and head up to the aid station at Pantoll Ranger Station (back to the Miwok course again).  The temperature has warmed up, so I leave my gloves in my drop bag (though keep my headlamp in my pocket, because THAT cannot be stolen – I need it).

We are once again back on the Miwok 100K course, though I can actually see the ocean and the beautiful view that was not afforded to me on the race a few months prior.  This is a beautiful (if a little uneven angled) single-track that appears to be snaking through deep grass.  Every 10-15 minutes, the trail turns into a heavily wooded area for a minute or two before emerging back out into the open air.  It’s a nice break from the monotonous beauty (is that an oxymoron?).

The big “landmark” on this section is the rusted-out car we pass by.  Additionally, there is a lot of two-way traffic on this section.  The 50K runners (who have been edging by me on the tough uphill) turned around after Pantoll aid station, so now the people coming back at me are the 50-miler people who already reached the turnaround.  I missed a few of the leaders who already turned off the course (they come back to Pantoll from another route).

The trail eventually meets up with Bolinas Ridge Road, which we run along for a couple of tenths, before reaching the aid station.  There is a giant teddy bear greeting us, and I have run around 23 miles in 5:15.  (Cut-off is 6:15, so I am so-o good.)

From here, we retrace our steps back along the single-track.  I encounter a few runners who are behind me (maybe I am not all that fast).  I watch my watch (still the one lap 29-year old wonder) to gauge if all the people behind me can make the cutoffs.  When I get close to 25 minutes out, I do prod kindly that they should hurry if they want to make it (hate to miss those cutoffs!).

A few miles before we would get back to the Pantoll Aid Station, we make a sharp hairpin turn onto the Matt Davis Trail, which will now descend into Stinson Beach.  There is a young (21 year-old, I later learn) Hispanic guy behind me.  Every time I make a hairpin turn, I yell out, “Switchback!”  We remained within shouting distance for several miles.  We are still Facebook friends and our nickname for one another is “Switchback,” of course.

Although this trail is all downhill, it is not fast going.  Besides the endless switchbacks, there are roots all over the course, and most of the switchbacks are stairs of varying heights.  The overgrown trees’ branches jut out into the trail, and not all of them are 7′ above me.  It is difficult (let me tell you) to run and duck simultaneously.  You can, but after 6 hours of running, there is a loss in concentration, for sure.

At the bottom of the hill, we find ourselves in Stinson Beach, by the fire station.  We run along the road (Highway 1) and continue until we reach the Dipsea Trail.  This is a beautiful trail interspersed with stairs (of varying depth).  In the Dipsea race, I think there are something like 700 steps (that seems ridiculous, but I am not going to take the effort to look up the exact count now).  Luckily, I am not doing all of those stairs today (a lot of them, though).  Not far from Stinson, along the Dipsea Trail is Panoramic Highway, and that is the location of the next aid station.  I don’t know my exact time here (for 28.2 miles), but I guesstimated that I ran the marathon in 6:30.

From this aid station, we now head up a steep hill (and more of those infamous stairs) back to the Pantoll Aid Station.  Essentially, that means that the entire descent on the Matt Davis Trail is being regained at this point.  When I reach the top again, I have access to my drop bag.  Although it has not cooled off precipitously, I decide that I will put my gloves back on again.  I also decide (even though I have never done this before) that I will bring my disposable camera with me.  Due to the fact that my shorts’ pocket is not HUGE, I either have to hand-carry my camera (tough with water bottles in my hand) or wear my headlamp (on my head or around my neck – awkward) and carry the camera in my pocket.  I SHOULD just leave the camera, but I wanted to take some pictures, as I am rarely featured in pictures because I am towards the back.

Out of Pantoll, we head down through a rooty section and start heading downhill to the Muir Woods Trail.  Not far out of the station, I stumble on some roots and fall down hard on my hands.  Thank God I just put on the gloves and didn’t cut myself up!

This is a beautiful section, if a little tough due to the terrain, which includes at least 2 trees that I had to crawl through on my knees (other people might have been able to crouch really low, but not me), a somewhat ladder descent (because of a 10′ dropoff on the trail) and climbing along a fallen tree (now serving as a temporary bridge) connecting to a half-bridge.

There is substantial descent, but there is also a BIG hill with a whole bunch of stairs to climb to the top of a horrible hill.  Once at the top, however, then we head down on a comfortable trail (I was actually able to run at a nice pace for the first time in the entire race.) to the Panoramic Highway, and then run down the road for almost a mile.  It was good and bad – good that it was downhill and paved, and bad… that it was downhill and paved  (ouch!).

There are a whole lot of turns on this section, going by the “Tourist Club,” the Sun Trail and then back onto the Dipsea Trail.  This 6 mile section had it all, and was pretty difficult.  All I know is that I have to get to 36.9 miles in under 10 hours and 15 minutes.  I arrived in 9:40.  Phew!

Out of this Aid Station (Old Inn), we continue to head downhill until we reach another part of the Miwok 100K course (Deer Park Road) – the bottom of the fricking hill!  We wade through cattails and stinging nettles (well, as long as I stay in the center of the path, I don’t), cross a couple of wood bridges (with alternative paths for too-heavy horses through the water), and pass by Heather Cutoff (and marvel at the horrific hill I climbed earlier today).

We get back on the elevated parallel trail until we get back to Highway 1, the Pelican Inn and Muir Beach (just short of 41 miles).

Muir Beach Aid Station

Muir Beach Aid Station

Pelican Inn

Pelican Inn (Note I am wearing my headlamp.)

Now I get to retrace my steps out of Muir Beach, UP a horrible hill, along and down the Coastal Trail and pop out back at Tennessee Valley Aid Station.  A delightful surprise awaits me – no joke.  Eric Ellisen, who used to run with Riva (and somewhat, me) on Christmas Days is working the aid station.  It is really nice to see a familiar face on a challenging race.

Me 'n' Eric

Me ‘n’ Eric

Out of Tennessee Valley, we head back up the switchbacks to the top of the hill.  It seems somewhat familiar, but slightly different.  At a couple of points, I can see where I have come from and where I am heading, but… we are looping in a different way.  Also, now I am colliding with a number of different courses, as they are staging a 50M, 50K, half marathon and 10K simultaneously (with different starting times).  The one saving grace is that they are all marked with different colored ribbons… and the ribbon color matches your bib color (in my case, orange)… but there are a couple of times where it could get confusing, or a runner could just shoot off in the wrong direction (couldn’t tell you if the course lengthened or decreased due to the error).

Turn right!

Turn right!

There is an aid station less than 3 miles from the finish, and the area looks familiar to me, as I am now at the top of the hill I initially climbed in the morning – the same hill that curved around quite a bit and was scary to descend in the dark.  By the way, it’s now dark.  I’ve arrived at this last aid station at 12:51 (this is AS #11, so I am a bit off of the 1 hour per aid station goal), and I have 1 hour, 9 minutes for the last 2.8 miles… but it is always slow-going in the dark.

I head down the same hill (slowly, but I still almost go over the edge a couple of times – no joke) and encounter the initial road we started on this morning.  I have plenty of time to finish, but I DO want to be done.  It’s not like it’s a simple flat run to the finish.  I have to climb up (paved, at least) the road to a spot above the finishing area, circle around the entire area and then drop down onto the grass and finish.

There’s someone number-spotting and then transmitting the information to the announcer, who announces my arrival to the crowd of 10, or whoever is still there.  13:36 is my official time – I made it by 24 minutes!

Once at the finish (Laura is long-gone, having finished in 7:49, and could have finished the 50-miler easily, at least at that pace), I desire some food or beer or whatever that was promised, but there isn’t much of anything left.  Apparently, they didn’t tell the volunteers not to give stuff to the 10K and half marathon finishers (unless they paid separately), and they totally ran out of food.  I got a hard roll and some gruel-y thin soup.  I sat for a bit by a blast-heater.  It was REALLY cold.

Now I just needed to figure out how to get back to my car.  Laura had mentioned that she got to park right by the starting line (hmm… why did I have park further away if I am running the longest distance?).  The shuttle was not running any more, and I honestly did not know where my car was NOR did I want to wander around in the dark trying to find it (or at least in the light of my single beam headlamp).  Finally, a nice volunteer (I think related to the RD), drove me back to my car in her SUV.  Even with the heat on, my teeth chattered the entire way back.

I was very proud of my result.  On this non-technical trail (roots apparently are not considered technical) I finished exultant.  Normally, I would wear my shirt proudly, but nothing on the shirt indicated that I had accomplished something impressive.  The medal was not that great either, but at least the ribbon matched the orange bib and had the correct date on it.

Still, I would be willing to take the (North Face) Challenge again.





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