The North Face Challenge Utah 50M (DNF) – 2016

September 24, 2016

The last time I ran a North Face race was in San Francisco in December 2010.  I had completed their 50 miler one year earlier, but due to changes in the course (and total distance), I had been pulled 13 miles from the finish, even though I was maintaining a pace fast enough to finish within the time limit (but you have to abide by the course rules).

Post-race, I pretty much vowed not to run another North Face event, just because they don’t seem to have their stuff together, so I was apprehensive about attempting this event, but I do like a challenge and I had never run a race in Utah (mostly had not been in Utah other than to the airport).  Also, this was a good opportunity to visit my friend Darcie Olk who lived in the outskirts of Salt Lake City (and we have the running and the ultrarunning in common).

On Thursday, I drove to Utah, stopping once in Vegas to refuel the car, and arriving in Utah in early evening (about a ten hour drive, plus the one hour time change).  By the time I got to the SLC outskirts, it had begun to rain, and Darcie had warned me that the weather was a little iffy.  When I picked up my bib at the North Face store, it was downright pouring.  (The good news was that the Sam’s Club gas station was really close to the North Face store.)

The check-in process seemed disjointed once again, although they did allow people to register at multiple sites, so numbers were not pre-assigned, but the person at the table seemed ill-equipped for any questions or concerns, and yet she told me that she works most all of the events.  I hope this isn’t a foreshadowing of what is to come.

Once I was all checked in, I then moved to find Darcie’s house.  I had some difficulty as the visibility was bad due to the rain, the roads were under construction and had changing lane positions, AND no raised bumps.  I fear I was driving erratically along the road (it was explained later that Utah roads can’t have the raised bumps because snowplows can’t work on those.)

After driving around and doing a bunch of U-turns, I eventually found Darcie’s house.  It is a beautiful multi-level house on a cul de sac, and a little bit mountainous (I believe the Revel Big Cottonwood Marathon is run near here.)  The rain was coming down quite a bit and I was greeted by Darcie’s dog at the door (don’t think he was too excited about the rain, either).

It was pretty late and Darcie’s boy had already gone to bed, but he still woke up briefly to say, “Hi.”  I ate something light (leftovers from my drive and some soda) and tried to get a good night’s sleep – as I probably will not on Friday before the race.

On Friday I awoke with a headache and clogged sinuses – probably a combination of the altitude and the change in climate.  I stayed in bed for some time trying to overcome the headache, but eventually had to take some Ibuprofen to counteract it.  Darcie was away at work and I was going to watch some TV, but couldn’t find the remote and ended up watching some Netflix on my laptop

Had a nice early dinner with Darcie and Logan – some Orange Chicken in her new nonstick skillet, and I did my best for an early night to get ready for tomorrow.

Since the race starts at 5am, and Mapquest says the drive is 45 minutes, I decide I should allow at least 90 minutes, in case there is traffic (ha!) or I get lost.  The directions look straightforward, but you never know.

The cold weather indicator came on in the car and stayed on for the duration.  I think it is snowing lightly, but the road seems to be OK for now.   The exit for Park City is super clear and I just follow the roads as marked.  A little confusion at the end, but I do spot the huge parking lot that was indicated on the map.  Weird thing is, is that I don’t see anyone in running gear (yes, I am 45 minutes prior to the start, but I feel I should have seen someone by now).

I wander around the outside area by some hotels, by some (closed) shops, and I don’t see anything.  It is a bit concerning, as I would like to leave off my drop bag and just get settled.  Finally, on the complete other side of the buildings (no signs indicating anything by the way and pretty much totally silent) I spot some stuff set up.

I find a tent that says “drop bags,” but none of the tables are labeled and the person in charge is (of course) clueless as to what is going on.  I actually sort of take charge myself and say “Put on this table for this and that table for that.”  Someone else comes to explain what’s going on and we redirect some of the bags.

I head over to the start and about 15 minutes prior to the start, they make an announcement that the race will be delayed by 30 minutes (and no, we will not get an additional 30 minutes to finish – I am concerned).  If we want to drop to the 50K or marathon, we can do so “free of charge.”  Despite my concerns, I didn’t drive out here for some 50K or marathon, so I will take my chances.

The reason for the delay is that they have had quite a bit of snow and it has covered the flags at higher elevations and they are going to uncover them for us.  It’s not enough to cancel the race, however.

They also tell us that they have opened up one of the hotel lobbies so that people can hang out there (inside) for the additional 30 minutes and stay a bit warmer.  I am pretty much the only person wearing shorts, though I do have a Tyvek jacket on to keep a bit warmer.

I follow another (older) guy to what we think is a hotel lobby, but I think it was the office for a real estate firm.  No matter, because we have it to ourselves and it is inside.  I nap a little bit and try and gird myself to go at a faster pace so that I can still finish the race under the now 14.5 hour time limit.

At 5:25, I get back to the start to line up and head out.  It is snowing lightly now and pretty cold out.  It is pitch black out, so I hope it is well-marked.  And… go!

The first stretch is a light gravel road, with few undulations and not much elevation gain, but within a quarter mile, it heads steeply uphill and into a rocky, muddy, wooded single-track.

I am able to run for a bit, but I am not sure of my footing in the dark and do not want to break anything, so I let a number of people pass so that I can maintain a more suitable pace. At times I am hitting my head on pine tree branches and getting showered with snow.  I bet the scenery is beautiful, but in the dark you can’t really see anything.

I get to the first aid station (4.2 miles) in 72 minutes, clearly off the pace I need to be at (something like 15 minutes/mile) but I knew that dark running is going to be off pace.  As I leave the station, a volunteer says something to the effect of “follow the yellow ribbons instead of orange.”  (The one thing that I always liked about North Face was that the course markings matched the color of the bibs.)  There is no explanation given as to what this means, though.

For the two miles out of the aid station, I followed yellow AND orange markings.  It began to get lighter out and I could see the extent of the snowfall, which had blanketed the entire course.  A very pretty white.

I came out into a wide open space and began heading up a steep fire-road.  It was a bit slick, even in trail shoes and I could see everyone’s breath in the frozen environment.  As we turned left and began to traverse the hillside  on a narrow single-track, I noticed the orange trail to the right blocked off and a volunteer directing us along the yellow trail.

I looked at my pace sheet and figured that there was not going to be an aid station in a mile now, because I was on a different route.  What route remained to be seen.

Along with my regular Timex watch, I had the GPS watch.  I knew that it would not last the entire duration of the race, but it is useful to me so I can see my pace at any given moment and know whether I need to push it a bit more.  My pace sheet wasn’t going to be much help, because unless I knew the distance, it wouldn’t be of much use.

I got an eyeful of what I guessed was the 50K, marathon, half marathon, or shorter courses, because there were all sorts of ribbons out here (but I kept following the yellow).

Up ahead, I saw someone directing traffic.  He told me to continue to the right, up the hill, and I would see him again on the way down.  I was kinda hoping this was the next aid station, but he said it was close by.

It was close by, but you kept seeing people on the road above you and realized it was a bit of a climb.  When I did finally get there, the volunteers were a little out of it, because they had not planned on being at this aid station today.  They were friendly though, even though they did not have any further information about what the revised course was, though they thought that maybe this was the half marathon course.

This 6.4 mile section took me 97 minutes, which was a little closer to the needed pace.  I’m hoping for a little bit of downhill where I can make up some time.

I wound back down to the guy directing traffic.  He didn’t have any additional information for me, but did point me towards the downhill and said that the next aid station was less than 3 miles away this time.

The trail was rocky and dangerous, so most of it was not the type of downhill where I could make up a lot of time.  It was apparent, at this point, that I was heading back down towards the starting line, and if I did the math, I was indeed on the half marathon course.  Doing some quick math (13.1 x 4), it looked like 52.4 miles, unless we could skip something to make it shorter, since it did not seem particularly fair to shave off 30 minutes from the time limit AND add 2-1/2 miles.  Hopefully, they would tell me more at the next aid station.

So, we didn’t go all the way to the start, but to a trailer about a quarter mile from the start, where they had laid out all our drop bags.  I didn’t need anything from my drop bag, except information, of which I did not get anything.

The excitement, right now, however, was that the marathon was starting.  Right now!  So suddenly I went from basically by myself to surrounded by 80 enthusiastic runners.  I did chat with a few of them telling them how much better it was now that the sun had come up.

The downside at this point was that I was stuck behind the slowest of the marathoners and that the course had become super muddy as the snow melted into the dirt.  The plus, maybe, was that, since I now see, I could run some of the flatter sections.

Once back to Aid Station #1 (Part Deux), I was not much faster (79 minutes).  This was cause for concern, because you do get slower as you move through an event, and I didn’t even know what I needed to do to finish.  Volunteers still had no clue about what the course change meant (or whoever knew didn’t say).

Course continued being muddy and the narrow single-track cutting through the snow, was now a narrow single-track cutting through mud and a hillside.  Otherwise, it seems about the same as the first time.  Maybe my advantage is that I know what’s coming up and can modify my pace accordingly (or not).

Back to Aid Station 2 (2.0), and I am 11 minutes slower here as well.  Looking less likely that I can finish this race if indeed it is going to be MORE than 50 miles.  (No updates on the course still.)

I pushed as best I could down the hill and I did manage the same time as before.  At the bottom, I FINALLY got an update.  I have 3-1/2 hours to complete another loop and then an additional 3-1/2 hours to do a 4th loop PLUS the quarter mile to the finish.  While 3-1/2 hours for a half marathon is reasonable, I have just completed a marathon in 7:27.  I doubt I am going to get faster, but I am game to try.

I do my best to hustle up to the first aid station (dritte parte) and even without darkness and slower runners impeding me, I lose yet another 5 minutes from the last trip up.

Then, coming out of the aid station and in the section before the single-track, there are bikers coming down full speed on the trails – trails that are marked “no bikers.”  So, the resort limits where we can run but they are not enforcing their no bike rules today?  (Even if a miracle were to happen at this point, I don’t think I would ever come back to this God-forseken place.)

It is becoming clearer that I am not going to be able to finish the race, and getting hurt and missing the cutoff by 5 minutes isn’t worth it.  When I get to the penultimate aid station, I am already at the 3-1/2 hours.

The good news for me is that I can walk down the hill at my own pace and not hurt myself.  The bad news, yes, I’m not finishing this stupid race.  I am pretty peeved, because no one seemed to know what was going on until 7+ hours into the race.  Nobody!!

When I get to the trailer, they direct me to go to the finish line.  The lazy announcer says my name, people clap (despite me saying I didn’t finish the race), and they hand me a medal and a water bottle.

I ate my chicken leg, salad, and roll, plus “free” Sierra Nevada beer and then I got the heck outta there.  I probably would have punched the race director if I had a chance to talk to him, and gauging the response I got after the debacle in San Francisco 6 years ago, I wouldn’t be any more satisfied.  They cater these things to elite athletes and couldn’t give a shit about regular runners.  It’s apparent from the lack of effort – the first two years, I got nondescript shirts (no race information or dates) and a nondescript medal (at least the ribbon had the date of the race).  This year, it was the lowest quality tech shirt and an ugly design.

I drove back to Darcie’s and enjoyed a fun block party.  (Someone found her TV remote near one of the bounce houses down the street.)  Met some of the neighbors and watched everybody get really drunk.

In the morning, I drove back to California.  I decided to stop in Nevada for dinner, but ended up having a grody buffet in Stateline.

POSTSCRIPT: I badmouthed the race on Facebook and that earned me a personal call from the race director.  He said that he had race directed ALL TNF races for the entire duration of the series and that, in fact, he himself ran ultras.  Apparently, true, but hard to believe that he is so clueless about what runners need or want.  (I myself have assisted with ultra events, and stuff comes up and those people do their utmost to keep runners informed as soon as possible.)

The guy gave me all sorts of excuses about not having time to inform runners, but having informed aid station captains (but maybe not telling them to tell runners?).  The other junk about “the race could’ve been cancelled.”  (I understand the race can be cancelled, but if you are not cancelling the race, you still keep everybody informed.

If you do read all the way to the end of this, don’t do a North Face race.  I should have learned my lesson six years ago, but I thought people learn, people change, but North Face hasn’t.  They are probably a great mountaineering company, but they are just not right for runners.

 

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