North Face Endurance Challenge 2011
In 2011 I haven’t raced much. I think I was a little burned out from all those Ironman events. I engaged in other things, mountaineering and trail running (see previous Trans-Sierra-Express post). It was nice to stay away from the crowds and the commercial buzz of all races. I had signed up for the San Francisco marathon to run with a friend but he broke his foot so I skipped.
So I really entered only two events this year but they were truly unique. One was the Amsterdam Marathon that I ran with my son and the second was the North Face Endurance Challenge 2011 50 miles trail run. Both runs were truly special. I wrote about the Amsterdam Marathon previously. Here’s the NFEC race report!
The NFCE 50 miles run takes place just north of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. A majority of the course covers run-able fire road (very little technical single track) overlooking the Pacific Ocean with occasional glimpses of the Golden Gate Bridge. Here is the map and most of all… the elevation chart! The course was actually 51.2 miles and counted over 10,000 feet of climbing.
The area is a protected area. We saw very few roads and man-made installations. Coastal Miwok native Americans used to live there, in harmony with nature, until the invaders exterminated them. It was a constant theme that was recurring through my mind during the run: this is the Earth the way it’s been for a long time, people lived here, it was simple. Simple like running barefoot through nature!
TRAINING PLANS VS TRAINING PRINCIPLES
I’m not a big fan of training plans. I’d rather follow training principles – training plans, even a self-designed one, are too rigid and can lead to sickness and injury. To train, because I have a solid endurance base, all I did was increase my mileage on my weekly long runs. My first attempt was 33 miles of hills on June 11 and it was a success (which in this case means that it wasn’t painful, that it was a big confidence builder and that I actually enjoyed it!). I wrote about it in this post. From January to June 2011 my monthly run mileage was about 150 miles which is my maintenance mode. I would progressively double that in September and then scale back a little in October and November. In September I ran 288 miles, an all-time record!
I suffered from an injury in late June but I healed very fast (see this post). In retrospect, the hardest run was the first 33 miles run. I did other longer runs up to 42 miles of hills. Everything was manageable and I felt good. The summer was hot and I love running in the heat, it also teaches about proper hydration. I ran a lot of trails but I focused on improving my endurance probably at the expense of working on more technical skills (if you look at the rating of the course it is not considered highly technical — only 2 stars out of five while difficulty is 5/5!)
All in all, I felt I showed up at the race rather well prepared. I felt rested thanks to a relative taper (are you crazy when the last and shortest long run of a taper is a marathon?). I managed to sleep more in the days before the race. Day to day nutrition is rather irrelevant. I eat non-processed foods 95% of the time that’s all. I take a multivitamin and a cordyceps extract as an adaptogen (although it doesn’t seem very well documented). To promote restful sleep I sometimes take valerian root before going to bed.
I was told more than once that I was nuts for attempting this course in Vibram Five Fingers. Usually I run on trails with the Treksport model. I love those shoes and they were great for the course. I’ve been running exclusively with Vibrams for over 3 years now so it would have been out of the question to use something else. I stubbed my toes a lot but that has to do with my running style more than the gear. I’m sticking to those shoes unless the course is more technical. There has to be a way to see better, react better.
The rest of the gear was a bit improvised! I packed my Amphipod belt, keeping only two flasks and the pocket. Then I wore the first layer of technical fabric, then a long sleeve cotton shirt (I know, I know…) then a G-Star jacket because I had nothing else and it was cold. I was planning on trashing the top two layers. and also had a beanie hat and gloves. Decided on long tight shorts, no compression although for next time I might consider some calf compression things (can’t wear compression socks with Vibrams).
Next time I will take a running vest. That’s what most people wore and it improves hydration, gear organization, etc.
I decided to just rely on what was on the course. During my training, I always grabbed whatever was in the kitchen! My digestion isn’t finicky at all, I can eat anything! The aid stations were so well stocked with cut-up fruits, gels, electrolyte drink, freshly baked brownies! I had packed some Endurolytes and I took them across the day. I also took at Guayaki Energy shot at mile 33 (as in my training).
In retrospect, I could have eaten a little more I think and stayed away from the Mountain Dew but the best is to do what feels right at the moment and this cold Mountain Dew tasted so good!
I was just hungry enough at the end to have a plate of pasta with salad and still enjoy a meal prepared by my most wonderful host, Kristine whose husband was running too.
This run was a monumental experience at every level. First ultra race. The only other times I’ve experienced the universe as completely and simply was through sitting meditation or as glimpses of the immensity of the universe as a small child.
The start of the race was 5 am! We got up at 3 am, it was like an alpine start!
At first, running in the dark was exhilarating and fun. There were clear skies and bright stars. There was the energy of 300 people venturing into the night, running with headlamps, a string of lights on the mountain, it was beautiful. Then there was the fun of running down after the first hill barely seeing the ground, working it out by feeling! This was fun!
Then there was sunrise over the mountains, San Francisco and a very calm Pacific Ocean. Beauty! Happy times. Then I stubbed my right toe pinky pretty bad on a rock (not much of a toe box on the Vibrams!) . The pain was sharp, very sharp. I thought it was broken and I had to compensate which made my left leg work more. But I didn’t suffer. The level of pain was on par with the ones I fractured here and there. I kept going. At mile 12 I got some Tylenol at the aid station and it helped the pain a bit.
They didn’t have ibuprofen and NSAIDs aren’t recommended during long endurance events (or ever!). My friend Andre gave me some Advil pills later on but I didn’t take any until mile 48 just to be safe. What was really strange is that every time I would hit my toes, including the ones that hurt already, it would seem to heal just from running on the soil. Not to get too new-age here but there was this feeling that the Earth was healing my toes. Maybe I’m crazy too and that’s fine.
At about mile 47 as I was running uphill slowly in a state of perfect calm the impression of me as a small 5 or 6-year-old boy hit me, this sent shivers down my spine and I burst out in tears. Abundant warm tears. Sobbing! While all the while not feeling sad or anything major. It felt like those were not my tears. I did let this run its course and kept on running. The weirdest thing! Maybe something had to come out. Maybe something was coming through. We will never know! I kept on running, nothing had changed there!
I can’t say the last 3 miles of the run were the best part of the day because the whole day was perfect, running-in-the-mountains-heaven! However, what was special about those last three miles was the setting sun and the grass. No more gravel and stones! The runner’s red carpet is made out of grass! A couple of turns and the finish line was there. “Wow,” I thought, I made it. Crossing the line was nice, a big intense emotional moment, getting the medal was nice, clutching that piece of metal, the black ribbon, feeling good for achieving something so basic and big was nice.
My time was 11 hours and 49 minutes, quite short of my 10 hours goal but I didn’t care! I wasn’t going to win anyway!
I didn’t do the best there. I didn’t stretch, I didn’t ice, I didn’t wear my compression legging right away. After such an event it’s easy to get distracted and think it’s over and done while recovery is an important part of the process. As soon as Andre and I got to his house there was more time to deal with this.
Most of all it was hard to remove my shoes because my toes had swollen! Blood on the left one and bruising on the right! I applied arnica gel and took homeopathic arnica pellets (I don’t think homeopathic remedies work in general but with arnica I seems to do something. Placebo maybe). I drove back the next day to Los Angeles without feeling any soreness except in the toes of course! After that I didn’t run for two days, spending one hour on the bike trainer each day to promote blow flow and heal. Toes are healing quite fast. I’m lucky my body is so resilient and good at fixing itself.
This is the kind of activity we need to put ourselves through. By this I mean the novelty and challenge, not necessarily the ultra-endurance aspect which obviously is only possible because of years of consistent training and only attainable by a minority. When is the last time you did something you hadn’t done before?
The event lasted as long as my average Ironman. I’m surprised to see that never at any point I was suffering (there was intense pain in the toes but I wasn’t suffering from it – there was a couple of times actually where I hit a rock so hard that it sent me jumping and screaming but also laughing and keeping on running at the same time.) Not having pain drill a dark hole through my morale was a blessing, I kept going. I kept going because I had trained well.
What also made a big difference and contributed to making this day a superb day is that I wasn’t alone like so many events I have gone to. In the first place, a friend who was also running as an outstanding host with his family and I’m very grateful! Thank you, Andre, Kristine and Ary, you have made this experience even better! Also, there were the other guys from LA: Gil, Jesus, and Yanko, who was participating, and although I didn’t see them much it was good to know we were all doing this together. Finally, there were all the other runners I met on the course, the ones I chose to pace me, the ones I paced. Running can be a very collective experience. Those moments when a little train of 5 to 10 runners were all in sync chop chop-chop on a climb, a decent or a flat!
And not to forget: a big thank you to all the volunteers who were remarkably kind, smiling and helpful. I don’t know how they do it, I wouldn’t be able to stand watching people run! I would end up running after them! Also, The North Face did a great job with the organization. Pretty cheap entry fee too (it makes the poorly managed urban marathons look like scams).
I will never forget it! Many bows to everything and everyone.