2011 North Face Endurance Run

It sure is tough staying motivated for these crazy events! And waking up at 2:30 to drive down and do the North Face 50 miler didn’t exactly sound like fun. I mean, I really started thinking about it at 7:30 the previous night. What do I have to do for these ultras again? Oh yeah, vaseline my feet… what shoes will I wear? What am I going to eat? Ugh. The triathlon season’s burnt me out. I just need to keep things simple, I told myself.

I finished the Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson the night before. That inspired me to go completely tech-free in my race: no GPS, no iPod, not even a wrist-watch. Just go with the flow. I’ve done this before and really enjoy it. All you gotta do is listen to your body and enjoy the ride.

I recovered from Kona in mid-October and started hitting the trails. The plan was to use Pacific Coast Trail Run’s Stinson Beach 50k on 11/12 as a tune-up for North Face on 12/3. Then, Stinson was canceled due to some permitting issue. Motivation was suffering and this cancelation really took the wind out of my sails.

So, knowing full well how brutal a 50mi trail race with 10,000′ of cumulative gain can be, I believed I needed to do something special to get me excited about North Face, because at that point I started contemplating just throwing in the towel and scratching NF off the list. But, that little voice told me that that wasn’t really an option. “You signed up buddy. You’re going to need a much better excuse than “you’re not motivated.”

So, one trick I’ve always used to motivate me is to plan out a 100mi training week. To really keep me accountable, I shared my goal with the 114 eleven year-olds I teach. That should do the trick, I thought. The only down-side, is that I normally would do such a week about four weeks out from race-day, leaving me with ample time to truly absorb such a big volume of running, and running that is entirely in the woods, which takes longer and takes more out of me than running 100mi on the road.

So anyway, I enjoyed the 100+ mile week and all my students nabbed some extra-credit points since I reached my goal. Now, I had just two weeks to absorb it. Thanksgiving break was good for that. I got in some cycling and just a little bit of running. I had to really shut down the running to allow for as full a recovery as possible. Three days out from NF, my legs still felt crappy. Some more cycling got them to come around.

Starting yesterday’s 50miler at 5am, in the windy darkness, I could feel that I was taking the cake out of the oven before it was done. I knew my legs weren’t completely ready for the day ahead. To compound matters, it seemed like my lungs weren’t cooperating either and I was experiencing some annoying chest congestion. I remember thinking at one point as we were all lighting up the trail with our headlamps, that it would be so nice to turn around, run back to my car, go home, and just go back to bed. But that wise(?) old voice of experience inside said, “Just chill out. Your legs will come around. You’ve got a 100mi week in there. You can have a good day if you just stop being a baby and start focusing on your body, quieting your mind, and being patient.

Somewhere about mile 20, my legs did started really coming around. My congestion lessened and I really started to enjoy my running in the Marin Headlands. I got to the out-n-back stretch and saw all the top names in ultra-running coming back on the tight single track: Mike Wolfe, Geoff Roes, Hal Koerner, Tim Olson, Leigh Schmitt, Anna Frost, Ian Sharman, Nathan Yanko, Michael Wardian… the list goes on.

That’s the thing with ultra-running, you can absolutely count on the fact that when you feel like absolute sh*t, you know, eventually, you’ll come out of it and even feel like a man-on-fire ’cause you’re so loose and running so well, so graceful, so free, and the gratitude for this experience wells up inside of you, so much so that its intensity surges you forward and faster. I love this about ultra-running.

The line from Isaacson’s book, “nature loves simplicity,” stuck in my head and inspired me to run without a lick of technology yesterday. I get so fed up with technology everywhere in this modern life. And naturally, I would have to ask a runner, sporting his Garmin 310XT at what mile we were. I would have guessed mile 30 and he informed me we were at mile 29.5. Running into the next pygmy forest, I threw down my first caffeinated gel of the day, a double-espresso Clif Shot. That too, got me surging forward, and faster.

The thing with the 50mi distance is that you must run as steady as possible, while doing the best to control your wide range of emotions. The course change this year made it a little easier since, I gather, there was less climbing than in 2010. So, I just tried to stay steady, in a good rhythm, and taking in calories as my body needed them, while taking regular sips off my trusty Ultimate bottle.

With about 10mi to go, the 50mi course hooks up with the 50km course, and I hoped I’d catch up with some friends who were running their first 50k. And since they started at 7am, two hours, after the 50mi start, it seemed plausible, that I could see them on course, or at the finish line, soon after their finish. Indeed, I caught up with a friend I coach, David Tett, who was in good spirits, and just 8mi away from completing his first 50km trail run. David spends a lot of time in Africa, so when I was running up to him, I had to say, “Charging rhinoceros on your left.”

It’s really nice having the 50k runners out there for comradery though since bib #’s are worn on the front, you can’t easily tell who’s in the 50mi race and who’s in the 50k. So, I just made the decision to keep making as much forward progress as possible, grinding out the long, long, climb back south toward the finish. I really have to stay as present in my head as possible, because the lure of the finish makes it tough to stay in the moment, because you want so desperately to be done.

What a beautiful day to run though. Man o man, it was gorgeous out there next to the magestic Pacific Ocean. Eventually, I dragged my weary bones across the line feeling pretty darn good, all things considered. My legs, hardened by my 100mi week of trail running, really held up well and allowed me to hang in there over those final 20miles. I soon ran into a friend and asked him what time it was. He told me it was 12:38, meaning that I was well under 8 hours. Hmm, I didn’t feel like I went significantly faster than last year. So, I’m chalking it up to a faster course this year, with a bit less climbing.

My average pace for 8:20 last year was 10min/mi. This year I averaged 9:10/mi. Last year, I was significantly more conservative at the start whereas this year I went out a bit more aggressively though my chest congestion did make me back off more than I wanted to.

A 40min improvement sounds good but I feel that my race was actually a bit slower when comparing my performance to the men’s 30-39 age group relative to last year. Last year I was 12/97 (top-12%) and this year I was 18/132 (top-14%). So, it looks like I slipped a bit while noting that the competition is pretty fierce. But alas, I purposefully target races that can show me where I stand relative to the best.

I’m thinkin’ for 2012, I have to make North Face a priority. Still in love with triathlon, I’m framing the year to peak for Full Vineman in July, and then setting up August through November to peak for North Face in early December. That’s going to work out really well. I did one ultra run this year, at Salt Point 50k in August. I’ll probably hit that one again, along with a handful of others. I’ll be looking for a 50mi “tune-up” race in the fall as well. I know I can knock another 30-45min off my NF time with a proper preparation. Without a fall IM next year, there will be sufficient time to do it right. As with all things, it’s tough to have your cake and eat it too, i.e., Ironman Hawaii and North Face. And next year, I don’t want to have to pull my cake out of the oven before it’s done!

Cheers to all the runners, the event, and all the fantastic volunteers! What a grand way to end the 2011 season. What a blast!

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