North Face Endurance Challenge

2013 marks my fourth consecutive North Face Endurance Challenge (NFEC). I’m pretty darn lucky to have two such fiercely competitive events—Lake Sonoma 50 and NFEC—right here in my North Bay “backyard.” It’s quite a thrill, and downright humbling, to [chase] the best in the sport. From 2010 to 2011 I managed to knock off 9% off my finishing time. In 2012, we saw the course shortened/rerouted due to excessive rains though I felt I continued to make progress. Juxtaposing 2011 to this year, I’ve managed to carve out another modest 4% gain, going about 20min quicker over this roller-coastal course. What a ride it is…

Photo credit – Galen Burrell

Coming off Dick Collins Firetrails 50, I got some rest and ramped up the training for a few weeks before my Thanksgiving break, navigating that deviation in routine the best one can. Race week was business as usual, back in the classroom, and I even managed to get my legs up at lunch on Thursday and Friday before the race.

Race morning went off without a hitch. Got to the start an hour early, bundled up to keep the chill off. Cracked the seal on a fresh port-o-john, then had an espresso about 10min out and it was time to go. I had heart-rate zones of 141-147 set into my Garmin with the objective of running at an average HR of 144bpm for the entire event. The opening pace felt very manageable, much more so than any of my other NFEC starts. Good sign!

Once the first climb started, I characteristically fell back and stayed within myself, enjoying the effort through the darkness and the familiar string of lights in front and behind. I did wish that I’d chosen to wear my Petzl NAO instead of my old Petzl head torch since the old one’s beam left me fearful I’d roll an ankle. I just didn’t want to carry the heavier lamp the rest of the day, or lose the pricey NAO. Regardless, I trusted the stability my Hoka’s provide and rode it out until dawn. I’m grateful I didn’t kiss the dirt. I guess this could be called “faith-based running.”

Feeling good and average HR still down at around 140, I decided to work harder on the first flat section around 5-6mi and bridged up to the main pack with a few 5:45 miles. Bingo! All my conditioning as a road-runner continues to be a strength and I took comfort running with others versus going it alone in the dark. But soon enough it started to pitch up again, gradually and the pack slowly left me behind. I watched, and paced, wishing I had half of Kilian’s VO2Max. That was when Rob Krar shouldered up next to me, passed, with his beam directed toward his prey up front. The thought did cross my mind, as I watched him float up behind the pack, that he was executing well, and might just go on to win, which of course is just what he did. One. Solid. Dude.

Dave Mackey and Mike Wardian came by next. I chatted with Dave for a bit and began to settle in for the long haul. My experience at this race inevitably mirrors my reality in road marathons, where running around 2:40 for 26.2, I’m often in no-man’s-land, increasingly out of reach of the front-runners, and well ahead of the larger mass of 3-hour folks. It’s tough goin’ when you don’t have a carrot ahead and/or someone back keeping you honest.

So, we just keep putting one foot in front of the other. Coming through 30-35, the shine was wearing off, as it will, but I put on some tunes and found some flow though my weary legs were no longer able to push the HR up into the 140s. F#%k it. I just wanted to see another runner. And one appeared around mile 40 in the form of Mike Wardian, who, curiously materialized from behind. We couldn’t figure out where I’d passed him, but we ran together for a few miles, until the Tennessee Valley Aid station where I lingered just a bit too long and wasn’t able to bridge the gap back up to him. Still, his presence over the final 10 helped me out a lot and got my head back in the game. Espirit de corps!

It was inspiring not only seeing the who’s-who-of-ultrarunning out there in the thick of the race but also the who’s-who-of-ultrarunning out there spectating and cheering us on. Kind of surreal, running up from Stinson, seeing Kilian Jornet and his Salomon buddies on the trail, then later, struggling up some slippery, god-forsaken stairs, seeing another legend in Geoff Roes. At NFEC there’s certainly no shortage of inspiration. Even better is seein’ friends at aid stations and random places along the way. When you’re dying it’s good to have a reason to smile, especially since you-know-that-they-know just what you’re dealin’ with.

Post-race, I got some grub, couldn’t stay warm and soon hobbled back to my car’s heated seats. I was scheduled for jury duty on Monday though I’ve managed to dodge that bullet today, and now tomorrow, though I’m still on call for Wednesday…

Now, the long look ahead into 2014. I’ve put in for Miwok 100k in May. Hopefully, my luck holds out this week and I manage to snag one of those lottery slots. Prior to Miwok, looking forward to some Inside Trail Racing events, including Marin Ultra Challenge in March. After NFEC, I’m thinking hard about doing Lake Sonoma again, since I really enjoy the opportunity to run with the big boys. The “Spring 50s” will hopefully set me up nicely for a return to what I feel’s my true calling in ultrarunning—the 100-miler. With June to prepare well, being off from teaching, I’ll return to Tahoe Rim Trail 100 in July and try to shave another 3% off my 2013 effort of 18:04. That’d put me down around 17:30, under the existing course-record. I was getting concerned about turning 40 next year, until I’ve witnessed what folks like Mackey and Wardian have been up to lately. Following these guys’ lead, my plan for 2014 is to use some strategic racing to put more “tiger in the cat.”

Now, I’m taking four weeks off from running. My right hip continues to be a bother and the downtime will surely be of benefit. I’m even getting a massage on Thursday. That should be an interesting experience, since I’ve never used massage in my training before. Hey, that’s what us Masters guys gotta do, right?

Happy Holidays and I hope the lottery gods smile down upon you. Cheers for beers.

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