It almost certainly will not be another four years until I race again. But overtime my recollection of The North Face 50 Mile Championship will change: I’ll forget the finer details, and my reflections will be influenced by future developments and conversations. So my race report is meant to be as instructive to me as informative to you. Here it is, fresh:
If my pace analysis of seven runners in the 2013 race was indicative of how this year’s race would unfold, I knew that:
- All runners would slow down gradually throughout the race, and
- Runners who would not finish at or near the top would slow down disproportionately more than the winners.
If for no other reason, I expected my average pace to slow at least due to the course: the first 11 miles were among the fastest of the day, and the biggest climbs were later the race: miles 18-23, 33-36, 41-44. But otherwise I was hoping to minimize my “pace creep” by starting conservatively and finishing strong.
While I did run a more even race than others to whom I finished near, I still failed to remain completely disciplined in the race’s earliest miles. After a two-week taper, maintaining for the first 15 miles a 7:35 min/mile pace on terrain averaging 200 vertical feet of change (up or down) per mile seemed EASY. I also felt socially pressured to run uphills that 20, 30, or 40 miles later would force me — and everyone around me — into hike mode. By burning up my quads on some of those early steep pitches to save face and irrelevant seconds, I cost myself minutes later in the race because I wasn’t able to crank on low-angle grades like Coyote Ridge (mile 41-44) and Marincello (mile 45-48).
Between Tennessee Valley and Muir Beach (miles 14-18) I intentionally slowed to a more sustainable pace. Thereafter, my average pace crept upwards only 54 seconds, from 7:58 to 8:52. In comparison, my friends Jeremy Humphrey and Brett Rivers — who finished a few minutes ahead in 34th and 35th, respectively — slowed by 70 and 83 seconds, respectively. Still, I would have liked to see a more even effort. Sage Canaday, the winner, only slowed by 23 seconds.
I’ll write another post with a broader analysis of times and paces. In the meantime, view raw data in Strava.
For dinner the night before, I had rotisserie chicken with salad and baked potato fries. About 90 minutes before the 5 AM race start, I had two Clif Builder bars.
From my training sessions and my recent Metabolic Efficiency Test, I knew that at race intensity my body relies more on its fat stores than its glycogen/carbohydrate reserves for energy. Specifically, at my average heart rate of 142 bpm during the race, two-thirds of my energy came from fat. Hence, once the race started I would not need to consume the conventional 250 calories per hour in order to maintain my energy level and avoid bonking/hitting the wall.
Instead, I consumed only 100-150 calories per hour, with my first snack about one hour into the race. I ate Clif Shot Bloks exclusively, which the aid stations had in abundance and which I prefer anyway over gels, which are messy.
I never felt low on energy and I never had any GI issues. I think I probably could have eaten even less but I haven’t raced enough to be confident yet in the lower bounds of my caloric needs.
At the NCAA Cross-Country Pre National Invitational in 2000, I learned the importance of staying hydrated on a travel day. I barely drank anything the day before, was dehydrated when the race started, and passed out at the finish line. My time was awful but I was too stubborn to drop out.
I was well hydrated on Friday night, but probably should have consumed more than just 24 oz of coffee and water in the morning. It’s hard to catch up on hydration once the race starts.
I drank water exclusively. I started with one full 10-oz bottle and refilled it at Mile 6 and 11, :44 and 1:22 into the race. I refilled both 10-oz bottles at the next eight aid stations, and consumed an extra 10 oz of fluids at Tennessee Valley at mile 45. I completely bypassed Alta at mile 48.
To replenish my electrolytes, I took one SaltStick capsule per hour.
I peed twice, at miles 23 and 34 (I think).
Conditions were comfortable all day: temperatures in the mid-50’s to mid-60’s, mostly cloudy or foggy, and high humidity.
Two weeks before the race, I quit drinking coffee — my only caffeine source — so that its effect would be magnified on race day. That morning, I drank 1.5 servings of Starbucks Via instant coffee (~200 mg caffeine). Out on the course, I consumed 100 mg of caffeine at miles 23 and 33, then 200 mg at mile 41.
Clothing, footwear, and equipment
Last week I posted my gear list for the race. My selections were flawless and I wouldn’t change anything for a race with similar conditions or aid station intervals.
Except one: I used a 100-lumen Rayovak headlamp that I bought last week at Home Depot for just $15 rather than my trusted Fenix LD02 flashlight. Since I didn’t have drop bags and or a dedicated crew, I had mediocre odds of ever seeing my light again if I abandoned it, and being out $15 is better than being out $40.
Starting in mid-October — after the backpacking season and an abbreviated elk hunt — I dramatically increased my training for this race. Over the next 42 days, I ran 525 miles with 167,000 vertical feet of change in a cumulative training time of 83+ hours. On average, that’s 12.5 miles with 4,000 vertical feet up or down in 2 hours everyday. (For more details, view my Strava profile.)
It’s impressive, but absolutely not enough. Decent genetic talent, a robust baseline fitness level, a solid 6-week training cycle, and a 2-week taper does not put me on equal footing with other elites who train year-round and who race much more regularly. Unless I dedicate myself fully to the sport, I’ll never reach my potential in it. And I’m probably okay with that: if I consider all the time, effort, and cost involved in training for and recovering from an ultra, generally I’d rather leverage it into a kick-ass backpacking trip or trips.
For many reasons, it’s likely that I will enter this race again. Next time, however, I’ll train with greater specificity to the course, which is predominantly run-able and non-technical. I should have included more higher-intensity interval training — notably, track intervals and tempo runs on moderate grades — instead of so many long runs on steep, technical trails at an “ultra shuffle” pace.
My body seemed shocked by the amount of running and by the running pace. It’s revealing that I cannot point to a single workout that resembled the first 15 miles, in which I averaged 7:35 minute/mile pace with 200 vertical feet of gain or loss per mile. It also explains why I did comparatively better once the course got hard — I’d trained for that. Consider, too, that I need to train even harder to be a runner because I spend so much of my year hiking.
Unfortunately, this “shock” manifested in two physical ailments that hindered my racing speed. Starting around mile 11, both of my hip flexors got tight. And then around mile 40, both of my calves began to cramp. Once these symptoms came on, I had to manage them carefully so that they wouldn’t blow up and force a DNF. I didn’t have any hip flexor or calf issues during training, so I suspect that they were caused by the race pace being so much faster than my normal long run training paces.
Extra body mass — that is, body fat — is a liability in most athletic competitions, but it’s especially damaging over an ultra mountain trail race. Gosh, if that 20-oz bottle feels like it is slowing you down, imagine the cost of those five pounds of belly fat.
I was able to maintain my weight between late-September — when I finished my last backpacking trips of the year — until race day. You’d think I would have lost additional weight by running 100 miles per week, but it seems that I lean out more when backpacking: I’m burning a higher proportion of fat and my caloric intake is limited by what’s in my pack.
If I disregard the pleadings of my wife and mother, I could probably shed another 5 pounds. But for now, I’ll enjoy being as trim as I’ve been in many years, and I’ll hold off on additional weight loss until I have something more specific on my calendar.
I’m definitely not Mike Wardian, who on Saturday beat me by 19 minutes and who on Sunday finished the California International Marathon in 2:33. But my recovery has been reasonable: I’m stiff, sore, and slow, but I made it through two airports yesterday and I can walk normally up and down stairs. After two rest days, I’ll probably run tomorrow.
Reputation in the ultra community
At the afterparty at the 2 AM Club, it became apparent that within the ultra community I have the narrow reputation as being “the guy who did the pace charts.” I would not expect more given my 4-year hiatus from racing and my general disengagement with the ultra social scene, but I’ll humbly submit that I’m much more than that.
Travel & lodging
Avoid San Francisco International Airport; instead, try Oakland, Sacramento, or even San Jose. The risk of a flight delay or cancellation due to fog is very high at this time of year. The rental car agencies are a 15-minute train ride away from the airport. There will almost always be heavy traffic when driving through San Francisco to Mill Valley. And the security lines for Southwest Airlines gates in Terminal 1 are among the least efficient I’ve seen anywhere.
Brett and Larissa Rivers are awesome. With them, I had a comfortable place to stay and I was immediately hooked in with the local scene since Brett’s store, San Francisco Running Company, is the region’s trail running hub.
It’s no coincidence that The North Face 50 Mile Championship is the only ultra race that I’ve run twice. Amanda and I also ran the marathon together in 2012. In short, I think it’s an excellent event. The entry fee is inexpensive. The location is superb. The prize money attracts the most talented field of any ultra race in North America if not the world. And its early-December timing is usually conflict-free.
But perhaps most important of all, lining up at a premier race next to some of the best ultra runners in the world is not a multi-year, low-odds effort that involves qualifying races and luck. I understand why other races have implemented such policies, but I view them as a major deterrent. I’m sorry, but I’m very reluctant to invest significant time and some money into a 100-mile qualifying race this year, destroying my body in the process, only to have extraordinarily low odds of admission into a race that I really want to do, e.g. 4.7 percent for Western States and 1.3 percent for Hardrock.