Wednesday, June 8, 2011

North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Miler - Washington DC Race Report

The CATs were well represented at the North Face Endurance Challenge in Washington DC this weekend. Mike Stadnisky ran a fast 4:25:26 in the Marathon. and netted 13th place overall (7th in his age group). I crossed paths with Nick Hamblet around mile 19 of his 50k (mile 19 of the 50 miler) and he was running strong on his way out to the rocks on the River Trail. His 6:05:57 finish time is a great time for a deceptively tough course. As for my race in the 50 Miler, I started out strong, hitting my planned splits through the first 28 or so miles then fell behind, finishing in 10:32:17.  Looking at the splits, it seems that most people in the longer events had a tough time on that trip back from Great Falls Park.

Race Overview
With three simultaneous races, big name sponsors, prize money and a finish line festival I was expecting more of a typical road marathon atmosphere than a trail ultra vibe at The North Face Endurance Challenge in Washington DC this weekend. But The North Face surprised me and put on a great trail event.

Packet Pickup was at the North Face store in Georgetown on Thursday and Friday afternoons and evenings. If you live in DC and can take the Metro there, that's great. For everyone else, consider either doing your pickup and being out of Georgetown before 3pm or picking up up your race number the morning of the event. Parking was a breeze with plenty or available garages and once in the store, there were no lines and no waiting. Leaving packet pickup at 4:15pm on Friday was not the best of ideas as every road in the area had turned into a parking lot.

Race Morning
The 50 Milers got started just before dawn at 5am, with the 50k starting at 7am and the Marathon at 9am. I arrived at the race start (Algonkian Regional Park) a little before 4am and got a great parking spot in field next to the race start and had no lines at the drop bag drop off. Being so early and only having the 50 Miler participants milling around, the starting line atmosphere was very low key. Notes for future participants, a jacket would have been nice for standing around as it had gotten down to 50F at 4 in the morning and label your drop bags well as the provided labels were a wrist band with your race number written on them. The restrooms are hidden about 50 yards behind the finish line 'village' - bring a flashlight.

The first 6 or 7 miles of the race are flat and fast. You start out running around some playing fields (covered in just enough dew to get your feet wet), turn onto a golf cart path, then onto the Potomac Heritage Trail which is a wide fireroad at that point. Things got sorted out quickly and small groups formed early on. The side loop around Sugarland Run was nothing exciting (so the 50k runners that got to skip this loop didn't miss out on anything special). Then it was back on the PHT as it turned to single track and passed though a golf course. It was peaceful. The group I was running with stayed silent as the sun rose and got to see a deer bounce through the woods. Around mile 6 we encountered the first series of hills. None of the climbs were much longer than 100 yards and climbed no more than 100 feet, but they were steep. The first set of hills had 3 or 4 climbs like this back to back with similar descents in between.

It was flat singletrack through the Potomac flood plain. It twisted and turned quite a bit with plenty of downed trees to hop over and only a single unbridged stream crossing. Fraser Aid station appeared out of no where in the middle of the woods at mile 8. Stock up here as the next section can take a while. The trail is flat for a while, the you get to another series of three or four hills, then it's flat until you get to Riverbend Park. Riverbend Park takes you up a gravel road away from the river. According to the course profile this should have been the toughest climb on the course, but I found it to be much easier than the earlier hills that didn't even show up on the course profile. Scenery changes quickly in Riverbend Park as one minute you're in the woods, then out in an open field, alongside a road then back in the woods for a nice downhill into Great Falls National Park. 

It was party central at the Great Falls Aid Station - biggest aid station on the course and as the day went on, it reminded me of the Long Mtn. Wayside Aid Station at Mountain Masochist - lots of people hanging out in a large field in folding chairs cheering people on. Three 7 mile loops, this shouldn't be too bad - right? The loops were rather distorted with each loop consisting of two over-lapping loops and an out and back section. And each loop provided quite a variety of terrain: flat, uphill, roller coaster, downhill, uphill, roller coaster, downhill, rocks, flat, rocks, stairs and more rocks (the loops had the technical sections that the marathon runners missed on).

The race leaders lapped me on my first loop and I ran into the leader 50k runners on my second loop.  By the third loop I was never running alone (with the 50k runners on their loop and the 50 milers on their second and third loops), but rarely was it crowded and passing and being passed was quite easy.

After 35 miles I passed through the Great Falls Aid station for the fourth an final time. I was far enough off of my goal time by this point, that I decided to take a little side trip to the observation deck to actually see the Great Falls of the Potomac. There were lots of great views on the course of the Potomac above the falls and in Mather Gorge (if you could take your eyes away from the rocks long enough to catch a glimpse and not tumble down the steep cliffs), but only at one point could you actually catch a small glimpse of the falls. Next aid station in 6.7 miles. Talk about the longest 6.7 miles ever. I think the hills were steeper on the way back. And the flat twisty section on the flood plain seemed like it would never end. The aid station at the Fraser Preserve was never just around the next corner. From there it was mentally easier (though not physically so) - two more aid stations and the finish. The unbridged stream crossing was nice for soaking sore feet. Then came the last set of hills, the singletrack through the golf course, a trip around Sugarland Run and the home stretch.

Overall this was a great event. I'm not sure I'd go back to run the 50 miler again, but the 50k or marathon would be fun.

Flipped Truck Fat Ass 50k++

A few months ago I decided I wanted to do a long 30-40 mile run on June 5th. I would be going on vacation a few days after that date to an extremely secluded area where the surface area of water far exceeds that of land. Given the lack of continuous land mass, the possibility of running would be out of the picture during this vacation. Since I wouldn’t be running during the majority of this time, I figured I should probably get in a nice long run before my vacation started so I could utilize the downtime as true recovery time. I knew the North Face 50k/50 miler was going on in DC during this time, but that race didn’t appeal to me. I really wanted to get up into the mountains during my long run.

After looking over my options, I decided two loops in Sherando would be my best bet. The first loop would be around 16 miles and the second loop around 15 miles. I could start the first loop really early and hopefully begin the second loop around the same time as the usual CAT Sunday run. I thought by starting the second loop at the usual time I could get some folks to join me for the second loop and provide a bit of a mental boost. After putting out some feelers, however, it appeared there was no interest in joining up for the second loop, but there was quite a bit of interest from folks in joining me on the FIRST loop at 5:15 a.m.!

Come Sunday morning, I was on the road shortly after 4:00 a.m. Ground to lightening strikes were illuminating the sky north of Hwy 64, and I was questioning if the weather would permit running along the mountain ridges of Sherando. Shortly after 5 a.m. Bob, David, Christian, Joey and I were all standing in the dark parking lot off Coal Rd. contemplating which direction to run the first loop. The plan was to set out in the Mill Creek direction. However, I seemed to overlook the need for a headlamp at this early hour, and Bob had the good sense to recommend we start off running on Coal Rd. first where the running would be much smoother and safer without a light. The only concern we had with this option was that none of us had run the Mill Creek-Kennedy Ridge-Coal Rd. loop counterclockwise and there was some question to how easily we would pick up the Kennedy Ridge trail off Coal Rd.

We were correct to question our ability to locate the Kennedy Ridge trail from Coal Rd., as we ran ¾ mile past the trail before we decided to consult the map and better determine where the trail was. We eventually found the Kennedy Ridge Trail, but not before running an extra 1 ½ miles and losing a bit of time fumbling around. Unfortunately, David was in a bit of a time crunch and decided he wouldn’t be able to run the full loop with us, given the lost time trying to find the trail. While David got some extra miles in on Coal Rd., Bob, Joey, Christian and I started the climb up the Kennedy Ridge trail.

The Kennedy Ridge trail is both steep and quite technical in the miles closest to Coal Rd. When descending this trail, one is pushed into a feverish pace where you feel like you’re barely ‘holding on.’ Ascending the trail, however, offered the opportunity to take in what one hurriedly passes during these descents. With the mountain laurel still in full bloom and some exceedingly steep pitches, you’re literally forced to stop and smell the flowers now and again.

After regrouping at the top of the climb, we continued along the jeep road towards Bald Mountain. After rounding a corner a few miles into this section, Joey and I were stopped in our tracks. These trails are heavily populated with black bears, so being halted by a bear on the trail is not uncommon. However, instead of staring down a predatory mammal, Joey and I were staring, jaw-dropped, at a lifted Dodge pickup truck flipped on its side, consuming the entire trail. After getting over our initial shock, we had the good sense to run down and check to make sure the occupants of the truck were not in need of medical attention. Luckily, we found no people or signs of injury to the occupants (we did, however, find several empty beer cans that were shaken out in the tumble). We had some fun taking pictures and trying to piece together how the truck ended up where it was before continuing our run, a bit dismayed, at what we had just come across.

I think all of us were pondering all sorts of questions as to how that truck ended up where it was after we returned to running. About a half mile down the trail, some of these questions started to get answered. Joey and I were again forced to a halt as we saw two bodies lying motionless across the road. We gave pause and waited for ‘back-up’ from Bob and Christian before we approached any closer. As we stood waiting, the trail sleepers woke up, and they quickly identified themselves as the drivers of the truck. Aside from appearing a bit hung-over, they didn’t look any worse for wear (from the truck flipping, at least). Some terse conversation yielded a request for us to help them push their truck right-side up, which we declined, and we again continued towards Bald Mountain. Peeling off the trail to take the switchbacks down towards Mill Creek trail, we ran into a group of what appeared to be Boy Scouts. We informed the group of the two guys on the trailside and the overturned truck, and the adult leaders of the group put things into perspective further by recalling the caravan of pickup trucks, beds full of coolers and people boozing it up, that had been parading across the jeep road the previous night.

The rest of the run was much less eventful! We saw a bear, we finished the first loop. Restocked at the cars, and headed out for a second loop running from Coal Rd.-Mill Creek Connector-Torrey Ridge-Bald Mountain-Mill Creek back to the cars. Joey, Christian and I ended up running 35 miles. I’m still amazed that Christian (on his PT recovery path) busted out an impressive 35 miles. I was struggling during the second loop and here Christian is, still not 100%, running 35 mountain miles like it was nothing!

After finishing the second loop, we sat at the cars, ate some melted ice cream sandwiches, and relived the exciting moments of what came to be known as the Flipped Truck Fat Ass 50k++. Mark your calendars now for the first Sunday in June next year!
(Photo Credits to Bob C.)

Christian adds:
To be a-tune with my return-to-run program I was only planning on doing the first loop or at most 1,5 loops but couldn't say no to the opportunity and would have felt bad 'quitting' early. I suppose I ignored the 10-15%-weekly increase rule and replaced it by 10-15mi... I know it was probably not the smartest thing to do but what can I say, I am young and naive :) The run was great and I am glad I did it. I had to keep it slow and walk plenty of times but that was OK. woot woot mountains!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

North Face Endurance Challenge Marathon

This Saturday, I ran the North Face Endurance Challenge Marathon. I went into it as a training run, another nice long run with some speed work following the Harry Landers.

Four miles into the race, I came around a blind corner and tried to duck under a overhanging branch…unsuccessfully. I hit my head on it pretty hard running at near full clip through the hit. It shook me up a little bit, and I was worried about my history of skull fractures (3 of them forced me out of rugby in college).

No cerebrospinal fluid came out of my nose, thankfully, but about a minute later I put my hand up to the left side of my head and my hat was soaked in blood (and now my hand as well). I figured I had taken off a bit of scalp, which if I hadn't been wearing a hat would have definitely happened. I ran the next two miles with blood dripping down onto my neck (as head wounds do) to the aid station, where the medics took me aside and sat me down for some wound cleaning, eye checking, and a discussion about continuing the race. The EMTs rightfully detained me for 10 minutes or so, which seemed like an hour but I was glad for their attentiveness and assessment (“You can keep going if you’d like.”).

I got some water, the put some paper towels under my hat to soak up the blood, and kept running. The hit to head woke me up, and I threw caution to the wind and ran like heck for the rest of the race (which was ~28 miles) finishing 13th overall with 04:25:18.

The reactions to my blood stained hat, neck and ear were varied "Holy $#^! man, did you get shot!?" to "Are you okay?"

The race photos are copyrighted so I can’t reproduce them here, but you are welcome to check out my blood soaked hat at the finish:

Overall, the course is flat and not very technical, ripe for a very fast 50K (props to Cville triathlete Skylar Lyon for 04:50:01 – 14th overall in the 50K). Charlottesville was well represented in both the marathon with 5 runners and 3 in the 50K. If I’ve missed you in the results, I’m sorry!

The North Face races are expensive but good value if you are into road-race style finish line carnivals with ice baths, unlimited chocolate milk, beer garden, massages, and a catered lunch. Felt very pampered, though nothing beats a soak in the North Moorman’s.