Monday, May 11, 2009

Race Report: North Face 50k

Thanks to Andel and Dima from the Reservoir Dogs for these photos

“Oh, I’ve had better days”

That was my response to the question, “How’s it going” at the 21 mile support station during Saturday’s North Face Endurance Challenge 50k trail race. Admittedly, I was playing the line for mild comic relief, but I also have to say that it was the truth.

I suppose we’d all prefer that our experiences could be easily classified into clear, separate categories, such as: unqualified success v. abysmal failure. The fact is that my race on Saturday was neither, or maybe both … but I’m getting a bit ahead of myself.

I am not the superstitious sort, but even I have to admit that I was surrounded by portents of doom that morning. When my alarm fired at 4:20am, I stole a furtive glance out the back door to see that it was absolutely pouring rain, with occasional flashes of lightning. Of course, my left hip (which has been stiff and sore for over a month) was tight and bothering me already, not a good sign. I wolfed down some breakfast, grabbed my gear and a large umbrella, and managed to speed walk to my car without getting completely drenched. The northbound Westside Highway was partially flooded, and certainly had more traffic than one would expect for 5:00 am on a Saturday ... all of us creeping along in the middle lane, except for the homeless guy pushing an empty shopping cart up the highway in the dark in the pouring rain ... only in New York. I managed to get across the George Washington Bridge okay, but the Palisades Parkway heading north was shrouded in dense fog, a dangerous accompaniment to the still-pounding rain. My hands white-knuckled on the steering wheel, I kept telling myself to relax, go with the flow, I’d get there eventually, etc. Luckily, as dawn began to break, both the rain and fog let up, so I managed to arrive at the Bear Mountain parking lot more-or-less on time. However, as I pulled in, four vultures were standing on the ground just in front of my car, staring at me. I could only imagine that they had heard about that day’s race schedule, and that they had made plans to feast on the carcass of any runner who would fall exhausted upon the trail … perhaps they were sizing me up for a potential meal later in the day.

After the requisite pre-race rituals (bathroom, petroleum jelly, re-tying shoelaces, bathroom, loading up the Fuel Belt, bathroom … you know the drill), I headed to the start area and greeted several friends from the Reservoir Dogs, a ‘sister team’ to my NYC racing team the New York Harriers. It was nice to know that I’d have friends out on the course, and it was a bonus to see that a few others had come along to spectate and support (thanks for the encouragement guys, it made a huge difference on such a long day). I was also pleasantly surprised to be approached by a couple of you who said that you’d been following this blog! Thank you, kind readers. I hope to continue to interest and inspire you.

I was determined to start slowly and run at a pace that I could sustain for about six hours, but this is new territory for me so all I could do was take my best guess. As the eager leaders bounded up the first hill, I hung back and relaxed, chatting with a couple of happy if sarcastic lads from Ireland, who eventually disappeared up the trail never to be seen by me again.

From the gun, my left hip and hamstring were bothering me so much that I could sense myself limping slightly. Not good. The fact is that I limped all day, not really what you want to be doing for an ultra. Sigh. I caught and passed an old teammate, Mike V, who was doing the race with his son. We ran together for about a mile, but eventually lost contact and I was surprised not to see them as the day wore on. I hope they had success and finished strong.

The course was, as expected, wet and rather mucky in parts. While the rain had stopped, there was still a bit of fog and mist in the air, and the trees continued to drip for most of the day. Lovely, really. The overcast skies were a godsend, because the air was quite humid and felt rather warm … sun would have led to overheating and dehydration. I enjoyed the first 16 or 17 miles, running slowly, walking the steeper uphills, trading places back and forth with a few other runners. With the exception of the lead female runner, most of us knew we weren’t competing for any prizes, we were just looking to go the distance.

Results from the race still aren’t posted (almost two days later – c’mon guys, get it together), so when they are I’ll come back to this blog and do a more detailed analysis of my race. For now, I can say that the aid stations were positioned perfectly, and well-stocked with both goodies and volunteers. I broke my race up into sections based on making it efficiently from aid station to aid station, monitoring my effort level and any potential problems along the way. I am proud not to have hit the wall or suffered a major bonk, which I chalk up to having had a large pre-race breakfast and to making sure to top off calories at each chance I got. Between aid stations, I sipped Cytomax, nibbled SportBeans, and sucked on Rolaids (good for keeping the stomach settled and for preventing muscle cramps). At the mile 21 aid station, as I tore into my drop bag and refueled, I apparently won the award for the most-food-eaten-at-an-aid-station-all-day, at least according to friends from the Reservoir Dogs.

But I’ve left out the negatives so far, I suppose I’d rather not even mention them, but then the story would be only half-told. Simply put, my left hip hurt all day. I couldn’t run normally, I had to shorten my stride and concentrate a lot of energy to prevent myself from limping. That was no fun. As the day wore on, I started to wear out. Honestly, I was good for about 20 miles. No, I didn’t drop out of the race, but after mile 20 I was clearly not the same as I was before. I was walking more frequently, my legs were feeling a bit dead, and I was basically in the just-keep-moving mode.

We never like to admit our limits. I think there is a deeply-ingrained aspect of the American ethos (mythology?) that is instilled in us from the moment we arrive: you can do anything you want if you just try hard enough. The question: is that really true? Or, more poignantly and philosophically, how could we possibly be so naïve to think that it could be true?

I’ve run 15 races of marathon length or longer. In all of them, without exception, I find that I can hold everything together pretty well until about 20-22 miles, then it all starts to unravel. The objective observer would ask, “When are you going to admit that your physiology just isn’t made for going past 22 miles?”

Someday, perhaps.

As I get older, and slower, I have begun to hang my hat on the thought that I can just move up in distance, and still be competitive. You know what? It’s not really happening.

I completed the 50k race on my feet, a bit stiff but still moving. I think I can take pride in having finished a tough course on a wet, muddy day. Okay, so it took me 6 hours and 13 minutes. Not exactly what I had in mind. I really don’t know what place I finished, but I’d guess around 30th to 40th. Hopefully they’ll get results posted before too long, because I’m curious about it. When they do finally get published, make sure to take a look at the excellent races run by Ryan and Ben from the Reservoir Dogs, who garnered first and second places overall, and by their teammate Silke, who was third woman overall. Truly impressive running, and results they can be proud of for a very long time.

Post-race, I sat at a picnic table with those three and other enthusiastic friends, and we recounted our experiences in short bursts between sips of water and bites of salty food. I had ambivalent feelings about the day. I’d made it, that was an accomplishment. But I’d walked more than I’d wanted to, and I’d just plain felt tired and worn out for the last third of the race. I wondered then, as I still do now, if perhaps I’m just not cut out for doing events of this kind of distance and duration. Truth be told, I enjoy more, and have had more success, at trail races between 15k and 25k in length … and if I just had enough sense to remember that I’d be in good stead, right?

Ah, but I’m just another stubborn runner. I’ll quite probably never learn.

Congrats to everyone who conquered that course yesterday, whether fast or slow. You deserve to feel good about what you accomplished. I’ll be back with more on this event once results are posted.


  1. Douglas,
    Congrats on the race! It sounds like an absolutely grueling day all around. I feel cold, scared and exhausted just reading your account. You definitely captured the moment(s). Good luck walking this week!
    --Kevin H

  2. Ironically, perhaps, I'm walking just fine. In my deeper athlete-self, this makes me feel guilty, like I didn't push myself hard enough. But every endurance race is a kind of tight-wire walk, isn't it? We try to find just the right balance between conserving and expending energy, in order to maximize performance. Each race is a new challenge, a new adventure, a new risk. Don't you love that?

  3. You should be proud of yourself no matter what the end result! There is value in knowing your limits, but you'd be remiss if you didn't test them :-) The course was brutal and you ran strongly!

    By the way, Silke never seems to be as sore after her trail races as she is after the road marathon... so don't feel guilty about it, I think it's just a function of the different terrain.

  4. Hey Douglas,

    I loved the re-cap. Thanks for all the praise but I think anyone that completed the race deserves to be proud of their accomplishment.

    But don't be so down on yourself about the "negatives" of the race. After mile 20 everyone on that course was in the "just-keep-moving-mode." I was walking a lot during the last 10 miles of the race too. Sometimes it is easy to forget that this type of race is meant to challenge you more mentally then physically. While the physical pain last days afterwards, the mental strain can be alleviated as soon as you cross the finish line. Well, in my opinion as least. And to reiterate what Andel mentioned, generally I am not as beat up after running on the trail as I am when I run on the road.



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