After last year’s North Face Endurance Challenge,I had no intention of signing up for another ultra-marathon,but when two of your good friends are Brett Rivers and Larissa Polischuk,its harder than one might think to stay away from the trails. I was somewhat removed from the running scene until July when I crewed for Brett at the Tahoe Rim 100 Miler….I guess you could say that I was inspired. The following Monday I again signed up for The North Face Endurance Challenge. The catch is that I did not want to commit to training for the 50 mile race,so I registered for the 50K instead. I sent the confirmation email to Larissa expecting to get a response with excitement,but I should have seen it coming. Her reply was 1 word. WIMP. Sure enough,come December 4th,I was toeing the start line for the 50 mile race.
Shortly after 5AM,the group was off and I settled into a slow warm up jog with Jamie Walker and Trimble Spitzer to our first climb of the day up Bobcat. Jamie and I both agreed that it felt like we were floating,which was a good thing since I was going to need my legs big time come the last few miles. A short way into Bobcat,I took off by myself to catch Larissa who had run out ahead with Bradley Fenner. I caught them by the top of the hill and my body felt great during this first climb,but my stomach was surprisingly giving me some issues….probably a combination of my nervous energy and coffee that I made too strong that morning.
I settled into a comfortable pace with Larissa and Bradley for the next 3-4 miles along Alta and then down Rodeo Valley. It was still pitch black,so we had to take it easy since the trail had some really rough patches due to the rain. When we turned onto Miwok for the second climb of the day,I turned to say something to Larissa,but she was gone. Last year,I walked up a large portion of Miwok,but having run up this trail most Thursday mornings over the past few months,I found the climb rather easy. Larissa later said that once we hit the hill,I took off….It wouldn’t be the last time.
As we turned off of Miwok onto Old Springs to make our way into Tennessee Valley,my stomach turned for the worst. I slowed down to let a few people pass and took it easy down the hill. My water bottle was nearly empty,but I made the decision to skip the aid station and find a restroom instead. It was still really cool,and I knew that I could reload at Muir Beach in 4 miles. The nice thing about the early stop is that as I climbed out of Tennessee Valley up Coastal Trail,I ended up passing the same group of runners as on Miwok which was a good confidence boost.
As we ran along Coastal into Pirates Cove,the sun began to rise and gave us some amazing views of the coastline for the next 2-3 miles. At this point,I was running with some out of towners who were raving about the trail and began snapping photos. I think they were jealous that this trail was my backyard. Soon enough,we were descending into Muir Beach (Mile 13) where friends Nathan Yanko and Devon Crosby-Helms were cheering us on. I knew that Nathan had withdrawn from the race a few days prior,but I was bummed that Devon was there since I thought she had a good chance to compete up at the front.
The next 5 miles was an uneventful 1700 foot climb and grind up Heather Cutoff and Coastal View. Last year on this section,Jim Vernon had to remind me that this was a running race,but I was happy to keep a nice slow jog the entire way this time around. Just as I reached the Pantoll ranger station (mile 18) I caught Kendall Wu,one of my Endurables teammates,which was not a good sign. Kendall is a much stronger runner than me,so I knew that he must be having a rough day. I wished Kendall the best and then passed him on my way to the Bootjack aid station.
Coming out of Bootjack,I picked up the Matt Davis trail and headed towards the out-and-back section to McKennon Gulch. Nathan and Devon had perched themselves at Pantoll and had picked up fellow Endurables runner Brett Jacobson,who had just come off the Arizona Ironman two weeks ago and was taking a much deserved rest,and Jonathan Bernard,who I didn’t meet until after the race. As I ran by,I tossed Brett J. a peanut butter sandwich that I knew had no chance of going down,and I threw my headlamp to anyone who cared to make a grab at it…apparently Jonathan has the best hands of the group.
I turned off of Matt Davis onto Coastal for the out-and-back around 20 minutes after the leaders had already come through. This section is 2-3 miles of single track carved into a hill with a slope of around 60 degrees in some parts. The view reminded me of the movie The Princess Bride when Princess Buttercup discovers that The Dread Pirate Roberts is actually Westley. The problem with the single track here is that runners have to jump off the trail to let through the faster runners who are coming the other way. It was starting to rain harder,so the trail was getting a little slippery. I was mentally prepared to scream,“Assssss Youuuuu Wissshhhh” as I took a fall.
Soon after starting the out and back,I was happy to see Brett Rivers rounding a corner and I gave him a high five as he ran by. Last year,he had already finished the section so I didn’t see him. With the modification to the course this year,the out and back started around mile 20 rather than mile 22-23 this year,so Brett hadn’t quite had the time to open up as big of a gap on me…I considered it a moral victory. Joel Lanz was running really strong about a minute behind Brett,and we shared hellos. I didn’t see any other teammates until I was close to the out section of the out-and-back when I ran by John Spitzer,followed closely by Kristen Munson…both were running their first 50 milers. I was in and out of the aid station at McKennon Gulch and began bumping into friends and teammates every few minutes. Kendall was not far behind me and looked like he had recovered fairly well from Pantoll,running right beside Brian Mulder. About 5-7 minutes after the turnaround,I saw Larissa and Bradley again,meaning that I had opened up a 10-15 minute gap on them. Then came Kevin Luu and John Branderhorst within a few minutes of each other,though I don’t remember who was first. John was shooting some video of me as I came up,and he later put together a great video recap of the race that is definitely worth checking out. Kevin was pulled over taking photos of me as I passed,and we got a few good laughs that it was almost the exact same place that I passed him last year. I later had fun shouting encouragement to Jen Pattee,Jamie and Trimble as I returned to Matt Davis.
Let the pain begin. Descending Matt Davis I could tell that a major bonk was about to rear its head. I slowed down to take some Gu and Brian pulled up beside me. I had hoped we would be around the same pace so that I would have some company to take my mind off of the pain. We descended around 2 miles towards Stinson Beach (mile 28ish) where Amy McCrea and Rick Gaston were to cheer us on. After refueling I felt pretty good,but we had the hardest climb of the day up Dipsea to Steep Ravine ahead of us.
I was able to stay with Brian for around half of a mile before I completely blew up. I walked for the next hour up Steep Ravine back to the Bootjack aid station with a pain that I believe is only understood if you have been through it. It felt like 10 years worth of emotion wanted to burst out of my entire body. Ironically,as much as I hurt,this was probably one of the happiest moments I had in the entire race. Rather than feeling sorry for myself or having any desire to quit,I felt privileged to be a part of such an amazing race with such a stacked field,on such beautiful trails,surrounded by good friends,and receiving encouragement from perfect strangers.
I needed a few minutes to mend at the Bootjack aid station (mile 32),so I sat down next to my drop bag and took some Ibuprofen,slammed some ice cold Gatorade,and grabbed some more salt tablets. Amy helped grab me some solid food and refill my water bottles. After a few minutes,Larissa came into the aid station with Rick looking really good. Knowing that she was 10-15 minutes behind me only 6 miles back,she gave me a really confused look and said,“what are you doing here?” And thus begins the story of the next time I took off.
I joined Larissa and Rick as they left the aid station,and we all ran together down Bootjack towards Muir Woods. I told Larissa that her goal should be to drop me and that my goal was not to let her. I thought I was going to throw up which was awful because I knew that the only way to feel better was to continue eating and drinking,and that did not sound appetizing. We all ran together for 4-5 miles during which time I not only recovered but began to feel good. As I rounded a corner somewhere after the Tourist Club but before the turn onto Dipsea,I turned back around to say something and Larissa and Rick were gone. I was running alone again,but felt as good as I did at mile 10.
I came into the Old Inn aid station (mile 38) around 7:45 and once again had the same thought as last year…I’m going to have to push hard to get in under 10 hours. There were still 2 big climbs ahead and a small pop to get out of Muir Woods on Dipsea,which I believe is the section called dynamite. As I came out of Muir Woods onto Redwood Creek trail,the mud had really gotten bad. In the worst spots it was like ice skating,with your front foot sliding a foot to the side after each step. In the best spots,the mud wasn’t as sloppy,but instead acted like glue and tried holding your feet as you stepped out of it.
I emerged from Redwood Creek and made my way into Muir Beach (Mile 40) at the 8:11 mark. Another quick stop,another stupid joke to the aid station volunteers about how drinking coke is my spinach,and I was off on a long hike up Coastal Fire road. Before I knew it,I was heading into Tennessee Valley (mile 44) at 9:03. I put my head down for the last climb up Marincello,knowing that I had the legs to run a good portion of it. I switched off between running for 2 minutes and walking for 1 minute while being cheered on by a group of 50K runners and a few 50 milers that I passed on the home stretch. When I reached the top,I picked up the pace and decided not to look at my watch until I reached the final aid station.
I hit the top of Rodeo Valley at 9:37 with 2.7 miles remaining. I would have loved to cruise to the finish to soak it all in,but the 10 hour mark was still looming. I ran about as hard as I could down the hill and at one point heard a girl remark,“he really wants to be done.” As I came out onto the road with about 0.5 miles left,Nathan and Devon were there cheering for me and I gave them a thumbs up as I ran by….no time to chat…9:56. As I made my way up to Fort Baker,I couldn’t recall how long the road was to the start/finish line,but it seemed to be never ending. I remember seeing my watch hit 9:59 and then looking up as I rounded the corner to catch my first glimpse of the finish line about 150 yards ahead. After a few fist pumps,I crossed in 9:59:24.
I had an amazing time out on the course,and I don’t think it would have been possible without the help of a few people. First and foremost,I want to thank Brett Rivers,Larissa Polischuk and Kevin Luu for giving me oh so many rides to the Marin Headlands for Thursday and Saturday morning runs. Thank you to Amy Freund McCrea who was driving around the course all day on Saturday crewing and encouraging a large group of us. Thank you to Rachel Baker who introduced me to active release therapy and kept me on the trails when my back requested a little R&R. Thank you to Mary Hayano for all of your great yoga classes that got my core strong enough to take the punishment of my training. Last but not least,thank you to all of my Endurables teammates who made running and training so fun,week in and week out,especially our coach Jim Vernon who is the glue that holds the team together.
See you on the trails!