Easier the 2nd Time? The North Face 50 by Edie Harbaugh

Race Recap

Is it easier to run 50 miles the second time? Maybe. But it’s still hard to run 50 miles. On Saturday, December 5 I lined up with my boyfriend Greg at the start of the North Face Endurable Challenge 50 Mile, more confident than I’d felt the prior two years. In 2007 we’d run the 50K, and in 2008 we’d ran the 50 Mile. This year my goals were to improve my time to between twelve and thirteen hours, and to be gracious to the volunteers and other runners. I’d joined The Endurables running club in 2008, and running with such fast runners (winners of races!) had been both humbling (wow, they are MUCH faster than me) and eye-opening. Eye-opening in that “the fast people” were so gracious to volunteers and their fellow runners. No one ever teased me about being slower (or if they did, they were way out of earshot when they did), and Brett especially seems to view a faster runner on the course not as a rival but as a potential training partner to recruit.

Our plan (analyzed to the nth degree) was simple. Walk the uphills, run the downhills and flats. The NFEC course is frontloaded with hills of the 8 “major” climbs, 5 of them were in the first 23 miles (Bobcat, Pirates Cove, Pan Toll and Matt Davis). If I could keep a good pace (but spare my legs), I hoped to cruise through the last parts of the course, picking off runners and making up time. This had worked well for us last year—we’d passed people starting at the Ridgecrest Blvd (mile 26) turnaround. I would eat a PowerBar GelBlast every 10 minutes and an S-Cap every half hour.

The weather all week had predicted a ~36 degree start, I felt very lucky it was a balmy 49. My coach, Jim Vernon and I had been talking about the revised course elevation. He found me at the start and strapped on his altimeter so he could get an accurate reading. He was rushing as he put it on at 4:58 AM—he hadn’t heard the announcement that the race was starting 15 minutes late. And then…we were off!

Very soon, we were “THE LAST”. This was surprising. Last year we’d felt back of pack, but there were still people around us. Still, we stuck to our plan, walking up Bobcat, then jogging down Rodeo Valley Trail. We got a quick refill of Gatorade at the first aid station, jogged over to Miwok, and then started climbing Miwok just as it started getting light. Even with the light, we couldn’t see ANYONE in front of us. The walk up Miwok went super quick as we chatted, then down Old Springs into Tennessee Valley Aid Station (mile 8.9)

This was the first time I regretted sharing a drop bag with Greg—it was confusing for the volunteer, as the bag was numbered with HIS number (not mine). Also, Greg had a long checklist of stuff in the drop bag—all of which seemed on top of what I wanted (two packs of Gels).

As we went down Tennessee Valley road, I could just see a runner in the far distance. It was difficult psychologically to be so far back—I knew we were ahead of our plan by about 5 minutes, but we were definitely DFL at this point. Sticking with our plan we walked up Pirates Cove, then cruised down Coastal to Muir Beach. This is where the fast 50Kers started passing us. It was a major lift to hear a “Go Endurables!” as our club mates passed us. I was also happy to see a porta-potty at the Muir Beach Aid Station (mile 13.1) and made a mental note.

An easy stretch on Redwood Creek, and then “the ant-hill” of Heather Cutoff trail. Heather Cutoff Trail climbs ~500 feet in ~one mile through a series of about 30 switchbacks on a bare slope. When you’re climbing, you can see all the brightly colored shirts of other runners crawling over the hill like ants. When Greg & I were almost to the top, we were passed by “The Other Greg”. TOG had passed us in this EXACT spot last year. Weird, huh? This confirmed that we were on the pace we wanted to be at—everyone else in the 50 mile had gotten faster.

Going up to Pan Toll, Greg dropped back and I kept walking briskly. When I looked down at my hands, they were puffy. Earlier, my feet had been sliding around in my shoes, worrying me about potential blisters. No more sliding, my feet had swelled. Uh-oh. I decided to start taking S-Cap every 20 minutes.

At Pan Toll (mile 18.4), I struggled to find the drop bag and then dug through all of Greg’s “essentials”. I also asked about the timing mat (there’d been a timing mat at Pan Toll last year, but not this year). I went about 90 seconds down Steep Ravine before I realized I’d somehow LOST my little baggie of S-Caps. I had two bags of Gel Blasts (~360 calories), but no salt! If I wasn’t already worried about my hand swelling I might have continued, but 12 more miles without electrolytes seemed too far. Back up the trail, back to the drop bag, found my backup S Caps. Started back, and about 90 seconds down I realized I’d somehow left behind one of the Power Gel packs and only had 180 calories for the next twelve miles. Obviously, I wasn’t thinking too clearly. I decided to keep going and supplement with pretzels at aid stations.

Steep Ravine was slippery, but I cleared the Stinson Beach aid station (mile 21.3) with time to spare on the hard cutoff. I wasn’t doing a 12 hour pace, but I thought 13 hours was still achievable. On the long climb up Matt Davis I passed Chuck Wilson, who said he was hurting. I said “Hi CHUCK!” as I came up behind him. “Who’s that?” “Um, you don’t know me, but they sang Happy Birthday to you at last year’s race. Also, you threw up in front of me at mile 45 last year.”

I’d done the Coastal Trail out to Ridgecrest Blvd TWICE two weeks before to get extra on-course time. I knew it was even narrower and rutted than last year. Still, today I felt good and started opening up a little bit. I’d yelled “All Day” at CoachKen when I’d seen him ahead on Matt Davis, and now I passed him and Darshan coming back the other way. It felt great to see him! I’d gotten over on Matt Davis to let guys with hiking poles pass me going up, and now I had my passing karma back as they got over for me to pass them. I was increasingly worried about Greg. I should see him. I wasn’t seeing him. Had he dropped? Been injured? Missed Stinson Beach Cutoff? Gotten lost? Where was he?

Greg was waiting for me at Pan Toll (30.4)—he’d sprained his ankle on Steep Ravine. I reloaded on GelBlasts, Greg gave me his extra S-Caps, and I started down Bootjack and hit a real mental low.

I’d just run 30 miles, and 20 seemed like a long way to go.  I’d thought that Greg would catch back up with me and we’d run together again, and now I knew that wouldn’t happen.  I’d badly sprained my ankle on October 4th, and Bootjack was highly technical. I didn’t have my old confidence to go flying down the rocks.  And my stomach hurt.

I had thought I was doing well for time (7 hours into Pan Toll), but I’d miscalculated (~8 hours into Pan Toll). I’d come into Pan Toll about the same time as last year. All this work, all this training, and I wasn’t even going to break 13 hours?
It was hard to get myself moving. 31 miles seemed like a net win for the day. Finally I remembered that I was wearing Jim’s altimeter, and I did want to see the “real” altitude. I slowly made my way down Bootjack, telling myself I would reassess dropping out at Old Inn.

Two blue shirts ( a runner and a pacer), passed me right before the turn to Plevin Cut. This also got me down—the Plevin Cut turn (instead of Fern Creek) added a hill. The 50 Mile race last year had taken the Fern Creek turn in Muir Woods, cutting out a climb AND giving an opportunity to get water at the Muir Woods Monument. No impromptu water, and a climb. Sigh. However, following the blue shirts, I suddenly realized that I could actually run at a decent pace when I wasn’t busy feeling sorry for myself. The climb up Lost Trail was brisk, and suddenly I was out in the sun, with a white shirted blond woman runner just ahead.

I FELT GREAT! What a beautiful view, and the trail was run-able. Greg & I had done this section Halloween weekend, and it was fresh in my mind. Compared to how I felt last year, I felt WONDERFUL. I bounded along passing back a couple that had passed me on Bootjack. I hit the road section of Dipsea and soared down into Old Inn (36) at 3:02. I once again thanked the volunteers for being out all day, and told them I appreciated them.

The white shirted blond woman and I started keying off each other; up the short Dipsea hill, down Redwood Creek. She took off out of sight, but then I reeled her back in, and we passed another runner. We cruised into Muir Beach and the reward of a Porta-Potty. The aid station was out of Pepsi or Coke (just like Old Inn). I needed caffeine, so I was drinking Mountain Dew for the first time in my life. It was OK! (though I missed my Coke). I told myself “You’ve come TOO FAR to quit now” and started the long climb up Coastal Fire Road.

“Oh, the course is soooo much easier cause there’s no Dias Ridge”. Whatever. There’s Coyote Ridge instead, and that’s ~200 feet higher. Up, up, up, then finally down, though I was too stiff to really take advantage of the downhill. Again, the course bothered me by going around on Miwok and adding a short hill (instead of the shorter, funner, Miwok cutoff). I again felt like I had a “home field” advantage—I knew the course so well. The only time I looked for ribbons was where I knew that they had made changes from last year.

I was cheered immensely to see Greg at Tennesse Valley (44.2). Karen was there too (Mrs Coach Ken). I thought that there was a 10% chance I could draft Greg into pacing the last 6 miles with me. He walked a little up Marincello, but his ankle was not good enough to pace. Then the lonely dark began. Just me. And the last 6 miles. The Blue Shirts caught me, and cruised by (AGAIN). I tried to keep up, but just couldn’t. The glow sticks on the course glowed feebly, matching my mood. Finally, the jolt of the final Alta Water stop and “2.7 miles to go!”

Suddenly finishing seemed very doable. I couldn’t bomb down Rodeo Valley, but I kept a good pace. I was frustrated at the lack of markings. The glow-sticks seemed like leftovers from the morning. The ribbons weren’t fluorescent, and impossible to see in the dark unless you looked directly at them on the side of the trail. I was worried about missing the turnoff off Rodeo Valley Trail into the road. Then, I saw a headlamp slowly turn ahead of me. I caught up with a woman I was fairly sure was the blond I’d been leapfrogging for the last 18 miles (she’d passed me on Coyote Ridge).
“They don’t make the course easy to follow, do they?” she asked.
“Are we close?”
“Yes, we’re really, really close”
“Within a mile?”
“Just a little climb, then we are DONE”.

I ran on the road, and then, just as I’d hoped, I RAN the hill up into the hostel, just like I’d practiced on my night runs out Kirkham Avenue to Ocean Beach. I picked up speed cresting the hill, ran along the field, and then it was all over. Greg ran up and I waited for a second so we could cross the finish line holding hands, just like we’d done the past two North Faces. Done. Done. Done. 13 hours and nineteen minutes. I hadn’t finished in daylight like I wanted, I hadn’t broken 13 hours, but I’d PR’d by ~25 minutes and I’d finished my second 50 mile race!!

My takeaways from this year:
1. Knowing the course very well gave me an advantage. CoachKen missed a turn before Old Inn and went about a half mile off course. Greg and I had run this section on our own as I felt it was one of the “least known” areas of the course. We’d taken the SAME wrong turn on a training run. So in the race I knew which way was “Right”. There were many other places where I wasted no mental energy looking for course markings, I “knew”.
2. There’s almost always a second, third or fourth wind. I was pleasantly surprised at how strong I felt climbing that last hill into the hostel.
3. I can’t bomb the downhills like I used to. I used to be fearless, but after injuring my ankle and missing three weeks of training in October, I have fear.
4. Don’t share a drop bag with someone else, even if they are your boyfriend.
5. It took no extra time or effort to thank the volunteers, and it made me feel good inside.
6. I enjoyed knowing so many people. When I ran road marathons, I would finish and drive myself home (once from LA to San Francisco, ouch!) This time there were people I knew on the course to say hi to, and it was great to hang out with Kevin, Darshan, Jim and Greg at the finish.
7. I recovered quicker than I did a year ago. On the Monday after last years race, drivers honked as I took minutes to cross the street. This year I walked to lunch briskly.
8. The North Face handhelds leak like crazy if the plastic at the top bends. The volunteers would fill my bottle from a pitcher and bend the plastic. I wouldn’t notice the bend before I screwed the lid on, but I would notice Gatorade spritzing all over me. Just bend the plastic back and no more leak!
9. Make no decisions within an hour after finishing a race. The last 20 miles, I was cursing my decision to run the 50 mile and not the 50K. “50Ks are fun! I’d be done by now!”. On Monday I found myself looking again to see if the Miwok 100K lottery results had been posted. On Tuesday I looked at the Lake Sonoma 50 Mile course.
10. Even if I didn’t meet my time goals, I’m proud I finished.

Edie Harbaugh is a runner living in San Francisco and a member of The Endurables running club.  She is already planning her next 50 mile adventure, with goals for continual improvement in 2010!

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