The North Face CA 50 Mile Race Report: When 10th Place Feels Like Winning
I've been flirting with the North Face Endurance Challenge Championship 50 mile race in California for 5 years. In 2012, I signed for the half marathon on whim only for the race to be cancelled due to torrential rain. I was so relieved to wake up the morning of the race to an email cancelling the race because I was no where near prepared to run 13 miles on trails. I remember when I picked up my bib the week before the race there were some people there who were running the 50 mile and I looked at them with such awe. I just couldn't fathom running 50 miles on trails. Oh, how times have changed. Subsequent years saw me either running one leg of the marathon relay, running the 50K, or volunteering due to injury. Needless to say, by the time I lined up in that baseball field in Marin City, I was chomping at the bit. This race was my tenth of the year and the culmination of my first full year of consistent running devoid of a major injury or setback. I had a few sprained ankles, several chest colds and my share of continuing left hip issues, but I was able to manage everything and avoid any extended time away from training. I have wanted to run the 50 mile for the past three years so getting to toe the line in the most competitive women's field of the race's history feeling prepared and excited to give it a go was the best way to cap off the year.
The race plan was to let the front pack go out fast, run comfortably through Cardiac so that I was able to move well through the Dipsea climb and then put the hammer down after the second time through Cardiac while saving enough to crush the final climb up Marincello for a final hammering down SCA and along the bridge. The reality was not too far off this. I ran strong but comfortable in the dark, early miles, letting several women pass me on the Rodeo descents knowing I would catch them later (spoiler alert: I did). I went up Bobcat and Miwok conservatively but purposefully knowing I still had most of the climbs ahead of me. I PR'd on the Bobcat climb, the Heather cut-off climb, and the Dipsea climb which I am really proud of considering I have run these segments many times. I passed 2 women between mile 20 and 27, got passed by 2 different women between mile 30 and 35, and then was able to pass 2 other women between mile 42 and 48 to finish in 10th place just over a minute off of 9th place and only 4 minutes off of 6th place.
I can't compare this course to the old course since I never ran the full 50, but the start is most certainly harder and generally pretty gnarly. The familiarity of dark headlands loops was comforting and I was thankful for my arm warmers and gloves given the frost all over the place. The Lost Trail climb was awful for me - I have a mental block with this section - and it is where I think I have significant room to improve. While I didn't enjoy having to pass so many 50K runners on the Muir Woods and Dipsea single track after Cardiac, everyone was really nice and I even had a fellow 50M gentleman trying to clear the way for me. The bridge was not as bad as I thought it would, in large part due to the volunteers out there making our presence known. I imagine it was worse for the first several runners across, but by the time I made it there was a pretty steady stream of marathoners and 50ks who had cleared the path. The finish area was awesome and while the festival area certainly has most on offer, it did lose some of the small race feeling it had in the old location.
I had an amazing day trying to chase down - and avoid being caught by - a group of amazing female ultra-runners and loved the congenial attitude at the finish. Everyone was genuinely happy for everyone else and it was a great thing to be a part of. Sure I wish I had caught Steph Howe or Kelly Wolf, and while I was running those last 3 miles they were prey in my sites. The second I crossed the finish line, however, the competitiveness melted away and I was so happy for them and how tough they were out there. Moreover, I was proud of my effort and felt I had run a smart race and gave a solid effort. I'll never know if I had pushed harder to stay with Megan Kimmel as she pulled away from me at about mile 2.5 if I would have been able to hold on, or if I would have hit the wall. I do know that the entire race, apart from the Lost trail section, was truly enjoyable. Even when I was working hard and hurting up the Muir Beach climb, and the Marincello climb, I was in the zone. The zone where pain and discomfort don't matter. Where effort seems to become meaningless because you are giving it your all and there is not other option. Where you can't see or hear anything but the pink or white shirt of the woman in front of you who you are hunting. I actually really enjoyed the final 8-10 miles precisely because they were the hardest - and this made them the most rewarding.
- When Clare Gallager complimented my poop emoji pin about 10 seconds before the start. Of course this means I was standing next to Clare Gallager and Steph Howe on the start line - which was also cool - but got totally blocked out my Chris Mocko who was directly in front of me. Literally couldn't see anything except his ass.
- Running directly behind / with Megan Kimmel for about a mile or so at the beginning. This actually made me think I had a shot at hitting my goals for the day. Naturally, she pulled away with ease after her brief warm-up and I never saw her again.
- Sharing sunrise miles leap frogging Kate Elliot and another Salomon lady - and then dropping them on the Marincello descent. I loved having a friendly face to share those miles with, but when I never saw Kate again after the Marincello descent, I got a huge boost in confidence. I hope that is taken as the compliment it is meant to be. Kate was one of the ladies I was concerned about going into the race and I was super happy to see her at the finish after she crushed the rest of her race!
- My amazing support crew of Devon and Shannon being at TV / Cardiac (for cheering purposes only) and Stinson Beach. Knowing I would see them - even for only a few seconds - was a total motivator for me. Additionally, the local support all over the trails was amazing. Hearing Louis yell at the top of his lungs "fix that shit" in the very early hours made me chuckle. One women running the marathon commented that I had quite the cheer gang at TV2 which also made me laugh. I was totally in the zone and delirious at this point, but to everyone who was out there cheering - thank you so much! It really was an incredible experience to have so many friends out there.
- Passing Anna-Mae on Matt Davis. Let me explain: I have only run one race where I passed a female competitor to move up into my goal position, and I have never caught up to a women who has passed me in a race, so when coach and I discussed the strategy, I was super nervous. Anna-Mae blew by me on Rodeo descent number 1 and is a total badass - so when I caught up to her it validated the race strategy and gave me a huge mental boost. I was looking over my shoulder for the remaining 30 miles because I was positive she was going to catch me again so I was really sorry to hear that she had a rough day.
- Being in the physical and mental position to lay the hammer down on Marincello and pass 2 - and almost catch 2 more - women to move into the top ten. I ran this climb over 25 times in 2017 knowing it would make or break my race. I am proud that from TV2 to the finish I did not walk once and had enough juice to really go for it on the bridge. Of course by that time I had run 48 miles and was only able to eek out about 7:15 pace, but it felt like I was all out sprinting.
So what's next? Well I took 2 weeks of of running (and apparently writing as well) and managed to contract the mother of all head colds / bronchitis and laryngitis. Oh and I moved to Marin... to not run in my off-season. I am taking it easy and doing all the other things I like doing: yoga, climbing, bike riding, drinking during the week, skiing, over-eating, you know the basics. I will re-focus training for 2018 at some point, but for now I am enjoying the first elective time off I have ever taken.
I want to extend a HUGE than you to my sponsor Sufferfest Beer, not only for keeping me well stocked in delicious beer, but for providing my entry into this race and all the other amazing support they give. I also owe many thanks to my coach, Mario Fraioli for not only letting me crash the night before the race and feeding me dinner, but also for taking time out of his race prep to chat race strategy and get me in the right mental place to have a great day. Finally, thank you Devon and Shannon for waiting around for hours so you could hand me bottles and hear me curse about picking up discarded GU wrappers I found on the trails. Thanks to Salomon and Gu for their support as well.
Cover photo by Billy Yang.