The North Face Endurance Challenge Series California Championships. Sounds awesome right? With a drool-worthy elite entry list for the 50 Mile Championship race, I would have been excited to have just followed along on twitter from home. The opportunity to be there was not something I could pass up! Through a serious alignment of universal forces, this happened. I was sharing the trails with my heroes like Emilie Forsberg, Dakota Jones, Adam Campbell, Anna Frost, Rob Krar, and numerous others that I spend hours reading about.
Note: this is a long read, so if you want a sub-3 minute summary with some good music, check out this link to my video report
Our 5 person crew convened at the San Francisco Airport on Friday afternoon and piled into the smallest of economy sized rental cars with some tetris-like stacking of people and luggage. We were: Monkey, Michelle, Mike, Jillian, and myself. Our relationships ranged from relatives to meeting for the first time, but we quickly bonded in the confines of that Nissan Versa.
We headed straight to The North Face Store downtown for packet pickup. I had expected crowds and lineups, and was pleasantly surprised to fine nothing of the sort. The process was super well organized, fast, and efficient. We opted out of staying downtown for the evening panel discussion at the store as the owner of our weekend accommodations was gently advising us that our maiden voyage up to her place was best done in daylight.
We battled downtown traffic, made our way across the Golden Gate Bridge and turned left towards the summit of Mt Tamalpais, where our living quarters awaited us. Turned out our landlady was wise, and we were glad we heeded her advice. The road up to the place was narrow, steep, and winding with nary a guardrail or even a curb to save an errant Versa. The trek was worth it – the place we stayed was amazing. Spectacular views down towards Mill Valley and the Bay Bridge were right out the front door. The drive up and down became quite enjoyable, and there was even talk of setting FKTs down to sea level.
Race morning was a civilized affair since the 5 of us were all signed up for the Marathon. I woke up and checked the updates on twitter for the 50 mile championships which started at 5AM. We leisurely got sorted out while the sun rose to light up the view below us. We headed down to a hotel in Mill Valley and hopped on a yellow school bus to shuttle us up to the race site. Again, well organized and no issues with transportation.
It was chilly at the start line as everyone waited for the final doffing of warm clothes, and the gun to go. There were propane heaters and fire tables to ward off the morning chill and most people huddled around these as long as they could, only leaving to hustle over to the lineup-free portapotties. Soon Dean Karnazes himself was calling us to the start line, and sending the marathoners off into the Marin Headlands.
Our group of 5 splintered right off the start, and Michelle and I stayed up towards the front end of the race. She was new to trail racing, but has a ton of speed on the road and I hoped I could keep up with her (by slowing her down to a reasonable pace) in the early going. I was new to the marathon distance, but knew pacing would still be important. We cruised along some easy trails, making our way towards the first of a few long climbs.
The first hill was a long one, and we were moving a bit quicker than I would have if I had been alone. I still felt good, and was recovering quickly once things flattened out. We cruised through the first aid station, slowing for a quick drink. Things were going well until we got up to the high point before heading down to Muir Beach and the Marathon turnaround point. I was blown away as we came over a crest and could see down to the ocean. Shortly after, my inadequate nutrition came over me and put some fear in my head. I had to fall back and Michelle pulled away – she was lead woman at this point. I bounced back in terms of energy levels and kept moving towards Muir Beach.
Just before the turnaround, a crazy thing happened. I could hear Michelle up ahead screaming, and then saw her coming back towards me with a good grip on the arm of someone I didn’t recognize. As they got closer I realized it was Kilian Jornet! One of my ultra/mountaineering/outlook-on-life heroes. I could not believe it. We stopped and took a few pics, and then got back to the business of racing. Michelle was still leading the race afterall!
The turnaround was about the last I saw of my speedy running partner Michelle. On the climb back out of Muir Beach I started cramping up – first my right hamstring tightened up, then my left quad, then both calves. This was the theme for the rest of the race. When the course turned upwards, the cramps kicked in. The flats and downhills varied from fast, to total calf lockup. Basically I coped the best I could for the last 10km, but I was moving much slower than I would have liked. Another funny thing happened about 3km from the finish. I was running along a downhill section and saw Tim Olson (another running man-crush) coming towards me going back up the course to meet someone. I reached out and gave him a high-five and said “Hey Timmy”. He told me I was about 2 miles out and to keep going strong. Approximately 1/3 of a second later both of my calves locked up and I had to come to a full stop to stretch them out. How the hell did he do that!? A demoralizing paved section led me to the finish line, where I was happy with a sub-4hr time (3:54). I was elated to find that Michelle had held her lead and won the womens race (finishing 6th overall!).
The rest of the afternoon was spent in the finish area, gawking at the elite ladies and dudes that I follow all year long. I chatted with Rickey Gates, Kilian, Emilie Forsberg, Rob Krar, Bryon Powell, and others. I felt like a teenager at a Justin Bieber concert, only a bit cooler (the elites, not me!)
The North Face (and their logistics company) did a great job on this race. I can’t think of a single misstep that I noticed in terms of organization. We all had a great time, and I’m definitely thinking of jumping in some of the TNF ECS Series races next summer.
Thanks for reading, here is a video that sums it all up: