My First Ultra Marathon – Northface Endurance Challenge 50K + 1 mile

I once said I’d never do a triathlon.  I am an Ironman.  I once said I’d never want to run more than 26.2 miles of a marathon.  I am now an ultrarunner.  YES I AM.  And I’m grateful for every opportunity to pursue these crazy things.  Before I continue with my race report, you should watch a video made by Gus Luong, who ran his first 50 miler the same day I ran my first 50K.  He graciously gave me permission to include his video, which shares his vantage of the amazingly beautiful and challenging North Face Endurance Challenge San Francisco 50 mile course.

It was a tough year physically. I was anemic, fatigued and had other health issues to deal with.  I dropped out of the Wildflower Long Course triathlon in May as a result.  When my health improved, I had permission to do the Vineman 70.3 half Ironman triathlon.  It was my slowest of 3 appearances but I was thrilled to get through it.  Then I was lucky to be invited to be a part of a 12 member team and raced Hood to Coast (HTC), a 197 mile relay race across Oregon.  I was feeling better at HTC and my running was improving.  This helped me feel optimistic about my first ultramarathon, the Northface Challenge 50K in the Marin Headlands.

Training had been going well.  Although I was not feeling like myself, I was able to train at a low heart rate and had the endurance to go long. Then, 4 weeks prior to race day, I developed a neuroma in my foot. Every step felt like I was landing on broken glass with a continuous burning sensation that extended to the tip of my third and forth toe. Over the next few weeks and up until the day before the race, I debated whether I should withdraw. Fortunately, I had a lot of encouragement from my friends and the confidence I could finish under the 10 hour time limit.   When I arrived at the start, my friends greeted me with a warm welcome. I’m so lucky to have such good friends whom I met through the love of the sport. Being surrounded by them comforted me.

It was perfect weather for racing. At 7 am it was about 55F and overcast. Last year it was about 40F. It had rained heavily for several days prior to the race. One of the foot bridges had been washed away so the race course had to be modified at the last minute. The course ended up being 1 mile longer, 32 miles instead of 31. So I ending up running a 50K + 1 extra mile.

Photo credit: Kiyoko Ikeuchi
Photo credit: Kiyoko Ikeuchi

 

Photo credit: Michelle Sun
Photo credit: Michelle Sun (raced 50K)

 

Photo credit: Glenn Schiavo (50 miler)
Photo credit: Glenn Schiavo (raced 50 miles)

My original goal was to complete the 50K in about 8 hours. I had to let go of my ego and be pleased that I’d complete it in less than 10 hours. I rarely take pain medicine before or during a race but on that day, I took an Aleve, an anti-inflamatory containing Naproxen. One pill lasts all day and I heard it was gentle on the stomach. My game plan was to start out slow, hike the hills and treat the first 6 miles like a warm-up. After 6 miles, I pretended my marathon race started. These are the type of mind games I’d play with myself.

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Parts of the trail were slippery with mud.   The worst part was climbing up the Heather Cutoff Trail. It’s a single track, with switchbacks all the way up the mountain.

The rainfall had produced a stream of water running down it. The mud was thick. As I climbed up, the elite and fast 50 mile racers were headed towards me, in the opposite direction down the mountain. Some were sliding down and I just tried to keep out of their way.  My foot was burning at that point and the idea of dropping out did enter into my mind. I had a brief thought that I could catch a ride to the finish at the next aid station. Then I heard one of our former coaches and elite athlete, Erich, say hi to me. Perfect timing. Hearing my name and having to look up and talk to him briefly woke me up from my discomfort. I continued to trot up in the mud. If it had been a training day, there would be no way I’d be running in this mess. But once I got over the fear of doing a face plant, I just embraced it like a 10 year old playing in the mud. Runners coming down gave me a lot of encouragement and updates on the condition of the course ahead. It was a big relief to get to the top. I saw 2 good friends. My pal Summer stopped to check on me. Her smile was another positive distraction. Then Amalia stopped in her tracks, called out my name and extended her arms to give me a big bear hug. Thank you ladies. I read somewhere that giving high fives or a hug helps to release endorphins.

The Heather cut-off slip and slide was quite the ride up and back down.
The Heather Cutoff slip and slide was quite the ride up and back down.  Photo credit: Alvin Lubrino
Photo credit: Alvin Lubrino
Photo credit: Alvin Lubrino
Photo credit: Michelle Sun
Photo credit: Michelle Sun (raced 50K)

 

Photo credit: Glenn Schiavo (raced 50 miles)
Photo credit: Glenn Schiavo (raced 50 miles)

 

Photo credit: Glenn Schiavo (raced 50 miles)
Photo credit: Glenn Schiavo (raced 50 miles)
Photo credit: Matt Iijima (raced 50 miles)
Photo credit: Matt Iijima (raced 50 miles)

I finally made it to the Cardiac Hill aid station. I knew at this point I was going to make it to the finish line, so long as I didn’t kill myself sliding back down that same switchback. I also heard someone say that we only had about a half marathon left to run. I laughed to myself thinking how 13 miles didn’t seem like much once you’ve ran a marathon distance or more.

Photo credit: Michelle Sun
Photo credit: Michelle Sun (raced 50K)

With my spirits revived, I picked up the pace and trotted back down the sloppy switchbacks. I studied how some of the fast 50 milers maneuvered in the mud. I tried to follow behind them (although briefly) and mimicked their strides. I was reminded to stay on my toes and to use and see the whole trail in front of me: the rocks or mound of dirt I could push off of; the grassy spot to gain some speed; or just to simply plant my foot in a puddle. If I slid, I just embraced it and kept on going. The mud was as sticky as it was slippery. One gal had to run the rest of the race with a muddy, wet sock when the mud refused to let go of her running shoe. I passed by several runners with mud on their faces and a lady who had one nasty, bloody knee cap. I’m happy to report that I made it down without losing my front teeth.

The last 13 miles was also when I entered into the state of foggy brain. It’s the period of time when I could not run and do simple math at the same time. It took me 15 minutes to calculate what pace I should maintain in order to finish under 10 hours. I kept thinking 26 plus 5 equaled 32. Close enough. Besides, rounding down felt better.

My knees spoke to me for the first time during the last few descents.  I almost never experience any discomfort in my knees but on this day, jumping over puddles, sinking and sliding in mud and the slightest change in my gait due to my sore foot must have put a strain on my knees.

At mile 29, I decided to just grit my teeth and go for it. After all, I didn’t want to come in last place and I didn’t want to take any chances of disqualifying. It was fun to pass a few people during the last two miles. I’m sure those runners did not appreciate me doing that at the very end but having fresher legs was the reward for conserving my foot.

Rama surprised me by greeting me at the last mile. Knowing my foot was hurting he said to me “you know you can stop running now” since I would make it to the finish under 10 hours. I stopped running for a bit, but I didn’t want the runners I passed to pass me back with less than a mile to go, so I ran it in. Wow. What a day. After my friends congratulated me at the finish, they pointed me towards the medical tent. With a little nudging, I went in and was never happier to have my foot massaged. I think I thanked the guy at least 3 times.

Photo credit: Chad Su
Photo credit: Chad Su

The foot is still tender, about 4 days later but the legs are fine. I’m looking forward to doing this race again next year. It’s well organized, a gorgeous course and after climbing an elevation gain of about 6,700 feet, you feel like such a bass ass.

The real bad asses are my friends who raced the 50 miler that day.  I don’t have the speed nor strength to pursue 50 miles on that course but maybe someday I might.  Never say never!

Takeaways:

  • Two 16 ounce water bottles were more than enough to get me to each aid station.
  • I should have carried a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or a bar with protein with me. I had 4 gels and 3 cookies. It wasn’t enough. Because my pace was much slower due to my foot, it took me longer to get from aid station to aid station and I got hungry. I was lucky I did not bonk.
  • Carry an extra pair of dry socks if it’s raining or muddy. If it’s cold, you can wear the socks on your hands.
  • Do more weight training and leg strengthening early in the season.
  • Practice more fast hiking up hills. Because I’m a slow hiker, I am more comfortable jogging up slowly. While this works for me, I need to develop my hiking muscles.   This will help to so save my running muscles.
  • Don’t be afraid of the mud or puddles. Sometimes you just have to run right through it.
  • If ever I see someone suffering during the race, I’ll be sure to give them support. Sometimes that little bit of encouragement can go a long way.
  • That drink offered at the aid station that almost matched the color of my shirt is Mountain Dew.  It has a lot of caffeine in it and at mile 26, it’s my new favorite magical elixir.
  • Never give up on the things you love to do nor the people you love.
  • Never say never.
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Photo credit: Kiyoko Ikeuchi

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