North Face Challenge -50km completed!
I had set my alarm for 4am the night before. But nervous anticipation made it hard for me to get any sleep until after midnight. Fortunately, I had laid out all my running gear and supplies the night before. The only thing I needed to do in the morning was eat and get dressed.
By 5am Saturday, I'm was on the road heading to Algonkian Regional Park for the North Face Endurance Challenge 50 km trail run. Hardly anyone was out during the 30 min drive. But as, I pull into Loudoun Tech Center, I notice every car in sight was pulling into the same parking lot. It was all the 50km runners.
I took a race shuttle (school bus) and was dropped off at the starting line where the event organizers had everything setup. It was a clearing inbetween the Potomac river and a golf course. There were booths and tents setup with everything. They had coffee & hot chocolate to warm you up, bag check areas for dropping off after0-race supplies, packet pickups for those that still needed to pick up their racing bib number, and plenty of port-a-potties for . . porting your potty. After taking a couple walk arounds and chatting with other runners, the only thing left to do was to start the race.
At 7am, the first wave of 50k runners took off. I signed up with an estimated time that put me in the second wave. But at the last minute, I dropped back to the start of the third wave. I don't think it mattered since we caught up with the second wave after about 100yds.
The 50mi, yes 50 mile, runners had started two hours before us. So they were already around a 10mi mark by the time we started. The marathon runners would start 2 hours after us. There was also a marathon relay I hadn't heard about until I saw some of the runners after the race. Each race had it's own colored bib. The 50 mile was brown, the 50 km was blue, marathon was pink, and the relay was a redish brown.
My gear for the run consisted of 2-liter camelback, along with a water belt that held two 8 oz bottles, a pouch for gels/small items, and a neoprene case for my iphone. I had a bluetooth headset for music but kept it off for the first 10mi of the race. I mainly wanted the phone to stay in contact with B for crew support and track my run stats. I also couldn't run the bluetooth the entire race since the phone battery wouldn't last that long.
1-3 miles - We jogged parallel to the golf course and then onto the park's trail. I hadn't realized we'd gone past the 3mi point until someone mentioned it. I felt like I had just started the first mile. During this time, there was a lot of single file running, as people were still trying to spread the group out. I didn't mind since it gave everyone a chance to chat a bit and get to know other runners. When the pace was too slow, there was always a spot up ahead you could pass with a little planning and a "passing on the left" verbal warning.
As I ran, I concentrated on enjoying the race and where I was at at that moment. I didn't think about the race as a whole. During the marathon last year, I remembered being so caught up with the finish, that when it was over, I'd wished I'd stopped and enjoyed the actual race. My pace was relaxed but steady, around 12-13/min mile. This allowed me to rest a couple minutes at each aid station before starting again. I treated each leg between aid stations as if it was a mini race within the race.
It was motivating watching the runners in front of me. I'd link up with someone that was running my pace and stay within 10-15ft of them. And for those times I found myself alone, I'd find a good pace and just enjoy the surroundings. It's easy to only look straight ahead and miss out on all the periphery.
3 to 5 miles - More hills were keeping people in single file along the narrow path. There wasn't much you could do if the person at the front was walking up the hill, everyone else had to walk as well. Mind you, these hills would wear you out fast if you tried running up every one of them, so I went with the status quo.
Aid station side effect - You're temporarily shrunk to one foot tall.
5 to 10 miles - This mileage is where I always feel the most relaxed. Just warmed up enough to feel good. And no signs of fatigue. The trail took us along the Potomac river and offered multiple views through the tree/bush line.
11 to 13 miles - The Great Falls visitor's center was the only spot where runner's friends/family could wait and watch the race. It's located at mile marker 13 and also mile marker 19. So spectators could get a chance to see the runners on their way back after reaching the turnaround spot near mile 16.
Normally, this is the distance I start to feel a little lactic acid buildup in my calves. But at the advice of another ultra runner I know, I bought some salt capsules and an endurance powder (EFS) for making your own sport drink. My camelback was full of EFS. I started with one salt capsule after the first hour and second hour. Then I doubled up on the capsules and took 2 each hour after that. I stopped taking them when I reached a total of eight. Recommended max amount for a day was ten.
When I met up with B at the visitor's center (13mi), she said I looked much better than I had during the Marine Corp marathon. I felt much better as well. After a few minutes of resting and chatting, I topped off my liquids, grabbed a few power gels, and hit the trail again.
13-16 miles - The terrain in Great Falls park turned into rocky trails that rised up and drop down quickly. I wore my headset to help pass the time and take my mind off the relentless climbing, both up and down. I was surprised when I looked up to see a couple North Face crew members stopping runners at the turn around point. I hadn't realize I had reached the turn around and would have trotted by it otherwise. I felt good still except for a little tired with all the climbing.
16-19 miles - I'd expected the same terrain as I had just passed through, but the trail took a turn into more woods and bigger rocks. Eventually, I passed by more weekend sightseers and rock climbers, as I made my way through larger and larger rocks. At mile 19, I came back through the visitor's center again and met up with B for the 2nd time. She said I still looked good and asked how I felt. I said great. No cramps yet, everything seemed to be helping. I ditched my water belt and just grabbed a gatorade bottle instead. I kept the camelback though. The weigh of the belt wasn't bad, but it wasn't needed as much as I'd thought it would be. At the start, I had noticed everyone else was going with either a camelback or a belt, but not both. Next time, I'll just stick with the camelback and a small bottle I could ditch if needed.
B headed out to grab some lunch and do some errands at this point, since she wouldn't be able to see me till the finish anyway. I had 12 plus miles to go. I'd send her texts with updates at every aid station so she'd know how close I was to the finish.
20-26 miles - After 20 miles, I remembered I'd be hitting a marathon distance at 26.2. The feeling I had at mile 20 during my last marathon was no way close to what I felt like now. I had struggled with cramping during the marathon just to finish the last 6 miles. Now I was noticing other runners stopping to stretch and complaining about it at aid stations. I probably sounded like a zealot when I offered advice on what they needed to drink, eat, do. But it was working for me and I had to share.
The aid station right after 26 miles was the second to last one. So I hung out a few minutes to watch the other runners and enjoy the food. All the aid stations had a great variety of things to grab and go. Everything from oranges, bananas, pretzels, cooked potatoes, m&ms, chicken broth, power shots, blocs, electrolytes, water, soda, and more.
(note: Now that I've had a chance to compare this to other 50km races, the North Face organizers really made sure runners had plenty of aid stations. From what I've seen from other 50km reports, you can run rougher trails with as much as 8mi legs between stations. So if you're looking for a good beginner 50km this one would be good as long as you don't mind some elevation and lots of hills)
27-31.1 miles - The last few miles to the finish line were bittersweet. Sad to see the race come to an end but happy to know I was going to finish it. While I was at the end of the pack for my age group, I ended the race knowing I would already be signing up for another one soon!
(B made it to the end ahead of me and captured my finish on video. Yay! Support crew!)