Monday, December 06, 2010

Going Off-Road with Beauty & the Beast

After a successful 50k last December I had the 2010 North Face Endurance Challenge Championship on my radar.  Reading the race previews it was obvious this was going to one heck of an affair through the Marin Headlands just outside San Francisco.  As the weeks drew closer it was evolving into a defacto world championship featuring some of the world's best ultra runners.  I was excited to put myself in the mix with these guys & gals in their venue.  A little about the course - over 10,000 feet of elevation gain, over 21,000 feet of total elevation change, killer views of the Pacific Ocean, scenic trails winding up, down, around & through both a state and national park and some of the most narly terrain upon which I've ever laid feet, let alone try and run.

Upon arriving in SanFran late Friday morning I was able to connect with one of my athletes from Oregon who was also running the 50 miler.  We successfully found our hotel on Lombard before shooting over to the North Face store in Union Square to pick up our race packets.  While I have traveled throug SFO, this was my first visit to the city and I am definitely going back for an extended stay.  The waterfront, restaurants and city scene have a lot to offer and perhaps I'll have to put Escape from Alcatraz on my race schedule for 2011.

The 5am start didn't seem too unreasonable. However, having to catch a shuttle from one of two places in SanFran leaving by 3:45am made for an early start to the day with my alarm going off at 2:30am.  Walking to the shuttle bus at Marina Middle School I got a chuckle of the folks in Mel's Diner finishing up their late night revelery.  Took me back to the days of hitting Lafayette Coney Island after a long night in Detroit.  The atmosphere on the bus was fairly calm and seemed absent of the nervous energy you find at Ironman events.

Arriving at the race site by 4:15am I had plenty of time to turn in my drop bags, get in a little warm-up and position myself towards the front.  Donning headlamps off we went into the darkness and the vast network of trails that awaited us.  The pace was brisk, but not over the top as our lead pack of about 20 guys twisted & turned through the first water station at mile 5.  By the Tennesse Valley aid station the group was splintered.  I was running comfortably alongside last year's champion Uli Steidl.  He was one of the race favorites with a lot of experience.  We introduced ourselves and I was a bit relieved to hear Uli state what I was thinking, "These guys are going out a lot faster than we did last year."  Uli and I were running about 30-45'' down from the leaders when we approached the first significant & technical downhill.  Just like that Uli and the others were gone as I tip-toed and picked my way down the steep trail.  It wasn't too long after losing contact with the group that I went off course for the first time.  Missing a quick turn I found myself floudering through some deep brush on a very steep grade.  No, this is definitely not a trail.  Retracing my steps I found my way back to the missed turn and continued my journey.  Beofore daylight I would go off trail one more time.

Shortly after the Bootjack aid station at mile 19, I was crusing along when all of a sudden, WHACK, and I found myself sitting on my kiester.  I had somehow not seen a rather large treel limb and busted open the bride of my nose on it.  With my eggs now a bit scrambled, I sat there a few moments to make sure everything was in working order.  A guy with a video camera covering the women leaders was kind enough to stop and take me to his car up the trail so I could get a bandaid to stop the bleeding.  Onward I pressed & well removed from the leaders.  As the day unfolded I soon realized this course was no joke!  It makes the run course at Wildflower seem like an amusement park kiddie ride.  I would proceed to go off trail two more times in the daylight and hit my head on one more tree limb.  The downhill segments absolutely smashed my legs and over the final 15-20 miles I pretty much walked all of them.

Along the way I simply focused on getting from one aid station to the next.  This event was well-supported with aid stations every 3.5-5 miles.  The volunteers were absolutely top notch in helping us get our bottles filled and providing hacks like me with words of encouragement.

Crossing the line in 8:55 and 37th overall I was simply glad to be done in one piece!  While my training leading into this event was hampered by lingering tendonitis in my knee and achilles, I am quite certain the biggest limiter was lack of course-specific training.  My legs simply were not prepared for the constant abuse being dished out over this terrain.  It was a tremendous learning experience for me and I have even more respect for the men & women who race these events.  Congrats to all those who were out there getting it done!!

The next few weeks for me are all about rest, recovery and taking in the holiday spirits with family & friends!

Keep it smooth...

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