Another Look at Ultras – TNF50 Round 2

A weary runner (Brett Rivers /San Francisco Running Co)

A weary runner (Brett Rivers /San Francisco Running Co)

Here’s the irony of ultra running: When you are on an easy run, you have time to think about a lot of things. But when you are racing an ultra, you have a lot of time, but somehow can only manage to think about one thing: how uncomfortable it is. Or maybe it’s just me.

I ran my second 50 mile race on Saturday, the North Face 50 Mile Endurance Challenge. I ran the same race last year as my first serious ultra, and let’s just say things didn’t really go as planned. So i was determined to learn from the experience, and come back to do it right this year.

I focused more on the long runs in the months leading up to the event, and got to the point where clicking off hilly 25 milers on the weekend was relatively casual. I built recovery weeks into my training cycle, ensuring that i would not show up to this late season race burned out (like last year). And i got my nutrition dialed… namely by discovering that the best way to survive an ultra without bonking and getting sick is to drink the most un-nutritious beverage on the planet: Coke. Lots of Coke (Sorry Mrs Obama).

And all that stuff worked fantastic on race day. I showed up well rested, didn’t bonk, and ran like a champ… for 25 miles. I chatted quite a bit with Rickey during the early miles, agreeing that biding our time, running a consistent pace would be key to running a successful (or at least satisfying) race.  I was feeling confident about this plan.  Although i realized that the pace I was running for the first 25 miles (7:30 min/mi) would win the race most years, it felt comfortable and sustainable.  But the last half of the race felt almost as tough as i remembered it from the year before: numb, battered legs that simply refuse to go any faster down the stretch.

And who can blame them?

Strava course profile

Strava course profile

47 miles, 9000+ feet of climbing, darkness, rain, and mud.  Ultras are hard.  Really hard.  You have to be willing and able to run uncomfortably for a long time, which is as mentally taxing as it is physically.  How the leaders manage to run sub 7 min/mile pace over that course is beyond my comprehension, but i suspect it is has much do to mental conditioning as physical training.  I suddenly feel like an amateur in a pro sport.

Good gear helps

Good gear helps

In the end, i would finish in just under 6.5 hours for 21st place.  Kristin and Autumn, who crewed for me the whole day in the rain, were waiting for me across the finish line.  I could finally enjoy their company.  Autumn gave me a thumbs up.  You know you have a family that loves you when they are willing to embrace you even though you are sweaty, muddy and smell a bit like urine.  I couldn’t talk for the first few minutes, because i just wanted to cry.  Not out of disappointment, and not out of joy, but rather tears of relief, that i had persevered and gotten through it.

At the finish line with Kristin and Autumn (Brett Rivers / San Francisco Running Co)

At the finish line with Kristin and Autumn (Brett Rivers / San Francisco Running Co)

Although my pace slowed in the end, i ran every step and never lost my composure.  I climbed well.  I fueled well.  I wore the right shoes and socks.  And i never gave up.

But i question if i have the ideal physiology to run ultras as hard as one needs to be competitive   Maybe i’m not robust enough.  My quads don’t look like the tree trunks.  But most of all, i question if i have the desire to train and race such long distances.  Running is more special to me when it is kept in balance with the rest of my life, and i think to be competitive at these ultras you need to train more than i do.

Remember when marathons used to be considered long distance?  Well, they are sounding pretty good to me right now.

Congratulations to everyone who ran their heart out in such a challenging race.  It was inspiring to be a part of it.



iRunFar Article

Full results

North Face 50 Mile Championship, Postmortem

post·mor·tem  (pst-môrtm):
1. Of or relating to a medical examination of a dead body.
2. An analysis or review of a finished event.

Both of these definitions feel appropriate for my TNF50 recap, a race that concluded with a 15 mile death march.I’ve spent the last 2 days after the race wrestling with how and why the race unfolded as it did.  When there is such a large discrepancy between  your perceived ability and how you actually perform, it forces a lot of questions to run through your head.  But before I attend to those question, i’ll express my shear awe at the performance of the podium finishers.  Those guys and gals just crushed it.


The race started pretty much  as expected, with a solid pack forming at the front and going much faster than one would think wise for a 50 mile race.  But of course i knew this was coming.  I positioned myself in the back of the group, allowing small gaps to form on occasion as if to prove to myself that i was running my own pace, not theirs.  I tried to focus on relaxing and drinking fluids, and chatted with the guys around me. I ran with Rickey Gates for much of the first 15 miles, and he seemed to have a similar plan, so i figured i was in good company.   As it turns out, we would both face a similar fate.

As we ran through Pirates Cove the first signs of dawn were starting to appear. The stars were in brilliant focus against the dark blue sky and the vastness of the ocean was unfolding beneath us in a gentle shimmer.  Having lived in the Bay Area for over three years now, i was intimately familiar with this section, and indeed the entire course.  I was thrilled to be traveling its familiar contours in the context of this race, seeing it with new light.  And this was one of the most compelling motivations for participating; when the best competition in the world comes knocking at your back door, you feel obliged to answer.

While i hoped this  connection with the course would  be a source of inspiration and confidence throughout the race, these pre-dawn moments through Pirate’s Cove would sadly be the last.

The pace was swift but comfortable on the climb up Heather Cutoff and the Coastal View trails.  Matt Flaherty had gone off the front, certain to come back, but the  lead pack seemed anxious to reel him in.    Meanwhile, my chronic glute/hamstring issue started to tighten after the quick pace through Muir Beach and I had to really focus on form and staying relaxed.  And my quads, which are usually the last muscle in my body to complain, felt crampy and fatigued.  This was not a good warning sign for what was to come.

I stopped at Cardiac to fill up my water and picked up some gels and take in some vitamin I and electrolyte caps.  Meanwhile, the lead pack charged on without delay.  As i left the aid station, i noticed Rickey hanging back.  I hoped he would catch back up so i would have someone to run with on the section out to McKennan gulch.  But he never did, and i was kind of bummed to lose his company.

Instead, i did the whole section out to McKennan gulch alone, which seemed to go on forever.  I eventually caught Matt Flaherty and another guy near the turnaround, and was probably 1-2 minutes behind the lead pack.  I was still confident at this point that I would continue reeling people in during the second half.  But in the descent to Stinson Beach, it became apparent that the cramping/soreness that i felt earlier in my quads was not going away, it was only getting worse.

My faithful crew consisting of my wife, Kristin, and my dad, Buzz, were at the Stinson Beach aid station waiting for me.  While my dad helped me lace up my shoes,  i watched Tim Olson and Adam Campbell fly by and start up the climb (they had clearly descended much faster than I did).  I departed soon after, and was determined to catch them.  Climbing, i kept telling myself, is my domain.

But i never caught them.

Muir Woods

I made it to Cardiac in 9th place, but the writing was on the wall.  If i wasn’t able to catch anyone on the biggest climb of the day, it was was only a matter of time before people started catching me.  The descent into Muir Woods was the final straw… my quads were completely shot.

The rest of the race played out like one of those bad running dreams, the kind where you feel like you’re running in slow motion, as if there are weights in your shoes.  And yet others seem to be passing by without effort.  It was bewildering.  The saddest part was that this was the section closest to my home and therefore the trails I run on nearly every day.  I kept trying to cultivate some inspiration from this, but there was no answer to my plea.

Ten people would pass me in the last 15 miles.  Anna Frost would blow by me on the  penultimate climb  out of Muir Beach like i was standing still.  This was the same hill i did repeats on less than two weeks ago.  “You own this hill” i told myself.  No, Anna Frost owned it today.  She’s an incredible competitor. I took some consolation in passing Mike Wardian later on the same climb, who seemed even more dejected than I did and was reduced to a hike.  As i passed, i joked “how bad does this suck?”, and he replied “yeah… nice day for a hike, but i didn’t sign up for a hike”.  Indeed.  He would end up flying by me about a mile from the finish as if he was completing a marathon.

The final stretch to Fort Barry was anti-climatic, and surprisingly devoid of  emotion.  I was just ready for the race, and my season as a whole, to come to an end.   I finished 20th, in 7 hours and 12 minutes.

Overall results

iRunFar coverage


Things that went right

Fortitude – I pushed against my limits and they pushed back. I can be proud that i never gave up.

Nutrition – My only previous foray into ultra running (60km Kepler Challenge in New Zealand in 2009) taught me that fueling is key.  So in this race I averaged 250-300 calories per hour, with closer to 350-400 at the beginning and tapering down to 200 at the end.  My stomach still felt like shit the next day from all that Gu, but it got me through the race and was not a limiting factor.  I also took in 1 electrolyte cap per hour and 1200 mg of vitamin I.  At the end i was craving oranges and would eat those at each aid station.

Things that went wrong (read: excuses)

Pacing – It’s easy to look back in retrospect and say i should have paced more conservatively at the beginning.  The funny thing is, i thought i was doing that by allowing myself to detach from the back of the lead pack throughout the first 20 miles while they duked it out up front.  But when i look at how many guys (and gals) passed me in the last 15 miles who started off much slower than me, it’s impossible not consider pacing as the culprit.  It’s likely I could have made the top 10 had I paced even more conservatively at the beginning.  But i don’t have any regrets about that.  I wasn’t going for top 10, i was going for a win.  Unfortunately, the same could be said for about 20 other people in the race.

Off peak – I have yet to master the art of syncing my fitness peaks with key races, especially when there are several in a year.  The late time frame of this race proved challenging, as I felt myself peak back in late October / early November, and wasn’t able to maintain it.  A couple minor injuries at the end also deflated my confidence a bit.