Thursday, June 10, 2010

Race Report: The North Face Endurance Challenge, Washington D.C. - 50M, Sterling, VA

I've given a lot of thought over the past few days of how I would summarize this race. The following list is what I came up with:

  • Challenging - This was my first trail race. Although I had spent the last month running a longish trail run in preparation for running trails, there is no way I could have prepared for the various trails at TNF. In addition, the heat and humidity were a factor.
  • Inspiring - There were many things that inspired me as I ran the race, as well as after finishing. Some of those inspirations include: the amazing, elite athletes competing in these events, the challenged athletes that don't let physical limitations impair their ability to reach their goals, and the overall drive and determination of each individual that participated.
  • Fun - Trail running is definitely interesting and fun. Between the people participating, the change in running terrain and elevation changes, being out in nature and "exploring", there is so much to look forward to and to prepare for that makes each race unique and exciting.
  • Motivational - I realized that I don't want to be a middle-of-the-pack finisher. I want to be competitive, which is going to require more focus, more intensity, and more dedication to my training

Race Elevation Profile

Race Day - Getting to the Start
I woke up Saturday morning to the alarm at 3AM. Knowing that I had all my stuff ready to go, I took my time getting out the door. I did some stretching, ate a couple mini-bagels that I had bought from the grocery the night before, drank some Muscle Milk Light and was ready to leave by about 10 till 4. The race start/finish was only about 5-10 minutes from my hotel. I mixed some Carbopro with water to drink on my way. Once I arrived at the race, I sat in my car for awhile. I had initially planned on carrying my CamelBak handheld water bottle, wearing my Camelbak hydration pack with the hydration reservoir removed so I could carry things like my pre-measured baggies of Carbopro, and having a drop bag available at the Great Falls Aid station which I would pass a total of 4 times during the race. While sitting in my car, I decided against carrying the Camelbak hydration pack and just throw my Carbopro in my drop bag along with a change of socks, an extra shirt, my Camelbak hydration belt and an extra Camelbak hydration bottle. I figured since I would be at my drop bag 4 different times, this would be sufficient so I would not have to carry anything on my back. At about 4:15 I took my drop bag over to the drop-off tent and then walked around the race area a bit. I talked briefly to a couple people as I drank a cup of coffee. It was great that North Face provided things like coffee, fruit and bagels pre-race. Every 5 minutes or so, they would make an announcement about the time until the race started, and any facts they had about the race course. Some interesting facts they mentioned:

  • There maybe snakes on the course, so pay attention (I saw a very large black snake while running)
  • There would be over 100,000 gallons of water available throughout the race at the various aid stations
  • There maybe some very muddy portions of the trail and some streams to cross due to the rain the night before - should have been a trigger for me to bring more socks!

As I talked to different people, it was surprising to hear how many people said they were nervous about the race. I'm not sure how you can be nervous about a race that will take you 9-11 hours, but they were. I'm sure the pre-race announcements didn't help them at all, but I kind of liked the announcements. It made it more interesting than just standing there waiting for the start.

Starting Line

Race Day - The Race
The race started at exactly 5AM. There was a countdown from 10 to 1 and then "Go!" and we were off. Within the first 100 yards, I learned exactly what single track meant. Basically the path is just wide enough for you to follow directly behind the person in front of you. It is extremely difficult to get around someone unless they stop to let you pass. There was a lot of single track along this course.The first part of the course took me around a large field and then onto a paved golf cart road. The paved road was probably less than 1/4 mile and then we switched to a gravel path until we reached the first aid station. I was already sweating a lot from the early morning humidity, but I chose to pass this aid station because I still had plenty of water and I was only about 1-2 miles into the race. Once I passed the aid station, I switched back to a paved path for a half mile or so. Finally, I got to a real trail for the first time. This trail was the first loop portion of the course. It's a good thing the race requires you to wear a headlamp or carry a flashlight during the first part of the race because it was still dark out and it made it even darker under the tree-cover. I would say this trail was minimally technical with some roots and rocks, but nothing that would prevent you from running a decent pace, which I did. I ended up finishing the first loop and 4.8 miles in just under 45 minutes according to plan.

The second portion of the course was where the hills and more technical trails started. This portion of the course ran about 10 miles to what they called the Great Falls aid station. There was a variety of terrain including single track trails with waste-high grass, mud, a few steep climbs and small stream crossings. Once I progressed about half-way into this portion of the course, I was pretty much on my own. I was now approaching the 14 mile point and the spacing between runners had dramatically increased. This stretch was about the only part of the course I was a little disappointed in with regard to the number of available aid stations. There was one aid station at mile 8.1, and then no other aid stations until mile 14.8. This made for a long stretch without the ability to refill my water bottle. I reached the Great Falls aid station, mile 14.8 at 2:22 which was about 5 minutes behind my planned time.

Great Falls Aid Station
The third portion of the course was a 7 mile loop which included a decent number of smallish hills, mostly dirt track with some roots and rock, and then a very rocky portion that overlooked the Potomac River. I thought I might get tired of doing the same loop 3 times, but I actually ended up doing better each time I went through the loop. I became more familiar with what to expect and this helped with pacing myself while on the loop. The other helpful part of this loop was that it passed the Great Falls aid station 4 times, which is where my drop bag was. Each time I passed the aid station, I refilled my water bottle and had a serving of Carbopro. This was essentially the only calories I consumed during the race. I am going to have to figure out how to mix a bottle of Carbopro more often for my next race. It was the perfect source of calories for me. As I proceeded through each 7 mile loop, the temperature started to rise considerably. The humidity probably dropped a little, but it was definitely warm if I was not under tree-cover. Luckily, the majority of the race was under tree-cover though. Unfortunately, during this portion of the race, my feet were soaked from an earlier stream crossing and remained wet throughout the entire race because of sweat and humidity. I only had one change of socks which I changed at mile 28, but by this time I had already been running on blistered feet for at least 8 miles. Each step from mile 20 on was literally like running on tiny pins. At one point I stopped to take my shoes off because I thought there were tiny rocks in my shoes, but it was just the blisters that were causing the pain. I was actually doing fairly well time-wise as I finished the third 7-mile loop. I was at 6 hours 59 minutes and ready to start the home stretch. Total time for this portion of the course was around 4 hours 45 minutes, which included about 15 minutes of stopping at aid stations. I was still on track for a sub-10 hour finish.

Views of Cliff Portion of 7-mile loop

Little did I know, the last 15 miles would be very difficult for me. The first 7 miles were most difficult for two reasons. One, I did not have enough water to be able to run and stay cool during this stretch which forced me to do a lot of walking. Two, a large blister on my left heel was very painful. I could only run the up-hills and flat stretches because the down-hill stretches rubbed my heal so much. And my running was more of shuffling. Eventually, the blister did pop and I was able to get some pretty good stretches of running in within the last 5 miles of the race. I felt really good about this.

As I approached the final mile of the race, I had several thoughts going through my head: 1. Don't get passed by anyone 2. Try to catch someone 3. Be happy about completing my second 50 mile race. I managed to be successful with thoughts 1 and 3. There were 2 people I would have really liked to have passed in the last few miles, but I was unable to. It was really cool as I approached the finish line and they announced my bib number and name. I felt good.
Approaching Finish

Crossing Finish

Post Race
After the race, I went immediately to a tent where there was food, water and ice-water buckets. I sat in a chair and put my feet in the ice-cold water. It felt so good. I also managed to get an ice-bath for my legs for about 10 minutes. It was a great way to cool off and is also good for your legs post-race. I changed into dry clothes and hung around the finish area for about an hour. I was able to get some post-race food and watch other finishers complete the race. That was a lot of fun and a relaxing way to end the day. I am already looking forward to my next race!
Finish Area

Temperature During the Race

What I did right:

  • Ditched the idea of carrying my Camelbak for the purpose of carrying things that could be included in my drop bag
  • Took my time to get through portions of the race where I was running very low on water
  • When I walked, I walked fast. I was averaging 14-14:30 miles when I was walking (when I didn't have my blisters to deal with)

What I learned from this race:

  • Take into account the weather 
  • How will humidity affect wetness of my socks due to sweat
  • What do I need in my drop bag to prevent blisters (multiple pairs of socks, powder for my feet, maybe even an extra pair of shoes)
  • Know how far one aid station is to the next
  • Make sure I have adequate water between aid stations
  • Make sure I have adequate nutrition between aid stations
  • Don't be so conservative with not running hills. Just because a lot of other people are walking the hill, doesn't mean I need to. Have confidence in my training and run hills if I can run them.
  • If it is very hot and humid, use my small Camelbak. Maybe start off with it empty, but if I need extra water, I will have an option to fill it at an aid station. 
  • When I am on a single track course, take advantage of any small widening of the track I first see if I even think I might want to pass someone, otherwise, I may be behind that person for a very long time.
  • Spend less time at aid stations, get what I need and move on


  1. What a great race report, Brian! The pictures really added a nice touch, too! :) I know how the humidity affected me on Sunday for the 10K..Let me tell you, taking weather into account for races/running in genral, is huge. You can really tell when it was hot/humid by looking at all of my race times. One of my toughest races was last August..a 20K in mid-August..don't know what I was thinking!! Congrats again on this 50 Miler..Can't wait to see how you do on your next one in CA.

  2. Great race report! TNF does a nice job with their events - this year they added a kids run to the Endurance Challenge in WI. I have a tri the same day, but will definitely plan on taking the family next year! Congrats on your success in that first trail race.

  3. Congratulations! 50 miles of running on a trail is not picnic in the park. It is tough! As if I know. My longest is 31 miles but even that was hard so I'm just extrapolating and think i can comfortably say that 50 miles on trail or on pavement is freakin' incredible. The pictures of the cliff area looked scary and beautiful all at the same time.
    Funny how much you can learn about yourself during 50 miles.

  4. Great report Brian! I'm hoping that Headlands will be cooler? I'm nervous about the hills and the openness of the course. I'm used to running in the woods and not getting much sun.

    Blisters are a tricky thing. I don't get them much anymore. I think it's a combination of a couple things. Lots of trail experience, and good socks/shoes. I've been running in Smartwool for the past couple years and they seem to do very well through, snow, water, heat. But yeah, in long races like 50's at some point you still probably gotta change them. If they stay wet they can eventually get stretched out and start getting bunched up around your toes. I've also hear that Drymax socks are amazing but I haven't tried them yet. Those are going to be my next purchase.

  5. Fantastic report! Congratulations with the race. I find the trail runs very challenging but enjoy them a lot. I like doing road and trail races. I need the challenge of both.

  6. New follower. This is a great race report especially the stuff you laid out as things to remember for next time.

  7. Thanks for all your comments. I'm glad you enjoyed the race report and I hope you all found something useful in it for yourself.

  8. Great race report and pictures Brian! I especially loved the pictures along the Cliffs! I think I would have peed my pants to see that! Beautiful...and VERY HIGH!