Got some time on the flight to back to Denver so here’s the North Face race report. I will post some photos in a couple days. Check out Jim Vernon's excellent footage here from theendurables.com
Building up to the NF 50 Champs, I’d had just enough time to dedicate to training. There was ample inspiration calling from the mountain trails above Boulder, with a cast of newer and older Boulder running denizens to match the trails. I’d been training mostly solo, as usual, but got out about twice per week with Geoff Roes, when he came down from Nederland, and with a few others. In the weeks before the the NF 50, all the buzz ended up being justified, as this turned out to be the toughest ultra race of my trail running career.
On the way out, Dakota Jones happened to be on my Thursday flight, so we shared a car to head directly out of the airport over to Marin and previewed the 5 mile loop with Bryon Powell. Friday, I previewed the new Boot Jack section, then the Sun Trail, then some of Redwood Creek/Santos Meadow area to dial in my footwear. I also walked around Muir Beach for a half hour and tried just to soak in the unnamable, yet present, vibe of Marin, something I rarely do in the rush before racing. In the end I am sure this helped my overall result.
In many ways, this race played out just like a road bike race, and even the winner himself bred directly from elite cycling lineage. The race starts with ¾ mile of flat pavement, then begins the 4 mile loop, then onto the Miwok trail. The loop peloton was a large pack of 30 guys, most being pretty quiet overall, and nothing too exciting going on except casual banter. Last year there was also a large group all the way to Muir Beach, and then things dispersed from there. Like last year, this pack would dwindle, as was most were not running at a sustainable pace. For me, my thoughts in these first miles are questions of, Am I eating enough? Are my quads staying loose? Is this pace really sustainable for 50 miles? Do my feet feel good in these new shoes? All to the affirmative, I was happy with the race’s first miles.
On the loop's 500 'drop I decided to go to the front to have a safer headlamp descent in the dark and not get caught in the pedals and handlebars (feet and arms) of the nervous peloton and take a tumble. Last year I forgot my light in the car, which relegated me to sucking off other’s lights, which is dangerous and easily could have ended my race early with an ankle roll. At the loop end, the somewhat short (500’ vert)Miwok trail grind up the grade was still a pack of 20 guys, and as the hill climbed it was a good time to suss out the competition. Roes, Skaggs, 2 French (Malarde et Lorblanchet) and 1 Spanish (Miguel Heras), Uli, Dakota, Lundstrom, Leigh Schmidt, and many others were still in this pack, with no signs of struggle. I knew there were many other red flags (potential podium contenders) still lurking who have outstanding race resumes, but didn’t know who was who. This didn’t really matter much, as I mostly run my own race regardless of how others are running, unless there is a small strategic move at a critical point in the race.
I came into Tennesse Valley (TV) at the front of the pack again. My crew of running legends Mark Richtman and Galen Burrell were somehow found in the aid station maelstrom, I traded my one bottle for another oen plus 1 banana and gels, and I was off. The run down TV to the climb to Muir was uneventful, and the pack headed over to Muir was now about 15. This is a fun single track section on the coastal trail to Muir Beach, and as the daylight arrived I was psyched to see the ocean and trail below near Pirate’s Cove. I have such good memories of racing the Miwok 100K and Headlands 50K on this section, from years when I felt awesome to times I had completely cramped up and subsequently dropped out. I’ve found the steep wooden steps off the first drop to Pirates as the true quadriceps litmus test, as I can cramp easily in some races. I came off these steps feeling only slight cramping, and from this knew I would have a relatively solid 52 mile race.
Into Muir Beach aid, onto the pavement and the pleasantly flat Redwood trail, we then started the Heather cutoff up to Boot Jack Aid station. Last year I had started to fade on this 1400 foot climb, but this year felt very comfortable, and somewhat itchy to push the pace; there was a small group of 3 guys who I didn’t recognize, and then a pack of 7 of us, only 30 seconds back; 3 Euros, Lundstrom, Roes, Dakota, and me. Just behind was Skaggs and a couple others, but notably absent was Uli Steidl, which turned out to be having one of his few off years. As we got to Pan Toll, I decided once again to lead down the purely lovely 0.4 mile Alpine trail descent, which was added this year to link up the new Boot Jack aid station. The fun of running this section twice, as well as more Matt Davis trail, in the race justifies an additional of 2 miles to the normally 50 mile race.
In and out of the Boot Jack aid in seconds, I kept on and now only 6 of us remained to the contouring run all the way to McKenna Gulch aid, about 5 miles away. I led the pack to McKenna, not on design but just because I got out of Boot Jack first. This section is unprotected, higher and exposed, and the refreshing wind and light rain made for stellar singletrack contouring in and out of tree groves, with occasional log jumps and technical footing. Geoff was right behind me, with young Dakota, Heras, and one of the French guys, and one other guys I didn’t know. Geoff said there was a gap at the last aid station to the next guys back, but I still wasn’t counting out Uli erupting from nowhere.
After McKenna, I was happy to step back and let Geoff or someone else pull (a biking term: meaning lead the pack) into the wind and rain on the return across the coastal trail before the drop down Matt Davis to Stinson. Before the race Geoff and I had talked about this scenario, because we knew the guy in front would have to be the first to encounter runners coming the other way, which isn’t always pleasant as they are usually caught off guard. Anyway, no one stepped up so I jumped in and “pulled” again. On this section, we could check out the competition going back and there were some gaps appearing, and it looked like the women were having a good duel of it too.
The downhill to Stinson on Matt Davis is another highlight of this race. It was slick on the wet rocks and roots and the 1400’ disappeared quickly. Lundstrom had peeled off the back, we three Yanks and 2 Euros remained. Into Stinson aid station and onto the Dipsea, I hit my one and only low point. (I think my superlight 7 oz shoes were not the best of choices for the day; better traction and cushion would possibly have paid off, especially on the click mud to come on Coyote ridge.) Dakota and Geoff seemed to feel good on the climb back to Boot Jack and built a 30 second gap; Heras and I ran close but then he peeled back, not to be seen again until his blitzkrieg over the last 10 miles of the race. Coming into Boot Jack 2 I started to feel better and rocketed the downhill to catch Geoff and Dakota before the 700 ft climb back up to the Sun Trail. I caught them right at the beautiful log bridge at Lost Trail over Fern Creek, but my climbing muscles were shot so they gapped me again on the 700 ft climb. I wondered if I was going to pull out of this funk, so took a few more ibuprofen and gels than usual and stumbled onto the Sun Trail traverse over to Dipsea tral. This was my chance to rally the troops underneath me, and had a good descent to Muir Woods aid station. Mark was there and told me they had 90 seconds on me and Heras was 2 minutes back. Darn! I felt decent at this point, but knew I needed something different so I took the extra seconds to scan the aid station spread, finally eyeing delicious looking orange slices. I took a handful and in a few minutes of eating them felt light years better (potassium perhaps??).
The Redwood Trail flats felt awesome through the woods to Muir Beach; so good I face planted into the slick mud nearing Santos Meadow. Into Muir I could see Geoff and Dakota just starting their climb, with a small gap between them that showed maybe Dakota lagging a bit. I asked the aid station for oranges, but for some reason they said they didn’t have them out yet, and unfortunately I couldn’t wait for them. Given Heras’ proximity and Dakotas looks, I decided to really hurt myself on the 1000’vert over Coyote. According to Galen, who was running this section, I was catching Dakota in the first few hundred vert, and maybe making a bit of time on Geoff. Suddenly Heras comes out of nowhere and superhumanly blows by me. His traction was clearly better than mine on the slick mud and he’d found some turbo somewhere. Gone, I wrote him down for a W or 2nd to Geoff.
I passed Dakota just before the drop to TV, hit the handoff from Mark and Galen and started the hammerfest last hill on the Marincello trail. This is an easy climbing grade to run fast when rested, but this was mile 48 and I was numb, but decided to not walk a step and sacrifice a podium finish. I still had fears of Uli, Skaggs, or Lundstrom coming out of nowhere, and wanted to pay the piper then rather than later when my foes might rear their heads.
There is a view to the top of Alta trail, and I’d seen Geoff way off and a guy in white (Heras) just ahead of him. I imagined if I had a good run of it at that point I could catch Geoff if he had a bad finish. Off the last Alta aid station (mile 50) Geoff was a couple minutes up so I used my downhill skills to my advantage to see what would happen. It wasn’t to be though, as the Rodeo Valley trail flattened out, looking back I saw no one. It was actually pleasurable run to the finish on the pavement to have some leg turnover as I couldnt feel my legs really, and came into the crowded finish in a respectable 3rd podium finish.
Overall, now that I am almost home, I know this will be a race to remember. There could have been a couple more elite runners (American and from abroad) present to safely call this a "50 mile world championships", but this was as close as it may ever come to being so. Given the unprecedented attendance I am pleased with my performance, and hope I can race it again next year.