Race Report: North Face Endurance Challenge (DC) 50k
After signing up for two ultra marathons in 2015 only to be sidelined by nagging running injuries, I finally lined up at a starting line without any problems. Third time’s the charm!
As I was preparing my race attire, I kept checking the weather- 10 days out and it looked to be a chilly weekend. Over the course of the week leading up to the race, the forecast went from chilly to rain, snow, and strong winds. The percentage of rain/snow would change many times before we arrived Friday for packet pick up. So, I packed for the worst case but hoped for the best.
Packet pickup was a low-key event at the Tyson’s Corner North Face store. No frills – bib, shirt, and stickers if you wanted them. Oh, and they offered a 10% store discount.
I woke up at 4:15 a.m. and looked out of the hotel window only to see it pouring down rain. When I checked the day’s forecast on my phone, I was saddened. My first ultra and it was going to be cold and rainy – what a way to break in a newbie! The departure plan… meet Eric and his wife, Jennifer, at 5:30 a.m and make our way to starting area.
My wife, Alisa, and Jennifer had graciously volunteered to be our support crew and planned to meet us at miles 13 & 19 so we could access our drop bags. My drop bag was a small cinch sack, big enough to hold my shoes, dry clothing, Honey Stinger gels, and a couple of waffles. Needless to say, this was not the most ideal bag when I was looking for items during transition. Time to upgrade!
This was another race where we had to take a bus to the start line, as there was not enough parking at the start/finish area. When we set out at 5:30 a.m. it looked like we might get a break from the forecasted weather. The rain had stopped and the temperature was not as cold as expected maybe 42F. This would change as we waited for the 7:00 a.m. start.
We arrived at the starting area around 6:00 a.m. and noticed about 50 or so people walking around and checking out the pre-race tents. We found an open heater and huddled around it to keep warm before we had to line up in our designated wave. Standing around in the rain and dropping temperature made us antsy.
As I made my way to my respective starting wave, # 2, the race director was trying to keep us hyped and used this opportunity to make some last minute announcements about the course. All I heard was follow the blue flags – this made sense seeing that I was wearing a blue bib. A few moments later he introduced Dean Karnazes, an avid ultra marathoner and inspiration to many. Dean provided some words of encouragement – wish I could remember them – I was thinking about how cold I was and the next six or so hours that lay ahead of me.
Wave #1 was released at 7:00 a.m. leaving wave #2 to wait a couple minutes. Lining up on the right side of wave #2 allowed me to high-five Dean as I crossed the starting line.
The first part of the course seemed designed to get our feet wet – literally. Upon leaving the start/finish area, we took a left turn onto a trail that traveled between a big, open grassy field and the Potomac River. This was our first opportunity to see what we were going to face during the next 30 miles – muddy trail. I was able to keep my feet dry for the first quarter mile by hugging the outer edges of the trail. This was short-lived as we made a right turn and ran along the outer edges of the field where the trail ended and the standing water began. Icy water on my warm feet was a shock to my nervous system. I kept thinking, “only a quarter mile in and my feet are wet – blister time.” The torture was short-lived as we rounded the corner and hopped up on a golf cart path.
Unfortunately, this path too was short as we took another turn onto a gravel road with lots of puddles and overflowing ditches. As we traveled down this road, I tried to stay as dry as possible, so I followed others by jumping from rock-to-rock as we traveled deeper into the woods. Luckily for us, the water was not very deep, but for someone who has never run long distance in soggy shoes, I did not want test my luck and end up with a blister.
A couple miles in, the mud and standing water did not matter any more – It was everywhere and unavoidable. In many places, trying to dodge the mud provided a great opportunity to slip and still end up in the mud. This actually happened to a runner in front of me. He lost his footing and smashed the right side of his face into a stump. I stopped to see if he was okay, and I noticed he shattered his right headphone and his ear was all red, but there was no blood. He said he could not hear out of that ear and mumbled, “fuck this shit, I’m outta here.” I could not blame him, but I knew I had to keep going.
The views this muddy path offered of the Potomac River were just amazing. Many times the trail skirted right along the river’s bank. A misjudged step resulting in a slip could cause you to take a cold and unnecessary bath in the river (feet could probably have used it).
Aid station number two was a welcome sight, but was hell to get to. After traveling along the river, we encountered our first hill. This is not a hill like I have trained on before. Ever. The last time I saw a hill this size I was a kid out hiking with my father in Tennessee. This was the type of hill where true trail shoes come in handy, and I was glad I was wearing my Pearl Izumi Trail N2. I slowly placed one muddy shoe in front of the other, following those in front of me; at the hill’s crest we had a steep descent to the aid station. Needless to say, the downhill was just as bad as the uphill – maybe worse. One wrong step and I would have ended up tripping and taking out the aid station tables below. I would recommend moving the tables next year… just in case. There was no less than eight volunteers assisting us with water, tracking our progress, and lending a helping hand. Their tables had a trail runner’s spread of pretzels, M&Ms, water, Pepsi and Mountain Dew, along with bananas and oranges. I did not stick around too long here, but long enough to refill my handheld water bottle, pop three SportLegs pills, and one Honey Stinger gel.
Continuing along the trail the terrain would change very little – muddy, hilly, and river to the left. However, at this point more space was being established between the runners.
At mile 13 (Great Falls), sat the third aid station and exchange point. This is where Alisa and Jennifer met Eric and I with our drop bags. Needless to say, this exchange was large – enough space for friends and family to spread out and meet their loved ones. The actual aid station consisted of several tables with similar foods/drinks as the previous aid stations. This stop also had plenty of porta johns and some actual bathrooms. Oh, and my GoPro was out of juice.
I replenished my gels and ate a waffle followed by some blue Gatorade. I only spent a couple of minutes here, as I wanted to gain some ground on Eric who was about 10 minutes in front of me. Alisa did an amazing job – without her support I would not have had the fun I did. As I kissed Alisa and left the area, the snow started to fall. At this point, the weather had transitioned from rain to sleet, and now snow. While it was not enough to accumulate, it was a beautiful sight and fun to run through.
The next portion of our journey would have us come face-to-face with the 50-mile runners. They left the starting area two hours earlier than we did, and their faces showed how the morning’s weather had taken a toll on their adventure.
At this point, I was wishing I had studied the route map a bit better. We had a long hill to climb followed by a steep final ascent, then down hill only to turn around at the bottom. Here a young lady stood with her dog checking off our bibs (first of three check marks). The area where she was standing would have been neat to explore on a warmer day. There was a small creek running through some massive boulders with a couple of waterfalls.
After receiving my check mark, I turned and raced back up the hill. The downhill that followed was a welcome relief for my quickly tired-growing legs.
The next section would have us backtrack and turn left to a quick out and back where a small aid station sat at mile 17 (Old Dominion). Here, I was offered to refill my water bottle again, and unfortunately this time the lady helping me over shot my bottle and drenched my already frozen hand in water…oops. Not a big deal as it was already soaked with sweat. As I turned to exit, I decided I might as well try some M&M’s. These did not melt in my mouth – they were frozen and I thought my teeth were going to shatter as I tossed a hand full in my mouth and tried to eat them at once. I chased these little frozen monsters with another gel and quickly left the area.
As I made my way back to Alisa, the trail turned from mud to rocks followed by more rocks. The area around our trail was covered in the greenest grass. I think this is where I really tweaked my right ankle. I was okay to run, but every time I stepped on a rock I would feel a shooting pain in the front of my ankle. The pain would only grow worse as I made my way back to the finish line. Winding our way back to the river again, I could see why the area was called Great Falls Park. Off in the distance, I could see a giant waterfall created by the Potomac River. The area to the right was littered with massive boulders, and just before the exchange point, I came across several people setting up to rappel down the cliff to the river. I guess we were not the only ones crazy enough to tackle an adventure in this weather.
At the mile 19 exchange, I replaced my wet gloves with dry ones and switched from my hat to a visor. I also ate another waffle and drank the rest of my Gatorade. I quickly left, after finding out Eric was not too far in front of me. However, I stopped long enough to take a photo and kiss my bride, and high-five Jennifer for being an outstanding athletic supporter.
I was truly having the time of my life… I felt like a kid playing in the mud.
With just over 10 miles to go and my history of cramping, I knew this was going to be the ultimate test. Knowing there were two decent hills ahead, I went as fast as possible on the flat areas. At this point, the squishy mud had turned to sticky mud, and it had consumed both of my legs up to my knees.
I found on my return trip that trail runners are the coolest! As I was headed to the finish, everyone I passed moved over or stopped to allow me to pass. Some even cheered and offered support as I passed by.
With a couple of miles left, I often caught a glimpse of color from time-to-time in the woods in front of me as those ahead of me ran the trail and raced to the finish. I had to stop a few times, to keep my footing in some of the muddiest places, and I noticed there was no one behind me. This was a great feeling, as I knew I had plenty of time to spare, but I had to keep moving.
Throughout the course of the day, the trail had turned to a gooey (up to 3” thick) mud. A couple of times, I almost lost my shoes – glad I made sure they were tied tight before we started.
Even though I was starting to feel the effects of the day’s journey (tired and dizzy), I quickened my pace and stayed focused on my goal to finish under 6 hours. Once I stepped on the gravel road, I knew there was just over a mile to go. Feeling a bit delusional at this point, I thought waving at the photographer taking my picture was a great idea at the time. I don’t know, you be the judge.
Seeing the crowds lined up along the finish line was a welcomed sight after spending almost six hours in wet/mud soaked shoes. I was ecstatic to crush my 6-hour goal by 9 minutes. I know I could have finished sooner if the trail had been dry; regardless I was happy with myself. And I stayed upright all day!
Alisa met me with open arms and a warm blanket – what else could I ask for?
I wish I had the stomach and desire to drink a cold beer after a long run, but all I wanted was food. After changing my socks and shoes, Alisa and I made our way to the food tent. They offered pulled pork, hot dogs, salad, beans, and cookies. The next tent had coffee and tea, which provided a bit of warmth and much needed caffeine. Surprisingly, none of the vendors had Gatorade or any other electrolyte replenishment drinks.
Overall, this was a great first ultra marathon! Plus, it was a quick and dirty way to see four parks and a golf course all hugging the banks of the Potomac River.
- 1 gel every 45 minutes
- 3 SportLegs pills every 45 minutes
- 1 waffle at miles 13 & 19
- Consumed about 60 ounces of water
- Pearl Izumi Trail N2 Shoes
- Ultimate Direction Handheld
- SpiBelt w/ gel loops
- Garmin Fenix3
- Pearl Izumi Thermal Arm Warmers
- Gloves (2 sets)
- Hat & Visor