I am stubborn. Anyone who knows me would most likely agree that I’m as intractable as they come. But even my stubbornness was tested at The North Face Endurance Challenge 50k in the Washington, DC suburbs after miles of not just shoe-sucking but body-claiming mud, followed by twisty, hilly, single track….and the thought of having to go through all that again after an all-too brief 7 mile respite in Great Falls Park.
Add to that the fact that my longest training run this year was 13 miles due to an injury (now healed) and my TFL had flared up again, and you, too, will consider me hardheaded…or perhaps other attributes come to mind. Yes, I’ll admit, more than once I mentioned to myself that I was stupid to be doing this.
And yet I was relaxed and calm prior to the race. I was not planning on a PR…I do have some boundaries; but Lisa and I had run most of the course on two separate recon runs (both of them 13 miles!) and considered it fairly benign…so I felt confident I could tackle it. Last year I ran Capon Valley 50K – which has some wicked hills – in 5:27. Granted, I was trained for that…but The North Face 50K course seemed tame in comparison.
Lisa and I hung out near the portapotties (my favorite spot) and I was so relaxed I took a pic of the potties, posted it on Facebook and, for fun, tagged one of the pots as Lisa! The portapotties had been placed on a bit of a slope which I hate because I feel like the thing is gonna keel over when I’m in it. But I had to go so I put my fears aside and went in the portapot that you see on the end in this pic:
Once in the portapot it really felt like it was leaning so I hastily did my thing and exited. Something made me turn around and look as I walked away, and what did I see? A woman leaning against the back of the pot stretching out her calves! Nice! No wonder it felt like it was going to fall over with her pushing against it!
A few minutes before our 7am race start, Lisa and I got to chat briefly with UltraMarathon Man Dean Karnazes! He was super nice, warning us about the nettles (what about the mud, Dean??!!) and wishing us a good race. I felt exuberant after talking with him…as if I could do anything…note to self: talking to amazing ultrarunners does not make you one!
Not long after setting off we encountered THE MUD. The course takes you along the Potomac Heritage Trail from Algonkian Park in Potomac Falls to Great Falls Park, where you run a 7 mile loop, including a very rocky stretch alongside the Falls, and then head back the way you came. Most of the trail is low-lying, which means a little water will get it very wet. After all the rain we had Friday, the course was in bad shape. Gigantic puddles ringed by ankle-deep mud, you get the idea. Normally I love splashing through puddles but there was miles of this stuff. Running through mud is exhausting. It grabs your feet so you have to pull them out, and you slide a lot, torquing your hips to stay upright. It’s a workout any day, but when you’re running 31 miles, it’s a show-stopper. People DNF’d because of the mud; they just didn’t want to hurt themselves, which I completely understand. I’m too stubborn to do that.
Only 4 miles in, I mentioned out loud that my hip flexor was talking to me. Because it’s not unusual for strangers to chat to each other during an ultra, someone asked, “what’s it saying?” To which I replied, “What are you doing, you stupid woman? You’re crazy!” Later on, I was the one talking to myself, saying those exact words…
On we ploughed through the mud, diving into creeks and hauling ourselves out by digging our fingers into the clay to get some purchase, since our mud-soaked feet weren’t finding any. At one point we must have run through some nettles because I felt the familiar sting on my arm. Having grown up in England I’m familiar with stinging nettles because they grow everywhere. If you get “stung” you look for a dock leaf, which always grows by a nettle. You rub the leaf on the sting and it goes away. If you’re not near any doc leaves, spit will do the trick. So I spat on my arm. Lisa also suggesting peeing on it, but I’m not that flexible, not when running through mud, anyway, and spitting was the most viable option.
We reached Great Falls at mile 12 and I felt relieved to be off the single track and out of the mud. The Great Falls loop is pretty, wide, and drains well so was mud-free. But I was hurting. I had some Biofreeze with me and used that on my hip flexors, both of which were very tight and complaining loudly. Here I am applying the Biofreeze when I noticed my friend Matt, husband of Melissa who was also running the 50K, taking pictures of me and Lisa:
The majority of spectators were at Great Falls, since most of the other aid stations were on the trail and very difficult to access, and so I felt like a rock star running through the cheering crowds. They were all very exuberant and told us how great we looked and how well we were doing. Even if that was a total lie, it’s what you need to hear when you still have a long way to go. I told Lisa I was going to cry, which is very unlike me. She told me to save it for the finish…very unlike her. I think we had a little role reversal going on!
Like I said, the Great Falls loop provided some welcome relief. It was here that we caught up with the 50 milers who had started 2 hours before us, as they had to run the Great Falls loop no less than THREE times! What was amazing was how friendly and chatty they were…one guy ran with us for a while, chatting away (he was on his second loop) before he said he should stop trying to keep up with us! There was another aid station at the 16 mile turnaround, which is where I refilled my Camelbak and grabbed some chips. The weather being as cool as it was, I didn’t feel the need to take a lot of extra salt, but figured it didn’t hurt to take something.
We passed through the main Great Falls aid station again at mile 19, and enjoyed the cheers of the crowds once more. But then we faced the return trip, and although it was only 12 more miles, for me, it was by far the hardest 12 miles of the race. I could no longer maintain the pace of the previous 19 and by mile 20 Lisa had gone on ahead. It was actually during the Great Falls loop that I sensed Lisa pulling away from me. Most of the time I would close the gap, but it was evident I wouldn’t be able to keep doing this, and I told her to go on ahead. She said she was hurting too and would stay with me. Much as I wanted her to do this, as I was very much using her to pull me along, I knew I wasn’t going to be very good company in the later miles and also did not want to hold her back. This was her first 50K and I didn’t want to keep her from running her best race. It was a bittersweet relief when she pulled away from me around mile 2o. I did not see her again until the finish. She ran the last 11 miles almost 30 minutes faster than me…and I’m so glad she left me when she did.
My legs were screaming at me to stop but I shuffled on. I think I was running 10 – 11 minute miles at this point. Then, with 8 miles to go, I decided to eat some sport beans that I’d packed just in case. I had eaten 5 of my 8 GUs but was getting a little tired of them. The sport beans were sweet and tasty and I popped about 4 of them without thinking. Immediately my stomach twisted itself into a neat little knot (probably from the sugar) and would not let go.
I won’t go into the gory details of the last 8 miles, lest you’re thinking of running a 50k and might be put off. Just moving forward was excruciatingly painful. I walked. I shuffled. People passed me in waves. I hit that awful point where you cannot imagine feeling any worse. And then you do. Negatives swirled around me. The thought of all the mud ahead of me was hell, and I let myself dwell on it. I told myself that walking was fine since my race was over anyway.
At some point while I was wallowing in my pity along with the mud, a woman passed me and I said “good job,” which is what you say in trail races, and she didn’t respond, which is really poor etiquette. When you’re passing someone you always say something, even if it’s a grunt. You make the effort. So I got mad and started chasing her. In hindsight, what she did really helped me because I refused to let her go. I stuck on her heels for a couple of miles and, when I felt I had enough energy, I passed her.
I hadn’t felt that good since the start of the race. Make no mistake, I was still hurting, but the fire in me had been reignited and I wasn’t going to let it go out this time. Climbing out of the creeks was proving really difficult. I fell in one of them and really wasn’t sure if I could get out. One of the guys in front of me stuck out his hand, I grabbed hold, and he pulled me out. This is what’s so wonderful about (most) ultrarunners. It’s a very altruistic community.
I had to walk through the mud because it was so slippery, and sliding was really painful at this point. I figured it wasn’t much slower than my run/shuffle anyway, as I wasn’t slipping. The mud and puddles had combined to form a thick, glue-like substance that was really heavy. Fun times. Let’s move on.
The last aid station was 1.7 miles from the finish. I grabbed a coke to try to calm my cramping stomach and started walking. A guy who’d been behind me for a while (and reminded me of my friend Lester because of both his accent and physique) came up alongside me and said, “come on, let’s go,” adding much-needed fuel to the dampening fire. I started running. People like him are amazing. They are hurting just as much, and yet they motivate people around them. Every walker we passed, he encouraged. Some started running, others refused, but he kept urging people on. After walking much of the previous 6 miles, I ran all of the remaining 1.7. I left him and the others behind and got down to a 9 minute mile for the last turn. There was, of course, one more giant puddle to run through, which actually made me laugh, and then the finish was there and I was DONE.
After finding out that Lisa had finished in 6:06 (her first 50K!), SRRC president and runner extraordinaire Adam had placed 2nd overall in (4:22), and Melissa was still out on the course, I got my drop bag so I could call my husband and let him know I was ok. When I didn’t finish in 6 hours as (kinda) predicted, I knew he would be worried. Then I sat down in a chair and Lisa kindly took a picture of my legs. After that I hobbled over to the washing station, peeled off my shoes and socks while hanging on the side of a tub of muddy ice water, and then gingerly climbed in the water, but not before shooing off a girl who was washing her shoes in it! When I nicely informed her that this was the tub for people to SIT IN NOT FOR SHOE WASHING, she informed me that she couldn’t get her shoes clean in the shoe washing tub! Seriously, some people need to stick to roads. That also goes for everyone who threw their trash on the trail instead of holding on to it. Such a shame. In road races it’s ok to throw stuff on the road (although I usually wait for a trash can at a water stop) but at trail races it is definitely NOT.
My stomach was still cramping fiercely so I could only manage a bit of the post-race food they had for the runners. Seriously, The North Face knows how to put on a nice spread. Food at aid stations – chips, cookies, and all sorts of other goodies – was also plentiful. Here’s the sweet race swag:
Injuries, muds, and lack-of-preparedness aside, The North Face Endurance Challenge was a great event. With all the mud, the course wasn’t ideal for first-time trail runners, although under different conditions I would recommend the course for first-timers. The Endurance Challenge offers almost every distance: 5k, 10k, half marathon, marathon (including a 4-member relay), 50K, and 50 mile.
I will be back. I am stubborn that way.