Where should I start this crazy story…. I hear a knock, knock, knock at the door of my hotel room. Having been in a deep sleep and noticing that it was still dark out I reached for my cell phone on the bedside table to check the time. It said 2am, and that’s when I realized that it was race day, and that I was the insane person that had asked the hotel to deliver coffee, milk, and hot water for my pre-race breakfast of oatmeal, protein powder, bananas, and coffee at 2am. It was at that time that the excitement kicked in, and I forgot about the deep sleep that I had been pulled from. The race started at 5am about a half hour from the hotel and I needed to get my breakfast digested before the running started. By 3:30am I had eaten, showered, had all my race attire (clothes, bib, shoe chip, camelbak) ready, and was in the car driving to Algonkian Park in Virginia for the start of The North Face Endurance Challenge, which was to be my first 50 mile race. Arriving at the park and race start/finish at around 4am it was clear that I was in good company. Stepping out of the car the air was humid and the temp was about 75 degrees. The music was already bumping from the large speakers at the start/finish line playing new and old rock song to get everyone ready for this epic challenge. The North Face sets up the start/finish area like a small street fair or festival with booths for check -in, food, massage, beer garden (new addition), results tent, and other local and national sponsors. When walking around the start/finish area and chatting with runners that I had met at previous event I had come to realize that I didn’t have a required head lamp, and was at risk of being disqualified. Oops! I had just figured that I didn’t want to carry the head lamp the whole race, and that I could just use the light from other runners. As the time got closer to 5am the place started to buzz, and I could feel the energy of the 200 plus runners around me full of excitement, nervousness, and anticipation! Having never done a race of this distance I was definitely excited and nervous for what was in store during the next 8-12 hours. At 10 seconds to 5am the announcer started his countdown, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1… and we were off running through a dark grassy field that lead into an even darker tree covered groomed dirt trail that continued for about 2 miles before diving into single track trail running.
I was in the middle of the pack, and was correct about not really needing the head lamp. I only tripped and almost fell on my face once while trying to pass a slower runner. 🙂 I was feeling AWESOME passing people with every opportunity, and making sure that I wasn’t pushing my heart rate too high, but knowing that I should take advantage of feeling good because it wouldn’t last… At about 5:45am all of the head lamps were off and it was easy to see all of the rocks and roots on the trail even though the dense tree coverage cast dark shadows on the trail. I was running clean and smooth while trying to enjoy the view of the Potomic river to the left of the trail. The temp continued to creep up as the time passed by which caused me to drip sweat constantly. Thank goodness for my camelbak that I sipped my water, Nuuns (electrolyte), and protein solution from every few minutes. I was also taking down Gu’s about every 45 minutes to keep my energy levels high.
The run along the Potomic lasted for about 15 mile at which point I hit an aid station, and the start of three 7 mile loops that needed to be completed before returning back down along the 15 mile Potomic river stretch, and back to the start/finish. At the aid station I topped off my camelback and dumped a full cup of ice water over my head. The temp felt like it was in the mid 80’s, and I needed to make sure that I wasn’t going to get heat stroke because that would stop me in my tracks. After cooling off and feeling great I started the first loop which included long gradual, and steep sharp inclines and declines, then finished with a very technical mile or two of large boulders that was atop a cliff that dropped about 100 feet to the river. I was able to make it through the boulder section without falling off the cliff, and have to say that was my favorite section of the whole race because it really changes up the terrain and allows you to show your athletic abilities. Running the first 2 loops I was feeling great with only a little pain starting to show up on the bottoms of my feet. It didn’t feel like an injury, but more like my feet were letting me know that they didn’t agree to sign up for this abuse. The pain was pushed to the back of my mind because I ran with high energy, and cheered on other runners that I saw along the way. The whole event is full of positive energy, and all runners are supportive of each other. It’s really a great feeling (much different than the road running crowd). I wasn’t keeping track of my time during the whole race, but as I was reaching the half way point of my third (and final) loop, I knew that I still had a couple hours to go, and could feel that my body wasn’t going to be happy about it. Running the last half of the final loop my feet really started to hurt! It felt like I had bone bruises along all of the ground striking points of my feet, and I couldn’t figure out how to change my stride to make the pain stop. I stopped to walk in hopes that it would make my foot pain subsided. I quickly realized that the pain was going nowhere, and that I just needed to deal with it for the last 15-18 miles. No big deal, just a little pain… I pushed through the pain while constantly checking in to make sure that it wasn’t anything that was going to cause an injury. Side note: I would never run through something that would injure my body, and I don’t recommend that anyone push through any potential injury. I know my body well enough to know when to stop and when to push. Any runners reading this should take the time to discover this for themselves.
I approached the aid station that was the start and the finish point for the three loops, grabbed some water, a banana, a cup of coke (yep, thought I’d give it a try), and one of the race officials said to me “time to head back home”! Those were the best words I’d heard all day! I had been running for 6-7 hours straight, and it finally started to feel like I was getting closer to finishing this ridiculous feat. At this area of the park (near the aid station) there were a ton of people who were not affiliated with the race out enjoying the day, and they would stop to cheer on the racers. I was walking away from the aid station, eating my banana, and listening to people clap and cheer, which gave me the strength to lean forward and continue my run down the final 15 mile stretch of trail along the Potomic river. Even though I felt like I was hardly moving, my legs were stiff, and my feet were killing me, I continued to pass runners (some from my 50 mile race, and others from the 50k and marathon races that were going on at the same time). I started thinking that if I could just run until I hit the hills I could walk up the hills, and continue to keep a good pace because the hills were steep enough that everyone else was walking them as well to conserve energy. The hills were definitely harder than the flats, but because my leg muscles were used differently during the climbs it actually felt great taking large steps up them. I did the run/hill walk thing for about the next 7 miles where I hit an aid station, and was pleasantly surprised when all of the aid station personnel cheered me on, pulled my camelbak off and filled it up while I ate oranges and bananas, and then sent me on my way. From that point on I ran with my mind swimming in a blur of foot pain and overall mental and physical exhaustion just knowing that every step took me closer to one of my greatest accomplishments. I was running for what seemed like an eternity when I started to hear the race announcer in the distance. It was a beautiful sound! I rounded a corner and reached the long 2 mile groomed trail that I hadn’t seen since the 5am hour when we headed out. I hit the final aid station and was slapped with the biggest downer of the whole race! I could hear the announcer, and could almost see the finish of the race when the aid station staff unpleasantly informed me that I had a 2 mile out-and-back that had to be completed before finishing the run down the groomed trail toward the finish line. This was devastating and totally killed my mental mojo! I ran the first half mile of the out-and-back when my feet started hurting even worse (I didn’t know it was possible), so I slowed down and ran/walked for the next mile when I saw a runner that I had passed earlier starting out down the out-and-back, and looking good and fast! I wasn’t going to give up this place that I had worked so hard to get to, so I pulled myself together mentally, and started a breathing meditation. I was focusing on my breathing, in in, out out, and picked up my pace to about an 8 minute mile. The pain subsided and I powered through the last 2 miles to the finish line where the announcer called my name and the spectators and fellow runners cheered me on. A medal was placed around my neck and I proceeded to the nearest bench to let my lower body have some much deserved rest. After about a half hour that included a 10 minutes leg drain (lying on the ground with feet propped up in the air), I stumbled to the results tent to find that I finished my first 50 mile ultra marathon 36th overall, and 14th in my age group (21-29yrs). I cannot put into the words the feeling of pushing your body to it’s absolute limits and accomplishing a feat that most people will never even consider attempting. After checking my placement I ate a burrito provided by The North Face which was followed by a large pizza a few hours later! What a day!
For anyone looking to improve themselves mentally and physically I would absolutely recommend checking out The North Face Endurance Challenge Events. You don’t have to start out with a 50 miler (I sure didn’t start with 50 miles). The races are offered in any distance from 5k to 50 miles. I would start with a distance that makes to feel a little uncomfortable, and then continue to safely push your limits every year.
My next 50 mile race will be The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Miler at Bear Mountain NY in 2011. I will probably compete in a number of other events (including some tri’s) between now and then.
Get out and train!
ps more pictures are posted on my facebook page at http://facebook.com/mjoebauer.