Monday, June 3, 2013

Race Re-cap: North Face Endurance Challenge


At the beginning of the year I wanted to join Half Fanatics and one of the ways to join was to run 6 half marathons in 6 months (I ended up qualifying sooner by doing two halfs in two days).  I did a search of marathons to set up my calendar and found the North Face Endurance Challenge in Algonkian Regional Park.  It is about 3 miles from my house so it didn't take much thought to decide to do it.  There were several races included in the NF Challenge including a 50-miler, 50k, marathon, marathon relay, half marathon, 10k and 5k.  My brother-in-law's sister, Gina, ran the 50k.  I knew it was a trail run, but didn't really look into the race details at all.  I guess I didn't think it was going to be very different.  I signed up and didn't worry about it until this past week.

The elevation chart provide in the course guide for the
first 3 miles.  It seems about right. It was hilly.
I had a friend in my running club, Dan, who was also running the half.  He had run a few of the NF races in Algonkian Park before so he was able to provide me some good information on the course that I wasn't able to glean from the website.  One of the things that I was most interested in was the course elevation, which still has not been updated properly on the NF website.  They did include an elevation chart in the half marathon course guide, but it was only the elevation of the first 3 miles.  Dan is a trail runner and has done a couple 50 milers and just completed a 100 mile race last month so he gave me some great tips on trail running.  I didn't have any trail shoes or anything like that and he assured me that wouldn't be a problem.  He was also able to tell me about the course from first hand experience, which is always beneficial.

Three weeks ago I just PR'd on the Historic Half in Fredericksburg, which was a hilly and tough course so I decided that I was just going to enjoy the NF Endurance Challenge and not worry about time.  In fact, I decided to not even wear my Garmin GPS watch so I wouldn't get the urge to push it.  Dan and his wife, Nicole (my running coach), warned me that trail running was slower than road races so I just wanted this race to be a fun, enjoyable one.

Packet Pick-up:
I didn't make it to the North Face store in Georgetown to pick my packet because it was in DC and I didn't really want to drive there and sit in traffic just for my number, especially since they allowed pick up on race day.  On Saturday afternoon I drove up to Algonkian Park to get my race number.  I arrived around noon and it was definitely hot outside.  It was over 90 degrees and I could see some of the runners coming into the finish.  I'm glad I wasn't running in that heat!  I was there when the first two 50 miler finishers came through the finish.  That was pretty cool to witness.  The top 50 miler participant finished in 6:45:36.  It was incredible!  That's close to my first marathon time and he ran double that on a hard trail!!  I wish I would have timed it better so I could have been at the finish when Gina crossed the line.  I found out later she crossed right around the time I was there.  I must have just missed her!

I went to the tent for packet pick-up and they assigned me my number as I arrived and put me in wave 9, which I'm sure was based on my expected finisher time.  They also gave me a shirt and a pair of Smart wool socks.  That was kind of cool.  The shirts were plain and you had to take them to a separate tent to have them screen printed with your race distance on it.  I dropped my shirt off there and was told it'd be ready for me to pick up tomorrow after the race.  I would have lingered longer, but it was ridiculously hot and I wanted to get into some air conditioning so unfortunately I didn't get a look at all the vendors.  There were quite a few vendor tents too.  I went to Red Robin for my carb up dinner.  In hindsight, that probably wasn't the best decision.  I usually do pasta.  I ate a Caesar Salad wrap (minus the chicken) and lots of fries.  Not a healthy carb up and I could feel the effects on my energy the next day.

Race day:
My race started at 8:00 am and I had to take a shuttle from the parking location to Great Falls Park where the start line was.  In years past the half started at Algonkian, went out 6.55 miles and then returned to Algonkian.  This was the first year it had a different starting location than the finish.  The shuttles started at 6:00 am and the location was also very close to my house.  I wasn't quite sure what time I'd want to arrive, but planned to be ready to go around 6:30 am.  I laid out all my clothing and gear the night before, except for my iPod and Gymboss (interval timer), which were in my car.  I decided to try something new (gasp!) and wear a sleeveless shirt for the race.  It was going to be hot and I wanted to be as cool as possible.  I went to a few stores until I found the same version of what I usually wear minus sleeves.  I also made sure to body glide my arms to prevent chafing.

I ended up waking up at 5:30 am and leisurely got ready.  I kind of wish I got up a little earlier, but I figured since the race was so close there was no rush.  I still had plenty of time, but I like arriving really early to races.  I ate my usual bagel and jelly breakfast and had a half a bottle of Gatorade.  I really want to try something new, I'm bored with my bagel.  I put the remaining half in one of my fuel belt bottles and filled the other with water.  I hoped in the car and headed to the parking area.  When I got there I started walking to the shuttles and realized I forgot my iPod so I went back.  I could run without it, but I run with it when I'm solo to keep me distracted.  I arrived at the shuttles and realized I forgot my Gymboss too!  Since I wasn't wearing my Garmin I wanted the timer to help make sure I didn't take longer walk breaks than needed so I went back and got it.  That was kind of a pain to go back twice.

Dan, Nicole and me at the start
When I arrived at the start (around 7:15 am) I quickly found Dan and Nicole and chatted with them for a while.  We talked about trail running versus road running and Nicole said she hated trail running because she felt like she was sprinting and working hard, but her times were about 2 minutes slower than on the road.  I anticipated being slower, but hoped to still finish around 3 hours or less (Ha, I was so off!).

Around 7:30 am I decided to make a pit stop and had to wait in a VERY long line.  I was in line for almost 30 minutes. I probably should have done that first instead of talking, but oh well.  While I was in line I chatted with a couple other runners and found out that the aid stations were different than I had planned for.  I guess I looked at an old course guide, not realizing it had changed and was expecting aid stations every 3 miles.  It turns out there was one aid station at 2.4 miles, another at 8.4, and one final one at 11.7.  There was a 6 mile chunk between aid station 1 & 2 and I wasn't prepared for that.  At the start line there was a race volunteer announcing that they would be handing out water bottles at the first aid station if we wanted to take one.  I had my fuel belt with my 20 oz of water, but planned on taking a bottle of water with me.  I didn't want to have to carry it, but figured 20 ounces wouldn't be enough for 6 miles in the heat we were going to face.

Thankfully the start was delayed 10 minutes because I would have been cutting it close after waiting in line for so long.  There were only 775 runners and the atmosphere was laid back so it was easy to stay calm and fight the pre-race nerves.  Even though it was a half distance and I'm used to that it was my first trail run and I didn't know quite what to expect so I was a little anxious.  I said goodbye to Dan and Nicole one last time, wished Dan good luck and headed to my starting wave.  I was in the second to last wave.  I don't mind being in the back.  I'm used to it at this point.  I liked the way they started the waves.  They would let one go, wait 60 seconds and then let the next wave go.  Each wave had around 75 runners.  There weren't many runners, but the trails were thin after the first few miles and congestion would be an issue if they didn't taper the start.  I wish Nike did something like that!  It took 10 minutes to get everyone started.  After my wave started I passed Nicole, gave her a high five and received lots of cheering and well wishes.  It was great to have her support.

Course markings
As I mentioned previously this was my first trail race.  The first part of the course involved running on a trail near the tourist waterfalls (the part of the park I know) and then back through the starting area where the first aid station was.  It was a loop so the first waves of runners were coming back to the starting area.  I was able to see Dan around mile 1ish for me and probably mile 2 or so for him.  I felt like I was running my normal pace, but could feel the difference of the trail.  It was definitely a lot harder than the roads I'm used to.  I didn't wear my Garmin so I had no idea how fast I was going or how far I was going.  Prior to the race I didn't know the distances the aid stations were, I only found out there was going to be less than I expected.  When I arrived at the first one I still had no clue how far I'd gone.  I picked up a bottle of water and right after that station was the first large hill!  I saw Nicole again :)  She was helping clean up bottles that runners threw on the hill and she caught me walking.  Dang it!  She still gave me some good cheers and encouragement though.

During the entire course there were markings with varied color ribbons to signify the race you were running and to help you find your way.  It would be unpleasant to take the wrong path and end up running longer than necessary!  The half marathon color was yellow.  It was very well marked, which came in handy because there were large periods of time I was by myself and had no one to follow.  In the beginning I was around many runners, but the farther into the course it thinned out significantly.  I really enjoyed the solo time, especially since it was in the woods and along the river.  It was beautiful.  The trail was also very well shaded and there breezes from time to time making it very bearable.  I was totally drenched in sweat in the end, but it didn't feel nearly as hot as it did on Saturday and for that I was very grateful.  It was a perfect setting for some personal reflection, of which I did a lot of.

A picture I took along the way...I'm estimating around mile 4
It didn't take very long for me to feel very tired.  After the first aid station I felt like I already ran about 5 miles.  Since the aid stations had changed from what I expected I didn't know their mile markers during the race.  I know now because I looked back at the updated guide, but during the race I was clueless.  I asked a lady just after the first aid station who was wearing a watch what the distance was and she told me that we were 3 miles in and doing a 13ish minute pace.  I was shocked!  I seriously felt like I was running so much faster than that.  I was already tired and still had 10 miles to go.  I knew it was going to be a long, hard race after that.

A shot from early on in the course when the trail was still
wide enough for more than one person.  This was probably
around mile 4 or 5.
Between the 1st and 2nd aid station felt like the longest 6 miles I've ever run.  Trail running is so much harder than I expected.  I've never really been a huge fan of hiking so I'm not sure why I thought trail running would be easier than hiking.  When I signed up for the race I neglected to think about the type of hills I've experienced on hikes.  This trail was no different.  It had many hills, which were hard.  There was definitely no running up those.  Running down hill was sometimes tricky too because it was so steep so I couldn't really make up time that way either without falling or slipping.  I started my running interval at 3:1 and then dropped it down to 2:1.  It was still hard to maintain because of the frequent hills. I tried my best, but there was way more walking than I've been doing lately on my road race halfs.  I probably ended up walking more than running, but I still felt as tired as if I had been running.    

We ran behind Trump's National Golf Club in Lowe's Island
The trail seemed never ending.  Although it was really pretty, I felt like I would never make the aid station at mile 8.4.  I drank all the water in the bottle they gave me and at one point on the race their was a random portapotty with a group of other bottles on the ground so I threw it there.  I was happy to part with it because it was awkward to carry.  I'm not used to holding anything.  I then drank all the water and Gatorade in my fuel belt.  Without my Garmin to tell me how many miles I had gone I had to gauge my race fueling based on how I felt.  I had a pack of watermelon sports beans with caffeine that I ate right after the first aid station.  I'm guessing I ate a clif shot gel around mile 5 and then my honey stinger gel right before I hit the aid station at mile 8.4.  I also ended up busting open my last pack of sports beans at mile 12 because my stomach was grumbling.  I didn't finish the entire pack though.  I was happy I had it.  I always bring one more than I think I'll need and yesterday I was grateful for that.  Normally I don't use it, but always tell myself it's better to be over prepared than under prepared.
A picture of the trail when it was single tracked
and flat!  There were parts that were even
narrower than this and the brush rubbed
against your legs.  It was itchy!

There was one spot on the trail where we had to do a little maneuvering over a stream, which I wanted to do without getting wet or muddy.  I managed to cross without any issues, but there was a steep little hill that was super muddy before getting back on the trail.  I managed to get right near the top and then slid down and caught myself with my hands before falling all the way.  Thankfully there was a girl there who helped me get back up the top and then I was left with muddy hands.  I tried to wipe my hands off on the grass and my shorts too, but it didn't help much.  I had mud in my fingernails too.  Yuck!  I'm guessing that was probably around mile 7.

I was so happy to hit the second aid station at mile 8.4.  It was well stocked and the crew was very helpful.  They had lots of water ready for us and food.  There were clif bars and clif blocks.  I've never had clif blocks so I thought I'd try some.  I figured it was late enough in the race that it wouldn't be a problem.  I think I tried chocolate cherry.  It was disgusting!  I only had one and threw the other two out.  Ick!  I filled up my water bottles and was off.  I kind of wish I would have refueled better at that point and would have averted the hunger at the end.

This is the Garmin elevation read out from Dan's watch.  I swear it was a lot
hillier than this graph shows an I know that Dan would agree with me.
The last 5 miles were hard.  We hit a few serious hills, although the elevation chart above doesn't seem to show it.  There were a few runners around me for a while leading up the aid station and after that point I was pretty much solo.  I would see a runner here and there, but for the most part I didn't see any runners until the last aid station.  I liked the private time.  There was a portion that was exposed to the sun at the golf club and that's where the brush got a lot thicker on the trail.  I passed a runner who looked like he was in pain and I asked him if he was okay.  He had a serious cramp, but said he was okay.  He saw I had two bottles of water and asked for some water.  Poor guy!  It sucks to run out of water and be thirsty on a run.  He had one of the race water bottles so I filled his bottle up with one of mine.  I assumed there was just a mile or so left and one bottle would suffice.  I was a little off because we didn't hit the last aid station for another mile and then there was still 1.65 after that.  I swear, this was the race that never ended.  I thought it would be fun to run without my Garmin, but I'll have to re-think that in the future.  If the race has mile markers I think I could manage without it, but there were none on this race and it made it really difficult to not know how far I'd gone or how long I'd been racing.  There is a small part of me that liked not knowing, but it was hard to realize how off.  When I hit the last station and asked how much farther I was dumbfounded when they told me I still had a mile and half to go.  I seriously felt like I had just run 13 miles.  (I later found out the course measured longer and was an estimated 14.65 miles so I wasn't totally off when I hit that last aid station!)

Even though I couldn't believe there was still 1.65 to go, I kept on moving.  I was exhausted at this point.  I pretty much walked that last mile.  I tried to do fartleks from each ribbon marker in the trees, but only lasted through 4 of them.  I had been doing some form of intervals, however scattered they were, but I just wanted to get to the end and could care less about time at that point.  When I finally could see I was nearing the end I ran.  I think that was about .2 miles.   I don't think I could ever allow myself to walk through a finish line, no matter how tired I am.  When I rounded the corner into the finish chute I could see the time of day was just after 12:00 pm.  They announced my name as I crossed the finished, but they pronounced my name last name wrong.  That always happens!

When I crossed the finish line I actually wanted to cry (not the happy tears I usually get) because that meant that I was out on the course for almost 4 hours!!  My time was 3:49:44.  Yikes!  I was way off my anticipated time.  That was slower than any half I'd ever run, even my first one in 2012.  I was happy to finish and to get the medal, but a little upset with the time.  I know that I gave it everything I had and during the course, but it still sucks to be so dang slow.  I know it's a consistency issue and I'm not going to see major improvements until I get more consistent.  I can't be too upset.  On a positive note, I felt like I have come a long way in my running journey.  I'm pretty sure I would have suffered a lot more if I attempted this race last year and would not have done it in the time limit of 4 hours.  I know that I am stronger today than I was when I started two years ago.  It was by far the hardest course I've run so far.  I would venture to say it was even harder than the Marine Corps Marathon.  I didn't have to deal with my IT band injury on this race, but I did have little aches and pains in my knees and ankles from the trails.  It was brutal and took more mental gumption to get through it.  During MCM there were crowds and loads of other runners to help along the way.  This race I was mainly on my own.  I did also beat 40 other people.  I might be at the back of the pack, but I wasn't last :)
Race loot...water bottle (they had more at the
finish), medal and Smart wool socks

After I crossed the line I got water and chugged it.  I was getting a headache and for me that's one of the first signs that I'm dehydrated.  I picked up my shirt from the screen press, which I love, and then went to look for post race food.  I wasn't very impressed with the selection.  All I could see was peanut better, pretzels and saltines.  I think I might have been too slow and all the good stuff was gone.  I really wanted a banana or something.  I grabbed two packs of saltines to get some sustenance and walked to the shuttles.  I live close enough so I knew I could get something at home soon.  There was a lady passing out fruit bars by the shuttle so it worked out well.  It was delicious.  Unfortunately, I didn't walk around the vendors.  I was too exhausted.  The race name was very appropriate because this race definitely was an endurance challenge.

On my drive home I called my parents, who were on their way home from my sister's, to see where they were.  They were about an hour away and I asked them if they wouldn't mind stopping by the Taco Bell/Pizza Hut fast food joint to get me my favorite post race food, a small cheese pizza a bread sticks.  Yum!  I don't know why, but I love pizza after races.  Ever since I got pizza at the Caesar Rodney half it's what I crave.  They were nice enough to agree to get it for me so I could shower and relax instead of having to worry about going back out.  They're the best!  I did have a little chafing on my arms even though I used body glide and that is always miserable in the first shower.  I was happy to have the sleeveless shirt and think it made a difference, but the chafing was no fun.  Next time I need more body glide.  After I ate my delicious pizza I pretty much passed out for a few hours.

On a side note, I stopped eating meat back in March.  About 2 weeks ago I'd noticed that I was extraordinarily tired.  I'm positive that it was a result of protein deficiency and have been trying to fix it.  I think the effects were still apparent based on how much the trail wore me out.  I know the trails are harder than the road, but my time was A LOT slower than I've been doing lately.  I think my slow time was a combination of poor pre-race carb loading (Red Robin), protein deficiency, running in the heat and the toughness of the trails.

The medal close up.  
Overall Race Thoughts:
For the most part, I feel like the race was well organized.  I don't have any other trail runs to compare it to.  It's not a road race so I can't expect the same things I would on my other races.  Dan had mentioned that aid stations every 6 miles apart is pretty typical for trail runs.  I was lucky they handed out water bottles to withhold us those 6 miles because I would have been inadequately prepared.  If I do a trail race in the future I have a better idea of what I need to sustain me and my little 20oz belt will not cut it.  I do have a 100oz Camelbak that I use for my long runs in the summer, but that would be a little too big for this type of race.  I think if I were to do a run like this again I would purchase a 50-60oz fuel backpack.

I have been admiring ultra runners and my friends who have completed 50k's, 50 milers and 100 milers.  They had my respect before this race, but after this endurance challenge my respect grew.  Trail runners are strong!  It's a totally different beast than the road.  I'm not totally sure how I feel about trails just yet.  I know that I like road races better, and right after I finished yesterday I would tell you there is no way that I ever want to do an ultra trail run, or even the NF half again.  Now that I've had some time to digest the experience I definitely still want to do an ultra marathon one day and I want to do the NF half again.  I don't want that race to beat me or discourage me.  It was hard, but I know what to expect now.  It's close to home so I can train better for it next year.  I'm not sure which race I'll do next year because it depends on how the rest of my race calendar for 2014 ends up, but at a minimum I'll do the half again.  The only thing I know is that, I will return with a vengeance! Perhaps I'll plan for the 50-miler in 2015 :)


1 comment:

Kevin said...

Thanks for sharing! I'm running this race in 2014. It's my first trail race too.