Monday, October 18, 2010

2010 North Face Endurance Challenge 50k Race Report

Guys, believe me when I tell you that I have been trying to consolidate my thoughts, observations, feelings and nuggets of wisdom I learned from this race ever since I finished it around 30 hours ago. It's been a tough challenge to do that. I'm going to do my best at this race report, but my mind is still wandering here and there, from this point in the race to that point, Mile 25 back to Mile 4...

... I'm guessing that you do the same thing when you finish a big race goal. I hope so, at least.

I was at work a good portion of the day on Friday. Actually, I don't think I got to my desk until about 10:30am, but that's another story. Anyway, At lunch, I made the 25 minute drive up to the host hotel for the North Face in order to pick up my bib and race bag. When I arrived, I was fairly surprised to see that North Face (let's shorten it by referring to them as TNF) had  NO expo setup whatsoever for packet pickup. Seriously. They had a few tables that bibs were categorized on, but no expo. 

Bummed about that. Who doesn't want to look for some more useless "I'm a Runner" logo goods? At any rate, I picked up my bag and headed back toward my office. Race shirt was really a TNF tech shirt with the race logo on one sleeve. Nice enough, to be sure.

For the entire day on Friday, I made it a point to hydrate and fuel properly. I did consume four (4) cans of Ensure between 10am and 5pm. In addition, I drank water and ate a fairly routine pre race diet. 

**** WARNING *****

This race report is perhaps the longest race report in the history of the world. If you read this, you should be medicated. 

You have been warned. 


Race morning began around 4:45am, which is when I had set two alarm clocks to go off. I woke up around 4:15am and couldn't get back to sleep, so I tossed and turned for about 20 minutes before finally getting up and beginning the process of getting ready. I had taken a great deal of care the previous evening in making sure my gear was out, ready to put on, and my waist pack was filled and ready to go as well. The usual items to always include in the hydration belts big pouch; (2) paper towels, 6-8 Advil, (4) waterproof Band Aid bandages, toe guard. You really need to imagine what items you could possibly ever need on the trail. Once you're out there, you are your own first responder. As you'll soon read, I lived this one out first-hand.


After a breakfast of (2) slices of Oatmeal toast with Honey PB and a banana, I got dressed. My plan was to arrive at Callaway Gardens beach around 5:30am. That would allow me to relax in the Hummer, stay warm and grab a final restroom break (heated restroom, that is:)). After triple-checking that I had all of my needed gear, bib attached to my shorts, hydration, visor, etc., I hopped on the road.

It's about a 20 minute drive through the countryside to get to the race venue on Pine Mountain, so at 5:00am it is definitely a very dark drive. With virtually no other car on the road, I had the entire 20 minutes to just try and gather my thoughts about what was about to be before me. I've been walking through this race in my mind for weeks now, but race day morning is a different thing altogether. You know what I'm talking about. You've been there, I know.

Wondering what lies ahead; that's all I could think about. I never really doubted whether I was up to the task, but then again, you don't ever really know until you do it. Like I said, I'm sure you've been in this spot.

So, I arrived at Callaway Gardens beach parking lot around 5:30am and just relaxed in the Hummer for a while. There weren't too many cars there yet, but I did see the busses that were to transport the runners to the Start/Finish line location about 5 minutes away. I sat in the truck for about 10 minutes, and began to see more runners trickling into the parking area. After a few more, I gathered my gear, headed to the busses and loaded on for the drive to the Athletes' Village.

On arriving at the Start/Finish line area, I was pretty amazed at how much of a "festival" atmosphere The North Face (TNF, for short) had managed to construct onsite. There were tents everywhere; food, beverage, swag, games, vendors, medical, the list goes on. Now, understand that it was 2 hours before daylight. I'm talking pitch, solid darkness. Under the moonlit sky, there was some light, but not very much. TNF had several of the registration/gear check tents lit and there were strobe lights going in the middle of the village as well. A DJ (yes, a DJ playing music at 6am) kept everything pretty lively over the speaker system as well. All of the runners tried to stay warm standing near the (4) portable stadium heaters that were onsite and fired up.

Fast forward to 6:57am; Dean Karnazes (Karno) gave a few words of motivation over the PA system at the Start line. He said the course is alot more technical terrain than he ever expected in Georgia. I am not surprised to hear that at all, but many people were. At 7am, he called the runners to Set and Go...

At this point in the report, let me say that I made a decision before I left home to NOT bring my headlamp. My thought being that I neither wanted to have to carry it all race long, nor did I want to have to give it up at an aid station, knowing I would never see it again. I figured I would "draft" off others light the first several miles. Once daylight was with us, all would be well.


I found myself running through utter darkness from Mile 0 - Mile 2.3 with a few fleet-footed runners. The trail was wider than single track, and not particularly tough. Zoomed on through it until the sun crested over the horizon and daylight filled the woods. Beautiful to see the sunrise across the ridgeline. Worth the price of admission for sure.

At around Mile 2, the pack had thinned out to a nice guy in front of me named Tracy, and another guy behind me (not sure of his name, but we talked for a bit early on.) With about 10 feet separating each of us, we were in there pretty tight on the trail. At this one point, we are tearing down this pretty steep section coming off a ridge, and my left foot catches one of the many, many football-sized rocks/boulders buried halfway in the group.

Tuck and roll.

As the rock grabbed my left foot, I fell head-->right shoulder-->lower back-->butt and back to my feet. I honestly didn't miss more than 2 strides with the whole fall. When I took the fall, I yelled "That's ONE !!"

No big deal, I regained my position between Tracy and the guy behind me, and then verified I wasn't bleeding anywhere. No harm done. The next .2 mile went by uneventfully. Until...

Tuck and roll. Again. Crap, that one hurt a bit more.

Same exact thing happened. Landed the same place, recovered the same way, no harm or damage, but I'm starting to get trail rash on the impact points.

At Mile 3.7, the terrain turned ultra-gnarly. Roots, rocks, scree-like pebbles and low-hanging branches thrown in with extremely narrow single-track, switchbacks. Did I mention also that this lovely terrain is also happening on a descent that compels you to be moving a pretty fair rate of speed?

That's when it happened. I caught a big rock with my right foot, and I feel straight forward, head first.

Without thinking about it, I reflexively put out my right hand (I'm right-handed) to brace myself for impact, and my palm caught the sharp corner of a bowling ball-sized rock that was half-buried in the ground. That slowed my fall down, but I basically skipped off the rock, and my hand ended up sliding under me through the rocks and dirt.

That hurt like the dickens..

I wasn't able to pop up from this one as quickly. It startled me alot more and I knew I was hurt a bit more also. My right leg was on fire and my left ankle was banged up pretty good too. Tracy and "other guy" had yelled back at me asking if I was okay, and I yelled that I was. I took about 20 seconds to finally get up and survey the damage to myself. My right hand had sustained the most damage and was bleeding pretty good. Both legs were skinned/cut up a bit and bleeding, but I could tell it wasn't very bad. Luckilly, I had stashed some large, waterproof bandages in my waist pack, so I retried one to try and cover the wound on my hand. Because of the blood, it wouldn't stick though, so I had to use one of my armsleeves as a compression wrap around my hand to hold the bandage in place and try to stop the bleeding. After the couple of minutes of walking triage, I was able to get back to running and assume my pace.

I reached the first aid station at Mile 5.6, I believe. I grabbed a few glasses of Nuun, drank them, and then saw a medic standing by. She asked me if I took a fall, to which I said "yes". She asked to see my hand, so I showed her what it looked like. At that point, she said I needed to follow her to the Medical tent about 20 feet away. Understand, at this point, the only thing that is really concerning me about this injury is the fact that this gaping gouge-wound in my right palm is completely packed with dirt. There is a flap of skin about the size of a dime, and I can't feel my fingers at all. Also, my palm is swollen to about twice it's normal size. I'm wondering if it is broken, so I go with her.

The lady medic was fantastic. She used water and peroxide to try and clean the wound, but she just didn't have the stomach to do it completely. She called over another medic (guy) who took a look at it, and gave me a very stern directive. Here's what he said:

"You do not have to take my advice, but I strongly advise you to allow me to call a paramedic and have them look at this wound and give you their best guidance on what you should do next. You can elect to go on from here if you want, but I think it is in your best interest to get the facts before you make a big mistake"

At this point, my only thought is on the promise I made to my wife that I would "be smart" on the trails. I knew that rambling on down the trail in this condition would be violating my promise to her, so I agreed to let him call it in. He told me to sit down in the chair while he radio'ed for an EMT. I started hearing my name and bib number being barked across multiple radios/walkies throughout the entire aid station (which was huge, btw).

In about 10 minutes, I hear some commotion behind me, and up walks a man about 60+ years in age, tough looking and he takes me by the hand out into the sunlight for a better view of my appendage. He performed some rudimentary tests to check for movement, circulation, etc. He then told me that he too, was a runner. He knew EXACTLY what my desire was; to continue this race. He was a God-send, plain and simple. he had the authority to pull my bib and put an end to my race at that point. If he had, I would not have been happy, but I would have been able to live with it, knowing I didn't DNF. Instead, he looked at me after inspecting my hand, and said "..let's get this thing cleaned up, wrapped up, and taped so you can get back to business".

That's what I'm talking about !

After some painful skin removal and disinfecting, I was out of the Medical tent, at the hydration stations getting my bottles filled, eating a PBJ sandwich, and then I was off. About 30+ minutes late in doing it, but I was finally off. Only 25+ miles to go.

The next section of trail leading to Aid station #2 (Mollyhugger Hill) were consisting of about 2.5 miles of initial descent (that's an understatement) followed by a final 2.5 miles of ascent. As is turning out to the standard, all trail is very narrow, single-track with many, many, MANY rocks, roots, boulders. At several points in the trail, you are running alongside overlooks over sheer granite faces that drop 150-200 feet. You are literally running 2 feet beside a precipice that will most certainly result in your death, should you take a slip and roll off the ridge. **Careful, Chris. CAREFUL**

After tackling the 2.5 mile climb up a 40 degree slope of switchbacks, boulder fields and rock walls, I reached Mollyhugger Aid Station #2. The aid station volunteers at ALL stations were incredible. These guys were ultra-goddesses and knew exactly what to do at the stations. There would usually be someone stationed out about .5 - 1 mile before the aid station letting you know it was coming up (there aren't mile markers in ultras). As you got into the station area, one volunteer would ask for your fuel belt and begin to replenish your bottles with whatever you asked for. Another couple of people would ask you what you wanted to eat, if anything. For me, the PBJ sandwich quarters were a great, quick nutrition boost about 2 miles later. I had several potatoes/salt, and also found a nice little trick. Many of the stations had the mini-sized candy bars that were wrapped individually. I would grab a few of these and tuck them in the back of my Race Ready shorts. Later down the trail, I would eventually start to run low on energy, so I would grab one of these candy bars. It was quick and easy to eat, I had no problems with my stomach, and the sugar release was pretty quick into the bloodstream. A nice find.

As I entered into the trail section called Rocky Point, I was aware that this portion required the runner to check in at the aid station, get his/her bib marked, and then perform a second loop of that same trail. Again, getting marked and recorded at the aid station. This was a requirement before the "handler" at the trail junction would point you "homeword" toward the Finish. (The "Finish" was still at least 12 miles away).

The nice thing about two loops of the Rocky Point trail (2.3 miles each) was that each loop ended at the aid station, where your bib would be marked and your name recorded by a trail official. While this was happening, you could refuel, grab a bite, refill your bottles, etc. When I checked in the first loop, one of the officials heard my name called out and he hustled over to me. "Are you Chris?" he asked. "Yes sir, that's me" I replied. "I need to look at your hand" he said next. Apparently, the Fox Den EMT (first Aid Station) had radioed him and asked that he keep an eye out for me, and recheck my hand/fingers/reflexes/bleeding/etc.

After a quick go-through, I assured him it was still okay, and he allowed me to go on my way toward loop #2. By this point in the race, I began to see fewer runners than before. Mind you, I had lost at least 30-45 minutes of time because of the entire hand-medical tent thing, but I quickly realized that many people were dropping out of the races as well, all throughout the course. I talked to several guys throughout the various aid stations that were dropping out due to injuries. I felt pretty happy that I had decided to keep moving.

I arrived back at Rocky Point Aid Station after my second loop, had my bib marked, name recorded, grabbed some candy bars, a sandwich piece or two, refilled my bottles, and chugged a couple of cups of Coke and Mountain Dew (I cannot BEGIN to explain how GOOOOOOD Mountain Dew tasted at this point...) Actually, I had one of the volunteers fill one of my bottles WITH MOUNTAIN DEW ! The dude looked at my kinda strange when I told him what I wanted, but about 4 miles later, it was like ROCKET FUEL !!!!!!

Next up; Dowdell's Knob. My wife and I used to come here when we were dating, and have brought our boys here several times also. It's a neat place to us, and overlooks the entire valley. Mind you, I didn't actually "see" anything that I can recall now, because I was so focused on watching where my next steps were going to be.

There were several good climbs (or bad, depending on how you were feeling at the time) in this section of about 2.5 miles. The Dowdell Knob Aid Station was a very, very welcome site. Same routine at the aid station, refuel, refill, out the door...

*************** INTERMISSION **************************

I want to take a moment here in the blog and give you some insight into how I was feeling and thinking at this point in the race.

At leaving the Dowdell's Knob Aid Station, I am basically at around 23.x miles into the race. Not even marathon distance. That was a very big hurdle to get over, mentally. The only things I knew at this point were that my time goals had been severely altered due to my fall, my lower body was in pain (knees and legs from the abrasions and cuts I incurred during the fall), my cardio and breathing were in great shape (no issues with either) and that I had not even reached marathon distance yet.

Each of these realizations added up to a cumulative effect on my mind that was only now starting to rear its ugly head. I had not thought about the Finish all race-long, thus far. I focused on living in the moment, in that one mile I was currently on. As I left this aid station, I begin to allow myself to think about finishing this race. Not much, but it started. One thing that ultimately seemed to help was a tactic I had read about somewhere on a board or forum, and it was to concentrate on simply running from one aid station to the next. Aside from nutritional support and hydration, I am pretty convinced that a big reason the aid stations at ultras are so well stocked (food, liquids, goodies, etc) is to give the runners something to actually look forward to while on the course. I found that if I had fueled myself at the last aid station and hydrated well enough, I could easilly get through the next 4-5 miles without too much difficulty. That would sometimes leave a pretty short distance before I started to get hungry or thirsty again. That hunger and thirst is what would give you something to look forward to at that aid station that was coming up next. That helped me focus in the latter stages of the race.

5.3 miles along more crippling ascents and quad-thrashing descents, I reached the Fox Den Aid Station on the return trip, and I was elated to be there. Again, same routine; food, electrolytes, get out.

As I cross out of the Fox Den Aid Station, I traverse the final road I will cross before reaching the Finish line. 1.1 miles to go, and most of it is a treacherous, ski-run section of switchback downhill....

...just when your body is least able to navigate it.

I ran that final stretch as hard as I could, and reached the final stream crossing with a little more than .4 miles to go. I stumbled coming up out of the stream bed, but the race volunteer was there to help me up with my non-injured LEFT hand :)

I crested the final hill leading to the Finish line area, and once I rounded a bank of trees...

...I saw it....

The FINISH line.

...then I heard it.... wife yelling my name....

...then I felt it....

...the surge of energy I get when I hear her at the Finish line...

...then I crossed it....

...and finished my first 50k in 8:29:37

Completely, utterly, exhausted.

Absolutely, totally, grateful for the gift that God has given me to be able to do this. Help me never, ever forget that it is a gift. 

Karno and me @ the Finish line. Now, that's SWEEET


  1. Hi Chris,
    Wow, this was such a great race report! I felt like I was right there with you:) Awesome job on a very challenging 50K! I love the pictures, it looks like you had a very scenic race route.

    I totally know what you mean about how Mountain Dew can taste so freaking good when you are tired, thirsty and need some kind of energy boost:)

    Congrats...nicely done!

  2. Oh sheesh, you just made me cry like a little girl. I'm sitting here at Starbucks and now I'm embarrassed. That was the best race report I've ever read.

    I hope to soon be able to run a race with awesome aid stations and volunteers and medics and have my support team waiting at the end.

    There is no greater feeling than crossing a finish line.

  3. Having just stumbled across your blog, I have to say your 50k sounded just like my first one earlier this year. Minus the whole hand thing, there was so much that went right and so much that went wrong and despite it all, I was stoked to finish. This was a great report and I'll certainly be waiting for more!

  4. Great report! I just did the North Face 50K in SanFran and it was totally epic!