June 3, 2012

Race Report: North Face Endurance Challenge (Half Marathon)

This weekend marked a step up in my trail running distance. Aside from the horse trail on the W&OD and the 5.6-mile Backyard Burn race, I hadn't done much in the way of serious single-tracking. Sunday's North Face Endurance Challenge half marathon was a good challenge, and the nearly three inches of rain in the days prior made the course all the more challenging.

My wife and I went to the finish line festival on Saturday afternoon to pick up my packet and bib for Sunday's race. Turned out to be a smart idea as we were able to scout the parking and shuttle logistics, which were confusing, and also get my blank red North Face event shirt screen-printed to avoid the awful lines on Sunday. It was pretty humbling watching the 50-miler, 50K, and full marathon runners coming into the finish line, especially the 50-milers who had been running for ten hours at that point. Based on the legs and shoes of these runners being caked in inches of mud, I knew I was wearing gaiters the following morning.

The Course and Race Day

Sunday morning I was up and off to Sterling for the bus pick-up...a morning that was quite groggy after a sick dog woke me up at 3:00a. After waiting in a brief line, I hopped on the second school bus and was off to Algonkian Park. At first I didn't see anyone else wearing gaiters, so I considered not using them...not sure why, guess I didn't want to look like a complete newbie. But after some warm-up jogging in a water-logged field, I ended up sticking with the gaiter plan. As I stood with wave one prior to the start, I overheard some folks commenting on them; maybe it's because I use them backpacking all the time, but I never thought of gaiters as such a rare sight.

Since this was my first half marathon on trails and since there were no mile markers on course, it actually made for a pretty relaxing morning. I didn't have any expectations on time or pacing, so I was just going to run by feel and assume I'd come in under a couple hours. The course started off through a water-logged field (a preview of the muck to come) and quickly hit a half-mile stretch on a golf cart path, cutting through fairways and Sunday golfers. A one-mile gravel road led racers to the first aid station and a sharp turn onto the singletrack. As soon as we hit the singletrack, the pace went from about 6:30 miles to 8:00 miles; the entire lead group slowed instantly and we picked our way through the first section of wide flood basin. And yes, a flood basin does indeed resemble its name after almost three inches of rain in 48 hours. The next couple miles paralleled the Trump National golf course, with rare chances to pass on the narrow trail, which was soaking in water and mud. At this point I was in a lead pack with a few others, but pulled back a few paces to avoid getting mud kicked up from tailgating the guy in front of me.

The mud. That's all you'll hear about from anyone running the events this weekend. And I'm not talking about regular "fun to play in the puddles" mud, I'm talking about foot-swallowing, shoe-removing, soul-sucking, MUD. Four-inch deep mud and shoe prints filling with water. The kind of mud that causes slipping, sliding, and puts tension on all your stabilizer muscles in the hips all day. It was fun at times, frustrating at times, and honestly, a little dangerous at times...especially when passing others and looking ahead for runners, there were more than a few ankles rolled in undergrowth, mud, or holes on the trail.

The next couple miles weaved through a mature forest and offered some views of the river. As the trail entered this section, the ground lost a bit of the mud cover and though it didn't widen, at least the side of the trail was semi-solid and passable for getting around people. We quickly hit the inclines (see elevation profile on course map above), and remembering some of my issues with this section from the prior weekend's preview run, I power-hiked the inclines rather than waste energy trying to run them. The strategy worked great, as I didn't lose any appreciable distance to those in front of me, and I actually saved enough energy to pass them on the next straight section.

The final miles before the halfway turnaround were a lot of fun; they rose and dipped through sections of foliage six feet tall, on both sides of the trail. It was like running through a crop field, just a small sliver of trail cutting through a lush environment, with plenty of twists and turns. I couldn't see more than a few feet of trail in front of me...I think I was actually smiling while running this section. I probably ran a few miles all by myself, with no one visible before or after me; it was very serene. The trail opened up towards the turnaround as it had seen more use (watching out for horse "presents"), and as I approached the halfway mark, I started counting runners headed the opposite direction...twelve; so I was lucky number 13 at the midway point. The turnaround was extremely anti-climactic, just a couple of volunteers with a pink posterboard in the middle of the trail saying "turn around."

Headed back towards about 700 other runners coming at me was where things got interesting and the pace slowed a bit more. Especially through the tall undergrowth, there was just nowhere to pass except for both directions taking a bit of the shoulder...in other words, bushwhacking through the foliage. On several instances I passed trains of over a dozen runners, with the first few seeing me but the rest looking down at the feet in front of them; I definitely gave a few folks a scare as I barreled around their group. Most lead runners were kind enough to yell "runner" for those behind them, but some never heard it (why MP3 players and headphones were allowed in this race is beyond my grasp). There was one large water crossing where rock-hopping wasn't an option...just had to plant my right foot in ten inches of water and go with it; I heard a squishing sound for the next five miles.

Although they slowed me down, the folks headed the other way were overwhelmingly talkative with encouragement. That's one of the nicest things about trail racers; it's a smaller community and really supportive, had a lot of "good run" and "keep it up" comments along the way. Although at one point, a woman said, "you're number thirteen, work a little harder and you'll be top ten...," um, work a little harder? Though not intentional, that was possibly the worst possible encouragement. Once I passed the bulk of runners and got some open trail, I started some surges to make up lost time, alternating my pace to make sure I didn't go too hard. I also took a brief break at the 8-mile aid station to rinse accumulated mud off my shoes with a cup of water and make sure my gaiters were tight. Hitting the hilly section on the way back, my hiking strategy was once again perfect. As I speed-walked up the switchbacks, I was actually catching up with the 12th overall position as he was using his energy trying to run it. I passed him on the downhill and the gap kept growing as I never saw him again.

At the final aid station, with just under two miles to go, the half marathon course linked up with the 10k course. Due to staggered start times, I hit the middle of their race in annoying fashion. I hadn't seen another racer in a while and was enjoying my cruise, and now I had to deal with traffic (with a lot of headphones) and to make it worse, I couldn't tell who was in my race or see if I was gaining position. The only good news, it made me up my pace as I picked out runners ahead of me to overtake. During the mile on the gravel road, my saved energy from the hills was put to good use, and I saw a yellow bib out of the corner of my eye as I moved into 11th overall. Hitting the golf cart path I passed another half marathon runner and surged to close any window, but then the course also merged with the 5k runners. So now I was in the middle of a pack of 10k and 5k runners, a few walkers, and people with their phones up taking video of the finish. Outta the way!

The Results

Half Marathon (13.1 mi) :   1:47:56  |  8:14/mile
Overall Placing :   10th  |  Age Group :   4th (Male 26-35)

Ultimately, I was very pleased with my results, coming in at an 8:14/mile pace; not bad considering power-hiking the inclines, fording a stream, rinsing the shoes at mile 8, and having to bypass hundreds of runners going the opposite direction.

Top ten was a nice surprise, and even with a large age group I ended up being Mr. Irrelevant (4th place).

The Swag

The race swag included a red North Face tech shirt and a pair of North Face arm warmers (with UPF50 protection that will come in handy won this month's vacation). The shirts weren't pre-printed with an event, but they had on-site screen printing to put the event's logo on the front, depending on which race you did from 5k to 50 miles. It was a good idea to save on pre-printing costs, but it made for an awful line on Sunday; thankfully I had my shirt printed Saturday afternoon. Finishers also received a cold beer, and the beer garden had plenty of seating under a big shade tree.

A much appreciated shoe-cleaning station. 

Though I at times question our 'medal for everyone' culture, I have to admit I wanted something for my first trail half marathon (longer distances received a medal and hot meal). So to commemorate the milestone of my first trail Half Mary, I snagged a course arrow...North Face, if you reuse these signs, I apologize for the swipe and promise to buy a few extra items from you for my expedition out west this month.

Course arrow with half marathon marker.

The Verdict

It was a great course of challenging and varying terrain, and really made me realize once again that trails are more fun than roads in every way, even in the mud. The race suffered from some logistics issues; the parking wasn't well marked, and I only found the correct lot courtesy of Facebook posts from other runners. The shirt line was extremely long, and the results tent had four laptops but the internet wouldn't work so time searches were fruitless. It also suffered from the typical traffic and overcrowding on course that result from an out-and-back course with runners coming at you. But even with a few issues to iron out, I look forward to running it again.

And oh yeah, the verdict on the gaiters was a giant affirmation. The S-Lab gaiters passed the test with flying colors, never moving out of place and keeping the muck out of my shoes as much as possible.

GT-2160 Trail shoes and Solomon S-Lab 
gaiters officially baptized in style.
Clear line between mud and shoe.