As some of you know, back in October I took part in "The North Face Endurance Challenge". Now, some call it a run, some call it a race, some call it trail running, some call it ultra running, and some call it hiking with style, but no matter what you call it - it was both a physical and mental challenge, and one of the hardest things I've done in my life (and one of the most fun - strange, I know).
As for the specs, I chose the 50km/31mile option. It took place on Cougar and Squak Mountains in Issaquah, just outside of Seattle. This was definitely a trail run, with all of the miles on hiking trails throughout the parks. And if the thought of 31 miles on trail isn't enough to get your blood moving, then how about some elevation? For my money, the elevation is what breaks you on this course. The funny part is, I can't get any consensus on how much elevation there was! If you just look at the rough numbers on the guidebooks, it looks like about 6000-7000' of total elevation gain and loss for the course. You run around on Cougar mountain for 6 miles, then head up Squak (~2000'), down Squak, back up Squak (~1800') then back down Squak, then over to Cougar for another 11 miles or so, including a trip up something called the "DeLeo Wall" - easily worth another 1000'. But the difference between the guidebook and the trail itself is marked. See, the guidebooks look at the elevation at the base, and the elevation at the top, and subtract. But in reality the trail doesn't just go straight up, it goes up a little, down a little, up for a while, then another little dip. Net net, when I set my watch to record samples every 5 seconds, it said that we gained about 12000' of elevation throughout the trip. Which I strangely believe.
So what does this combination of elevation, trail, and distance due to your running speed? Well, let's see - I ran a marathon last year at about a 10min mile pace, and I can run sub 8min miles for a 5K. For this run, I was shooting to run 15min miles. Yup. The "Elite" athletes that run these things are men and women that can run crazy speeds - like 6min miles over a marathon. The winners of this race ran 9-10min miles. It's just that crazy.
In any case, how did race day go - well, it went really really well. We started around 7:00am. It was still pretty dark out, and there was a mist in the sky - OK, maybe it was still raining a little. But the temperature was good - I'm always happier when it is cooler out for running, and temps were probably around 45-50F. We started out at a nice easy pace. A pack of 12 or so of us had formed, and there was no room for people to pass for the first 4 miles around Anti-Aircraft Peak, so we pretty much hung together. At mile 4 (about an hour in) there was a small aid station, and the pack thinned out. I was running with my friend Danika - we had done some of the training runs together, and it turned out she was friends with my friends Lynn and David Treadwell. Now normally Danika (who is running the Seattle Marathon Sunday) smokes me out on the course. She is about 1min per mile faster than me on the flats, so I was expecting to run alone most of the day. Unfortunately, she had pulled her back earlier in the week, and she started the race worried that she wouldn't even make it 13 miles, let alone finishing. I encouraged her to just take a slower pace and hang with me, and we'd see how it goes.
At mile 7ish (just under 2 hours in) is when the course gets tough - the "run" up Squak Mountain. For me this is a power walk, but it's nice enough. The real issue on Squak is the top, where you actually go over 3 separate peaks at the top - each of them about 200-300' high, with some really steep sections. After that, it was a quick run down to the Equestrian Crossing and the mile 13 checkpoint (about 3 hours in), where my wife was supposed to be waiting at the first spectator checkpoint. We actually came into the checkpoint a little early, and coupling that with the fact that the checkpoint was A) further from the parking lot and B) significantly more uphill than expected - we got there before L. Fortunately L showed up just as we were leaving, and she was able to get some good shots of us running through the forest. From there it was back up Squak again, and then another downhill to the crossover at Cougar. It was on this uphill that Danika and I started passing some folks - we knew that our training had paid off, since we had run all of these trails many times already, and had a good idea how to pace ourselves.
Once we hit the aid station at Cougar Danika was still doing OK, and we had "The Talk" - for those of you that are runners, and who run with other people, this is the talk that you have when paces don't line up. It's when one person convinces the other person that they should run together, and that times don't matter. The thing that is funny with us, is that she is faster than me uphill, even with a bad back, and I'm faster than her downhill. But we decided that finishing together was going to be more rewarding than whatever time either of us could have achieved on our own, and we didn't worry any more about one of us holding back the other or vice versa. After going back up the connector, we hit the part of the course that hurt me the most. I think it's called Deceiver, but I just called it hell. It was about 20 miles (just around 5 hours) in, and it is just a relentless uphill, exacerbated by the fact that it doesn't even have a cool name or a recognizable summit - it just goes up and up and up.
After that a nice downhill took us to the base of the DeLeo Wall trail. Which is supposedly the toughest part of Cougar, but we nailed it. Part of the goodness there was that I knew that L was waiting for me at the Aid Station at the top of DeLeo wall - knowing I was about to see her put an extra spring in my step! I was singing and cheering as I came into the aid station - which was about 22 miles (5 and a half hours) in and feeling groovy. After cramming in some food (I don't recommend the ham and cheese, but the PB&J are awesome, as are the boiled potatoes), and getting a replacement for my fuel belt (more gu, more cliff shots etc.) it was back to the trail. Downhill for a while, followed by the toughest hill on Cougar - the "Marshall Wall" which was as hard as always (note, we went back to Cougar a few weeks ago, and hitting this wall after only 6 miles of running is much, much easier than after 23 miles). Just after the wall I got passed by Uli Steidl - an elite marathon runner, and the guy who ultimately went on to win the 50 mile race that day! A few more uphills, and we were back to the start line. Unfortunately, this was only 25 miles (6 and a half hours) in, and we had to go back out and do another 6 miles to finish our race.
I honestly thought that it would be hard to run past the car and keep going, but at that point it was only 6 more miles right? The adrenaline was starting to kick in, and I could taste the finish, only an hour and a half more to go! At mile 27 we did a little jig, to celebrate the first time that either of us had ever run more than a marathon, and celebrate our official status as "Ultra Runners!" then we knocked off another 4 miles, and sprinted to the finish! We crossed together, just under 8 hours from when we started! It was actually colder at the finish than it was at the start. Net net our times were just over 15min per mile - with better coordination, better planning, and better health we definitely could have broken the 15min mark, but my first goal was to finish, my "thrilled goal" was to finish in under 8 hours, and my beyond expectations goal was to finish under 7:45 (15min pace) so I was pretty damn happy!
I can't quite describe all of the feelings I went through on the run, or through the next couple of days. It was really hard. It was fun. I was fortunate to have the support of my wife, both through the summer of training and losing weekends to that, as well as on the course. It was nice having Danika to run with the whole time. It was great to be done. I felt pretty OK afterwards, other than fighting to get enough calories in me throughout the night so as not to get sick (as a reference, I burned around 5000 calories during the run alone - and even with as much food as I ate, I only took in about 2000 calories during the race - plus about 2 gallons of water - good thing it wasn't hot out...)
I know the next thing that people always ask me is "What's Next?" - honestly, I don't know - I'm pretty happy that ski season has started, and I'm going to spend most of my time focused on that. I'll start running again next week I think - just 2-3 times a week to keep in rough shape. Come early next year I'll set my next goal, and we'll see what happens!