The Endurance Challenge Championship has become one of the most prestigious 50-milers in the U.S. with its $30,000 purse attracting some of the best ultrarunners in the world. We were lucky enough to be invited to cover the event and run the 50-mile, relentlessly-hilly course through the Marin Headlands. Here’s how it all went down…
We flew into Oakland on Thursday so that we could meet up with GORE-TEX® and The North Face Team in Alameda the day before the race. We were invited to tour the headquarters and learn about new products, including the HyperAir™ GTX® Jacket. It was an awesome experience. TNF Headquarters feel more like a college campus. They have a fitness center and outdoor training area, bike shop and equipment gear lockers, a café, a community vegetable garden and amazing views overlooking the water and San Francisco. Did I mention the sparkling water on tap? Life goals.
We were there with an impressive group of runners and were able to chat with some of the elites like, Hal Kroerner and Rob Krar. We also talked with maybe the most inspiring woman I’ve ever met, Norma Bastidas. You need to read her story.
After the tour, we all caravanned up to Mill Valley where we would stay in a reasonably dated Holiday Inn Express that we were happy to call home for the next 2 nights. We checked out the local running store, the San Francisco Running Company and grabbed lunch at Café Del Sol. This place is amazing. Go get the Chipotle Sunrise. It’s the best wrap you’ll ever have.
After lunch, we headed back to the hotel to rest before meeting up with my sister, Jackie for drinks and dinner. We had a drink along the water at Bar Bocce, then headed over to the Farley Bar in Sausalito for a couple more drinks and dinner. We were in bed by 8 pm with a solid buzz and hopes that TNF would have our bibs waiting for us in the morning.
The alarm clock went off at 2:00 am. We stumbled down to the front desk where TNF had left our bibs, along with a duffle bag of post-race gear. So. Much. Awesome. Gear. We grabbed some coffee, a banana and a piece of bread with peanut butter. Both Thomas and I broke the cardinal rule of race day. We wore brand-new, never tested, running shoes: The North Face Ultra Endurance TR. What’s 50 miles out of the box? More on that later. We pinned on race bibs, filled up hydration packs, packed some Sport Beans and headed down to the lobby to grab a shuttle. At 3:45am we hopped onto a yellow school bus. In the lobby, we met an Outside magazine contributor, Lauren who had also run the Philadelphia Marathon two weeks earlier. We passed the time chatting about our experiences.
It took about 20 minutes to get to the start line, located in the Golden Gate Recreational Area. There were white tents setup for bag drop, packet pickup, registration, and a couple fire pits to help keep the runners warm. We dropped off bags, tucked into a corner of the fire pit next to Michael Wardian and didn’t move until the first wave took off at 5am sharp.
We started with Wave 4 (of 6), at about 5:04 am. It’s funny how race goals develop, or, unravel, over 50 miles…
The race starts in complete darkness so all runners are required to have a headlamp or flashlight. For the first two hours of the race, you see nothing but a string of lights ahead and behind you. I happened to love the darkness, but it definitely made things more challenging. Charging down steep descents with limited lighting can be a gamble.
The first five miles are nothing but rolling fire road that lead you to Bobcat Water Stop, the first aid station. We rolled through, grabbed a quick drink, headed out across a footbridge and then trekked up a hill to Old Springs Trail. Some more rolling terrain followed by steep switchbacks lead us to Tennessee Valley.
The sun came up around 7am. It found us somewhere between Tennessee Valley and Muir Beach. On one side, waves from the Pacific Ocean crashed along the shore, while the sun came up over the Marin Headlands on the other. The entire sky turned a beautiful shade of pink. It was worth a pause to take it in.
We continued to run along winding single track and eventually took a steep downhill into Muir Beach. We passed by the Pelican Inn, ran along roads, through a field, and then took more winding single track up 1,500 ft. to the next aid station, Cardiac. We hadn’t even made it halfway, how could I possibly be this tired?
The next challenge is an out and back loop that’s almost entirely single track. In my opinion, this is the worst section of the race. The etiquette here is that the runners making their way back from the aid station should have the right-of-way. Slower runners should yield to runners ahead of them returning on the trail. This didn’t seem to take effect when we were the runners on the way back. After a gnarly fall by Thomas, (he hit the ground like a sack of ham) we headed down a steep, stair-steppy slope to Stinson Beach, a 1,900 ft descent.
After Stinson, we ran up the classic Dipsea Trail which took us back to the Cardiac aid station. The familiarity was not as comforting as you might think. At this point my hands had taken another life form and my fingers resembled white, swollen sausages. The only thing more devastating were the bricks that had replaced my feet. Just keep moving forward, I thought.
After passing through Cardiac for the second time, we headed down a winding trail, followed by a big climb along the Sun Trail. The next section took us through high grasses of the Redwood Creek trail, across two wooden bridges and then back to Muir Beach. At this point we had made it to mile 40.
Someone mentioned a climb at mile 40, but I had no idea just how brutal it would be. The grind up this section of the trails made us question the intent of the race organizers. Each time you thought you’d reached the top, a quick turn would display yet another devastating incline. Finally, we made it to the top, where we followed a rolling trail to the next aid station.
Right when you think you’ve finished the final climb, mile 44 introduces a gradual ascent of 700 ft for over 2 miles. I spent these 2 miles questioning all of my life decisions.
The last bit of the course is a gradual descent into the finish line at Fort Barry. At this point, my legs were so shredded that the downhill was significantly more challenging than flat road. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Thomas took on the roll of convincing me to keep moving forward through these miles. And then, there they were: the white tents we had seen much earlier in the day. The last tiny bit of life came over me and we ran through the finish line.
We were immediately handed a Finisher’s medal and a TNF Endurance Race water bottle. We didn’t take advantage of the post-race festivities. Instead, we opted for showers and cans of champagne in the car. It was a long day.
We have to give a huge thanks to The North Face and GORE-TEX® for providing entries, gear, lodging and the most challenging course we’ve ever experienced. It was very well organized and drew in an awesome group of athletes.
Will we take on another 50 miler? Three days ago, I’d say HELL NO! NEVER! Today, I am thinking, “It wasn’t that bad was it?” Never say never.
Race Day Gear
Meaghan: For shoes, I wore The North Face Ultra Endurance TR running shoes (coming out in 2016). As I noted earlier, these were fresh out of the box. I was banking on a pair of HOKAS that didn’t arrive in time for the race. These shoes were heavier and more stiff than I typically prefer, but they worked well for the course. I left the event without any severe blisters and all my toenails intact! #FTW. Other gear/apparel: TNF women’s Better than Naked Short Sleeve shirt, TNF Isolite ½ zip, TNF Better Than Naked Split Shorts, Feetures! High Perform Light Cushion No Show socks, Unilite Headlamp, Lululemon All Sport sports bra, Nathan Zeal 2L Race Vest and a BITR Trucker hat.
Thomas: Shoes – The North Face Ultra Endurance TR, TNF Men’s Flight Series™ Vent Short, Xoskin short sleeve shirt, Better Than Naked™ Jacket, Nathan Zelos Hydration Pack, Forever Forward BITR Visor, Feetures! socks, 2XU calf sleeves.
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