Saturday, April 12, 2008

North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Miler - Bear Mountain NY

Wow! This is the most extreme "trail run" I have ever done. And I would guess its the hardest sub 100 miler ultra in existence. Please let me know if I'm wrong about that. Because I'll enter any such other race immediately after finding about it.

I had done the first year of the North Face Endurance Challenge 50K in Seattle last fall. I had a great race that day, and I loved all the climbing they managed to squeeze in. The Bear Mountain race was billed as far more technically challenging. So I knew I wanted in on this one, and made plans to fly to New York City as soon as I saw the race posted in January.

Make no mistake about it: this was actually not a trail run. It was fifty miles of primarily bushwhacking. How is this possible you might ask? While there were some sections of single track, some deer paths, and even small segments of fireroad, the majority of the course was following white ribbons amidst the woods. After a certain point it became clear to everyone I was running around that if you really knew where you were supposed to go potentially hours could be saved cutting tangents and not following the white ribbons precisely. Since there really was no trail to speak of it would be hard to even call that course cutting. But if you're not familiar with the course, not only will you not be able to do such optimizations, you will be lucky to end up going in the right general direction at all.

As it was, the wrong turns that I ended up making were _after_ stopping and consulting with other runners at some length about which way to go. And we all went together on these wrong paths. When you do that and end up visiting the same aid station twice, it can be quite deflating. So...if you want to do this race (if they even hold it on this course again) the biggest single thing you can do is to go run the course beforehand (which I have no doubt the top finishers did). Ideally do it with a GPS and slap down some waypoints for later analysis. I do plan to do that next year.

But more challenging than the direction-finding was the nature of the terrain itself: the ribbon-marked so-called paths went up and down hollows and washes and rocks and crags, with dozens of knee deep creek crossings, and a bevy of rain-slicked moss-covered rock slides alternating with wet leaf slides. This no doubt explained the high prevalence of bloody limbs amongst the other competitors. I did fall five times onto my butt, making snowboard runs of the black diamond variety. But despite many minor scrapes and bruises I was nowhere near "best blood" for the day. Thankfully I didn't hear of any truly serious injuries.

As hilarious as these escapades were (and I had a smile on my face the whole time), it was abundantly clear that North Face didn't even make a head-fake attempt to time the course. The "projected times" for leaders and mid-pack were off by many hours, even halfway into the race. Also, I followed several runners into a pointless loop that had us all hitting aid station one a second time (among other small wrong turns that I would guess a majority of the participants ended up making).

As a result this gives me the most mixed emotions of any race that I have ever done. On the one hand I love these kinds of courses. It reminds me of my "secret stash" of trails around my Los Gatos Mountains lair (albeit East Coast bushwhacking is quite a bit different overall than West Coast shwacking). On the other hand, it became very clear during the race that people had no idea what they would be up against here. And despite the competitive venue I couldn't help but empathize with their sufferings.

As I started to figure out ten miles in, it was quite evident that the vast majority of runners would have to be pulled from the course. There was no way that the organizers were ready to do night-time monitoring of a 50 miler. And despite the 5am start, most runners would indeed have finished well past sunset. It seems that the 65 people (out of the 81 starters for the 50 miler) who got past 26.5 miles were counted as finishers, with their places recorded as of that milestone.

I continued past that point and passed at least five more runners.I was told by volunteers approaching mile 33.5 miles, at around nine hours into the race, that I was in the the top 20. I felt strong and was enjoying the afternoon. I had been passing people all day since my initial double visit to aid station 1. So I felt like I could have got back up to the top 10. But I was pretty sure they were going to start pulling everyone from the course soon anyway (which turned out to be true). And we had theater tickets in Manhattan for the evening that would not have been makeable with even the best of finishes. So I called it a day there, overall very satisfied with the day's adventures, although perhaps a bit frustrated by the unnecessary extra loops and thus the missed opportunity for a breakout race, given a terrain that I really enjoy. If this is a DNF, I'll take this particular one with no shame. I would do this race again, though I would definitely run portions of the course beforehand (especially if they modify it at all) and not make any plans for the evening after the race.

I'll be posting pictures and blow by blow details soon. In the meantime see this
better blog post from Scott Livingston
(whose wife is a monster on the order of Krissy Moehl or Beth Vitalis).

Waiting for the 5am start


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