Sunday, 5 December 2010

North Face Challenge Final 50k - San Francisco

Golden Gate Bridge on the drive to the race the night before.

Yesterday was a fun race and certainly lived up to its billing as the most competitive trail 50 miler around (possibly ever?). I only saw it from the perspective of the 50k, which meant I had an extra two hours in bed and got to see all the leaders come in. I'd hoped to really focus on this race and run the main event, but training over the last few months has involved being overtrained and not spending much time at all on trails, so dropping down to the 50k was the only sensible option. Not ideal to miss such an enjoyable and exciting challenge, but there's always next year.

Great races all around with full 50-mile results here: and 50k results here: There was also a marathon and the following day had several shorter races, making for a huge event.

I won't go through the full details of the longer race, but it was wet and muddy with around 10,000-11,000ft of climb over the Marin Headlands and with almost the first two hours in the pre-dawn darkness. Not too cold, but some wind, especially on the higher points. It was won impressively by Miguel Heras of Spain in 6h47m for the men and Anna Frost of New Zealand in 7h45m for the ladies. So many top runners turned up and a whole load of other great racers were entered but had to DNS. irunfar covered the race with plenty of interviews and analysis at

Anyway, I can describe the 50k better, given that's what I ran. It covered most of the same course, starting at 7am, just after sunrise. I've seen most of the course before in recent races (Miwok 100k, Headlands 50 miler and the Stinson Beach 50k...and that's just races I've run, never mind all the others around there which I've had to put on my 'to do' list instead). The number of races is a good indication of how perfect those trails are for runners and the photos below show some views when it's not overcast or muddy (afraid I didn't take my camera for this one).

The trails actually started with a mile on the road so everyone charged off at a fast pace. Then it went straight uphill for the first climb (see the profile below). I led until a couple of minutes into this hill, determined to run this whole race hard, as a substitute for the 50 miler, but I was forced to walk/jog up the hill due to a lack of hill training recently and heavy legs so the leaders were out of sight when I started going downhill on the other side. They all looked like strong climbers so I realised that if I was going to have any chance, I'd have to make up for my weak-feeling legs and poor climbing by hammering the downhills and going hard on the flats too. But at least my legs were well-trained for those types of running, so I considered that there was a chance I could stay in touch with them. Although I aimed to use the tactics that led to the adage that trail races are 'won on the uphills and lost on the downhills', it seemed possible...hopefully.

At the start of the day, I'd thought that breaking four hours would be possible if my legs hadn't lost too much of the climbing training from the build-up to Western States. But with the time I was bound to lose from power-walking so much, I now had no idea what to aim for and could only focus on the man in front.

The climbs through to the Muir Beach checkpoint at 8.2 miles were relatively small so I managed to catch up to second on a particularly muddy descent since he didn't seem to have trail shoes on. Then I came through the aid station just behind first and had a couple of miles of chatting with him on a flatter section. His name was Paul Terranova and he'd flown in from Texas so even the 50k was drawing in competitors from all over.

Then we reached the bottom of the biggest climb, a 1,500ft ascent to Pantoll then to Bootjack aid station at 14.0 miles. I told him to overtake me as I'd be climbing slowly, and he gradually pulled ahead until he went out of sight again. By the time I got to the aid station he was two minutes ahead, so I hoped that I'd at least get within view on the slightly more technical trails down to the Old Inn aid station at 19.1 miles (actually 20.1 miles on the Garmin, which tends to underestimate by about 1-5% on these types of trails). Luckily, I was able to catch him almost immediately, finding myself really enjoying jumping over the rocks and roots through the forest. This is always the best part of trail racing for me, not just because it's the fastest, but because galloping over rocks and roots is pure fun.

I could tell that the rest of the race was likely to be a game of leap-frog with Paul going ahead on the climbs and me catching up on the downhills. And that's how it was for the next few miles. However, he looked so strong on each climb that he wasn't visible almost immediately after he'd pass me. So I had to stick to the aim of racing each downhill like I was in a much shorter race. But with two thirds of the race completed, it seemed to be working and my legs weren't feeling bad from the extra pounding from the higher effort level. Looking back, it's amusing how I went from feeling completely confident in winning when I reached the bottom of a hill to having no hope again when I got passed much quicker than I expected on the next ascent.

One thing I had heard about this race series is that the course markings are not always the best and many fast runners had had their races derailed by getting lost. So far I'd not had a problem but there had been occasional turns where it had been ambiguous, so I had to keep my focus and concentrate at each junction to not miss anything.

After the longest flat section of the race to get back to Muir Beach, I couldn't see Paul behind and knew I'd be going back up the really slippery, muddy hill which had been difficult enough to run down originally. Even if I'd felt able to run uphill, it was like walking on banana skins so I was crawling up. But I don't see how anyone else would go much faster unless they'd opted for really spiky trail shoes.

There were just two big climbs left to the finish, a 900ft one up then down to Tennessee Valley, followed by a 600ft one up to the final checkpoint. Both of these were slow powerwalks with little running, but it was a surprise to not be overtaken on either. I still focused on running the downhills as fast as I could and was happy to be able to maintain around my 5k pace without it feeling bad (however, that's not the case a day later...). From the last aid station I remembered that it was only 2.7 miles to the finish, all of it downhill then a flat last mile. So it looked like this 50k course would be a bit over a mile long on the Garmin, meaning maybe a little more than that due to it's typical error from experience.

The day was still overcast but it wasn't raining at this point and the trail was wider and very easy to run down. I was looking forward to finishing and to having had a successful day, but there was a final twist to come. After over two miles from the final aid station I could see the road which the race had started on, but the route back to it had a sign blocking the way with a large 'X' and stating 'Wrong Way'. So I didn't turn back on towards the road and kept going on the same route as before, looking out for the route to the finish line.

The trail split into two with course markings for every one of the race distances, but with pink arrows showing 'Marathon Loop 1' and 'Marathon Loop 2' as my only options. Neither of these sounded like a finish line but Loop 2 was perhaps the marathon route to the finish and it just hadn't been marked properly (I'd expected more ambiguity so this didn't definitely mean it wasn't the right way). But the trail then started winding uphill and each corner just revealed more trail heading upwards. Eventually I decided that I must have missed the proper turning and started running back. I should have finished ages before this so thought I must have lost first place and wasn't in a good mood. From higher up I saw the Loop 1-2 split and saw Paul choose Loop 2 as well, then I saw a race official sprinting after him so knew that I was around a quarter of a mile behind him and that it was unlikely I'd catch him.

He turned at the 'Wrong Turn' sign, so must have been told to ignore it by the race official and I followed, very glad I'd doubled back on myself. But I was exhausted and frustrated to have probably lost at the the due to bad trail marking. Since the 50k was likely to be the first race of the day to finish, we were the only two to get past this point before a race official made sure everyone else was directed correctly. Would have been a real shame if the 50-mile leaders (who came though not long after) had faced this issue as the major prize money ($10,000 for first) should not be decided by mistakes which aren't the fault of the runners.

Using the magic of the information on my Garmin, I saw that I'd run an extra 2.7 miles due to missing this turn and estimate that Paul probably went a quarter of a mile down the wrong route to add half a mile to his distance. So we hit the road with both of us looking fatigued and he now only had a 50m lead. After putting so much energy in I wasn't going to give up without a fight, but I'd been mentally drained by the thought of losing my lead and having much more running left than expected. I really hoped he didn't have a strong sprint left and I caught him relatively quickly, expecting him to react and try to drop me.

That last half mile was very hard since I went all out but had nothing left in the fuel tank for a sprint. When I turned the last corner and saw the finish line I barely had any adrenaline left to become elated, but I knew I'd just managed to hold on to the lead. 4h48m was way slower than I'd hoped for and the erroneous course marking took the sheen off the day to some extent, but only slightly. However, it didn't change the positions at all, just making the gaps between runners much, much smaller, so no harm was done.

Soon after Paul and I finished, Miguel Heras came through for the 50-mile win and I was surprised since I didn't recognise him (although I had heard the name). I don't think I was the only one, given that anyone who's an unknown quantity (i.e hasn't raced anything major in the US before) tends to be off most people's radar. Both he and fellow Spaniard Kilian Journet (his training buddy and Salomon team-mate, I believe) prove that having a beard and long hair isn't essential for ultra trail success. That's lucky for me since I couldn't grow a decent beard even if I wanted to (and my wife might divorce me if I did, anyway).

It was fun to get to watch the results of the main event unfold and the post-event celebrations were well-organised with a strong sense of occasion and plenty of food and drink. I enjoyed talking to loads of runners, many of whom I'd heard of but not met before. Plus there were several of my new PCTR team-mates in the 50-miler, so it was a great opportunity to meet them too. They all had strong runs too, so were generally happy with how it had unfolded, even if their positions were lower than in an average race due to the ridiculously fast field.

I can't wait until next year to do the main event and there is undoubtedly a great buzz surrounding it. Plus it's good that it's only two weeks to go until I get another opportunity to run around these great trails again, at the PCTR Rodeo Beach 50k. Am looking forward to seeing plenty of friendly faces there and maybe some sunnier skies.


  1. A HUGE congratulations on your win, Ian - particularly under such mentally and physically draining conditions so close to the end. WELL DONE!!

    Looking forward to seeing you again in a couple of weeks - and keeping my fingers crossed for a clear and sunny day in the Headlands.

  2. Great read and congratulations for your win!
    If you get that overtraining/overracing issue sorted you'll be with the top runners of the 50 miler next year!

  3. Ian I cannot believe that officials of a race of this prestige and with the prize money on offer cannot mark the course sufficiently well to prevent people from getting lost, that is a disgrace. It's something that really bugs me. Having said that GREAT race and great report I'm so pleased for you that you had it in the legs to get past Paul T. Can't wait for next year now, you probably heard i got into WS and have entered the other 3 for the Grand Slam. Will see you before in Texas.

    Take care and enjoy the Christmas period.

  4. Yeah definitely look forward to seeing you among the mix up front in next year's 50M EC, what a race it was.

    Nice work for the win in the 55K, and another excellent recap.

  5. Superb work out there Ian, great meeting you out on the trail. Let me know if you need a pacer out at Rocky Raccoon, I have "a little" experience pacing folks out there for the win: Pacheco, Donaldson, and Crowther.
    Paul Terranova

  6. Hi, Ian!

    Congrats on your recent win-- As a former NCAA runner for Florida State who specialized in the 800-1500m, your ultra-bada** ness is very very impressive-- you rock! I can't imagine running that far--I train for middle-distance only still--I like to be able to taste the finish of a race! I'm usually the girl handing out yams and pasta at the aid station during "24 hours of Boulder"'s ultra race.

    I know you said in your Runner's World interview that you're being bombarded by interviews and friend requests, so I apologize to be one more thing on your list, but IF you're interested, I'd like to offer an opportunity to you.

    I'm the director of communications for Feel the World, Inc ( and our product is Invisible Shoes. I'd love to send you a free pair and get your opinion on them, as well as offer to send you a pair with "numerical beads" to go on them if you have a time goal you're trying to accomplish at your upcoming races this spring, or if you want beads with your recent winning race time, that way you could personalize and individualize your Invisible Shoes.

    As a former journalist and editor for, I would love to interview you for Invisible Shoes' running blog/newsletter on your recent race win and on your thoughts on your footwear during ultras, and on your history of injury-if any- you can say whatever you want about what footwear you love-- it isn't a marketing interview-- more so than an interest interview. I love walking and running around in my Invisible Shoes, and you may or may not, but I'd love to interview you because I think you're a great role model in the ultra-running arena, and we'd love to get your feedback on our product as well, and do an interview with you if you have any interest. We're based out of Boulder, Colorado, and as you can imagine, living here, running is life =)

    If you have any interest, go ahead and shoot me back an email at or give me a ring at 303.746.2849.

    Either way, you're a certifiable bada** and I wish you the best, always, in your future training and races!