Sunday, 4 December 2011

TNF Endurance Challenge Championship Season Finale

The main chase pack with the eventual contenders soon after dawn. Photo from the TNFEC Facebook page.

Yesterday was the big 50-mile showdown of the year in San Francisco, courtesy of The North Face. We had almost the entire team there for TNF Endurance Challenge Championship and runners came from all around the globe to see who was the fastest (and to win some prize money, ideally).

Marin County is the perfect race course and hosts numerous great races, including the Miwok 100k. And on top of that we had summer-like weather for the area which led to a beautiful red sunrise, views of the Golden Gate Bridge, blah, blah. Basically it would have been great for a fun run, but I think everyone just ran so hard we probably appreciated it most after the race.

irunfar covered the race in detail before, during and after and posted a round-up of results here. No doubt it was a whole load of fun for everyone and there's only so many races where you get to race such a quality field, so everyone was visibly buzzing at the prospect.

In advance of the race it looked like any number of men could take the title if they ran a perfect race and probably around five women had a shot at the win in the ladies' race. But one thing was certain - nobody would be near the front if they only had an ok day, or even a good day.

As most people thought, it started off with a huge pack of maybe 25 men together at a fast pace against a gusty wind, plus the lead women stuck very close together as well. However, two of the Salomon guys flew off even faster, Gregory Vollet and Christophe Malarde, although they later dropped. The pack just flew along and within an hour I had dropped a couple of minutes off the pace from choosing to run a more sensible pace...although still pushing hard (I had a 5:24 mile in there).

Sunrise came and the headlamps were dropped off at Muir Beach aid station, 12.7 miles into the race. A flatter section followed and we could see each other properly now. That was a nice change as I'm not an experienced night runner and my headlamp was like a floodlight so when I ran behind anyone wearing white I got blinded by the reflected shine - Lizzy Hawker unintentionally dazzled me a couple of times (in more ways than one!) as she surged along at the front of the women.

Jason Loutitt from TNF Canada ran up the long, gentle climb to the Cardiac aid station at 18 miles just ahead of me then I latched on to have someone to talk to for a while. It was kind of surreal to be running this race since I found that each runner I approached turned from being a skinny anonymous guy to someone I either knew or had heard of and admired. It made Western States seem relatively uncompetitive even though there were a few notable exceptions from the start list who I won't list out (but Bryon Powell did here).

By the 22.8 mile turnaround the leaders had spread out slightly but there were still a lot of guys looking strong, as well as a few who looked burnt out. I was 11 minutes off the lead and knew I'd have to kick it up a notch to have a chance. I tried but couldn't speed up as planned so suspected I'd be in for a hard day and was right. I've spent the whole year trying to fit my training around a race calendar I selected without much concern for recovery and it's kept me the wrong side of the fine line every runner tries to maintain, although I had a longer rest before this race to try to correct that. Lesson learned for 2012, but I still had almost 30 miles to push through and if I blew up then a whole load of guys would take advantage and zoom past. It's pressure, but it's a hell of a lot of fun and one of the biggest draws of racing for me and many others. Just because the day wasn't going to plan, it merely meant moving the bullseye to doing as well as I could.

I can generally judge my fitness off my marathon times and at the moment I'd struggle to go much below 2:45 (as shown by the 1:21 half marathon as Elvis which wasn't particularly comfortable six days earlier) so knew I was lacking pace compared to the guys I had to race. In comparison, back in February when I felt great I reckon I'd have run under 2:30.

So each part of the course was now broken down into running aid station to aid station, based on running bits of it in other races and vague snap-shots in my memory from looking at the course map. Then I was concentrating so much on power-hiking up from Stinson Beach aid station (mile 28.2 at sea level) that I found myself on a path with no markers. I couldn't remember the last time I'd seen a marker but had recently seen a couple of runners ahead, so wasn't sure if I'd gone wrong. Then a couple of minutes later I see the markers coming from the side as my path reconnected with the correct path. Not a good sign and it mentally knocked me off whack so much that I thought I'd have to disqualify myself for not running the course (I mentioned this to people at the end but my Garmin showed I basically ran parallel to the course for about 5 minutes and may have even added a minuscule amount of distance).

The rest of the day was bright and the wind had died down to make for perfect running conditions and barely any mud. I had no idea what position I was in but at least I was moving up the field gradually as some of the early leaders faded back. It's hard to see talented guys having a bad day but on the trail isn't the time for too much sympathy as it's a race after all and there's always post-race to dissect the day in detail. All you can do is try to avoid bonking yourself, managing nutrition, liquids and pace. But as I passed super fast youngsters, Matt Flaherty and Jordan McDougal (my new team-mate who I only met just before the race) at Cardiac 2 (32.9 miles), I could tell I was hitting the carnage amongst some of the genuine contenders.

Around 25 miles in. Photo from Drymax Socks.

Black and white always looks better even though I was barely moving. Photo from Brett Rivers.

After a few more miles and catching a couple more 50-milers amongst the 50k runners who were now running the same route to the finish, the remaining climbs and descents were smaller and less technical with less than 1,000ft each time. The pace had slowed down at just the point that it should have been increasing  and nobody looked comfortable.

Miles went by without injury or incident but I felt rough until around the 38.9 mile aid station. At least I was moving through the field and nobody passed me until new TNF team member, Mike Foote, caught me at Muir Beach 2 (42.6 miles) and looked really strong as he powered uphill. At the same point we caught Mike Wardian who had a rare bad day and felt sick.

On the final climb after Tennessee Valley 2 (45.5 miles) my efforts were rewarded by catching a couple more guys but then I heard grunting behind me and saw Anna Frost and her pacer moving up the hill. She was as unstoppable as a glacier, but considerably faster and seemed to be red-lining even though she didn't look like she was going to need to slow down. My power-hike/run combo up the hill lost me a little time but I was with her at the high point and with just three miles of downhill and flat to the finish. I wondered what had happened to Lizzy Hawker, who'd led earlier and looked unbeatable, but later found out she'd had to drop due to an achilles pain.

Anna was on a mission and even a 5:20 mile downhill from me barely gapped her. Although I obviously wanted to avoid being chicked, my main focus was to chase down any remaining men who were just ahead but there were only marathoners and 50k runners within reach. I virtually collapsed on the finish, knowing I couldn't have tried harder on the day. 6:55 was my time but Anna was just a minute behind, running one of the most impressive 50-mile trail runs I'm aware of to beat the world's best female trail ultra runners. But maybe not as impressive as a blood-stained Mike Wolfe who crushed the course record and the competition in 6:19 to place him in strong contention for Ultra Runner of the Year. Amazing stuff, although I can't help thinking that there seems to be a TNF policy to have the whole team named Mike.

Mike Wolfe after his win. Photo from TNFEC's Facebook page.

Also, don't miss this video from the Endurables covering the race at the front:

Or this video from Salomon covering their athletes at the race:

irunfar covers the whole event in more detail and shows off the variety of great performances out there in Marin, but I'll also mention Ellie Greenwood who added this race on at the last minute because it looked fun even though her season was meant to be over...and still almost won, running 7:07 for 2nd and 16th overall. Full results are here. And congratulations to everyone who ran. A truly great day and inspiring to everyone there.

So goodbye to the 2011 season. It's been fun and exciting for me as a runner and a fan, but there's some improvement to target for 2012.


  1. solid year, ian... you set the tone for an amazing year in the world of ultras with your run @ RR100... we're proud to have you here in oregon... see you down in texas in a few months...

    jon seiber

  2. Congrats Ian on a solid 2011 season. I was able to cheer you on the final incline before the turn to the finish, and you hid your pain well. To me you looked pretty strong. Nice job.

  3. I was one of the skinny anonymous dudes you passed just before the descent to Stinson Beach:) you and schlarb looked strong going by me, glad to see you both finished well too.

  4. Nice job, Ian. When you cross the finish line and say you gave it your all that day, that's the best you can ask for. Looking forward to more great races from you and Elvis next year.

  5. Jacob - we're all skinny dudes from behind on the trails :)

  6. Its the super bowl of ultra running, and it was fun to share the field with you! I left everything on the course too, but that gave me a 13+ hour finish! I look forward to hearing about your races in 2012!

  7. congrats Ian, we met at UROC and you were helping everybody around you. For me you told me how many miles until the next aid station. In spirit youre like a classy Alexander Graham Bell. Classy because your nice, and like the inventor in the sense that even though he was a chemist and scientist people simplified his work to just the phone. I hope Rocky doesnt become your telephone! You are gift to the sport! cheers!