North Face Endurance Challenge 50 mile race.
The flight up was uneventful. I felt my strategy of taking “less than a newbie” was a good one, so all I brought fit into a carry on. Same for Suzanne, although only staying for two nights, she put enough thought into what she really needed and packed accordingly. Rental car pickup was easy, then a 1.5 hr drive southwest of Atlanta to Calloway Gardens. When we merged onto I-85, I asked Suzanne how far we had to drive on this stretch of highway ‘til our exit. She answered, “Another 49 miles on this road, remember that number, you’re running it tomorrow!” Very relevant.
We stopped at Waffle House no surprise, I ordered and promptly ate Cheese eggs with apple butter toast. It was Suzanne’s first Waffle House visit, I think she liked it! She knows it wasn’t a health conscious meal, so the expectation met reality when her order was delivered. We drove another 8 miles, erroneously to the wrong hotel, then finally to our place. Packet pickup was on, there was one vendor selling water bottles and North Face gear. We dropped the luggage off at the room first, then came down to make sense of the registration. I got my number, some arm warmers, a wrist strap water bottle, plus I bought a set of North Face long-legged running pants. We met Mark and Maria Aiken in the lobby, I thought we would pick up his race number, but Maria skipped a lab class and they left early to arrive on time to do it themselves.
Suzanne and I drove up the mountain road through the FDR state park to see where the aid stations would be set up. We saw blue tarps over skids of water and supplies at various locations. With a Jeep SUV, Suzanne now felt confident she could meet up with me at several of the rest stops along the course. We went back to the hotel and shared dinner with Mark and Maria at Aspen Mountain Grille. A nice meal of moist chicken breast, rice, veggies and water set me perfect for the “early to bed” plan.
Once in the room, Suzanne and I packed my fanny sack, shoes ready, my aid drop bag for mile 28, glasses, headlamp, carbo pro ziplock bags and snacks. We went to sleep before 9:30pm. Good thing, my wakeup alarm was for 2:50am!
That alarm came quickly, and the temps outside were in the mid 50s. Perfect! I wore an Under Armour long sleeved top, old Desoto Sport compression shorts (that didn’t have compression anymore), orange lens Oakley M Frames, and the headlamp. I started with the Saucony Trail shoes, with Aasics Gel Nimbus in the drop bag. I carried a Nathan wrist water bottle with half sports drink, half water, and a waist belt bottle with a Carbo Pro mixture and water. I had Succeed pills and a few Alleve pills in the fanny sack. They’d come in handy…
Suzanne dropped me off at the parking lot where I was met by a shuttle bus. Maybe I was one of the latter entrants to show up for the race, my and another guy rode the bus for one mile to the start area. I visited the port-a-john first, then got water and stood near a heat lamp until just before the third wave of starters, my group. We left a few minutes after the initial groups, bunched in a pack that had to make themselves single file to enter the trail. It was dark, my light worked well, and the first mile was some up and down slowly following others. I knew not to be impatient and dash ahead this was going to be a long day of running. I ran behind some of the people that came from Puerto Rico for their first ultra, that was too slow of a pace so soon I left them and was out alone scouting for orange ribbons on trees. The trail was all rocks and roots, very tough to take concentration off where your next step would go. I had the Garmin GPS on, but I wasn’t overly concerned about my mile split times. I found a couple from KY doing a fair pace, I followed them for 4-6 miles, almost until the sun came up. At the first rest stop, I took more water sports drink mix and some healthy snacks. I was challenged to run behind others, because you only had a few glimpses of where to step as the trail came up at you in the dark. You partly trusted that they’d take good steps and make wise choices, not always the case. As it began to get light out, I became anxious to run, I felt I was hopping around the forest so far but never getting to really run. That wouldn’t be the issue all day – the whole trail system was technical and demanded concentration.
In the light after mile 10 I broke from the KY couple and ran with others, sometimes I went ahead, sometimes I was passed. Near mile 13 I wanted to set my lap time at 3 hrs, signifying I’d have to speed up or face a 12+ hr day on the trails. I found I was alone near this section of trail, a downhill series of switchback turns covered with pine needles. I was wondering when I’d get to run a regular pace, just as I thought that – I rolled my right ankle violently on something under the pine needles. I yelped out loud, partially because of the pain, partially because of the surprise. I was off my feet, rolling on the trail, with my ankle very sore. I thought while lying there how odd that I wasn’t seen or heard by other runners, that no one else was around. Not ahead or behind me, nobody saw me fall or heard a thing! I knew I was best to get up and keep moving, it was too sore to put any weight on at first, so I held myself up against a tree. Then I walked, then I shuffled. The uneven ground really hurt the ankle and the nearby affected area. I started running very slowly again, then walked up a hill. I found that when I tripped or stumbled on the trail it was best to start again by walking to collect my breath and refocus. The fear of wiping out on your face took your breath away, it was wise to gather the proper rhythm again by starting off slowly. Now even more pronounced with a lame right leg. I got back to slow running, the Garmin report will show slower mile times from this point on.
I found the next aid station around mile 16, got more water and sports drink, which was the same routine at each aid stop. I felt better and did not feel like dropping out, so I left and went for the next stop, mile 21-22. In that next 6 miles, I rolled my ankle 3 more times, very painful, but I recovered quickly to keep running. We went through an area that was hit by tornadoes in the past Spring, so many downed trees and things to hop over. Most of all, it was exposed to the sun, which would be a concern on the way back. At that next aid stop, I saw Maria, she was waiting for Mark. She noticed that my leg was a problem and suggested I get it taped. I learned I could do it at the next stop, see Suzanne and get my drop bag all the same. So I chose that. The mid point of the course at mile 25 was another point that I hit the lap timer on the Garmin. I was at half way in 5:28. Another one of those splits I thought, even with a bad leg, would have me back before 11 hours. I should have known, the next two miles (25-27) took 38 minutes to complete, it was slippery and low hanging trees. surrounding a creek. We crossed the creek several times with rocks, roots and water on the shoes. I was moving very cautiously here, I didn’t want to get wet or aggravate the now very swollen ankle. When I made it to the Tower aid station after a considerable climb, I refueled, took off my trail shoes and went for the Aasics shoes. I ate GoBalls, drank more fluids, and had an ill-trained lady wrap my ankle for the remaining 22 miles ahead. She was surprised to learn I would be continuing my run. Upon seeing the ankle out of the shoe, iI saw and felt that it was swelling very rapidly. Suzanne was a great help filling bottles, remixing Carbo Pro and preparing me for the next segment of the trail. I was happy to know she’d be at other stops ahead, the familiar face is very welcomed after being alone for long periods in the woods.
I found myself trading places with a girl named Elena from NJ doing her 4th 50 miler and a guy who had a female friend come along at Mile 28 as a pacer. They were going very well for three miles after the rest stop, then he needed to slow his pace and walk up hills. Another girl from Brooklyn also was back ‘n forth with our pace. A guy with a tattoo on his back “McCormick” also ran with us. I’d later find out he was in an earlier wave start and he would finish at the exact same clock time as me. I remember at mile 33-36 having struggles and incorporating a lot of walking. At mile 38 I said to myself that running all the way back was the quickest way to put 12 miles behind me. I did good on some stretches, then slowed at others. The 50 mile distance on such a demanding course is a true endurance challenge.
My final miles were more running than walking, keeping the same group of runners in sight,they were with me or slightly above my pace. I popped out of the woods and ran the final ¼ mile glad to be nearly done – finishing in 12:18. My ankle was a part of my calf muscle by then, I received med tent aid for a blister and callous on the left foot and ice and cleaning for the right ankle. Suzanne and I stayed for maybe ½ hr viewing the vendor offerings and watching other finishers come in. I was tired, in need of an elevated leg, ice and a shower.
Next time, I’ll tape my ankles even while healthy to defend against the trail wobbles. My nutrition was good, clothing and hydration good too. I’ll do better for 50 miles but never forget this outing!