The North Face 50 Mile Endurance Challenge 2011
It was a crazy race. I got out strong the first five miles. I was clipping just under 7 min/mile pace. I was by myself for this opening stretch, but right around mile 5 Matt Flaherty caught up to me. Little did we know we were about to embark on one of the strangest races either of us had ever run. Soon we started passing people, which was odd since we were running side by side in the one/two spot. This worried us and ultimately we came to the conclusion that we may have accidentally repeated a loop. We back tracked for about .15 miles before running into the next runner. We stopped for half a minute and debated what to do. We ultimately wound up going the direction we had been going originally. Fortunately for the three of us, we made the right call. Anyway, Matt and I separated from the field and were extremely relieved to be on track.
Much to our dismay, the chaos was not over. Apparently there were a couple of hunters (who in a less public forum I would have a few choice words for) who decided to chuck some of the navigational signs into the woods. I guess they thought our race was scaring away their deer. The race began at 5 a.m., so it was still dark, and the missing signs left the poor race volunteers without a concrete idea of where to send us. With no signs to follow, they accidentally sent Matt and me into a 2.4-mile loop that we had already completed. In all, approximately 14 runners were sent the wrong way. By the time Matt and I rolled into the mile 11 rest stop, we had logged nearly 14 miles. I did not think the race director would do anything to remedy the problem, so I started speeding up. I dropped about 7 straight miles at around 6:20 pace (dumb move on my part), which was way too fast for a 50 mile trail ultra, especially one that has some quad-thrashing rolling hills and sandy terrain.
At about mile 20 I was informed that, due to the amount of runners being screwed by those disgruntled hunters, the race route would be redirected to accommodate for the error. Matt had just regained the ground he had lost from a bathroom break, and we were both relieved that we would likely not be required to complete 52.5 miles. Matt and I cruised along at a reasonable pace (approximately 6:55 min/mile) for about the next 8 miles. At this point Matt began to open a small gap on me. According to my visual during open portions of the next few miles—and the race volunteers—Matt was holding a steady 30-second lead on me.
With about 15 miles to go, I hit a rough patch for a few miles. This resulted in me entering the mile 35 aid station (which was actually 37.5 for me and a number of other runners) approximately 3 minutes behind Matt. With about 12 miles to go, I was feeling the quick pace of the early miles. This was not good, as I knew the next 10 miles of the course wound through an equestrian (horse) trail that was paved with a deep stretch of sand. Picture running on a well-groomed beach. My legs did not respond well to the terrain. At this point I was struggling to keep my pace under 8 min/mile. Unknowingly at the time, Matt was also suffering from the early bout with the rolling hills. However, in his favor, the damage had been done, and I would not be running him down.
I completed the freshly altered route in 2nd place, with a time of 6 hours, 8 minutes and 21 seconds. Overall, I felt like I should have been able to go faster. My legs did not respond as well as I anticipated based on my training, which peaked at 171 miles as my highest week. But that's the beauty of the sport of ultra running: the uncertainty. I see this race as an awesome learning experience, where I gained some knowledge about how I want to train to prepare for my next ultra. I plan to race another in October.