Sunday, April 13, 2008
The North Face Endurance Challenge 50-Mile (Bear Mountain) race was, without a doubt, the toughest trail race that I have ever participated in (so far). It absolutely lived up to its advertised 5 out of 5 star technical and overall difficulty ratings. I would even go as far as saying that this event was far more difficult then the Grand Tetons 100 Mile that I completed last August (with 20,000 feet of climbing). There seems to be some conflicting information as to starters/finishers, but to give you an example, here are two accounts (one that I heard from North Face at the finish, and one my friend Brennan - who pulled out a sick 11:51 finish time - heard as well), both of which will display just how difficult this course was :
Count #1 (20.93% finish rate)
40 Starters cutoff (or dropped out) at (or before) the 15.7 mile mark
28 Starters cutoff (or dropped out) at (or before) the 39.2 mile mark
Count #2 (15.79% finish rate)
20 Starters cutoff at the 15.7 mile mark (unknown if this includes drop outs)
60 Starters cutoff at some other point (unknown how many made the 39.2 mark)
Although I was cut-off at the 39.2 mile mark, my body felt as if I had run well over 50 miles. Knowing the trails of Bear Mountain State Park, I had gone into this race thinking that the best I could hope for was finishing in the 13-hour cutoff. In fact, I had some concerns that I'd even make the two "hard" cutoffs (4 hours for 15.7 miles and 10.5 hours for 39.2 miles). While I had hoped to surprise myself, goal reassessment was the theme of the day, which primarily meant to end the day without getting injured.
My alarm rang at 2:10 AM (ouch ! ). Thankfully, I had prepared my gear Friday night. The drive to Bear Mountain State Park would foreshadow what was to come in the early AM hours of the race (the fog was incredibly dense and the rain would come and go). I arrived at the park, went through the simple chip-check process, and met up with my friends Joe G. and Wayne B. Wayne and I had run the trails a few weeks prior to the race and knew what to expect. Wayne had also spent 8+ hours marking the Half Marathon and 10K course, and was still feeling some of the effects from hiking all day on Thursday.
The start was uneventful. However, not even a mile into the race a nasty thunderstorm hit, filled with thunder, lightning and awful rain. It was basically slow going, with a single line of runners moving up the trail. I was doing my best to see in the dark, focusing on the runner's feet ahead of me to guide my path. Unfortunately, that was a bad idea as I somehow missed the "tree - duck" yelling ahead of me and proceeded to smack my head against a downed tree in the trail path. Realizing that I did not have a concussion, I proceed up the trail. We then came to what North Face called an "aggressive climb up the Yellow Trail". No, no, no, no....we found ourselves scaling what seemed to me to be a rock faced wall. The line of runners were backed-up waiting for others to make the wet and dangerous climb. I was literally looking for spots to place my feet and hands, hoping not to slip and fall. It was somewhat like watching video of climbers at Mount Everest, when they reach the ladder and have to wait for others to move up and down it. We finally reached the 1777 Aid Station, well behind schedule.
The trek from the first aid station to Lake Welch Drive Aid Station was also difficult. The rain had stopped and it was light out, so visibility was good. But the rocky trails and steep climbs made most of the sections un-runnable. Wayne had fallen and busted his knee (see slide show photos below), and Joe had banged up his elbow to the point where there was a big knot on it. I saw several runners take a spill. "Runners will need to use caution as the last part of the descent is a rock staircase (extreme caution if it is wet" - so true - many of the climbs and descents required both hands to navigate. The nice part about this section was the final 3/4 of a mile on the shoulder of the Palisades Parkway, which provided the opportunity to stretch the legs a bit. I had met two G.A.C. members in this section (Jen and Rob). Jen was running her first 50-miler - how she chose this one as a first is a mystery to me, but I have to give her tons of credit for being out there. I would later learn that she would not make the 15.7 mile cutoff.
The next 5.2 mile leg to the first "hard" cutoff consisted of several difficult climbs. I spent quite a bit of time running alone, which at first was defeating. But, I quickly realized that I'd likely be 30-45 minutes over the 4 hour cutoff and started to simply enjoy the scenery. There was a ton of rocky single track in this section, which led to a point where you could go right or left. I first went to the left (wrong way), only to be saved by two runners alerting me to the fact that the aid station was to the right at the bottom of an extremely steep descent (which you come back up before going to the left). I was also told that the cutoffs were extended to 4 hours and 45 minutes. I can honestly say that my first thought at this point was "NO !!!". I was somewhat looking forward to getting pulled from the race un-injured, going home to a nice hot shower, and spending the day with the family. No such luck as I made the cut-off with a few minutes to spare. I climbed out of the aid station where I saw Wayne, then Joe, then Jen and Rob. Wayne would be the only one to make it out, and we quickly joined forces with our new G.A.C. friends (Chris, his wife (I'm bad with names and forgot already), Jerry, and later we'd pick up Brittany).
Miles 15.7 to 39.2 were very difficult, but were tremendously fun. Running with the G.A.C. crew was awesome. I could not have run into nicer people. We would experience a lot of very rocky where running at full speed (if at all) was difficult. We'd also ascend and descend several rocky sections, where the words "this is sick" or "this is retarded" (in full Boston accents) could be heard over and over. Actually, it was more like "this is %#$%$# sick". We faced and conquered two mountain ascents (up Dater Mountain and Pound Mountain), as well as several short tricky descents down rocks. Despite the difficulty, I found myself having a ton of fun with these guys (and girls). It was all put into perspective when someone told the joke - Where does watermelon go to summer camp (or something like that) ? - Well, of course, John Cougar's Melon-Camp. ARGH !!!!!
I also got to meet Chris's Mom. Love her ! She had a cooler of beer in her car, which I had no problem sampling from at one of the aid stations. She'd also give us a ride back to the Start/Finish area from the 39.2 mile mark, again supplying my favorite aid station drink of the day.
When we reached the Camp Lanowa Aid Station we were told that we'd only be allowed to continue to the Tiorati Aid Station (the 39.2 mile mark). North Face was actually very cooperative and professional about this. They told us that they would drive us now (if we wanted) or we could continue to 39.2. They even said we could finish the last 10 miles on our own, but w/o aid and w/o any search and rescue available. Well, no aid would have been fine with me, but no search and rescue - forget about it ! Not a single sole in our group had any intent on stopping a step short of the maximum allowable, so, off we went to spend the last 6 miles together. Oh, I forgot about Wayne....he was with us for a while, then disappeared into the woods to answer nature's calling. We were unable to find him but were later happy to learn that he was about 20 minutes ahead of us (we'd meet up with him at 39.2). This last six miles I call the "Sorry Brittany's Dad" Six - since we spend a majority of the day cursing, we had to try to watch our foul mouths as much as possible with Brittany's Dad around - no such luck, we were constantly apologizing for our lack of tact.
We reached the 39.2 mile mark where, again, North Face personnel were nothing short of professional. We were the last 5 on the course and they offered many congratulations for making it as far as we did. Chris's Mom and Dad gave us a ride back, we said our good-byes, were given 50K finisher medals to commemorate our accomplishments, and were off on our separate ways.
Overall I had a blast. I'm happy to have survive without injury, and made a few new friends in the process. I may have convinced Chris to give GTR 100 a try in August. Other notes of exceptional accomplishments (and examples of course difficulty), Brennan, an experienced and top notch runner finished the 50-Mile event in 11:51 or so. Great job Brennan. Staci banged out the 50K in 11 hours and change. Awesome. Kristen and Emmy both did the half in around 4:30. Well done girls. Congrats to everyone out there today, whether you ran the 50 Mile, 50K, 1/2 Marathon or 10K - your guts and courage to attempt to tackle a course like this deserves a change of "we're not worthy" !!
And finally, here's some fun stuff....
A slide show of pictures I took along the way (when I could) :
And the elevation profile from my Garmin GPS watch, which made it through the entire 13 hours.