After previous year’s cancellation of the North Face Endurance Challenge California due to wildfire smoke, I really wanted to finish my 2019 race season with this late November shred under the Cali sun. Judging by the deep field of elite ultra-runners, they also fancied a sunny run on dry hard packed trail, or maybe it was the USD 10,000 winning prize money??? Either way, this isn’t just any ultra, this is the insanity of the North Face Endurance Challenge 50 mile Championship race (3200m vert) in the stunning Marin Headlands of San Francisco, and somehow I managed to get my name on the elite start list (enter shocked face with exploding head emoji). Needless to say that I was super stoked to see how I fare against some of the best female ultra-runners and incredibly nervous and anxious; and being mentioned in irunfar’s preview as a woman to watch along with some of my inspirations such as Clara Gallagher (WS100 winner 2019), Anna Mae Flynn (Lake Sonoma winner 2019) and Taylor Nowlin (2nd at Speedgoat 2019 and FKT Grand Canyon) just tipped me over the imposter syndrome edge.
The weekend of the race, I stayed with my friend Carol (@mind.body_girl) who I met during UTHC the previous year. We spend the day before the race going for a morning shake-out run over the iconic Golden Gate Bridge – the home stretch of the race course -, eating delicious veggie food at Café del Soul (so yummy yummy) and picking up my race bib at one of the North Face stores. The bib had a big yellow sticker saying ELITE on it, making me cringe. Carol lovingly told me that I worked for this and encouraged me to own it, but I simply felt like an imposter.
Race morning meant a 3:00 am wakeup to get some breakfast down, infinite visits to the toilet and a short drive to the start line. Paranoid of being late for the start, Carol and I arrived 40 mins early…so we sat in the dark in the car waiting for the time to pass (painful for both of us – she could have slept more than 4-5 hours and I was being murdered by my nervous stomach). Witnessing the sheer panic and nervousness that overcame me (giant starring eyes, shivering with my entire body despite warmish temp), Carol tried her best to distract me with her traveling and personal life tales. Admittedly, I can’t recall a thing of what she said – Sorry Carol!
When I finally joined the herd at the start line, there were plenty of elite runners to ogle at. Most of them knew one another and were chatting while I just stood shivering and gawking at them.
The elite start happened 2 mins prior to the other waves and it was FAST!!! Like fuck me fast. Everyone seemed to dash out like a race horse and I briefly got caught up in this frantic event but luckily got slowed down after 500 metres by a long ascent out of Sausalito. We followed a super runnable fire road up the hill, but the fog was so thick that headlamps were swallowed by the murk, making it impossible to the see where the trail would go. All I could see was a tiny spot of ground right in front of my feet for most of the pre-dawn (and the occasional sign of me running into some bush work). It made for some tricky running on the hilly and ever changing course. The fog was crazy humid, soaking me clothes and leaving little water drops hanging of my eye lashes. Dang, I thought, I should have put on waterproof mascara for those overpriced race pics ;-). Being comfortable on the uphills, I flip-flopped back and forth with Lindsay Ulrich a few times; overtaking her on the ups, just for her to catch me on the downhills where I would slow down due to the limited visibility. On the descent into Tennessee Valley aid station, we chatted briefly and she reminded me to be patient with my race as some people will blow up. That’ll be me, I thought.
Tennessee Valley was around 21km into the race; I felt great but was a tad worried that the pace might be too fast. Anyways, I decided to just go with it. I grabbed two flasks of Tailwind from Carol and carried on. The sun was starting to illuminate the fog and every time we climbed above the clouds, I was greeted by this perfect inversion. In hindsight, I should have stopped to take a picture as the various hills of the Marin Headlands peaked out of the clouds like little islands in the sea. The fog kept clinging to the landscape though, obscuring what I imagine to be amazing vistas of rolling hillsides and ocean. The section leading up to Coastal and Cardiac aid station was a long, winding trail with lots of switchbacks. I thoroughly enjoyed this longer climb as it was more similar to the longer climbs I do in the Rockies compared to all this up-down fast-running malarkey. I felt strong running the entire section up to the aid station where I was greeted, to my surprise, by Anna Mae Flynn who had dropped. She shouted “you look like you’re just out for a jog, girl!”. Being star-struck and frankly out of breath, all I managed was to flush like a tomato (luckily, I can blame everything on the running).
After the climb, a long, slightly more technical descent dropped us down into Stinson Beach. My stomach started to feel a bit unsettled with all the shaking of the downhill so I dialled it back a tad. And took a salt tablet, which I double-checked a bijilion times prior to race start to make sure I am not chucking down iron tablets instead again. We reached Stinson Beach only to re-climb back up on the famous Dipsea trail. From here onwards, it felt like there was an infinite (fucking) amount of stairs that I did NOT see coming. Lols. And things are a bit blurry from here until Tennesse Valley. However, I do remember marvelling at the old growth coast redwoods in Muir Wood and overtaking lots of 50 km runners which gave me the impression that I was running fast (my Strava tells me otherwise though ;-).
The sun came out while running on rolling fire roads back to Tennessee Valley aid station. It was getting hot for the Canadian in me; the weekend prior I was running in -15 C and now it was 20 C and I was running out of water. I got desperate to reach the aid station and even more so the finish line. I could feel I was getting fatigued and needed my mental ass-kick red ambulance, aka coke. Getting to the aid station, I asked for an ice-water dump over my head to cool down. NICE! Carol filled a flask with coke and one with Tailwind as I had decided to drop my race vest at this point and just run with two flasks for the final 15 km. At this point, I apparently was 7th female but must have gotten overtaken at the aid station when being occupied with getting cooled down. For the last 15 km, I was flip-flopping back and forth with Kristyn Kadala (still thinking that we are battling for 7th or 8th position). I was trying to put some distance between us as she looked like she’d put in another gear once we hit the road section over the Golden Gate Bridge to the finish. But she clang on to me and so we ended up running together until halfway across the bridge, from where she slowly, but surely pulled away from me. I tried to stay on her but had to slow a few times dodging tourists on the bridge. I must have looked like a maniac, trying to push the pace and shouting hysterically for people to move out of the way. Coming of the bridge, I was scanning around, thinking “where the f**ck is the finish line”. When I eventually spotted it, it looked further away than I wanted. Lols. Referencing Dory from ‘Finding Nemo’, I repeated to myself “Just keep running. Just keep running” until I crossed the finish line in 8:29:53 and 11th female. Wait, what??? 11th???
While somewhat disappointed at the time (how cool would have been a top-10 finish?!), I am nevertheless happy and somewhat proud of my race execution and the fact that I did not blow up, my glute didn’t quit on me and I did not sabotage my own race. A huge thanks to Carol for being an amazing crew and keeping me focused. A huge thanks also to all the volunteers supporting each and every runner. And to RunUphill, you guys would love this race!