First of all, a disclaimer: this is a long one.
This past Saturday, several hundred people lined up for arguably the most competitive 50 miler of the year, The North Face Endurance Challenge. Starting and finishing in Rodeo Valley, in the Marin Headlands, the course runs all over the southern part of Marin, and reaches as far north as McKennan Gulch (above Stinson Beach). 2 years ago, a large storm caused the several permits to be pulled at the last minute and the course ended up being six 8-mile loops. The result was that it was an absolute slop-fest and was very much on the minds of the racers, as several wet fronts came through Marin the week leading up to this year’s race. Sure enough, the night before the race, 2 course changes were announced. One was very minor, but the other was big. The section after hitting Cardiac for the second time that was made up of Ben Johnson-Lost-Redwod-Sun-Dipsea-Dynamite-Redwood Creek was cut out. We would run the Bobcat-Alta-Rodeo Valley loop twice and come back down Coast View-Heather Cutoff and head straight to Muir Beach. I was a bit bummed because I love the Ben Johnson descent and it meant that we would miss Muir Woods, which is exceptionally beautiful. I was getting all of these course updates during the day on Friday and we discussed them at dinner that night, with Vargo, Tim, Dan, Zach, Ethan, Billy, Alicia, DeNucci, and a few others. Another change came over the airwaves, indicating that we’d be taking the road to McKennan Gulch instead of the trail, which was pretty inconsequential, but still a change. After a nice team dinner, we hit the sack and were up before I knew it at 3am. I had a couple of nice nervous dreams that night about missing the start. The dreams progressed from me not even being on my way to the race when the gun went off to not being dressed at the start (but at least I was at the race), so I figured things were heading in the right direction at least.
We arrived around 4:15am after blasting some music (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nfWlot6h_JM) in the parking lot (much to the chagrin of a few runners, from what I gathered), and soon enough, we were at the start line. I wasn’t paying much attention to what was said by the race director because I was trying to jostle my way up towards the front. After a few minutes of standing, the gun sounded and we were running.
The first loop was relatively uneventful, with people talking and laughing. The group was huge. Probably 20-30 of us, which wasn’t a surprise as anyone who looked at the elite start list would have seen 20-30 guys who were capable of finishing in the top 5. We kept it nice and easy on the first loop. I had used the bathroom a couple of times before the race and had taken an Immodium about an hour before the gun so I was optimistic that I would be ok, but on the second loop up Bobcat, my stomach started asserting itself. I’d consumed one Picky Bar by that point (not the culprit), and with the 1st half of the second bar, I knew I’d have to stop. Looking at my Strava data (http://www.strava.com/activities/226904893), I stopped during mile 10. I quickly went from near the front of the pack to off the back, which I didn’t mind so early in the race, but I was still hurrying to get things out in a timely manner. But then, not a mile or two later, I had to stop again. Clearly I hadn’t gotten everything out in my rush to get back on the trail. I elected to stop just after the 2nd Bobcat aid station, right before the climb up Miwok. I was still near the back of the pack, but had been running with Tim Olson and Rob Krar and talking about fences, so I wasn’t worried. I’d run several repeats up Miwok in training with Koop and knew I could make up some ground without too much effort. At the top of Miwok, we turned down towards Tennessee Valley and it was totally fogged in. I switched off my headlamp at one point before noticing the guy in front of me had taken his off and was carrying it in his hand. I copied him and it made a world of difference coming down Old Springs. Towards the bottom, I was catching back up with the lead group, which had strung out a bit on the single track. In the aid station, I was delighted to see a couple of the kids I help coach on my high school team (Lizzie, Campbell, and Nye) who had gotten up to see me race. It was awesome to hear them yelling for me and was easily one of my favorite moments during the entire race.
Heading out of the TV aid station, I found myself running with Jorge. Just before we started the climb up Coastal over to Pirates Cove, he and I both had to take pit stops (my third of the day). It was quick, however, and I didn’t lose much time. Amazingly enough, despite TV being fogged in, Pirates Coves was basically completely clear and we hit it just as the sun was beginning to lighten the sky, so it was pretty magical (as evidenced by Matt Laye’s, Nate Dunn’s and iRunfar’s photos galleries here: (https://www.flickr.com/photos/natedunn/sets/72157649611906916/ ; http://i-rn.fr/14TNF50-Photos). I could see the rest of the guys up ahead of me and was completely content on where I was at that point. Jorge and I ran down to Muir Beach together before separating a bit heading into Heather Cutoff. It was on the way into Muir that he asked what I thought about yet another course change. I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “You didn’t hear the RD at the start line announce that we’re taking Steep Ravine up to Pantoll instead of Dipsea?” No. Dammit. Steep Ravine is beautiful but drags the climb out a lot longer than Dipsea, which becomes runnable at the top of the stairs coming out of Steep Ravine. This threw a wrench into my race plan, which had been to make a move (wherever I might be in the pack) at the top of the stairs on the Dipsea Trail out of Steep Ravine (side note: everyone refers to the stairs on the original course that you hit coming out of Stinson heading up Dipsea Trail to Cardiac as the Dipsea Steps. These are not, in fact, the true Dipsea Steps. Yes, they are steps on the Dipsea Trail, but the real Dipsea steps are those that lead up out of Mill Valley, in the first mile of the Dipsea Race and are not on the course at all). With that change looming, I figured it would be best to wait and see how things shook out. I still held on to a glimmer of hope that he was mistaken, though.
On the climb up Heather/Coast View to Cardiac, the longest (timewise) on the course, I steadily made my way back up to the leaders and crested Cardiac with them. At the aid station, several guys stopped to refill their bottles. I didn’t and moved up a couple spots as a result. Then, heading through the Pantoll parking lot, Zach and Tim and Dakota went about 10 yards out of their way, and I passed them crossing the road onto Matt Davis. I was suddenly in 3rd or 4th, behind Sage, Aish, and a Salomon guy. I’m very familiar with Matt Davis and so was able to push a bit more than the other guys, knowing the turns and rises/dips. Dakota came up behind me shortly thereafter and he and I put a gap on the others. Little did I know, that would be prove to be the decisive move of my race. On the out and back to McKennan Gulch, I saw Topher, Kim, Max, Jenny, and Matt taking pictures and cheering (thank you!). We moved well down the road (new section due to aforementioned course change) and hit the aid station maybe 30 seconds back of Sage, who had gone off the front a bit. On the way back, we were able to see where guys were and get a better feel for the gaps. There were several guys near Dakota and I, but the closest was probably a minute back (DBo and Aish I think?).
As we made our way down towards Stinson, Dakota went by me and I stopped to pee right near the top of Matt Davis. On the descent, I kept thinking people would catch up, but never heard or saw anyone. I could hear people clapping for Dakota head of me but no one behind, which I took as a good sign. My legs were holding up pretty well despite the pounding descent and I entered the Stinson Beach aid station alone. A friend was supposed to meet me there with my Gu’s for the rest of the race, but I guess I got there too fast and when I yelled her name twice and got no response, everyone went dead silent. It was awkward, so I said, “Balls!” loudly and just moved on – nothing I could do about it. I had a drop bag at Cardiac with Gu’s and was still holding out hope that Jorge had been wrong about the Dipsea/Steep Ravine course change, and that we would indeed be going up Dipsea and not Steep Ravine. No dice. Up Steep Ravine I went. Having run up this deep in the pain cave during my first 50k at Headlands back in August 2013 helped a lot as I knew pretty well what was coming and where to push. I caught a glimpse of Dakota a couple of times but didn’t seem to be making up any ground on him. I couldn’t see anyone below me. My legs were starting to get tired at this point as well, as we were past the 50k mark, and I was worried that the 2 Gu’s I had remaining wouldn’t last me to the finish. I must have simply forgotten about the drop bag at Cardiac, as I went in there, grabbed a handful of salt, 2 cups of Coke, refilled my bottle (used half Clif electrolyte drink/half water the whole time), and was on my way. Lisa was up there, along with Allen and a few others who I’m sure I’m forgetting (thank you for your efficiency). I bumped into Ethan (aka The Ginger Runner) here and we high fived. I absorbed his power and started cruising down Coast View. The hardest part about this section was that there were 50 mile and 50k runners coming up towards me, as well as 50k runners going in the same direction as me (their turnaround was at Cardiac). Most were quite courteous and I saw several familiar faces (Greg, Ashley, Olivia to name a few). I’m sure they said things to me, but I was pretty concentrated on what I was doing and didn’t process their words (apologies, especially to Davidson College track/xc teammate Greg who apparently yelled at me: “IT’S A GREAT DAY TO BE A WILDCAT!!”).
Coast View was a bit muddy and slick at times, but it was nothing compared to Heather. If it wasn’t 2 inches of running water, it was 2 inches of mud. I was tip-toeing at times, avoiding runners coming up at me, passing runners heading in the same direction, and trying not to go down. It was very telling that at the end of the race, almost everyone I talked to who fell did so between Cardiac and the bottom of Heather. On the descent, I didn’t notice Dakota or Sage, although I’m sure they were in view at times, and I didn’t see anyone behind me. I began dreading the 2 climbs left and just wanted to be done. I took my 2nd to last Gu on Redwood Creek trail and hit the Muir Beach aid station (mile 40 – 2 cups of Coke and 2 cups of water plus a bottle refill) alone. I was told that Sage was 5 minutes up and Dakota was 2. Good to know, but I had a feeling I wasn’t going to be picking either one off unless they blew up majorly. I was immediately reduced to a powerhike heading up Coastal. I ran when I could but that climb is steep and never seems to end (probably because I don’t know it well enough). I finally made it on to Miwok and down to Tennessee Valley (Sage 5, Dakota 2). Marincello was all that remained. Again, I was forced to alternate between running and powerhiking, picking little elements out on the trail and using them to pull myself up bit by bit. I finally crested Alta and turned onto Rodeo Valley (Sage 5, Dakota 2). I could see Dakota about 600-700m out in front of me but knew that I wasn’t going to be able to close. I had been continually checking behind me since Muir Beach to see if anyone was closing on me, and no one was (or at least not that I could see). Heading down Rodeo Valley for the third and final time, I was just relieved. I came up on Travis, who was running the 50k, towards the bottom and he and I ran together for a bit. Sam was also down on the turn off of Rodeo Valley cheering, which was greatly appreciated. I turned onto the road and made my way to the finish, making sure to soak up the moment. I crossed in 6:14:06, about 2 minutes behind Dakota and 7 behind Sage.
As I watched the other guys come in (DBo was 5th, Jorge 7th, Tim 8th), we greeted each other with muddy hugs. The camaraderie at the end of these ultras never ceases to amaze me. Everyone is happy and proud to be done, but also overcome with fatigue and a tremendous sense of accomplishment. In this case, everyone was also rather muddy. I was interviewed by Eric Schranz (http://ultrarunnerpodcast.com/) who was working with Ultrasportslive.tv (http://www.ultrasportslive.tv/alex-varner-nfec-california-2014-3rd-male/). He kindly gave me a beer, asked me a few questions, and then booted me out of the interview area in favor of DBo (gotta make way for the future mayor of Mill Valley). We milled around for a bit and I got a chance to catch up with Chris Douglas and Michael Stricklan, who represent me (and DBo and Jorge and YiOu) at Presidio Sports Management (http://www.presidiosportsmgmt.com/), as well as Eric Senseman and Sarah Lavender Smith who were helping out with iRunFar and USL’s coverage, respectively. Chris was out on the course cheering, taking pics, and crewing a bit for me as well, which was greatly appreciated and Michael ran the 50k but had to drop due to a bum hip (get it healed!). I was also interview by Bryon Powell of iRunFar.com (http://www.irunfar.com/2014/12/alex-varner-post-2014-tnf-ec-50-mile-interview.html), which is always a blast. After the awards, we headed back to my place, showered, and made our way to the 2AM Club. The Deuce was a blast. Team members from North Face, Nike, Salomon, Montrail, Hoka, and everything in between were there alongside many, many people who raced or cheered earlier that day. It was a great end to an amazing day of competition, as everyone unwound and rehashed their races and either toasted their success (SAGE BUYS A ROUND!) or their bonk. I think the night was best summed up by a regular local who asked The Big Stapler: “What’s with all the puffy jackets?” Thanks to everyone who came out. It really was a special evening and I hope we can do it again next year.
On another note, I’ll likely have one more post up here before 2014 comes to a close. It’s fun to do a post looking back at the year that was and I’ll also reveal what I’m thinking about in terms of racing for 2015. So keep an eye out for that, if you’re so inclined.
And finally, here’s the gear I used at TNF50:
Other Clothing: Nike Team Kit (sorry, not available for retail)
Headlamp: Princeton Tec Fuel http://princetontec.com/fuel
Hydration: Amphipod Hydraform Handheld (but I removed the strap and instead used a piece of surgical rubber to hold it which worked great and had the added benefit of keeping it from slipping down my crack when I stuffed it in my shorts) http://www.amphipod.com/products/hydration/bottles-handhelds/handhelds/hydraform-handheld
Food: 2 Smooth Caffeinator Picky Bars, 8 Gu’s (Espresso and Vanilla), Clif electrolyte drink (available on course) cut with half water.
GPS: Suunto Ambit 2 (Strava data here: http://www.strava.com/activities/226904893)
To those who made it this far, best of luck with your training and racing in the coming months!