The San Francisco North Face Endurance Challenge is a multi-race weekend that takes place in the Marin Headlands. With a name like Endurance Challenge, it’s no surprise that Saturday’s 50 miler was the principal event of NFEC, attracting big names in the ultra-running community. Check out this photo (via Ultra Race Photos) of the front runners Mike Wolfe and Dakota Jones duking it out – Mike (left) who broke away in the last few miles to win the race in 6:19:04! I love their expressions – sheer determination. So inspiring!

And yes that is blood on Mike’s shirt – he hit his head on a low-hanging tree branch early in the race, but that obviously didn’t stop him. Hard-core! Click here for more info on the 50M race from TNF’s Never Stop Exploring official blog, including a great post-race shot of Mike, and here for an AMAZING ten-minute video compilation of the race highlights.

Although Saturday also offered a 50k as well as a marathon, I opted to participate in Sunday’s half marathon with a group of friends. I think we can all confirm that this distance was most definitely an Endurance Challenge! If you’re wondering why, take a look at my Garmin race details, particularly the elevation chart – nearly 2,500ft of elevation gain and loss!

Oh, and it wasn’t 13.1 miles – it was 14. A friend who ran the 50k informed me that they also got a bonus mile. That was a fun surprise! The scary thing is that some of the hills on the 50M and 50k courses were double the size of the ones above – the 50 miler had over 10,000ft of climbing, while the 50k had 6,300ft  – so I guess I had it easy, with the course I ran below.

On Saturday, I met up with my running buddies to check into our hotel and have dinner in the Marina. My NFEC half marathon team included a woman from California who I met in my RRCA coaching course in Portland, another woman from Colorado who I met in Iceland while running the Reykjavik half marathon and a bunch of their friends. Essentially, I put the word out on Facebook that I wanted to enter this race and was looking for company, and a group of 10+ runners quickly formed. I hadn’t done a social race like this since the 17km Kentmere Challenge back in June – that was a seriously fun weekend, so I was really excited. Races are more fun when you have people to hang out with before and after the event, and I always welcome opportunities to expand my international community of running buddies!

We chose the Marina so that we could walk to the NFEC shuttle early the next morning. Runners (of the half marathon at least) were not able to park at the race site, which wasn’t a problem at all given that the shuttle service to and from the event was very efficient. We were picked up at 6:45am for the 8am start and got a ride back around 11:30, although we could have gone back earlier. I was pretty impressed.

As I wrote in my last post, my goals for this race focused more heavily on enjoying the atmosphere and experience over achieving a specific time. I didn’t want to fully race, but the title of this event includes the word challenge, so I wanted to rise up to it!

Obviously, bright orange arm sleeves were in order – here I am looking sleepy at 6am (our hotel, Chelsea Motor Inn, was quite noisy), but excited to hit the trails! My new top, with a gel in each back pocket, worked brilliantly.

My arms matched the sky, as we watched the sunrise over San Francisco while crossing the Golden Gate bridge.

It was quite cold up in the Marin Headlands before the race, but it was clear that the weather would be perfect. The wind from the previous day had gone – just pure sunshine and temperatures in the 50s and low 60s later in the morning. To ease our pre-race shivering, we huddled around heat lamps and held onto our bags until the last minute! I knew the arm sleeves would be too much at some stage of the run, but I couldn’t part with them.

Let’s do this!

Most of our team right before the race:

Dean Karnazes giving us a send off! His legs are INSANE.

  

The atmosphere was super chilled out. I really do love trail races – still highly competitive, but so much friendlier. With Saturday being the primary day of the weekend, the half marathon on Sunday struck me as more of a “for fun” racing day with very few elite runners in the field. Sure, Michael Wardian ran and placed 2nd, but he had also placed highly in the 50 miler the day before. Because clearly 50M wasn’t enough running for him. He’s an incredible athlete – same guy who got food poisoning the day before this year’s SF marathon and ended up winning it anyway, despite also having raced several ultras in the months leading up to the marathon. Crazy. So perhaps he’s not the best example…

My placement might be more telling as to the level of competition out there. I finished feeling strong with a time of 2:08:33, placing 20th out of 230 women, 11th of 89 in my category and 108 out of 496 overall. I was a bit surprised that I placed that highly, but hey, I’m not complaining! Considering the extra distance, the fact that I hardly did any hill training and wasn’t *really* racing, I was very pleased with my time. I took it fairly easy on the uphills (was reduced to walking on that second beast of a hill, comforted by the fact that everyone else was walking too) but to balance it out, was so fast on the downhills I was practically out of control (my quads are still feeling pretty trashed). It was awesome. I could’ve pushed harder on the flats, but I wanted to pace myself throughout the tough course and not go into “race mode.” But most of all, I simply didn’t feel like it. What a new and liberating concept for me in a race!

One of my friends took some photos while out on the course – the views were stunning. As you can see, the trails were pretty well maintained – not too many loose rocks etc. In that sense, it was a piece of cake compared to some of the other trail races I have done! It was the steepness, and the length of the climbs and descents, that made this course so challenging.

  

Here are some of my race photos (via Ultra Race Photos):

      

I was duking it out (kind of) with that guy in brown pictured below throughout the second half of the race. My naturally competitive self didn’t want to let him beat me, but I wasn’t up for maxing out in the last mile (which was also the surprise extra mile), so he ended up passing me at the very end. We had a nice chat afterwards, and I also high-fived a bunch of other runners in my “pack” who finished close to my time. I love friendly competition!

      

As I crossed the finish line, Michael Wardian slapped my hand. Pretty awesome.

The post-race festival was quite fun, with various food and drink stalls, including a coconut water stand and a beer garden (both free)! Two great recovery drinks. The sun was shining and everyone was in great spirits.

Here are a few more photos from the post-race festival:

        

I also managed to snag another item of North Face gear – an awesome lightweight long black sleeve top with thumb holes – in addition to the water bottles they handed to us upon finishing (in lieu of medals, I guess – pictured above). I cannot stress enough just how amazing the race swag is for this event (see previous post).

My only complaint for the entire event was the lack of sufficient aid stations. The participant guide indicated that there would be three stations – but I only recall seeing two. I was feeling pretty dehydrated with only two small cups of water, particularly given the somewhat warm weather, and would’ve carried a bottle had I known.

After showering back at the hotel, we all met for lunch around the corner at Barney’s Gourmet Burgers on Steiner Street. It was a bit chilly out but sunny so we grabbed a huge table out on the garden patio. I devoured a delicious burger with guacamole, Monterey Jack cheese and sauteed mushrooms on a whole wheat bun, with a side of sweet potato fries. Pure bliss – I love my post-race burgers, and everything always tastes better after a long run. Ice cream (lavender honey and roasted banana) at Bi-rite Creamery in the Mission was the perfect end to my post-race treats. This place is a MUST if you are in the area and have never been – actually, it’s worth a trip, from wherever you are. YUM.

So all in all, it was a great race! I would definitely sign up for another NFEC event, either in SF or elsewhere in the country. I was also reminded of just how fun group races can be – it was great to see my friends again and make some new ones too! Our next group running expedition is already in the works – perhaps a trail race in Colorado in the Summer, or the Catalina Island marathon in the Spring! Or the 50k SF NFEC 2012?! The options are endless…

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