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Running an ultra has been on my bucket list for awhile. During my first North Face Endurance Challenge Series (TNFECS) event in SF four years ago, I only ran the half marathon but heard all about the awe-inspiring 50M and 50K races that happened the day prior. Back then, my thoughts were more along the lines of, “WOW…those people are CRAZY,” and that’s saying a lot coming from me! That started to shift when I spectated E’s first ultra at TNFECS Bear Mountain 50K last May. I decided I actually wanted run an ultra after pacing E for 24 miles at the JFK 50 miler in November. Maybe all the runners I met out on the trail motivated me, or perhaps I was simply jumping to a new level of crazy?! Either way, I had so much fun taking part in E’s ultra experience that I decided we needed to finish one together.

About two months ago, E mentioned that he was going to run TNFECS 50K and suggested it as an option. It takes place in Algonkian Regional Park, Great Falls Park and the Potomac Heritage Trail in Virginia, not far from where E’s parents live in Maryland. Although not exactly flat, the course is one of the least technical of the TNF series, and I definitely was looking for a newbie friendly race not too far from NYC. Unfortunately, the timing was terrible with various work and grad school commitments, so I said no, and we started to consider Fall races instead.

Cut to the week before the race, and I felt this unexplicable urge to enter. The Boston Marathon has been my big Spring race these past two years, and while I intentionally did not fill my race calendar this year, I couldn’t help but crave a new challenge as the marathon hype began to build. I was feeling exhausted and burnt out, and yet conquering a new, scary distance and experiencing that raw feeling of victory after crossing the finish line was exactly what I needed to keep pushing through the other challenges in my life.

Also, I’ll be honest – THAT was how badly I wanted to put off working on my Master’s research paper! Seriously. I am a very productive procrastinator.

So, I entered the 50K just three days in advance and caught a train to Maryland after work the night before the race. So much for my usual meticulous pre-race planning and prep!

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Panic set in briefly after I entered, but I reminded myself that I ran regularly over the winter to maintain fitness after the Marine Corps Marathon, including two 18-19 milers in Manhattan and several tough trail runs in Nisene Marks last month (two 1.5-2hrs, one 2.75hrs to Sand Point overlook – pictured above). I was under-trained but not horribly so, and I am not a newbie to trail running – just to the distance. It made me feel better that E hadn’t run much more than I had, so at least we were in the same boat. Also, pace isn’t as important in trail running unless you’re really competing, trying to break your own course PR, or need to beat a cut-off time. These didn’t apply to me, so for the first time ever, my goal truly was “just to finish.” It was a refreshing feeling after so many years of chasing PRs. I was especially excited to finish the race with E, hand in hand – we often train together and run the same races, but have never finished any together. We kept the race fairly quiet just in case it was a total disaster.

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It was still dark when we arrived at Algonkian Regional Park at 6am. The 50 milers had just set off and all the 50K runners were hanging out trying to stay warm. As in SF, the start area was well organized with plenty of toilets, food tents, coffee, fire pits, pre-race packet pickup, bag check, etc. It was meant to be a very hot and muggy day, and I knew we would be looking back fondly on these chilly pre-race moments later on! The sun started to rise, right up through the start line just in time for our 7am start. I was very tired from many weeks of inadequate sleep, but overall was in good spirits. I think they call that being in denial. I guess the trick to fighting off pre-race nerves is simply to enter last minute and don’t give yourself any time to think about it!

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I didn’t get a chance to study the out and back course. E told me that the first 13M were relatively flat and runable, followed by a more challenging middle 6M loop, and then 13M back to the finish. Didn’t sound so bad, right? We made a plan to run nice and easy, walk all the inclines and technical sections, take our time at the aid stations, and stop for photo breaks to make sure we enjoyed the beautiful scenery. Our goals were to remain injury free, have fun and cross the finish line together. See that smile? Yes, still in denial.

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The first few miles were a total mud bath! The race started with a big loop of a field turned swamp after the rain, so within five minutes our shoes were soaked and legs covered in mud. I hate mud but quickly got over it. This led to a very slippery section of single track – essentially a slow Congo line of runners trying not to fall over – and then into a forested area (pictured below), where the trail widened and finally started to dry out. Smooth runable sections alternated with stretches of roots and rocks. We kept the pace slow and enjoyed the views of lush trail covered in wild flowers with the Potomac River on our left. The sun was shining, and signs of Spring were everywhere.

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We finally got into a groove when we hit several unexpected steep climbs and descents. Clearly, I did not take a close look at the elevation chart in advance, otherwise those hills wouldn’t have been such a surprise…oops.

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We hiked the ups as planned but unfortunately had to hike the downs as well, as it was too crowded to hurl ourselves downhill as we normally do. I started to feel it in my knees after a few of those. More importantly, I found myself unusually fatigued not even a third of the way into the race, which was very daunting. We let a lot of runners pass us and the crowds finally began to thin out. I wasn’t feeling fabulous, but it was very peaceful on the trails. It was still relatively early, which meant that the hordes of tourists hadn’t arrived yet, and the marathoners who started an hour later than the 50K runners hadn’t reached us yet.

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I pushed myself out of my funk and got a much needed surge of energy when we got to Great Falls, snapped some photos at an awesome lookout, hit another great aid station and entered the middle miles.

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I had imagined this section to be nonstop climbs and descents, but it felt easier than what we had already encountered. Don’t get me wrong, there were many hills, but it was a complicated loop (more like two mini out and backs tacked onto a loop), which kept things interesting as I didn’t really know what was coming next. See, it helps not to study the course map sometimes!

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I also was distracted (in a good way) as this was a social part of the race for me. We caught up to the other 50K runners as well as the 50 milers, who were doing 3 loops of this section (!!!), and the wider trails and two way traffic were more conducive to striking up conversations. Chatting on the trails almost always gives me energy, quickens my pace and melts the pain away (at least temporarily). After feeling so crappy during the earlier miles, I was reminded that part of what makes trail running so fun is all the amazing people you meet. Sure, it’s a solo endeavor at times – but it’s also a supportive, friendly community experience as well. Also, hearing about some guy’s upcoming 24 hour race (i.e. run as many miles as you can in 24 hours) and running alongside the hardcore 50 milers made the 50K seem like an easy day out. It’s all relative, right?!

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I promise – I wasn’t smiling in ALL the race photos.

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The miles were flying by and before I knew it, we were back at the Great Falls aid station, where E’s parents awaited us. By this point, it was very hot and muggy out. I was grateful to have worn my shorts, tank top and visor – all comfy and lightweight. My feet were starting to hurt and blisters were forming (my road shoes weren’t the best choice, but I didn’t have time to test any others), and other parts of my body were starting to ache, but I felt good overall – happy and confident.

I attribute this to solid pacing and staying on top of my nutrition. I was having combination of SIS Go Gels (I brought 8 and was taking one every 45-50min), water (I carried my Amphipod large handheld – no time to buy and try a vest), and a variety of aid station food offerings. I hadn’t trained with eating real food and I have a sensitive stomach, so I had to be careful. E swears by peeled boiled potatoes with salt (good source of electrolytes – potassium + sodium chloride), so I had a few small nibbles early in the race to test the waters, and ate more once I tolerated it. Highly recommend. I also had some chicken broth (delicious), some banana and a few potato chips/pretzels. I can’t stomach food at my marathon race pace (~8-8:20), but eating a little bit at each aid station kept me feeling strong at my ultra shuffle pace (~10-11 running, ~13 with walking). My taste buds also appreciated switching between salty and sweet!

E was really feeling the heat, so we started to run/walk the flats. Parts of the trail had shade and a cool breeze, but others did not and our bodies were in slight shock after such a long, brutal winter. I still felt strong but then of course stubbed my toe really hard on a rock during a steep descent, which briefly threw me off my game. I will likely lose my first toenail soon – E tells me that this is an ultra rite of passage.

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After we passed the marathon distance (pictured above), I officially entered unchartered territory. I felt a sense of relief knowing that I would make it to the end. E felt better when he took frequent walk breaks, and when I walked everything hurt 100 times more, so I ran ahead to keep my momentum going and then waited for him periodically to catch up. Without realizing, I started to run my usual 9/9:30 long run pace, which felt very comfortable. I felt the urge to hammer out the last miles, but E wasn’t up for it. Plus, this race wasn’t about speed. So we took our time and only picked up the pace in the last mile to ensure we finished in under 7 hours.

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We crossed the finish line together in 6:54:16, holding hands with gigantic smiles on our faces! Technically, I finished one second ahead of E, but I swear that was not intentional (he doesn’t believe me). It was an amazing feeling to finish and I immediately knew I had to do another one. Despite our slow pace, I still placed middle of the pack – 225 of 401 overall, and 69 of 145 women. Not bad for a first ultra and last minute race! If I had run all the flats and didn’t stop so much along the way, I think I could have finished in 6-6:30. Not that time matters… 🙂 Check out my Garmin details here.

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Post-race was awesome. I felt surprisingly okay, and was beaming from my ultra runner’s high! E’s parents met us at the finish and we scrubbed/soaked our muddy legs in the muddy ice water (SO COLD – hurt more than the race itself) and enjoyed some beer and food. I got a massive ice cream cone (post-race MUST) on the way home – calories well earned!

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I highly recommend the TNFECS and I’m glad I picked DC as my first ultra. It’s rated 3 of 5 stars for difficulty and elevation change, and 4 of 5 for scenery, so it’s challenging yet newbie friendly and rewarding. It’s not a cheap race, but you get your money’s worth. The start was seamless, the trail was well marked every step of the way, the aid stations were frequent and amazing, and everyone was friendly and chilled out. The race swag was good too – a pair of Smart wool socks and a technical shirt tailored to our distance.

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Our one complaint is that we wish more runners practiced better trail etiquette. For example, we noticed a lot of gel wrappers thrown on the trails (not cool) and so many runners were listening to music, which is dangerous on narrow trails with two-way traffic. Perhaps this is something North Face can better address in pre-race materials and events. Personally, I think music should not have been allowed – many races ban music for safety reasons. It also makes the events more interactive.

Recovery has been going well thus far. I haven’t been very sore, but my legs have felt a little fatigued/heavy, so I’ve been taking it fairly easy on the training front with just two runs last week. My next race is the Brooklyn Half Marathon on May 16th. I don’t have any great expectations for the half given how little speed work I’ve done recently, and how stressed out I’ve been in these final weeks of school (graduation May 18th woohoo!!!), but I hope I have enough speed in my legs to have a strong race. For now, I’m trying to mix it up with some cross training – I’m excited to try my first Soul Cycle class today! It’s a charity ride that my friend invited me to at the East 83rd street studio, which should be fun.

Aside from the NYC Triathlon relay in July, my race calendar remains empty for now. I need to decide on my Fall race plans soon…perhaps another ultra? I’m leaning towards YES!

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