How to Run 50 Miles: Part II – Beyond Pure Fitness

Read Part I Here.

I’m going to expand on the first principle I stated in Part I, that I think the outcome for endurance events are more driven by factors beyond raw fitness than of fitness itself. Nutrition, mental focus, pacing, gear and other factors are just as (if not more important) than how high your VO2 max or lactate threshold is.

Let me explain. In my last 50K race, The North Face Endurance Challenge in Marin Headlands, I was never once out of breath on the course. However, I clearly suffered greatly and my result did not reflect my fitness. How could this be? Simple. I did the following things:

  • I went out way too fast, running the first 8-10 miles about 10-15% faster than I should have. It didn’t feel that way during the run, but in hindsight this was the case.
  • I bonked hardcore after 16 miles. I hit mile 16 having consumed a couple gels and a few pieces of banana and boiled potato. This might seem enough calories, but given the course severity it took almost 3 hours to get this far and that was way too few calories. Also, given I was running faster than normal my caloric burn rate was far higher than normal training.
  • I had terrible shoes for this course. I wore Mizuno Waverider running shoes. They are lightweight training shoes, meant for smooth pavement. I also wore them for the Ron Herzog 50K and realized they weren’t great on trails, but I didn’t remedy the problem. I was slipping and sliding all over, given how wet and muddy the North Face course was. Footing was a real issue during the race.  I would slow down my pace at times and it just took way too much mental energy to focus on where my feet were going.
  • I ran carrying a single water bottle. Big mistake, as I slowed down in the second half of the race, I would run out of water/calories between aid stations and just suffer. Rookie mistake. I should have carried two bottles or used a hipflask system. Had I not bonked I would have been fine with 1 bottle, but the slower pace after mile 16 meant I was running/walking slow and needed more fuel between aid stations.
  • I wore a great Gore-Tex running jacked which kept my upper body warm, but my legs were freezing cold given the rain and the fact that I slowed so much. Studies show that cold muscled perform worse – far worse – than warm muscles. My legs were frozen for most of the race. This was of course exacerbated by my bonking and slower pace after mile 16.

Had I addressed these things by wearing appropriate clothing, using proper trail shoes, carrying more fuel and starting out more slowly (and using walk breaks early on); the result surely would have been very different! Live and learn! Addressing the non-fitness related variables has a big impact on race day. The longer you plan to go, my opinion is the more these other things count. Especially, bad footwear can easily take someone out of commission in an ultra-marathon (a bad blister or foot issue can bring down the toughest runner!). Same goes with an incorrect fueling strategy.

Will continue this multi-part post later.

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Going for a 90 minute run on some flat dirt trails today. I trail tested my new Inov-8 Roclite 295’s yesterday. They are too small…back to the store they go!

The North Face Endurance 50K @ SanFran Race Report

Mission Accomplished! Finished The North Face Endurance Challenge 50K in San Francisco (Marin Headlands)

The race description lived up to it’s billing as a ridiculously challenging but beautiful course. I didn’t wear my GPS, but roughly plotted the course on runkeeper. You won’t find more incredible terrain than the Marin Headlands, site for The North Face Endurance Challenge. They had a 50 mile, 50K, Marathon, 1/2 Marathon, 10k and 5k race. I did the 50K event. Having just done a 50K last month, and the Portland Marathon the month prior, I was a little tired from training and racing but decided it would be a good day of training and a chance to see the Headlands and visit my brother who lives nearby.

In short, I totally crashed and burned. I had similar issues as my previous two races. I bonked hardcore. I went out too fast. I wasn’t wearing the proper gear. All rookie mistakes but that is sort of why I wanted to do this race, to figure out what works and what doesn’t.

At the same time I’ve learned first-hand through the past few races that training is also only part of the story. Mental focus and toughness is at least 50% (and maybe closer to 80%) of the game. All kinds of people were passing me after I bonked (after about 16 miles of running). Older women. Young men. People who looked super fit and people who looked like they just started running. People wearing highly technical gear and people wearing shorts and a t-shirt.

Being able to just tough it out and not let your mind get the best of you is a big part of these races.

I arrived at the Headlands on Friday afternoon, and quickly checked into a Hostel, which is conveniently situated within the Headlands. This was an awesome place to stay. $20 a night. It was literally 200 yards from the race start and full of athletes (including a bunch of pro/elite runners)! It was super clean and comfortable. I am already thinking of going back and staying for a few days to explore the Headlands some more. After checking into the place, I headed down to Sausalito to eat dinner. This is a cool little town with very expensive homes and some nice places to eat and epic views of San Fran and the Golden Gate Bridge. I gorged on Indian food and then headed back to the Hostel.

Dinner the night before the race in Sausalito. Indian food!

At the Hostel I spent some time in the living room talking with other runners. Most folks were running the 50 miler, including a few young girls who were just planning to “power hike” the whole 50 miles! I don’t think they had even done a marathon before! Whoa.

I hit the sack fairly early, and proceeded to wake up every 20 minutes throughout the night, looking at my clock and wondering if it was time to get up! The 50 milers started at 5am and 50k racers started at 7am. Around 4am I started to hear some sounds as other runners got up and ready for a 50mile start in the cold and pitch black! These runners spend the first few hours running with headlamps on. Luckily, by the time the 50k started the sun had started to rise so there was no problem seeing the course. Check out the video further below for an idea of what this crazy course is like.

Start/finish area - after the race.

I made my way to the race start area and met up with a few friends from Seattle that were also running. We traded some notes on what gear everyone was going to wear. Was it going to rain? How many layers do we need? I decided to run with a standard pair of running shorts, regular road running shoes, a lululemon running shirt, a The North Face gore-tex running jacket and a hat. I carried a 20 oz water bottle the whole way, and kept 1 Hammer Gel in my jacket pocket. This last part turned out to be a big mistake. I was way short on fuel and aid stations were further apart (time-wise, not distance-wise) than I thought given how long it took to travel a few miles given all the hills.

With 2 minutes to start I gathered towards the front and got ready to go. I had no specific time goal, but thought it would be nice to run faster than my last 50k a month ago – which took me about 6 hours 44 minutes after bonking very bad and having some other issues (the course was long too!). I thought a sub 6-hour time was totally reasonable.

Here is how the race went down:

Mile 1: People went out very fast. This always amazes me for long races! I settled into an easy rhythm and went along the flat course following a paved road and then onto a dirt path. Every minute I would pass someone as they slowed down and I kept my steady pace.

Miles 2-4: The dirt single-track path led to a dirt road that went up a very large climb. This serious climb really woke me up given how early in the morning it was! A bunch of runners who started out too fast started to drop back at this point. I kept running even.

Miles 4-16: The race proceeded through a variety of single-track routes, with some epic views of the Pacific Ocean while running along some high bluffs and plenty of light rain in the cool air. We climbed up and down some pretty large hills. At one point running tight switchbacks along a mud-soaked trail. There were also some up and downhill sections along steps build into the trails. I felt good the whole time, and didn’t stop to walk one bit. There were aid stations roughly every 4-5 miles and I would refill my water bottle and grab an energy gel stuff some banana in my mouth (and some boiled potato with salt).

Miles 16-18: Around mile 16 we hit an aid station, I refueled and kept running. I then started to proceed down a several mile trail downhill. The trail was really twisty and through the woods. It was pretty tough running since I was not super used to running trails like this…I normally just hike them! I was having a hard time maintaining a good pace and people started passing me. At some point I just felt too tired to run and stopped. I was bonking hardcore!

Miles 18-25: All I can say is bonking sucks. I clearly didn’t eat enough early in the race. I walked about 80% of the time between miles 18-25 or so. Sometimes even walking was tough. The climbs were super ridiculous. Long sweeping climbs along muddy and slick trails. I just did my best and kept moving forward. I started drinking coke at each aid station and filling my entire water bottle with coke as well. Coke is amazing when you are late in an endurance race. The thing is, once you start drinking coke, you need to keep it up – or your blood sugar will crash again.

Miles 25-29: I started to feel a little better. There were a few long hills prior to the finish (each climb was a few miles long followed by a long downhill). I run/walked the uphills and ran the downhills. The climbs were super muddy and at one point just getting enough traction on the trail to walk it took a supreme effort.

Miles 29-31: The last few miles were downhill and flat. By this time I actually felt OK and approaching the finish felt quite good.

Finish time = 7:14:28

50 feet from the finish line!

Here is a great video of the course (it follows elite runners doing the 50 miler)

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eTMcv5rIzl4]

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I learned a ton from the race. It was not at all the finish I expected. I expected to run most of it. I expected to run about 1.5 hours faster than I did. I did not expect to bonk. I also didn’t expect it to be so mentally tough to finish, given that I have just run a 50K and a Marathon in the past few months! I also learned that preparation matters a lot. Nutrition strategy (carry more water and gels than you think you need!) and the proper gear (footwear with traction for a muddy course and proper breathable rain gear).

I’m already looking forward to training again – and getting in more super long runs. I need more 4-5 hour running efforts to get my body used to dealing with that level of stress. I’ll be looking to run another 50K in late January or early February (not sure where yet) and have already signed up for the Copper Canyon 50 Mile Ultra-marathon on March 6th, 2011. Just a few months to get ready for it!

Men's 50 Mile Champions! Miguel Heras (1st), Geoff Roes (2nd), Dave Mackey (3rd)
Women's 50 Mile Champions! Anna Frost (1st), Lizzy Hawker (2nd), Kami Semick (3rd)