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My first ultramarathon: TNF Endurance Challenge

My first ultramarathon: TNF Endurance Challenge
My first ultramarathon: TNF Endurance Challenge

In November, I did something I never thought I would do: run an ultramarathon.

I completed my first 50 km trail race – the North Face Endurance Challenge in California’s Marin Headlands.

The race is easily the hardest thing I have ever done. I naively went into the race thinking it wasn’t going to be that much harder than my prior 3 marathons. But as I quickly learned, a lot more can happen on the trails, especially beyond the 42.2 km distance mark and when 6500 feet elevation gain is involved.

The Training

I felt good about my training. I connected with Jeanelle, a local running coach, and purchased a 14-week training plan. There are plenty of free plans available online, but I was overwhelmed by the range of distances and workouts suggested and am glad I consulted a professional.  Jeanelle’s plan was entirely manageable and personalized to my experience and goals: finish my first ultramarathon injury-free and happy.

I hit weekly mileage and elevation gain I have never hit before and honestly thought I wouldn’t be capable of doing injury-free. Having spent the first 4 months of 2017 injured and not running, I was very careful with injury prevention throughout the training cycle.

I did PT exercises and stretches daily, saw my physiotherapist on a monthly basis, did strength training 2-3 times per week, and prioritized sleep like never before. Earlier this year, I also consulted with a sports nutritionist and adjusted my eating accordingly for training. If there is anything I have learned from being injured, it is the benefits of seeking help, consulting professionals, and actually following their advice!

Overall, I felt relatively good throughout training – save for the standard aches and fatigue that come with endurance training. I never missed a run or workout due to injury and I didn’t get sick, wins in my book!

Unfortunately, 2 weeks out, I started experiencing some unusual tightness in my right calf and pain in my shin. Cue panic, no running, 3 visits to the RMT, and 2 dry needling sessions with the physiotherapist. I knew everything would be fine the day of the race, but that didn’t stop me from freaking out. Dealing with pre-race anxiety is still something I am surely working on!

The 50 km race: North Face Endurance Challenge Championship in California

For my first ultramarathon, I chose to do the North Face Endurance Challenge Championship in California. It is not recommended as a first ultra, but I ignored that advice and was excited by the sunshine, scenery, and running in a new place.

The 50-mile race runs simultaneously with the 50 km and attracts some of North America’s best trail runners. The sense of competition for the 50 mile is fierce, the atmosphere high-energy, and the race itself is very well-organized. If you are looking for a challenging race with no shortage of elevation gain, runnable trails, minimal technicality, and unbeatable scenery, I can’t recommend it enough.

Day before the race

I flew to San Francisco the day before the race and met up with my sister at the airport. We took the BART downtown, checked into our hotel, and stopped at Trader Joe’s for breakfast foods and snacks.

I walked through Chinatown to the North Face store in Union Square for packet pickup. Quick and easy! After a late lunch at Chipotle, I slowly made my way back to our hotel in Fisherman’s Wharf, stopping by the Ferry Building, walking along the pier, and soaking up the sunshine.

Like most races, as the day wore on I was getting increasingly nervous. I spent the rest of the evening at the hotel, ordered in food, called my parents for a pep talk, prepared my gear, and made breakfast for the next day.

Race Day

I had a terrible sleep the night before the race, tossing and turning, and getting woken up by noisy people outside. Fortunately, I slept a lot in the 2 weeks leading up to the race so I doubt it made much difference. At 4:30 am I got up, attempted to eat something, drank a little coffee, rolled out with the lacrosse ball, got dressed and ready to go.

The race started on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge at a school field in Sausalito. There were free shuttles available from a school in San Francisco, but in my efforts to minimize stress, I took a LYFT to the start. The LYFT driver dropped me off in front of a pitch-black school at 5:45 am. Both of us were unsure if it was the right place! Luckily, runners began showing up and I managed to find the race start, hidden behind the school.

I had plenty of time before the 7 am start to use to the bathrooms, check my gear, make new friends, and stand by the outdoor heaters set up. It was a chilly morning!

The Race

The low-key race start went off in several waves shortly after 7 am. Immediately, we began climbing up fire roads into the Marin Headlands. The sun was rising and the views were gorgeous! Based on advice from an experienced ultrarunner friend, I planned to take the first 30 km easy, walk the steep uphill, and run the flats and downhills.

The race slowly began to spread out. Everyone was in good spirits, until the first real work began with a long climb and descent into the first aid station, Tennessee Valley. The race included 6 huge climbs, plus a steady incline up and over the Golden Gate Bridge to the finish line. My hamstrings hated me by the end.

I barely stopped at the first aid station and began the second climb, treated to stunning views of the Pacific Ocean and Muir Beach below us, and the headlands around us. I reached the second aid station feeling good and perhaps taking it a bit too easy. But honestly, having never run over 42 km, it was hard to gauge effort this early on.

After a brief section on highway, we returned to the trails and climbed up a series of never-ending, single-track switchbacks. I was fuelling regularly, but at the 10-mile mark I was very nauseous and the temperature was steadily increasing. I drank more electrolytes, took off a layer, and hoped time in the shaded forest would help.

I finally reached the third aid station, took a quick bathroom break, and began the descent into Muir Woods. I loved this part of the race – I felt like I was back on Vancouver’s North Shore with the rolling hills and more technical terrain.

Miles 12 to 20 were enjoyable. I was chatting with people around me and fuelling well. I even ran into my friend Alan in the woods! He was out looking for some of our friends running the 50 mile race.

Mile 20 hit and I realized I had 13 miles to go. A half marathon to run! Oh my. I hit Aid Station 4 and 5 and became disheartened by the mile markers. I knew the course was long, but it is always tough when your watch is so off.

I don’t remember much from this part of the race. My hamstrings seized up (clearly not prepared for the steep descents) and it got harder and harder to run. Fortunately, my sister was waiting for me at aid station 6. While I was much later than anticipated, it was very nice to see a friendly face – especially when I was hurting so bad. I think she was a little horrified! I ate some food, took a Tum’s from a random spectator (who said it would help with cramping), and was back on my way.

And so, began my hike to the finish! I tried to run as much as I could, but it was mostly just too painful. I began texting with my friend Nikki and Mom who both offered helpful words of encouragement. If I couldn’t run, at least I was going to make this as good a walk as possible! I also had more time to soak up the views.

I struggled with motivation through the entirety of the race, and truthfully throughout much of training. I questioned many times why I was even doing the race. I didn’t feel like I had anything to prove and no longer felt that tied to my goal of running 50 km. Having been injured already in 2017, I had no desire to relive that. Was it really worth pushing my body so hard and far?

There were many times when I wanted to quit throughout the race. I probably would have stopped at mile 10! But sheer stubbornness kept me going (and knowing the regret I would feel if I did stop). It was a good lesson in grit and reminder to figure out why you’re running a race – before the race happens!

After seeing the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance for several miles, at last I reached it! Let me tell you, that bridge is long. At this point, I was fatigued, in pain, and just wanted to be done. 2 miles later, I ran off the bridge and down to Crissy Field to the finish line. I managed to run the final mile, determined to fight through the pain.

And while it took over 7.5 hours and much longer than anticipated, I finished my first 50 km race mostly in one piece and middle of the pack! I quickly made my way to the massage tent in hopes of relieving my legs. Walking was unpleasant for the rest of the day. I capped it off with Indian food and dessert in bed. I spent the next few days, exploring and eating my through San Francisco. My favourite way to recover from a race – save for those San Francisco hills.

It took a month to physically and mentally want to run again. I am slowly getting back in it and am signed up for another 50 km race in May, which I hear is much easier. We’ll see what 2018 brings for running!

What I wore

  • Zella black tank
  • Lululemon Swiftly Tech Long Sleeve
  • Lululemon Run the Day Crop
  • Lululemon Speed Sock
  • Salomon S-Lab Wings Softground
  • Ultimate Direction Ultra Vesta

What I ate and drank

  • Pre-race: overnight oats made with Vega Sport Mocha Protein Powder and topped with banana and sunflower seed butter, cup of coffee, glass of Nuun
  • Huma gels with and without caffeine
  • 1 Clif bar
  • Food at aid stations: banana, oranges, boiled potatoes, Skratch Labs sport energy chews
  • Water refilled at every aid station
  • Skratch Labs electrolytes refilled at every aid station

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