Spring Report: Up to the North Face 50k

I signed up and ran this race about 3 weeks prior.  It was my “reserve” race, meaning if I didn’t feel ready to run a strong marathon by mid April, I’d defer that until Fall.  But I still wanted to run something big and North Face fit the bill.

The boring part that I’m writing for myself to look back at several years from now

When I rebooted my running career 2 years ago, I needed stability shoes and wore mostly Saucony Guide 9’s.  Last autumn I began to notice growing discomfort in my Achilles during training.  The chickens finally came to roost in December last in response to a “strong start” for the year, and something finally pulled for real.  Some PT was required.

This put me off-kilter in the early months of the season.  I only managed  88 miles in January, 24 month low for me and against a goal of 175.  Between the confidence-shattering Richmond marathon in November and the low mileage my conditioning took a beating.

I spent the entire winter base-building.  In 2016 I averaged around 36mpw.  In 2017, I’d like to increase that to around 50.  In aid of that goal I started training with a heart rate monitor.   One of the clearest signs of over-training is elevated heart rate for same-effort runs.  In other words, running the same course Monday to Monday at same effort should have similar heart rate profiles.  If your heart rate is increasing, that’s a sign to pull it back and take more rest.

Of course it’s not the only sign.  I had to pay very close attention to my lower body.  No repeat injuries.  Jared, my PT, advised against hills, so I worked the flattest roads I could find at a leisurely 9:30.  This is hard for me.  I am very “Strava proud.”  I overcame this problem.  Not that I had much of a choice.

I began increasing my mileage.  I hit my first ever 50 mile week ending on 2/26.

Although PT helped it didn’t eliminate the tightness in my heels, and it was slowly creeping back into my workouts, likely in response to an aging pair of trainers.  Enough is enough, so I made a trip to If the Shoe Fits, now part of Charm City Running.

I’ve felt limited by lower body discomfort especially at distance.  Coupled with that I’m admittedly a bit of a Sage Canaday fanboy and I thought I’d give Hoka One Ones a try.  I test drove the Cliftons on their treadmill and despite being a neutral shoe and a lower drop they felt good, so I took the plunge and drank the Koolaid.

I walked out of the store with them on and proceeded to run a full marathon on the C&O canal towpath in 4:11 moving time, around 4:30 total with time at my car refueling.  Even though this constitutes my slowest of 4 marathon efforts, it is notable because at no point did I bonk and feel like I had to walk.  This was a major confidence booster for me at the time and reinvigorated my training.

No “junk” races

By 2016 I had only raced a half and a full.  I had never really raced any other distance hard.  So I wanted to establish a baseline against which to develop goals to aid in training milestones.  I raced a lot.

In 2017 I had no desire to run winter races just to run them.  Pushing hard efforts just for the sake of racing is contraindicating that goal, and frankly I didn’t want to notch out sub-par performances when I’m not ready.

A note about training paces

Between weeks starting February 21 and April 10, my mileage pattern was 50, 40 51, 51, 61, 42, 60, 47.  This a big step up in mileage and was only possible because I finally wised up and slowed down my pace.

Prior to starting heart rate training I was under the delusion that my easy pace was much, much faster than it actually is.  I have relatively low respiratory rate.  At easy pace I often breathe once every 4 steps or so, and when I’m at tempo it’s not much more.  This gives me the illusion that I’m not working very hard, but my heart rate tells a different story.

My resting heart rate is very low.  I had an EKG four days prior to North Face at my wife’s request so that she wouldn’t worry that I might drop dead on the trails from a heart incident.  My resting heart rate was 36.

But my maximum is probably around 180.  I’ve done a few hard intervals and my heart rate monitor isn’t tracking anything higher than about 175 ever, which means either the monitor tends low, or I have a lower max.

Needless to say, I was running my “easy” runs at around 150, 155.  I now understand that true easy pace is (currently) more like 130.  At the start of this season that was around 9:30, whereas at the end it’s more like 8:45 or 9:00.

How not to taper

One of my 2017 goals was to run a strong half.  I predicted at Army 10 that I could have done a half at that pace.  The week before this race I wanted to do a “short” long run and the last Frederick Half training group happened to be that Saturday.  The weather was perfect for fast running: 55 degrees and lightly raining.  I wanted to take it easy, but the pace groups stopped at 9 not by design but because nobody volunteered to run 8:30 or lower.  I was shooting for 8, so my choices were try to hang with Jenny, Louis, and Conny or run by myself, in the rain, on Schifferstadt.  I went for it.

It was a hard run but when I got to 10 and realized I was only about 45 seconds off my time at Army,  I went for it and ended up hitting a 1:38:45, a PR by about 6 minutes and completing my annual goal.  This was a relief because I didn’t want to try to run a strong half a week after an ultra.  The downside is that this was a hard effort and not the best for a taper week, and I think as with Richmond (running a 5k PR the week prior), this affected my race.  But I look at it positively:  a sub-1:40 was an annual A-goal and has now paved the way for a 1:35 adjustment for the fall, whereas North Face was a backup plan in case I didn’t manage to get in the right speed workouts in time for a marathon and still have time to taper (which I did not).

What was I thinking?

I have suffered from dysthymia most of my adult life, with the added bonus of something called “double depression.”  It basically means that I feel generally worse than normal people all of the time, with bouts of severe clinical depression.

At a particularly low point when I was really struggling, Javier took me up to the Appalachian trail and “invited” me to participate in North Face.  I knew I wasn’t trail ready  – even “easy” trail would not be easy – but at a certain point it’s poop or get off the pot.  No reason to run 60 miles per week and never do anything with it.

4 days before the race I began taking Bupropion to treat the dysthymia, and it worked immediately.  I feel like a new person… but.

There are some side effects which calm down over time.  It’s a stimulant, so it raises heart rate (mildly – I tested this before the race).  It dries my eyes and mouth, but mildly.  Considering that taking it makes me feel like a normal person these are easy side effects to accept.  I liken it to drinking really strong coffee on an empty stomach.

Race Day!

Okay, the good stuff:

  • “A” goal: Finish
  • “B” goal: under 6 hours

Since I had explicitly avoided hills for 5 months and barely run trails I really went into this with a “let’s see how this goes” attitude.  I met Javier at Point of Rocks to carpool into Virginia and we enjoyed the starting area and met up with Nicole & gang at the Steeps tent.  North Face puts on a tight ship.  We took a snap with Dean Karnazes:


Before long we were off.

Miles 1-15

The first 3 hours of the race felt good.  The temperatures were low, the muddy patches on the hard packed soil were sporadic, and I was eating and drinking at the aid stations.  I took 2 salt caps every hour, and ate (as I can remember):

  • A bite of PB&J
  • Banana halves
  • Watermelon
  • Some pretzels
  • A handful of M&Ms

None of these were experimental, it was all real food, and I felt okay.  However, although my heart rate was in the right range for the paces, I had a feeling in my chest like my heart was working harder than it should be.  I think it’s a side effect of the medication that I hope subsides, but it was unsettling.

The only other comment I can make on this section is that I occasionally got caught on a single track behind a rather slow person with no option to pass.  I ran with Bill Duke (who won his age group in his 50k debut – amazing!) and we caught up to Steve and Elaine (who came in 1 and 2 in their age groups, respectively) around mile 5 and ran with them briefly.  I got caught behind another slow train and lost Bill and didn’t see him again until the turn around.  Steve and Elaine dropped me on the first hill.

These hills were crazy.  I expected them to be steep, and although there were only a couple of them they really took a lot out of me.  Without climb experience my quads were not up to the task at all.  The downhills were also so steep that a couple of times I almost lost it and took a dive.  I flew off the trail once and grabbed a sapling to save my butt.

I managed to get through the first half in around 2:45.  I felt optimistic of sub 6:00.  I knew I’d run the second half slower than the first, but….

Miles 15-23

It was only 10:00AM, but it was already getting hot… and humid.  I could feel the heat affecting me, but I historically run well in the heat.  Keyword is historically.  Prior to starting medication I could not function without socks.  I ran cold.  I’d be wearing a jacket in 70 degree weather.  That was then; this is now.  I no longer run cold.  I no longer need socks.  This heat hit me like a ton of bricks.

I began to develop several symptoms of heat stroke, the most notable of which was the nausea and the headache.  I am not sure if my nutrition was off point or whether it was the medication, but it became debilitating.  Any time I began running I felt so nauseous, but I couldn’t vomit.

Around mile 21 I texted Javier to let him know if he needed to dip I’d find another way home.  The fear of holding him up was causing some anxiety that I wanted to do without.

When I finally got to the mile 23 aid station – which clocked me at 9 miles in over 2 hours – I sat down on a log and an EMT reluctantly gave me some of the dwindling ice supply which instantly revived me.  This moment defined this race for me.  I wanted so desperately to quit.  I didn’t know how I was going to make another 9 miles feeling the way I did.  I couldn’t really run, I couldn’t really eat.  But I managed to let the desire to succeed overcome the desire to relieve the pain.  When I walked out of that aid station, I felt like an ultra runner.

Miles 23 to Finish

Early at this juncture I did the napkin math and calculated that as long as I kept moving forward I would finish; time was now irrelevant.  I still felt hot and tired, but I kept the focus on first the mile 26 aid station (and ice) and next the mile 30 aid station.

I ran into a pair of first timers who were also struggling and I know they helped me push forward.  Knowing I wasn’t alone helped me keep the dark place contained.

The hills in the 23-26 section were a bit humbling.  My quads were exhausted and I had to take breaks to get up these steep mountains, a first for me except for the Manor to Overlook slog up in Gambril.  The three of us were looking at each other with that look of dread knowing we had one more.

The last little bump of only 90 feet or something took everything I had.  I was not sure if I was going to be physically able to climb the (now) muddy mountain.  I felt my quads locking a little, but at no point did I ever cramp.

After that, the Potomac River trail was now a muddy slip and slide.  I felt like I was getting a little bit of a second wind once I crossed 26.2 and was making decent time despite what felt like mostly hiking (and probably was).  I still felt very nauseous and wasn’t eating but I was forcing myself to drink (which also caused nausea).  I couldn’t run the mud even if  wanted to, so I consigned myself to just getting it done.

Mile 30 felt so great and felt like it came fast.  I thought the course was long at 32.5, but when they told me I only had 1.5 to go and now I was out of the mud, I was able to alternate 1 minute running 1 minute walking.  I was holding out hope that I might slip through under 7, but I ended up coming in around 7:06, which meant it took me around 4:20 to cover only 15 miles of the back half.

Crossing the finish line was great.  Fantastic course support.  I’ve never been emotional at the end of a race until now.  I almost teared up crossing the finish line, but I didn’t want that to be my finish line photo and kept it together.  I almost teared up again when I saw Javier.

It was a long day.

Thoughts on the course

I loved the smells in the morning.  Wildflowers in the Potomac River trail, American chestnuts along the gravel paths, and that crisp river smell at Great Falls.  The scenery was vastly prettier than Catoctin and I enjoyed the surroundings.  They helped me get through the tough parts.

The trail blazing is the best I’ve seen.  North Face runs a tight ship and the race was really well organized.  At every wrong turn opportunity, they put up a “wrong way” sign and had volunteers at ever junction where any of the various events were splitting off (e.g., 50 mile left, 50k right).

Biggest cons was the use of single track for moments of the race where varying levels of freshness is to be expected – it was very annoying to constantly have to dip into poison ivy to let a relay runner who’s only doing a 10k fly past you.  I couldn’t have listened to music even though it would have helped late in the race.

Second, which is unavoidable in a public park, were the “forest walkers” who were walking a mile an hour up the steep and fast middle hills three abreast.  They didn’t speak english, were totally oblivious to their surroundings, and made that section much harder.  At one point I had to physically move a pair of ladies off the trail because they were about to be run over by guys flying down hill at 10 miles per hour facing a huge crowd coming up.  They were practically screaming “on your left” and they were ignoring them.

Look, I get that it’s a public park, I get that this race is probably ruining your hike as much as you are ruining the race, but at least have some awareness.  They could have dipped to single file, but instead they just ignored everybody and did what they want.  Very disappointing.

What’s next?

My sub-par performance on the hills at this race was highly disappointing and a major limiting factor here.  I was having energy problems due to the nausea but otherwise my legs felt strong.  I was fatigued, but not in pain.

I might be heading toward the dark side.  I might “trail out” and drop road racing.  I don’t know.

I’m skipping the Frederick half.  I am focusing on getting Catoctin done this year.  Last year I didn’t have the mental strength to push through in a similar situation – fast first half, looking at walking the second.  This year I will, and with the right focused hill training (on roads, to take the technicality out of the climbing) and power hiking I hope to be able to beat the race this year.  I doubt it will be hotter than it was at North Face.

The plan is to continue the high mileage weeks and get in doubles on the weekends.  Big day will be trails and hills with lighter day on roads.






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