Tuesday, June 15, 2010

North Face Endurance Challenge: Half Marathon

I ran the North Face Endurance Challenge Half Marathon on June 6, 2010.
It was an 8am start time, so I met up with some of the triathlon club women to carpool out at 6am. We got to the parking area a little before 7, got on the bus over to the starting area, and then had 45 minutes to twiddle our thumbs. It was (by my standards, anyway) a fairly small race, with the number of entrants capped at 500, so the porta-potty line never got very long. It also meant the start was uncrowded, which was nice.

The start was in a big, open, grassy area, and over the first 200 yards or so narrowed from 20 feet down 10 feet or so wide. There was remarkably little jostling for position - the least of any race I’ve run in, anyway. The first 3/4 of a mile or so (after the grassy start) was on the cart path through a golf course. Then there was about a mile of wide dirt/gravel pathway with the first aid station positioned at the start of the single track. I was wearing one of my Commitment skirts with water bottles (filled with Nuun) stuffed in the pockets, so I didn’t stop at the aid station. One of the best moments of the race was when we were on the dirt path; a group of three men was running behind me and chatting. One of them declared that he was going to get a running kilt because my skirt had convinced him of the merits of skirts for running.

The first half mile or so of single track was through some tallish (about hip high) grass with a road on one side and a stream on the other. No more than a hundred yards into the single track, I tripped and skinned my right knee. The guy behind me helped me up, but I was more embarrassed than hurt. Shortly after that, the trail parted from the road, and we were into the forest along the Potomac. It was really pretty terrain and heavily shaded, which made the heat and humidity much more bearable. Somebody behind me commented that it was like there was no humidity at all, which made me conclude she’s never visited a desert, since it was definitely a bit muggy.

Somewhere around 3.5 or 4 miles in was a giant hill. The rest of the course was fairly flat with some gentle, rolling climbs and descents, but this hill looked like a cliff on the elevation profile. I used walking up the hill as an opportunity to eat a mini Luna bar and drink some Nuun. Going down the hill was fun, in a terrifying sort of way, made more terrifying by the fact that many of the other runners were clearly much less comfortable on the trail than I was - at that point, I was more worried about the person in front of me suddenly stopping than I was about tripping.

Shortly after the giant hill were the first primitive stream crossing and the second aid station. The first primitive stream crossing was a log (all the previous crossings had been bridges) that made some of the people in front of me rather nervous and cautious. At that point, I didn’t know that I was going to end up wet and muddy no matter what I did, so waited my turn for the log instead of fording the stream and scrambling up the far bank. At the second water station, I stopped long enough to down some water and then kept going. Not long after that, I saw the leaders returning. The trail was mostly wide enough that passing runners going the opposite way really wasn’t a problem. There were a few spots where it got really narrow with really tall grass/weeds on both sides, but those were the only tricky bits for passing.

In the last leg to the turn around point, there were two more stream crossings. The first was a knee deep stream that had to be forded. It was also a point where I passed several people who were trying to figure out some drier way to cross. The hardest part was scrambling up the bank which was already a mud slick. The trail between that stream and the next one was like brown marshmallow fluff - slippery and sole-sucking. The third crossing had two options - fording or taking a flying leap slightly downstream of the ford. I opted for the flying leap, using one tree (the trunk was about 4” in diameter) to help swing myself across, and another tree about the same size to keep myself on the far side. From there, it was a short trot to the turn around point.

Going back across the streams was a little trickier. I took the same Tarzan approach to the first one (I really don’t know why more people weren’t trying it, since it completely avoided the mud-slicked banks of the ford). Unlike the couple of women in front of me, I managed to stay on my feet as I slid down the extra-slippery, very muddy bank to the second crossing. I thought I was going to manage to be relatively mud-free, but I slipped scrambling up the far bank and ended up caked in mud from the knees down and spattered in it from the knees up. Back at the aid station, I drank some more water and kept going. Between the water station and the giant hill, very little happened - it was getting warmer, my feet were heavy (soaked shoes will do that), and I could feel the start of a hot spot on my right foot, but I kept using the person in front me (when I could see one) as my target until I passed them.

The giant hill was both better and worse the second time around. Walking up it, my legs clearly let me know they were working hard and would really enjoy a slower pace or maybe a stop. I ignored them and flew down the hill (no concern about running anyone over that time). Between the hill and the last/first aid station, I ate another mini Luna bar, drank some Nuun, and took a few short walk breaks, but mostly stuck to my strategy of aiming for the person in front of me. The most disheartening moment was getting to the final aid station and seeing that I still had another 1.7 miles to go (I’d somehow convinced myself that I was much closer than that to finishing). I think I took another walk break or two between there and the finish, but there were spectators at that point, which provided me with the motivation to keep running. Plus, as long as I kept running, I was still passing people. I was SO glad to see the finish, though.

After finishing, I stopped by the medical tent to get my knee cleaned out, and then took advantage of the buckets of ice water to soak my feet and remove the mud from my legs. The Goretex people were there with a “test our rain gear” truck that simulated rain, but although no one was testing rain gear, they were letting runners used it as a shower of sorts. Being able to rinse the mud and some of the sweat off was awesome. One of the women I’d carpooled with won her age group so we stuck around for the awards (highlight: Dean Karnazes) before getting on the bus back to the parking area (we may have been the least bashful group of women I’ve ever been a part of, since we all changed clothes at the car) and going to lunch (we went to Outback, where I think the waiter was intimidated by our enthusiasm for the bread).

All in all, I had a great race and really enjoyed myself. I see many more trail races in my future.

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