Tuesday, April 21, 2015

2015 North Face 50K Race Report

There's a sandwich shop near my office.  It's about a block away.  It's pretty good.

But in the two weeks or so that led to this 50K (actual distance covered is 31.6 miles) race, just walking there and back left my knee rather unhappy.

I'm aware that the knee pain didn't just get brought on by a desire for a chicken parm sub.  If anything, it was brought on by the reappearance of the glowing ball in the sky.  Bringer of Vitamin D:

What I mean is that as the sun began to increase in March and April, my mileage started to increase from it's rather low numbers in the winter...

I miss ETM, btw.
...ok, not THAT bad.  But close enough. I'd started training with a personal trainer at Atlas Fitness in DC, and, at one point, had gotten my deadlift over 300lbs. Plus I was back to benching my weight!

But, I think it might have been hard on my historically-troublesome knees.  The Atlas team shifted me to lower weight and higher reps for my lower body.  By that point, it didn't matter.  I was hurt, and thus playing a lot of catch-up when it came to running. In the middle of all this increased weight training, as warmth came back, I went a little over the top about getting back mileage.

Which brought me back to the sandwich shop.  I knew, as the race got closer and closer, especially as I lost training days to take off and rest my legs/knee, that this 50K would likely be yet another DNS/DNF.  I just couldn't accept that.  For 11 days prior to the race, I wasn't running.

[Peter Griffin Knee Gif, again.  You get the idea.]

But slowly, surely, as the days grew closer (well, by the Thursday, before the Saturday race), it felt better and better.  It wasn't throbbing from a walk to the sandwich shop and back.  I could trot across the street to make a light.  I figured, "Meh, at least tomorrow I'll go to The North Face Georgetown store and do packet pickup.  I just won't tell anyone I'm running an ultra if I go do it."

I realllllllly wanted a 50K distance, dead cats and DNSs be damned
I actually HAD been aquarunning, just to keep up some fitness, and the pain WAS lessening.  So ....  I went.  And I even laid out clothes/gear for Saturday morning.  I promised myself that I'd wake up, swing my legs over, and if anything hurt, I'd go back to bed.  If I felt ok, I'd go for it.  If I finished, I'd tell people.  If I DNF'd I'd tell people that they were right, I was an idiot, and someone should take away my running shoes forever.

Saturday morning, O'Dark WTF, the alarm went off.

Nothing hurt.

It's not 50 miles.  It's 50km.  What would be the worst that could happen?

I mixed up a bunch of tailwind, grabbed one other bag of it, and headed out to the wilds of Northern Virginia.  I left early enough that I got to the shuttle location pretty early, so I had time to study the course guide.  (Yes, a shuttle -- you park in an industrial/office park, and they take you over into the state park, which nicely cuts down on traffic).

There were a series of races over the weekend.  Today, Saturday, there would be a Marathon, a 50K, and a 50 Miler.  Tomorrow there would be a Half, a 10K, and a 5K.  The courses overlapped in a lot of place, so they'd mark them.

No problem.

Except when I got to this part:

This race is . . . color coded?  Excuse me, going to go have a heart attack now.

This goddamn race is COLOR CODED?!  Have I mentioned how profoundly color blind I am?  Because I am.  Badly.  Every time I go to the eye doctor, I read one of those charts with the colored dots, and miss almost EVERY one of them. 

Not just red/green, but also blue/purple, and yellow/orange.  Maybe it's the underlying red that is the problem.  Anyway.  But not to worry, they had colored "confidence ribbons" spread out along the way.


The blues on the far right are seriously all the same, and don't get me started on those reds on the left.

I figured that, in all likelihood, I wouldn't be alone THAT often in the woods, and fortunately enough, it turned out that the blue ribbons marked the 50K path.  Anyway, I arrived early, and started guzzling free coffee.  I felt like a huge fraud being there, but tried to remind myself that I had some base fitness to get through this thing.  The sunrise was nice, at least. The 50-miler racers had started two hours earlier.

Remember, we get up this early for FUN.

That's the starting chute (and the finishing one!)

Learning from the multitude of mistake I'd made at JFK, I had printed out and folded up a portion of the race guide.  Specifically, I'd brought the part with the checkpoints and cutoff times:
Not to worry, this won't be a stressful, "I just made it" race report!
This is a really GOOD aspect of a "corporate" trail race like The North Face puts on.  They've got money for transport to/from the race, LOTS of sponsors, and they can be super specific about runners and times.  I checked this chart a LOT, at least through Aid Station #5, and the 20 mile mark.

Keeping in mind the cutoffs is again a good thing, when you realize what this course involves.  Here's a full-size pic of the North Face 50K elevation chart for the DC course.  Forget the "big" mounds.  Note the t-i-n-y little spikes in between.  EACH of those is not just a "hill," but a WTFHILL.  This is a hilly as hell course (does hell have hills?  I suppose to a runner it would).

North Face Endurance Challenge 50K elevation chart
Anyway, I was in wave 3 of 4 waves (not even sure how that happened), and before long, HONK, the horn sounded, and off we went.


Miles 0 - 13.1 ("Learn from your mistakes, and Always Be Churning.")

Let's start by noting one point about the course.  It rained a LOT in April.  

If this raindrop is colorblind, it's fucked.

The grounds were mud bogs, at least to start.  As we made out way across a grassy field headed to the park proper, someone "blorped" their foot into a puddle and pulled out her foot . . . without a shoe.

She was chill about it.

Like, literally, "oh wow, I probably will need that later"
 Meanwhile I was all:

Me, seeing that.
But we pressed on, and I became aware of two dudebros chatting.  They were in matching shirts from some team, and . . . . Look, I'm as red-blooded an American male as anyone.  I get the liking the female form.  But these guys were talking some SERIOUS stuff that would have made the writers of Girls, Sex and the City, and hell, even the old Penthouse forum sections say, "Hey guys, we get it, you've had sex before!"  I mention them only because it was so unusual for conversations you hear during races.  It's almost the equivalent of people in their cars, digging in their noses like a prospector.


Ugh.  Anyway.  They were alternatively behind me, they'd pass here and there if I stopped to take pictures of the scenery, and then I'd pass them again.  The scenery was worth stopping for:

There were amazing views for nearly all portions of the race.  My phone photo skills weren't THAT impressive, but I tried.   Still, I was working hard to reach the first aid station (5.6 miles in), very aware of cutoffs.  I hit it at 8:01am, so just ahead on TNF's "middle runner" chart.  Woot!

I pressed on.

8:01am.  5.6 miles in, 25 miles to go.  7 hours to do it.


Which is kinda what got me into trouble in the first place.
I remembered mistake after mistake from JFK.  I stepped on each log I crossed, instead of hopping over them.  I hydrated, guzzling my Tailwind, early on.  

I pressed on.  I was not going to be surprised again.

Passed the dudebros.

Also, I smiled for the cameras.  I mean, c'mon.  Cameras!

Is that guy taking my . . . yup.  Ok then.  Hope I was smiling!

I blew through the second aid station at mile 8.  Still happy.  Still pressing.  No pain.

The spiky hills were a little crazy though.  You'd go RIGHT THE HELL UP, peak, and then do whatever you could not to fall down.  I developed a system, one I'm sure isn't THAT unique, although I didn't see a lot of runners doing it.

I walked trudged uphill, and then basically just kept my legs under me as I would ZOOM down the thing.  I found that I could often slow my downhill speed by just running INTO the next uphill.  Gravity would take over, and my out of control downhill run would turn into a slower and slower walk.

After all this nonsense, miles of it, I was REALLY grateful for the station at mile 13.1.

Time check:   

Not even 10:00am.  13.1 miles in, 18 miles to go.  6+ hours to do it.

Well, damn.  This is working.  I can't believe it myself.

This stop was in Great Falls, which was a total party zone.  LOTS of supporters, friends, families.  I screamed, whooped, and enjoyed a few cheers back.  I used the last of my Tailwind (uh oh), and refilled with the remaining baggie of it.  Dudebros passed me, (this is true) high-fiving because one asked a spectator for her phone number as he ran.

Whatever.  I was in a great mood heading into the loops.

Red Shoes of Doom slowly turning Brown.


Miles 13.1 - 20.x ("My knee just has to hold on, and here I am running in circles.")

This is an odd section of the course.  You get through Great Falls at 13 and then (if you're a 50-miler runner) you go off and run back and forth and back and forth and you get the idea, basically enough to gather up another 20 miles.  Um.  Ew.

But fortunately, as "just" a 50K runner, that wasn't me.  I just had to go run one loop, followed by a LITTLE bit of back and forth, enough to get me back to Great Falls having done 19 miles totalNot a lot, but enough.  Not ideal, but better than those poor saps doing 50.

I felt good enough that I texted a few of my running friends during the race, and was all, "So, I'm, um, actually out here doing that 50K after all," and got the usual replies of insanity, but I was more and more confident.

But first lemme take a selfie.

This part was . . . a little tedious.  I went from the energy of Great Falls to just this line of ants trudging.  Getting lost wasn't an issue, although I still had a habit with the "confidence ribbons."

I'd grab them.  Well, I'd touch them as I passed.  I wanted to TOUCH the blue ones, and I only found myself asking a fellow runner a few times . . . "Um, is this blue?"

They almost always answered.
But I was making my way through an aid station when . . . there he was!  An ultra running celebrity local to DC, Fuller, of FullerRunsFar on Twitter and IG!  I recognized him, he recognized me, and we ran to each other.

When, um . . .

. . . I accidentally picked him up hugging him, and palmed his ass.

LOOK, he's a VERY fast runner and weighs less than most of my MEALS.  IT WAS AN ACCIDENT.

I know I palmed his ass because when I put him down, Jesse said, "Dude, you grabbed my ass." 

Anyway, great meeting you!
Anyway, go follow his Instagram too.  What's the statute of limitations on ass palming? He was a good sport about it, and when I saw him again (on the way back of this curious portion of the course), he readily forgave me and said I probably hadn't actually grabbed his ass anyway.

After passing the Dudebros again, I checked into the various checkpoints, stepped on various mats, did the whole bizarre loop/out-n-back, and before I knew it, I was back at Great Falls, this time through 19 miles.

Nothing hurt.  I'd fallen behind the guidebook middle runner for sure by this point, having chatted with Jesse a bit, and slowed my pace to guard my knee, but I was in a GOOD mood.  I had tons of time to get to the finish.

Time to head back to Great Falls, and then it was all familiar ground as I worked the last 11 miles.

One funny part as I hit Great Falls.  Marathon runners, 50K runners, and 50-Milers all pass through this park, but it's also open to the public.  So we're running through tourists and TONS of little kids.

In my own mind, as they wander out in front of my path (over and over again as I make my way through the park), I'm being patient about it.  I'm sure it was more like this:

I was through roughly 20 miles and still not FAR behind the "middle runner" pacer from the chart.  This was a good thing.  I was starting to finally notice a . . . twinge . . . in my knee.  Not much.  But it was there.  I needed to be smart.  But I only had to go about 12 miles, and had many hours to do it.

May the Spock be with your Dumbledore.

Miles 20.x - 31.5 ("THIS IS HAPPENING!.")
Still concerned about my knee, I took my time earlier at the Old Dominion Aid Station (stop #5), and smiled as a volunteer (1) refilled my Nathan backpack while at the same time (2) explaining to me that Camelbak was better.  Don't ask why.  I was fried, and not really able to keep up.  There was the other small matter ....

... I was out of Tailwind, and it kept getting hotter.

I like heat running.  I do.  But I, you know, like to have actual SUPPLIES when I run.  Meh.  I had snax too.  The aid stations had Coke.  All good.   I was slowing down, but I wasn't worried.

Just out of Great Falls, I ran into another Tweep, this time Scott Mason, who was running the marathon (I think it was his first).  Scott is basically the anti-Tai:

Scott & Tai file photo
 Here's a helpful chart:

Scott and Tai, a comparison chart
Well over six feet tall

Short Italian who at best could only work as Mario's stunt double in a Donkey Kong movie

Manly Facial Hair

Any attempt to grow a beard looks like:

Steady, easy running stride
Looks like Shaggy running in place after he’s seen a ghost, monster, or the DEA (c’mon, you know he was baked like ALL the time)
Wears sunglasses while running
Put on sunglasses
Can’t see
Puts them on his forehead
Squint and feel stupid
Put on sunglasses
(repeat until falls off a mountain)

Bearing all this in mind, I recognized Scott before he spotted me, although I'm sure my signature Washington Nationals shirt was a hint.  We chatted a bit while runners passed on either side, I discussed the knee just starting to act up, but that I wasn't worried.  I mentioned the ultrarunner motto, "Start slow, and then ease off" (like I had or have any business saying what ultrarunners do or think).  It was funny.  Just as I said that, three women runners trotted by and kind of knowingly whooped over the phrase.  Clearly, there is something to this strategyI love me some negative splits, but I wonder if the average ultrarunner focuses on them?

I said goodbye to Scott, but we agreed to try to rally for post-race beers at the finish festival.  They also have ice baths, which sounded GREAT right about then.  I pressed on, still trying to ease up the pace on my knee.  More walk breaks now.  Sucked on my hydration pack like crazy.  Way hotter.  SO undertrained.

Boom!  Miles 19-25 went pretty slowly, but I knew I was just laden with extra time cushion, and felt little pressure.  The frontloading of the race (doing my ABC thing without really "racing") had helped.

Then there I was.  Aid station 7.  There would be one more little station after that, and then the finish. But, THIS station -- this one -- was at mile 26.5 (see "50K 2nd pass" in the photo).  I was an ultramarathoner.  Again.  JFK wasn't a fluke.  I could do this.  Of course, there's a slight difference between 26.5 miles, and the finish line at 31.6 miles. 

So.  Close.  Still work to be done (but not much)

This was great.  I'd started to get a second wind back, and we only had a short burst of spiky hills left to cover before we'd make our way to the finish line.  I was taking longer now, but definitely saw myself coming in under 8 hours.  A horrible time, but actually not THAT horrible because of the course.  Plus, I was ahead of the Dudebros.  This over-40 dork was not letting them ahead anymore.

Aid station 8 now.  Just a little thing at Mile 30.  About 1.5 miles to the finish. Still time to get under 8 hours, too.

I pressed.  I passed.  I "splurted" into more mud.

And I finished (also finished like 45 min ahead of the Dudebros).

Nothing cathartic here.  Just happy.

Back to the sandwich shop.  I thought of it as I rounded the turn to hit the chute, I really did.  Less than a WEEK prior to this race, I couldn't really walk a block without pain in my knee.  I rested.  I aqua-ran.  I said, "Eff it," and did an ultra.  Still haven't grown a beard.

But, I did suffer one casualty.  One personal loss.  The Red Shoes of Doom had run their last race.

They were done, and I was out of replacement.  Time for a new fitting (and a new nickname for mah shoes!).  

I noticed that Dean Karnazes was signing posters and posing for pictures, and that there was no line (because he was about to leave).  I was literally the last person they took.  First, before you get to him, you write your name down so he'll know how to spell it for the poster.  I chose my real name as opposed to this online thing, because I didn't want to have to explain to him WTF a "Tai Fung" even is.  We had an . . . interesting conversation anyway.

Dean:  "Hi!"

Me:  (smiling) "Hi, I'd just like to apologize in advance for whatever hit your reputation will take for posing in a picture with me."

Dean:  "What?"

Me:  "Ha ha!" (immediately after which I helpfully added a chortle).

Dean:  (stares at me like a person corned by a timeshare salesman, begins looking at a North Face assistant who has my phone)

Me:  "I just mean I --really-- suck at running. (Dean is now looking alarmed) So, can we get a picture?"

Dean:  (appears gratified I'm not going to whip a knife/dildo out of my hydration pack, turns to assistant).

Who took this: 

We're like a before and after photo, assuming the product is beer and potato chips.

I mean, there is a LOT going on in this picture.  Was I supposed to flex too?  He has a midriff showing.  I'm pretty sure I wasn't supposed to do THAT.  Unless that's a thing.  Whose shorts are shortier?  He's wearing a 50-miler medal and looks like he's about to go have a weighlifting session (where the weights are made up of battleships).  What's going on with my left hand?  Maybe I just naturally grab asses when meeting ultrarunners?  This might be alarming news to Scott later.  I should upload the full size version of this photo somewhere, so people can study it like the DaVinci code.

Dean scurried off (he probably went running), and I rallied up with Scott.  Scott was hilarious.  We had beers, a fun chat, and then made our way to the shuttle bus.  A guy stopped us as we walked, and said, "Sir, excuse me, was there a race today?  How far?"  I told him, and he looked at both Scott and myself, and then said, "Did you jog that?"

Why, thank you very FUCK YOU
I patted his shoulder, and said, "We're runners."  Because we are.
It was a good day.  But now I gotta focus on what the real purpose of this race was: 



  1. Awesome race report. The ass-grabbing really won me over :-). Memories, AmIRight???

    1. It's pretty clear THAT is something I'll never forget! ;)