Sunday, April 10, 2016

2016 North Face 50K Race Report

The North Face 50K ("TNF") was supposed to be a redemption race for me. I'd worked SO. FREAKING. HARD. to get through the winter without eating EVERYthing. (ok, fine, I DID eat everything, but I was ok about keeping up with training while I stuffed my face). I'd even taken a much-needed rest in December after my disaster struggles with the Rosaryville Veterans Day 50K, but I was being kind of good in getting myself ready for this coming race.

I just thought I'd done everything RIGHT (for once?) this time:

1.  Six days earlier, I'd taken it easy at the Cherry Blossom 10-Miler (my last time doing that race, at least as a "local"). It was, as I said during the race, a nice warmup for 31+ miles in a mere 6 days.  Plus, you know, gale force winds and cold, so "take it easy," was more like, "HAHAHAHA WTF AM I GETTING OUT OF BED FOR?"

2.  I wasn't hurt. 

3.  I knew THIS ultra course pretty well and liked it. The hills didn't scare me, nor did the "teardrop" portion where you stack miles in between the out-and-back section.  I didn't think this would be the time or place to finally break a 6 hour 50K, but I knew I'd do way better here than last year, when I ran it (as a surprise) on one reliable knee, and eventually wilted, an under-supplied mess, in the heat.

Mind you, I still WANTED it to be hot. Heat could easily be dealt with by just bringing more Tailwind. Last year was only my second ultra, so while I'd over-supplied for JFK, I erroneously under-supplied TNF 2015 and paid for it. 

I was ready this time. The singletrack and steep/sharp hills were going to feel what a fully-ready Tai could do to them. Payback is hell.

MUWAHAHAHAHA (also, can I dig in your trash can?)

I was almost cocky, which should have been my first warning sign that I was doomed.

I watched the weather.  There was discussion of (wtf?) SNOW. After surviving the pretty epic cold spate of Cherry Blossom, I was absolutely DONE with cold like this for a race. And yet, more rain. It. Kept. Raining.  It rained during the week.  It rained the day before the race.  It rained race morning.

Rain has a rather curious (and well-known) effect on the ground, and your ability to achieve traction, particularly in those rare (read: not rare at all) cases where the ground is made of dirt:


At this point, I'm just going to skip describing what a mud bog it was and recommend two blogs to you. If you do nothing else, at least go THERE and look at their pictures.  This was fucking nuts.  I'm halfway mad they didn't cancel the race, but maybe that's because I knew how fucked I was even before I started.

Photo courtesy of The Turkey Runner herself!

If, despite having the option to read two better written reports than mine, and see FAR more detailed pictures, you're still here, then thanks (and sorry?).  Each woman does the conditions far more justice than I could, and they each have WAY better attitudes about the race than I do.  I didn't realize it, but this race would mark the start of a really down running period for me. 

Back to the race. Mistakes abounded from almost the minute I left Capitol Hill DC to drive out to Sterling, VA. First, I put the wrong destination in my GPS, and didn't realize it. I put in the race START, instead of the shuttle bus location, which was farther away. By the time I noticed my mistake, I pulled over along highway 7, more than 30 minutes into my drive, to reset the destination. The rain had seemed to abate, but I knew everything about this was bad. I even had trouble Googling the address of the shuttle buses, because my hands were shaking.  I wasn't excited.  I was nervous, and a little scared.

I should have just DNS'd this. I knew it from the night before. But I wasn't hurt. I just didn't want to go out and GET hurt. I should have taken the DNS. But Pride was fucking with me. I knew I could do the distance, and deep down, I was hoping the ground wouldn't be as bad as I'd seen on social media (Super Hokie had done numerous practice runs and posted pics of the trail).

This was a race to channel #TeamNotGettingUp

I got to the start and just shivered. I was absolutely shaking. I didn't have trail shoes, and it felt like YakTrax would be ineffective against fresh, wet mud. I'd also worn some old track warmup pants, lotsa layers up top, and an old North Face beanie hat (branding!).

Plus, you know, road shoes. They worked fine for me the year before, because I was only dealing with singletrack, dirt paths, and even some regular gravel/rocky roads. Not a big deal, really. However, from the moment I arrived in the starting village/camp, I just had the biggest sense of foreboding. So I did what seemed natural:

I hid in a portajohn.


No, seriously.  I did.  I just kind of . . . went inside one, stood, and shuddered (there was no line, I've never seen one for a TNF race, I'll give them that).  At first, I took off my track pants and outer sweatshirt, and kinda prepped for the race.  Then I decided I was too cold, and that I needed to re-change back.

When they announced the Wave 1 start (I was in Wave 3), I was STILL in the can, trying to figure out how long I could stay in there.

Who, me?  I'm just scenery.

Then, I made the mistake of actually looking down INTO the portajohn.


Anyway, HONK went the airhorn!  Off we went, and things almost immediately went badly, in the sense that they went very, very well.  


The very early miles were mostly comprised of wet grass, some paved paths, and almost gravel-ly type trail.  It was sloppy and wet, but it wasn't terrible.  I still had my little cutoff sheet with me (lots of lessons learned), and I was cruising.  This had a long term bad effect on me, i.e., it meant I would NOT say, "Fuck these conditions," and walk back to the start.


It was interesting.  I was glad I'd left my track pants on, because there were brambles and prickly shrubs/whatevers that just pulled/hooked onto my pants.  I was grateful I didn't have on shorts, but the terrain wasn't the worst.  It wasn't easy, but it was still kinda doable.  That covered all of like 3-5 miles, tops.

But, as we started to get into deeper woods, though, the mud started to get way thicker. The ground had NOT dried out at all.  Now, the hills I had looked forward to, and hoped to use to my advantage, were instead proving to be a MAJOR fucking problem.  I literally went down one WITHOUT moving my legs.  I just kind of held them in position, and (slowly) slid down.  

The mud was astonishing.  The grass was slick, the trail was wet with mud, and I just kind of did a "controlled falling" as I ran/trotted along the trail.  Unfortunately, I ran pretty amateurish.

Well, this is pretty muddy, but maybe if I stic-SPLOOSH SPLAT FAIL

Ok, not THAT bad.  But I was forced to kind of run in a zig zag fashion, as I was perpetually falling, from one side to the other, as I tracked along the twisty singletrack. 

I swear, if I'd thought of this at the time, I might have screamed this out while running.

At this point, it became rather clear that I should have brought (and worn) trail shoes:

This GIF, but "trail shoes" instead of "Prenup."

By now, it's obvious I've made a HUGE mistake doing this race.  And then, just as I was settling in for a LOT of unhappiness, along came none other than . . . DEAN KARNAZES!  Who, fortunately, didn't remember me from our interesting meeting at this race last year.

Maybe he didn't recognize me.


No, there was no assgrabbing at this year's race (neither self grabbing or squeezy-squeezy).  Instead, I had a much more interesting way of greeting Dean this year.

I fell on him.


Not kidding.  He was trying to pass me, and we exchanged greetings.

It went something like this:

Me (in front, look back to see):  "Hey! (slips) Dean Karnazes! (whoa, slip) Looking (eek) great!"

Dean (eyeing me cautiously, again, just like last year) "Thanks buddy! (effortlessly starts to glide past me) You're looking grHUURRRRK"

Because, right about then, I slipped in mud (again), arms went flailing for a tree trunk or something, and instead ended up reaching for Dean's glorious, tree-trunk like hammies.

I brushed against him as I went down, missed his legs, and kind of ker-splatted down. He slowed to make sure I was ok (just my pride!), and I waved him on watched him fucking FLEE from my presence.  So, basically, it was gonna be one of THOSE races.

So.  Fucked.

Things at this point just started to go from bad to worse.  Seriously.  Things went to hail.

Not "hell."  HAIL.

Is that . . . hail?  What the fuck was I thinking?  I was WARM a few hours ago.  In a fucking BED.

Really.  It began to, not-kidding-what-the-fuck-is-next, HAIL on us.

I smell DNF . . . or maybe still that portajohn

We trudged/slid/progressed, and even at-times ran.  But my pace was going from bad to worse.  At one point, I ran into SuperHokieGirl who I knew from the CUCB VIP dinner.  This was her first marathon, except she was jumping right to the 50K point.  She was moving along far better, having come out to the park for practice portions of the trail. We chatted a bit, and I stopped at an aid station (one I swear I almost went down vertically) to reach.

She went on.  I caught up to her somewhere prior to Great Falls (which is roughly the 13 mile mark), and saw her a couple or few more times as we made our way around the teardrop portion of the course.  She was on-pace to not be swept, something that had been a concern of hers.  Hell, what I could see during the race, she was going to do great.  

Meanwhile, I was faring about as expected:

We passed through Great Falls (where my overall time was now in full deep-shit mode), and headed off to the teardrop portion.  This section was rocky, but was way less muddy (I think we gained elevation here?).

I pressed on, missing Jesse ("Fuller Runs Far"), who was on the receiving end of my first ultra-ass-grab last year, and did my best to push-push-push through the loop and back to Great Falls.

Along the way in the loop, I got the (great!) news that my son's little league game was cancelled due to rain, so I had that edge/pressure taken off (if you're a REALLY longtime follower of mine, you might remember that I used to tweet about him as late as 2012-13, but stopped in mid-2013 until recently).  

Regardless, this made things a lot more relaxed.  I had done the "out" portion of this mud fest.  I'd done the loop.  Now all that was left was the "back" portion, and I had hours to go, upwards of 4 hours from the time I was back at Great Falls.

Fuck it.  Not.  Getting.  Hurt.  I took time to change socks out of the trenchfoot-esque conditions my old ones were in, throwing them away.

I chatted with a rescue squad guy at the aid station which I switched socks, discussing my daughter's plans for possibly being a future EMT, or Physician's Assistant.  This guy, an older fireman/rescue guy, was in the mood to TALK.

And you know what?  I talked back.  It was nice.  We just kinda . . . shot the breeze for a while.  Maybe in a way, I was hoping he'd say, "Hey, you're an ok guy.  Want a ride all the way back to the start so you can punch whomever gave the go-ahead for this race today?  And then we'd have a great laugh and drink beers, while fitting me for a shiny red helmet.

Shutup it could happen.

I finally stood up, and headed back to the land of mud and failure.  I knew the way back was going to fucking SUCK, and I wasn't in any mood to deal with it again.

That crown fit like my North Face beanie.

In less than ONE mile, my shoes (and, therefore, my new socks) were fucking SOAKED.  All that time I'd spent relaxing/chilling were for naught.

This GIF really should be the thumbnail for this entire entry.

The next few miles in the mud, much, and well, the fucking epic shit just generally sucked the donkey balls.  Time was bleeding off way faster than I'd anticipated, as I was reduced to essentially fast walking the whole way.  If I tried to run, I would just spend more time recovering from slips.  It was actually EASIER to walk.  All of a sudden, I wasn't seeing this as an easy stroll so much as a desperate need to press on, and keep pressing.  This wasn't fun.  It wasn't before, but now this was REALLY not fun.

Anyway, I've got X miles to go and . . . wait, how many minutes left?

At one point, I came upon an older, cheery guy.  He was literally WHISTLING while he made his way with/near me to the next aid station.  I was in disbelief.  I came upon him (I was fast walking quicker than he was running), and . . . he offered me ibuprofin.  

I declined.  After all, I was projecting calm, and not at all like I was going to arrive 5 minutes after the cutoff and be FUCKED OMG THIS WAS ALL FOR NOTHING.

Hey, no drugs for me, old-timer.  Har har! Age, amirite?!

I made it deeper into the woods, falling frequently, grabbing the poor limbs of trees (not Dean Karnazes' legs this time) to break my fall, and generally just trying to keep myself Moving Forward.  A woman behind me saw me fall, and . . . she offered me ibuprofin.

A woman blew past me.  As cheerfully as I could, I said, "Wow, I wish I was moving as great as you this late in the race!"  She said, "Oh, I was hurting pretty badly back there, but this guy gave me some ibuprofin."


After the 26/28ish mile marker (whatever that aid station is), I was now convinced of my deep-shittedness re the OVERALL cutoff, and was focused on getting the hell forward as much as I could.  I ditched my track pants finally, figuring that they were slowing me down from being caked with mud and being soaked.  I pressed on in shorts.

But I'd forgotten, back when I threw away my track pants, about the brambles and prickly bushes at this point in the race.  Which I now I had to run/traverse back through.


I don't remember much about passing through the branches, other than just pressing on impatiently, and occasionally getting tagged as runners ahead/behind me pulled and released them to "sproing-oing-oing" backwards and forwards into my legs.  Ouch.

By the time I started to come out of the mud and brambles, I figured we had just about 2 miles left.  I had become part of another small "pod" of runners, except we were all walking.  Everybody was Spent.  We'd used up so much from navigating through the muck.  Here and there, we'd run, but it was almost perfunctory.

One guy was a medical student from mid-Virginia.  He said he ordinarily would have just bailed on the whole race with the weather, but he'd told too many people he was coming here to race and couldn't back out.  I also ran with Jackie, from IG's "The Ultra Life."  We talked race plans, scaling back, and even a little bit of burnout.

Finally, we hit what was about the 1.5 mile mark, and we all generally agreed we would make the cutoff for the finish.  It was time to trot, and at least finish at more than a crawl.

I finished, and ran into my friend Kim, of Kim Runs Miles with Smiles.  She was there to cheer on friends of hers who'd (long ahead of me) finished.  Suffice to say, I was embarrassed, both over my finishing time, and appearance.

She was the first person to notice.

Notice what?

My legs.

They were streaked with blood.  Scratches.  Prickly brambles were STILL STUCK IN THEM.  
I handled the news cheerfully.

So fucking gross.  So now I was embarrassed and hurt, stung by who dafuq knew WHAT, and I was miles from my car.  I chatted with Kim, and fortunately got a little therapy when Super Hokie Girl and Turkey Runner arrived and joined in.  Everyone else seemed really happy over their finish, and it was a nice reminder to see how pleased they were with the milestone.  They were happy.  They were laughing over how ridiculous the course conditions were. They had perspective.  I wish I'd talked with them longer, but I was still conflicted over how to feel after the race, and excused myself to the beer tent.

I'll get better.  I will.

While I drank, I started to remember that what I'd done was survive ridiculous obstacles over 31.5 miles (TNF is just OVER a 50K), and that I was in one piece.  Maybe it wasn't THAT bad that I'd done the race.  It really HAD been a tremendous challenge, and I'd beaten it.

I was suddenly SUPER aware of the cold.  As I sat, I cleaned up some of the blood (with, of all things, beer), and picked foliage/prickiles out of my legs.

I wasn't kidding!

The shuttle bus wait/trip back to the parking lot was ridiculously long, and I was seriously FUCKED up.  I was shaking badly, crushed mentally, and wasn't confident I would be super good for a drive back to DC.  So I turned on the car, ran the heater, talked on the phone for a bit, and eventually started to feel human again.

I know I should be proud to survive and finish that fucking course.  But I had focused so hard in the winter on being healthy, not hurt, and assaulting that race.  Instead, I held on for dear life (and to Dean Karnazes' legs).

No wallowing! 

I didn't realize it, but I definitely strained something during the race.  My left piriformis/hip (and glute) were still screwed up from either falls or just repeatedly doing splits and near-falls for 8+ hours.  In the coming weeks after this race, I would soon find out that I wouldn't just bounce back from a bad race like I had in the past.

Race by the numbers:

Overall:  Shit
Division:  Portajohn.

I think I just need time. I need time and distance away from this race. Maybe down the road I'll start to think, "You went out into utterly atrocious conditions, ill-equipped, and finished what you started. It's all about time.

Distance runners specialize in that.


  1. Ugh, I'm sorry your day seemed doomed right from the beginning! That certainly doesn't make 31 miles of slick as you-know-what mud any more manageable. Honestly, I have since blocked a lot of it out. I do remember sliding down hills as well, hoping that I wouldn't fall and nor would the people behind me. All of the poor trees along that course really took a beating. Trail shoes may have helped your situation a bit, but it was going to be miserable no matter what.

    I think you hit the nail on the head if we had to make a tagline for the day: The land of mud and failure. I couldn't believe how exhausting the race was. I mean yes, it's 31 miles. But 31 miles in slick mud made the race something beyond simple exhaustion (I don't feel like using the thesaurus...). We must have crossed paths at some point on the race course. I started with SHG and after we parted ways, I saw her during the GF loop when I was on my way out for the out and back and she was on her way back in.

    I'm really glad we got to meet at the finish line. I feel bad that I had no idea how rough of a day you'd had - you hid it well. Beer is always a good choice, on a good or bad day. That's the beauty of beer.

    P.S. Thanks for the compliment on my race report :) I always find them difficult to write, because it's hard to capture a race experience in words. Hence the pictures!

    1. Hi Meagan! Thanks so much for your comment. I've really let that day fade into the past. It took time to finally click "publish," because I just hadn't fully processed my feelings over it. But you guys really were such a great perspective for me post-race. It did me a ton of good! And seriously, your race report was super, too! You're a really genuine writer, like in terms of voice and direction with your stuff, so in some ways I wasn't motivated -- you and SHG had already outdone me, haha!