The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile, a part of the North Face Endurance Challenge series, took place in Georgia for the first time at the F.D. Roosevelt State Park in Pine Mountain. This 50-mile trail course features many of the same park trails that I ran for my first ultramarathon, the Pine Mountain 40 Mile Trail Run, in December of last year. The Pine Mountain Trail system is one of the most beautiful areas in the state for trail running, but it also features some insidiously difficult terrain. A “technical trail” is any trail where a runner has to watch his or her footing amidst tree roots, rocks, and other obstacles. Technical is the name of the game on the trails at Pine Mountain, where a pleasant rolling-hill elevation profile belies a trail surface covered with rocks that bruise feet through the most durable trail shoes and cause even the most alert trail runners to stumble.
The possibility that I had signed up for an ultramarathon that was out of my league dawned on me in full when I went to the hotel lobby on the day before the race to return a defective room key and saw Geoff Roes, the accomplished ultrarunner who set a course record at Western States 100 this year, standing in line in front of me. I introduced myself to Geoff and, when asked about the trails, told him that all the hills at Pine Mountain were runnable, but covered with rocks. As I returned to my hotel room, I laughed when the thought occurred to me that every hill in the world is probably a “runnable hill” to Geoff Roes. Several other amazing ultrarunners would be lining up at the start for this inaugural Georgia race of the North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile. Nikki Kimball, a female winner of Western States in multiple years, would also be racing these trails. I was looking forward to seeing many of my friends from GUTS (Georgia Ultrarunning and Trailrunning Society), a few of whom would be competing in a 50-mile race for the first time.
I have always been a slower “back of the pack” trail runner, but I was facing The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile with additional disadvantages that I had brought on myself by running the challenging StumpJump 50K on October 2 and then running a 5,600-foot elevation trail marathon, Mystery Mountain Marathon, on October 10. Months ago, I had made the decision to test my capabilities as a beginning ultrarunner by signing up for these three races on consecutive weekends. The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile would not be my first attempt at a 50-mile distance, because I had completed the Long Cane 55 Mile in South Carolina just over a month before on September 5, but this would be my first experience competing in such a race with strict cutoff points and a time limit that had allured me by its very nature of seeming unattainable to someone with my track record. As reality set in over the previous weeks about my chances at this race, I informed anybody who cared to listen that I had no expectations about The North Face Endurance 50 Mile and that I simply wanted to treat this race as a long training run with plentiful aid stations and support. On the day of the race, I would be going into The North Face Challenge 50 Mile with a slight overuse injury in my right knee that had bothered me since completing the Mystery Mountain Marathon six days before and with a lower body that was still recovering from residual fatigue.
Residual fatigue and knee pain aside, I was excited to line up at the start of The North Face Endurance Challenge 50. October is my favorite month of the year and my resolution simply to have fun on the trails during leaf change season was working for me. I had enjoyed some improved race performances over the past two weekends, thanks to a weight loss commitment that I had taken on in late June. When I weighed in on the gym scales the day before this 50-mile race, I was surprised that I had lost two additional pounds since Mystery Mountain Marathon, bringing my post-June weight loss total to 57 pounds. I had not intended to lose weight during the five days of recovery after Mystery Mountain Marathon and had, in fact, been eating more nutritionally dense foods to help my legs bounce back. Just the same, I knew that two additional pounds lost would translate to racing this 50-miler with eight pounds of pressure eased off my knees. On the day before this race, as I checked into my hotel and went down the street to Callaway Gardens to attend the pre-race panel discussion, I felt the occasional dull ache on the outer side of my right knee as I walked, but I was otherwise energetic and well-rested after the previous five days of icing and recovery.
I encountered several friends and acquaintances at the Callaway Gardens host hotel when I arrived to hear the pre-race panel discussion. When I first walked into the convention room, I was greeted by one of the most inspiring people whom I have had the privilege of meeting over the past few years in my running life. Kelly Luckett, an amputee runner who has completed multiple Boston Marathon races and ultra distances, always has a smile and words of encouragement for her fellow runners, so I was glad to see her listed as one of the panel speakers. I first met Kelly at a GUTS Christmas party last year and had enjoyed running with her at Sean's Hellathon, an unofficial 50K race that some GUTS friends and I had enjoyed this past spring.
After giving my best good luck wishes to friends when the panel presentation ended, I ventured back into the convention room where several people were having their pictures taken with another one of the panel speakers, Dean Karnazes. Dean Karnazes, author of Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All Night Runner, is an inspiration to me because his noteworthy running accomplishments and for his determination to make ultrarunning accessible to the public. Dean's quote from Ultramarathon Man, where his father told him, “If you can't run, then walk. And if you can't walk, then crawl. Do what you have to do. Just keep moving forward and never, ever give up.”, is a mantra that has resounded in my mind during every one of my own ultramarathon experiences. That concept of relentless forward motion is forceful in its simplicity, but also in its application to all aspects of life. I did not want to take up time while people were standing around wanting as well to meet him, but I briefly shook hands with Dean Karnazes and thanked him for his inspiration, because ultrarunning was something that I had never imagined myself doing when I weighed almost 400 pounds a few years ago. Dean, who was genuinely modest and encouraging in person, congratulated me and wished me luck.
|Photo courtesy of James Rockwell|
One new running accessory for this race was a Mueller knee strap that I would be wearing on my right knee to correct the tracking with my kneecap. My current “runner's knee” sensation that bothered me with my right knee was an affliction that I have suffered from occasionally over the years and I have always bounced back quickly from the problem after fastening one of these knee straps just below my kneecap during a run. More often than not, my knee feels better after a long run than it did in the days before the long run if I wear the knee strap to alleviate the pain. Because I do not want to rely on such an accessory, I have only used the Mueller knee strap a handful of times during the past couple of years as I have been racing long distances, but my current condition required such a precaution.
I woke up at 2:00 in the morning to get dressed and ready to drive to the parking location, where shuttle buses would take us to the start location for the race. Since my feet had remained blister-free after StumpJump 50K and Mystery Mountain Marathon, I utilized the same protocol that had served me well during those races. I applied baby powder to my feet, then put on double pairs of Balega running socks. I would be taking a drop bag to this race with a backup pair of running shoes, additional Crank e-Gels, extra socks, and a couple of bottles of Powerade. I drove a mile down the street, parked in the Callaway beach parking area, and climbed on the first shuttle bus with a handful of other runners, all of whom were in good spirits in this early morning hour just as I was. I met with Scott, a friend with whom I had run at Pine Mountain 40, before start of the race. Scott had made pace cards for both of us with consideration for the minimum pace that we would need to run to complete The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile by the 14-hour time limit.
Scott and I started near the back of the pack after the faster participants ran across the field to the trees where the single-track trail started. Since the first two and half hours of this race would be run in total darkness, I wore a Petzl Tikka XP headlamp that I angled down to view the trail directly in front of me, while carrying a smaller handheld flashlight to provide a different light perspective and to shine on distant objects. The volunteers had worked throughout the night to place glow sticks within sight of one another on the trail for the first 16 miles, but the use of a headlamp and a flashlight was still necessary to negotiate the rocky terrain and the tree roots during these early morning hours. The challenge of the terrain became apparent just seconds after entering the trees and starting the single-track. These Pine Mountain trails are tricky enough in the daylight hours and much more so in total darkness.
Another challenge became apparent shortly into the race. My right knee began to hurt almost immediately with a dull ache as I alternately ran and power-walked the uneven trail surface. I had expected the inevitable knee trouble, but the onset of pain before five minutes had elapsed into this 50-mile race spread over me like a pall and instantly smothered my enthusiasm. It is all too easy to let the disappointment of just one setback multiply exponentially during a long distance race, so I would have to struggle to remain positive. I needed to rub dirt on this issue and keep on trucking, so I focused more on a less knee-intensive forefoot landing with each step as I ran along the dark trail. As Scott and I joked with a couple of female runners that we passed back and forth for several miles, my spirits lifted and my pace increased.
Scott was wearing his Garmin for the race and he periodically notified me of our approximate running pace during the slower moments when we power-walked the uphills. We had started close to a 3.0 mile-per-hour pace that we knew was insufficient, but this had accounted for a short period when we were standing by the trees at the start waiting for faster runners to line up on the trail. As we ran on, the pace increased to 3.3, to 3.4, and eventually to greater than 3.5 miles-per-hour as I made my best effort to run in the darkness when the terrain allowed. Scott complimented me at one point about how my power-walking pace was faster than the running pace of some people, so I walked quickly to pass people on the uphill stretches, although these same runners would later pass me on the downhills. As we finished mile after mile to that first aid station, though, the pressure intensified. We needed to be going faster than 3.5 miles-per-hour to meet the cutoff times. I reassured Scott that we would be able to cover ground faster in daylight, but I still found it possible to speed up on a few comfortable trail stretches even in the darkness. I checked my stopwatch periodically, because, as with my previous trail races this month, I had resolved to eat one Crank e-Gel every half hour and to take a S-Cap once an hour. The challenge of running in the darkness increased as I carefully navigated a muddy creek marsh area without sinking into the water.
On a rock-covered trail course that makes running hazardous, it is somewhat ironic that I experienced my only fall of the day on pavement at the first road crossing when I looked up to see a police officer directing us across the road and missed a step-up to the pavement. I quickly stood up and made sure that my scraped hands weren't bleeding, then kept moving. As we returned to the trail at the other side of the road, I joked in a gruff manner to Scott that I did not like running on pavement because there were too many things to trip over. A few trail runners in front of us laughed at my observation, but we all resumed paying attention to the dangers on the trail as our flashlights and headlamps pointed out an increasingly rocky area. After an eternity of trail running in the darkness, we reached the first aid station. I topped off my Camelbak with water, ate a potato slice, and grabbed two brownies to eat along the way.
As Scott and I entered the trails again and adjusted our eyes to the sights of rocky ground illuminated by our headlamps, flashlights, and occasional glow-sticks, Scott commented that this reminded him of a scene from E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial where government agents were chasing the E.T. creatures through the woods. Once something gets into your head during a trail run, it is impossible to shake, and I found myself thinking about that movie for the next several minutes. Scott noted that our pace was still increasing, so this knowledge provided a shot in the arm for my enthusiasm. My knee pain was gradually getting worse, but there was something strangely uplifting about knowing that I “only” had 45 miles left to go after crossing the first aid station at five miles. As we began to power-walk up a long hill, we encountered a couple of volunteers who were standing by the more precarious cliff sections to advise runners to watch their step and not fall over the ledges in the darkness.
After being passed by the two female runners after the first aid station, Scott and I were now the last two 50-mile runners on this course. A runner named Troy who had emerged behind us informed Scott and me that he was a course sweeper and that he had been instructed simply to run behind the last 50-mile runner and notify course officials of the progress. Troy carried a loud radio with him that crackled constantly with voices as status updates were communicated along the trail system. I knew that our pace would increase in daylight, but the pressure was on yet again now that we had a sweeper at our heels.
The comfortably cool temperature dipped temporarily as the sun rose and evaporated the mist layer. This brief dip in temperature is always a good sign to me during my early morning runs that daylight is on the way. As we occasionally stole glances away from the trail over the ledge to our right, we were relieved to see the beginnings of sunrise to the horizon. At this point, I was becoming irritable at negotiating the rocks with my flashlight and headlamp. I do not mind trail running in darkness under normal circumstances, but my gradually increasing knee pain was weighing in on me. I told Scott that I was apologizing in advance if I became grumpy later as my knee pain got worse, but I still enjoyed hearing his chatter behind me as we talked with Troy about the course. Daylight was on the way and things could only get better.
Scott and I passed another runner who was standing still with a tired and dazed appearance. We asked if he was okay and, when he replied in the affirmative, we continued on. Troy, the sweeper, fell behind to accompany this runner who was now in last place. The mere fact that we had managed to pass another runner gave me a renewed energy, even if it was for the short-term.
We arrived at the second aid station, Fox Den, at Mile 11.2 without difficulty, although my knee pain had exacerbated to a point that I could not ignore it, and we quickly passed through after replenishing our supplies. I took a couple more brownies in hand, as I had found these bite-size chocolate brownies much to my liking at the first aid station. Troy joined us again after a few minutes, informing us that the last runner had dropped out after struggling with heart palpitations. I wished the best for the first of the fallen, knowing that any of us could be close behind.
Daylight was approaching, but my knee pain was intensifying. I periodically paused on the trail to adjust my knee strap. When we were climbing down a short rocky section, I had felt a couple of shooting pains in my knee and was alarmed, because I knew that this was only the first of many extensive rocky sections along the trail. I was able to run ahead of Scott most of the time, but Scott is an intelligent pace runner and he was able to catch up with me again and again. I enjoyed his company, so I found myself looking back to make sure he was behind me when I stopped to power-walk up the hills. As the sun came up, I appreciated the sight of multiple-leaf-colored trees on the horizon and I was glad to be on the trail this time of the year, even if my body wanted to collapse.
As the challenge of darkness disappeared, another challenge greeted us on the trail. The North Face Endurance Challenge 50K race had started a couple of hours after our 50 Mile race and, since the 50K course had cut off the longest early section of trail, the fast 50K runners were starting to pass us. As my fatigue level increased while I was running along these trails with a more pronounced limp from my ailing knee, the unexpected problem of having to move to my right off the narrow trail to accommodate the 50K runner who were passing by proved to be another difficulty. Fortunately, this difficulty was offset by my happiness at seeing a few 50K runners that I recognized and wishing them well for their run.
As much as I love running on the trail and as much as I love these ultra races, I was still gradually falling victim to negativity as the shooting pains in my knee became more frequent. As Troy swept the trail behind Scott and me, he informed us about our pace when we asked. He had told us that we needed to be running at a 16:46 minute-per-mile pace, so we were alarmed when he told us at one point that our pace had decreased to 16:35. I found a few fun downhill stretches where I ran faster than usual and tried to experiment with finding a cadence that did not bother my knee as much. These bursts in speed were rewarded as Troy would inform us that we had increased to a 16:20 pace, then to a 16:10 pace. Still, I knew that we were approaching some harshly rocky sections later at the Mollyhugger aid station area and at the strenuous Dowdell Knob portion of the trail where the boulders were strewn all over the woods. Scott and I were really going to have to pick up our pace if we wanted to finish this race, but my knee pain was not improving and the trail had been easy so far compared to the terrain that we were about to encounter.
My irritability peaked as I found that I could not stand hearing Troy's sweeper radio crackles right behind me. I enjoyed running with Troy as he trailed Scott and I, but there was just something about that radio noise that made me let myself succumb to pressure. I knew that this was not Troy's intention, but running just ahead of that radio was like having another person behind me during a trail run yelling, “Go faster! Go faster!”. I started to run faster beyond my comfort zone over the rocks and tree roots of this trail to gain as much distance ahead of Troy's radio as I could. Scott was running behind me and the sweeper had to stay behind him, so this meant that, although I was enjoying Scott's conversation, I needed to stay farther ahead of him on the trail. Fortunately, Scott and I both passed another 50 mile runner with a blue shirt and were to talk again as this other runner fell behind with Troy now following him instead of us. I apologized to Scott for leaving him behind back on the trail, but I just had to get away from the sweeper's radio.
I was glad to see Heather, a fellow GUTS runner, speeding along the trail on her 50K race, so I ran faster for several minutes to keep up with her and talk for a while. I congratulated her on her relay race that she had completed the previous weekend and enjoyed listening to her stories about that experience. I was able to gain some distance running with Heather, but I soon wished her well when we got to a hill and I began to power-walk as she ran ahead.
When I slowed to a walk after that extended run, my vision instantly blurred. I thought that I had something in my eye, so I wiped my eyes with the back of my hand. The blurred vision did not improve. I continued to run at the crest of the hill and I found that, while I could see close objects, such as my stopwatch or the rocks directly below me on the trail, with clarity, objects in the distance were somewhat hazy and indistinct, as if I was looking at a low-resolution mobile phone photo. I slowed to a brisk walk while I tried to understand what was happening. After a few minutes, Scott caught up with me, with Troy and the radio following close behind. Scott told me that my blurred vision may have been a result of dehydration, but I assured him that I had been drinking steadily from my Camelbak during the entire trail run.
I remembered reading occasional stories about ultrarunners, blurry vision, and corneal edema, but I had no idea what was causing this problem and I had no idea how to gauge the seriousness of the situation. I am always nervous about potential eye problems, because of my medical history. I had five eye operations before the age of five and I still have a wandering lazy eye in my right eye. Since I primarily use my left eye for reading, driving, and everything else, I am frightened by the idea that the vision in this left good eye might be adversely affected. My blurred vision remained as I ran the flats and downhills of this Pine Mountain Trail and power-walked the inclines. This new vision impairment, combined with the gradually increasing discomfort in my right knee, dimmed my hopes of finishing this race.
I was power-walking for extended stretches during this time and told Scott and Troy that I needed to walk for a while to figure out what was going on with my eyes. The Pine Mountain Trail system is a bad place to have blurred vision problems, because of the vast array of obstacles and because of the potential to become badly hurt with a fall on the boulders. Was I having problems with electrolyte balance? Was fatigue from the previous two weeks of long distance trail racing affecting my vision? Had my eyes been taxed from the two and half hours of running in darkness and using the headlamp and flashlight to navigate? I did not have a clue what was causing my blurred vision. All I knew was that this was not good. As I ran, Scott followed close behind and his jokes provided some much-needed levity to the moment, but the thought of continuing on this rock-covered trail with failing vision was scaring me. Troy told me to let him know if he needed to radio someone to pick me up at the next aid station to drive me to the finish if my vision worsened, but I replied that I would keep running while I could.
Sometimes, the right person can appear at just the right time during a trail run. Another cluster of 50K runners passed by and I was relieved to see John Dove, an experienced fast ultrarunner whom I first met when I volunteered at Pinhoti 100 Mile last year, running with them. Since John had competed in multiple 100-mile races and was always showing good form on the trail, I realized that he might have some advice to give about my vision problem, so I quickly power-walked up a hill behind him and explained the situation. John told me that the blurred vision could be a result of electrolyte imbalance or sugar excess, but that it was a common problem with ultrarunners and that it did not cause permanent damage. He mentioned a woman at Mountain Mist 50K whose vision had blurred so badly that someone had to take her arm and guide her along the trail. I thanked John profusely and my spirits lifted as he continued to run ahead.
I descended a short series of boulders down to a creek bed and sudden pain spiked up from my right knee. As I winced from the pain, Scott asked if I was okay and I replied that my knee was getting worse. I told him not to feel badly about running ahead, because I needed to be careful with my knee and with my vision. Something about this admission stabbed at my psyche, though, and, when I passed another runner on the trail next to the creek bed, I started running faster on my own to leave everyone behind me. The trail flats and descents gave way to a series of hills and my fast uphill power-walking allowed me the opportunity to increase the distance ahead of the other runners.
The daylight was in full effect now to reveal a beautiful October morning. I enjoyed the scenic rolling hill landscapes amidst the rocks as I climbed quickly. These “scenic rolling hill landscapes” were clouded with obscurity because of my inability to see faraway objects with clarity, but I decided then and there that I was going to have fun and just try to make the most of my day. Scott caught up with me, with the other runner and Troy, the sweeper, not far behind, and I told him that I was not going to whine anymore. I was not going to let myself be bothered with my vision, my knee problems, or the sweeper's crackling radio transmissions. I had finished over 15 miles on some beautiful trails, despite having completed a demanding 50K race and an extremely hilly trail marathon during the previous two weeks, I was enjoying the outdoors on a cool fall morning, and I was just going to go as far as I could go.
We approached a hill and I picked up my fast walk speed to race ahead of everyone else. When the hill evened out, I took off running over the rocks. As I climbed another hill, I passed an unfamiliar runner with a 50 Mile orange-colored running bib. When I asked him how he was feeling, he told me that he was done and that he was going to drop out at the next aid station. I continued to run along, because I knew that the next aid station was close. Ultrarunning is a sport of extreme highs and extreme lows. At the moment, I was having an extreme high and using my energy to run nonstop when I could, to rapidly power-walk the hills when I could, and to make up for lost time as much as possible. Did I actually have a chance to finish this 50 mile race? I was going to give it my best shot. I was soon all alone on the trails, with the runners behind me no longer in sight.
I emerged from the trail at the Mile 16.1 aid station, Mollyhugger Hill, and was surprised to see a friend, Sean, waving at me and cheering me on. As I refilled my Camelbak, I told Sean about my blurred vision. He told me that my vision might have been affected by looking closely at the trail during my two and half hour night running stretch in the early hours. Sean advised me that, when I was power-walking on the uphills, to look up at the leaves on the trees instead of focusing down on the trail, so that I would be giving my eyes a relief from concentrating on the trail rocks. I finished replenishing the Camelbak and grabbed a couple of peanut butter sandwich bites in lieu of the tasty chocolate brownies, just in case a sugar excess was a factor in my vision trouble. Scott and the other runners were all arriving at the aid station, so I thanked Sean so that Scott and I could resume the trail running together. We had seven miles of extremely technical trail and treacherous rocks between us and the next aid station, Rocky Point, which, at Mile 23.1, served as the first hard cutoff point, where runners would be pulled from the race if they reached that aid station after 11:26 in the morning. I had roughly an hour and half to make it seven miles across some of the most tricky terrain of any trail race in Georgia.
I passed Scott just as we hit the trails again and we talked about our chances for this race. We both knew that we had to pick up our pace, but we were realistic about the fact that the most difficult seven miles of the trail were between us and the first hard cutoff. The other runner with the blue shirt who had fallen behind earlier passed both of us and I sped up to keep pace with him. This other runner, who introduced himself as Hank, wasted no time making the most of the short non-technical stretch before Dowdell Knob and I wanted to be right there with him. Scott was not going to be left in the dust, though, and he hurried along not far behind. I heard Scott joking with the sweeper that he had kept me on a leash so far, but that he was about to unleash me so that I could speed off and outrun both of them. I laughed, but my knees and ankles were not laughing with me. The shooting pains in my right knee were still ongoing and my left knee was starting to hurt as well.
Hank and I were soon on our own and I hurried behind him as we ran down a flat section before the trail turned uphill to the Dowdell Knob scenic area. I was running faster, but I knew that I was not running fast enough. I eventually lost sight of Hank as he sped on.
A new dismay was creeping into my heart about this ultramarathon. In the past, I had finished my ultra races by the sheer force of resolve. I am a slow runner, but I am always able to bridge distance with a steady “If it feels like working, then you're working too hard.” running pace and a fast powerful walking pace when I am unable to run. Relentless forward motion had gotten me to the finish of my six previous ultramarathons. At the Long Cane 55 Mile, I had finished in last place behind 31 other finishers after 32 other runners had dropped out of the 55 Mile course option. At Sweet H2O 50K, when I was 57 pounds heavier and in terrible condition on the first real day of spring heat, I had walked the last 17 miles of that course with a forceful resolve to finish second-to-last. For my first ultramarathon, Pine Mountain 40 Mile, I had braved dehydration issues and self-doubt to soldier on and finish 85 out of 89 runners. I was slow, but I finished races. I was the tank that kept plowing forward, however slowly, to reach the finish line. Right now, though, at The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile, relentless forward motion was not enough to make the 14-hour cutoff. I had to run faster, faster, faster. I was moving with a relentless forward motion, but I was moving too slowly. The reality surfaced in my head that I had signed up for a race without having earned the physical capability to run fast enough on the trails to finish.
How did I react when I realized that I did not have a prayer of making it to the finish line of The North Face Endurance 50 Mile?
I ran faster. I rubbed dirt on my dismay and picked up my pace. I did not know how I was going to do it, but I was going to make it through hard cutoff points, I was going to complete the 50 miles, and I was going to go home with The North Face Endurance Challenge medal around my neck. If I was not fast enough, I was going to become fast enough.
The elevation picked up on the hill to Dowdell Knob and I passed a couple of runners with blue-colored 50K race bibs. The trail section that weaved around the Dowdell Knob parking lot was strewn with large rocks that demanded caution, but I ran when I could and power-walked with a second wind energy when I did not want to risk running and falling on the rocks. My knee was hurting too much to run for extended stretches. I also remembered encountering an unfortunate runner with a broken ankle during this section at the Pine Mountain 40 Mile race last year and I did not want to share his fate.
A few of the faster 50 Mile runners were starting to run by me in the opposite direction as they made their way back to the start. Matthew, a friend and fellow GUTS runner who would go on to a great finish in 20th place, passed and told me to hang in there. That is exactly what I did as I worked my way around several rocky turns. I was mostly reduced to a power-walk at this point and the power-walk was mostly a “power-limp” as my right knee continued to hurt. The knee was not the only part of me in pain. After negotiating rocks for the past eternity, my ankles were toast. I had been fortunate to avoid severe ankle rolls with my Montrail Hardrocks, but the ankles were on their third weekend of treacherous rocky trail races and they were at the end of their chain. I looked at my watch and hoped that the Mile 23.1 aid station was close, because I only had a half hour before the cutoff.
On the bright side, my vision had improved. I had followed Sean's suggestions to look up at the trees when I had a chance to deter focus from the trails and his suggestions had worked. I felt like the luckiest person in the world now that I was able to see clearly once again.
After climbing one of the steeper ascents, I reached one of my favorite places on the Pine Mountain Trail system, a comfortably flat trail section with endless trees across the landscape with no underbrush. There were plenty of small rocks to work around, but the beauty of this trail stretch gave me a new energy. I could only run for short periods of time before giving into knee pain, but I took advantage with the best of my ability to make pace while the trail was flat. I soon descended a series of switchbacks and, when I reached the bottom, I looked up to see Scott in the distance behind me. I could not see a sweeper behind him, but I still hurried to increase the distance.
I climbed a series of rocky sections along a small cliff and knew that I had finally reached the end of the most dangerous technical area of the trail course. The trail would smooth out all the way to the Rocky Point aid station and, if I made the cutoff time, I would be rewarded with three miles of easily runnable single-track before a series of creek crossings.
I looked at my watch and saw that I had less than ten minutes to reach the Rocky Point aid station before the time cutoff at 11:26. I broke into a run and, although the pain in my knee intensified, I kept running. I could walk as needed after the next aid station, but I had to run to that aid station first. I was reduced to a slow run, but I was running nonstop. After several minutes, I saw a volunteer at a fork in the trails who directed me to the left and said that I was almost at Rocky Point. I sped up and ran through the pain when I heard voices and saw the aid station through the trees. 11:26:00 passed, but I sprinted and reached the aid station at 11:26:30. I called my race number and my name to the volunteers as I ran to the aid station table. One volunteer pointed at a man in a yellow jacket and told me, “You need to talk to him.”
I quickly stepped over to the volunteer in the yellow jacket and told him that I had just reached the aid station 30 seconds after cutoff. I asked, “Did I make the cut?”. The volunteer wrote down my time, told me that he had to ask somebody, and walked over to a nearby vehicle, presumably to speak to someone on a radio. After a couple of minutes, he signaled another man from the other side of the road, pointed at me, and explained that I had just reached the aid station by less than a minute. The man shook his head at me and said, “We have to cut runners off here at 11:26.” I smiled, shook the man's hand, and thanked him for being there to look out for all of us on the trail.
My race was over. Of the 124 runners that started The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile, I was one of the 30 that did not finish.
As I waited for Scott, I greeted a few friends who reached the aid station for their 50K race and wished them well. When asked about my race, I told them that I had just missed the hard cutoff by roughly 30 seconds and, when they expressed surprise, I simply replied that The North Face had to draw the line somewhere. My knee was hurting and I was ready to sit down, but I enjoyed seeing familiar faces.
Five minutes later, Scott emerged from the trail and stated his race number to the volunteer in the yellow jacket. When the volunteer told him that he could not continue to run, Scott pointed at the aid station table and said, “Okay, that's cool. Let's eat some good food.” Good food sounded fine to me, so I picked up a couple of small bags of M&M's to eat while Scott and I waited for a ride to the start/finish area. At the start/finish area with the giant inflatable finish chute that I would not be crossing through today, Scott and I walked around and enjoyed talking with volunteers as we waited for Scott's wife, who would go on to finish second place in her age group for The North Face 5K trail race the next day, to give us a ride back to the parking area. I considered waiting at the finish to congratulate my GUTS friends, but my knee was hurting too badly to stand for extended periods of time and I wanted an ice bath to help the legs recover. I sent a few prayers in the direction of those friends and returned to my truck for the drive home.
I have no regrets about my race performance at The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile. I will not say that I did my best, because we are always capable of doing better than our best, but I am proud that I pushed the envelope of my endurance by finishing a 50K race, a trail marathon, and the first 23.1 miles of a rocky trail course in three consecutive weeks. I slept for 12 hours the night after the race and woke up the next morning with minimal pain. My knee pain has diminished, as it usually does when I run with the Mueller knee strap, but a week without running is in order before I resume short runs before my next big race in mid-November.
Would I have finished The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile if I had reached the Rocky Point aid station 30 seconds faster? I will never know for sure, but I do not think that my knees and ankles would have allowed me to finish after the races of the two previous weekends. Regardless of how painful those final miles of a long trail ultramarathon are, those final miles are nowhere near as painful as having to type “DNF” at the beginning of a race report the next day. DNF races are a part of the ultrarunner's life, though. Almost every veteran ultrarunner has a DNF on his or her record, because we cannot push past our limits without sometimes finding those limits, and I have completed another rite of passage on my way to becoming a better runner. I am at peace with the fact that I did not make the decision on my own to drop out of the race and that, instead, a race official made that decision for me. I was not fast enough on this day, but I am grateful that I tried.
Thanks to The North Face for coming down to Georgia to sponsor a rugged race. Congratulations to Geoff Roes for winning The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile and thanks to all the elite ultrarunners who traveled here to give these Georgia trails a try. Thanks to the 120+ volunteers who made this a safe experience for the large number of runners competing in multiple races on these trails. Thanks to Kelly Luckett, Dean Karnazes, and everyone else who inspired me before the race. Most of all, thanks to my GUTS runner friends for motivating me every step of the way.
This lengthy race report has one of those abrupt French movie finales where the main character is close to a happily-ever-after ending, only to be killed in the final scene. I ran faster than I thought possible during a rocky technical trail race, I rose above the difficulties of knee pain and vision problems, I experienced a second wind that allowed me to pick up speed when I needed it, and then I got pulled from the race. I am sorry to put a reader through all that, but I want to preserve the DNF race memories next to the memories of successful finishes. I will look back on this race in years to come, I will remember the fun that I had pushing my limits, and I will know that I would not have traded that for the world.
See you on the trails.