Follow the Blue and Beware the Seams on Your Pants – North Face 50k Race Report

So, final race of an interesting year. A year that brought me a 50k PR, a 50 mile finish (after two years of trying), and 10k PR. Of course there was that hip thing that kept me out of running for several months at the end of the year too. Great set-up for my last race…
Anyway. Before I even get into things, I knew I was under-trained (my longest run was 27 miles…split up over two days). I knew this was North Face, and it had given me issues for the past two years. But, I also knew the trails…and I’d been really good about getting my butt kicked at the gym at least four days a week. Still, I didn’t think I’d be in for anything easy.

The start was pretty typical of an ultra. Well, one like Way Too Cool rather than Lake Sonoma. Lots of people gathering…heat lamps…fire pits. Unlike every other year we’ve run this race, it wasn’t freezing. It wasn’t raining. It wasn’t wet. It was…actually quite nice out. Weird for this race. No rain, no mud, no cold. What was going on?

As it got close to start time, the announcer started getting everyone lined up. Lots of people still checking bags…tip – make sure to check your bag early. I ran into one of the guys from Coastal Trails…he’d started the 50, but decided not to continue. He was hanging out, waiting for the line to clear so he could get his bag.

The announcer had us introduce ourselves to the person next to us, which was interesting since half the field had their headphones in already. After that, we were pretty much off. The first few miles passed as I expected…rolling a bit at the beginning, but quickly climbing up Miwok. Forever. Since they changed the course this year, there was some additional climbing beyond what I knew as typical. We didn’t make the quick left down Old Springs, but continued on up Miwok and down Marincello. Thanks Miwok stables…loved the additional climbing.

Honestly, it wasn’t that bad…I’ve done it before and met a couple of fellow runners along the way. And then we were headed down Marincello. A hill I’m familiar climbing up, but not so much running down. But, I quickly found that I really liked running down this hill as much as I love hiking up it. It’s a gentle slope…it’s a fire road. It was mile 4ish. Perfect for my untrained, skittish, descender self. And, much to my surprise, I passed a bunch of people on the way down. Being so skittish, this never happens. If I pass anyone, it’s on the way up and I usually get passed again on the way down. Unfortunately, I didn’t see many of them again. Not sure if they never passed me again or if we missed each other at aid stations…hopefully everyone finished.

I got to the bottom of the hill feeling good and Brian was waiting for me. I grabbed a cup of tailwind, which I hadn’t had before, but was actually pretty good, some water, and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I pulled over for a bit to chat and realized I’d somehow picked up the one sandwich made with the heel of the bread….only me.

After that, it was off to Muir Beach. The climb up Coastal wasn’t too bad, but I anticipated it being easier not going into Pirate’s Cove. However, I was unpleasantly surprised to find I was wrong. We actually got to climb some of Coyote Ridge and a back part of Fox Trail on our way to the trail that would finally take us down into Muir Beach. Then, down we went…I wish I wasn’t so skittish….and of course the whole time going down, all I could think was…at some point I have to go back up….

I quickly passed through the Muir Beach aid station…grabbed a Mt. Dew (not a bad race drink, but other than that, the Dew can stay in my college years ;)), some tailwind, and another sandwich. Then I comfortably jogged my way to Redwood Creek Trail. Well….I looked down and I was comfortably jogging at an 8:50 pace. Thanks, Orange Theory. Of course my aid station stop is included in that time, so it didn’t do much for me overall. Haha.

As I hit Heather Cut-off, I ran into the 50 mile sweepers….I’m pretty sure one of them has been the same guy for the past three years. Anyway, shortly after that, I passed the last 50 miler, a man from Iowa, I think he said. In him, I could see myself a few years ago. As I left Cardiac, he still hadn’t made it up there. I also passed a woman who’d been stung on the ankle by a bee…so not fun, and another place I saw myself. She assured me she was fine, and she did pass me later, so luckily, she was good to go.

My slog up to Cardiac wasn’t too bad, I remembered slogging up there last year…feeling like crap and running into Liz and Van, and listening to Becca chat about NYC to make the miles go faster. On the other hand, I guess it wasn’t that great either…somewhere along there, I realized the seams on my pants were starting to tear into the skin on the back of my legs. And…what bothers you at mile 12 is going to be unbearable come mile 32….

At the Cardiac aid station, I asked three different people for Vaseline, but finally got some. Ahhh….relief. I’m sure I looked silly, but…there are no rules in the woods. I grabbed a pb&j, tailwind, and Mt. Dew, but knew I was needed some salt (thank you acid reflux fun…). Luckily, they had salt…unfortunately, no potatoes to dip in it. Awesome….and the 50 milers were just hitting their second pass. Bad time to be out of that. But, we’re in the woods, so we make do with what we have. I ripped my sandwich in half and dipped it in the salt. Salty pb&j, interesting vessel to get salt in, but it seemed to work.

Then it was down into Muir Woods, my least favorite part of the course. The part with not only steep, rocky, twiggy, descents, but also a place where if you fall, you can get gored by tree stumps and whatever else is on the ground. Perfect if you’re already a skittish descender. I think the marathon may be my race of choice next year solely because I wouldn’t have to run through Muir Woods.

The Old Inn Aid Station greeted us at the end of Muir Woods. Shortly before we hit the aid station, we hit some stairs on the famed dipsea trail. This guy let me and another lady pass him, before tearing down the stairs past us like he was going to win. Really dude? First, not going to win. Pretty sure they finished hours ago. And second, we would’ve let you go. You were ahead of us to begin with…

Just before the aid station, there was a pack of 50 milers coming up the hill at me…I was…confused. On either course, no one should be running up this hill. Did I miss a turn? If I went farther than I needed to without Vaseline, I was going to be sad. They told me I was fine, so I kept heading down. No idea what they were doing.

Anyway…as I jogged to the aid station, I passed the medic and thought…haha, I’m not hanging out with you this year. I asked them for Vaseline and they had to find my old friend who drove me to Tennessee Valley last year to find it. She seemed far less crazy this year, but no less busy. She handed me Vaseline and walked away. Another volunteer watched me take gobs of it with my hand and rub it all over where my pants were eating my skin. I’m not sure what the look on her face was saying…shock…disdain…really? You’re at an aid station for an ultra. If me sticking Vaseline down my pants is the worst thing you’ve seen all day, consider yourself lucky.

I headed off, joking with another volunteer…something about a second pass, and me not wanting to come back. There was no second pass, and I didn’t need to. I began the flat jog back to Muir Beach…alternating between a walk to catch my breath and my new 9ish (some times under, sometimes over) comfortable pace. Aside from my chafed up body, I was getting pretty sore. Yup, should’ve gotten in more training.

Where the road to Muir Beach was easy, the road out of Muir Beach was anything but. Even if we didn’t have to climb all the way up Coyote Ridge, it was still brutal. I made friends with a couple of other runners as we made our way out…they were chatting about the big marathons (Boston, NYC, Berlin, London, Tokyo and one other I don’t remember) and wondered how many hills we had left, I said two…one of the guys said, in addition to this one (he was local too)? I said no, this one and another…it counts until it’s over.

The top of the hill brought the steep descent of Fox trail into Tennessee Valley. At this point, muscles I’d forgotten I had were hurting. And I really needed another dose of Vaseline to handle the chaffing. But, I made it down. Oh, Vaseline was insight. And then Brian came jogging down Tennessee Valley road towards me. Hooray for a surprise! He figured he wouldn’t be able to drive between TV and the finish, but he definitely could run it, especially if he knew the short cuts.

And there wasn’t any Vaseline. Ugh….I had body glide in my pack, so I pulled over and tried to use that. Not the end of the world, I guess, but certainly not ideal. The good news was that I got to see Shannon, the aid station captain that took care of me last year…yeah hypothermic and taking over the shuttle. Haha. Great to see her and I wasn’t blue this year, so I had that going for me.

Then it was time for the final slog up Marincello. Which usually I don’t mind, but I was just done with this race at that point. One of the other runners asked if it was straight uphill to the next aid station. Right…Alta. I’d forgotten about that aid station.

The rest of the race was pretty much a blur of me wishing it was over and continuing to put one foot in front of the other. There were places I thought, hey, maybe I should run here. And then telling myself walking hurt slightly less, and I was so far behind, did I really care? Nope, I did not.

One foot in front of the other, one aid station, and one seemingly never ending stretch to the finish line later, it was over. I’d finished North Face. I may have been walking like a cowboy and I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to be wearing jeans for day (confirmed), but I finished. Brian brought my Vaseline, so I coated some of that on before we walked to the car. Of course as I did, two of the runners I’d met on the course walked by and stopped to say congratulations….one of them apologized for catching me mid-Vaseline application. I laughed and said…it’s all good, there are no rules in the woods….

So…on to the spring. Here’s to luck with the race lotteries and if not, enjoying two ‘b’ races. Here’s to a year of being injury free and able to train like I should…it’s much more fun when it happens that way.

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