January 4, 2013

2012 North Face Mud Challenge

Exactly one year ago I jumped into the North Face 50 Endurance Challenge thinking I would just run around the Marin Headlands and enjoy scenic views of the Pacific Ocean.  Thirty some miles into that race I found myself in 3rd place and charging forward in a full on race before I learned a hard lesson in nutrition and hydration.  This year I came into the race with two 100 mile races and several 50 mile and 50k races under my belt.  I thought I was ready for another shot at the NFEC 50 and was settling into bed in San Rafael when I took one last glance at the course on northface.com.  Their random twitter feed on the bottom of the page read "Course changes due to flooding".  The course went from a 50 mile loop to a double loop course of 47.9 miles with extreme mud, rain and fog.  At that moment I knew that the dynamic of the race had completely changed.  I never really care if the course is exactly the same each year but this was going to be a slop fest.  After driving 18 hours to race I wouldn't care if we were restricted to racing around a football field.  Honestly we are there to race each other not just a course.  I went to bed knowing that everyone's race plans just went out the window and it was going to be a unpredictable scramble now.

Lisa, Chloe and I woke up at 3:30 am and drove up to the start line.  I was getting antsy because we were forced to ride buses to the start line and the bus drivers were taking their sweet ole time.  We arrived at Fort Barry with only 20 min to spare.  Lisa grabbed my bib # while I stretched, went through my drills and ran some strides.  My bib #297 would end up flailing around and annoying me the entire race.

This year I forced my way to the front - no way I was going to navigate around 50 people in the first 200m this go around.  The first 5 meters of the course told the story of what was to come - 4 inch thick mud  collecting rain in shoe imprints.  At 5:00 am we were off and running.  The start was wicked fast again but I found myself in 30th place instead of 60th this time!  

Photo by Lisa Simorelli

The rerouted course was now two 28ish mile loops consisting of a small 6 mile inner loop followed by a larger 22 mile outer loop.  It was quite difficult running through the mud, rain and fog in the dark.  I found myself running alongside fellow Missoulians Mike Foote and Justin Yates just off the lead pack of 10 or what I thought was the lead pack.  In reality a group of 4 were in front of them and really getting after it.  Unfortunately that lead group of 4 went off course quite early on and caused much confusion for the remainder of the race.  More on that later.  Finally the darkness and fog lifted just as I was 1/2 way into the big outer loop.  I leapfrogged with Jorge Maravilla and Dave Mackey a few times through this section but I couldn't catch a glimpse of that front pack.  In reality they were about 3 min up on me but I couldn't tell and hence felt like I ran most of the race alone just behind the race.

Photo by UltraRacePhoto

Right before the half way point (Fort Barry start line) I started feeling really good and was hitting low 7 min miles.  The new course routed us out and back to the start line and I was able to see that front group for the first time since the start.  No one was moving particularly well through that section so I zipped through the aid and kept after it.  The race officials told me I was in 9th place.  That didn't make sense to me but I thought maybe the weather/course had caused some early drops. 

Photo by Lisa Simorelli

On the second lap I hit that inner loop pretty hard but I still couldn't make up any ground.  Then I went off course.  The volunteers pointed me back on the inner loop again and I had a feeling this wasn't right.  After 400 meters up that steep trail I realized that this trail seemed a little too familiar.  So I turned around and forced the two girl volunteers to stop their conversation and point me in the right direction - they seemed confused but with all the course changes I completely understood.  At least they had no problem directing Jorge, who was now right behind me, in the right direction!  I'm glad that I've learned not to blindly trust the volunteers but rather go with my gut feeling - Chuckanut anyone.... 

Photo by UltraRacePhoto

Again, I charged towards Tennessee Valley and just as I started turning over again I opened my water bottle pocket to find that my gels hadn't been restocked (Lisa you're killing me!!!).  There is nothing worse than being on the brink of a bonk and miles away from aid!  I coasted into the TV aid station on fumes. After a handful of potatoes and some pop I took off for the Muir Beach aid station feeling much better.  Eventually, Gary Gellin came flying by me like I was standing still.  I was impressed with how fast he was moving in this mud and the amount of traction he was getting with his shoes.  By that point my shoes were coated with a couple inches of mud and were hydroplaning more than providing traction.  Gary and I had the same turnover but he was going forward while I was running almost straight up to avoid falling on my face.  We talked for a bit and then on the steep mud-pit descent Gary took off; I tried my best to respond but only ended up with a hamstring cramp - damn it not again!  Some 50k racers witnessed me spontaneously transition from racing stride to jumping around on one foot while holding my right hamstring.  I tried my best not to cry, curse or fall down that steep, muddy descent.  I know I scared half a dozen 50k runners with the yelling and all that dancing in a circle stuff.  After I completed my dance routine, I forced myself to walk/run through the cramp down to Muir Beach.  It finally subsided after a couple minutes at the aid station.  This hamstring thing has bothered me during several races this year (e.g., Ice Age 50, Bear 100, NF 50).  I've got to strengthen that damn thing.

Photo by UltraRacePhoto

I re-grouped on the climb back out of Muir Beach and started charging again.  The mud on that climb 
was barely runnable.  I actually passed a 50k runner who was face down in the mud and crying.  I 
offered a hand but he was totally out of it emotionally and wasn't looking for help.  Oh well, carry on
 then mate.  The second half of the outer loop was pretty uneventful.  I did manage to pass Greg Vollet 
the Team Salomon manager who had a great race.  I was clipping off low 7 minute miles at the end and 
just enjoying the last bit when a young man named Ryan Gelfphi caught my eye.  I saw his orange elite 
50 mile race tag, quickly got moving and managed to hold my small gap to the finish line.  Impressive race
 from Ryan.  My finish time was 6:14 and god only knows how far the race ended up being with the 
off-course, one legged hopping and zig zagging through the mud pits!  Overall I'm pretty happy with the
 effort even though it felt like I was running a muddy tempo run by myself.  No one can ever label the 
North Face 50 as boring, I even got to perform for some unsuspecting 50k racers!

I figured, according to basic math, that I finished in 8th place because I passed Greg and Sage and was only passed by Gary.  Then a whole series of stories started pouring out about racers who went off course and then making up distance at a later stage in the race.  Honestly I don't know what to think about the whole thing - I'm kind of torn.  On one hand I can understand the leaders getting off course and it's not 100% their fault - I've been there at Chuckanut and Slickrock.  On the other hand I have never seen a race allow people to make up distance at a later stage in the race.  I've always been told, and I'm new to the sport so I could be wrong here, that you must rejoin the course where you left it or you are DQ'd.  To be honest the guys who went off course were all great athletes who put in a great performances and I have no doubt they would have finished somewhere around where they did.  However, I think they know in their hearts that they didn't race the same race and that they should have been DQ'd.  As unfair as it sounds we have all gone off course at one time or another and have had great performances ruined by misinformed volunteers, course vandalism, or just personal mental lapses.  I can't stand those pre-race packets that say the runner is 100% responsible for staying on course.  Rubbish.  I understand that flagging a course for 50 - 100 miles is not easy and there are no guarantees your hard work will keep everyone on course but I don't think its possible for runners to memorize every turn for a 100 miles.  Just a cheap excuse laid out by some race directors.  Often I race on trails that I have never stepped a foot on before in my life.  The responsibility is shared between the racer and race director.  Everyone loses when somebody goes off course, race directors lose fast, course record, winning times and publicity;  meanwhile racers lose months of preparation, $1000s of dollars and the respect of their friends whom they dragged out to the middle of nowhere to crew only to get lost!!  Having said that, I honestly and grudgingly believe the only fair rule for all is the "you must rejoin the course where you went off before you can continue on" rule.  I would love to consider another option but I haven't seen anything better yet!

Overall I'm not upset that a few guys who finished in front of me went off course (it's only one race) but only desire for a little more organization / cooperation in the sport itself so that rules don't change from race to race.  Race directors shouldn't be in the position or have the right to grant unique circumstances or advantages to individual racers.  There is just too much subjectivity in that.  To be honest I wouldn't mind seeing the ultra marathon bubble burst and for things to settle down.  Imagine being able to sign up for races without playing the lottery game (enter 3 years before you actually expect to race) or racing back to ultra signup after a meeting to find out the race sold out in 15 minutes this year "Sorry folks"....  I have never seen a sport that required athletes to sign up and pay for races several months in advance with no guarantee you will actually be able to race or have aid stations set up or informed volunteers.  How do you know that you will be available or healthy or even alive several months from the day you sign up?  Then if the race gets cancelled there are no refunds... You only get to finish a race if you are lucky enough to survive the lottery, monitor ultrasignup every hour, fork over a couple hundred dollars, pray the race doesn't get cancelled (sorry no refunds!), hope the aid stations are set up, and of course avoid going off course (mind those volunteers now)!  Never seen anything like it but I still keep coming back for more...

Photo by Lisa Simorelli

Thus ends my first season of training for and racing ultra marathons.  This year I managed to slowly change my training program from college miler to 100 mile mountain racer even after a 3 year running hiatus.   Fifteen months ago I had no idea that ultra marathons existed.  Why were all these trail runners going on and on about Western States?  My reaction was "what the hell is a Western States".  Several months later I found myself on the starting line at Squaw.   My first and second 100 milers had their ups and downs in which I was forced to walk miles 32 - 62 of Western States and then some how managed to win the Bear!   2012 was a great learning experience and I was fortunate enough to stay healthy and push myself into those unknown spaces beyond the comfort zone.  Those mental and physical challenges make ultra races very addictive.  I was also fortunate enough to travel to some of the most beautiful areas of our country and put my feet down on new trails that I have never experienced before and meet some great people along the way!  Next year I ramp up the training and work on the weaknesses I have found through putting myself through the fire this year.  Also, I'm actively seeking sponsorship to help with next year.  Its going to be difficult but I believe it will happen!

Never Settle!


  1. "...managed to win the Bear." That is the understatement of the year. The reality is that you were the first person to run under 18 hours at one of the toughest 100 milers in existence, and beating the previous best times of Geoff Roes, Hal Koerner, Mike Foote, Evan Honeyfield, Karl Meltzer, Nick Pedatella, and Matt Hart.

  2. @Gary Gellin

    Gary, congrats on a great race at NF 50 - very impressive. Wasn't expecting that result in my 2nd 100 miler and first season of ultramarathon training/racing. What races do you have planned for 2013? Look forward to seeing you out on the trails.


Originally from Strongsville, OH, I spent 8 years in Raleigh, North Carolina and have since recently moved to Missoula, MT. I have been a runner all my life and have recently started pursuing ultra marathons. Any excuse to be outside and on the trails.