Sunday, December 4, 2011

Payback feels good - North Face Marathon

Back in February of this year (2011), I took on a marathon in the Marin headlands and it got the better of me. Well I just finished the North Face Endurance Challenge Championship Marathon and got that monkey off my back in what may have been the toughest marathon I've completed to date - yes, I think this one was tougher than Pike's Peak.
Like the Golden Gate Marathon, this one started near Rodeo Beach and wound its way up and over several hills in the headlands. Where GGM was a double loop of 13 miles, North Face was slightly different. It started with a loop around a hill, along Alto Trail providing great views of Sausalito and Mill Valley them swung Northwest to Pirate's Cove, then back to the loop that started it all and back to Rodeo beach for the finish. The up and over consists of five super challenging ascents, three rising nearly 1,000 ft each, and totaling only 4,500 ft of climbing. But it was the relentless up and down these very steep hills that took its toll.
The morning started with a shuttle from San Francisco over to the beach at around 7:30 Saturday morning. The race started at 9am so I had plenty of time to relax and get mentally prepared for the race. Shortly before the start, Dean Karnazes, ever the glutton for punishment, took the mike to welcome us all to his home course. He asked how many were doing their first marathon and about 30 hands went up. I was shocked. This was a very, very tough course to choose as your first. As a running coach I would never let one of my peeps do this one first - they might never come back to running.
The weather couldn't have been better. It was clear as a bell, dry and relatively warm for a December day. At the start it was in the high 40s and never got about 70 degrees.
I got right to the front before the gun went off and started in the top ten. There were some very strong runners in this group and we quickly were spread out. Everyone ran the first two hills with one guy from Spain barreling down the downhills like a mountain goat. I tend to lose time on the downhills so I don't trip and fall. This was the case for nearly everyone on the descent to Pirate's Cove as the terrain was very rocky and super steep.
Several women were total rock stars in this group at the front. A blonde woman in a black running outfit was gone at mile two and kept getting further and further ahead with each mile. She was an incredible climber.
The North Face Endurance Challenge is a series of races that take place all across the US culminating in the Championship event, here in the Bay Area. Multiple race distances are run and to keep the trails from getting too crowded, the break up the races over two days and spread out the starts quite a bit.
On Saturday, the morning started with the 50 milers, then those doing 50K, including my good friend John Rymer, and then the marathon and half marathon - all starts spread about two hours apart each.
We didn't see 50K and 50 milers until Pirate's Cove an at the point we first encountered them we were on single track with high weeds on both sides. Made for some careful footing and leaps into the bushes to let them pass. Only once did an oncoming runner and I collide - thanks to a volunteer who instructed the 50 miler to pass on the left, which no one was doing. Oh well.
Around Pirate's Cove we came to the marathon turnaround spot which was about 16 miles in. This gave me a chance to see all the runners ahead of me, as they came back down from the turnaround spot. I counted them as they went by and at this point I was running sixth overall. Holy cow!
By the third ascent, up from Pirate's Cove, everyone was walking the hills and running whenever a flat or downhill presented itself. Same for the fourth and fifth ascents. This made for slow going and we got even more spread out. A few marathoners passed me at various points here but it was tough for everyone.
A woman with a blonde ponytail, whom I had seen at the very start of the race, but not again, finally showed up passing me up the last ascent - and running it. She looked very strong and clearly had paced herself through the race very well.
As we climbed the Alta Trail for the final time you could see the skyscrapers of downtown San Francisco between two headland peaks. The views were so clear that you could see past downtown to the peninsula and when looking East you could see Sausalito, Belvedere Island, Angel Island and clear across the bay to the Oakland hills. Just spectacular.
We hit the final descent following the Rodeo Valley Trail and could see the Pacific Ocean in the distance. Everyone picked up the pace a bit here. I was feeling pretty spent but was passing people left and right as I just wanted to get to the finish by this point. My feet were sore, my hamstrings and glutes were screaming.
I crossed the line at 4:19. No record by any stretch for me but given the constant climbing and rugged terrain I was very happy. After having to pull out of the last race here in the headlands, it was good to face this challenge again - just 10 months later and defeat it.
I was planning to start my year in 2012 facing down the Golden Gate Marathon again but given that this race covered the same terrain, was not a simple double loop and was harder, I no longer feel that need. A well deserved rest seems in store now.