Monday, January 2, 2017

North Face Challenge San Francisco 50K 2016

As I finished the year, was looking for a destination race that provided a scenic course and the North Face Challenge 50K fit the bill perfectly.  The weather at this event has been notoriously bad in some years but this years running was perfect weather and provided a stacked field for the 50 miler which has a $10,000 price to the winners.  I want to give some insight into my race for anyone that may consider it in the future.
Night before at Union Square

Two options are offered for packet pick up, on race AM or at the North Face Store at Union Square in San Francisco.  I elected to ride BART from the Hotel downtown for packet pick up. After I went to Union Square where the decorations for Christmas were very nice. I took the opportunity to do some "carb loading" before the race.  After that I headed back for an optional pre race talk by the RD with a panel which briefed us on the course. The most notable speaker being  Dean Karnazes.

Pre Race briefing
Pre Race Briefing

The event takes place at Fort Barry in the Marine Headlands north of San Francisco just across the Golden Gate Bridge.  It encompances both the Golden Gate National Park and an adjoining State Park and is run the first Saturday of December.  The 50 mile race is held the same day as well as a Marathon.  On the following Sunday they have a 5K, 10K, and Half Marathon.  The 50 K race has, according to my Suunto, 6,700 feet elevation gain and a max elevation of 1,352 feet.

The race organizers provide shuttles to the race start in the AM of the race for the 50K racers from 3 different locations. Parking is limited at the start but is available for the 50 mile racers which starts 1 hour earlier.  For me the race started at 0700 am but the instructions were to arrive to the bus pick up before 5:40 AM for last bus.  I arrived at 5:15 and was at the race start at 6 just after the 50 milers had left.  There were portable propane heaters around as the temp was around 42F.  (5.5 C) that AM. I found a chair and sat with some runners and chatted about races we have done.  Next to me was a guy from Zimbawe so we talked about his family history and the current politics in that country.  My gear included Compressport top, bottom, calf sleeves, arm warmers (no gloves), HOKA ATRs, and a hydration vest with 2 bottles of water.  No headlamp is needed for the 50K.  There was no cell phone reception at the start of the race as we are surrounded by mountains on all sides.

We lined up in 5 waves based on time we anticipated it would take to finish. I was wave 5 and they had us go 2 minutes between the waves.  The first section of the course is paved asphalt road followed by the first climb of the day on a dirt fire road which I elected to power hike.  As we climbed we got the first glimpse of daylight and the Pacific Ocean, the Golden Gate Bridge and the Skyline of San Francisco. The skies were clear with no threat of rain or fog with very little wind.  My pace was very measured on the initial climb and stayed on top of my nutrition and hydration. The first climbed peaked out at around 1,000 feet and was followed by a steep though very runable descent. After 4.7 miles we reached Tennessee Valley Aid Station which has crew access. I didn't have a crew and was able to refill my bottles and resupply.
Sunrise First Climb-Golden Gate Bridge in Background

This next section is 4.5 miles with an initial downhill on asphalt road again followed by hard packed gravel fire road up to a peak of about 975 feet.  At the top is a view of Muir Beach which is very nice as well as the rock cliffs and the Pacific Coast Highway.  I met two brothers from Guadalajara and chatted with them on the uphill, but they dropped me on the descent.  The initial descent is more steep than the first descent to Tennessee Valley so I slowed down a bit. At this point, I had mobile coverage and was able to listen to the FB live coverage of the Western States Lottery and  saw Gordy selecting names, of which mine never came out.  Muir beach aid station (mile 9.2) was starting to get a little hot and so I put some water on my head to keep my core temperature down as best as  I could.
Heading to Muir Beach, Pacific Coast Hwy

From Muir Beach we ran on the shoulder of Highway 1 for about half a mile then onto a trail next to and above the road before crossing over the road again and go on single tract for several switchbacks up.  This section is exposed and hot. It climbs 1,500 feet to the highest climb of the 50K course at 1368 feet. At cardiac aid station (14.5 miles) I ran into several 50 mile runners who by then were on mile 33 or so as they had done an extra loop and passed this aid station twice.

Muir Beach

What follows is a nice though more technical downhill through the Muir Woods, it was now shaded and on some occasions I felt a little chilly.  During this section I was passed by several 50 mile runners going very fast which deflated me a little because I was going so much slower. We passed several gigantic redwood trees and I wondered how old they must have been.   I also caught one of the brothers from Guadalajara who was limping badly and planning to drop.  There was another climb through the woods and then another downhill to Old Inn Aid Station at mile 20.

Fire Trails
After the Old Inn, we ran next to a park road then a fairly flat section for 2.8 miles back to Muir Beach aid station. Again we were exposed to the sun and the afternoon heat was at its peak. By this time all the 50 mile runners that were going to pass me had already done so. I came across a few of the Marathon runners who were running towards the turn around for them on the same course.

After Muir Beach was a steep climb up to 1000 feet the same trail as the morning. I ran into the other brother from Guadalajara who I had met that morning and decided to walk with him.  He was also thinking about dropping due to knee pain. We kept each other company for the next 3 miles but he struggled to run downhill so we decided I would keep going alone at Tennessee Valley. (26.1 miles).

After Tennessee valley there is one big climb followed by a dip, a short climb and then downhill to the finish. On the climb, I struck up a conversation with someone with an Ironman Hat from Coeur D'Alene and she had done the race in 2011. I had seen her earlier with her brother who had dropped her so we kept talking all the way up. We were joined by another runner who was doing her first Ultra. This made the time pass quickly and we pretty much ran to the end of the race.

I completed course in 8:46:22 , well under the 10 hr. cutoff. I got a finisher medal and a free Sierra Nevada IPA beer (need to have your ID with you).  I said hello to Dean Karnases.  As I was headed to the bus, I ran into Erica and Olga who also ran the race.  The return was delayed as there were no buses back and we had to wait for quite a while for the next one.  Once on the bus, there was a lot of traffic back to the city. So give yourself plenty of time and don't linger at the finish line too much.

I had an enjoyable time at this event, the trail and views are spectacular and its a nice destination race. The only downsides are that the weather can be really bad in some years and the return trip takes quite a long time.

Ultramarathon Man Dean