I like this place and could willingly waste my time in it.
― William Shakespeare
A BC&H shout-out to Ironman husband-and-wife team Jimmy and Catherine Nam of Novato, who both muscled up and nailed down new PRs and their first Boston qualifiers at the California International Marathon this month. Nice job, Nams! Who would’ve thought all those 5:00am track workouts would actually pay off?
San Francisco viewed from the Marin Headlands… Sutro Tower is visible in the distance to the right
Minnesota may have its 10,000 lakes, but California is the land of 10,000 races. Or at least it seems that way. According to the website Running in the USA, the state boasts (coincidentally) 2,013 races of all distances for this calendar year alone. And the best of them all may well be The North Face’s appropriately named Endurance Challenge.
The North Face Endurance Challenge Championship (TNFECC) is staged each chilly December in the Marin Headlands of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA), quite literally a stone’s throw from the Pacific Ocean. The folks at The North Face stage five Endurance Challenge events annually – New York in May, Washington D.C. in June, Wisconsin and Georgia in September, and Missouri in November – culminating in this, their year-end championship event. And they don’t throw around the term “Championship” loosely, the way a mom-and-pop burger joint might wishfully tout its “world famous” chili cheese fries. The crown jewel of the TNFECC docket, the 50-mile race, really is the Kentucky Derby of trail running with its $30,000 prize purse, including $10,000 each to the male and female winners.
During my years of living and running in the Bay Area, I gained an intimate familiarity with the GGNRA. That familiarity had evolved into an almost Stockholm Syndrome-like relationship: the more miles I logged (or legged) up and down and down and up its relentlessly grueling trails, the more I tried to win their respect and show I belonged, and the more I grew to admire their equally relentless splendor. Trails come in all shapes and sizes, and trail running means different things to different people… but to me the Marin Headlands empower a runner like nowhere else I’ve run. With a tip of the cap to Boulder (CO), Flagstaff (AZ) and Bend (OR), the Bay Area – thanks in large part to the GGNRA’s 117 square miles – deserves its reputation as one of the country’s trail-running meccas.
So it was that I returned to my old plodding grounds for this year’s TNFECC. I’d run the half marathon distance twice before, in 2008 and 2009, and in fact the 2008 edition had first opened my eyes to trail racing. This time around I’d be stepping up to the marathon distance – I’d originally intended to run the 50K, but had found it sold out by the time I’d registered in August. In any case, I was pretty sure 26.2 miles in the Marin Headlands would be enough to score a solid runner’s high.
If I even made it to the start line, that is.
Google Earth rendering of The North Face Endurance Challenge Championship Marathon course
(the Golden Gate Bridge can be seen at lower right)
The weather forecast in the days leading up to the race was bleak, as the Bay Area was hit by an atypical cold front that dropped temperatures all the way down into the – brace yourself, non-California reader – low 30s. Certainly nothing to rival the wintry conditions that had forced cancellation of that weekend’s Dallas Marathon and St. Jude Memphis Marathon, but nonetheless harsh by West Coast standards. And like the postal service, neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night would keep us from the not-so-swift completion of our appointed rounds in the Marin Headlands.
And that was the problem. Because the real issue wasn’t the inevitable cold – it was the rain which on Friday, less than 24 hours before the race, began to fall as temperatures rose above freezing just enough to presage a truly miserable race experience. Though I hadn’t run it, still fresh in my mind was the memory of last year’s TNFECC, when a “sky is falling”-type deluge had forced race organizers to reroute the course, and had created a race-day experience replete with DNFs that would leave its psychological mark on even those of us who hadn’t been there. Such conditions would be miserable enough on a flat course, but on this one… I tried to allay my angst by reminding myself that we’d packed pretty much every item of clothing I’d worn to run in Antarctica. And in the comfort of our heated motel room, with the rain-soaked wind working its intimidation tactics outside, I nestled deeper into my state of denial before falling asleep.
As it turned out, on this Saturday at least, the running gods would be benevolent deities. Maybe, like the rest of us, they wanted to see trail-running phenoms like Rob Krar, Emelie Forsberg and Max King tackle the technically demanding course in ideal conditions. Whatever the reason, the new day dawned on a world unrecognizable from the one we’d left hours earlier. Bright blue skies, near-windless conditions and temperatures in the low 40s coalesced into a dazzling morning deserving of several deep breaths. As we navigated the Presidio en route to the Golden Gate Bridge, the sight of a high-spirited running club out for their morning workout confirmed that today would be a very good day for a run.
We arrived at the overflow parking lot on Bunker Road in 15 minutes and, flagging down some volunteers, hitched a ride to the start line near Fort Berry half a mile away. The circular staging area had widened since my last visit here four years earlier, an indication of the race’s increased popularity. But on the perimeter of the grassy, sun-dappled field ringed with sponsor tents, the sight of that familiar red start (and finish) arch started my adrenaline flowing. Which helped to combat the numbness seeping into my toes through the thin uppers of my Merrell Road Gloves.
I gathered around the start line with the other marathoners, where The North Face’s pride and joy Dean Karnazes was waiting to send us on our way. He informed us that the current temperature was actually ten degrees colder than it had been for the 50-mile race start at 5:00am (the 50K had followed at 7:00am). And asking if this would be anyone’s first marathon, he responded to the smattering of hands with the promise that “I can almost guarantee your second marathon will be easier.” That’s what I like to hear.
I’d become an acknowledged Deanophile in 2008, after reading his inspiring Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner. And I’d met him at this same race in 2009. According to the disembodied announcer voice now addressing us over the PA, The North Face Endurance Challenge was originally Dean’s brainchild, so there again I found reason to skew my sentiment in his favor.
I’ve heard nearly all the arguments against Dean as the (very visible) public face of the running community, and to my mind the vast majority smack of jealous petulance or taking sides, as though there were a fixed amount of media coverage to go around. Certainly he isn’t perfect – but let’s face it, neither is Scott Jurek or any of the other athletes who have taken potshots at Dean as a self-promotion machine. And any coverage that brings positive press to the sport of running (including Scott’s own now-ubiquitous self-promotion campaign) can’t be a bad thing.
It struck me that the red-and-black TNF jacket Dean was wearing looked very similar to the one he’d worn four years earlier. And as the exuberant emcee on the PA system counted down the seconds to start, I amusingly envisioned race organizers, after each TNFECC event, packing Dean in bubble wrap like a fragile vase to preserve and protect their prized athlete, then carefully loading him on a climate-controlled truck before shipping him off to the next TNFECC event. My mind cut to a TNF employee in Missouri receiving the bubble-wrapped package marked “FRAGILE” and proclaiming – à la Darren McGavin in the 1983 classic “A Christmas Story” – “Frag-ee-lay… he must be Italian!”
My reverie was interrupted as the animated emcee’s countdown reached zero and the small crowd (the second of two waves of marathoners, nearly 200 runners in all) surged across the start line. The North Face Endurance Challenge Championship Marathon – on this day the distance equivalent of a kid’s fun run – was underway.
Dean lives near the GGNRA, though his pre-race pep talk didn’t include a “Get off my lawn!”
Settling in (miles 1-13)
After an initial ¾-mile descent on asphalt to awaken legs and lungs, we crossed Bunker Road and left-turned onto the forgiving dirt trails that lay stretched out ahead, like a rock-strewn orange carpet, for most of the next 25.5 miles. A quick right turn led on to the popular Miwok Trail, where our eager caravan faced its first physical and psychological test, an ascent of 600 vertical feet over 1¼ miles. The smooth, well-groomed dirt slid by underfoot as I passed a number of runners on my way to the top. Per my usual trail-running M.O., however, many of those same runners flew by me on the corresponding downhill stretch of Old Springs Trail to Tennessee Valley, as I cautiously picked my way over the rocky singletrack and acclimated my legs to the uneven terrain. As tempting as it can be to rock that start line adrenaline and chase the herd, I’ve learned the hard way not to let anyone else dictate my early pace. There would be plenty of time for downhill heroics later, and I had no doubt I’d be seeing most of these folks again soon.
Sure enough, as I breezed past the first water stop at Tennessee Valley and turned up the Marincello Trail, I passed many familiar faces along the 680-foot, 1½-mile climb. The Marincello Trail and Coastal Trail, which together comprise four of the six major hills on the marathon course, are two of my favorite Bay Area hill workouts. Throw in two climbs up the Miwok Trail, and you have six major hills accounting for most of the course’s 4,757ft of elevation gain. From this perspective, the course breaks down as follows:
1) Miwok, mile 1
2) Marincello, mile 3.7 (followed by Alta, mile 5.8)
3) Miwok, mile 9
4) Coastal (part I), mile 12.6
5) Coastal (part II), mile 16.4
6) Marincello, mile 20.3 (followed by Alta, mile 22.4)
Nearing its summit, the Marincello Trail opens out onto panoramic views of Marin City, which like a newly painted small-scale model lies neatly laid-out below at the foot of Richardson Bay. From there the trail transitioned on to the still-wider and more rock-littered Bobcat Trail, which after a brief downhill respite jagged sharply up the Alta Trail for ¾-mile before beginning a protracted descent down the Rodeo Valley Trail. This descent circled back to the base of the Miwok Trail, where with a few words of silent encouragement, I began my second (less inspired) ascent.
A few more marathoners were walking the trail’s uphill grade this time around, and I managed to pass several of them while maintaining my own slow-but-steady jog to the top. And amazingly, I felt great doing it. I couldn’t recall the last time I’d run serious hills with such modest effort, especially considering the frequent shifting of gears required to transition from uphill to downhill mode and back again on this course. True, no mountain goats would be seen flirting with me, but relatively speaking I was in a zone.
Another descent of the Old Springs Trail followed, this one more fluid and well-paced than the first. Passing the Miwok Livery Stables and reaching Tennessee Valley for the second time, I paused to thank the friendly volunteers and throw back a shot of CLIF Juice before continuing through the parking lot to begin the marathon’s equally demanding but even more scenic second half.
Welcome to life at the western edge of the world (Coastal Trail, mile 15)
Zoning out (miles 14–26.2)
After morphing into a paved walking path for just over half a mile, the course again transitioned onto joint-friendly dirt to begin major ascent #4 (440 vertical feet in just under a mile), this time up the Coastal Trail. And if the idea of running along the western edge of the continent overlooking the Pacific Ocean doesn’t entice you, then you’d probably be better served reading a blog about dust balls or corrugated cardboard.
With the sight of sheer coastline and the sound of crashing waves to keep me company, the next 2+ miles over rocky single track passed quickly, until the trail turned east away from the ocean and began its downhill trajectory toward Muir Beach. Here I got an unenviable glimpse into the future, as faster marathoners and slower 50Kers trudged back up the steep trail in my direction, none of them looking like they’d just won the lottery. I tried to encourage many of them with a “great job!” though that’s admittedly little solace coming from a guy who’s letting gravity do most of the work for him.
The Coastal Trail bottomed out at the Muir Beach aid station and turnaround point, where I chugged another shot of CLIF Juice and turned back the way I’d come. As at all aid stations, a small but vocal group of spectators cheered my arrival and hasty departure.
And then it was time to climb again. So back up the Coastal Trail I labored, determined to maintain a jogging pace on the most ughhhhh ascent of the day, 980 vertical feet in just under two miles. This, the fifth major ascent of the morning, seemed to grind down many runners, and I passed several more on my way to the top, again determined not to heed my own brain’s suggestion to go ahead, walk a spell, just a few steps, you’ll feel soooo much better. Suddenly, despite my still-swinging arms, I realized my lower body had called it quits. Traitor! So I power-hiked a few yards until my sluggish legs were able to renew a jog and crest what was now the Coyote Ridge Trail, the zenith of the course at (so says my Garmin) 999 feet above sea level.
And that may be the ultimate testament to this course’s bad-assedness: its singular ability to flex its muscle while topping out at 1,000 feet elevation. It’s not the most punishing non-ultra race in the Bay Area – I still reserve that distinction for Brazen Racing’s Rocky Ridge Half Marathon, with its 3,600 feet of climbing over 13.1 miles – but neither will you go home feeling cheated.
Position your photographer near an aid station, and you’re bound to capture “eat & run” moments like this
What went up (me) then came down the Miwok Trail toward a third and final date with Tennessee Valley. The wide black cracks snaking through the firmly packed dirt told no tales of the previous day’s rain. Brittle coastal chapparal swept by on each side, and with the surrounding hills blending into near-cloudless blue skies all around me, I was pleasantly surprised when my Garmin chirped to indicate 20 miles down and one 10K to go.
Third time was indeed a charm at Tennessee Valley, as I was heartened by my first Katie sighting of the day – she’d apparently underestimated my pace and missed me on my first two passes. She quickly updated me on the score of the Conference USA championship game (“Rice is up, 34-10!”), and with that extra motivation I turned up the Marincello Trail one last time. “Only one hill left!” offered a well-meaning volunteer, conveniently glossing over the fact that the one hill was a mile and a half long. But for once, the two words that looped through my mind were well trained. Sure, the earth’s gravitational pull had increased noticeably since my first climb up the Marincello 2½ hours earlier… but with my “pass the slower kids” mindset still intact, I looked forward to finishing strong.
Cruising along the Alta Trail, I was greeted by another race-day first – hunger. Regardless of distance, my stomach normally shuts down at the starter’s pistol and doesn’t re-open for business until after the race. So the sensation of mild hunger pangs was curious, since my stomach seemed not to care that we were at mile 22 of a marathon. Sadly my feet were decidedly less zen, owing to the combination of sharp rocks and my Road Gloves’ lack of underfoot cushioning.
One final tree-lined stretch signaled the end of mile 23 and the Alta Trail. At the aid station I gratefully chugged two more shots of CLIF Juice, popped two CLIF Shot Bloks in my mouth and rolled down the Rodeo Valley Trail toward home. Peeking over the hilltops to my left, both Sutro Tower and the Golden Gate Bridge slyly monitored my progress from afar. The next three downhill miles flew by blissfully as the sugary gels dissolved on my tongue.
Re-emerging onto Bunker Road, one short pavement climb was all that remained between me and done. Runners in dark orange bib numbers (marathon relayers?) inexplicably passed me running the other way. A stiff but short-lived headwind hit me squarely in the face (not done yet my pretty, it seemed to say) as I rounded the final curve, rolled down the grassy slope and returned to Fort Barry under the tomato-red finish arch.
And here’s my immediate post-race reaction:
Cashing in (post-race afterglow)
A wave of euphoria washed over me as I crossed the blue-and-red finish line mat, and glancing down at my Garmin I realized why: 4:17:38.
As unpleasantly surprised as I’d been by my Portland Marathon finish time, I was that pleasantly surprised by this one. Mentally I’d set my best-case scenario finish time at 4:30:00 (10:18/mile). Not only had I bested that, but I’d done so at a 9:53/mile pace. Sub-10:00 miles on this course! Talk about a runner’s high.
Adding to that high was the discovery I’d earned third place in my age group. Which in turn earned me a nice pair of TNF arm warmers, assorted CLIF products, a Road ID coupon and – check your excitement – a SmartWool product brochure and stickers. Luckily we’d be celebrating my nephew’s sixth birthday later that day, so thanks to SmartWool I now had a present for him.
Ecstatic as I was, I doubt my euphoria compared to that of overall 50-mile winner Rob Krar, who finished a close second at the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run earlier this year, and women’s winner Michele Yates. Each earned $10,000 for their efforts. And though I’d like to feel special, I’m betting they probably got some SmartWool stickers, too.
Cruising down the Rodeo Valley Trail, mile 7 (and 24)… the Golden Gate Bridge is just visible to the left
After several minutes spent floating around the finish line festival, I eagerly set upon the post-race buffet, which offered a selection of very decent options for meat-eaters and vegetarians alike. Half of the grassy field now enjoyed the warmth of full sunlight, whereas the other half found itself trapped in bitterly cold shade. I hope the sponsors in those shady booths negotiated a reduced fee, as runners/potential customers looking to chill after their race flocked ironically toward the sunny side.
Recovery-wise, what surprised me the most over the next few days wasn’t my soreness, but rather my soreless. As in, I had none. My body felt like I’d spent the weekend on the couch – no aches, no pains, and even the soles of my feet had short-term memory. Neither did stairs present their usual stiff-legged challenge. Maybe I’ve reached the point where my body now considers 26.2 miles a solid starting point. Maybe my legs were so excited to be back on trails that they forgave me the distance. Or maybe it was the infectious mojo of a man (Dean) who once ran 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days, with the final marathon being his fastest. In any case, I don’t expect this to be the new norm. I just hope it’s not the calm before the storm.
So am I a road runner? Or a trail runner? The answer is yes – and no. I’m a runner. I think of myself as an all-terrain vehicle, and I hope I always will. But for whatever reason – whether it’s lack of speed, or love of hills, or evolutionary affinity – I feel an acute sense of belonging on the trails. After a four-year hiatus, my return to The North Face Endurance Challenge felt like a homecoming of sorts and an uplifting reminder of why I keep coming back to the Marin Headlands – because there’s so much there out there. And running within sight of the Golden Gate Bridge never sucks.
But man, I’m glad to be back in SoCal… it’s freaking cold up there.
Based on the lighting, my post-race afterglow spilled over to the pictures
BOTTOM LINE: Unless you’re allergic to dirt or ocean breezes, I’d strongly recommend the North Face Endurance Challenge at any distance. If you’re looking for a challenging trail race or just a memorable way to round out the year’s race schedule, this is it. The course is stunningly scenic, the weather’s been beautiful all three years I’ve run it, and Ultramarathon Man mojo hangs in the air. What’s not to like?
PRODUCTION: The North Face organizers do a great job staging a race they’re obviously proud of. During race bib pickup at the SF store, I had animated conversations about the race with two employees, one of whom would be running it as his first 50-miler. On race day the course was well marked, and strategically positioned aid stations were well stocked and manned by terrific volunteers who, despite having to stand out in the cold, were unfailingly supportive.
Other than the venue, one of the main reasons to recommend this race is the always impressive swag. This year’s goodies included a pair of SmartWool socks and a nice royal blue TNF tech t-shirt, with the TNFECC insignia on the sleeve plus the option of having your race distance and “California Championship” screen printed on the front. And the virtual goody bag included a gem I’ve never seen before – a free magazine subscription from Rodale that allowed you to opt for a $20 refund rather than the free subscription. All this for a $95 registration fee (not including a $5.75 processing fee from Raceit)… so even without the sweet offer from Rodale, the marathon is reasonably priced for a high-profile trail race.
My only (minor) grievance would be the 50-question post-race survey sent out by the folks at TNF. Unfortunately I didn’t realize its scope until I was already committed (I’m sure that’s their intent), and though I did complete it, I was definitely losing patience by the midway point. I mean, imagine if you started reading something and it just went on and on and on and never seemed to know when to end, I mean how obnoxious would THAT be?
And some friendly feedback for whoever brainstormed the survey question, “Would it effect [sic] your decision to participate in this event if it was held in another trail network of the San Francisco Bay Area (i.e. East Bay, South Bay, etc.)?” My answer is a definitive “YES!” The GGNRA is the perfect venue… so if it ain’t broke, don’t break it.
December 7, 2013
26.07 miles in the Marin Headlands of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (CA)
Finish time & pace: 4:17:38 (first time running The North Face Endurance Challenge Championship Marathon), 9:53/mile
Finish place: 29/198 overall, 3/13 in M(40-44) age group
Race weather: sunny and cool (starting temp 45°F), with light winds
Elevation change (Garmin Connect software): 4,757ft ascent, 4,743ft descent