Preparations for the North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Miler

About 6 months ago, an advertisement in Running Times caught my eye.  The ad was of course for the North Face Endurance Challenge, a series of 50 mile races around the States.  The national championship for the event, which did not require qualifying at a regional event, is in the Marin Headlands north of San Francisco tomorrow, December 4.  On the line is a $10,000 winners prize and an all expenses paid trip to one of the North Face Global Challenges.  This is what lured me into the race without a whole lot of consideration.  I knew this: I had run 30+ miles in training at 6 flat pace and the winner of the NF50 last year was slower than 7:30 pace.  I did not take proper account of elevation changes into my analysis of my chances in the race, which on first glance, I thought I would surely win.  That said, I still think I have a chance to win this thing, and I have gotten some good specific training in for the race in the few weeks I have had to work with. 

Only in the last two weeks have I begun to feel good on normal runs again.  I had grand plans for doing massive amounts of muscular work, hoping to prevent the nearly-inevitable muscular fatigue that comes from repeated 1,000+ foot ascents and descents.  While my work in this area has been far short of what I hoped, I do feel like I have restored some strength to my hamstring and quads through some focused exercises (mainly hamstring curls on a Swiss exercise ball and single leg squats).  But the primary focus of my limited training has been some over-distance long runs.

First, on November 8, I did a 34 mile long run in Ft. Collins, Colorado while I was visiting friends there.  It was an out and back that rose (through repeated ups and downs) from 5,000 feet to 6,000 feet.  I ran this in 4:01, or 7:06/mile pace.  I actually felt horrible from the start and was happy with the effort considering the altitude and how I felt. 

Five days later I did a 3 hour run in Boulder, Colorado with my friend Sonne.  We did some trail running on Mesa Trail (actually running by Tony Krupicka, a top ultra runner who was supposed to be at the NF50, but has pulled out with an injury) and then I summited Flagstaff Mountain (about a 1,500 foot climb).  It was good practice on some technical terrain and served to confirm my confidence in my trail-running ability.  Having grown up spending 8 hours a day running around the woods behind my house, I've always had great instincts on the trails.  This has not faded, and I blasted a descent down Flagstaff, really pushing the limit. 

My last long run came only 11 days out from the race.  I was back in Chicago and was trying to simulate the race.  This was a difficult task given Chicago's topography.  There is one hill—Cricket Hill—up near Montrose Beach, and even this is not very big.  It is about 4 miles from my apartment.  The other option for climbing is the 17 flights of stairs in my apartment building.  My program was as follows: 
- 10 miles out and back with 2 miles of running up and down Cricket Hill (~500 feet of climbing)
- 3x up and down my building (600+ feet of climbing)
- 10 miles out and back with 2 miles of running up and down Cricket Hill (~500 feet of climbing)
- 7x up and down my building (1,500 feet of climbing)
- 10 miles out and back with 2 miles of running up and down Cricket Hill (~500 feet of climbing)
- 5 x up and down my building (1,000+ feet of climbing)
- 5 mile progression run
- 1 mile warm down
The workout went quite well.  I completed the three 10 mile circuits in 68:36, 66:48, and 65:51.  The stair climbing, all told, took nearly 45 minutes, and while obviously not "running," the whole thing was clearly "worth" more than the 36 miles I actually ran.  Despite legs that were just destroyed, I was able to really cruise on the progression run, hitting splits of 5:59, 5:43, 5:42, 5:33, 5:31.  That really cost me, and I spent about 5 minutes laying on the ground.  I could barely walk when I got up, but eventually managed to shuffle the mile back to my apartment. 

In addition to the long runs, the other major concern for the race was fueling.  I knew nothing about this concept for ultra marathons.  I learned what the top ultra runners do by reading their blogs and race reports.  After conducting a thorough survey and some experimenting of my own, I settled on a formula that worked for me.  I dissolve Power Bar C2 Max powder in a bottle and then also squeeze Power Bar gels straight into the bottle (these also dissolve).  I can pack up to 430 calories in a 22 oz. bottle this way (power plus two gels).  I've read that one can absorb a maximum of about 300 calories an hour while running, so this is what I'm aiming for at the NF50.  I will have 5 bottles containing a total of about 1900 calories, as I hopefully won't be running more than about 6 and a half hours. 

By having all drinkable calories, I don't have to mess with opening a gel, choking it down, etc.  Additionally, this method will allow my body to have a constant supply of calories without any spikes (like ingesting a 110 calorie gel all at once would).  I practiced taking my fluids about 5 days a week, and on all my long runs.  The final long run I managed to get 1450 calories down without incident. 

In sum, I have had very little time to prepare for this race, but I've been happy with the preparations I've gotten in.  I have no concerns with merely finishing the 50 mile distance.  I have fueling completely figured out, I would wager even more so than some regular ultra runners.  I am confident that I can run technical terrain as fast as anyone out there.  I am faster at the marathon distance than nearly everyone in the field, and even those with faster PRs have not run those times recently.  (I haven't run my PR recently either, but I was, without a doubt, ready to run low 2:20s two months ago, but was thwarted by temperatures in the 80s.)  My final remaining concern is the hilly terrain.  The simple fact may be that I cannot hang with top athletes who train in the mountains year round.  My final long run gave me a lot of confidence in this area, but it still remains to be seen if I can really hold my own on a 1,900 foot ascent.  But if the hills don't destroy me, I like my chances.