Back in the Fall of 2011 when I was just getting back into running via a Couch to 5K program, before I had even run my first race, I stumbled across The North Face Endurance Challenge site. I was immediately intrigued. I had no idea at that time just how challenging the courses are, but I knew I wanted to do it someday. All of the running delays in those first few years lead to this race being put off several times. I had no intentions of registering for the North Face Endurance Challenge this year, either. While I felt confident I could tackle the 5K, I had gotten it into my head that I now wanted to race it at a longer distance and would put it off yet another year. Enter Stinkfoot & Chafe.
I met my trail partner, Mike (sorry buddy, I know you were hoping for a boss trail name, but I am at a loss at the moment), through an online running group. We crossed paths a few times at Fall road races and kept in touch through the Winter sharing race links and checking in on each other’s injuries. During this time, I had been thinking a lot more about trail running–watching lots of documentaries and even daydreaming of moving from the city to somewhere with more access to trails. So when he texted me on November 25th with an invite to a trail race, I really wanted to jump at the offer but was injured with more guarantee races to finish so I had to decline. Flash forward to early February when I was returning from injury and Mike was generous with the race links and persistent on getting me out on the trails. After a reluctant acceptance to an offer to run an easy 3-4 mile in Pound Ridge, I was hooked on trails. By the time Mike had gotten his mind set on the North Face Endurance Challenge half marathon, we were both signed up for several other races in the weeks leading up to it and after it. Needless to say, I was apprehensive about signing up for this race. After 6ish snowy and icy miles during a recon run on the course, it was apparent that the half was a little overambitious. I still wasn’t 100% on adding another race to my calendar, but since he agreed to do the 10K and another friend expressed interest, I registered. So it was officially happening. I was going to race TNEFCS on Bear Mountain.
The North Face Endurance Challenge 10K at Bear Mountain
The course for the 10K is pretty straight-forward. You run 600 feet and change up the mountain and then 600 feet and change back down the mountain. It isn’t a straight climb the entire time nor is it a straight descent, but for the majority of the first half you are climbing and the majority of the backside is downhill. The course is pretty technical in places with plenty of roots and rocks while other parts of the course are very runnable trail. This was going to be the most elevation I had done to date so I was a little nervous, but given I had a few (3) trail 10Ks under my belt along with some solid training runs I felt like it was going to be manageable. Maybe a little challenging and painful, but definitely manageable.
We decided that it would be ideal to try to stay up by Bear Mountain the night before. We could grill out, enjoy the finish festival, and hopefully cross paths with some of our pals running the ultras on Saturday. We got lucky and scored two rooms at two of the places right on site. When we arrived, I scored an upgrade on my room so me and my friend, Alicia, got to stay in eye shot of the festival. We setup the grill and popped a couple of beers and took in the atmosphere. We even got to meet up with some of our running group buddies. It was an awesome time. But there was a race the next morning so in addition to being aware of nutrition and hydration, I was also aware of getting enough rest. We retired to our room early, around 8, and were shutting off the lights by 9pm.
Before the race
The next morning I woke up with plenty of time to get to the start right outside our inn. Got some coffee, spent some time lounging in the lobby and watching runners trickle in to the festival, and leisurely got ready for the race. At this point, I was regretting a little bit that we had decided against the half marathon. My return to running has gone better than anticipated and the challenge of a longer race was alluring. But we had others joining us, another girl friend and her roommate, and we had missed the window to change distances. So I mentally prepared myself for the shorter, more intense distance and headed out for a nice warm-up loop around the lake. By the time I got back, went to the restroom, escorted everyone back up to the room for some bug spray, and made it back down to the start we only had to wait about a minute to start moving. I looked around at the runners in our wave and made a last minute decision to hop into the wave before. We started at the back of the pack, but I figured since it was a faster wave we would end up with a nice cushion between that wave and the wave behind us.
The start was pretty gentle. Run across a field, through a parking lot, and then hit the gently rolling trail. At about a half mile in though, we hit a pretty steep downhill that was also pretty rocky and wet and it was a complete bottleneck. So right off the bat, I started leap frogging passed runners who were cautiously hiking down the rocks. We then hit a good incline which I power hiked part of then a nice flat then another incline and well, you get the picture. The first half of the race was pretty slow going. I tried to power hike up most of the steep inclines to save myself for the flats and more runnable inclines. My friend, Alicia, ran with me most of the time and just before the aid station at 2.6 miles we caught up with our other friend who had come out for the race. I downed a Honey Stinger at the aid station along with some water and was excited to put the first half of the course behind me and fly down the mountain.
It was right around the half that I start I getting an abdomen cramp. I’m not sure if it was my pre-race food choice which I had changed up for the norm, the salt tab I took before the race which isn’t my norm, if I wasn’t drinking enough water, or if just the banging of running up and down hills was the cause, but it forced me to walk for about two minutes before it faded. After that little hiccup, I started attacking the downhills, flying passed runners, and even had a little tail of runners following me down the mountain. The descents were pretty rocky and the rocks were loose so foot placement was key. At one point I realized that I was running so fast with so many people following me that I didn’t think I could stop and if I fell it wouldn’t be pretty. Alicia was more cautious on the downhills, but would catch up on the flats. (She is a much, much faster runner than me!) At 5.65 miles, I felt a very sharp stabbing pain in my abdomen. It hurt so bad that I doubled over in pain and yelled. I had to step off the course and was stopped for a full minute. I knew Alicia was behind me and there was no way I could run so I just camped out for a minute. She came by and I tried to run, but couldn’t. So for the next three excruciating minutes, we walked. It hurt so badly that I was concerned that it was some kind of internal organ issue. I pushed on the pain and mentally prepared myself for the possibility that I was going to have to walk the rest of the course. I was swearing and angry and a little scared. And also very lucky that my friend stuck with me to support me!
Around 5.85 miles and four minutes after the initial stop, I was able to resume running at an ~8mpm clip fighting the pain. Around mile 6, with just .2 miles to go I had to walk yet again for less than a .1 of a mile. At this point we were back to the parking lot and just had a short run on asphalt to the grassy finishing chute. I told Alicia to leave me, but she refused. Even when we got to the grass and the finish was within our sites and she asked if I wanted to race to the finish and I told her I couldn’t she stuck with me. When we got within sprinting distance, I said, “LET’S GO!” and took off for a finishing kick. 1:15:42 official finishing time.
After the race, we grabbed our medals and headed over to grab our shirts which were being screen printed with our race distance. The inn had a buffet brunch and we had time for all of us to shower in our room so we made a reservation for brunch and dined like kings and queens. It was so awesome to shower and change into clean clothes post-race and so much fun to have so many friends racing with us and join in a celebratory brunch. There were five of us in total. Three were trail race newbies which made it even more special! As we packed the car and started to head back to the city, I couldn’t help but be a little sad to leave the mountains. I’m really looking forward to spending the rest of my long runs through to my July 4th race (excluding the Brooklyn Half) on trails. I definitely feel like I have found my home.
Just after the race, I was happy that I completed the race, but also super bummed that cramps had taken me out twice with the second being during a particularly speedy clip of downhill. I had been saving myself on the first half of the race to race the second half full out and to be taken out and finish with gas in the tank was truly disappointing. I estimate that I lost about 4 minutes in total to my mystery ailment. It’s even more of a bummer given my 1:10:32 finish at VCTC UEC 10K a little over two weeks before. That race had a lot less elevation so to come close to that time would have been pretty awesome and a great indicator of improvement. These thoughts plagued me in the hours following the race despite my elation of having done the race and with friends. I guess old habits die hard. I had told myself that all I care about with trail running is getting out there and finishing, but I can’t help pushing myself to do my best and measuring myself via finish times. I’m not sure whether it was just because this race has been so important to me for so long, but I intend to be more mindful of shutting these types of negative thoughts down in the future. I truly believe that no one cares about your times but you and that it is such a horribly egotistical thing to focus on. I want running to be a joyful experience, not some goal-oriented activity! To that end, I won’t be sharing splits for this race.