A few miles in, I found myself separated from the other runners. It was quiet and dark, the sunrise not for another hour at least. My shoes and legs were already caked with mud. My breath was steady as my feet pounded the dirt. The ground moved past within the small circle of light from my headlamp. That constantly changing halo of earth was the only thing visible in the shapeless night.
A light appeared ahead. It was small and quickly disappeared. Another runner. Their headlamp briefly visible in the darkness. Looking back over my shoulder, a half dozen tiny pinpricks of light bounced up and down behind me. A pack of runners maybe fifty yards back. Their headlamps were like fireflies in the night.
Facing forward, my light illuminated a set of ribbons tied to a tree. The race marker let me know I was still on the right path. But mainly, I had to trust the trail. I followed its curves as it made its way back and forth through the dark woods. The trail eventually led to a muddy stream maybe twenty feet across. I stopped and looked around. My headlamp lit up the stream, the mud, and the trees. Another runner came up behind me and stopped. We both stared at the stream, breathed deeply, and contemplated the best way across.
That was a little after 5AM on Saturday, April 18th, 2015 and just a couple miles into the Washington, DC The North Face Endurance Challenge (TNFEC) GORE-TEX 50 Miler.
If you’re still reading at this point, thanks and welcome to my blog. My goal is for this race recap (and blog) to be both entertaining and informative. I do apologize for getting this post up so long after the race. I hope to be more timely on future race recaps / reports.
The GORE-TEX 50 miler was just one of The North Face Challenge Races that weekend. Also on Saturday was the Marathon, 50K, Marathon Relay, and Kid’s Run. On Sunday was the Half Marathon, 10K, 5K, and another Kid’s Run. Except for the Half Marathon, all the races started and finished at Algonkian Regional Park in Sterling, VA, about 30 miles outside of Washington, DC. The Half Marathon started at Great Falls Park and finished at Algonkian. My wife ran the half marathon this year and we both ran it last year. The shorter races were mostly around Algonkian park. The longer races made their way along the Potomac Heritage Trail, which follows the Potomac River, to Great Falls and back. The Potomac Heritage Trail is a great trail for running or hiking with some steep inclines and great scenic views of the Potomac River.
Back to the race.
Race morning, just after 2:00 AM, a few hours before I encountered that first stream. My iPhone alarm didn’t wake me. Not because I was dead asleep, but because I was already awake, lying there, staring and blinking at nothing in the darkness. After four hours of off and on sleep, I reached over to turn the alarm off. I knew that if I didn’t get up soon, three more alarms and one timer—set the night before and counting down from 4 hours and 10 minutes—would go off.
Here’s a tidbit about myself. I am a little OCD with it comes to getting to races on time. That goes for airports also. And movies. Basically, anything where if I am late, I’m screwed.
Despite waking up before my alarm, I wouldn’t say I was overly nervous. But maybe I should have been. After a frustrating winter that wrecked my training plans, I didn’t feel totally prepared. Too many snow days in February made it difficult to get in a lot of long miles. I hate writing that because it’s just an excuse. If I had really wanted to get in more long runs, I could have. It would have just been miserable in the snow and cold. My last long run was the Rock-n-Roll DC Marathon about a month prior to this race and my weekly mileage wasn’t near where I wanted it to be.
Regardless, my race plan at this point could be titled: slow and steady. Baring any type of injury, I believed I could finish. I don’t think I mentioned it before, but this was my first 50 miler. My biggest concern was letting race day adrenaline and my ego take over. Here is a fantasy I had multiple times leading up to the race. There I am. Running at a comfortable 9:30 pace. A gentle breeze in my face, the wind at my back (is that possible?). The finish line appears ahead. The seconds ticking past. I kick it into high gear and finish under 8 hours. First in my age group.
Back to reality, my wife was telling me not to hurt myself. And to be honest, that was an important goal. I constantly battle shin splints and have already had at least one stress fracture, but that’s a story for another blog post.
The subtitle of my race plan was to drink and fuel early and often. Somewhere I got the number of 300 calories per hour in my head, so that is what I was planning, roughly. Also, I knew that I needed to drink often, even if I wasn’t thirsty. It was probably the hottest day of the year at this point. The high was expected to reach the lower 80s. This may not seem like much depending on where you are located, but coming from a long winter, it was still something to consider.
It felt strange eating breakfast at 2:30am in the morning. After a breakfast of four organic whole grain waffles, an energy bar, a banana, and some coffee, I was ready. Or at least as ready as I was going to get. It was time to wake my wife up and get going.
Parking / Transportation
Everyone’s required to park at the Loudoun Tech Center and take a bus shuttle to Saturday’s starting and finishing line at Algonkian Regional Park. My wife dropped me off at the parking lot around 3:30AM. After a kiss goodbye, I got right on a bus.
The bus was dark, quiet, and half full of ultrarunners that I assumed were better, faster, and had done this more than I have. Most runners sat in a seat by themselves. Hand lamps on their forehead. Gear bags and hydration packs by their sides. Did I mention before that this was a school bus? Low ceilings. Those dark green plastic seats. You know the ones. Some thoughts that ran through my head as I stepped on the bus and walked back to an empty seat. Am I good enough? Do I have enough water and fuel? Do I have too much water and fuel? I don’t want to look like a first timer. Don’t get the seat with the wheel bump. Do I look like a first timer? Do I look like an ultrarunner? Do I look fast? Maybe if my belly was flatter. Yeah, I’ll suck it in a bit. Man, these seats are small.
Overall, the parking and shuttle ride were smooth. I was at the park in about 15 or 20 minutes. I didn’t have to wait for a bus at all, but there were a few port-a-johns at the parking lot if needed.
From the bus drop-off at Algonkian, there was about a quarter mile walk to the starting line. It was dark and muddy, so the headlamps required for the 50 mile race were immediately useful.
At the starting line there were also plenty of port-a-johns. I didn’t notice a line all morning before the 50 mile start, which is nice because there is nothing more stressful on race morning then waiting in a long line for the bathroom while watching race start approaching. It was still more than an hour before race start. Plenty of time.
The starting area was surrounded by booths and tents, including the morning race packet pickup and gear bag drop. There were also several fire pits in the middle of the starting area. It wasn’t terribly cold, maybe mid-to-upper 50s at this point, but the fire-pits were a nice way to stay warm, relax, and socialize with other runners while waiting for the race to start.
Kicking Horse Coffee also had booth and provided free cups of coffee to both runners and spectators. Great coffee and a nice way to get one last caffeine boost before the race.
I dropped my gear bag at the gear bag drop, grabbed some coffee, and relaxed around the fire. I also ate another granola bar to keep my energy level up.
As race time approached, myself and the other runners pried themselves away from the warm and cozy fire pits toward the starting line. Never mind about those fire-pits. They weren’t a good idea. Who wants to run when you can relax around a fire, stay warm, and drink coffee?
There were three waves starting a minute apart. I was in the first wave and we started at 5:00AM sharp. Needless to say, it was dark. I’m pretty sure I’ve said that about fifty times already in this post. The 50 mile race requires runners to wear headlamp until after sunrise for good reason.
The course starts by doing a small loop in Algonkian park before setting off towards Great Falls on Potomac Heritage Trail. It had rained the day before, so the course was muddy. The first five miles were probably the worst. I tried avoiding the first few puddles as much as I could, but pretty soon it was pointless. My shoes were soaked within the first mile before leaving Algonkian park. This turned out to be a good thing. There was no way to avoid the puddles and mud for this race. Best to get wet and muddle early so you can stop thinking about it, stop trying to avoid everything, and just run.
As I left Algonkian park and continued toward Great Falls on the Potomac trail, my feet were already wet, my legs were covered in mud, and my headlamp provided me a half second advanced of warning what was on the ground in front of me.
Now back to the stream from earlier. Myself and the other runner stood there staring at the stream and the mud. I’m hesitant to point out my…well…hesitation here. This is my first 50 miler, but I’ve read enough about others to know that crossing a small stream is nothing. And we weren’t the first runners, so I know others have already passed this area. You can call me chicken if you want, but it’s one thing to run across a small stream in the daylight. But its an entirely different thing to do it at night, where you can’t see anything. With the darkness and the mud, the water might as well have been oil. The water’s surface was a black blanket. Anything could be under there.
I could hear other runners catching up. I was building up the courage to wade slowly into the stream when I took one last look around and saw it. About twenty feet away, a small wooden bridge crossed the stream. Its dark wood was barely visible against trees. The trail curved right a slight ways back to intersect with the bridge. Myself and the other runner had both missed it completely. We ran back and crossed the bridge right as the other runners were approaching. They saw us turn toward the bridge and didn’t have the pleasure of staring the stream and second guessing their ultrarunnerness this early in the race.
After I crossed the bridge and continued down the muddy trail, another light appeared ahead. Then another. They popped into existence and bounced up and down like tiny exited atoms. The dots of light grew bigger and I realized they were coming toward me. Runners. The trail looped around Sugarland Run and backtracked on itself returning to Potomac Heritage Trail. I moved to the right as the first runners ran past. “Great job,” they called out as they ran by. “Keep it up.” The entire race was like this. Runners encouraging other runners.
The course continued back to Potomac Heritage Trail and toward Great Falls. An hour or so later, the sun started to rise over the Potomac river on my left. The darkness of the forest slowly gave way to grey and then various shades of green. The circle of light from my headlamp disappeared as the yellow and orange rays peaked over the trees and reflected off the water. Besides the finish, this was my favorite part of the race. That sense of peace and calmness in the morning. Running is a great stress reliever in general. But running at night and then seeing the sunrise, there is nothing quite like it. Like the disappearing darkness, everything is washed away. Stress from work. Nervousness about the race. Then it dawns on you how lucky you are. I mean, I’m running 50 freaking miles for fun. Life is pretty good.
Once at Great Falls, about 15 miles into the race, the 50 mile course makes three loops of roughly 7 miles each through various trails before heading back toward Algonkian. These aren’t circular loops, it involves some turn-arounds and doubling back. I was initially worried that the loops would become tedious, but it wasn’t that bad. There is enough variation in the terrain to keep it interesting and challenging. In addition, there is an aid station about half way through at one of the turn-arounds and another at Great Falls park when you start/complete a loop. The aid station at Great Falls was a great place for spectators since runners pass it four times during the race.
Besides the Swamp Trail and River Trail, the trails were easily wide enough to pass people if needed. Those two trails required a little patience and etiquette. Toward the middle and end of the loops, the 50k runners joined, so the course got a little more crowded. And on the way back, the marathon runners were also on the same Potomac Heritage Trail. There were points of congestion, but overall I didn’t think the course was overcrowded.
On the final loop, the park also started to fill up with visitors. The River Trail especially. However, in my experience everyone was kind enough to step aside and let runners past. It was actually a bit of a pleasant surprise how little of an issue it was.
The River Trail is mostly rock hopping with a cliff on your right and the Potomac River flowing past maybe 100 feet below. When traversing the rocks, the best thing is to forget about pace and concentrate on not twisting an ankle. I’d hiked this trail many times before so I was expecting it. It’s a great trail and a beautiful part of the course. Looking out over the natural grey rocky cliffs and beautiful river, its hard to imagine that the concrete jungle of Washington, DC is less than 30 miles away.
After the three loops in Great Falls, the course retraces itself on Potomac Heritage trail the roughly 15 miles back to Algonkian park. There were a few single tracks on the way back where I would have probably passed a few people given the chance, but I took the opportunity to relax and save some energy for the last few hills and miles. The heat was starting to pick up and there were several people whose stomach contents wanted a little fresh air. I was tired of gels at this point but luckily I didn’t join them.
Overall, the course is hilly with a few steep hills. The steep hills aren’t especially long hills, but enough to steal your energy if you aren’t careful. I power hiked up most of the hills and sped up on the downhill portions and didn’t feel like I lost any time.
The course finishes with an out and back loop in Sugarland Run, then a couple straightaways before a final turn to the finish line back in Algonkian park. With 47 miles down, Sugarland Run out and back again provided a chance to encounter other runners head on. You can tell that the end was near. There was a mixture of fatigue and determination on runners’ faces. Final reserves of energy were being tapped and exhausted. It was sheer will power for many at this point. But there were also high fives and words of encouragement shared as runners were giving it all they could. I did pass one guy who was crying, but still running. I am not sure if it was due to pain or joy at being almost done. Either way, if you are reading this buddy, there is nothing to be ashamed of.
I am not too proud to admit that the final mile after Sugarland Run seemed like it would never end. But after that final turn in Algonkian, there is nothing quite like seeing the finish line after nine hours on the course. I thought about speeding up, like the fantasy I’d played in my head so many times before the race. Maybe if I’d had a chance to make it in under nine hours I would have. But part of me wanted to take it slow. It was a strange feeling. Wanting to be done, relief at seeing the finish line, but also wanting to enjoy the moment, not wanting it to end. Like the sunrise earlier that morning, the rest of the world had faded away.
I coasted across the finish line in 9 hours 10 minutes and 16 seconds.
Post Race Activities
My beautiful and supportive wife was a the finish line. She snapped a few pictures while I was still standing. But then we wandered to the edge of the finish area and relaxed in the shade of a large oak tree.
I didn’t feel like eating much, but a post race meal was included for 50 mile participants. I did get a plate of food, but to be honest, there is not much to write about. The food was edible, but not great.
While I wasn’t in the mood for food, I was in the mood for a beer. A post race beer was included by Sierra Nevada, one of the race sponsors. The Torpedo IPA is normally a great beer, but it was especially awesome after the race. Sitting in the shade, drinking a cold beer, body completely sore, exhausted, painful to even move. Life is pretty sweet.
Bag / Gear Drop
A few more notes on items I didn’t mention above.
50 milers were allowed to drop off a bag at the starting line to be brought to the Great Falls aid station, which was passed a total of four times at approximately mile 15, 22, 29, and 36. This was a convenient way to bring some spare gear and fuel. Being my first 50 miler, I wasn’t sure exactly what I would need so I probably overpacked a little. I brought an extra pair of shoes, shorts, shirt, socks as well as sunscreen, body glide, band-aids, duck-tape (for blisters), and a extra food and gels. Out of all that, the only thing I used were the socks and extra gels and I could have skipped the socks.
A little more detail on the aid stations. Overall, I found that they were well stocked and provided good support. To name just a few of the items available: water, electrolyte drinks, chicken broth, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, energy gels and chews, pretzels, potatoes with salt, and much more. The Aid station helpers were also very friendly and helpful. They didn’t hesitate to ask you what you needed and would pour water into your water bottles and hydration packs while you held them if needed.
Bib / Packet Pick-up
Runners are allowed to pick up their race bib at the starting line. I had picked mine up on the Thursday before the race, so I can’t comment on the race day pick-up. But I did notice that there wasn’t a line at the booth, at least before 5AM for the 50 miler. Early packet Pick-up was at The North Face store in Georgetown or Tyson’s Corner. I thought I had remembered from prior years that I needed to specify which store you wanted to pick it up at, but that was not the case this year. I picked my packet up at the Tyson’s location on Thursday evening and it was smooth. At the pickup, you have the option to get your shirt stamped and pick it up at the race instead.
A quick list of my primary gear for the race. Be sure to check my reviews.
- Pearl Izumi EM Trail N2 – Be sure to check out my Pearl Izumi EM Trail N2 review.
- Nathan HPL #020 2L Race Vest – Be sure to check out my Nathan HPL #020 review.
- Garmin fenix 3, Gray, GPS Watch – Be sure to check out my Garmin fenix 3 review.
- GU Energy Gel
Things I would do differently next time
Overall, I was very happy with the race and my performance. As with everything, there are a couple things I would do differently next time.
1. Less gels and more variety. Gels certainly have their advantages. They are a simple and convenient way to get calories and energy during a race. However, for long races like this, that was just too many gels for me. I lost count, but I must have had between 15-20 gels during the race. While I didn’t get sick, my stomach was starting to protest toward the end. Next time, I plan to throw in a little more variety into my caloric intake.
2. More efficient time at aid stations. When I think back to those precious minutes I wasted looking for my drop bag, changing my socks, trying to reload on gels, I am pretty sure I could have probably come in under 9 hours. Next time, before the race and as I approach an aid station, I plan to be a little more organized about what I want to accomplish.
Overall, the TNFEC GORE-TEX 50 Miler was a well organized race. The course was fun. The aid-stations were well stocked and provided great support. It was a great race and a great experience. It is definitely one that I would consider doing again in the future and would recommend to others.
I hope this race recap was both interesting and informative. Feel free to leave any comments or questions below. Thanks for reading.