Monday, December 28, 2009

The 2007 Northface SF 50 miler report

As requested by a reader of my blog, here's the race report of The Northface Endurance Challenge 50 miler, San Francisco, Dec 1st 2007. 95% of this the original report, with a few minor additions in [....]:

This report actually needs to start WAY before the actual race. Sometime last spring my wife Trisha and I read about this event online and pretty much on the spot Trisha decided that this would be my 3rd focus race of the year. The other two were the Boston Marathon (12th place) and the IAAF world track & field championships in Osaka in August (37th in the Marathon, competing for Germany).
I more or less kicked off my training for the San Francisco 50 miler by running the Seattle edition of the Northface Endurance Challenge 50 miler on October 6th. I had done one long run (3:46h) about 2 weeks earlier, and no run over 3:30h all year before then. The Seattle course was quite brutal, with about 13,000 ft of elevation gain and 13000 ft of descent. I consider myself somewhat lucky that Phil Kochik didn't have his best day either, or I might not have won that day.
My key runs to get ready for San Francisco after the Seattle race were a marathon in 2:47, 3 long (4 - 5 hours at goal race intensity) runs at Cougar Mountain, and 3 XC races against open and collegiate runners. In addition, I flew to San Francisco 2 1/2 weeks before the race and ran almost the entire course over a 3 day span, which would turn out to be exceedingly valuable on race day for route finding.
Several of my running friends at the Seattle Running Company asked me about the competition for the San Francisco race, months before the race. I told them: "I don't know who will actually be there, but if I'm in good shape and have no major "issues" during the race, the only US ultra runner who can beat me on this course is Matt Carpenter. [In 2009 I didn't make that statement, knowing that there are now a handful of runners who can run with me on a good day.] I don't know if anyone from overseas will come for this race. Of course, 50 miles is a long way, and a lot can happen. If I do have "issues" there are quite a few runners who can beat me."

I decided to book a private room at the Marin Headlands youth hostel, which is across the road from the start of the race. That way I could get ready for the race and be inside until a few minutes before the start in case of bad weather. It turned out to be as perfect a day for running a 50 miler as you can get in San Francisco in December. Temperatures were in the mid 30ies at the start, and the mid 50ies by noon, with plenty of sunshine.

The race started out more or less as expected, with a group of 6 or 7 of us together, including the eventual women's winner Liz Hawker from England. The first 10k loop was a climb up Bobcat trail and a descent down the Rodeo Valley trail. This was followed by a climb up the Miwok trail and a descent to the Tennessee Valley parking lot (mile 9). This descent was the first somewhat technical stretch of the course, and having a headlamp and a flashlight definitely helped. Unfortunately I got a little rock in my shoe despite wearing trail gaiters. So at the aid station I had to take the gaiter off, empty my shoe and get the shoe back on (I didn't put on the gaiter again).
Trisha told me that about 20 runners had come by at Tennessee Valley about 40 minutes after the start. They went left at the junction where you go right (up the Bobcat trail) the first time and left (on Rodeo Valley trail to the Miwok trail) the second time through. This part of the course was well marked and a lot of people must have blindly followed the first person to go wrong.
After that stop at the TV aid station I took the next half mile to catch back up with the rest of the lead group. Nothing noteworthy happened on the section between TV aid station and Muir Beach, except that after Muir Beach it was light enough to turn the headlamps off.
The next interesting part came about a mile after the Muir Beach aid station. We had to make a sharp left turn off the Redwood Creek trail to the Heather Cutoff. There were ribbons also straight along the Redwood Creek trail. However, those were for runners coming from the other direction way later in the race, at mile 38. Some people in my group wanted to go straigth, but I convinced them that we need to turn right. I do know for a fact that at least 2 others went straight on the Redwood Creek trail and then up the Deer Park or Dipsea trail to reconnect with the actual course about 3/4 miles before the Pantoll aid station. I think it's about the same distance as the actual course, and obviously the same elevation gain... [In 2008 and 2009 the course was very well marked. I know some runners still went the wrong way those years, but that was mostly due to their no paying attention.]
The climb to Pantoll is the first major climb of the race, with an elevation gain of 1500ft. We started out as a group of 6, but I'm not sure who the 6 people were. By the time we got to the top it was Matt, myself and one other guy in the lead, followed by William Emerson a little back, and 2 more guys even further back. Coming into the Pantoll aid station I met my crew, exchanged my bottle, grabbed a muffin and headed out. Matt and the other guy went for what I thought was their drop bags and I expected them to catch up with me on the descent to Stinson Beach. However, only Matt caught up with me just after the Stinson Beach aid station. He said the other guy was still looking for his drop bag as the bags were still in the truck when we arrived at Pantoll.
Coming off the trail into Stinson Beach you pop out on Hwy 1 and you have to turn right after about 50m, onto the road just past the fire station. The Matt Davis trailhead is about 150m up that road. There were no course markings telling us to go right at the fire station, and no volunteers either. I made sure Matt saw me make the turn (he was still 50 m behind me at that point) and we started to head up the longest climb of the course, the Matt Davis trail. I also know for a fact that at least one person didn't make this turn and headed down the highway through Stinson Beach.
The Matt Davis trail is pretty steep at the beginning, with lots of stairs. Matt pretty much kept the pace he was on to catch up to me and soon pulled away from me. I decided it's too soon to race, with more than half the distance left, so I picked up the pace slightly, but not enough to stay with him. I continued to see him ahead of me for a few minutes, then he disappeared. "May be we should rename the trail to Matt Carpenter trail", I thought. My thought before the race was that this trail is probably where the contenders separate themselves from the wanna-bees. I just thought we'd be a larger group at this point and that I wouldn't be one of those being dropped. Anyway, closer to the top the area becomes more open, and I saw that Matt was may be only 40 seconds ahead. On the next section, the Coastal trail, the distance between Matt and I stayed somewhere between 20 - 30 seconds. Matt took a pit stop right before the McKennan aid station at the turn-around (mile 26) and we were back together for the next several miles. First we ran into William, now in third and about 6 minutes behind. After a few more guys it was Liz Hawker, may be 12 - 15 minutes behind. Liz and I narrowly avoided a collision on the narrow trail. However, I don't think she saw that Matt was right behind me and the next thing I saw was Matt climbing back up to the trail. "She ran me right off the trail!" After he assured me he's OK I said something like "Man, she's not far back!" "Uli, we're getting old", was his reply. A few minutes later I heard a short scream and when I turned around I saw Matt getting back onto the trail. "Now you are running yourself of the trail!" "Yeah, I was daydreaming." The rest of the way back to the Pantoll aid station was uneventful.
We soon were on the most spectacular part of the course, the Bootleg trail in Muir woods. The next few miles were the only part of the course I didn't run earlier as it was changed shortly before the race. We descended 1300 ft on technical trail before climbing back up to the Panoramic highway via the Lost trail and Ocean View trail. After a short climb we got to an intersection with a ribbon _at_ the intersection, but no ribbons down the trail one way or the other visible. Now what? Based on my memory of the course map we had to stay right and descend in a few switchbacks down to a creek. Matt didn’t know either. So we went to the right. After 300m the trail did make a switchback, but still no ribbons. Just as Matt voiced his nervousness about our decision we saw a ribbon on the trail. We were on the right trail after all. On the next climb Matt again pulled away, by about 20 - 30 seconds. This is the only part in the entire race where I walked for may be 50 meters. The stairs were spaced too far for single (running) steps but too close for two steps - but walking large steps was OK.
At the top of the climb Trisha and Jennifer, a girl from the Seattle University XC team, were sitting on a big rock, watching us run up the trail. As Matt ran past them he said "Congratulations on winning the Seattle Marathon!" to Trisha. Trish did not tell me that until after the race, though.
About a 1/2 mile later I had caught up with Matt again and the trail crossed a private driveway. To my surprise a ribbon was placed about 15 feet up the driveway, and none along the trail. At this point again my course knowledge paid off. As Matt and a 50k runner we had caught up with wanted to follow the course markings I told them that this driveway would only lead us to the Panoramic Hwy, that the trail is what is marked on the course map and course description, and that it will lead us to the Dipsea trail in less than a 1/2 mile. And the website said runners are ultimately responsible for knowing the course. So we took the trail. When we got to the Dipsea trail we had to turn down to the right, but the ribbons were directing us up to the left. A few hundred feet later at the road crossing there were no markings at all. I suspect some idiots thought it would be fun to move / remove trail markings to confuse runners. [Again, in 2008 and 2009 the trail was marked very well, sometimes with ribbons every 30 feet, even when there was no intersection anywhere close.]
We followed the road down for may be 1/2 mile because the Dipsea trail is closed due to a washout [it is still closed in 2009], then descended the stairs down to the Muir Woods aid station. There were two noteworthy occurrences on the next 3 miles to Muir Beach: First, we ran into a group of 4 deer on the trail. They barely moved as we ran towards them. So we passed them a few feet away as they just looked at us. The second one came as we crossed one of the bridges on the Redwood Creek trail. We must have run across it with the exact same stride, and our stride frequency must have exactly matched the natural frequency of the bridge. The bridge started shaking so hard I thought it might collapse – but it didn’t.
I tried to pick up the pace somewhat to see if I could put a little gap on Matt before the Dias Ridge climb, but he stayed right on my heels the entire way to Muir Beach. At the bottom of the Dias Ridge climb (mile 39) Matt was a few steps ahead and I expected him to push this climb, especially the first, steeper part. To my surprise he didn't run any faster than I was comfortably able to run as well. This was the first time in a long while that I thought I do have a realistic chance to win this one. We stayed together for the rest of the climb to the Shoreline Hwy aid station at mile 41. This one came just in time as I had run out of water about 5 minutes earlier. We both refilled our bottles and while I grabbed 2 Carboom from my drop bag Matt got a 10 second lead. I ate one of ‘booms, then caught Matt may be 3 minutes later. I kept running the pace I was on to catch up with Matt on this gradual uphill, and again Matt just stayed right with me. A few minutes later I feel a rather large rock under my left heel. "Damn it! I can't stop now! ... But it's still about an hour of running with 2 major descends. I can't do that with this rock in my shoe. I have to stop." So I stopped and emptied my shoe, and Matt got a 15 second gap. Again, I was able to close the gap within a few minutes.
On the final descend into Tennessee Valley we both were running pretty hard. I decided to eat my other Carboom before the aid station so I can focus on just running and drinking on the last 40 min of the race. This turned out to have been a bad idea. About 30 seconds after I finished my ‘boom it came back out - in about 5 or 6 "episodes". Again Matt got a 10 - 15 second lead. Fortunately my stomach settled quickly and I closed the gap to within a few seconds by the time we came into the aid station.
Trisha was waiting there with a new bottle of Gatorade and she had an open pack of Carboom in her hand: "Uli, eat this right now!" "No, I just threw one up 5 minutes ago." "Take it. You HAVE to eat!" I wasn't in the mood to argue, so I just took the bottle and the Carboom and took off. Matt meanwhile went to his drop bag. I expected him to slowly catch up to me again in the next few minutes. But instead I heard him come up behind me like a runaway train. I wasn't sure what to think. He pulled up next to me and said "Uli, you're &%#*ing tough" All I could think of was "So are you!" I was really surprised to hear what he said next "I think I'm done." And with that he dropped off the pace and I was by myself.
I still wasn't sure if that was really the last I'd see of Matt until the finish. I kept running the same pace I was before for several minutes before I turned around. Matt wasn't anywhere in sight. At this point I knew I had won the race. I still felt that I owed it to myself, the race, and Matt to run it in fairly hard, and not just jog and look over my shoulder once in a while.
I had already gotten mentally (not sure if I would have been physically) ready for the race to come down to a sprint over the last mile or so, but I’m very happy that it didn’t come down to it. Over the last 2 miles I just tried to maintain my pace to finish under 7:00 hours, which I did in 6:57:22. Matt was second in 7:10:10, 41 minutes ahead of 3rd place Leigh Schmitt in 7:51:06.

The final time difference certainly doesn’t tell the whole story of this race. It was a more or less easy run for 20 miles, followed by a 25 mile neck and neck race. Matt was definitely the thoughest competition I have faced in any of my 11 ultras so far. He certainly lived up to the “go out hard. When it hurts, pick it up”, his sign-off in every e-mail. As he told me afterwards, his quads were just thrashed. I certainly wasn’t able to tell from the way he ran down to the Tennessee Valley aid station. He’s also one of the nicest guys out there, and his dry humor always provides entertainment along the course. Last year at Pikes Peak Matt smoked me by 23 minutes, this time I came out on top. I think this probably wasn’t the last time we ran against each other. And while I hope the outcome will be the same as this year, I wouldn’t bet on it! [As everyone knows, Matt came back in 2008 to beat me by 5 minutes and set a CR in the process. Hopefully Matt will be back in 2010...]

Ultras run so far:
2002 Chuckanut 50k 3:57 1st CR
2003 Way too Cool 50k 3:18:17 1st CR
2003 White River 50M 6:37 1st CR
2004 White River 50M 6:32:43 1st CR
2004 Sunmart 50k 3:12 1st CR
2005 Chuckanut 50k 3:42:59 1st CR
2005 Sunmart 50k 3:07:47 1st CR
2006 Chuckanut 50k 3:55 1st
2006 American River 50M 5:58:44 1st
2007 Northface Seattle 50M 8:17 1st (CR)
2007 Northface SF 50M 6:57:22 1st (CR)
2008 Northface SF 50M 6:54:45 2nd
2009 Bridle Trails 50k 3:31:06 1st
2009 Northface Bellingham 50M DNF
2009 Northface SF 50M 6:33:30 1st (CR) (course was shorter than in '07, '08)


  1. where would you do your 4 to 5 hour long runs? Were they all done on single-track or was it a mix of dirt fire-roads?

  2. Pretty much all single track. If you can run 25 miles on the road and 5 hours on single track, then you can run a 50 miler that's a mix of single track and dirt roads.
    I did most of my long runs at Tiger Mountain and Cougar Mountain.

  3. hey uli, shoot me an email at: so i have your email address. i have something i want to get in touch with you about. thanks, Geoff

  4. Hey Uli,
    Perhaps you'll remember me. This is Levi Lieb and I was high school runner at Glencoe High School and was at White Pass camp for 2 sessions during the summer of 97 when you were there. We gave you a ride back from camp one week. Anyway, I've followed your running off and on over the years from articles I happen to read. Lost your e-mail long before, but always was curious to see what you were up to. I ran for one year on the track team at Montana State, but after having my knee go out on me during my only marathon (Portland- my hometown) have been limited to mostly treadmill running these days. Another Glencoe runner, Billy Strick, just finished his first 50K and he saw your blog and forwarded it on to me. Glad to see you're still kicking some tail. Would be great to hear from you. Take care.

  5. What a great, thorough race report! I hope you revive this blog and post some more.