Tuesday, December 8, 2009

2009 North Face Endurance Challenge 50 miler San Francisco

The story really starts with the 2008 edition of the race, where I finished 2nd to Matt Carpenter by about 5 minutes. After the 2007 race Matt analyzed his preparation for the race and came up with several things he needed to change in preparation for the 2008 race. He did, and he was prepared and ready. I knew he’d be more ready in 2008, yet somehow I thought I beat him before, I’ll beat him again. I should know by now that this kind of mindset doesn’t win big races. So after the 2008 race I tried to figure out what I needed to change to be ready this year. I came up with 4 things:
1) Don’t focus on and run a marathon earlier in the fall.
2) Don’t run your long training runs too hard
3) More milage
4) More uphills / downhills

The training went well and as the race approached I felt I was in the best shape for this race so far, ready for a course record. Given the list of runners who were listed in the published registration, and those who told me at one point or another of their intent to compete, I thought it might be necessary to run a CR just to be “in the money” (top 3).

The top contenders in 2009 in alphabetical order:
Sal Bautista: Won the Bellingham and Wisconsin TNF 50 milers this year. Ran a great time on a very hard course in Bellingham. Recent college grad.
Matt Carpenter: 2nd at 2007 race, won with CR in 2008. CR at San Juan Solstice 50, Leadville 100, Pikes Peak ascent and marathon. Too many others to mention all.
Sebastien Chaigneau (France): Second place finisher at this year’s 103 mile TNF Tour de Mont Blanc. Don’t know much else about him.
Tsuyoshi Kaburagi (Japan): Third at last year’s race, about 6 minutes behind me. Third at Tour de Mont Blanc this year.
Hal Koerner: 2008 and 2009 Western States 100 champion.
Anton Krupicka: Had run really well mostly in 100 mile races before, but this July stunned everyone by breaking my CR at the White River 50 by 34 seconds, demolishing a very talented field in the process.
Jason Louitt (Canada): He was one place behind me at the 2009 Mountain Running World Championships in Italy in September.
Chris Lundstrom: 2:17 marathoner, his first 50 miler, but he’s familiar with the trails and the course.
Dave Mackey: Beat him in both of our previous meetings, at the 2003 Way too Cool and 2003 White River 50. But he had obliterated an already strong CR at the Miwok 100 earlier this year, on a course that uses many of the same trails as TNF 50.
Chikara Omine: Won Skyline 50 this year, 2nd (behind Mackey) at Firetrails 50, local runner who is very familiar with the trails.
Goeff Roes: If he doesn’t get Ultra Running Magazine’s “Ultrarunner of the Year” award the voting panel would clearly disqualify itself. CR at Wasatch (by over one hour), CR at the Bear, CR at Mountain Masochist (by over 20 min).
Leigh Schmitt: 2nd at the 2009 Washington TNF 50 race, knows course from last year.
Uli Steidl: 2007 winner, 2nd in 2008. 2:19:45 marathon this spring. 12th at Boston in 2007. Current CR at Chuckanut 50, Sunmart 50, Way too Cool. Former CR at WR 50.
Michael Wardian: 2009 USATF ultra runner of the year. Top 10 finishes at last 2 IAU 100k world cups. Multiple USATF 50k, 100k champion. Won WR 50 in 2008, second behind Krupicka in 2009.
Mike Wolfe: Won WR 50 in 2006, 2007.

The day before the race I found out that both Matt Carpenter and Tony Krupicka had not contacted the race director and are not entered in this year’s race. I later heard second hand that both have (or had) knee problems.
The only other runner from this list not to start was Sal Bautista. He had picked up his race package the day before, but did not start.
While the absence of these three runners clearly weakened the field, I still think (in my biased opinion) that this was the strongest field of any 50 mile race in the US this year, may be in several years.

The course:
About 5 % pavement, the rest is on dirt fire roads and smooth single track trails with awesome views of the Pacific mixed with technical single track through old growth forest, and brief views of San Francisco.
Due to reconstruction of the Dias Ridge trail the section from Muir Beach to Tennessee Valley was changed, and shortened. I ran this section easy on Friday before the race and estimated it to be about 1 mile shorter than the Dias Ridge trail. Upon returning home I mapped both sections with Google Earth – it’s very open terrain and they still had the old satellite picture with the original Dias Ridge trail. The new section is 1.1 miles shorter and has about 150 feet less of elevation change. So given a pace of about 8:00 min / mile for the elite men, I estimate the course was about 9 min faster this year, about 18 min for the back of the pack.

The race:
The start of the race was delayed by 15 min (not sure why), but given the almost perfect weather conditions (cool, no fog, very light wind) this was no big deal. The first section is a flat mile, followed by an 800 foot climb up the Bobcat and Alta fire roads. Jason Louitt was pushing the early pace, with the rest of the chase group running fairly close together. Jason really picked it up on the descent down into Rodeo Valley, and by the time we reached the first aid station at 5.8 miles in 41 min (42 min last year) he was out of sight.

On the 600 ft climb up the Miwok trail – actually a fire road - a group of about 15 runners formed, with Jason way out in front. When we got to the turnoff onto the Old Springs trail I thought I saw a light way higher up on the Miwok trail. Turned out that Jason had missed the turn. There was no arrow pointing to the Old Springs trail, but there were several ribbons at the intersection and down along the Old Springs trail. Missing that turn clearly was his own fault. By the time we got into the Tennessee Valley aid station at 1:05h there were still about 15 runners within a minute.

The next 1.5 miles are gradual downhill on pavement and dirt before a steep 500 ft climb up another road. This is where the fun starts: technical single track in the dark on the coastal trail. After the descent to and climb out from Pirate’s Cove I looked back and could see a chain of about 12 lights behind me (and 2 in front), then a huge gap to the next person just starting the descent.
A few minutes later, just before the Muir Beach aid station (1:37:34 – 1:38 last year), Jason comes flying by like he’s running a ½ marathon: “I missed a turn before Tennessee Valley!” And with that he stormed into the lead and soon had about 40 seconds on us.

After running through the Muir beach community for about ¼ mile we hit the Redwood Creek trail briefly before starting the long (1500 ft) climb to Pan Toll via the Heather Cutoff and the Coastal trail. At the bottom of the climb the race was as follows: Jason is about 40 seconds ahead of us, Geoff Roes, Dave Mackey, myself and Chikara Omine – in that order – all together. The rest of the larger lead group is following close behind in smaller groups. Geoff seemed determined to not let the gap to Jason get any bigger and started to pull away from Dave. I didn’t want to be left behind, so I passed Dave and went with Geoff. Even though I was racing I had time to enjoy the beautiful ocean view and sunrise. Makes this climb seem to go by so much faster! After about 2/3 of the climb we caught up with a slowing Jason and passed right by him. Dave and Chikara were may be 60 seconds back at the time.

My plan was to eat and drink a lot in the first half of the race so I would have the necessary energy when the racing starts in earnest in the last 2 hours or so of the race. Turned out my plan was a little too ambitious, or we ran too hard early on, as a good fraction of what I had consumed in the previous 2 hours found their way back up and out just before the Pan Toll aid station. We had reached Pan Toll at 2:20 (2:23 last year).

After some more fluids came up on the first 2 switchbacks down the Steep Ravine trail I tried the humorous approach: “I don’t like this! But at least my stomach feels good now!” I was worried that the loss of fluids and calories would hurt me in the end, but there was nothing I could do about it but try to eat and drink more.

The Steep Ravine trail is an awesome single track descent through old-growth forest and along a creek, with lots of stairs, roots, rocks and even a ladder to go down. At this point it was just Geoff and I, with no one else in sight. I was in front, and Geoff commented that “for a speedy road runner you are very nimble on this trail.” I tried to not go too fast on this section as there is still a lot of running to be done after this.

We reached the Stinson Beach aid station after 2:40 (2:43 last year), so a 20 minute descent. I was out a few seconds earlier than Geoff, and Dave Mackey caught up with Geoff briefly at the aid station, but did not stay with him as Geoff caught up with me early on the Matt Davis trail
climb. I asked Geoff what’s up with Dave and he said Dave told him he doesn’t feel good on the climbs today. Geoff and I stayed together for the entire climb, and we never saw anyone else until we got to the open section where we turned left onto the Coastal Trail to the McKennan aid station. That’s when we saw that Chris Lundstrom had moved into third place, a little over a minute back. From the top of the Matt Davis trail it took about 21 min to the aid station, and nothing changed in that section.

We reached the aid station at 3:28:20 (3:32 last year). It was interesting to see where everyone was as we headed back towards Pan Toll. Chris was still a minute back. Michael Wardian was about 6 min back at this point, not sure where Mackey was. About 10 min after we left the aid station Caitlin Smith headed our way, closely followed by Joelle Vaught. Holy crap!!! They are just over 20 min behind us at the ½ way point, and we are on CR pace! In 2007 Lizzy Hawker didn’t run Matt off the trail til way later. They must have been at least 10 min ahead of Lizzy’s pace from 2007 at that point. After seeing several other runners on this out-and-back section we eventually ran into Jason. He had lost about 30 min in the span of 1:30h and would later drop.

After about 20 min we got back to the Matt Davis trail junction and stayed straight on the Coastal trail towards Pan Toll. This section is relatively flat, with a few rolling hills. Chris continued to be about 1 minute behind us all the way into Pan Toll (4:01 – last year 4:04).
Pan Toll was not a good place for me that day. I had just taken another gel before the aid station, and that didn’t go over well with my stomach. So I came running into the aid station puking. My wife Trisha – who did a fantastic job crewing for me all day – had a very worried look on her face and asked me how I’m doing. “Besides the throwing up I’m fine.” I really felt fine with that exception, and even my stomach was fine afterwards. But now I was really concerned about running out of steam in the later stages of the race! But there was no point to dwelling on that thought. With that I grabbed my bottle and more gels and off we went, just as Chris came into the aid station.

This next section, the Bootleg trail, drops about 1200 feet of great technical single track, with lots of stairs, through old growth forest and along a creek. A trail runner’s dream. Last year I tried to close a 2:30 min gap I had on Matt at Pan Toll, and I came within a few seconds on the bottom before Matt pulled away again on the next climb. This year Geoff just took off and we flew down that trail way faster than I ran it last year. Geoff is definitely a better downhill runner than Matt, but also not quite as strong of a climber. So while I was going close to my limit to stay with him on that descent I had an easier time to stay with him on the climbs compared to Matt. At the top of the Lost trail by the Panoramic Hwy was my wife and Geoff’s sister and dad, cheering us on. Chris Lundstrom was about 1:30 min behind us at that point, according to Trisha later, but we never saw him. Geoff continued to push the pace on the Sun trail, then I led the descent down the road and Dipsea trail to the Old In aid station. We got there in 4:52:27 (4:58 last year, 5:05 in 2007).

Geoff was out of the aid station first, and we crossed Redwood creek and started the 300 ft climb towards the Deer Park fire road. The last 30 seconds of that climb Geoff slowed down significantly (he later told me he wasn’t aware of that at all), but I didn’t pass him. We ran down the fire road together and the way the gate at the end of the road was closed sort of forced me into the lead. So I led the flat single track Redwood creek trail back to Muir beach. I didn’t really push it here, but definitely ran that section faster than last year.

I figured the race will likely be decided on one of the last 2 climbs. I thought as long as Geoff doesn’t find another gear on the hills than what he had shown so far, I would likely be able to hang with him. Of course there was the issue of all the lost fluids and calories earlier in the race that might catch up with me. I wasn’t going to try to push it on the climb out of Muir Beach. For all I cared we could let it come to a sprint on the last 400m on the road. I mean, I prefer to pull away sooner, but if that’s not possible I like my chances in a sprint at the end (except if it would have been Chris Lundstrom).

We ran into the Muir Beach aid station together, and I left a few seconds before Geoff. For the first minute of the climb I could hear his steps and breathing behind me, when all of a sudden it got quiet. Did he stop to pee? Or is this the break I was hoping for? I didn’t turn around for a few minutes but kept my effort steady, at something I thought I could sustain for the entire 1000 ft climb, and when I finally turned he was may be 30 seconds behind. As time passed the gap grew, and by the top of the hill my lead was about 2:30min. I reduced my effort to about 90% as I didn’t want to risk a late-race blow-up. I kept turning around but couldn’t see him (or anyone else) any more.

I got into the Tennessee Valley aid station at 5:51:22 (6:12 last year, but adjusted for the course change it would have been about 6:03 last year). Trisha told me I had “at least 2 minutes” lead. That kind of concerned me, as I had 2:30 lead at the top of the hill. Did Geoff actually get closer?!? As it turned out, he didn’t. My actual lead at TV was 3:30 min.

Anyway, I knew we both had slowed down somewhat from our earlier pace between mile 30 and 40, so I was a little afraid someone might sneak up on both of us at the end. With the Marincello road climb being shared with the 50k and ½ marathon runners it is a little more difficult to tell if someone from the 50 mile race is coming up from behind. So my plan was to keep running at 90% and turning around from time to time to make sure there was no bad surprise. My quads were pretty thrashed at this point from the downhills, mostly the crazy descent on the Bootleg trail. So I didn’t want to push it harder than I had to.

I knew by the TV aid station that the clock would stop for me well under the old course record. However, from running the new trail section on Friday before the race I knew it was about 8-10 min faster than the old section. So I wanted to be sufficiently under the old CR that I could call it a true CR for myself, regardless of what the race officials say. Once I got to the last AS at Alta my energy level was actually pretty good for that point in the race and my brain wanted to push it hard for the last 2.5 miles. But my quads objected: “only if it’s absolutely necessary”. Since I could not see anyone fast behind me for a long way my quads won out and I kept it at 90% all the way to the finish.

Final time: 6:33:30
Adjusted time: about 6:42:30 equivalent on old course
Old CR: 6:49:33, 2008, Matt Carpenter
So in my book I count it as about a 7 min CR.

A big thank you to my wife Trisha for her help on race day with crewing, in the days before the race for getting me ready mentally, in the weeks and months before the race in helping me plan my training and in the past few years for giving me the opportunity to train more or less professionally and letting me schedule most of my “work” around my training.

Thank you to Dr Scott and Dr Jeff from Essential Chiropractic for taking care of my adductor / hip flexor / etc issues. I didn’t feel a thing during the race, or afterwards! When it comes to running related injuries, they are the best!

Thank you to The North Face for putting on such a great event. Thank you for putting up a prize purse that attracts such a high caliber field! As I told Trisha afterwards, I’m not sure what I’m more happy about, the money I won or that I have beaten such a strong field, in CR time. Of course, without the money there would not be such a strong field. I’ll save my full take on prize money in ultras for another blog….
I was happy to hear that the 4 regional TNF races and the championship events will not only continue, but expand next year: a marathon, a 50k and a 50 miler on Saturday, and a 5k, a 10k and a ½ marathon on Sunday! I wish them good luck with this expansion, and if any of you reading this ran the race I encourage you to fill out the feedback survey they have online. I know they actually read them and try to make the event even better the next year.

Full results and the survey are posted at:

A 4 minute video of Geoff and I at about mile 34 is posted here:


  1. Way to go, Uli - what a great accomplishment!

  2. Uli,

    You are incredible. I won't complain anymore about my calf hurting when I'm doing a lousy lap around Green Lake! Great job! AND your coach is awesome!

    Ken Jenson

  3. Congratulation Uli!! Way to go. Plus, welcome to the world of the blogger. Well writter account of the story.

  4. Hi Uli,
    Congratulations! Unbelivable that my cousin runs that much and wins the 50 miles-race in 2009. I´d need a bike to reach the finishing-line...
    Anyway, nice to get some informations from the US, especially about you. Greetings from good old Germany,

  5. Congrats again Uli! It's an honor to be able to run in your footprints...even if those footprints are usually many many many minutes (or hours) old! :) Look forward to more "blogs"!


  6. Uli,
    Congratulations on the great race. Thanks for what was the most exciting ultra race I've ever seen!


  7. Big kudos to you for crushing TNF! Glad to hear you are back in top shape.

    I'm excited to see you blogging too. Your pre- and post-race analysis is a rare view into the mind of a truly elite runner. I appreciate you sharing your insight.

    I'll point some folks to your blog...happy holidays and best of luck with the citizenship!

    Cheers, SD

  8. Devon posted this video link on her facebook page. I wondered who this guy is who was able to keep up with us for so long, especially with a large (10 lbs?) video camera.

    This scene is at the top of the Lost trail just below Panoramic Hwy, about mile 34.

  9. Thanks for the awesome insight and I look forward to more blogs of your adventures.

    It was fun following you and Geoff on the trail for a mile, thanks to JB Benna and his camera, I got winded just sitting in my chair watching you two.

  10. congrats on the great race uli. loved reading the blow by blow too. welcome to the interwebs.

  11. Great Race/ Race Recap! Welcome to the blog world!

  12. The course picked up extra distance by taking Plevin Cut (last year the course went up Fern Creek), and also by going round on Miwok before going into TV the final time (last year the course went on shorter Miwok Cutoff). Between those two changes the extra mile comes back in. So I think you should be proud of your Course Record!

  13. Congrats on an amazing race. Loved following along online when I could. Great to read your recap and race perspective.

  14. Nice blog Uli. It was great meeting you and congratulations on an outstanding race. Thanks to Trisha as well for showing us the way and being an immediate friend. Michelle (Geoff's Sister)

  15. Upfeasil more often says,

    Fabulous athlete. Great wife. Totally focused. Maybe the best runner I know.

    Too bad you are firewood challenged.

  16. Uli,
    vielen Dank für den Einblick ... Gerne mehr davon!
    Grüße aus Dutschland

  17. Hi Uli, I think I read previous write ups from you on this race before. I'd love to see those up here. You can post those and back date them. Once you submit a post, you can go in and click on edit post, and then right below the text is a link that says something like Post Options...clicking on that link lets you change the date. So you could (for example) load your previous 2007 NF50 report up and then edit the date so it shows up here on your blog in the correct dated order.

  18. Uli- Congrats on your win. That was super fun running against you and that crowd.
    I would agree that things went out too fast (not that it would have helped my race at all; I made a risky choice in early November that sealed my fate at the north face race).
    Looking forward to next year, Dave

  19. Uli,
    Congratulations again on another incredible TNFEC!!! Thanks for blogging about the race! It's cool to see what goes on at the front of the pack and read about the mindset it takes to win.

    It was great to see you and Trish! Can't wait for WR!

    All Day!

  20. Herzlichen Glückwünsch zu Deinem großartigen Erfolg.

  21. Glueckwuensche auch aus Kalifornien!!

  22. Glückwunsch aus San Luis Obispo von Thomas. Wie gehts den so. Ich schreib dir bald mal ne private mail um "Hallo" zu sagen.

    Thomas Reiss

  23. Congrats on the win - in fine fashion, too! And great write-up. I look forward to reading more of your race reports and posts about running.


  24. Uli,
    I think that you are an amazing runner. I admire your talent.

    Kelly S. Nichols

  25. hey i saw you at the rohdy run. i am the kkid who won the 5-12 year old division, you ran a great time.

  26. Uli, any thoughts on Hood to Coast this year? We have New Balance and Powerade sponsorships. Let me know.
    Brett Carter, carterb, stanford, edu

  27. Hope training is going well for this year's race. Don't be afraid to post on your blog once in awhile. :)