The North Face Endurance Challenge DC 50 Miler

This event represented my third crack at running the 50 mile distance and my first time really racing it. My previous attempts at covering this distance were both at the JFK 50 Miler (2015 and 2016).

JFK is more iconic, interesting and lightyears more competitive than TNFECDC but it’s also undoubtedly an easier course. My only experience at this 50 mile distance was a course that’s mostly flat or paved, so with a trail 100 looming later in the Summer this year, I felt like it was important for me to get a 50 miler under my belt that was (nearly) entirely on-trail. 

I can’t say my training was really up to snuff: I had been averaging 50 mile weeks and while I was mixing in a decent mix of road speed work and longer easier trail runs, I wasn’t able (willing?) to get the requisite volume or all of the key kinds of workouts that I think a 50 miler really demands. So while I had a good 50K in early March, I really didn’t have a string of awesome weeks or workouts that gave me any sort of confidence going in.

What I did have was a hunger to do well at this race. I ran my first marathon in June 2014 on the TNFECDC course and that experience really sparked my interest in committing to getting better at trails and ultras. I thought that I’d make faster progress. When I returned to the marathon course (in April the next year, instead of June) my overconfidence and novice grasp of nutrition and hydration strategy led me to run an absolutely awful race. I blew up epically and had to walk the last 8 miles or so. I had felt a level of pain I never felt before in a race and hoped I would never experience again.

So I chipped away at the work of becoming a better runner, tried to get consistent and I started to have more success at the longer distances. When I ran JFK the next two years, I was really eager to do really well but felt like I underperformed comparative to what I perceived to be my ability. My 6:40:48 for 13th man (15th overall) in 2016 was the best run of the two, however I was massively disappointed afterward - I felt like I had more to give and the feeling that I could have done more, worked harder, run a better race and make the top ten - that I had squandered my shot to crush it - threw me into a funk.

Gratefully, more consistency and some decent results this Winter put me back on track physically and mentally. When I toed the line in Algonkian Regional Park with nearly 300 runners (well...certainly less - some runners chose not to start with a weather forecast of 85º and 80%+ humidity), I was in a good headspace. I thought a spot on the podium was more than doable but I wasn’t cocky about it. I was calm and motivated and knew it would take work to get it done and that I couldn’t be foolish. My plan was to run my own race the entire time: an easy 8:00ish pace to Great Falls 15 miles from the start and then negative split the three 7 mile loops (57ish/55ish/52ish) before the 15 mile trip back to Algonkian. 

And then, moments before the 5am start of the race, disaster struck! My GPS watch wouldn’t connect to a satellite. It’s a glitch I’ve seen in training a few times and the only fix is to sync it with my phone or computer. With my phone in my dropbag and the race seconds from starting, I realized I would probably have to run blind, with no data about my pace. Instead of going out nice and easy, and making up time in the middle miles, I felt like I needed to stick with the leaders and hope that my perceived effort (which felt in the right range) was, in fact, in the right range.

All I had to go on for the first fifteen miles was the time of day, my two-year-old memories of the course and the recollections of my fellow runners in the lead pack. It wasn’t a catastrophe, but I was off-script immediately.

In the dark we ran and I struck up an easy rapport with a few of the runners on the course. It turned out one runner and I shared a mutual friend and we had a good time shooting the shit in the early miles. I settled into a lead pack of three runners (including the friend of a friend) about five miles outside of Great Falls. When we got there about two hours into the race, we all met our crews and began the first of three loops.

All I could think during this first loop is that I didn’t want to be the first member of this trio to break. “Keep going,” I thought, “don’t be the first one to fall back. Don’t be the second one to fall back. Keep going!” We ran side by side on the double track. The friend of a friend (his name was Steve) had run the 50 mile course before and graciously filled me and the other runner, Gavin, in on what to expect. 

(Note: this is why I prefer Ultras to Road Races. You would never, ever, in a million gazillion years, be able to have a conversation like this in a road race. Steve gave us good intel, and his info allowed us to pace and brace in a way that only helped us. There was no advantage to him doing this - he did it because he was a good guy and also, I imagine, because running alone for 7 hours is lonely and he wanted company.)

About two thirds the way through the first loop, on the way down a short, steep little staircase, I felt my left hamstring spasmed a little. Uh oh. But I knew what I could do. Shorter strides. More water. Another gel. Everything I could think of to mitigate what I felt was coming. I had been there before.

My last crack at the marathon course was thwarted by cramps just like what that muscle spasm portended. The difference was that those cramps came with about ten miles to go. Walking was embarrassing but it was only two hours of walking. At this moment of the race, I had nearly thirty miles to go. If I cramped up here the way I cramped up two years earlier, my race would be over. I wouldn’t walk thirty miles. No way. Not only wouldn’t I podium as I so desperately wanted, I would DNF, which I have never, ever - in any race, of any distance - done before. 

I was in deep trouble. (Holy Fucking Shit)

I was able to hold off the cramp and finish the first loop. I refueled and rehydrated at the aid station and began loop two, slower but steady.

Turns out I wasn’t the first to fall back from the lead trio: Gavin fell back before the end of the first lap, and I shrewdly led Steve out of the aid station. A few miles into loop two, my left leg seized properly and I was forced to stop for a few moments to stretch it out. Steve passed me by (to his credit, he checked on me to make sure I wasn’t grievously injured). I pitifully responded that I was working out a cramp. In my mind (this being around mile 24 - best I could guess), my day was coming to an end. This would get worse and I would likely be forced to feebly hobble back to finish loop two and DNF at mile 29. 

But something kept me going. Something I read in an article on outside.com about the Mantras that top ultrarunners keep for themselves during races:

Caroline Boller, a top American ultrarunner who holds the national best 50-mile trail time (5:48), also finds that having a mantra helps her power through rough patches. Boller will repeat, “It’s vast, it’s vast,” to remind herself that there’s a massive gap between the point at which her mind tells her to stop and what her body can actually tolerate. “This reminds me that the pain is only temporary,” she says. “It’s my body trying to protect itself, but my body is overly protective and lying to me.”

When I read that, I was blown away. What a simple and beautiful and perfect statement. With apologies to Caroline Boller (who is a BEAST), I knew I needed to steal this mantra the moment I read it. For a few months, I’ve used it in 5ks and 10 milers and workouts and it’s what I was repeating ad infinitum when my legs started seizing up. It immediately helped. Every. Single. Time. I. Said. The. Damn. Words.

It is vast.

No bullshit. Those three words saved my day and kept me going. They tapped into a part of my mind I had never accessed before. The statement of fact that the gulf between what my mind thought my body could take and what my body could actually take was a salve. It got me to finish loop two, a minute or so behind Steve, the leader. It got me to finish loop three, now nearly three minutes behind the leader. My crew of one, my uncle Jeff (without whom I could not have done this thing) told me at the end of loop three that the lead runner was serious and the important thing for me to do was to just finish. 

It is vast. 

I didn’t want to just finish. I didn’t know how I would do it but I wanted to win. I told Jeff that Steve told me he hadn’t really gotten a proper long run in this cycle, that there was a chance he’d break worse than I was about to break. Jeff probably thought I was nuts. Looking at the photos from the race, it’s clear to me now that in that moment I looked as if I was already broken and Jeff was trying to let me down easy. He had to have thought by looking at me, wet and hobbled and a little empty, that the podium was a dream and perhaps I was about to walk much of the fifteen miles back to Algonkian and take a few breaks sitting on rocks and that while I had a shot to finish, to eek out a moral victory, that was pretty much it. But I knew…

It is vast.

So I kept going. What I told myself was this: if I run the next fifteen miles 5 minutes faster than Steve, I’d win. If I didn’t, he would. We were fighting for first and second. no other outcome was possible. There was no third place or fourth place or DNF in the cards today. This was a race and while I might not win, I wasn’t going to concede or play it safe. It was me and it was him and whether or not he knew it, I was chasing him and I wouldn’t let go until I crossed the finish line.

I left Great Falls determined, if a bit delusional. The cramps were intolerable. (It is vast) I was on the razors edge. One slip, one fall would send my whole lower body into spasm and my day would be done. Of that, I was certain. (It is vast) At this point, I met 50k-ers and Marathoners who were completing the first part of the out-and-back. One 50k runner nicely informed me, “his lead is sizable but you might be able to catch him.”  (Gee, thanks!)

Fighting, fighting, fighting.

I kept my head down and pushed. One foot in front of the other. 50 miles isn’t that far. There’s less ahead than behind. Every cliché I could summon that might help. It had been drizzling and the trail floor was slick mud so I had to be careful where I planted my feet. A misstep would be disastrous.

As I approached an aid station with about 10 miles to go, I saw him. Good old Steve! He was looking, frankly, a little beat up. He walked out of the station and then started to jog. I snuck into the station quietly and took a moment to collect myself. The heat and humidity were in full effect. I asked the aid station crew if that was really the lead 50 mile runner. They said it was. I took a few energy chews, some water and salted potatoes (I was under stocked in the food and water department, given the weather and effort), I ran out of there hopeful. Winning was still in the cards.

I’m a little ashamed to say this, but from that point I stalked him. Like Jason Voorhees on the heels of a nubile teen. On the next big climb, I kept him in my sights and literally hid behind trees to keep him from spotting me. I wanted to catch him so bad. My body hurt so much. All I had was tricks and moxie. I chipped away and chipped away.

On a flat section of the course I had Steve dead in my sights. He was twenty, maybe thirty seconds away from me.  We were still five or six miles out. I didn’t want to make my move yet, but I needed to keep it close. If I was this close to him a mile out, when the course was flat and fast, I felt like I would be able to out-kick him. Dirty, maybe, but it was my only hope. My right shoelace had become undone but I had to run on it anyway. I was convinced that the act of bending down to retie it would force my legs into spasm.

And thinking that thought, distracted from the moment for just a second or two, is when I slipped in the mud. On this flat, non-technical, nothing section of the course, I slipped and slid off the side of the little hill and landed on my back. Whatever stealth I had maintained was blown the moment I fell - the torrent of obscenities and anger that erupted out of me was involuntary and cacophonous. Both of my legs immediately kicked into excruciating spasm and I felt the most unbearable pain. All I could do is let it go through me. I instinctively fell back on an old favorite mantra, a line I like from the novel DUNE, “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. Only I will remain.” 

Also, it was still vast.

I let the pain move through me. I allowed myself to say goodbye to my dream of winning, and probably of finishing in the top three. There was a flash of depression and self-pity and then-

And then I told myself to get up. 

Something happened. Something clicked in my brain. The doubt, the anger, the feeling sorry for myself. It instantly went away. “Not today,” I might have been saying to myself on a sub-atomic level. 

I grabbed handfuls of mud and slathered them on my legs and face. I wanted to use it to cool down, but also because whatever was taking me over from inside needed a new skin. Adrian’s delicate cutaneous layers were no longer sufficient. I needed to transform. Rational thought was out the window. I had broken psychically. I'd heard about this phenomenon before. It had never happened to me like this before. It was not by conscious choice or will of action, but something primal and base. I had heard and read of these moments being experienced by ultrarunners before but had never experienced it myself. I thought it was hyperbole, a myth, but I learned in this moment that it was real. In the span of a minute or so, I had obliterated my weakness and my preconceived notions about the day and became fully one with the actual moment. 

It is vast.

And glorious. 

Not only did I stand up, I ran. Slowly and tentatively and not without pain at first but quickly the pain went away. Intellectually, I knew pain existed in my body but I did not feel it. 

With five or six miles to go (who could tell and what would it matter?), I was reborn. 

I don’t know how much time I lost to my mud bath Christening and I didn’t care. I didn’t care about first or second or third or fourth… All I cared about was the maximum effort I could give and giving it. I had never given more of myself to a single act of physicality, maybe even spirituality, than I gave myself to those miles in that run.

And you know something? It wasn’t enough. 

I crossed the finish line in 7:02:50. I lost by three minutes. In a race that lasted seven hours, I crossed the finish line exactly three minutes after the winner. That’s a difference of 0.7%

I beat myself up for months about running 6:40 at JFK, a race I had no shot of winning on my best day but in the days following this race, I didn’t experience a second of remorse or second-guessing. I gave it everything. I can nitpick my training, my nutrition and maybe even my early race tactics, but I cannot and will not ever second guess my effort on this day.

It was, simply put, a breakthrough race for me. 

And the best part? The gift I would not have given myself if I had been running in first place that last mile, being chased by a big hearted and talented competitor? Fifty feet from the finish line I saw my wife and daughter and uncle waiting for me to cross. I went over to them, knowing my finish and place was in the bag, I scooped up my daughter (who, by virtue of sitting in a running stroller three or four days a week is my most reliable training partner) and crossed the line with her. 

I read that Jim Walmsley said he was glad to have gone off course at Western States because it afforded him the opportunity to walk the last few miles of his debut 100 with his family. Until the moment I crossed the finish line with my baby in my arms, I thought he was utterly full of crap. He wasn’t. It’s the best feeling in the world and one I wouldn’t trade for anything. 

I know it’s bullshit for second place (first loser) to say that their individual experience feels like winning but mine truly did. I’ve had disappointments before. The worst disappointments spring from the knowledge that you didn’t put in an honest effort and didn’t embrace a challenge with a full heart. This race wasn’t a disappointment. At all.

The guy that won is named Steve Tucker (make a note of that name - he’s got grit and he’s going to win more big races). I had a great time hanging with him in the early going and chasing him in the late stages. I feel like I made a friend for life. We battled it out in a way most people don’t get to. I’ll say this: I barely know the guy and I’m proud and happy for him like I would be a brother. That’s what a seven-hour race does to you. You bond. You experience something really, really hard that most people find unfathomable. I could see that he wanted it and I know he worked for it. I know what kind of effort I put in those last few miles so I know what kind of effort he must have put in those same miles (not to mention the 47 or so before). He deserved the win and I left the race looking forward to seeing what he does in the future (he’s got Hardrock on his schedule in July.)

You read about races like this in books, you really never think you’ll ever get to be in the middle of one. It was a gift and it was vast.

 

Adrian Spencer