Heat on the Potomac & New Blood on the Trails: 2013 North Face Endurance Challenge, Washington, DC

Fireflies at 5AM

I've seen some online kvetching about The North Face's decision to start the DC 50 miler just before dawn.  There are maybe 40 minutes of darkness before twilight, so why not just start at 6AM?  Adding to the annoyance of some, TNF race rules list as "mandatory" the possession of a flashlight or headlamp (although in three goes at the DC 50 miler, I've never seen anyone pulled out for not packing light).

Yet it makes for a magical first half hour.  You start out loping around a cool, dewy, grassy field.  There's a line of lights snaking ahead and behind, weaving and bobbing through the darkness.

Then on to the Potomac Heritage trail, plunging into the tunnel of trees, following the dangling glowsticks around the early twists and turns.   Out into the "lowlands" area, through long grass, marshy, nettly country.  The sun comes up by then, breaks brilliantly across the river to the east and south.

Frogs in a slow boil

The mid-Atlantic has had a mostly cool spring this year, punctuated by some weirdly sporadic heat, so I'm guessing most of the runners on the course were, like me, more or less utterly unprepared for 90-plus degree heat.  As an early AM runner, my preparation for the heat this year was, well, nil.

Yet the first two or three hours felt fabulous.  The air was warmish, but not particularly humid.  Almost silken in that first hour.  June air along the Potomac in the DC area can be a sloppy, muggy, atmospheric sinkhole.  But this was definitely not that.

When the first blue of the sky showed through the trees, it was that deep, low humidity sky I associate

with the West.   Sweat would be evaporating today in bucketloads.  Good and bad news.

I suspected things might get ugly, hours hence.  But like the intellectual knowledge that one will someday die, this seemed abstract.  I didn't feel it.  The knowledge of what was coming didn't seem personally applicable.   I zipped along at a good clip.

So. This was the first and happiest third of what I think of as a three-part race (Potomac Heritage Trail; 3 laps around Great Falls Park; back on the PHT).  I had good company in this section.  I fell in with Mason Mendenhall, running his first ultra.  A 2:40 marathoner, he surely must have been feeling pretty relaxed, running at my pace.        

We went our separate ways on the Great Fall loop.  The first lap, 7 or 8ish miles I guess, went by fairly quickly.  Still, not too hot.  Not too bad.

Well, wait.

Somewhere on that second loop around Great Falls Park, somewhere around 25 miles, I began to feel it.  Sun, heat coming off the rocks, heat radiating off my skin.  I was soaked.  My pack was soaked.  The water bottle was emptying faster.  I saw increasingly grim, salt-streaked faces on other runners.

Half hour after half hour, conditions ratcheted up with an almost deliberate, sadistic steadiness.  North Face organizers, to their very great credit, were ready.  Aid stations were awash in water and volunteers.  There was plenty to fill bottles and pour over our heads.


I was zipping along in the zone, totally focused on navigating the rock garden (or what TNF likes to call the "marquis section" of the race), focused on avoiding a precipitous fall into the Potomac.  So, not until the last possible moment before disaster did I hear the cries of "snake! snake!"  I came to a halt.

Laid out on the path ahead was a big brown copperhead.   It seemed inert, but I was taking no chances. I gave it a ludicrously wide bearth, circling around the tail end.  If that thing started moving, I was determined...not to have to squeal in an unmanly fashion.

For the rest of the race, of course, every stick under every rock seemed ready to rear up and strike.  Something to take my mind off the heat, anyway.

More good company

On the final, increasingly grueling lap around around Great Falls, I ran ahead, behind, and alongside Evan Fisher from Springfield, VA, who as it turns out was running just his second 50 miler.  The first one he finished in 7:30.  This one, not so flat and definitely not so cool, would obviously be slower.  We ran together until the end of lap three, then I took a good, long break before the final push.  Evan forged on, and eventually finished a good 15 minutes ahead of me.

The North Face Machine--New Blood on the Trails

This race seems to attract a number of first-time or relatively new ultra runners.  This was my own first ultra, three years ago.   Last year, I briefly got all sniffy about the "corporate" feel of the TNF events--the uninspiring "inspiration" from Deano, the booths at the finish, the circus of it all--and ran something else.

Stow your pompous cynicism and give them credit.  No mean feat it is, managing the logistics of four trail races on one day (50 miler, 50k, marathon, marathon relay), followed by three more the next (half-marathon, 10k, 5k).   And the circus stuff?  Well it brings new blood to trail running and ultras, and that is a good thing.

You look at the map before the race and you think, what?  This won't work.  I won't remember this.  But it does, and you do.  What it all feels like, from a 50 miler's perspective, is as follows.  Relative solitude over the first third of the race.  When you get to the laps around Great Falls, increasingly busy-ness, runners going this way and that.   The 50k runners join in, their blue numbers less crinkly and beat up than your pink number.  Then, bedraggled like you, the other 50 milers, running both directions on the trail (the loop is not so much a loop as a collection of out-and-backs).

For the last 15-mile section, back along the Potomac Heritage Trail, you retrace your steps from earlier in the day, back along the river to Algonkian Regional Park.  Here, you are joined by the marathoners.  Zipping by now and then, as if they inhabited a different time-space reality, are the relay runners.   And now and then, the occasional 50 miler, a fellow sufferer; as you pass or are passed, you have only to glance at them to share a wordless solidarity of pain.

(Photo on right is courtesy of Katie Keier, whose excellent blog is at http://iseetrails.wordpress.com/

Giving up gobs of time on the final 15 

I made no knuckleheaded mistakes this race, unless you count even starting a 50 mile race under such conditions.  I knew I would slow, probably a great deal, over the last 15 miles and in the ever-increasing heat.  And slow I did, just as predicted, but not catastrophically; I ran the whole way, shuffling steadily forward under the noonday sun.

This last section of the race repeats the morning in reverse order.  In the first 8 miles coming out of Great Falls, there are steep hills, carved by erosion and the uneven distribution of soft sediment and hard igneous stone.  One moment you are at the top of a ravine, peering down a deep declivity, then next you are rushing down to the riverside.    Over the last 7 or so, the trail flattens, eases up.  In theory, you could go faster here.  But now the heat has settled in, a palpable weight.

Dude, you're 48??

One of the things I especially like about this race is that I'm surrounded mostly by young guys, not "battle hardened veterans" (to put it most flatteringly) like myself.  I think the next person in my particular old-man category was a good hour behind me.

More than once, I was asked, point blank, how old I was.  The guys who asked were half, maybe rather less than half, my age.  The second, when I told him 48, seemed about to fall over.  "Dude!"  As in, dude, is that possible?  Or, as in, dude, you look pretty good.  Or as in, dude, it's amazing you can even walk.

I enjoy this stuff.  Seriously, I can't wait to hit 50.


In the parking lot, I heard winner Mike Wardian telling a buddy it was "brutal out there."  Yeah, well, Mr. Marathon des Sables, you only ran 6 and and a half hours.  Try being out there an extra two hours.  That's when things really got brutal.

I can't imagine how it was for those out in the heat 11, 12, or 13 hours.   I could not have done it.  When I was done, I was done, cooked.  Happy, having run my second-best of three attempts on this course (8:48) under wretched conditions; 22nd place overall, 2nd in my age group; still alive, not too beaten up, uninjured, and with my 5th ultra of 2013 under my belt.

Sunday, and a Victory in the Half Marathon

I stuck around Saturday night.  At the Marriot Residence Inn in Sterling (recommended), I was joined by my nephew Andrew and his dad, my brother-in-law Mike Catanese.  On Sunday, Andrew ran--and won by a wide margin--his first trail race, the half-marathon.  Yeah!

Andrew said at one point he was going downhill so fast, he knew he wouldn't make the turn, so went straight into the underbrush to break his descent.   Sorry, dude, never, ever had that problem myself.

A steepchaser at Washington U in St. Louis, Andrew has ambitions of running a trail ultra someday soon.  I'm really looking forward to following his progress out there.  He's going to tear it up, I predict.

What Worked: my nutrition puzzle solved

Three years of running ultras, and the insoluable problem for me has always been my gd stomach.  It has tortured me, drained me of energy, brought my running to a grinding, painful halt.  I have nothing good to say about it.

This kind of extreme heat should have been the worst possible situation.  The math turns all against you in the heat.  Eating, drinking, taking in electrolytes, draining the stomach: in extreme heat, it becomes a calculus of impossible complexity.

I was just fine.  This was the first ultra where I can truly say I took in adequate calories.  And hydration.  No worries.

I've never plugged, as in really plugged, a product before.   But I have to say, for this experiment of one, the new Tailwind Nutrition product was exactly right, exactly as advertised.  Tailwind is a powder you mix with water, an all-in-one solution that combines calories with electrolytes.  You can ditch all the pills, gels, all that sticky artiface.

I bought Tailwind  out of desperation. Every experiment seemed reach same conclusion: I had a digestive system ill-suited for ultras.   So, for me, this was a revelation.

Maybe they'll give me some free product for the endorsement.  Maybe not.  It makes no difference, because I'll keep buying the stuff.  I can't imagine myself ever again fueling an ultra, and certainly not an ultra in the heat, on anything else.

Thanks to Tailwind for being the first to finally get it right.


  1. Thanks for the encouragement as we ran together. I really enjoyed this race and learned a lot from it. Right now I'm training for Massanutten in a few months. It'll be my first 100-miler.

    1. Thanks, Evan. It was definitely a day for lessons. Best of luck training for Massanutten--you didn't pick an easy one for your first hundred!

  2. I just found your post through Google... Awesome race report... I am hoping to run TNFDC half marathon this year (2014), but I am nervous about how tough the course is. I have run 11 road half-marathons, but no trail races longer than a few miles. Do you know if the 13.1 course is really rocky and technical? Thanks.

    1. The rocky, technical section is in Great Falls Park, and the half takes place entirely outside the park. The half course is mostly flat, lowland forest along the river. The only thing to look out for there are roots. There are a couple of steep hills--at the beginning and end, if they do the out-and-back course, or just at one end if they do point to point. With your running resume, you should have no problem!

    2. Thanks for that information -- I just signed up and am really excited to run it!

  3. Thanks for a great review! Planning on doing the 50k in April...my first. I'm also a big fan of Tailwind!! Good stuff!


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