2018 The North Face Endurance Challenge by Eli Chamberlain
I always hated running as a form of exercise. It was monotonous and lacked the excitement of the team sports that I was dedicated to in my youth. I was always active in sports but my running was limited to chasing a ball or rounding bases. But longing for the days of my competitive youth were replaced by the reality of time constraints, family responsibilities and an extra 20 years of aging! So I started running for reasons familiar to many: to get in shape and because a friend of mine convinced me to sign up for a race in 2014. To my surprise, I found myself enjoying the training. I began setting goals and appreciated the time to myself to ponder whatever was on my mind. Add to that my sense of accomplishment at the end of a hard workout and I was hooked! I also realized I was decent at this and racing was a new outlet to feed the competitive beast within. I started to geek out on the science behind training and bought a copy of Jack Daniels’ Running Formula. Workouts became more specific and I tried to explore what my potential was at middle age with a full time job, wife, and two boys at home. My last road race was a 1/2 marathon and my goal was a qualifying time for NY - 1:25 or better. It was in September of 2017 and temp at the gun was 70 with 90% humidity. I was on pace to finish in 1:23, had just crested the final hill, had .25 miles to go, wife and kids (and the dog) at the finish, and a smile on my face. Downhill to the finish line. Unfortunately, my body refused and I started uncontrollably slowing down and finally collapsed on someone’s front lawn. DNF - heat stroke, dehydration, mega BONK! It was a cruel introduction to the importance of nutrition.
In the days and weeks following, I questioned everything. Why was I doing this? Who was I doing this for? Is the pursuit of time goals and red-lining in road races what I’m passionate about?
I had been introduced to the trails prior to this point and it was love at first sight. The same friend who got me signed up for my first race kept telling me I had to join him and his friends at Rockefeller State Park (Rockies). Finally I agreed. Growing up in New England I had a background hiking and backpacking in Maine and NH. Trail running was like hiking but by running you got to see more cool stuff in the same amount of time! I loved the feeling of being away from the roads, the cars, the hustle of the greater NY area and being immersed in nature, under your own power, and getting in a workout. Those trails were the introduction to a sense of adventure I get every time I lace up my shoes and start down a dirt path.
Following the failure at my 1/2 marathon goal I was looking for something different in my running and racing experience. The sense of community that I felt at the start and finish lines disappeared during the race when the type of suffering experienced in a fast road race leaves you unable to converse with other runners in the 2nd half of the race and unable to thank aid station volunteers. I have no issue with suffering, I was just looking for something that had more of a community feel throughout the race. I thought trail ultramarathons might be closer to that ideal with the terrain and distance dictating a pace that is more social. Having never run anything longer than 13.1 miles, however, I was unsure if I was qualified to attempt this.
I set my sights on the The North Face Bear Mountain 50 Mile race in May and decided I needed a coach to help prevent me from getting injured on my way to the start line. Elizabeth Azze agreed to assist me on this journey and gave me a game plan with about 6 months to race day. We started with strength training to ensure that my body would be able to handle the increased workload once we got into the key training blocks. Legs, hips, and core were the focus and would remain a staple of my workouts leading up to the race. She slowly added mileage and targeted workouts like hills, speedwork, and tempo efforts on the trails. She managed me though a couple minor injuries along the way and by late March I was on the start line of a 50k in Central CT. Elizabeth felt it would be important for me to get the experience of a long effort race to learn about pacing and nutrition strategies and how my body reacted to both.
Training in the winter of 2017/2018 meant running in snow, rain, mud and cold. That left me pretty well prepared for what was a sloppy, marshy, and a little snowy Xterra Shepaugh 50K. I finished in 5:26, good enough for 2nd overall and learned a couple things. A conservative start worked. My nutrition plans were mostly dialed. Things just start to hurt around mile 22ish. And there will be some points where you just want to stop that you need to push through.
As race day approached, I felt prepared but full of anxiety. Would I be able to push through another 18 miles more than the 50K? Would my hip flexor, which started bothering me a couple weeks prior, hold up? Would I be able to get enough sleep the night before? My wife, Suzanne, had agreed to crew me at the aid stations and knowing that she would be there and be a part of the day gave me some relief. I slept surprisingly well the night before the race and at 3:30am, the two of us left the house for Bear Mountain. We parked, got on the shuttle, and arrived at the start area with about 30 minutes to spare. The setup is a bit of a sensory overload when you first arrive and we nervously checked out all the tents and booths they had set up while others stretched, sat and waited, or stood around a few propane fires they had set up. Coming out of the port-a-potty I lost Suzanne. It was dark, people’s headlamps created glare, and I couldn’t find her. I spent the next 15 minutes wandering around without success. Finally, I gave up and headed for the start line as I was out of time. Fortunately I spotted her by the fence, gave her my jacket (which thankfully now I wouldn’t have to run the first 4 miles with tied around my waist!), a kiss, and was on my way with the others in wave 2. So much for warming up!
Elizabeth and I had discussed strategy for the race and I had run, in pieces, every section of the course in training. My goals for the day were, in order from most realistic to stretch: to finish, to be in the top 25, to place top 3 in my age group, and to break 9hrs. Elizabeth impressed upon me that the first 20 miles is where you could blow up your goals and the last 10 is where you had to want them. As a result, I wanted to get through the first 20 comfortably, find a rhythm in the middle 20, and see what I had left for the last 10. With the weather dry and expected to hit a high of 65 mid-day, it was like being on a different planet compared to the spring we were having here and would add a degree of difficulty to the effort.
The first section was fun and different than anything I had experienced before. You had the normal crowding of a race start on trails before the sorting begins, but now with headlamps. In front and behind you were streaks of lights moving through the woods like a photograph of traffic at night with a slow speed lens. Visibility was superb with all the lights and I was feeling relaxed. At the first aid station I was right on the splits I had projected with Suzanne and the pace was feeling very easy. Suzanne handed me two fresh bottles and I gave her two empties. My plan was to consume one tailwind bottle and one water bottle (17oz each) between each aid station and pound water at stations as needed, particularly late in the race. Gels and blocks as needed but try to take down one per hour for an average of about 300 calories/hr.
After Anthony Wayne people started to spread out a bit. I began chatting with a few people along the way and almost everyone I spoke with seemed to be French Canadian. They were there in force and owned the podium as well! My pace was steady and I was focused on my HR and keeping things “measured”. I was passing people, however, I knew starting in wave two I would need to pass a ton of people to get towards the front. Let it happen organically, I reminded myself. You are not racing yet. I saw Suzanne at Silvermine and told her I was feeling good after the climb and descent into the aid station. After Silvermine was the section on the Long Path. I was dreading this section having done it twice in training. It’s friggin long (as the name suggests), super rocky, a little muddy, some rolling climbs, and a swampy section with tons of down trees. I knew that part would be slow and rhythm killing. Getting through that successfully was a huge relief and as I made the descent into Skannatati I realized that I was feeling much better at this point than at any point in my training. Having tapered surely helped, as well as mentally knowing this was still closer to the start than the finish.
At this point in the race I was finding myself alone more often than not. I would come upon people every now and again, have a chat, then slowly move past. It was a nice balance and the morning was flying by. Heading onto the road for a gradual uphill climb into Camp Lanowa I got passed by the woman who would go on to finish 1st Female. We spoke briefly and then she went on to put a sizeable gap on me over this road section. She seemed impressively relaxed and strong. Approaching the aid station at Camp Lanowa, I was eager to see Suzanne. It had been about 15 miles since I last saw her at Silvermine and I needed a boost. Legs were starting to feel sore, feet were starting to feel the pounding, and my hip was barking a little. I was still ahead of expectations on the suffering scale but, as I remarked to Suzanne when I saw her, “Shit’s getting real now.” Some calories and a kiss from my wife on the way out had me in much better spirits.
Climbing out of the camp I passed a few people and then settled into a nice rhythm on the mostly flat fire roads. I would not see another person ahead or behind me for the next 6 miles. The isolation at this point was suffocating. My body was starting to hurt, I felt like my feet had no clearance, and I worried that it would worsen to the point where I would need to start walking some sections to try to regroup. I forced down some calories and hoped for the best. Up to this point my nutrition plan was working, however, I was getting a little sick of the mandarin orange flavored tailwind. The Hammer drink they had at the aid stations where I didn’t see Suzanne was even worse though so I knew I needed to stay the course. I was also getting oddly emotional thinking about finishing this race, accomplishing a goal like this that I trained so hard for, having my wife here to support me, and seeing her with my boys (13 and 8) at the finish line. Heading back into Lanowa for the second time I knew I needed to take some time. Bottles from Suzanne, water, water, water, potatoes dipped in salt, and a banana in hand for the road. I headed out of the aid station feeling a little better but also bummed that I wouldn’t see Suzanne again for another 10 miles. This was going to be a tough stretch.
This stretch also happened to feature the nice (or not) uphill climb along Lake Welch Road. I alternated walking and running along the road and was thankful that the sun seemed to stay behind the clouds while I was completely exposed. When that finally ended and the course was back on the trails, my energy level improved and my soreness levels subsided. My legs were functioning better and I was able to be a bit more nimble again on the trails and flow the lines. Miracle. At some point we merged with the 50K and Marathon race course and there were people again. That helped me refocus on race mode and I felt a rhythm return. I rolled into Anthony Wayne excited to see Suzanne and knowing I was going to finish this. Again I took my time – taking my shoe off to let a pebble out, water, water, water, potatoes and salt, new bottles from Suzanne, see you at the finish line!
Now it was down to the last 10 miles and I had to figure out what I had left. Flats and downhills I was rolling, however, steeper uphills I had been walking. Should I try and power through this or keep the steady pace? I decided to push a little and see how it felt. Moderate uphills were fine, however, the steep uphill to Queensboro aid station (that I had somehow circumnavigated in training and never seen before???) was power hiking, or just plain hiking. At this point I hadn’t passed anyone in the 50 mile race since exiting Camp Lanowa and I hadn’t been passed by anyone in the 50 mile race since two West Point guys at around Owl Creek. I thanked them in advance for their service and they looked phenomenal. Where the hell had they been for the last 35 miles? As a result, I was trying to focus on reeling in runners from the other races.
The Timp climb was as expected and I felt slow. The descent from the Timp was better than I expected. In training, I knew this would be a tough section given the steep descent and the softball sized rocks in what’s basically a creek bed. I figured with 45 miles on your legs it would be a challenge. I bombed it. Turns out, when you are too tired to stop you don’t really give a shit about the footing! I flew past people and splashed through water and mud hitting the last few hills with everything I had left. Everything I had left was good for about the first 2/3rds of the climbs and then I had to power hike the last 1/3. Bombed the downhills into the finish area and there was the family. I was so excited to see them. My little man, Ryan ran out to join me in the finishing chute. We crossed the finish line hand in hand and that literally made my day. I hugged Suzanne with tears in my eyes and hugged my oldest son, Brady.
Someone handed me a finisher’s medal and Ryan grabbed it and put it around his neck. Joe, Elizabeth’s husband, took a picture of the four of us at the finish line and captured a memory I will never forget. The race is a celebration of all the training and sacrifice and, in that moment with my family, I felt completely fulfilled.
I finished in 9:31. 22nd overall and 2nd in my age group. As far as goals, I’m proud. It was a tough day, and I heard that many people dropped. Times were slower than previous years, for sure. I knew breaking 9hrs was a stretch. The last two big climbs before and after the Queensboro aid station killed me and I put up 3, 14min+ miles in a row. At the same time, I know I did my best and executed my game plan to the best of my ability.
50 miles was a crazy goal considering I’ve never run a marathon, and I feel like I accomplished something well outside my comfort zone. I also found a love for running in the woods, with a community of like-minded individuals, whose focus is more on the adventure, the struggle, and reaching the finish line than PR’s. I don’t know what’s next but I know this is closer to the beginning than the end. Thanks to Elizabeth for her guidance and patience. Thanks to Suzanne for her love and support during the race and every time I was out on a training run. Thanks to my boys for inspiring me to be the best version of myself. And thanks to Dave for showing me the path. Congrats to all the finishers and see you on the trails!