Sunday, June 29, 2014

North Fork 50 Race Report

“If you always achieve all your goals, you’re setting you’re goals too low,” -- Matt Carpenter
After I started signing up for races this year, I selected North Fork 50 as my goal race. I tried and failed to go sub-9 hours at OP50 last year. (I ran a 9:25 race there if you account for being lost for 30 mins, though I officially finished in 9:55.) I feel strongly that I have what it takes to do well at the 50 mile distance and that thought has driven me to train all year.

In preparing for the race, I don't think I trained much differently than previous cycles. The subtle changes were possibly just in building slowly through the Winter -- mostly due to knee surgery last August -- and quite a bit more early season trail miles. And, I was probably more consistent and serious about x-training, particularly early in the cycle. And, I tried to do enough lunch time running to have at least a shot dealing with the heat at North Fork. That said, I stuck primarily to typical plans in terms of 85% aerobic work and just enough threshold work. I felt like the next level for me was going to require more than just training, more than just adding miles. In looking at the big picture, I felt like I was training at a high level the last few years and additional gains -- significant gains -- would likely just come from increased efficiency and experience. Continuing to build an aerobic base was one form of efficiency. But, the big area I wanted to explore is nutrition. I am a large athlete and I just cannot eat the typical calories required for someone my size. And, worse, I was drinking a ton of fluid, partly to aid in getting calories in. I won't bore you with the details, but I began exploring a high fat diet as a way to become more efficient and fat adapted. In addition to eating less on the run, I began to notice changes that suggested I was getting healthier and more efficient.

The North Fork 50 is known to be a hot race. As the race approached, it was clear it would be warm (75-80). While it wasn't as hot as some years, those temps were warm for our unusually cool June. In response to the temperatures, I decided to search for ways to battle the heat. The first thing I did was dump my race vest to avoid trapping heat against my core. And, I purchased and ultra light weight sleeveless shirt. For Father's Day, I got some Solomon race shorts that have a nice waist band that allows me to carry all I need for up to about 2 hours. My wife and kids came up to crew for me, meaning 2 hours was the most I'd go without aid.

On Friday night, we drove up to Conifer and stayed at my buddy JP's house. It was a really nice way to relax that evening and have a stress free race morning. We woke about 5 am and headed to the start line with plenty of time to spare, standing around for at least 45 minutes in anticipation.

Homestead Aid (Mile 5)

I knew at least six athletes starting Saturday's race and we all stood around chatting. Only Jon and I were doing the 50 mile event, so he and I had plenty of dialogue about race strategy and plans. After the "go" signal, we pushed the first quarter mile along the river and the first bit of uphill just to get out of the masses. Both races start at the same time and climbing starts quickly and I feared we'd be stuck in a single file line. We had mutually agreed that following the splits from a recent training run on the course, where we started conservatively, would be a good idea. The first mile came and we beat that split by a minute. Then the second mile came and we beat that split. Soon it was apparent that this was a race and we were both feeling good and wanting to go for it. The plan was 10:45 average pace, but we were easily below that.

Things honestly felt pretty easy at this stage and the weather was perfect, warming up slowly. My early race nutrition strategy was Hammer Bars (real food!) and some watered-down Skratch Labs to get some light weight calories in my drink. The plan was to switch to plain water and gels later in the race. Every half hour I would take a mouth full of bar and I just drank to thirst, usually emptying my 28 oz bottle by each aid station.

Homestead Aid (Mile 10)

We had a relatively quick exchange at Homestead and continued on down the road. The trail turns downhill and it became really hard to hold back. In fact, it almost feels like more work holding back. We continued to drive our average pace down to close to 10-flat, well below our target for the day. I was a bit nervous about that, but it felt super easy. In hindsight, we had to do this to really put a good time in play. It was cool and the course is pretty easy in the first 10 miles. After a little out and back loop, we made our way back up Miller Gulch toward Meadows. In this section, I mixed in a few walking breaks to eat and try to keep us from getting ahead of ourselves. Another quick stop at aid and we were on our way toward Meadows to see our family/crew.


My favorite photo of the day

Meadows Aid (Mile 16)

Leaving Homestead, there is a pretty significant stretch of downhill and we just continued to cruise and continued making up time against our goal. I ran dry of fluids and got a quick fill at Buffalo Creek before the 1.5 mile road up to Meadows Aid. At the aid, I had my daughter fill my bottle with Skratch and I grabbed my remaining Hammer Bars. Sixteen miles in and your mind is starting to prepare for a long day. It is always exciting to see your crew and we got a little lift from that. It was a pretty short stop and we took off up the dirt road towards Green Mountain. Jon asked the boys to run with us for a bit and they did.

Along Miller Gulch

Jon and I's crew for the day.

Coming into Meadows for the first time.

Heading out with the boys to Green Mountain Loop

The boys were clearly talking about how great we looked.

Meadows Aid (Mile 22)

The climb up Green Mountain was something I had not seen. I did two of the three training runs on the course and this was the section I missed. It was the first time the race started to feel like more than an easy jog. The first two miles are a grinding affair -- runnable, just not during such a long race. We began mixing walking and running and managed to keep the miles around 13-min pace. This may be the prettiest section of the entire course, very reminiscent of Indian Creek to me. The downhill comes before long as you return back to Meadows, but there was enough technicality to it to keep you honest. It wasn't quite bombing grade. 

This time I got water only and one last Hammer Bar -- which I had to bum from Jon -- at Meadows Aid. We had a 10 mile out and back segment ahead of us that neither of us had seen.

Returning from Green Mountain.  The race was starting to feel real.

Dylan going to fill my water bottle.

Rolling Creek Aid (Mile 27)

Jon had done a good job studying the course profile and expected a climb once we got on the Colorado Trail. The CT climb was tougher than either of us expected. It was steep and technical for close to three-quarters of a mile. Making it worse, this was the first time the course felt really exposed and hot. I continued to push a run/walk mix to keep from putting big numbers up, but it was starting to get hard and I was starting to to get signs I was nearing my limits. My right hamstring was a bit irritated. My calves were feeling a little tight, which has been a little too common in my Altra Olympus. I think the Olympus contribute to this because of the combination of the rocker and the zero drop, causing a huge load on my calves when running uphill. And, I was experiencing some slight cramping in my chest and rib cage, which was totally new for me. I had occasional bouts of short breath that I had to work through.

By mile 25 I sensed that Jon was struggling and we could be splitting soon. I could hear him scuffing his shoes frequently and his general demeanor was not as upbeat as earlier in the day. Frankly, my demeanor was not either, but I just kept telling myself I would soon get to run down all this grade. He finally told me just to keep going when slowed to take a walk break.

The cool thing about this section was that you could see the runners coming back and count them. First and second came close together, followed by a long stretch without seeing another runner. In the meantime, I pulled up behind a woman and we chatted briefly. She quickly noticed when the first woman passed us. Then we pulled into aid in 8th and 9th place, respectively. I mixed my water bottle with some Coconut Water hydration mix. And I drenched myself with a bucket of water and a sponge. That felt amazing. In fact, this was the one thing I continued to do at every aid station the rest of the day.  My stop was quick and I was out of the aid station in 8th place.

Meadows Aid (Mile 32)

Not long after I left aid, Jon passed me going the other way. He was in tenth place and I think about 2-3 minutes back. He said it was likely the last time we'd see on another, but I wasn't sure. I just wasn't sure if I could hold this pace and thought maybe he'd catch me down the road. I set an aggressive pace at OP50 last year and ran a pretty large positive split. But, there was no use backing down now. The first few miles of this section are rolling and totally runnable. The only thing of note was the constant adjustment to people passing going the other way while trying to keep my eye on the trail. At some point I decided I should turn on my iPod, which I had been carrying all day with the ear buds in and no music! When I finally turned it on, the first song I heard was "Don't Stop Believin'" by Journey. Since I was in an unfamiliar place -- pushing hard and in the top 10 of a race -- I figured that was very appropriate.

This was also the point when I finished my last Hammer Bar and decided to switch to water and gels the rest of the way. My stomach was solid but I continued to struggle with periods of short breaths. To keep myself in check, I would take a few walking breaks to stay on top of nutrition and just slow things down. Nine minute pace was very easy to maintain through this section -- even with walking breaks -- and I was happy to be approaching aid and family again.

I once again dowsed myself in water, refilled on plain water, and took a few gels for the road, explaining to to the crew that Jon and I had split up but he wasn't far back. I think they told me later he was 4-5 mins at this point. Leaving aid, I was growing a bit concerned with whether or not I could hold this pace. It was hot and I was fatiguing and I knew the next six miles were mostly uphill.

Returning from Rolling Creek, without Jon for the first time.

Shinglemill Aid (Mile 38)

I had forgotten that the first mile or so after leaving this aid station is really nice cruiser grade downhill, which made for an easy mile as I got prepared for the climb. As soon as I rejoined the 50K course, the climbing started. I remembered this climb from training -- a grinding climb that can get warm. It is a little technical and steep in spots. And, did I mention hot? Within two miles of leaving I was worried I would run out of water. Fortunately, there is an unmanned aid station in here where I topped off my water bottle. I just ran as much of the climb as I could and kept grinding trying to avoid any miles greater than 14:00 pace.

About half way into the climb I could see the first place woman -- I think 7th place at the time -- and she didn't look super strong. She was passing some hikers. About twenty yards later I was passing them and the man said "are you going to let a woman beat you?". I found that disrespectful because she could clearly hear him. I told him that she was a tough runner and doing well. After a bit I pulled up along side her and we said a few pleasantries before I just kind of climbed away. Once again I had a feeling that I might be out of my league and would possibly see her again too. But, instead of letting the fear get the best of me, I just focused on doing the best I could on each mile.

As I finally summited the climb, I was once again having shortness of breath. It was controllable, but very annoying and not something that happens to me. I continue drinking water and taking a gel every 30 minutes. There is a good stretch of downhill in here and I ran it in a mediocre fashion. I was starting to fatigue in the heat and the trail is somewhat technical and full of blind curves. And, there were quite a few mountain bikers that I had to navigate. To battle the fears of time slipping away, I just tried to remain focused on the four miles after Shinglemill, which I remembered from training were extremely runnable. 

One last bit of uphill that I mostly walked and then I was cruising into Shinglemill with my family waiting. I grabbed my remaining gels from them, soaked myself, applied sunscreen, drank a few cups of water and Mountain Dew and I was off.

Coming into Shinglemill.  Totally gassed but smelling the finish line.

Buffalo Creek Aid (Mile 43)

I was ready to go downhill to bank some time, but I got a little excited just a few miles beyond the aid station and took my eye of the trail. I tripped on a tree root and went flying down in a full Superman. While the fall was pretty harmless, the top popped off my water bottle and it all spilled out. I had to run 3 miles in the heat of the day with a dry bottle. Instantly, I became alarmed that I had just made a catastrophic error. Once again I had to just shut that negative out and focus on running downhill, dropping into an 8:30 pace in hopes of getting to aid within 25 minutes. At the bottom of the downhill, I turned left onto a subtle climb toward aid and started freaking out a bit. The road follows Buffalo Creek and I briefly considered getting water from it. Rounding a corner in the road, I saw runners 4 and 5 ahead of me, so I became motivated to catch them and quit worrying about fluids. I caught them both at the aid station. They both looked pretty rough and took a long time at aid. I took a long time as well to catch up on fluids and drench my shirt with a sponge of river water. The 4th place runner sat down in a tent and remained at aid. Fifth place left (now fourth) left just before me.

Courtesy Colorado Photo Company
On the trail of 4th and 5th place, hot and out of water

Meadows (Mile 47)

I finally became confident that sub-9 was in play as I left Buffalo Creek Aid. However, there was nearly a thousand feet of climbing left that I had to negotiate to make it real. Half a mile into the climb, I caught fourth place and he was clearly struggling and told me his legs were "fried". He was disappointed because he had run 8:11 the year before under afternoon clouds. In response to my question, he said he thought sub-9 would be tough at this point. I told him good luck and passed so that I could give it all I had left. All that stood between me and my goal was one climb that I had done twice in training. I resolved to just run as much of it as I could. Turns out my split on the heart of the climb -- a 1.8 mile, 800 foot stretch -- was faster than either of my training runs. It stunned me after the race to learn that I managed a PR on that climb AFTER already running 43 miles. I was motivated!

I summited the climb and continued running the gentle uphill grade toward aid. At aid, I drank a few cups of Mtn Dew, drenched my shirt again, and asked for my place. They told me I was in 4th, which was exactly the kind of motivation I needed to run the remaining downhill miles hard. I told them thanks and said I best get going.

Finish (Mile 50)

Finally believing that my goal time was a lock, I became interested in securing my 4th place finish. The only thing left was to get as good a finish as I could and not get passed. This section starts with a nice runnable grade on double track road that was quite pleasant to run. From training, I was prepared for the last short climb. It is really kind of rude in the midst of a 3.5 mile downhill finish. I put my head down and power hiked right on through it. Now I was passing some back-of-the-pack 50K runners and tired to give them some encouragement to finish strong.

Once on the Buck Gulch trail, I continued running, but was slowing. I was running out of goals to shoot for and just wanted to remain upright and figured I had done enough to secure 4th place. My hope was to sprint the last quarter mile along the river, but I had nothing left in the tank and settled for a slow jog. With my kids joining me, I began to celebrate an incredible day.

I finished in 8:50:58, 4th overall place, and 2nd in my AG. The run was a 1 hour and 4 min PR in the 50 mile distance (officially). However, I will consider it more like a 35 minute PR.

I wanted to sprint this in, but I was cooked.

So fun to have my kids (crew) finish these events with me!

A daddy daughter photo, sporting my mustache

My legs were filthy after a long day on the trails.

Post Race Thoughts

I had such an incredible race that I am really just humbled. This race took me to another level. I haven't seen splits, but I had to have run one of the most even and smart races of the day, passing 5 runners in the final 24 miles and near-even splitting the run. It felt on the verge of my limits for the last 20 miles, but my body hung in there. And, I continued to just battle and try to ignore any fears or negative thoughts.

As I mentioned in the open, my goal was to gain efficiency and I believe I have. I ate only about 220 calories per hour and felt energized and strong almost the entire day, with only a few low spots. What I found even more satisfying was that, despite the warm temperatures, I managed with one handheld water bottle all day. In my first few ultras I would drink close to 40 oz of water per hour (again I will note because I was drinking sugar and it left me thirsty). Lastly, while I haven't trained much deliberately for it, I felt like my ability to transition between hiking and running and grind away on climbs was a strength all day long, definitely helping to put some distance between me and the field.

The difficulty now is putting this race behind me and training for Bear 100. I put a lot into this race and it went so well that I will be pretty content just to savor it for a few weeks.


  1. What a GREAT race for you! and in the heat of Buffalo Creek! So glad you got the result you were looking for (and maybe then some?). Good luck at Bear - can't wait to read that report as well - I was interested in that one but ultimately chose RRR....

  2. Nice write-up and a great race. Congrats! :)

  3. Thank you for all the info, AJ. I plan North Fork 50k as my first ultra this year and enjoyed reading your blog.