North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Miler – Washington DC Race Report

The CATs were well represented at the North Face Endurance Challenge in Washington DC this weekend. Mike Stadnisky ran a fast 4:25:26 in the Marathon. and netted 13th place overall (7th in his age group). I crossed paths with Nick Hamblet around mile 19 of his 50k (mile 19 of the 50 miler) and he was running strong on his way out to the rocks on the River Trail. His 6:05:57 finish time is a great time for a deceptively tough course. As for my race in the 50 Miler, I started out strong, hitting my planned splits through the first 28 or so miles then fell behind, finishing in 10:32:17.  Looking at the splits, it seems that most people in the longer events had a tough time on that trip back from Great Falls Park.

Race Overview
With three simultaneous races, big name sponsors, prize money and a finish line festival I was expecting more of a typical road marathon atmosphere than a trail ultra vibe at The North Face Endurance Challenge in Washington DC this weekend. But The North Face surprised me and put on a great trail event.

Packet Pickup was at the North Face store in Georgetown on Thursday and Friday afternoons and evenings. If you live in DC and can take the Metro there, that’s great. For everyone else, consider either doing your pickup and being out of Georgetown before 3pm or picking up up your race number the morning of the event. Parking was a breeze with plenty or available garages and once in the store, there were no lines and no waiting. Leaving packet pickup at 4:15pm on Friday was not the best of ideas as every road in the area had turned into a parking lot.

Race Morning
The 50 Milers got started just before dawn at 5am, with the 50k starting at 7am and the Marathon at 9am. I arrived at the race start (Algonkian Regional Park) a little before 4am and got a great parking spot in field next to the race start and had no lines at the drop bag drop off. Being so early and only having the 50 Miler participants milling around, the starting line atmosphere was very low key. Notes for future participants, a jacket would have been nice for standing around as it had gotten down to 50F at 4 in the morning and label your drop bags well as the provided labels were a wrist band with your race number written on them. The restrooms are hidden about 50 yards behind the finish line ‘village’ – bring a flashlight.

The first 6 or 7 miles of the race are flat and fast. You start out running around some playing fields (covered in just enough dew to get your feet wet), turn onto a golf cart path, then onto the Potomac Heritage Trail which is a wide fireroad at that point. Things got sorted out quickly and small groups formed early on. The side loop around Sugarland Run was nothing exciting (so the 50k runners that got to skip this loop didn’t miss out on anything special). Then it was back on the PHT as it turned to single track and passed though a golf course. It was peaceful. The group I was running with stayed silent as the sun rose and got to see a deer bounce through the woods. Around mile 6 we encountered the first series of hills. None of the climbs were much longer than 100 yards and climbed no more than 100 feet, but they were steep. The first set of hills had 3 or 4 climbs like this back to back with similar descents in between.

It was flat singletrack through the Potomac flood plain. It twisted and turned quite a bit with plenty of downed trees to hop over and only a single unbridged stream crossing. Fraser Aid station appeared out of no where in the middle of the woods at mile 8. Stock up here as the next section can take a while. The trail is flat for a while, the you get to another series of three or four hills, then it’s flat until you get to Riverbend Park. Riverbend Park takes you up a gravel road away from the river. According to the course profile this should have been the toughest climb on the course, but I found it to be much easier than the earlier hills that didn’t even show up on the course profile. Scenery changes quickly in Riverbend Park as one minute you’re in the woods, then out in an open field, alongside a road then back in the woods for a nice downhill into Great Falls National Park. 

It was party central at the Great Falls Aid Station – biggest aid station on the course and as the day went on, it reminded me of the Long Mtn. Wayside Aid Station at Mountain Masochist – lots of people hanging out in a large field in folding chairs cheering people on. Three 7 mile loops, this shouldn’t be too bad – right? The loops were rather distorted with each loop consisting of two over-lapping loops and an out and back section. And each loop provided quite a variety of terrain: flat, uphill, roller coaster, downhill, uphill, roller coaster, downhill, rocks, flat, rocks, stairs and more rocks (the loops had the technical sections that the marathon runners missed on).

The race leaders lapped me on my first loop and I ran into the leader 50k runners on my second loop.  By the third loop I was never running alone (with the 50k runners on their loop and the 50 milers on their second and third loops), but rarely was it crowded and passing and being passed was quite easy.

After 35 miles I passed through the Great Falls Aid station for the fourth an final time. I was far enough off of my goal time by this point, that I decided to take a little side trip to the observation deck to actually see the Great Falls of the Potomac. There were lots of great views on the course of the Potomac above the falls and in Mather Gorge (if you could take your eyes away from the rocks long enough to catch a glimpse and not tumble down the steep cliffs), but only at one point could you actually catch a small glimpse of the falls. Next aid station in 6.7 miles. Talk about the longest 6.7 miles ever. I think the hills were steeper on the way back. And the flat twisty section on the flood plain seemed like it would never end. The aid station at the Fraser Preserve was never just around the next corner. From there it was mentally easier (though not physically so) – two more aid stations and the finish. The unbridged stream crossing was nice for soaking sore feet. Then came the last set of hills, the singletrack through the golf course, a trip around Sugarland Run and the home stretch.

Overall this was a great event. I’m not sure I’d go back to run the 50 miler again, but the 50k or marathon would be fun.

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