The North Face Endurance Challenge: Ultramarathons for Triathletes

Ultramathons for Triathletes

When I signed up for my first Ironman triathlon, I had never completed any distance longer than a marathon or an Olympic Distance triathlon. I had a long way to go to get in shape for a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride and 26.2 marathon that I expected may take me 12 hours or more.

My training plan for that first Ironman was based on steadily increasing challenges on a monthly basis to build endurance, both distance and time. A training marathon could keep me going for under four hours, a century ride could take six hours or more. But how to experience a longer endurance challenge?

The answer, for me, was the Ultramarathon, a running event that goes beyond the standard 26.2 mile marathon, naturally. The distances can include 50k (31 miles), 50 mile, 100k and 100 mile. The courses tend to be off-road, on trails that are shared with mountain bikes and horses.

My first 50k, in the Arizona desert and mountains, took more than 6 hours. It was exhilarating to have run farther and longer than ever in my life, and I still felt good at the end. A 50 mile run two months later on a Wisconsin trail left by melting glaciers during the Ice Age took nearly nine hours, again a time and distance breakthrough.

The success in these events as part of my Ironman training helped me finish my first Ironman triathlon two months after the 50-mile run in less than 12 hours, ahead of my goal.

The North Face Endurance Challenge

Ten years later, the North Face has created perhaps the first of its kind: a five race cross-country series of ultramarathon races culminating in a National Championship in San Francisco. This series is similar in structure and format to what NA Sports (formerly Ironman North America) has put in place over the years: several North American events, with slots available for the World Championship in Kona.

The North Face Endurance challenge, featuring 50-mile and 50k trail ultramarathons, takes place in Washington DC, Des Moines, Hartford, Seattle and San Francisco. I raced the first event in Washington DC on August 4, and, comparing it to my Ironman race days, noticed several similarities in the experience that triathletes might relate to. Of course, there are dramatic differences, too. That’s part of the adventure.

5am Start

In the same way that triathletes quietly make last minute adjustments in transition before the dawn of race day, ultramarathers quietly waited for the 5am start in Great Falls National Park, in McLean Virginia. In the otherwise pitch black forest, a bright light showered the starting area with enough illumination for last minute instructions for the runners. Notably: the trail would be marked with small pink and orange ribbons clipped to branches on trees every few hundred meters or so.

The horn sounded at about 5am, and we quickly the light of the starting area was behind us. We were off into the darkness. And I was unprepared for it.

At home in Chicago, I had been used to 5am training rides with the run on the rise. I expected the same for this race, and therefore didn’t remotely think of bringing a flashlight. But in the pitch darkness, it was a necessity.

Thankfully, other better-prepared runners brought headlamps, so I made it a point to stay near them. I followed their every step, with a vigilant eye on the dim glow their headlamps provided on rocky and unpredictable trail that had the potential to trip you up at any moment. Remember, this was off-road.

Because of the unique terrain, at least for this asphalt-preferring runner, and the limited light, I had to quickly learn to see with my feet. Each step could be at a different angle (rock vs flat), a different density (mud vs. dry), and you need to be prepared. But after a while, you learn to run lightly, and most adjustments become second nature.

Early on, it occurred to me that this sensation of running in the dark, with limited visibility, and seemed very similar to the open water swim in an Ironman.

Two weeks earlier, I had started the Ironman USA Lake Placid in Mirror Lake with 2200 other athletes. For the first quarter of the race, I was swimming nearly blind, with all the swimmers and commotion around me. I never saw a buoy, just dark water as I looked down, and splashing on the surface as I turned to take a breath.

But similar to this ultramarathon, I decided the best way to continue calmly was to lock onto a swimmer ahead of me, and simply follow them. In the water of Mirror Lake, I blindly trusted the athlete(s) in front of me to be heading in the right direction, and I settled in for a calm swim. On the trail, I also trusted the pack in front of me to be navigating the trail – spotting those ribbons – in the dark. Thankfully, they did a terrific job.

Also, the potential and likelihood of being whacked unintentionally by a swimmer in the Ironman seemed similar to the chance of tripping over a rock or an unexpected root, (which actually happened to me after about seven miles on the trail). As in the Ironman swim, you shake it off, and keep going.

The first part of the North Face 50-miler was on a trail called Difficult Run. In the dark, it was hard to see the difficulty, but you could feel it. Following the human running peloton, we ran up, down, sideways, around trees, jumped over muddy sections, and along running water.

After an hour running to the turnaround of this trail, the sun was beginning to rise, sending a glow through the forest. On the way back to the start, with some daylight, we were able to see both the challenge and beauty of the course. This also seemed similar to an Ironman swim, in that things become clearer in the water in the second half, and you can settle into a groove.

For me, the Ironman swim is a warmup for the rest of the day on the bike and run. And finishing the first leg of the race, at 13 miles or so, I felt the same way. It was about 7am, I felt comfortable, almost as if I hadn’t been running much at all. That’s how I wanted it to be at this time, 25% through the race. I was ready to take on the rest of the course as the sun rose.

Better yet, the sun illuminated spectacular views of the Great Falls and the Potomac river. One of the most enjoyable parts of an ultramarathon can be the terrain the course follows. Nothing like regular concrete marathon courses, ultramarathons take you places you’re glad you got to see. You pass landmarks like the Great Falls, the water’s edge of the Potomac, and experience the silence of the forest, and you forget you’re running. You’re experiencing beauty in nature.

The Fun Miles

My favorite part of the Ironman is the first three hours on the bike. You feel fresh, reasonably fast, and the ride is pure fun. The same can be true on an ultramarathon course.

The next twelve or so miles to the next turnaround were through horse trails – some under construction – along the Potomac, and then out through the woods on a golf course.

The course along this route was described as ‘somewhat scenic’ meaning gently undulating. This is not necessarily a bad thing. My experience in ultramarathons is that so many different leg muscles are recruited while covering the terrain, that a good balance results, almost allowing you to run further because of the distribution of work across those muscles.

A natural part of an ultramarathon course, due to the occasional challenge of clearly marking a course through the woods, is the opportunity to enjoy the fun of being lost, or, in nicer terms, lacking appropriate direction.

At about the seventeen mile point (it’s impossible to be sure; there are no mile markers, and that’s fine by me), in the area of a steep incline with the trail heading three different directions, not a marker was in sight. The adventure at this point included trying each of the three trails, and still not finding the way.

Other runners arrived, and we all searched, to no avail. But we knew where the course was generally heading, so we finally marched through the thicket and rocks in that direction, occasionally getting trapped in muddy muck at the water’s edge.

We quickly found the trail again, and resumed running toward the 25 mile point turnaround.

Time Flies; You Don’t

In order to run an ultramarathon, you need to forget how you usually run marathons in the same way it’s unwise to completely hammer the bike leg in an Ironman. In both cases, you need to alter your effort to complete a longer journey.

Running an ultramarathon is an exercise in patience, as is racing an Ironman. In an ultramarathon, I don’t focus on time at all; I just run at a comfortable pace, in what I like to describe as a Forever Gear. Forever Gear is a pace at which, at least during the middle miles of an ultramarathon, I feel as if I can run forever. Find that pace, and lock it in. The time may fly, you don’t have to. Just run at a pace that works. And that’s not your normal marathon pace.

In fact, it can be about the same pace you take onto the Ironman marathon course. I ran a relatively easy 4:07 marathon at Ironman Lake Placid two weeks earlier, and reached the 25 mile point on the North Face course after about four and a half hours.

In 50-mile runs during my first few Ironman years, I’d reach the half-way point suffering, after going out too fast. This time, a goal of mine was to feel no pain at 25. Mission accomplished. Just 25 miles to go.

When It Gets Tough

Not that it doesn’t get tough as the miles wear on. As a triathlete, you know what it’s like. The day wears on, the sun rises, the muscles start to ache, and you look for ways to stay in the game.

The same is true in the ultramarathon, and there are ways to feel better. First, it’s ok to walk in an ultra, as often as you need to. Just as walking at certain points during a triathlon run course is an approach to regroup and keep going forward, the same is true in an ultra.

Walking can be a strategy, too, particularly on uphill climbs. No need to sprint up a hill, sapping energy. Instead, power-walk it, conserving energy. On a long day, you need it.

Second, the aid stations in an ultra can be fantastic. They tend to be further apart – about every five miles in the NF 50 – but often that’s determined by logistics. Where you’re running if often not the easiest place to locate an aid table.

But when you get there, treats await. Cans of de-fizzed soda, jelly beans for fast sugar, potato slices for complex carbs, pretzels for salt, plenty of Accelerade. I needed more and more fueling later in the ultra, and I would drink two cans of cola and eat the potatoes, standing there, in no rush. Take your time, get what you need. Move on when you’re ready.

Returning along the Potomac, and once again navigating the challenging but short area where we got lost earlier, the miles were piling up. But I was alone, and realized that I had been alone for several hours.

It’s the nature of many ultramarathons, which tend to include dozens, maybe a couple hundred runners, rather than two thousand racers, as in Ironman. Over the course of a long day, the field stretches out, and you can go long ways before seeing another runner. In those later miles, from 25 to 37, the only people I saw for more than a few moments were 50k runners, sharing the same course.

Are We There Yet?

Reaching the start/finish area after about 8 and a half hours and 37 miles, it was clear that I was having a slow run. Before seeing the course, and not factoring in the 98 degree heat and humidity, I had unrealistically hoped that I’d be finishing at about this time. But as I said earlier: time flies, you don’t. You take what the day brings you.

With 13 miles to go, after an aid station stop, I ran out for the final loop of the course, a repeat of the first loop that began the day, on Difficult Run Trail.

I have to admit, after nearly nine hours running in the heat, you begin hoping it will end soon. Just like the middle miles of a triathlon run, when there’s still plenty of course left to go. All you can do at that point is keep going.

And as I reentered the Difficult Run trail in full daylight, I could finally appreciate how the trail got its name. While it undoubtedly is not the most foreboding ultra trail anyone’s ever seen, it did not look easy. Uphills, downhills, sideways, mud, everything I felt and ran through in the early morning was now in plain view.

I was shocked at how easily we had navigated that trail in the dark several hours earlier. Step after step, I could see obstacles that could have so easily tripped us up in the dark. The teamwork made the difference, running together, protecting each other. This time, I was moving much slower, and the rocks and tree roots were no threat.

The distance was becoming the challenge, and I was feeling worse and worse. I was running out of ways to combat an oncoming struggle that I had hoped to avoid. I took time at the mile 41 aid station, walked as much as I needed, to no apparent avail.


But then it happened, as if often does in endurance events: a sudden turnaround. Out of nowhere, the body feels better, the spirit rebounds, the excitement to pursue the finish returns. It’s a perpetual reminder, each time it happens, of the benefits of perseverance.

The lesson also applies to everyday life: persevere, and you can find success on the other end. It’s one of my favorite parts of my endurance experience over the years. The ability to break through challenges and find the Other Side.

And it’s why I love endurance racing, whether it’s running or triathlon. It’s all about moving forward, working it out, getting better, learning something new about yourself, earning success on your own terms.

Finish With A Smile

Refreshed and energized, I began running faster and almost breezily, feeling the finish line approaching. At mile 49, the trail meandered to a rocky ledge over the Potomac, offering a breathtaking, if perhaps a too adventurous and precarious view for runners on enthusiastic but admittedly wobbly legs.

Passing the last brilliant scene on the course, I headed toward the finish, ten hours and thirty-some minutes after I had begun. Time didn’t matter, finishing with a smile did.

Most importantly, as far as my triathlon season is concerned, it was a great training day, with relatively little wear and tear on my body.

Something totally different, and fun. That’s what I think the North Face is trying to do: make ultramarathons more accessible to endurance athletes. You don’t have to run 50 miles; 50k is an available option, and it might be better as a first event.

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