I am really enjoying this pacer gig. I love helping a friend achieve a goal and I love running! Also, I love San Francisco. So when Rob decided to sign up for his first 50 miler at The North Face 50 miler (TNF50, to save some typing!) in the Marin headlands, there wasn’t even a question that I would go with him. Like, twist my rubber arm! I’ve been to SF many times, I can’t count how many by now, and this was Rob’s first trip ever to California! That’s so crazy to me! I couldn’t wait to show him one of my favourite city’s in the world and run with him to the finish line.
TNF50 seems like one of only a few 50 milers that allow pacers. It’s a lot more common for 100 mile races to have pacers after a certain point. The race is highlighted by the 50 mile distance but there’s also 50k, marathon, marathon relay, half marathon, and 5k.
The weather in SF had been unsettled with some rain which was really nice to see because of the California drought. The forecast for race day called for 30% chance of rain and around 14c. Pretty ideal running conditions. A little bit of rain would help increase the tackiness of the trails but too much rain (like in 2012) could cause course changes due to mudslides.
The alarm went off at 3:00am. WAY too early! We were in the car by 3:30am and heading across the Golden Gate Bridge. The race site was easy to find and parking was readily available. There was supposed to be shuttles going between the start/finish and the parking area but when we got there just before 4:00am there was a long line of people anxiously awaiting an apparent nonexistent shuttle. Finally the organizers told us it was only about a half mile walk to the start so most of us headed into the dark for a little walk. It was a short walk, 5 min or so, so the shuttles aren’t even really needed.
We got Rob’s drop bag dropped off and then we huddled with many other racers and supporters around the fire pits to try to keep warm. It was freezing! I always make fun of Californians for not being able to tolerate cold – in LA, they would be wearing down jackets once it dipped below 60F! But this entire day, I was thoroughly impressed with their toughness and resilience to the cold. I don’t know what the temperature was but I was chilled to the bone. Rob was talking to some of the other athletes, lots of first time 50 milers even though this was a championship race. The cutoff times for this race are quite fast. 14 hours for 50 miles is definitely a challenge! The only thing we had to compare to was the Grand Canyon R2R2R which was close to 50 miles and about 14:30 moving time, so we really didn’t know what to expect. The 50 milers are allowed pacers at mile 27.7 to the finish and with the shuttle schedule I could run either 22 miles or 16 miles with him. I haven’t been training, I had been enjoying a really nice offseason, my first since 2010 (!) so we had sort of prepared each other that I would likely just run 16 miles and he would be on his own for the last 6.
The race started in waves about 30 seconds apart and Rob was in the final wave. Once he was off and running I hung around a fire at the start line for a bit to try to stay warm before catching the shuttle to Tennessee Valley to surprise Rob at about 8 miles. I arrived at the TV aid station just before the lead elite runners were expected to arrive. It was really exciting to see the preparations at the aid station and then even more exciting to see the lead runners cruise by. Lots of them didn’t stop and the ones that did stopped only briefly to grab something from a crew member. It was really cool looking up at the hill and seeing a train of headlights leading towards us. First, I saw Heather, fellow Betty and triathlete/runner/yogi (follow her in IG! @heatherrosescott). Shortly Rob came through and he was so excited to see me. He said he was feeling great and that everyone loved his tights (they look like tiger stripes). I walked with him a bit, sent him on his way, and got back in the shuttle to the start line for a nap. I wouldn’t be able to see him again until I picked him up for pacing at mile 28, and I needed some sleep! And I needed to get warm! I had a crazy good nap in my car with the heat on and only woke up because my alarm buzzed frantically in my ear.
The plan was to meet Rob at 10:30-10:45am at Stinson Beach aid station, mile 28, which would have been his fastest estimated time. Based on his arrival time when I saw him at TV, I knew (or at least was quite certain) he wouldn’t be making his best case times. The shuttle from the start to TV came very quickly but I had to wait and wait and watch the minutes tick by until finally the second shuttle to Stinson Beach arrived. The drive to Stinson Beach was very beautiful but I suffer from car/motion sickness and it’s a very winding road! I was doing everything I could to keep my shit together, breathe, and just focus on not getting sick. Finally, and not a minute too soon, we arrived at Stinson and I practically fell out of the bus, I was so wobbly and weak. Also, it was 10:50am. I really hoped I hadn’t missed him! Or worse, that he had to wait for me! I looked all around and tried to see the list of runners that had already been through and determined he was still on his way. I met Sandrine, who was wearing a Betty trucker and super cool tights, as she was waiting to pace Heather. I told her that Rob and Heather may be running together because they were close at TV.
Finally at about 11:20am Rob and Heather came running happily into Stinson. They were so funny and excited, they couldn’t stop talking – about how awesome the run is, about how everyone is commenting on their tights and calling them the tights pirates. They were like two peas in a pod! We got everyone sorted and the four of us headed out together.
Rob continued to chat away about how much he loved California and the course and I was so happy to see how well he was doing. He was running great and was in excellent spirits. We also ended up naturally switching pacers and runners a few times so I ran with Heather and Rob ran with Sandrine. Heather was like a professional tour guide of the course, she knows it like the back of her hand because she lives almost on the course and can train on those trails every day! She was a total speed demon on the downhills especially, leaving Rob and I in her dust. Heather went through a rough patch where she forgot to eat so her energy really dropped off, she was less talkative, and she slowed down a bit. Once we got some food into her she went right back to her normal bubbly self and resumed crushing the course.
At Old Inn aid station, mile 36, Rob really needed to use the porta potty. He banged urgently on the door and the response was, “You’re gonna need to find another, I’m gonna be in here all day!” Rob was pissed. That really set him off. I think he was likely already a bit low on calories, getting more tired (by this point he was further than he’d ever run before), and to be told he couldn’t relieve himself when he wanted to sent him into a bit of a tailspin. He had been taking videos and photos up to this point and in looking back, it’s pretty evident when the going got tough for him because there are no more photos until the end!
It was “only” 4 miles to the next aid station, which can seem never ending when you have to go to the bathroom, but I knew hanging around Old Inn was not helping. I basically pulled Rob away, who by now was swearing under his breath and just generally grumpy, and kept telling him it’s not that much longer! This section was completely runnable, flat or slightly downhill all the way to Muir Beach. Rob did awesome and he actually did run the whole way. At the first sight of the porta potty Rob basically sprinted to it. While he was doing his business I was emptying my pack of electrolyte drink and getting rid of extra bits of garbage. I’ve been having a hard time taking electrolyte drink (Skratch, Osmo, Nuun – it’s all the same effect) hour after hour and I really just prefer plain water.
At this point, with 10 miles to go, all I heard about from Rob for the rest of the day, was how that was the best bathroom break of his life, how he feels SO good now, how he can’t imagine ever having a better pee again. And on and on and on. The climb out of Muir Beach is a monster. Rob was still climbing amazing, no one passed us on this climb and we just kept picking people off. We came up on Heather and Sandrine and as much as we wanted to hang with them, Rob just needed to keep going at his own pace. It becomes a game of survival out there and once your body decides on a pace, that’s the pace you’re going to run at!
We cruised pretty well into Tennessee Valley for the last time. Rob was trying to hang around the aid station for a bit, looking for soup or coke or something but I managed to get him out of there quickly. We had one last big climb all the way up to the final aid station. There was a section that was seriously, honestly, flat and Rob started walking. I tried to encourage him to run, that it was flat, that he shouldn’t be walking but I knew that in his head, after more than 70km, his brain was telling him it was a steep hill and there was no way he could run. That was the last stumbling block for Rob on the way to the finish. After Alta aid station it was 5km (mostly) downhill all the way to the finish.
Rob ran really well downhill. I was so surprised at how well he was still moving. Even my quads were sore doing down and I hadn’t even ran half of what he did. It sun started to set and we kept running to get Rob to the finish before it got too dark. Finally off the trails there was a short road section, uphill of course, to the finish. This was *actually* uphill and Rob ran the whole thing! Goes to show you the power of the mind and the power of the finish line. We were able to finish without headlights. Rob crossed the finish line after 50miles/80km with around 10,000ft of gain, taking 11hrs 52min. I was so proud of him! He did so much better than I ever thought was possible and I couldn’t believe he ran all the way until the end. Heather finished only a few minutes later and again, I was so impressed with her effort, mindset, and strong running.
We didn’t hang around the finish too much because we were getting too cold, so we got back in the car with heaters on full blast to drive back across the bridge to SF. We had a super greasy meal of burger (Rob), grilled cheese sandwich (me), fries, onion rings, and a milkshake at Mel’s Drive In, across the street from our hotel, and then promptly passed out.
The North Face 50 is a fabulous race. It is definitely more commercial than a lot of trail races but for me, I like the hype and excitement surrounding big races. Rob said all the aid stations were wonderful, lots of food and lots of selection and great volunteers. Of course the scenery of the Marin Headlands pretty much can’t be beat. Both Rob and I would recommend TNF50 in a heartbeat, and for those not ready for or not interested in running 50 miles, there are races offered at all distances over the weekend – 5k, 10k, half marathon, full marathon, marathon relay, and 50k. I’m sure we’ll be back!