T3, Mav, Mark, and the Brothers…
That was the single hardest thing I have ever done.
April 12, 2008. Bear Mountain, New York. The North Face Endurance Challenge 50k.
Maybe I shouldn’t have signed up for this race the day after Sapper try-outs. I must have been out of my mind. Surely I was still delirious. Or, it could be said, I was in a perfect state of understanding pain. Sapper induced the kind of pain that I liked, and something in me knew that the Endurance Challenge would do the same. No matter the rationale – or irrationality – back in February, I clicked “submit” on my entry form, and there was no looking back.
I got one of my Firstie (i.e. a Senior, Class of 2008) friends, Wilson Galyean, to sign up with me – even if he was only going to do the half-marathon. In his defense, he has Nationals competition for his Combat Weapons Team next weekend, which is why he chose to forego the 50k. Wilson and I wanted to run in memory of a mutual friend, 1LT Tom Martin, class of 2005. Tom was killed in Iraq on 14 October 2007. He had been over there for 13 months, and had led his platoon over 1800 miles of walking in that time. Not mounted, not driven… Boots on the ground. 1800 miles. Wilson and I decided that logging a few painful miles would be a good way to honor Tom. Tom was an Armored Cavalry officer, so I wore a “Cavalry” cap in the race. The back of it says, “If you ain’t Cav…!” To finish that statement in euphemism…if you ain’t cav, well, you ain’t really worth very much at all.
Race morning… Crash, flash, boom. Thunder and lightning, baby. I woke up to a storm that the 50-milers were currently running through. I briefly felt like a lesser man for not being out there with them. But the storm that I awoke to quickly passed and – though it left a sloppy, wet signature on the course – we would run dry for the rest of the day.
The start of the race itself was the most low-key “Ready, Set, Go!” I’ve ever experienced. Having never been a part of a trail race – or the trail running community – before, I took an observer’s back seat, trying to learn the culture, customs, and etiquette. The field of 70 or so gathered around the start line in a horse-shoe formation, no one wanting to volunteer to be the front-runners. The starter announced, “5 seconds, folks….go!” And most of the runners took another 5 seconds beyond that to say their farewells. Having no wife or kids to kiss good-bye, I strode to the front, and even my pedestrian 9 minute per mile pace was more than enough to snag the lead. Ha. I had no idea what I was doing…
I ran the first 5.3 miles (until the first rest stop) with a group of 3 other guys – Chris, Alex, and Matt. Alex, I learned, was a Class of 2000 graduate from West Point. He’s now out of the Army and working for a Fortune 500 company in NYC. He said I could call him in 7 years and he’d hook me up with a job. Alex went on to win the whole race by over 30 minutes. Go Army.
Shortly after the first rest stop, I faded off the pace of Alex and the others and knew that I would be alone for the next marathon or so. I began to notice the scenery and analyze life as a race. The brief rain yielded into a thick fog. Then once that fog lifted, the air was thick with humidity. On the tops of mountains it was sunny and hot, but in the valleys below it was shaded and cool. Temperatures ran the spectrum, up and down.
Terrain… How do I describe the terrain? Mortal man has tried to describe it with a 5/5 difficulty rating… Cycling vocabulary would almost certainly call it “hors categorie.” What I have in my head, what my eyes have seen can hardly be described in words. Boulder fields. Countless stream crossings. At times I felt like I needed a helmet and ropes to get up – and down – some of the terrain. I don’t know if this was a “trail” race or a “creek bed” race. And “race” should be used sparingly. This was an endurance event where some people get to the finish line before others.
At the second and fourth rest stops I had to have my ankles taped up because I was rubbing and bleeding pretty badly. Lesson 1: wear quarter-length socks. Lesson 2: don’t buy trail shoes online. In the end, I had 5 quarter-sized rub marks on my feet, but in the moment I didn’t care about any of them. On, pressing on! I kept thinking about the rules of the Brothers: Never let the colors fall! (Not that I own the colors yet…) Get to the finish line, period. My mind added to that mantra when one guy on the course, making encouraging conversation, said, “It’s just pain. Keep moving…” It’s just pain, it’s just pain…
The stretch from the rest stop at mile 19.6 to the rest stop at mile 26.7 was the most brutal. I got passed by a few dudes, and I was ok with that. In high school I would have made excuses, downplayed the performance of my competitors – even teammates – or claimed I was having an off-day of sorts. But this day, this course, humbled you to the point where nothing resonates but extreme, utmost respect and admiration for anyone who is out-performing you.
Seeing the sign at the 26.7 mile rest stop, I thought to myself, “So, this is the absolute farthest that I have ever run. Each step forward is a new P.R.” That was a neat feeling, but it wasn’t as epic as I thought it might be. It was almost a “business as usual” feeling. Why celebrate when I still have 5 more miles at the office?
Those last 5 miles I felt a new revitalization. The worst of the hills and technical terrain were over. I actually re-passed a runner in those last 5 miles, gaining back one place. Having memorized the elevation chart for the course, I knew exactly when I was making the last (comparatively) small climb and I was grinning ear-to-ear when I was descending toward the finish line. When the finish chutes were in sight, and I could hear my friends calling out my name – including Wilson, who had finished hours earlier -, I threw my shoulders back, stood a little taller, thought about Tom Martin, and ran strongly on in to my first ultramarathon finish.
Endstate: I finished in 7:29:43 – 15th place overall and 2nd in my age group.
The North Face deserves a mad shout out for the show they put on. Now, I’ve never experienced a trail race event before, but I can imagine the problems that could come with marking a trail course. For 31 miles I followed a train of blue ribbons, no two more than 20 meters separated from each other. The rest stops and rest stop volunteers were everything you would/should expect. I had the opportunity to experience the medical tent - twice. I had my heels taped at the 2nd and 4th rest stops. The medics were quick, caring, and very professional. I appreciated the speed mixed with proficiency. Food at the rest stops was superb, too. The apples were amazing…! And gummy bears….perfect. At the 4th rest stop I felt a little like I was force fed, but I’m ok with that. The volunteers kept offering me stuff, and I kept insisting that I was fine…and they kept offering still! I would finally agree to one of their suggestions just to get them to leave me alone. This was repeated 4 times at the same rest stop. But in the end I recognize how delirious I was at that mile 19 and how much the food was truly needed. And the schwag was tops, too. The race t-shirt was a top-tier North Face technical tee. Also included with registration was a North Face visor, socks and a water bottle with a hand strap. For my 2nd place age group finish I won another technical tee and visor. The top 3 finishers won hundreds of dollars of North Face and Accelerade junk.
The morning after a race like this there are 2 possible thoughts that could be spinning through one’s mind: 1) Never again! 2) When’s the next one?? Me, I’m hooked, baby.
Is it sick that I’ve already considered signing up for the September 6th North Face Endurance Challenge race in Washington, DC? Yes. You guys should come do it with me. A little prep for the Mother Road, yeah??
Next time I hit the trails I’ll have better shoes – ones that I’ve actually tried on before purchasing them. And I’ll have better head knowledge about what to expect on a 5/5 trail.
And that’s the race report. So, The North Face Endurance Challenge at Bear Mountain, NY… Yeah, that was the single hardest thing I have ever done – to date.
Rape, pillage, and plunder…
Take all you can, give nothing back!
Cadet Corporal David Swanson
West Point, USCC ‘10
F2, The ZOO!
GO NORDIC SKI!