Sunday, June 14, 2009

North Face Endurance Challenge Half Marathon - Bellingham, WA

June 6, 2009

I hadn't heard of this race until a few months ago when my uncle, who lives in Seattle, forwarded me the info. The course description sounded pretty awesome advertising some great technical single track and moderate to hard climbing. The timing also worked well being on the way back from a family vacation in northern Idaho.

For a trail event, this was a pretty big one with about 600 participants in four events (10k, Half Marathon, 50k, and 50 Mile). The 50 Mile event was the marquee event with over $2,000 in prize money for the top 3 men and woman. In addition, the overall male and female winner receive a free entry into the Endurance Challenge Championship in San Francisco where a prize of $10,000 is up for grabs. Sadly, no cash prizes were available for any of the other distances although there was still some pretty decent swag awarded.

This was probably the best organized running race that I have ever attend. Each distance had its own participant guide with course descriptions, maps, profiles, directions to the start, pace charts, participant info, etc. The staging area itself was well set up with a number of sponsor booths, registration and bag drop, food tent, and information. Registration although steep at about $80 Canadian, also included North Face technical shirt and socks, and reusable drawstring bag which. Dean Karnazes, ultra running legend, was also in attendance giving out the awards. Overall, I was pretty impressed with the whole setup.

Leading out the pack. Photo Credit: Sam Ruljancich

In terms of competition, I really didn't know what to expect for this race as I had no idea what the trail running scene was south of the border. Given the fairly high caliber look of the event, I did expect at least a few faster runners to be out. As we gathered near the start line in the minutes before the race I found it strange that no one wanted to actually line up under the arch. This was a race wasn't it? I have never seem a more bashful group of runners in my life!

Eventually, seconds before the start they finally moved forward and we were off. It was a pretty slow start, no one burned out front and I soon found myself in the lead. One guy did speed up and run beside me for a bit during the first 2 Mile loop that brought us out on some single track and then back around the start area again, but he fell back on some of the early climbs. Interestingly, I caught up to and passed a guy who said he was just out for a run. It turns out he ended up running the whole course and had be been registered, would have come in third.

The little loop was fun and I was hoping for more single track. Soon though, we were running on gravel roads. OK, I thought, I can handle this, more trails will be coming soon. I thought I had a good lead on the second place guy, Jacob Stout, but just before a steep ascent up a power line right-of-way, I realized he was just behind me. I was a little worried at this point because it looked like he was pushing hard. If he kept it up, I wasn't sure I could match his pace. It didn't help that as I started the climb, I began to hurt. My stomach was a bit upset and I just wasn't at 100%. Luckily, climbing probably wasn't Jacob's forte as I still gained on him even in my weakened state.

The climb was followed by a road decent. I was feeling better and moving well, but Jacob continued to power ahead and eventually caught up to me. We ran together for perhaps 2 Miles and it was good to have someone to help push me. When soon moved onto some single track for another climb and I fortunately felt better than the last climb and was able to make a up fair amount of ground. By the time I reached the top (and the highest point in the course) and popped back onto a gravel road, he was out of sight. Despite having a comfortable lead, I kept the pressure on myself up. I didn't want him to get the chance to see me again as that could give him a second wind.

I passed and aid #2 station and began a 4 Mile out and back section (unfortunately again on an old road). At this point, I started to see many of the participants from the 50k who also did this section and then after the turn around I saw who was behind me for the first time. I had perhaps a minute on Jacob at this point and 3rd place was another 2 or so more minutes back. It was now my race to lose. The reminder of the race was mostly down hill with another Mile of road followed by some nice technical trail leading into the finish. This brief bit of trail was what I had hoped the whole course would be composed of.
I crossed the line in 1:32:32, a decent time for an off road half marathon assuming the distance was fairly accurate.

The top 3 finishers (myself, Jacob Stout, and Graham Thomas) with Dean Karnazes.
Photo Credit: Sam Ruljancich

The top woman came in 21st overall in 1:52:15 and Sonja ran to a strong 5th place finish in the woman's division. Results are here. As a bonus, the announcer even pronounced my last name correctly! I was happy with the win, but was disappointed with the course which was not near as interesting as advertised. I'm thinking that the 50 Mile racers probably got the prime course. Perhaps I will have to try it in a future year.


Gary Robbins said...

Nice work dude, congrats! Yeah I'm pretty sure the NF courses are designed around the 50m distances and building up to the Championships in the fall. I think they only stage the shorter races to help offset the costs involved. Too bad you didn't have a better course cause the terrain down there is AWESOME!
Hope the rest of your 'vaca' was fun:)

Brad Cunningham said...


Well done! Did you get a chance to talk to Dean? Very cool to win one south of the border!

Shaner said...

I had a few words with Dean, but didn't have anything unusual to ask him. I'm sure he has heard all of the normal questions.


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