More North Face Endurance Challenge Thoughts

Well, the results are finally in for the North Face Endurance Challenge at Bear Mountain in New York. My original post on the race generated some feedback and forced me to reflect on both my comments and the event. It seems that I overlooked two aspects of the race. First, apparently, there was a significant controversy over the cutoff times. Second, I neglected to mention that the first two finishers, Leigh Schmitt and Glen Redpath, missed the 3rd aid station. I’ll get to the miss in a moment, but first, about the cutoff times.

My day was very busy, hustling from aid station to aid station with our little guy in tow. I was consumed with the action, but I still noticed that something was not right. By the last aid station, I realized that a lot of the 50 mile runners weren’t going to finish the race. Of course, I sort of knew this as early as aid station three, when it took forever for the first runners to arrive. 

I didn’t analyze the cutoff times for each aid station, but in the case of the 50 mile race, 13 hours for the whole race wasn’t long enough. The last official finisher in 19th place, finished in 12:52. Eight of the 19 finishers ran between 12 and 13 hours! The course was rated on the website with five out of five stars for overall difficulty. Compared to the other four races in the series, this one, the first, was clearly rated as the most difficult in terms of elevation change, technical terrain, and overall difficulty. Again, I don’t know enough about the circumstances, but I do know that I would be disappointed if I had trained, prepared, traveled, and paid to run; and was not allowed to finish. Did all the runners know what they were getting into? I would assume most did if they were committed to running 50 miles, starting at 5:00 A.M. with headlamps. Debbie doesn’t recall that there were any prerequisites (e.g. past ultra experience, etc.) to registering for the event. Our friend, Nipmuck Dave, has a hilarious race application for his race, the Nipmuck Trail Marathon. Cloaked in the humor is a very serious message, that a trail race of that distance (26.4 miles) is a serious undertaking and that you have to train for it and understand that you can get hurt while spending a lot of time in the woods. He has prerequisites for running the race and also has the right to not let you in. Running a road marathon to qualify, will get you nowhere with Dave.

The Bear Mountain race winner, Leigh Schmitt, has run the same distance on different courses, at least two hours faster. Debbie’s fastest 50 mile time is 7:54 at the Vermont 50 Mile Run. That is also more than two hours and twenty five minutes faster than her time in this race. The VT50 is no slouch of a course with a lot of climbing, less singletrack, and a little more dirt road, but still tough. Would Nikki Kimball have run the Bear Mountain course faster than Debbie? Probably, but again, times are relative and every runner has different strengths that are suited to certain terrain. Bear Mountain was just about perfect for Debbie. Nikki did run the 1/2 marathon on a bum ankle and commented that it was challenging.  Debbie says Bear Mountain was less than 10% dirt road and that it was rugged dirt road. The rest was singletrack and doubletrack with a little bushwhacking. April is early for a nasty 50 miler in the Northeast. Debbie was concerned about running that long this early in the year. If it wasn’t for our trip to Australia, where we ran the Six Foot Track Marathon (45km) last month, she may have opted not to run this far so soon. Our original plan was for her to run the Zane Grey Highline Trail 50 mile race in Payson, Arizona at the end of April. We backed out of that one because of our busy travel schedule, race logistics, and childcare challenges. Zane Grey is often regarded as the hardest 50 mile race in the country. I guess she has to run it next year or in 2010 to see if it is harder than Bear Mountain, a different kind of course, but seemingly a worthy challenger for the toughest title. I would be curious if any of the 19 Bear Mountain finishers has a Zane Grey finish to compare it with. So, I guess the cutoff time debate is exactly that…a debate. Most people run ultras for the fun and thrill of finishing. I’m a mid-pack guy myself, so I know that just getting across the line is a challenge. Runners like Debbie and Leigh are usually finished, showered, and on their way home long before the back of the packers end their day. The cruel irony is that the last finishers run the same distance, but technically spend a lot more time on the trail. Is their effort harder? I’ve said many times that I wouldn’t want to be out there that long. Well, that is what makes those folks heroes in my eyes. They deserve as much, if not more credit for being out there, as the champs do for crossing the line first. 

As for this tricky little third aid station issue. I was reminded by a reader of this blog that Leigh and Glen did not “complete the course.” I don’t know if there times were adjusted, but they did not run the out and back section to aid station three (15.7 mile mark). I was at three, so I know it. I think that the first runner to arrive was Marc Gravatt, who ended up finishing fourth. Debbie was the second to arrive and she finished third. We suspected something was up because it was taking too long for Leigh. He was the heavy favorite and we never saw him. I ended up trying to catch him at several other aid stations, but I kept missing him. I only missed him by seven minutes at the last aid station, but that cost me any chance of getting his photo on the trail. You would have to piece together the facts, but apparently, this one section of the course leading to aid station three, was not marked very well. The 50 kilometer was blue ribbons and the 50 mile was white. The course came down the trail to the aid, where the blue continued and the white returned to where the out and back started. Debbie says it was confusing and even one of the race organizers said it could have been marked better. He ended up going up the trail and re-marking it, but not until Leigh and Glen had passed. 

They eventually realized that they missed the aid station because they inquired about their status at aid station four, and were both told to continue running after volunteers radioed the base for guidance. In this case, the way the course was laid out, there was no way to indicate that they were headed the wrong way. Little out and backs like that are tricky. Even the map wasn’t detailed enough to really show this. So, in my opinion, it is hard to fault them. I spoke with both of them after the race and they expressed regret. Even if it saved them 10 minutes between the downhill, fueling at the aid, and uphill, they had a healthy cushion over Debbie, the next finisher. I’m sure that they may have even slowed a bit after realizing the mistake. That kind of stuff messes with your head. Do you run another 33 miles only to be disqualified? 

I’m sure that others have a different opinion. If there was more competition, there may have been a bigger controversy. The rules posted on the website clearly state that you must check in at every aid station. Well, it is ultimately the race organizers who make the rules, so they can change them too. Leigh and Glen were OK’d to finish the race and claim their spots on the podium. I’m sure they understand that cutting the course and missing an aid in other races could result in a DQ. It isn’t a simple matter because marking a course is an imperfect science. Nature and sabotage have caused runners to lose their way in the woods many times in many races. 

Do the cutoff time and course marking issues make the race a bad one? That is for the runners to decide. They each have their own perspective. Do these issues reflect poorly on the race and the North Face brand. Probably, but that is how things go. It was their first race in the series this year. Hopefully the lessons learned will transfer to the folks promoting the other regional events. Every course is different and according to the website, the remaining four race courses are going to be a lot easier. The bigger concern in my mind is if a first time race like this has “legs.” Will it last 24 more years like Nipmuck, Western States, and some of the other great ones? North Face and their co-sponsors have clearly pumped a lot of dollars and marketing might into their series. Brands like the North Face don’t often last 25 years and marketing budgets shrink. Think back to one of my more infamous race reports after the HERC Open last year. I think the company behind HERC and the $25,000 prize list, Unither Nutriceuticals, Inc. is bankrupt. I know their website is down. The races that are now legendary all have great courses (like Bear Mountain) but they also have great race directors and/or running clubs who have had long tenures putting them on. They also tend to have no or very small prize lists. It is the honor of finishing that is significant. 

Three cheers to all of the racers who ran on Saturday at all four of the race distances, and kudos to everyone who toed the start line, not just those who crossed it heading in the other direction hours later. 

2 Responses to “More North Face Endurance Challenge Thoughts”

  1. 1 Adam 18 April 2008 at 9:28 pm

    Thanks for the great posts on the race (better than mine). So here’s my take on the “controversy”:
    1) This course is CLASSIC. I love it! Don’t change it or move it! But (are you listening North Face?) But thats a feature not a problem.
    2) There are many kinks that need to be worked out in making this a successful race on this course. I don’t believe that the latest event meets the definition of a successful race (as much as I like the course itself) These include the following major issues:
    a) Course marking was overall very good with ribbons and even reflective marking spaced very close on most of the course. But like a chain, markings are only as strong as their weakest link. In two cases the markings were gone and I stood still with other experienced ultrarunners and had slow thoughtful discussions over the right direction. In one case it may have only been 15 minutes. In the other case we got caught in a long loop that took us back to aid station one. This may have been due to torn down ribbons that took place during race. But key turns need to have course marshals to insure against this. In summary, the course needs to be CONSISTENTLY wellmarked throughout, with marshals and race personnel at key intersections.
    b) The cutoff times were absurd. It is very clear that noone really attempted to run the course and time it beforehand. I did run an hour off course. But my 50 mile PR is 7:57, I love courses like this, and I felt great the whole day. I shouldn’t be running up against course cutoffs (certainly didn’t enter my mind when booking the flight from California). I reached the 33.5 mile aid station around 9 hours running in the top 20 (having passed five runners since 26.5 miles). But I was told that cutoffs were going to begin to enforced at the next station, so I stopped. Runners should have been allowed to finish given the gross lack of timing that took place.

    However it appears from the results though that North Face is treating the 65 runners out of 81 starters who reached 26.5 miles as finishers. Either way, this really was a great race overall. Its a unique and fantastic course that I hope happens again next year. That said, North Face’s errors should be pointed out honestly so that they can address them for next year’s race.

  1. 1 Ultimate XC: Vermont Edition-The Cutoff Dilemma « Life Adventures Trackback on 31 July 2008 at 12:35 pm

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