Tuesday, June 5, 2012

TNF Endurance Challenge Mid-Atlantic Regional 10k Trail Race Report

So last weekend came and went, and Sunday was my second trail race of the year; this time in Sterling, Virginia.  The race was The North Face Endurance Challenge Mid-Atlantic Regional.  The whole event really takes place over three and a half days in the Washington, D.C. area.  

The first day and a half was packet pickup at The North Face store in Georgetown, which was very smooth.  There was plenty of staff there when I arrived Friday evening, and I had my bib number and timing chip within minutes of showing up.  One thing I liked, is for those who came to the early packet pickup, you could leave your free shirt (a nice TNF tech shirt) with the staff to get screen printed with your race distance, and then just pick it up on race day.  That eliminated a lot of the lines at the screen printing booth on race day. 

Friday night, after closing time for the TNF store, they held a discussion with some of the TNF athletes and anyone who wanted to attend to share info, and I'm guessing, just talk racing.  I don't really know for sure what they talked about, because I didn't attend the discussion.  After a long day on the road, and the fact that the weather was miserable to be walking around Georgetown, there was no way I was going to get a 4 year old to sit quietly for the discussion.  The last thing I wanted was to have a screaming kid in the middle of that!  So, instead, we decided to get some dinner, and call it a night and head back to the hotel (BTW, we stayed at a Residence Inn in Herndon/Reston, which was a great location).

Saturday brought better weather, and the longer distance races.  I never checked to verify for sure, but the word on the news was that on Friday evening, the D.C. area got anywhere from 3-5" of rain.  I don't know exactly how much it was, but after driving in it, I will agree that it was a significant amount of rain.  My windshield wipers were having a tough time keeping up!  Needless to say, there was some flash flooding, and I'm sure the longer distance races turned into a mud run in many areas.  The Saturday distances run were the GORE-TEX 50 mile race, the 50k, Marathon, and Marathon relay.  

I wasn't there for those races (sightseeing with the family instead), but it was very easy to keep up-to-date on course conditions and the leaders of the 50 miler.  TNF did a great job of posting updates on Facebook all day long.  They didn't only post race updates, but were active in answering any questions anyone had in reference to everything from course conditions, to parking instructions for the shuttle service.  I was very impressed, as it made things far less stressful leading up to the race.  By the time Sunday morning arrived, I knew exactly how long it took the shuttle to get from the parking area to the start/finish line, any last minute changes to the parking area, what the course conditions were, as well as how to actively track results, and just about anything else.  Being a social media world now, TNF has definitely embraced that and used it to their advantage.  

Sunday morning (race day) came and we arrived at the parking lot about 1.5 hours before my race (10k) was due to start.  They had plenty of shuttles running, and we easily got myself and family to the race area within about 15 minutes of parking the car.  The start line, or "festival" area was well laid out, with several booths from GORE-TEX, Yurbuds, Karno Kids, Charm City Run, and a couple others.  There was a good drop bag storage area for all the runners, and plenty of water jugs all over the place.  There was also a recovery tent that had plenty of snacks like fruit, bagels, chips, pretzels, and electrolyte drinks, as well as coffee and other hot drinks.  One thing of note in the festival area, was the abundance of restrooms.  Unless you've been at an event with hundreds of people, you don't realize how important a large number of restrooms can be.  There was probably 20+ portable restrooms there for use, and the lines were never too long.  That is always appreciated, because when you have to go, well....you know the rest.

Now onto the race.  I had originally wanted to sign up for the half-marathon, but I was lazy and waited too long.  By the time I registered, the half mary was full, and only the 10k was left open.  I almost decided to forego the race all together, but I'm glad I didn't.   

Here's the description from TNF Endurance Challenge website:

This 10K is a great way to start the day! From the start at Algonkian Park, the trails narrow to single track and wind through lush flood plain. The course is mostly flat, fast and well shaded. The loop through Sugarland Run brings runners down to the shores of the Potomac before sending them back through the fast and shaded Potomac Heritage Trail to a well-deserved finish at Algonkian Park.

There was one aid station on the course, but it was an out-and-back, so you passed the aid station twice.  The first section, which was the start to the first aid station (Sugarland) was 2.4 miles.  Right from the start, the race immediately bottle-necked.  Overall, there were 395 participants in the 10k, and almost immediately the course narrows into near single track conditions running along the Potomac River to go around a soccer field.  It got so narrow, that while I started near the middle of the pack, my there was a 34 second difference between my official time and my chip time.  It took awhile just to get out of the gate.  Then, once I did get out of the gate, it was still a struggle to pass anyone.  The course was muddy, so everyone was slower, and no one seemed to want to move to the right to allow faster runners to pass.  It was frustrating, but, I knew that I wasn't out there to do anything but have a good time, so I just went with the flow.

Rounding the soccer field in the first 1/2 mile or so got pretty muddy, because all the rain on Friday had definitely made the ground reach it's saturation point.  I tried to avoid as much of it as possible, not because I'm afraid of mud or water, more because I didn't really want to get drenched feet and mud covered before we really even hit the trail.  

After the soccer field, we hit the pavement for a short jaunt across the golf course, until we turned onto the Potomac Heritage Trail that was two vehicles wide, gravel, and made for a great chance to start getting some passing in.  I tucked up close behind two other people, and there were two more behind me, and we were all running about the same pace.  From there, we just chose the left hand lane and started passing all the back of the packers.  There were a couple spots  on the gravel portion where there were stream crossings, most of which you could either jump, plow through, or tip toe across the rocks.  I'd say they weren't more than 5 feet wide at most, so the option was really up to the runner.  On the way out, I chose to just jump across them.  The only one where that wasn't really an option was a creek that was decently deep, and probably 20 feet across, but there was a double track bridge that crossed it.  After that bridge, you reach the aid station.

The aid station had a restroom, and plenty of volunteers passing out Gu's, Nuun electrolyte drink, and water.  As I was running through, I took a swig of water, and grabbed a Gu that was passed to me, probably just out of habit.  Someone hands something to me, without thinking, I just grabbed it, even though I didn't need it.  Oh well, better safe than sorry.

From the aid station you turn onto an out and back portion called Sugarland Run.  This section is another 2.4 miles, that instantly turns into single track.  It starts out paved for a for a bit, but then becomes some good, solid, single track dirt trail (in this case mud) through some fairly dense woods.  There were several spots where you had to navigate around some fairly large mud holes, and it was very difficult to pass.  If it wasn't mud in the way, it was trees, and runners didn't seem to want to move over to the side.  You could tell that there were several people running who had never spent time with others on a single track trail before, because they didn't realize that you need to move over to let people get by, which is kind of a irritant.  I realize it is a race, but is keeping someone from passing you who is clearly faster really going to help your time at all?  Trail etiquette folks, learn it.  

Aside from that, the section was a lot of fun to run.  I did start to get kind of sketchy when runners started reaching the turn around point, and you really had to squeeze through some sections to let runners get by going opposite directions.  Running up through the turn around takes you right to the banks of the Potomac, and provided some great scenery, and some great shade.  During this portion I must have tweaked my ankle at least 5 or 6 times on roots sticking up, or just sliding in some mud, but nothing that really caused me to stop or noticeably slow down my pace.

I hit the turn around on the banks of the river, and headed back to the Potomac Heritage Trail and the Sugarland aid station, but going back was definitely slower, as there were far more runners going the opposite way on the trail at that point.  But, most moved out of the way, and everyone did a better job sharing the trail if you were running towards them than trying to pass them.  I think alot of the passing problems came from the abundant use of Ipods during the race.  Nobody could hear if you called "on your left" hoping they would move over.  

Side rant:  I love running with my Ipod.  Matter of fact, I do it almost everyday.  I really dig listening to some podcasts as I'm cruising along, especially if it's on the road.  I also understand the psychological effect of throwing in some tunes on long runs to boost morale.  However, is it really necessary during a 10k?  Regardless of your speed (I'm not greased lightning or anything), you're only going to be out there for maybe an hour and a half tops.  Maybe it's just me, but if I'm in a race that short, especially in a new place, I'd much rather enjoy the surroundings than blast some Kanye while running down an awesome trail.  I bet most of the people who were wearing Ipods had no clue as to what was going on around them...actually, in some cases, I can guarantee it.

I got back to the aid station and realized that I still had the Gu in my hand, un-opened, from the last time I went through.  Instead, when the volunteer tried to pass me another one, I handed him the unused one, and for a moment he looked slightly confused, and then I just kept on trucking.  At this point, I turned back onto the gravel portion of the PHT and tried to open it up a little bit, hoping to make up some time that I know I lost on the single track.  Aside from the large creek that required a bridge crossing, I blew through all the little streams soaking my feet.  It didn't really matter at that point, I knew I was on my way back, and I was already covered in mud up to my knees, so that actually probably washed some of the mud off.
I hit the turn back onto the golf course trail, and everyone was pretty strung out at that point.  I wanted to pick some people off in the last 3/4 mile, but there just wasn't anyone in reach, except for maybe one runner.  I came up to near the soccer field, but on the way back, you skip the loop around it, and just run straight into the finish line, which was EASILY the muddiest portion of the entire course.

I chose to run this race without any electronic devices, meaning I left my Garmin with my wife.  I suppose that was both good and bad. I say that, because if I had been able to actively know what my pace was during the race, I could have run a little bit harder, especially knowing the distance I had left to cover.  I ran slower than I know I was capable of, but it's really hard to say if I would have been able to run faster given the terrain and the traffic.  The good thing is, I was forced to rely solely on listening to my body for pace.  What I really need to do is start tuning my perceived pace to my actual pace...then it won't really matter if I run with the Garmin or not.

I didn't PR this race, but I definitely felt like I ran much stronger than last time.  I think the number of people, the bottle-necking, and the mud probably had much to do with my finishing time.  I definitely believe that if I had started at the front of the pack, I could have probably shaved a good minute off my time just in the initial loop around the soccer field.  Staying more towards the front would have been helpful going through the single track section as well, but, I don't suppose it matters much.  When it all comes down to it, I had a great time during not just the race, but the whole experience.  

Here's what my stats broke down to for the race:

Official time:  50:42.0
Chip time:      50:08.7
Age group placing:  24/82 (M26-35)
Gender Group:         58/185
Overall Placing:       90/395 
Average time:  57:45.93

I think a solid testament to the condition of the course can be told by just looking at the times (not necessarily mine).  The fastest time (chip) was only a 38:55.  Now, while that is nothing to sneeze at, it is significantly slower than what you would usually see at such a large event.  Last year's leader was ~ 4 minutes faster than that.  Even the average finishing time last year was almost two minutes faster.  But, oh well, what can you do, except have a great time?

The North Face puts on a great race, and I look forward to doing another one in the future.  The really do think of everything, and do great catering to all the runners, whether you are a competitive 50 miler, or a casual 5k'er. My only recommendations to people wanting to run in anything from the marathon distance or less...register early.  They do fill up fairly quick. 

I've already got my eye on the TNF Endurance Challenge 50k in Atlanta in October, but I'll have to see how my schedule works out over the next few months.  I've definitely got the racing bug...and I can't wait to increase the distance!

In the meantime...Keep Running!

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