Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Running on Bonk - Bear Mountain 50k

This past week, we returned again to the North Face Endurance Challenge - Bear Mountain.  The trails at Bear Mountain are technical and rolling - perfect training grounds for the upcoming World Championships.  I would have entered the 50 miler, if not for one concern weighing on my mind...

In the past few weeks, I've been doing an elimination diet in an attempt to learn about my nutrition and fueling.  After a few weeks of completely clean eating (only protein, veggies and nuts), I found my energy levels plummeting.  My legs would burn at the slightest uphill and scream for oxygen after an hour of running - I had clearly flushed any readily available fuel out of my system.  A few days before Bear Mountain, I finally reintroduced fruit as the one allowable sugar in my diet.  However, I wasn't sure how much fuel my body had stored up in those two days.  I knew I might be bonking for the entire race, but I figured I'd just do what I could and enjoy the technical trails!

 So, after seeing Brian (and a few other friends) at the mile 4 aid station of the 50 miler, I headed off to start my race.  Without much fanfare, I geared, got my bib, and was lining up for the start.  I lined up near-ish the start since I knew the trail bottle necked fairly early as you hit the first uphill.  I was happy to see that at least one other female lined up fairly near the start - Natalie, who runs for Mountain Peak Fitness. 

As the race started, everyone surged forward and I struggled to keep up.  Natalie went out with the lead guys, way ahead of me.  As soon as we hit the first uphill, I felt the lack of energy in my legs and two more girls passed me.  I was amazed that I wasn't even a mile into this race and my body was essentially bonking.  But, I told myself that I knew this would happen and I had to be strong and continue on.

(Bonking in the early miles)

The next 10 miles was a struggle, as folks continued to pass me.  My legs could move well on the flats and downhills, and I felt fairly smooth on the technical sections, but I had no energy for uphills.  I walked every time the trail turned up, and watched as runner after runner passed me.  It was frustrating, but I was determined to continue.  I kept thinking 'I've done more than 30 miles bonking before', of course, that was at the end of the 100-mile race when most folks are in a similar situation.  I popped in my music, hoping to just relax and enjoy the trails, and try to forget about my slow pace and bonking legs.

Around mile 10 was the first big aid station, and they had energy gels.  I grabbed one and immediately downed it.  After two weeks of clean eating, this was the first sugar I'd had and my body immediately reacted.  I had energy on the uphills, I almost felt like I was shaking as the sugar surged through me.  I finally got into a groove!

(Finally able to move, I'm enjoying the trails)
With that little 100-calorie packet, everything turned around.  Folks stopped passing me, and I was able to run the uphills a bit.  I quickly passed a female around mile 12, and was surprised that I was running in a podium position.  After the next aid station (and another gel), I was able to keep the momentum going.  I enjoyed the uphill, and cruised on the technical downhill, just enjoying my time on the trails.

From mile 18 to mile 21 felt like one continuous downhill, and I was having so much fun dancing on the rocks.  At one point, I caught sight of the blue singlet of Natalie, and before I knew it I was on her heals.  We ran together for a mile, and it was great to share a mile with another runner (especially another strong female runner!).  At the next aid station, she stopped quickly as I ran through but I figured I'd see her again soon.

(Dancing on the rocks with Natalie)
The last 10 miles of the course can be challenging, especially if you're tired or bonking, so I focused on trying to run strong.  My body was barely holding on, as I would down a gel (100 calories) every hour, and my body would somehow use that to fuel until the next one.  I knew I was running on the edge.  But, the miles and landmarks ticked off. 

At around mile 25, I started looking over my shoulder for the first 50 miler (who typically catches me at this point).  Considering my early bonk and low energy level, I knew I wasn't running a fast time this year, so I expected to see the lead 50 mile runner surge past me at some point.  I tried to play a game - how far can I get before the lead 50 miler catches me?  I used that to motivate me to hike the last climb (Timp Pass) hard.

(Cruising in the final miles)

Just over the top of Timp Pass is the last aid station, with 3 downhill miles to go.  I looked at my watch and was amazed that I was somehow faster than any previous time.  What?!?  That gave me the motivation to open up the stride - I was going to get a best time on the course.  I cruised that last 3 miles, cheering on the marathon relay runners around me and giving everything I could.

I crossed the finish line in 5:09:25 - good enough for 2nd female and my best time on the course by 6 minutes.  The lead female had beat me by about 90 seconds, but we had both gone under the previous course record.  Natalie finished strong, another 5 minutes back.

(Myself and Natalie, post-race)
Immediately after I finished, my first thought was 'how is the 50 mile race going?'.  I left the finish chute to watch runners finish, looking for the first 50 mile runner, all folks could tell me was that the two North Face guys were in 2nd and 3rd, but that someone they didn't know was in the lead.  When I asked if the lead guy had a Patagonia team shirt on, they didn't know (which I assumed meant no!).  Just as I was asking someone to check their phone for the mile 45 splits, I saw Brian's running stride approaching.  I started screaming - this was his 7th time running the Bear Mountain 50 Miler, and he had never won it.  He ran by me and just said 'finally!' as he pushed through the finish line for the win.  I immediately sprinted behind him and gave him the biggest hug! 

(Brian surging to victory)

While the lead female was pretty darn close, and (I think) without my nutritional issues I might have been able to challenge her - I was so pleased to have finished as well as I did.  I ran the race on bonk for 31 miles, and still finished with my best time on that course and 2nd female.  And it was incredible to be there and watch Brian achieve something he's been dreaming about for a while.  We both left with smiles on our faces, and geared up for the next one!

 (Post-race celebration - who knew Brian had so many teeth?)


  1. Here's a funny story. I was running this 50k for the first time. I had a vague notion of around about 5 hours but had no real idea of how to pace it. I figured I *MAY* be able to stay with the top female runners judging on past times. I came across your blog a few days before the race and read your 2014 race report. As we lined up at the start I looked around and standing right next to me was your blue INOV8 shirt. I couldn't believe my luck and in a split second I thought if I could tag along then I would be guaranteed to post a good time. A few seconds later we started and all I saw was a blue shirt zoom past me. I was like "holy crap I gotta run faster". I tried to keep up for a mile or so and said to myself I had better let her go .. so much for my quick-thinking pacing strategy. I eventually caught up with the blue shirt again around mile 7. Anyways, on reading your report I now realize that I was following Natalie and not you as I thought I was doing !! I probably went out faster than I would have naturally done but it all worked out in the end. It was a fun day out.
    All the best in your races, patrick.

  2. Patrick - well, I certainly could have used your company out there. Hope you had a wonderful day at Bear Mountain, and hope to catch you on the trails sometime soon!