Race Report: North Face 50K – Washington DC

With just 4 weeks recovery after The North Face Bear Mountain, NY 50 miler I arrived in the capital still somewhat tired. This was also due to a serious lack of sleep the week prior to the race. My head said treat it as a training run. I picked up my bib number at the store in beautiful Georgetown and got excited. A training what?

However, the local news greeted me to warnings of a tornado sweeping through the area! No big deal, I’m from England, I’m used to the rain and the mud back from the XC days of old. The course is the same for everyone after all.

With a not so delightful 4 hours of sleep, I arrived bright and early at Algonkian Regional Park alongside the Potomac river for the second North Face trail race of the year as part of my phase two training for Leadville 100. The grass was wet to say the least from the overnight thunderstorms and this was just the start/finish area! I checked my blood glucose, it was 235mg/dL. A couple of guys spotted me doing this “Hey, you’re diabetic? What’s your reading?” I shamefully replied “Um…235. Better to be too high than too low though right?” In my heart, I knew it was slightly too high, even before 31 miles of trail running. I try and start a race at around 180-200mg/dL. I guess the cinnamon raisin bagel was sweeter than I calculated for breakfast, maybe also combined with some pre-race stress. Rather than make an insulin adjustment I reasoned with myself to go easy on the carb intake for the first hour of the race.

Ultramarathon man, Dean Karnazes got us under way at 7am sharp. I had looked at the previous years results and decided to try to aim for a top 10 finish but the main goal was to run honest within myself, not against people I didn’t know.

Within the first 2 miles, that plan went straight out of the window! I was going 7:15 pace. I got talking to a guy called Will and I calmed down the pace with him. He was a cool dude in the Air Force and his buddy also joined us for a mile or so was in the Army. Oh boy, I’m running against some tough guys today I thought. Why did I come to the home of the military to race!

The open field and dirt path soon turned to single track with huge puddles and thick mud running south alongside the river.  Even wearing a great pair of trail shoes like the Brooks Cascadia couldn’t save me from doing some  Bambi on ice impersonations sliding all over the place. It took every muscle in my body to stay upright. We crossed some “streams” which thanks to our near miss tornado from Friday night meant we were running through ankle, knee and a waist deep water crossings. This was going to be a long day but it was a blast!

After the first aid station, the lead pack had long gone and I found my real pace. A young French guy came roaring past me and I was now in 6th. Had I gone out too fast? I caught up to him on the flats after a hill section. He was from the Pyrenees mountains! This race was going to be like a downhill wind assisted 5K for him. Arthur Al, was his name. We ran together for the next 10 miles. He would drop me on the ups, I would catch him on the downs and/or the flats. We even decided to make a sharp left up a hill at one point to go the wrong way and we lost ten places.

The course is out and back with a mid-section incorporating lots of out and back loops where you pass people in front and behind you.

This proved a great place to say hi to my NY friends doing the 50 miler which had begun at 5am. Here we passed the 4th place guy who had been trying to run away from us for 10 miles. I will never understand the logic in that move in an ultra race, especially when you don’t know who you are competing against. He was done and we had a dozen miles left. We also got a glimpse of the top 3 guys running past us. I thought nothing of it until a guy in the 50 mile race said to me and Arthur we were only two minutes back. It didn’t sound right but it sure got me thinking.

At an amazing rock section; Great Falls, with a cliff drop straight down to the river, I somehow dropped ‘Pyrenees Arthur’. I questioned my ego, dropping him on a technical section with 11 miles to go. I was now running in solo 4th.

With ten miles left, I turned a right out of a wooded area and could not believe my eyes. 1st, 2nd and 3rd all spread out on a straight section 300 yards ahead. I knew then, it was my race to lose. This moment will live with me forever. I went past 3rd, then 2nd and said “great job” with genuine encouragement and they returned the gesture as you do in the ultra world. No#1 wasn’t quite as easy to catch or so responsive when I did. Quite frankly, he was upset I had come out of nowhere to challenge him and rightfully so.

I decided to “drop the hammer” on this guy as my buddy Chris Solarz likes to say. Just like the start, I was again doing 7:15 minute miles! I finally slowed down when I knew he could not see me. I even stopped sometimes and tried to listen out for a branch cracking, a foot landing on a bridge, anything that sounded like a human being. I did this three times. Each time, silence, just me and the trails and I’m really in frigging first place!!!

I had 10K to go. Save something in the tank in case Arthur comes roaring past or number two guy or whoever, I said to myself. I changed the screen on my Garmin 610 to heart rate only. I had to keep my heart rate below 170bpm. If I saw a 7 pop up next to the 1, I walked until it was lower.

The final 2 miles included a long straight, probably 1.5 miles. When I turned right I asked a few spectators cheering crazily for me, if anyone was behind me. They said “No one, you’re good!” With 0.5 left I finally relaxed and soaked up the winning feeling. 4 hours 32 minutes. Top 10? I’ll take top 1 thanks very much! It’s only been about 16 years since I last won and yes, that was on a muddy and wet XC day. I think I like the mud even more now.

So, it had been nearly 5 hours since my last blood test. How had I done with balancing my intake of carbohydrates while running 31 miles? Nailed it; 92mg/dL. More satisfying than winning? That would be a lie, but that is a great blood glucose reading!

I got presented with a winning gold medal and a bag of goodies by Dean Karnazes, who said some very kind words to me. Thank you The North Face for a great event and congratulations to all the runners out there!

Unforgettable day!

4 comments

  1. Denise Davis says:

    Excellent race report with a very exciting finish! Congratulations!

  2. Arthur Alik-Lagrange says:

    Hi Stephen!

    Nice report indeed! I did my best but you were too fast 😀

    In 2 weeks Montcalm Marathon in the Pyrenees (Sky Running)!

    I wish you the best!

    Arthur Alik-Lagrange from the Pyrenees 😀

  3. rundiabetes says:

    Pyrenees Arthur! Good luck next week. Sounds like a great race.

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