The competition was fierce last December for The North Face 2011 Endurance Challenge Championships 50 Miler. Mike Wolfe ended up on top after an exceptionally close race. Read below for Mike's recap of the pain, the comraderie, and the test of limits this race provided.
I’m not one to recount, let-alone remember, a race in terms of what happened between each aid station, what each section of the race is called, what my split times were, how many gels I ate or how often. I don’t analyze route, elevation changes, or where aid stations are. I enjoy the simplicity of just going for it. I’ve never been a race strategizer. In the end, it all melds into a blur anyway, where you forget the worst parts, so you keep coming back for more. Ah, the beauty of how humans’ minds evolved for survival – forget the pain, only remember the glory.
The 2011 edition of The North Face Endurance Challenge required just that: really going for it, and somehow blocking out the pain. We all knew it going into this race. With men’s’ and women’s’ fields as deep as ever seen in a 50-mile ultramarathon, everyone who wanted on the podium knew that it would be intense, fast and furious, and anything could happen out there.
I came into this race in December like most others, on the tail-end of an already long race season. I had taken September easy, after my disappointing race in August at the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. After feeling completely depleted after UTMB, I was worried my season was over, and my body just needed a break. But, in October and November, my enthusiasm for training was reinvigorated. I had a really solid block of training leading into the Endurance Challenge. That, along with my favorite fall pastime - chasing elk around the mountains of Montana to fill the freezer before winter – carried me to the first week of December and race day ready for one last hurrah of the year.
Mentally I knew what it would take to be in the mix in this race down to the final miles. If I have learned anything from racing in 2011, it’s that racing for the win at any of the top races in the U.S., or Europe, means that you have to be mentally committed, 110%. I figured this race would be run, and won, just like Miwok this past spring, when Dave Mackey, Hal Koerner, Dakota Jones, and myself, pummeled each other relentlessly the entire day. Turned out, Dakota and I did the same thing at the Endurance Challenge, only it was harder, faster, more painful, and more rewarding than any other race I’ve done. Not a bad way to finish out the year.
Dakota Jones pretty much summed up my sentiments in his post-race report. We started in the dark, we ran really hard, then we ran even harder, it hurt a lot, then it hurt more, and we shared a powerful experience together. One that only comes during that kind of shared intensity. When you are pushing each other to the edge.
Anyway, I remember a stampede in the early morning dark, with a thunder of frothing-at-the-mouth guys charging for the lead, as I knew would happen. I settled into the pace, with only the two Salomon Frenchmen striking out ahead. The rest of us let them go and figured there was no way they could hold that pace. As morning wore on, the chase pack began to splinter, only slightly. By the time we hit the swirly singletrack before the turnaround, we had the Frenchmen in sight and I was running in a tight group with Geoff Roes, Dakota Jones, Michael Wardian, and a few other guys whom I’d never met.
After the turnaround, Dakota and Alex Nichols made a move and I followed. We were hammering back down the section of tight singletrack where you begin to encounter runners still going the opposite direction to the turnaround. At some point, I was negotiating not colliding with a woman while running at break-neck speed. I failed to duck low enough for a low-hanging deadfall tree. I cracked the top of my head hard enough to let out an “ugh,” but I couldn’t slacken the pace, or Dakota and Alex would pull ahead. After I regained my senses a little, I noticed what felt to be a water fountain of sorts on my head. Curious, I looked down to see blood spraying all over my singlet, neck and right arm. I wasn’t about to stop, and figured it would stop soon, or I would get light-headed…..and be forced to stop. I was also comforted with the thought of seeing my crew soon at the next aid station. It’s always reassuring when your crew is a loved one, and a doctor. My girlfriend, Dr. Steph, would fix me right up if it was really an issue.
Shortly before that aid station, maybe a little over half-way through the race, I heard Alex yelp in obvious pain. He and Dakota were about a switch-back ahead of me on some ripping downhill. I rounded the corner to see Dakota helping Alex to his feet. Alex was hobbling, could barely bear weight on his right(?) foot. He had rolled his ankle and he didn’t look good. Dakota and I knew the aid station was close, so we each put an arm over our shoulders and attempted to help Alex hobble down the trail. We were soon caught by another fellow, and about this time Alex said he could make, didn’t need our help, and he was attempting to run a little again. Dakota and I kind of looked at each other, didn’t know what to say other than “o.k….?” and we blasted off.
I hit the aid station and knew I couldn’t stop. I saw Dr. Steph and asked her to check my head quickly as I kept running through the aid station. She gave me a thumbs-up, slapped my little hind end, and told me to get with it! What a rock star. I knew if she said I was alright, I had no excuse but to keep hammering with Dakota. It was about this time that Dakota and I pulled away, and I think we both had it in our minds that this might be a two-man race.
From then on out was one of the best race experiences I’ve ever had. We were fiercely competing against each other, but we were also locked in some kind of synergy, working together. I can’t speak for Dakota, but I know I would not have been able to race that hard if he hadn’t been clipping at my heals, or goading me on while in front of me.
It seemed like a long period of time where we ran together with only the sound of our labored breathing. Few words were exchanged, but those that were offered were nothing but friendly, encouraging, and light. Dakota is a man wise beyond his years and he’s definitely got the fire inside. I remember us both laughing, and then gagging, as we would both roll through the latter aid stations stuffing our fists into the salt bowl, choking down literally handful sof salt, and then gagging as we ran on. It was hot day for us mountain boys, even at a cool 65ish degrees, at least for December. We were both working really hard and salt intake was obviously an issue.
At some point after mile 35, maybe around 40, I remember thinking that someone had to break. I can’t remember whether Dakota said it or I did, but words were uttered to the effect of “man, it’s been awesome racing with you, no matter how the day turns out from here.” We both knew that someone had to give…..but neither of us did. The pain continued. I finally pulled away from Dakota on a big climb and I thought that was it….no such luck. Dakota immediately caught me on the next downhill. I thought, “Damn, maybe Dakota will win this race on his 21st birthday!” We then pulled into the last big aid station together, around mile 45. We both gagged-down our customary handful of salt and set off.
I knew I was climbing a bit better than Dakota and we had one final uphill. I had to go for it. I was able to ever so slowly pull away from him on that climb, though I don’t know how I did. Then, once I hit the top of that climb, with only the final long downhill to the finish, I knew I had to let my legs turn over into danger downhill mode to keep Dakota from catching me. At that point in races, when you are trashed and all you got is adrenaline to get you to the finish, you never really know how fast you’re running, but it feels like you’re flying.
Then, I hit the flat pavement right before the finish. That last handful of salt had already worn off and I was reduced to a ridiculous shuffle by spasm leg cramps. I kept looking over my shoulder, thinking Dakota would surely be bearing down on me. I was able to get er’ done, and that was that.
What an amazing day. I feel lucky and blessed to have had that experience. Regardless of who came out on top, it’s truly exceptional to test your own limits, and go well-beyond what you thought you were capable of. I think that’s what so special about racing—you can’t have that experience alone.