For the first time in five years, I won’t be on the start line in Marin this weekend for The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 mile race. There are races out there that are more challenging, more scenic, and more inspiring, but I have run this race more times than any other ultra. There is no other race in North American ultrarunning that has drawn as many deep fields of top level runners in the past five years, and this makes for a very compelling event. Even though my health won’t allow me to line up at the start Saturday, I’ll still be watching closely from afar. Say what you will about the timing of this event, but one thing it does by being held in December is avoid competition with other major races. This, combined with the huge prize purse is what draws so many top runners from numerous disciplines to this event.
As Bryon already noted in his great race previews earlier this week, there are some big names (on both the men’s and women’s sides) missing from this year’s race, but this certainly isn’t keeping the field from being as talented and wide open as ever. Even more than ever before, there are some top level runners without a proven trail ultra background who could make some big noise on Saturday. I’ve written previously about what I think it takes to be a strong trail ultrarunner, and why (in my opinion) so many really fast shorter distance road runners aren’t able to dominate as soon as they try to step up to ultras on rugged trails. The Sage Canaday’s and Max King’s of the world seem to be more the exception than the rule. For that matter, even Max, who has really perfected the ultra distance this year, had a learning curve to work his way through in his first handful of trail ultras.
To me, this is the most compelling thing to watch this weekend. Both the men’s and women’s fields have proven trail stars who could easily walk away with the $10,000 prize, but they both also have numerous shorter distance speedsters who are unproven at the distance and/or on such challenging terrain who could also pull off the victory. We’ve seen this dynamic unfold at several races in the past couple years. This year alone there have been at least a half dozen races with a notable number of really fast runners making the leap up to longer trail races (Chuckanut, Western States, UROC, JFK, etc). This certainly seems to be a trend in the sport as it continues to gain popularity, but never has it occurred to the extent that it’s going to this weekend in the San Francisco rain.
If the previous couple years of races are any indication, what will likely happen this weekend is that the front of the pack will be a mix of proven ultrarunners and shorter distance speedsters. In the end there will likely be no real dominance one way or the other, but I think if the “speedsters” are ever going to have a breakout race this could be the one. Typically in these really competitive races, you have one or two (at most) runners new to the distance who finish in the top 10 or 15. This weekend, though, I think it’s entirely possible to have five or more runners finish in the top 15 who have never raced 50 miles before.
This said, the expected weather (heavy rain) will likely favor the more experienced, more patient ultrarunners, so I think it’s also very likely we’ll see more of the same thing we’ve seen at a lot of these races in the past. That is one or two of these speedsters hanging tough until the finish, and numerous others dropping off considerably when they get beyond 25 or 30 miles.
In the end we’re all just runners and it kind of doesn’t matter what type of background we come from, but in my mind, this race is always the most compelling in terms of looking at the varied underlying dynamic of the runners gunning for the big pay day. No matter what plays out, it’s certain to be an exciting race. I’m not going to be so bold as to throw specific names out there, but I will say that my prediction is that both the men’s and women’s winners will be repeat winners of this race and will not be American citizens. Anyone who follows the sport closely or does a few minutes of research should figure out what that means.
Good luck though to everyone running on Saturday and I’ll miss being out there mixing it up with all of you.