2015 The North Face 50 Mile Championships Men’s Preview

An in-depth preview of the 2015 The North Face Endurance Challenge 50-Mile Championships men’s race.

By on November 25, 2015 | Comments

The North Face Endurance Challenge - TNFECDecember’s almost here and so is California’s The North Face Endurance Challenge 50-Mile Championships.

Last year saw Sage Canaday outclassing the rest of the field, but neither he nor six more men from last year’s top 10 are returning, leaving things wide open at the front of the pack. This year’s edition has some star power at front, including Max King, Zach Miller, and Alex Nichols, an absolutely huge group of guys who compete well domestically and regionally, almost no top international runners, and a group of fresh-from-collegiate-running dudes. While the TNF EC 50 Mile has for years attracted young, new-to-ultrarunning guys giving a competitive 50 miles a shot, this seems to be one of this year’s talent-pool themes.

Each of these guys will be hunting the $10,000 winner’s prize and the coveted title of winning one of the most competitive ultramarathons in North America. The race takes place on Saturday, December 5 starting at 5:00 a.m. Pacific Time in the U.S. (That’s Saturday, December 5 at 2:00 p.m. CET in Europe.)

The TNF EC 50 Mile is how iRunFar got started with its live coverage in 2009. We’re not going to miss covering the race for our seventh-straight year. Remember to follow along with our live coverage this weekend.

Be sure to read our in-depth women’s preview, too.

Favorites for the Win

I think we’ll see our winner come from within this group of guys:

Max King - 2015 US Mountain Running Championships

Max King

Max King (pre-race interview) doesn’t need much introduction, does he? Okay, here we go anyway. 2014 IAU 100k World Champ who set a North American 100k record in the process (interview). Second place 2015 UltraVasan. Two-time (2014 and 2015) Warrior Dash World Champ. Third at the 2015 Lake Padden Trail Half Marathon, which was the USATF Trail Half Marathon National Championships. Max has enormous capacity at just about anything he sets his mind to doing, and often he’s almost immediately successful at whatever he tries. But as I’ve watched him over the years, I notice he sometimes takes a couple tries to nail something. This might be the case with the TNF EC 50 Mile. Max was among the favorites in the 2013 edition, but he finished off his potential in 11th. I think this course is right up his alley.

This time last year, Zach Miller (pre-race interview) was tired, having overraced his way around the world in his first real year as a trail running superstar-in-the-making. He went for it in typical Zach style, but couldn’t hold on, rolling across the finish in 11th place. After that, we didn’t see him until Transvulcania in May of this year, where he finished fifth after taking it out hard, again. This year he’s also taken third at the Mount Washington Road Race, eighth at the US Mountain Running Championships, and won the CCC (a sister race to the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc). Notable to Zach’s story is that he’s been living above 10,000 feet for the last five or sixth months. Zach’s style is to race for the win from the gun, so watch for him to be in the lead pack straight away.

Alex Nichols - 2015 IAU Trail World Championships

Alex Nichols

While Alex Nichols (pre-race interview) has intended to race here a couple times, he has just one previous finish, a fifth in 2012. The front of most competitive ultras, at least among the men, is turning into a bit of a road-marathon scene where a bunch of guys go out real fast. Among that group, some are running easy, others at their A-goal pace, and still others at a dream pace. At 50k or so in, things start to sift into their natural order, much like miles 18 to 20 of a road marathon. Despite this culture, Alex and his early racing patience are making names for themselves. Alex has had an incredible year, and was just awarded USATF Ultra Trail Runner of the Year for his efforts. Included in his 2015 have been a win at the Moab Red Hot 55k, sixth at the IAU Trail World Championships, a win of the Mont Blanc 80k, second place at the Speedgoat 50k, a win of the Pikes Peak Marathon, and fifth at Les Templiers. Phew, my only question is if he will be fresh enough to run at his best?

Dylan Bowman (pre-race interview) has three finishes at TNF EC 50 Mile, a 7th in 2012, a fifth in 2013, and another fifth last year. Dylan’s fifth last year was not his potential, as he reported feeling off for much of the day and making do with what he had. This year, we’ve seen him win the Tarawera Ultramarathon (interview) and the Ultra-Trail Australia (interview) (recently renamed from The North Face 100k – Australia), and finish second place to Tyler Sigl who is also racing next weekend at October’s The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile – Wisconsin. His training has been strong this fall, especially his long trail runs which have been at some impressive paces. It’s going to take someone having a perfect day to get the win, and I think Dylan could be that guy.

Alex Varner - 2015 Western States 100

Alex Varner

Alex Varner (pre-race interview) finished third here last year (interview). I’d put him higher on my list but he’s calling this weekend’s Quad Dipsea his A race and he will be going for the course record. He’s got to have Kilian-style recovery to be able to take aim at this field the weekend after 28 miles of the Dipsea Trail on repeat. Nevertheless, the dude’s fit and he’s probably got most of the course memorized and I think he’ll have a nice little spot somewhere in the top 10 by the end of two Saturdays from now. Alex’s Lake Sonoma 50 Mile win in April was quite a show, untouchable by the other guys that day and a course record (interview). Things got a little rocky for him in May and June, with an off-his-potential finish at the IAU Trail World Championships and a DNF at Western States. However, he’s back and ready to roll.

Most Likely Top-10 Finishers

These are the guys who I think have the best shot at going top 10 next weekend:

2015 Lake Sonoma 50 Mile - Ryan Bak - second

Ryan Bak

As a 2:14 marathoner, Ryan Bak’s got wheels. When he figures out all the nuances of ultra-distance racing, watch out. He came real close with his second place at the 2015 Lake Sonoma 50 Mile (interview) in April, but with that finish he was still almost 14 minutes back of winner Alex Varner. Nevertheless, his first 50-mile outing was impressive. He’s run quite well all year long, finishing second in 3:10 at the Way Too Cool 50k, which was the third-fastest time ever in the race’s long history, and he won the 2015 Lithia Loop Trail Marathon with no one else remotely close. I think Ryan’s potential at this race is huge.

It’s been said on iRunFar before, but we think it’s only a matter of time until Jorge Maravilla blows it out of the water and wins some big race. This year, he’s taken fourth at the Way Too Cool 50k, second behind DBo at the Tarawera Ultramarathon (interview), and fourth at the Lake Sonoma 50 Mile. Another local who knows the course like the back of his hand, he has four finishes, including two seventh places in 2013 and 2014. Jorge’s got fantastic leg speed, and he’s been hitting the track and Bay-area cross-country races to hone it. A little extra speed and, perhaps more importantly, the mechanical efficiency that comes with it and that could be the difference that puts Jorge on the podium.

Dan Kraft

Dan Kraft

Two years ago, Dan Kraft flashed brightly onto our radar with his fourth-place finish here, but last year he didn’t run to his potential, a 17th place. For his 2015 season, it seems Dan has focused on steeper mountain races, and his finishes include 19th at the Zegama Marathon, third at the Speedgoat 50k but a good bit back of second place Alex Nichols, and a win at the Flagstaff Skyrace 55k. I wonder how Dan’s used his mountain fitness from the summer to hone his footspeed ahead of the TNF EC 50 Mile?

[Added November 25] Rickey Gates is a late add! Rickey is the kind of guy who could go top 10 at this race, but he’s not yet put all the pieces together here. He has two previous TNF EC 50 Mile finishes in 2011 and 2013, but both were off his potential. Rickey’s had a solid 2015, including taking second at the Mount Marathon Race (interview), third at the Pikes Peak Marathon behind winner Alex Nichols, and completing his epic Elk Mountains traverse in Colorado.

Hold the phone, Jason Schlarb is racing domestically and it’s not at the Run Rabbit Run 100 Mile? It’s like the good, old days. Because I haven’t seen him match up with his North American peers much and because I’ve seem him race largely on steeper mountain races in the last couple years, I’m having a hard time placing him in this preview. Jason’s big runs this year have been a second place at the Eiger Ultra Trail and a win of the Run Rabbit Run 100 Mile. In 2014, Jason took fourth at UTMB (interview), which in my mind demonstrates his ability to deal with racing pressure. In this vein, I don’t suspect he’ll overstep his capacity next weekend. Jason is familiar with this race, having finished it twice, fifth in 2010 and 10th in 2011.

I think Justin Houck might just be at that point in his ultra career in which he could take things to the next level. So far in 2015, he’s had a couple solid ultras, a win at the Gorge Waterfalls 100k and the UROC 100k. That said, he faced little competition compared to likes of the TNF EC 50 Mile and, thus, few external influences on his race, and he could simply run a smart race that matched his fitness. Last year, he finished 21st here, which I think was at least 15 or 20 minutes slower than his potential. In my opinion, he took it out hard and ran into issues as a result, which slowed him. A year later and wiser and fitter, and I’m thinking he might very well race is own race, use his new fitness, and reach his potential with a finish in the top 10.

One of the potential new stars who could emerge from this race is Bay-area runner and former Georgetown collegiate runner (who graduated in 2009, I believe?) Levi Miller. He’s got the kind of leg speed that we don’t often see in our sport–the kind upon which, say, Rob Krar’s ultra career was founded. In Levi’s college days, he set a 3:46.42 PR in the 1,500 (meters) and a 13:56.96 PR in the 5,000. Yep, speed in the vicinity of Rob Krar. Levi has been training with Bay Area trail runners and racing a couple trail races. This summer, he started and dropped from the Headlands 50k, the USATF 50k Trail National Championships. Just a few weeks ago, he won the 2015 Mt. Tam Trail Run 50k. Rumor has it that he may be struggling a bit to work out his nutrition needs for these longer races. With Levi Miller it’s probably going to be one or another: an epic performance or an epic explosion.

Norway’s Sondre Amdahl has had a strong year of racing long, tough, mountain ultras, including a second at the Vibram Hong Kong 100k (interview), fourth at Transgrancanaria, and fourth at Ultra-Trail Mount Fuji. He also ran off his potential to 15th place at this year’s Western States 100. I believe Sondre began his ultra career four or five years ago with some shorter, faster ultras in his home country. After a really long year of racing, I have no idea if Sondre has the legs to hang for a top-10 placing here.

More High-Potential Runners

Here are the men I think have strong potential at this race. I’m guessing a couple of them will squeak into the top 10, too:

Ryan Ghelfi has finished TNF EC 50 Mile three times, an 18th last year, 10th in 2014, and 13th in 2012. Since then, he’s run on to third place at the 2015 Black Canyon 100k, another third at the 2015 Siskiyou Out Back 50k, and a DNF with biomechanical issues at UTMB. Ryan’s been training so hopefully he’s sorted his issues out and is back to normal again. I can see him going 10th place here again.

Josh Arthur

Josh Arthur

Josh Arthur placed 22nd here last year, his first TNF EC 50 Mile finish. Like several runners from last year, I don’t think this run was to his potential. I think Josh and a couple guys like him could go 15 minutes or more faster on this course if they took it easier in the first half of the race. In 2015, Josh took 17th at Transvulcania, 3rd at the Flagstaff Skyrace 55k behind winner Dan Kraft, and sixth at the Moab Trail Marathon.

[Added November 27] Italian mountain runner Marco De Gasperi was just added to the entrants list. Around Euro mountain running for over a decade, Marco has a ton of notches in his shorter-distance trail racing belt. This includes multiple wins of the venerated Sierre-Zinal, most recently in 2012, and one of the fastest times in the competitive Zegama Marathon. Over the recent years, he’s battled staying healthy and getting to races’ starting lines, and I think running a pretty flat 50 miles is way out of his wheelhouse. However, he could be an influencer on race day.

Chris DeNucci took 19th at the 2014 TNF EC 50 Mile. His 2015 racing has included a second place at the Gorge Waterfalls 100k behind Justin Houck, 20th man at Western States, and third at October’s Door Country 50 Mile, which was the USATF Road 50-Mile National Championships, in a smoking 5:38. [Update December 2: Chris DeNucci is opting out of the TNF EC 50 Mile to train for the Bandera 100k instead.]

This year was Benjamin Stern’s first year of running ultras, and it’s been a big one. He was third at the 2015 Gorge Waterfalls 100k behind Justin Houck and Chris DeNucci, the winner of the 2015 Miwok 100k, the winner of the Siskiyou Out Back 50 Mile, and he took seventh at the Headlands 50k, which was the USATF 50k Trail National Championships. Benjamin graduated last year from Humboldt State University where he ran in the school’s programs.

We should all keep our eyes on Brett Hornig. Last year, he took second at the 50k distance at this event. Since then, he’s taken third at the 2015 Chuckanut 50k, second at the 2015 Siskiyou Out Back 50k behind winner Tyler Van Dyke, who’s also racing next weekend, and ahead of third place Ryan Ghelfi, as well as a fourth place at the 2015 Lithia Loop Trail Marathon behind winner Ryan Bak. Brett, too, is a recent collegiate runner having graduated in 2013 (is that right?) from Southern Oregon University.

Shall we just keep rolling out the speedy, (relatively recent) collegiate runners? If so, let’s talk about Patrick Parsel, a former UC Davis runner who graduated in 2009 (correct me if I’m wrong). He lives in the Tahoe area and is all over the road and trail racing scenes in Tahoe and down the Eastern Sierra Nevada. As best as I can tell, he’s clocked at least one 50k finish, and this will be his 50-mile debut. It doesn’t look like he’s seen much competition during his forays into trail running, perhaps with the exception of his third-place finish at the 2015 Table Rock 27k, where he ran with some of the Bay Area shorter-distance trail studs.

Chris Vizcaino is a UC Berkeley graduate (not sure what year, can someone help me out?) who ran for them after transferring from Iona College. He’s been trail racing regularly all year long with this best finish being an eighth place at the 2015 Headlands 50k, which was the USATF 50k Trail National Championships. He also finished fifth at the 2015 Table Rock 27k behind third place Pat Parsel.

At, I believe, age 21, Daniel Metzger is likely our youngest male Elite-start-wave entrant at this year’s TNF EC 50 Mile. He previously ran for Cal State Monterey Bay and appears to still study there but no longer runs for them. This year, he’s been experimenting with trail racing, most notably taking sixth at the 2015 Headlands 50k and second at the 2015 Mt. Tam Trail Run 50k just a second behind Levi Miller. Also of note is that he’s already finished both a 50 miler and a 100k.

One more! Tyler Van Dyke is a 22 year old freshly graduated from Grand Canyon University after transferring from Southern Oregon University. He’s run a couple ultras this year, winning the Siskiyou Out Back 50k over second-place Brett Hornig and third-place Ryan Ghelfi. He also raced to fourth at the UROC 100k behind winner Justin Houck. [Update November 25: Tyler Van Dyke isn’t racing because of injury issues.]

I’ve been hoping that Tyler Sigl, who has put down some fast, flat ultra times in the Midwest over the last couple years, would seek out bigger competition, and here he is. Before trying ultras but after a successful collegiate career at the University of Wisconsin – Platteville, he spent several years on the road-racing scene, getting his marathon PR down to a blazing 2:17. He’s now three years in a row won the TNF EC 50 Mile – Wisconsin, going as fast as 5:27 there last year and beating Dylan Bowman this year. Earlier in 2015, he took third at the Cayuga Trails 50 Mile, which was the USATF Trail 50-Mile National Championships.

Hal Koerner

Hal Koerner

Hal Koerner is working his way back to his pre-knee-surgery self. In 2015, he took second behind winner Benjamin Stern at the Siskiyou Out Back 50 Mile and he was fourth at the Arkansas Traveler 100 Mile. I’ve watched Hal race TNF EC 50 Mile a bunch of times, and his finishes here include an 11th in 2008, and 20th in both 2011 and 2012.

Karl Meltzer’s not going to blow any runnable 50 miler out of the water, but it’s not unreasonable for him to finish 12th or 15th place. Case in point, his 12th-male finish at the 2015 Lake Sonoma 50 Mile. As far as I can tell, he has two TNF EC 50 Mile finishes, including a 12th male in 2011. [Update November 25: Karl Meltzer isn’t racing. He’s instead doing a PR-type event that day in Utah.]

Chris Price

Chris Price

Though Chris Price is known for his escapades on mountain-y terrain–his second place at the 2015 Jemez Mountain 50 Mile and his fourth at the 2015 Hardrock 100 as recent examples–he did just run 2:31 marathon (though it was net downhill) a couple weekends ago.

Ryan Smith has had a heckuva 2015, launching himself from a runner Colorado knows about, to a runner the U.S. knows about, and on to one the world knows about. He won the Sean O’Brien 100k, took 16th at Western States, and finished ninth at UTMB.

France’s Julien Coudert should add a little fast foreign flavor. He finished eighth at the 2014 Annecy Maxi Race and, this year, he went ninth at Transvulcania.

When I was volunteering a couple weekends back at the Moab Trail Marathon, I saw Art DeGraw zing by on his way to finishing fifth. He’s been hanging around the U.S. Skyrunner circuit the past couple years, including finishing fifth at the Kendall Mountain Run and fifth again at the Flagstaff Vertical Kilometer this year.

Paul Terranova - 2015 Western States 100 sq

Paul Terranova

Paul Terranova’s had a big year with his running, but I’m guessing he’s probably most stoked on his 10th place at Western States (interview). Also among his ambitious year of racing a lot of miles, Paul took second at the Bandera 100k and won the Mountain Masochist 50 Mile.

This year, Ryan Kaiser occupied that dreaded 11th place at Western States. While many would give at least a pinky finger to finish 11th at that race, 11th sucks because you’re the first finisher who isn’t automatically invited back next year. Ryan was also the winner of the 2015 Waldo 100k.

Like a number of the men here, I saw Lars Kjerengtroen at the Moab Trail Marathon earlier this month, where he finished seventh. Last year, he really jumped on my radar when he went sixth at both the Speedgoat 50k and the Leadville Trail 100 Mile within a couple month’s time.

Tommy Rivers Puzey and Jacob Puzey are brothers and both are speedy on roads and trails. Tommy’s gone at least 2:22 and Jacob 2:25 for the marathon. In 2015, Tommy took second at the Trail Factor 50k and sixth place at the Flagstaff Skyrace 55k. Jacob took fifth at Trail Factor and he won the 2015 Mt. Hood 50 Mile.

Eric Strabel is the Alaskan mountain-running beast of Mount Marathon fame. I don’t believe he’s raced longer than about 28 miles, and on much more burlier Alaskan terrain than what he’ll find in the Marin Headlands. He’ll add some Alaskan flavor to next Saturday’s scene.

Still Even More Men to Keep Your Eyes On

Ummmm, yeah, we’re not done yet. Keep your eyes on these guys:

  • Fernando Blanco — 5th 2015 Way Too Cool 50k
  • Christopher Campbell — 14th man 2015 Way Too Cool 50k
  • Avery Collins — Winner 2015 Sean O’Brien 50 Mile, winner 2015 Colorado 200 Mile
  • Nick Coury — 11th man 2015 Hardrock 100, winner 2015 PCT 50 Mile
  • Fernando De Samaniego Steta — 10th man 2015 Way Too Cool 50k
  • Alex Docta — 4th 2015 Speedgoat 50k
  • [Added December 2] JP Donovan — 11th 2015 Moab Trail Marathon, winner half-marathon distance at this event last year, first 50-mile race [Update December 4: JP Donovan is sick and won’t race.]
  • Yew Ferrara — 10th 2015 Headlands 50k, has been running well at shorter-distance, locally competitive trail races
  • Masazumi Fujioka — 7th 2015 Chuckanut 50k, 29th man 2014 TNF EC 50 Mile
  • David Glennon — 11th 2015 The Rut 50k, 28th man 2014 TNF EC 50 Mile
  • Joel Hamilton — Has gone at least 1:03:57 at the half marathon back in 2009, 2nd 2014 Bear Chase Trail Race 50k
  • Mark Hammond — 3rd 2015 Wasatch Front 100 Mile, winner 2015 Squaw Peak 50 Mile, 25th male 2014 TNF EC 50 Mile
  • Ben Koss — 11th 2015 Headlands 50k
  • Andrew Nowak — 13th male 2014 JFK 50 Mile
  • Paddy O’Leary — 9th 2015 Headlands 50k, winner 2015 Double Dipsea, an Irish lacrosse player who trail runs quite well
  • Chris Paterson — 14th 2014 Moab Trail Marathon
  • Rob Russell — 2nd 2015 Mt. Hood 50 Mile behind Jacob Puzey, 6th 2015 Chuckanut 50k behind 3rd place Brett Hornig and ahead of 7th place Masazumi Fujioka
  • Bob Shebest — 2nd place 2015 Run Rabbit Run 100 Mile behind Jason Schlarb, winner 2015 San Diego 100 Mile, 5th 2015 Gorge Waterfalls 100k
  • Catlow Shipek — 22nd male 2015 Transvulcania, 4th 2015 Black Canyon 100k
  • Tomonori Onitsuka — From Japan, 3rd 2014 STY (Ultra-Trail Mount Fuji sister race); 2nd 2015 Ontake 100k Ultra Trail
  • James Walsh — 27th man 2014 TNF EC 50 Mile, former SoCal triathlete turned SoCal trail runner turned Colorado trail runner
  • Mike Wardian — Michael Wardian needs no introduction. I will tell you he has five TNF EC 50 Mile finishes which include 23rd last year and 16th the year before that.
  • Stephen Wassather — 18th 2015 Western States 100, 13th man 2015 Way Too Cool 50k
  • Jeremy Wolf — 11th 2015 Lake Sonoma 50 Mile
  • Jason Wolfe — 7th 2015 Zane Grey 50 Mile

On the Entrants List but Not Racing

  • Jez Bragg — In his off season now.
  • Dakota Jones — His foot’s bone-stress issues aren’t resolved and he’s on the injured list again.
  • David Roche — Has decided not to race in lieu of sticking to shorter-distance races for now.
  • Chris Vargo — Vargo’s dealing with several physical issues.

Call for Comments

  • Now that was some hard work, but I’m sure I missed someone or three. Who do you think should be on this list and what performances make you think so?
  • Who will fill out the men’s podium? Who is going to win?
  • Who’s going to explode onto our scene with a performance that surprises? Which post-collegiate runner do you think will finish the highest?
Meghan Hicks

Meghan Hicks is the Editor-in-Chief of iRunFar. She’s been running since she was 13 years old, and writing and editing about the sport for around 15 years. She served as iRunFar’s Managing Editor from 2013 through mid-2023, when she stepped into the role of Editor-in-Chief. Aside from iRunFar, Meghan has worked in communications and education in several of America’s national parks, was a contributing editor for Trail Runner magazine, and served as a columnist at Marathon & Beyond. She’s the co-author of Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running with Bryon Powell. She won the 2013 Marathon des Sables, finished on the podium of the Hardrock 100 Mile in 2021, and has previously set fastest known times on the Nolan’s 14 mountain running route in 2016 and 2020. Based part-time in Moab, Utah and Silverton, Colorado, Meghan also enjoys reading, biking, backpacking, and watching sunsets.