Ryan Bak showed that his podium finish at April’s Lake Sonoma 50 Mile was no fluke by taking third place at The North Face Endurance Challenge 50-Mile Championships. In the following interview, Ryan talks about shadowing champ Zach Miller for as long as he could, his mid-race low point and how he got through it, and what he might do next with his trail-ultra career.
For more on how the race played out, you can read our TNF 50 results article.
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Ryan Bak Post-2015 The North Face EC 50-Mile Championships Transcript
iRunFar: Meghan Hicks of iRunFar, and I’m here at the finish line of the 2015 The North Face Endurance Challenge 50-Mile Championships. I’m with men’s third-place finisher, Ryan Bak. Congratulations!
Ryan Bak: Thank you, Meghan.
iRunFar: Seemed like it was a master class of a day with a few little wobbles and bobbles you recovered from.
Bak: Yeah, definitely hit one rough patch, a longer rough patch than I would have liked. It was probably eight miles long. When it’s going that long of a rough patch, you start to have some doubts, but I just kept plugging away and just kept thinking, It’s got to get better at some point, and it did. Then I felt really good the last 18 miles.
iRunFar: I want to ask you a little bit about your mindset coming into this race. You had a really good showing at Lake Sonoma this spring, your first 50 miler. Did that give you confidence, or did you go into today thinking, Hmm, this is still 50 miles; it’s a big deal?
Bak: Yeah, I definitely took confidence from that race. My training was very different for Lake Sonoma than it was for this race. So I didn’t take confidence from my training coming into this by any means, but I kind of felt like, I’ve done this before; I know it’s going to hurt. If all goes well it will probably just hurt longer than it needs to. I always consider myself a pretty tough runner. I feel like I can fight through a lot of pain, probably not quite like Max King, but not too far behind him in that category. So luckily, I’ve done well in some races when I haven’t been nearly as fit as I’d like to be kind of just by gutting it out. I kind of thought that’s what I’d need to do today, and that’s kind of how it went.
iRunFar: Now, your training differences between Lake Sonoma and here—you’ve had some things going on in life. You have a new baby at home.
Bak: New baby, 10 weeks old.
iRunFar: Is that to which you attribute the differences in training?
Bak: That’s some of it, yeah. I’ve been really busy with work and having a new baby and… it’s hard to be selfish to get out for a run when you’ve got a family to take care of.
iRunFar: The rest of the world is happening.
iRunFar: What was different this time?
Bak: Training volume was the biggest thing, and the number of long runs. Going into Lake Sonoma, I was probably running between 80 to 95 miles per week for three or four months with quite a few 25- to 35-mile long runs. All the long runs were going really well, and I took confidence from that even though it was my first 50 miler. You never know what’s going to happen after that point, but I felt pretty good confidence-wise going into the first one. This was probably three to four months of 30- to 40-mile weeks and no long runs in there.
iRunFar: Okay, about half the volume.
Bak: And then I did have a little crash training block. The last four weeks I did 80, 90, 80 miles and then a taper week. It was something to jump start my system. If I hadn’t done that, there was no way I would have done what I did. It was just a little crash training and snuck in two long runs over the past four months. I did a Lithia Loop Trail Marathon as a hard, long effort and a forced long run more than anything. Then two weeks after that I did a 30-mile run that felt absolutely horrible, but I think some of that was I was tired from doing very little to suddenly doing so much. Yeah, I really thought today could go really well or really bad. I was definitely fresh.
iRunFar: Let’s just call it “fresh.” You took it out hot, you and the rest of the boys in front. Did you just go off and say, Well, we’ll give it a shot?
Bak: Yeah. I like to race aggressively. I was definitely more conservative at Lake Sonoma. Lake Sonoma I went it into and said—I knew Alex [Varner] was in great shape, and I didn’t know if I could hang with him, but I know he races very smart—so I just tried to key off him as long as I could. He pulled away from me while I was having a bad patch there at probably mile 27 or 28 or something like that. But I ran with him doing exactly what he did—if he hiked somewhere I hiked there.
iRunFar: “I shall cover you now.”
Bak: It was great. It was a very good first experience to have someone like that I could key off of. Coming into this race, I knew Zach [Miller] is always aggressive and likes to be aggressive. I love to race aggressively as well. I kind of figured it could either go really well or really bad, but I’ve tried—I’ve only run two 50 milers—but in 50k’s and some shorter things, I’ve tried being a little more conservative the first part of the race, and I still always hit a point towards the end where I feel terrible. You slow down a little bit. I’ve tried being really aggressive, and I still hit that point where I feel terrible at the end. I feel like for me, I like to get a little bit of time in the bank and try to get a gap if I can as long as I’m not too, too aggressive where I can hang on kind of. I think that’s a similar strategy to what Zach takes.
iRunFar: It seems like you two were pretty much keying off each other for the first half of the race.
Bak: Yeah, we were talking a little bit out there and kind of keying off each other. That’s helpful to have a teammate and someone I’ve raced with plenty of times. This is the first time I’ve raced in an ultra with Zach, but just the whole team competition within the race here, too, was great. I think Zach and I were really excited about that. I talked to Zach after the race, and there was a point where he said he was a little nervous we were being too aggressive. I was surprised to hear him say that.
iRunFar: You were like, “Hey, come on, you were leading the charge!”
Bak: We were kind of checking in, “Hey, how are you feeling?” “Okay.” We were happy that we were forming a gap on some of the guys we knew were our top competition here. We were doing it without… there were no real hard pushes anywhere. It was just a steady grind. For me, if the terrain is not too crazy, running… I mean, we hit some 5:40 splits on some of the flatter sections, and we had a 5:20 split.
iRunFar: That’s like normal, comfy…
Bak: I wouldn’t say it’s comfy, but when you’re pumped up for a race and you’ve got the extra adrenaline, it feels like 7:00 pace at that.
iRunFar: It’s comfy for a time period.
Bak: Yeah, exactly. I’ve got a lot of speed over the years in my legs. I’m probably more efficient at running that pace than I am at running 7:00- or 8:00-minute pace. To some degree I do it just as that’s what I feel good at.
iRunFar: Let me ask you about your rough patch. When did it start?
Bak: It started on the descent into Stinson Beach. It wasn’t so much like a nutrition thing that I felt bad at that point, it was more the semi-technical downhill. I know it’s not anything really technical, but it’s technical for me. My legs weren’t feeling great, and then I got into that aid station just not feeling as well as I would have liked to because you’re still 27 or 28 miles into the race. There’s still a lot to go.
iRunFar: There’s a big climb out of there.
Bak: On that climb out, that was when I really hit a rough patch and I hiked quite a bit of that climb. I kept expecting a bunch of people to come by me, but we were so aggressive before that that we had a lot of time in the bank. So I got into the next aid station and I was still in second at that point, but Zach had put six or seven minutes on me just on that one stretch. Then shortly after that, I had a few more guys go past me. I was starting to have doubts about how the day was going to go. I just kept trying to plug away. Luckily things turned around, but it was probably close to an eight mile rough patch.
iRunFar: Did you drink some water? Did you have some food? Did you take some electrolytes? What do you think were some of the things that put you back together?
Bak: Yeah, just putting a lot of calories in me. I think some of the early parts of the race… I’ve played around with a bunch of different things nutritionally. I’ve had some races where I don’t really take a whole lot for maybe the first 90 minutes, almost nothing. This race, I started drinking a calorie drink right off the bat, and I felt like I was in a pretty good place. But it was like, I only had that in my bottles from the crew areas, and then I was getting water in my bottle at the aid stations. After that rough patch I started getting the Gu electrolyte drink in, and I was starting to eat a little bit of stuff, too. I think it was just putting more calories in. Some of it, too, was just the change in the terrain because you have a little more up and down after that long climb. I just kind of got my legs back under me.
iRunFar: You come across the line, third place, pretty competitive ultra. It’s kind of two-for-two this year for you at 50-mile, competitive…
Bak: Yeah, I’ve got to win one one of these days. I feel like they’ve both gone very well.
iRunFar: It’s as solid as you can get without winning.
iRunFar: What does a guy like you do? You have two of these really solid finishes. You also have a very busy career. You’re in a very busy stage of family life. What does a guy like you do now? Keep trying to win one of these things? Try a different distance?
Bak: I really like the 50-mile distance. I’ve only done two. I would like to race a 100k because it’s somewhat similar.
iRunFar: “Just a few more miles.”
Bak: Just a few more miles. Honestly, by the way I was feeling at the end of this race, I felt like if I had to, I could have pushed more. I don’t know if I could have gone another 10 or 12 miles, but I felt like I could. I don’t think I was really taking too much time… I think I gained a little back on Zach and Dylan [Bowman] over the last five or six miles. I felt like I was rolling pretty good. I felt like I was holding back a little bit, too, just because you never know what can happen if you push a little bit too hard. I had a couple steps here or there where your hamstring would cramp a tiny bit. “Oooh, well, let’s get some more electrolytes in and take it easy for a minute.” I felt like I could roll pretty good towards the end which means there was probably a little bit more in the tank.
iRunFar: Have you thought about what your first race for 2016 might be?
Bak: I have not yet. I haven’t had time to figure it out.
iRunFar: Ryan is looking for races, everybody.
Bak: I’d like to do Lake Sonoma especially with the team competition there. In all honesty, that’s why I ran this race today. This race was on kind of the list of races I wanted to do, but just the timing of when we were having our second child, it really didn’t make sense to do it. From a training perspective it really didn’t make sense to do it. When I found out about the team competition, we had a little email chain going around with the Nike guys. I was like, “Okay, I’m in. I’m in.” It was a reason to try to get fit for it. That draws me to Lake Sonoma, and I had a good race there. But I’m still very new to the ultra stuff. There are so many great races out there; I want to do different things. At first I was thinking I wouldn’t go back to Lake Sonoma because I’ve done the race, but with the team aspect, I’d like to do it. I don’t know if it will be my first one or not next year, but that’s the only thing I know I’ll probably do so far.
iRunFar: Congratulations to you.
Bak: Thank you.
iRunFar: Third Place. TNF 50. A really great way to cap off 2015.
Bak: Great way to end the year.
Bak: Thank you.