The North Face Endurance Challenge 2009

The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile 2009This isn’t going to be your standard iRunFar race report and here’s why. I drove to the Marin Headlands thinking I’d run part of The North Face Endurance Challenge championships presented by GORE-TEX. I even woke up at 3:15 a.m. on Saturday at which point I got suited up to run… and then sanity prevailed and I bailed on the race in favor of preserving my -itis befallen plantar fascia. Fortunately, I quickly switched hats from runner to reporter. I think this switcheroo is a lucky thing for me and you. Anyway, I could give a detailed blow-by-blow of the most exciting US ultramarathon of the year, but, instead, I will offer some more intimate glimpses into the race. For those simply looking for results, they are available for the top men and top women. Keep reading for a glimpse at class, good weather, quotes from the competitors, a look at who didn’t race, what folks in the shorter trail races thought about the day, and a few links to race reports. Ok, ok, so I’ll post the results of the 50 mile championship at the bottom, too. Feel free to ask for details of how the race played out or anything else I may have seen.

Caitlin Smith North Face Endurance Challenge
To kick things off, here’s a quick pic of Caitlin Smith as she nears mile 30.

All Class
The competition at the front was top notch not only in terms of on-course athletic performance, but also with respect to class. For example, as Uli Steidl and Geoff Roes raced into the mile 30 aid station, Uli unleashed a voluminous vomitous discharge in my general direction. (I kid you not, I got splattered.) Moments later, Geoff offered up, “You’ve got to stop taking the chia” or something to that effect. Yeah, it was just a few words, but it’s hard to imagine many sports where, in a heated battle for an extra $6,000, one competitor offers his rival even a bit of advice. After the race, I learned that during the early miles Uli occasionally corralled runners who’d taken wrong turns. Classy world class competition, guys!

Weather Watch
December should mean rain in San Francisco… at least for one out of every three days. However, the first two years The North Face Endurance Challenge saw spectacular weather and 2009 saw more of the same. It was cool in the morning, but not too cold. The coolness held up throughout the day despite the bluebird skies. Perhaps there was a touch of heat on some of the flats during the afternoon, but all things considered, you really couldn’t ask for better racing weather. I suppose some would want brutal heat or rain with shoe sucking mud. Not me, I’d rather see a runner’s skills and psyche, his or her talent and training determine the winner rather than some cyclone or frontal system.

From the Mouths of Champions… and Others

Caitlin Smith (women’s champion):

  • On signing up for The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 mile championship: “I decided to run this race after Way Too Cool, my second 50k… back in March.”
  • On the competition: “When I first looked at the list, there was Chris Lundy, Susannah Beck, Kami Semick. I even knew Anita Ortiz was trying to get in. I was like, this is going to be awesome! This is going to be full-on competitive. This is really a place to show yourself and show where you’re at.”
  • On her preparedness after feeling unprepared for the Miwok 100k earlier in the year: “I did a 35 miler a week and a half before the race and I felt awesome. I was like, I’m so ready for this. I’ve really grown as a runner throughout this year.”
  • On running faster than she expected: “I’m not one to write down splits. I just kinda go out and I just run according to how my body feels. I feel that is way better for me as a runner, but I was showing up at aid stations thinking I’m here 10 minutes earlier than I was planning on being there. Is this good? But I was like ‘I feel good. Just relax and enjoy it.'”
  • On racing Joelle Vaught: “I feel she ran a really strong race and it was nice having someone else out there.”
  • On the course: “The course is beautiful. … I love the headlands. It’s really a magical place. Every once in a while, I was like, I have to look over at the ocean.”
  • On taking a break from training: “I just love to be running. Everybody that knows me knows it makes me incredibly happy.”
Caitlin nearing mile 30. Photo by Meghan Hicks.

Uli Steidl (men’s champion):

  • On what he knew of Geoff before the race, “I didn’t know much about him, but I had him sort of on the list [of top competitors]… just because the course records he set in the 100 milers. They weren’t by slow guys and it was a decent amount, so you can’t be a slow 50 miler and set massive 100 mile records.”
  • On Geoff’s descent of the Bootleg Trail: “He just flew that trail down… I mean I’m a good technical downhill runner, but I was like, Man, that’s too hard on the quads!”
  • On Geoff during a flat section of the course: “I thought on the out-and-back section, I should be able to either relax … or really take it to him and make him hurt, but he took off and I was barely hanging on.”
  • On dealing with discomfort: “I figured after that downhill after Pantoll, ‘Man, my quads are already pretty thrashed, … and, well, I gotta keep going.'”
  • After calculating that he had two and a half minutes on Geoff after summitting the climb after Muir Beach (approx. mile 41-42), he thought “I have one gear left … I’m just going to run 90% in. I mean it hurt, but…”
  • On scares he had toward the end, “You look around and, oh, there’s someone running decently, and then it’s like, oh, it’s a half marathon or a 50k person.”
  • On the camaraderie with Geoff on the course, “We talked a lot on the downhill from Pantoll to Stinson Beach.”
  • On getting sick during the race, “I’ve done it before. I wasn’t too worried the first time, but when I threw up the second time, I was like, ‘Oh, that’s not good.’ I was worried that I would crash. We just ran so hard and I tried to eat more than I should have.”
  • On when the real race began, “We [Uli and Geoff] actually talked and said, ‘Well, the real racing isn’t going to start until probably Muir Beach.'”
  • “The biggest challenge, I think, was the pace going down after Pantoll the second time.” [The descent from Pantoll 8 or 9 miles before Muir Beach.]
  • On the competition: “I don’t know if I’m more happy about winning ten grand or more happy about beating a really good field.”
  • On seeing Caitlin Smith and Joelle Vaught on the out-and-back mid-race: “When the first women came thought, I was like, Holy Crap they’re fast! … We thought Lizzy was fast, but we ran into these ladies 3 or 4 minutes before that and since that’s out and back that’s like 8 minutes.”
Uli Steidl and Geoff Roes congratulating one another after the race.

Michael Wardian (5th place finisher)

  • On Geoff Roes: “When I saw him on the out-and-back, it looked like he was a demon. I swear his eyes like…”
  • On Leigh Schmitt’s final push: “I didn’t know what it was, I thought it was a bike coming.”

Chris Lundstrom (3rd place finisher – 50 mile debut)

  • On running 50 miles: “I’ll never run one of these again… but you know how that goes.”

No Shows At The Big Show
In speaking with Uli after the race, I learned that he didn’t know Matt Carpenter, who beat Uli at this race last year, and Anton Krupicka weren’t running until the day before the race. Similarly, Caitlin Smith didn’t know that Kami Semick and Lizzy Hawker, the two previous women’s race winners, were scratches until early on race morning. It’s got to be interesting to be one of the favorites and learn so close to race time that some of your toughest competition will not be racing. It makes me wonder what it would be like if a cornerstone event did not release the entrants list until the morning of the race. Sure it would make PR difficult, but it would also make for one heck of an exciting race day!

Among the fast women at the TNF Endurance Challenge, but not racing were,
from left to right, Nikki Kimball, Lizzy Hawker, Kami Semick, and Devon Crosby-Helms.

Short Video, Shorter Races
Yeah, the 50 mile race was the championship event and was my focus of the day. However, The North Face Endurance Challenge in San Francisco (and the four prior locations in 2009) all also hosted a 10k, half marathon, and 50k. This gave the event the feel of a festival and brought in a wider range of trail runners. iRunFar correspondent Meghan Hicks caught up with a few 10k and half marathon runners to get their takes on trail running and their shorter The North Face Endurance Challenge races. It turns out they liked the scenery, descents… and the finish. The video includes some thoughts from the women’s winners of the 10k and half marathon. The full results from the shorter races are now available. [broken link removed]

Race Reports

  • Caitlin Smith – Caitlin writes of racing and rest.
  • Geoff Roes – Goeff talks about being tied to Uli with a 5 foot rope until mile 39.
  • Uli Steidl – Breaks it down for an awesome look at his and Geoff’s race.
  • Andy Jones-Wilkins – AJW gives TNF some credit.

GORE-TEX 50 Mile Championship Results
Below are the results of the 50 mile championship. Now that it’s posted, I can share that I did write a more blow-by-blow account over at Competitor Running.


  1. Caitlin Smith (Oakland, California) – 7:38:08
  2. Joelle Vaught (Boise, Idaho) – 7:53:39
  3. Tracy Garneau (Vernon, British Columbia) – 8:02:17
  4. Helen Cospolich (Breckenridge, Colorado) – 8:53:36
  5. Luanne Park (Redding, California) – 9:09:29
Caitlin Smith celebrating her victory as she crosses the finish line.


  1. Uli Steidl (Shoreline, Washington) – 6:33:30
  2. Goeff Roes (Douglas, Alaska) – 6:40:51
  3. Chris Lundstrom (Minneapolis, Minnesota) – 6:48:08
  4. Tsuyoshi Kaburaki (Japan) – 6:55:52
  5. Michael Wardian (Arlington, Virginia) – 7:09:07
Uli Steidl relaxing shortly after his victory.

A Wrap
That’s all folks! Let us know what you think of the race… or this random report.

There are 22 comments

  1. willgotthardt

    Straight up (and ALL due respect), on this day I don't think it would've mattered who actually made the startline in the women's 50M…with Caitlin's 7:38:08 finish, they would have been racing for 2nd-place.Cheers, Will G.

  2. Bryon Powell

    Will, that sentiment was echoed by the top men and women who ran on Saturday. I was not trying to imply that Caitlin couldn't run with those who showed up, but that, perhaps, it would have changed the race dynamic if Kami and/or Lizzie hadn't been last minute scratches. :-)Nick, the course was different. Was it 20 minutes faster than last year? I can't imagine that it was, but it's worth checking out by looking at times deeper in the field.

  3. Kurt

    Great report !! So I am friends with Chris Lundstrom and we talked yesterday and his quote to you is spot on. We all say never then step away and re-think it out. Yesterday he was talking about what he could do different next year !!!! We runners are funny people. Keep up the good work on the blog.

  4. Derrick

    Great report Bryon. Sorry to hear about your PF, but was really nice to be able to follow along on your Twitter updates and a great report after. Loved the insider quotes and observations.

  5. Nick

    Bryon – Maybe the dudes were just faster across the board this year, but Uli 20 mins faster than last year, Geoff over 30 mins, Kaburaki 6 mins, Wardian 40+ mins. And while MC is of course beatable, I'd challenge you to find a race where he was beaten by the margin between winning times in '08 & '09 (with the exception of his blow-up at Leadville, of course). Just an observation based purely on finishing times. Maybe someone who ran in both '08 & '09 might have a more informed opinion.

  6. Josh

    Great report, thanks! Wish I'd known you were there I would have tried to meet you before the race. Some people I talked to along the course said that the changes from last year included taking out a monster hill, but that alone shouldn't account for the difference in finishing times.

  7. Andrew

    great report and the tweets were very much appreciated!!the only bad thing about the race was the lack of updates/coverage… had it not been for you a lot of people would have sadly been left in the dark!

  8. Geoff

    the course changes were so minimal that they couldn't have accounted for much more than a few minutes one way or the other. the only change was a 1.5 mile climb between muir beach and tennessee valley. up to mile 39 the course was exactly the same as last year and uli and i were ahead of our pace from last year from the very beginning and just kept stretching it more and more. the times can't be held to the exact same standard but there is no doubt that uli's 6:33 would have been way faster than matt's 6:48 from last year. wardian's 40 minute improvement stems from the fact that he got lost last year. my 30 minute improvement came from the fact that i'm just that much stronger of a runner than i was a year ago. i did afterall take 90 minutes off my wasatch time from 2008 and my 2008 wasatch was a very strong race for me at that time. why so much improvement from uli? my guess is that we were pushing over 100% for so much of the race and somehow he was able to still maintain enough strength to finish strong. uli also did not have a strong race (by his standards) last year. anyway, my point is that the times were only affected by the course changes by a few minutes at most.

  9. willgotthardt

    Bryon-The 'ALL due respect' was actually for the injured/missing women…they are among the sport's elite.Your report was spot on. Of course race would have been different, but I still believe for 2nd place on this day. I didn't make any year-to-year time comparisons. Caitlin's a new kind of fast in the hills, she left no doubts, and at just 28yo, only the beginning.Cheers, Will G.

  10. Will Thomas

    Enjoyed the Twitter updates and the following runner interview/quotes. Never heard what happened to Hal in the race. Does anyone know?

  11. wcaitlin

    Bryon, I said "like" a little bit too much. I think that was due to the beer that I drank right before the interview :)! Anyway great seeing you out there and chatting it up. Nice report! Looking forward to 2010.

  12. Adam

    Just started reading the blog and am really enjoying your posts. Planning on my first 50 in the fall of 2010 so slowly learning about the ins and outs of ultrarunning. Your blog is helping me do that.

  13. Bryon Powell

    Thanks everyone who liked the post or our live coverage of the event.Kurt, Chris had a great 50 mile debut. I hope he comes back next year.Nick, it looks like Geoff addressed your question. Geoff, thanks for helping Nick and the rest of us out! Fantastic race on Saturday. It was truly the best ultramarathon I've ever watched!Josh, sorry to have missed you. I hope you enjoyed the race.Andrew, the race location makes for surprisingly difficult communication logistics given the fact that it's so close to the city. I was basically told it can't be done, and found a way.Will G, Caitlin is a new kinda fast. The first time I met her, she schooled me on how to climb Mount Sanitas in Bolder. She would have done the same thing to me at the Jupiter Peak Steeplechase in Park City, Utah later in the summer… but I couldn't stay close enough to figure out how she did it!Will T, Hal looked as if his IT Band was giving him problems by mid-race. He walked downhill the second time into the Pantoll aid station. Caitlin, I like the likes. :-) They make for a more casual story. Congrats on a fantastic race and a great season… It's hard to remember that it was your first as an ultrarunner!Adam, glad iRunFar could help you achieve your goals. Best of luck in preparing for the 50 miler.

  14. Amy G.

    Bryon, as always, thanks for a stellar race report! How you were the only one who was able to get service out there is beyond me, but thank goodness you did!

  15. willgotthardt

    "The first time I met her, she schooled me on how to climb…"Oh yeah Bryon I've been in that classroom myself many times.Keep up fantastic work on iRF, always great stuff.Cheers, Will G.

  16. Uli Steidl

    Since there were questions about the course length… this is from my blog entry, to which Bryan has provided a link in his post above:"Due to reconstruction of the Dias Ridge trail the section from Muir Beach to Tennessee Valley was changed, and shortened. I ran this section easy on Friday before the race and estimated it to be about 1 mile shorter than the Dias Ridgetrail. Upon returning home I mapped both sections with Google Earth – it’s very open terrain and they still had the old satellite picture with the original DiasRidge trail. The new section is 1.1 miles shorter and has about 150 feet less of elevation change. So given a pace of about 8:00 min / mile for the elite men, I estimate the course was about 9 min faster this year, about 18 min for the back of the pack."Here's some aditional info on the new section:(Also, the race handout said this section is 4.9 miles long. I mapped it at 4.1miles. Given the fact that it only took me 33 min for that part during therace… I did NOT run 6:45 pace for this section with its 1000 ft climb!!!! 4.1miles means 8:00 pace, very reasonable.)

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