[Stephanie Howe, who races for The North Face, finished second at the 2012 The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 mile championships. Below is her story of her race. We also interviewed her after the race.]
I remember last year watching the TNF 50 miler unfold from my apartment. I wanted so badly to be there, racing among some of the best ultrarunners in the world. However, instead of racing, I was preparing for my final exams the following Monday. You see, last year I was a graduate student at Oregon State University and as it turned out, really wanted to pass my classes, let’s be real – get straight A’s. Traveling and racing the weekend before wasn’t exactly the best preparation, so, instead, I focused on my studies and watched the race from my computer.
This year a couple things are different: One, I am done with classes and am, now, a doctoral candidate in Nutrition & Exercise Physiology. (I still have to do my dissertation, but am over the ‘hump.’) Two, I am a much more focused runner and now racing for The North Face team. Thus, I was up for the challenge (Excuse the pun.) and excited to race this year.
Being part of a race like TNF 50 is somewhat of a surreal experience for me. With so many amazing runners and high energy of the whole event, it’s kind of like Christmas except with people instead of presents. I had to remind myself to take it down a notch and not get too giddy with excitement. The day leading up to the race was filled with a lot of organized chaos. It always surprises me how the whole day becomes consumed with ‘stuff’ when it doesn’t seem like there is much to do. All of a sudden it was starting to get dark and time for dinner. I organized my race kit and supplies one last time, set my alarm for 3:15 am, and went to bed.
This past year has really been a big step up for me in terms of becoming a ‘real’ runner. Sure, I have always enjoyed running but was never focused on training or racing. Running was something I did purely for enjoyment and, thus, all of my runs were long slow trail runs. I liked to race periodically, and was known to do things like sign up the night before a race. In fact, my fist 50k I did just that. I had been thinking about racing and the night before and said, hey why not? Not the smartest move, but it turned out pretty well. I finished second, behind Kami Semick, despite having to walk the last mile or so. I don’t know what it was, but something about that race grabbed my focus and drove me to seek more.
I digress. Back to the TNF 50 miler. Needless to say I was both excited and nervous for the race. Just reading the preview of all the talent gave me butterflies in my stomach. The morning of the race I woke up to the sound of rain. Bummer. I knew it was going to be wet, but I thought maybe it would wait until after we started. No such luck. I accepted the fact I was going to be wet and cold before the start and then moved on. I tend to do well in races with adverse conditions because of my attitude. I try to stay positive and remember that everyone is experiencing the same conditions. This is something that really makes a big difference and why I think my race the past weekend went so well.
At the starting line I was met with other anxious runners, ready to embark on the journey. Despite the rain and wind, there was still so much energy at the start. Looking around there were people laughing, smiling, and hugging. This is what I love about runners: despite imminent suffering most are excited about it. Weird.
As the race got underway we began a long climb that took us right up into the fog. It was impossible to see anything besides what was right in front of you. In a way, I didn’t mind, it kept me going at a conservative pace. It also made the race more of adventure. I made sure to pay attention to every intersection or possible turn so I wouldn’t go off course. I spent a moment with Lizzy Hawker at an intersection trying to find the trail markings. With the dark, rain, and fog it was difficult to determine the correct path without some care. I’ve learned from past mistakes that it pays off to slow down and make sure you are on the right trail.
I really was enjoying myself the first several hours. It was muddy and rainy, but I had on enough clothing so I wasn’t cold. I also really like to climb, so the course was well suited for me. There was hardly any flat, just climbing and descending. The first time I had an idea of my place was at Muir Beach, during the out and back. When I found out I was in third place, I was like ‘Wow, I’ll see how long I can hold that.’ Still, I knew there was a long way to go so I didn’t change anything. I just kept running at a comfortable pace.
A while later, on the climb from Tennessee Valley around mile 17, I caught sight of Emelie [Forsberg]. I slowly chased her down and passed her before the lapping through for the start of the second lap. Again, I was surprised to be feeling so well and clearly having a good race. Emelie stayed close and soon we were catching Maud [Gobert], the leader for the whole first lap. Suddenly, all three of us were jockeying for position, since we all had different strengths. After a few more miles, Emelie took the lead, but she was never very far in front. Maud and I could see her almost the entire time.
The second loop was very muddy. It was hard to run without slipping. Again, I think it went well for me because I stayed relaxed. I didn’t try to fight the mud. Yes, I was slipping and wasn’t able to run very well, but I didn’t let it get me worked up. I ran when I could and walked when I needed to.
The last five miles of the race were very exciting for me. I lost Maud on one of the long uphill sections and closed the gap to less than a minute behind Emelie. As I climbed out of Tennessee Valley the final time, I could see her looking back several times. I was trying my best, but was starting to get pretty tired. One of my teammates, Jordan McDougal, really helped pull me the final three or four miles. When I saw the finish area I could not have been happier. I crossed the finish line in second, with a big grin. Not in my wildest dreams had I thought I could finish second!
I was really proud of all the runners for finishing so well on such a hard day! There were so many runners who battled adversity and still managed to cross the finish line. That to me is inspiring. In racing there will always be good days and bad days, and sometimes the bad days are what make you stronger. Fortunately I had a good day this time, but I know it’s not going to be that easy every race. I still have a lot of learning to do, but I am going to take a moment to enjoy the afterglow of this race. It sure felt good!
Never Stop Exploring!