Sonya Sorich: I survived The North Face Endurance Challenge

ssorich@ledger-enquirer.comOctober 15, 2012 

I grimace while getting up from my desk -- until I remember that this is supposed to feel good.

And it does. Or at least it will, maybe after another night or two, when I've had a few more bonding sessions with my ice pack.

I'd still do it all over again, though.

I'm talking about the Oct. 14 trail run I completed at F.D. Roosevelt State Park in Pine Mountain, Ga. It was among the stops in The North Face Endurance Challenge, a national series of races. The organizers were kind enough to give me a media pass to participate. I was game.

As the event approached, I had to answer a tough question: "Which race?"

OK, it really wasn't that tough. Fifty miles was out of the question, as were the 50K and marathon. I figured it wasn't wise to conquer those distances for the first time on a trail. I've done a half marathon before, but I wasn't sure I could handle the distance on a trail.

Which left me with the 10K or 5K. The race was Sunday. Until about 11:30 p.m. Saturday, I was all about the 5K. Then, that pesky little voice in my mind started urging me to push myself. And I couldn't get it to shut up. Believe me, we battled fiercely when I woke up at 5 a.m. on race day. I lost.

So 10K was my final answer.

Parking was unavailable at the starting line, so I boarded a bus at Callaway Gardens' beach area. I had the honor of sitting beside a mother whose daughter would rather sit with a friend. Hey, I help when I can.

As organizers promised, the ride to the starting line took about 10 minutes. Registration went smoothly. My only dilemma was a question on the paperwork: estimated finish time. Finish time was one of the reasons I was hesitant to do the 10K. There was a two-hour cutoff time for that race, according to information posted in advance on the event's website.

I doubted my ability to complete it in that time frame. Prior to Sunday, I'd done one trail race: a 5K that took me nearly twice as long as my road-race 5K time. My best 10K time for a standard road race is 1:01. You do the math. I was likely operating on borrowed time.

Nonetheless, it was worth the risk. Another risk worth taking? Estimating an overly optimistic finish time. I wrote down 90 minutes. Yes, I was wearing my rose-colored glasses.

I passed the time before the race by standing under a heat lamp. Very nice touch. We started in waves, which was necessary given the narrow nature of a trail run. I was in the final wave.

The first mile was, um, an adjustment. Fortunately for me, because the pack hadn't fully separated yet, there were moments when we were all moving slower than usual. On a trail, there's only so much room for movement. Eventually, we spread out and I got into my groove. And by "groove," I mean 15-minute miles. Not kidding.

As I wrote in my advance column about the event, trail running requires a certain level of strategy that you don't see with traditional road races. At many points in the race, I had to strategically pick my steps. And as you'll read in my Tuesday column, etiquette issues -- particularly those involving passing other runners -- seem to surface more often in trail races.

But let's not forget a major advantage of trail running: the views. This race was no exception. And as with all trail races, it was nice to have virtually no concept of where I was in relation to the finish line. (Although I would've seriously inflated my progress without my GPS watch.)

How did I fare physically? Well, I didn't fall. The experience was straining, but I didn't completely collapse on the course. (Luckily, aid stations were available in that event.) This might be a result of my status as a fairly new runner, but there were inclines where it seemed physically impossible to run at full speed, let alone run at all. And yes, even though it possibly distracted from the beauty of the experience, I listened to music during the run.

A trail party isn't complete without "Call Me Maybe."

One more insight before I describe my big finish: I was surprised and impressed by the number of women competing with me. The 10K had 86 women and 56 men, according to the official race results.

Now, my moment of glory. OK, that's an exaggeration. I crossed the finish line in 1:41, which wasn't my optimistic estimate of 1:30. But it wasn't my real-life estimate of two hours, either. I placed 124th out of 144.

On The North Face Endurance Challenge website, the company writes, "Find your comfort zone then run right past it." A hip condition in childhood made me terrified of all forms of exercise for a good chunk of my life. I never thought I'd run, let alone wake up at 5 a.m. to run in a daunting trail race.

But a few years ago, I chose to abandon comfort in the name of risk.

Being so uncomfortable has never felt so good.

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