Sonya Sorich: Surviving The North Face Endurance Challenge -- again

ssorich@ledger-enquirer.comSeptember 30, 2013 

The start of the Sept. 29 kids' race that was part of The North Face Endurance Challenge, held Sept. 28-29 in Pine Mountain, Ga.


Two fears dominate the trail racing world.

There's the fear of getting lost: a nightmare that involves taking a wrong turn and ending up in the depths of nature with no evidence of human contact in sight.

There's also the fear of falling: images of a slight misstep that results in bloody scrapes...or worse.

Or, how about this? Think about getting lost AND falling AND receiving assistance from a pet rock who has somehow acquired the ability to speak -- a result of your dehydration and foggy mental state.

No, that didn't happen to me.

But it seemed like a very real threat as I prepared for The North Face Endurance Challenge.

The event came to F.D. Roosevelt State Park in Pine Mountain, Ga., on Sept. 28 and 29. It spanned trail races in a variety of distances. The Sept. 28 events included a 50-mile race, a 50K (which is a little more than 31 miles), a marathon and a marathon relay. Participants on Sept. 29 could choose from a half marathon, a 10K and a 5K. Kids' runs were offered both days.

For the second year in a row, I participated in the 10K, thanks to a media entry North Face generously offered. And once again, a certain aspect of the online registration information intimidated me.

I'm talking about the time cutoffs that accompany the races. I've had friends swear the cutoff times aren't as strict as they appear. I mean, you can't exactly shut down nature.

Nonetheless, the website lists a two-hour cutoff for the 10K and I felt some level of pressure at the race's onset.

That's largely because I'm not the fastest runner in the world. At a standard road race, I finish a 10K in a little over an hour. Just like last year, I expected my trail race finish time to be roughly double my regular road race time.

Runner's World suggests experienced trail runners cover about six miles an hour. Less experienced runners should target four miles an hour on a trail, an expert says. Yep, I'm slower than that.

But I still enjoy trail racing. I like its emphasis on surprises, the promise you'll get new views and new terrain after nearly every turn. And at least at The North Face Endurance Challenge, I like the surprise of not seeing the finish line from miles away.

Yet trail racing's emphasis on surprises is often a double-edged sword.

The race's emphasis on the unknown produces an adrenaline rush, as well as a sense of caution that can be paralyzing.

That was evident when I watched my running buddy trip minutes into the race.

She tried walking it off, but ultimately decided to turn around and go back to her family at the start/finish line. It was a good decision, since she later learned she fractured her shoulder blade.

Things like that have nothing to do with a race's planning/organization. The incidents remind you that trail racing in general carries certain added risks you don't see at standard road races.

The North Face Endurance Challenge is a national series of races that travels to six cities. I've heard the Pine Mountain race is among the series' most technical courses. That doesn't surprise me.

This year's course seemed more challenging than last year's 10K course. While the route wasn't much different, the terrain seemed rougher. I wonder if this year's excessive rain impacted the trail at all.

The first half of my race experience was a little rough. I worried about my running buddy, and my frustration increased as half marathon runners -- who started their race an hour before mine -- passed me frequently.

I need to give props to the volunteers at the aid station around mile four. Their encouraging words brought new energy to my race. I ran my fastest mile of the race, and found a new sense of confidence as "I'm So Excited" surfaced on my playlist.

Speaking of technology on the trail: No, I don't text while running or pause for "selfies." But I can't imagine a trail race without my phone. If nothing else, it provides the safety blanket of being able to call someone if I take a wrong turn or get injured.

I also can't imagine completing a trail race without my GPS watch. It's especially hard to gauge your distance on a trail, and I like the certainty a GPS provides. Bonding with nature is great. Being able to say "we're almost there" with accuracy is just as wonderful.

The North Face folks posted some mile markers on the course, along with race markers making it difficult to get lost. Just like last year, it was a well-organized race and something I'd do again.

Ultimately, I finished in about 1:49, according to the race clock.

I'll never be the fastest trail runner and I'll never forget the activity's inherent risks. The key, I suppose, is challenging yourself until your perception of those risks turns into fuel, rather than fear.

Henry David Thoreau reportedly once said, "Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves."

I didn't get lost Sunday, but I understand the subsequent soreness in my thighs very well.

Actually, it feels kind of good.

In this video, "Ultramarathonman" Dean Karnazes kicks off the 10K race that was part of The North Face Endurance Challenge in Pine Mountain, Ga., on Sept. 29.

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