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A lot can happen in 50 miles.
Last weekend’s The North Face Endurance Challenge 50-Mile Championship (TNF 50), outside San Francisco, is regarded as a fast race; we’ve written before how its star-studded lineup and late-season placement on the calendar have made it a de facto national championship.
But the course is brutal: Despite sitting near sea level, it features around 10,000 feet of vertical gain, and 10,000 more of loss. Just as some runners triumph on this course, many more (including world-class athletes) are worked over by the incessant hills and the front of the pack’s hot early pace.
To gain more insight into just how challenging the TNF 50 course is and how top competitors tackled it, we looked at the Strava data from five Strava-sponsored athletes who placed in the top 10 at this year’s race: Dylan Bowman, who placed second; Jorge Maravilla, fourth; Daniel Kraft, seventh; Justin Houck, eighth; and Larisa Dannis, third among women and 30th overall. Bowman, Maravilla and Dannis all live and train in the Bay Area, near the course.
Here are a few things we learned:
1. Mile 5 was the fastest
Across the board, the athletes’ fastest mile split was for mile five, during an early descent into the first aid station. All five athletes ran a sub-six-minute fifth mile. Dannis actually ran this mile faster—5:43—than Kraft (5:56) and Houck (5:49).
2. Mile 34 was the slowest
Likewise, mile 34, featuring a steep climb through the Muir Woods, was the slowest for all five runners. Only one athlete—Bowman—ran this mile in under 13 minutes (he ran 12:53), and this was Maravilla’s, Kraft’s and Houck’s slowest mile split by well over a minute.
The front of the pack at the start of the 2014 TNF 50. The race attracts an extremely competitive field each year. Photo courtesy of The North Face
3. Maravilla’s hot early pace hurt him later
Of the five athletes whose data we looked at, Maravilla had both the fastest (5:19) and slowest (14:46) mile splits of the day. He also had by far the fastest split at mile nine—5:20—of the group. (Bowman, the next fastest, ran 5:54 on this downhill section.)
Speaking of which …
4. Even the pros go out too fast and slow down later
See, it’s not just you. Across the board, it seems the blazing pace early on was too tempting for the contenders to sit back and stay patient (not a completely illogical strategy, as overall winner Zach Miller took the lead and ran hard from the gun).
Between the early jockeying and the accumulation of vert as the race drags on, you can see competitors’ mile splits lengthening over time; downhill miles late in the race are not nearly as fast as downhill miles early on, for example. This even applies to Bowman and Kraft, who ran relatively measured races compared to the numerous competitors they picked off in later stages to place as high as they did.