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“If you’re going to San Francisco …” crooned Scott McKenzie in 1967. In those days, the city by the bay was the place to be.
Every December since 2007, the same has been true for ultrarunners, who flock to The North Face Endurance Challenge 50-mile Championship (or TNF 50) seeking prize money, notoriety in the sport and a chance to square off against some of the fastest other runners in the world. The list of people who have won – or simply run – reads like a hall of fame of modern trail running: Rob Krar, Magdalena Boulet, Emilie Forsberg, Miguel Heras, Mike Wolfe, Geoff Roes … it goes on.
The 50-miler in the Marin Headlands, across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, has become an annual showdown between ultrarunning’s strongest and fastest. The terrain is challenging (around 10,000 feet of gain and loss), but often runnable, and at sea level; the race draws runners from across the spectrum, from fast marathoners to seasoned 100-milers.
The result is that, in a sport with no widely recognized governing body or single, official title race, TNF 50, which kicks off at 5 a.m. on Saturday, might be the closest thing to an ultrarunning championship that exists in the country today.
So how did it get that way?
Building a Championship Event
The Endurance Challenge Series is a set of trail-running festivals in various U.S., Canadian and international locations that feature individual and relay races up to the marquee 50-mile events. When The North Face started the series in 2007, it positioned the California event, near the company’s headquarters, as a championship from the beginning, says Katie Ramage, director of sports marketing for The North Face.
“The California race was the epitome of a challenging race, not only because of the terrain but because of the time of year,” she says. “It’s challenging for athletes to stay fit that late into the year.”
But over time, she says, athletes started planning their training around the race. “Momentum has grown over the years because people build it into their schedules,” Ramage says. “We picked a time when there aren’t other events, when more people could participate, and the weather around San Francisco lends itself to year-round events.”
Of course, talk is cheap. If The North Face wanted to build a truly world-class event, it needed to put their money where their mouth was. It did, to the tune of a $30,000 total prize purse for the 50-mile, including $10,000 grand prizes for the male and female winners.
“For me, as a pro runner, the race’s prize purse was a huge part of my income last year,” says Sage Canaday, who won the race in 2014. Besides, he says, “the race has essentially become a proving ground for runners seeking sponsorship deals. A podium performance or win at this one race could be career changing for some.”
Adds Alex Varner, a San Francisco-based runner who placed third at last year’s race behind Canaday, “Besides that, it’s a well-organized event.”
The pre-dawn start of the TNF 50. The elite competitors at the front of the pack include Rob Krar and Sage Canaday. Photo courtesy of The North Face.
As money attracts competition, so too does the competition itself – and so the cycle of competitiveness builds.
“I run the race for a few reasons [but] first and most important for me is that it’s competitive,” says Dakota Jones, who has twice placed second, most recently last year between Canaday and Varner. “One of the difficult things about ultrarunning is that you kind of have to guess which races will draw the most competition, but you can pretty much rely on the fact that TNF is going to be competitive.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Megan Kimmel, who placed second at last year’s race. “To be able to run with the best of them is an honor, a learning experience, and pushes me further as an athlete.”
Along with competition, athletes enjoy the familiar crowd, a veritable who’s-who of ultrarunning that converges on the Bay Area in early December. The post-race festivities near the start/finish area are trail running’s equivalent of the Olympic Village, replete with world-class runners and legendary resumes.
“Even if I’m not looking forward to the race, I’m looking forward to hanging with those guys after the race,” says Stephanie Howe, who was third at last year’s race. “It’s tough to train through November and December, to be in 50-mile trail shape then, but all that said, it’s the people who really draw me there. If I think about not racing, I get sad, because all my friends are there.”
2014 winner Magdalena Boulet. Photo courtesy of The North Face
Adding to the atmosphere is the fact that the race takes place next to a major city that has recently developed into a trail-running hub.
“The Bay Area not only has a good amount of climbing and amazing trails, but it’s easy to get to, and is accessible to people from all over the country and all over the world,” says Brett Rivers, owner of San Francisco Running Company, in Mill Valley, nearly adjacent to parts of the TNF 50 course. “That perfect combination is part of the reason we have such a great trail running community in general. Plus, you can train year-round, and we never have terrible weather.”
Rivers mentions the monsoon conditions that forced course alterations during the 2012 race. “The rain we got a couple of years ago? That was the worst-case scenario here. It was pretty much the worst weather we’ve ever had.”
An additional feature, new this year, that should add both speed and intrigue to the race is the addition of an official team competition, dubbed the USA Ultra Team Invitational. Brands enter men’s and women’s teams of up to five sponsored athletes; the combined times of a team’s three fastest athletes comprises its score. (Nike, Hoka One One, Salomon, The North Face and Altra have all confirmed team entries so far.) The team competition, which will rotate to a different trail race each year, was designed by the Mountain/Ultra/Trail Council of USA Track & Field, running’s domestic governing body.
Ramage says the team competition was born of a desire to keep the event innovative and exciting, and thereby competitive. What the race might feature in 2016 and beyond is up for discussion.
“We’re always looking for ways to keep the race, the experience, progressing forward, adding new elements and new destinations,” she says. “We’re always considering new things.”