Tight competition highlights popular ultrarunning event.
Written by: Meghan M. Hicks
The North Face Endurance Challenge 50-Mile Championship (TNFEC50) began at 5am on Saturday morning in a Dukes of Hazzard-style start: dozens of elite runners put the pedal to the metal, guns a blazin’ in pursuit of the race’s $30,000 cash purse and the title of the man and woman who could beat everyone else at this who’s who of ultrarunning. The Marin Headlands north of San Francisco played proving grounds for Montana’s Mike Wolfe and New Zealand’s Anna Frost, who emerged as the men’s and women’s champions.
From the starting line, French runners Greg Vollet and Christophe Mallarde charged hard into the pre-dawn dark and quickly gapped the rest of the men’s field. By about mile eight, the pair built respective two and three-minute leads that they would mostly hold until just before mile 23. These rabbits couldn’t complete the distance, however, and both dropped with different maladies at the mile 28 aid station.
In the early miles of the men’s race, a pack of 15 or so runners gave chase to Vollet and Mallarde. By mile 28, three men trickled to the front and stayed there through the finish line: Wolfe, Colorado’s Dakota Jones, and Canada’s Adam Campbell. Wolfe and Jones moved forward mostly head-to-head–or within spitting distance of each other–through the Tennessee Valley aid station at mile 45.5.
After that, Wolfe pushed hard up the course’s last climb, fighting leg cramps in the midday sun, creating a nearly three-minute lead that he maintained to his 6:19:04 finish over Jones’ 6:21:51 clocking. Campbell held on for a solid third, finishing in 6:34:35.
About his duel with Jones, Wolfe said, “We were pushing hard, right at that edge. Neither of us was going to back down. It was a cat-and-mouse game.” Wolfe says that he and Jones are good friends, however, and that playing cat and mouse with Jones was a great time.
Rounding out the hyper-competitive men’s top 10 was Tim Olson (Oregon), Geoff Roes (Colorado), Tsuyoshi Kaburaki (Japan), Jez Bragg (England), Jason Wolfe (Arizona), Mike Foote (Montana), and Jason Schlarb (Colorado).
In the women’s race, England’s Lizzy Hawker led from the start in her usual go-hard-or-go-home style for most of the race’s first half. She suffered an Achilles tendonitis flare-up, though, and was forced to drop from the race at Stinson Beach, the mile 28 aid station.
Where Hawker was unable to continue, lots of other women could–and did. Frost had been barking at Hawker’s door all day, and she took over the lead by mile 28. While a long, tight string of women plowed through the race’s first half, one after another, Idaho’s Joelle Vaught slipped into third position somewhere around the mile 28 aid station and stayed there. Frost, Greenwood, and Vaught stayed in those spots through the finish line.
Greenwood has a notorious closing ability, so her position a few minutes behind Frost for the race’s final 20 miles made for exciting racing and spectating. Frost, however, was the day’s best woman, and she only increased her lead en route to to her 6:56:07 finish. Greenwood crossed in 7:07:24, still fighting and going hard. The TNFEC50 course has over 10,000 feet of climbing, and Frost averaged a ridiculous 8:20 minute-per-mile pace over it. Vaught arrived about a half-hour later at 7:40:46.
At the finish, Anna Frost spoke of her victory, “I was waiting to hit my mental wall, but it never came. I’d prepared to go to that dark place sometime today and I didn’t get there. I was able to run hard the whole way and I was running a little bit scared because I had a massive cue chasing me.”
The rest of the women’s top ten included Krissy Moehl (Washington), Tyler Stewart (California), Alison Bryant (North Carolina), Helen Cospolich (Colorado), Rory Bosio (California), Kerrie Wlad (Colorado), and Jennifer Benna (Nevada).
TNFEC50 awarded $10,000 each to Mike Wolfe and Anna Frost as the men’s and women’s winners, $4,000 each to second-place finishers Dakota Jones and Ellie Greenwood, and $1,000 each to Adam Campbell and Joelle Vaught for their third-place finishes.