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The Inside Lane: The Challenge of Enduring

Senior editor Mario Fraioli recounts working through a few rough patches in a recent race.

Senior editor Mario Fraioli recounts working through a few rough patches in a recent race. 

The long, stair-laden descent to Pirates Cove 11 miles into the North Face Endurance Challenge California 50K course rewards runners with some of the most beautiful views of the Pacific Ocean and the majestic Marin Headlands it borders. But before you can have a chance to truly appreciate the breathtaking scenery surrounding you, the route promptly kicks you in the ass with a short, steep climb to the top of the Coastal Trail, one of the race’s main intersections. It was at this point of my nearly 32-mile adventure two weekends ago that the doubts began to surface in my mind.

“Can I hold on for another 20 miles?” and “Do I want to hold on for another 20 miles?” were the two questions I kept asking myself as my legs begged me for a break. I was running in third place and it was too early to be drowning my mind in negative thoughts, but having already tackled three challenging climbs in the first third of the race with the worst yet to come, the temptation to call it a day was becoming more appealing with every stride. In 18 years of racing various distances, I’ve learned that suffering is an inevitable ingredient of competition—it’s up to you how much of it you want to endure, and on this day, my second-ever 50K, I wasn’t sure I wanted to put up with another 20 miles of it.

At that point, I decided to soldier on, knowing that a mile or so later I would see my wife Christine and our friend Steve before the nearly 1,400-foot climb to the top of Heather Cutoff. Surely they’d let me crawl into the car if I felt like retiring from the race, I thought to myself.

Well, I thought wrong. Despite my whining, there was no way they were letting me call it a day. Their encouragement got me up the series of switchbacks to the next aid station and course turnaround, where I stopped for a solid minute to reassess the situation and get my head on straight.

Coming back down Heather Cutoff a little over 18 miles into the race, I was running head-on into a steady stream of 50K and 50-mile racers who were in the middle of their own long climbs up the hill. Their bodies laden with mud, the effort visible across many of their faces resembled the gnarly grimace I was sporting up the same sloppy singletrack grade just a few minutes before. Some words of encouragement were exchanged, which I appreciated, but it was mostly a silent sense of camaraderie that graced the trail. I felt privileged to be sharing my morning with these people.

After traversing a small grass field at the base of the descent, I ran down the road toward Muir Beach, knowing a long, steep climb back up Coastal Trail was waiting for me. Running and power hiking the relentless ascent with the Pacific Ocean watching me from behind, I suffered in silence until Sage Canaday, winner of the 50-mile race, came charging past. He was screeching like a hyena in pursuit of prey. I was hee-hawing like a donkey who was ready to be done for the day. It was a beautiful juxtaposition.

Approaching Tennessee Valley 26 miles into the race, my legs screaming at me from the vicious descent down Fox Trail, I contemplated how—or if—I was going to tackle the final long climb up the Marincello fire road and finish the race. I couldn’t have cared less if anyone passed me at that point. I was in a bad place and almost asked my friend Brad, who was screaming at me from about three feet away, for a ride back to the finish line. As I topped off my water bottle at the aid station and took off up the hill, feet aching, breathing labored and arms in defense mode, for the first time all day—after nearly 3-1/2 hours of running—it hit me: I signed up for this—willingly! I had chosen to be out here. My suffering was voluntary and it was nothing compared to what other people deal with in their own lives on a daily basis. I had the good fortune to test myself against a group of great runners over some of the most beautiful terrain in the country and I spent the last 15 or so miles thinking about how to waste this incredible opportunity. My perspective changed in an instant and all of a sudden none of the shit I was experiencing on the trails that day seemed so bad.

I thought about a lot of things over the final 5-6 miles of the race, but for the first time all day I didn’t think of quitting. I thought of my wife, who was having surgery the following week and was really nervous heading into the procedure. Be strong for your wife. I kept thinking of the many friends I was sharing these gorgeous trails with on this brilliant December day, most of whom were running the 50-miler and had to endure an additional 19 miles of hills, mud and hurt. Fight with your friends. I thought of my Mom, whose life was unexpectedly cut short six years ago, and my Dad, who has sacrificed so much for me and my siblings. Make Mom and Dad proud. I remembered the image of my stubborn grandfather, my hero, fighting for his life in a hospital 13 years ago as colon cancer ravaged his once strong body. Be tough for Nonno.

It’s crazy, the thoughts and emotions that will pass through your head during a long race when you’re trying to dig yourself out of a dark hole. One minute you’re high on life, soaking up the euphoria of an effortless pursuit and the next minute you want to curl up in a ball on the side of the trail, wondering how you’re possibly going to make it to the next aid station.

The last 5-6 miles passed in a blur of indescribable emotion I’ve never before experienced in a race. Crossing the finish line never felt like more of an accomplishment than it did that day. It was a good reminder for me that in racing, as in life, two things you have complete control over are your attitude and your actions. When the going gets tough, you can choose to back down and avoid the reality of the situation, or you can accept it for what it is, work through the difficult moments and keep moving forward with a positive attitude.

Enduring is a challenge, but that’s the whole point, right?