Caitlin Smith nearing mile 30 of The North Face Endurance Challenge presented by GORE-TEX. Photo: Meghan Hicks.
Caitlin Smith nearing mile 30 of The North Face Endurance Challenge presented by GORE-TEX. Photo: Meghan Hicks.

Caitlin Smith and Uli Steidl Crowned The North Face Endurance Challenge Champions

Written by: Bryon Powell

For the third consecutive year, The North Face Endurance Challenge championship presented by GORE-TEX was one of the most competitive 50-mile races in the United States. The promise of great competition and $30,000 to be split among the top three women and men brought some of the country’s and world’s best to the Marin Headlands just outside San Francisco, California, on Sunday, December 6. These runners didn’t disappoint and, on this gorgeous day, neither did the weather.

Uli Steidl has now run all three Endurance Challenge championship races. He beat out Matt Carpenter for the title in 2007. Last year, Carpenter reversed the top-two positions in besting Steidl. With Steidl back and Carpenter absent this year, the German who now resides in Seattle was the favorite going in. Also toeing the line was Alaska’s Goeff Roes, who has set course records at such longstanding races as the Wasatch 100, Mountain Masochist 50 Mile, and Crow Pass Marathon already this year. Other notables on the starting line were Dave Mackey, Tsuyoshi Kaburaki, Leigh Schmitt, Michael Wardian, and Hal Koerner.

With so much money on the line, so many top runners present, and no money beyond third place, the top contenders stayed close to the leaders early. At least 15 men came through the mile-9 aid station within 30 seconds of the leaders.

By mile 19, Steidl and Roes had opened up a small gap on the rest of the field. In third was Chris Lundstrom, a 2:17 marathoner from Minneapolis who was making his 50-mile debut. Among those close to Lundstrom were Mackey, Wardian, and Schmitt. The top seven men were still within 200 seconds or one another.

At mile 30, Steidl and Roes were still locked in a stride-for-stride battle; however,  the competition was obviously fierce as Steidl vomited upon entering the aid station. Lundstrom held his position only a minute behind the leaders. Over the preceding 12 miles, these three had opened up a four-minute gap on fourth place, which was currently occupied by Mackey.

Fourteen miles later, Steidl had put three minutes on Roes and was running strong. While Roes could not keep pace with Steidl, neither could the marathoner Lundstrom hold on to Roes late in the race.

Although the gaps between the three leaders grew over the final six miles, all three held their positions. Steidl earned $10,000 and his second North Face Endurance Challenge championship. His 6:33:30 was 16 minutes faster than the previous fastest time at the race, although the course was modified this year. Roes finished seven minutes back in 6:40:51. Lundstrom ran an impressive 6:48:06 in his 50-mile debut. In fourth place was Kaburaki of Japan. He was also the first master to finish, in 6:55:52.

The Women’s Race

On paper, the women’s field looked even stronger than the men’s. However, Lizzie Hawker and Kami Semick, the 2007 and 2008 Endurance Challenge champions respectively, withdrew at the last minute due to injury. Their withdrawals left two clear favorites: Idaho’s Joelle Vaught and Caitlin Smith from Oakland just across the San Francisco Bay.

Vaught and Smith took it out hard. They came through mile 9 together with a three-minute lead on Canadian Tracy Garneau.

By mile 18, Smith had put just over a minute on Vaught. Both looked strong. Garneau was three minutes back in third, while Helen Cospolich from Colorado was another five minutes back in fourth. Over the next 12 miles, Smith doubled her lead on Vaught and put another four minutes on Garneau.

In concluding her first season as an ultramarathoner, Smith poured it on over the final 20 miles, during which time she increased her lead to 15 minutes. She, too, broke the tape in a course record time. Her 7:38:08 was more than 20 minutes faster than Hawker or Semick had run there. Vaught earned second place in 7:53:39. Garneau’s 8:02:17 was good enough for third and the master’s win.


Bryon Powell is a competitive trail runner, coach and editor of iRunFar.