Pain and Pickle Juice: The 2018 North Face Endurance Challenge

Sometimes you do everything right, but it’s just not your day. And sometimes what feels like inevitable failure ultimately transforms into a great success. This is the story of the 2018 North Face Endurance Challenge in Washington, D.C.

Logically, this year’s race should have felt better than 2017 (when Tyler and I completed the North Face 50K race for the first time). In 2018 we trained harder, ate healthier, and we were mentally prepared. With so many cards in our favor, I was confident that this year’s race would be a joy ride.

My ego was about to learn a very valuable lesson. But this story isn’t about the perils of overconfidence. It’s about buckling down and getting the job done, even when you think it might be impossible.

It’s 7:00am, and a dense fog lies between hundreds of jittery runners and the 31 miles of trail that we’re eager to conquer.

“Are you ready to suffer?” Tyler and I laugh as Dean Karnazes – ultrarunning legend and MC for the race – poses this question to the runners. He asked the same question last year. At the time it sent a shiver of fear down my spine. This year is different, though. This year we’re calm and collected. We’ve done this race before and we’re going to crush it.

Go time!

Miles 0-4: The temperature is perfect, and we’re feeling awesome. Our pace is exactly where we want it to be, and our energy levels are solid. The only slight hiccup is the mud. At first we try to dance around it to keep our feet dry, but after a while we realize that it’s futile. I swear the mud must be 6 inches deep in places.

Dean describes this as “a special kind of mud.” I immediately know what he’s talking about. It’s so sticky that I find myself wrenching my sneakers up and out of it with every step.


Mile 5: Disaster. I’ve woken up in the middle of the night with a Charley Horse in my leg, but I’ve never, ever gotten one during a run. We’re heading down the first big hill at a nice, quick clip, and my quadriceps seize up as if a tiny monster has decided to reach through my skin and grab my muscles, squeezing and twisting them as hard as he can.

Photo by Ultra Race Photos

“I can’t believe this…I just can’t believe this.” This was supposed to be our big moment. We were going to beat our previous time and cruise through the entire course, enjoying the scenery and feeling amazing the entire time. Our biggest worry was supposed to be what we wanted to have for lunch after the race! I wasn’t supposed to be cramping up to a near-incapacitated state, especially not with an entire marathon distance left to go.

The next 26 miles were a blur of pain, self-pity, and sheer grit (and maybe a few tears and four-letter words). It occurred to me that this is probably what it would feel like if the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz did a trail run.

The pain would start to subside, and my stiff walk would transform first into a shuffle, then gradually something closer to a run. Then we’d hit another hill and my thighs would hurl into another set of spasms. Pain, shuffling, running, pain, shuffling, running…it was an endless cycle. It crushed me that I was slowing us down when I knew Tyler could go so much faster.

At no point did the pain go away. What did happen was this: I just kept going anyway. Along the way, endless runners asked if I was okay and if I needed help. They offered electrolytes and shared words of encouragement. One runner even stuck with us for a few miles, sharing his best tips for alleviating cramps.

At one point we heard a familiar voice coming up behind us. “Hey guys! It’s Dean!” It was the always-in-motion figure of Dean Karnazes, who had decided to run the 50K course to cheer on the runners and work at a few aid stations along the way (because it’s Dean!).

“Pickle juice. You need pickle juice,” Dean said enthusiastically. (Apparently many runners swear by pickle juice as an effective remedy for leg cramps.) He even asked the volunteers at the next aid station if they had any.

There was no pickle juice in sight, but I’ll never forget how kind and helpful Dean and the other runners were throughout the race. It didn’t matter that we were technically competing against one another. We were all there to do our best, and to encourage others to do the same.

Amazingly, we still improved our race time and final ranking over the previous year’s race despite the unexpected challenges. I also came away from the race knowing that just about any obstacle can be overcome by putting one foot in front of the other. This gives me hope for future races where the going might be harder and the pain might even be worse. Next time I might have 50 miles left to go when this happens instead of 26, but I’ll be better prepared to let it hurt and keep going anyway.

During our 6 hours and 11 minutes on the race course, here are a few key lessons I learned:

Sometimes even the best laid plans don’t turn out the way you hope. If things go south, don’t beat yourself up about it. Accept the challenge and keep chugging along.
People can be really awesome. Who knows if I would have made it to the finish line without the encouragement of Tyler, Dean, and so many others? If you’re ever down, lean on friends and loved ones to bring you back up. And don’t forget to return the favor!
We’re all capable of a lot; more, in fact, than many of us will ever realize. Your mind and your heart are stronger than your body, so if your body ever fails you, dig deep and let the strength of your spirit finish the job for you.

Photo by Ultra Race Photos

Adventure Book List: My Top Picks

Looking for inspiration? Look no further! I’ve compiled a list of my favorite adrenaline-pumping books and documentaries that will leave you feeling energized and ready to crush your next big goal!

Documentaries

Boundless 

Starring: Simon Donato, Paul Trebilcock, Rory Bosio and Hunter McIntyre

Why it’s awesome: This 3-season documentary series by Esquire Network started it all. Tyler and I had never even heard the terms “ultramarathon” or “adventure race” before watching this show, but it didn’t take long before we were hooked. This show literally changed our lives.

Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young

Starring: Gary “Lazarus Lake” Cantrell (and lots of amazing runners)

Why it’s awesome: Quirky and captivating, this documentary is a wild blend of humor, irony, grit, and a little bit of crazy.

Books

Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner

Author: Dean Karnazes

Why it’s awesome: One of my favorite ultra-running books, Ultramarathon Man is a larger-than-life account of Dean’s introduction to endurance sports and his subsequent success. Highly entertaining and equally inspiring, it will leave you questioning whether you should ditch your car and start running everywhere.

Finding Ultra

Author: Rich Roll

Why it’s awesome: If you ever worry that your dreams are too big, read this book. Rich is a great storyteller, and he remains amazingly humble despite his uncanny ability to accomplish big goals that sound absolutely impossible. It also includes an extensive appendix with information about his diet and nutrition.

Eat & Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness

Author: Scott Jurick

Why it’s awesome: This was the first ultra-running book I read, and I still love it. Scott’s thoughtful, almost scientific approach to training and nutrition makes this a perfect resource for athletes who are particularly analytical. Even if you’re not, you’re guaranteed to learn something!

Touching the Void

Author: Joe Simpson

Why it’s awesome: Talk about putting things in perspective. You’ll finish this book believing that no obstacle is impossible to overcome, regardless of the odds. It’s a heart-pounding, gut-wrenching, awe-inspiring account that reminds us that big adventures can come with big risks.

Run! 26.2 Stories of Blisters and Bliss

Author: Dean Karnazes

Why it’s awesome: This collection of short stories is a fun and heartwarming read, featuring Dean’s own adventures as well as the adventures of those he’s inspired. Don’t be surprised if you pick up some new habits and sign up for another race by the time you finish this book!

Running Man: A Memoir

Author: Charlie Engle

Why it’s awesome: Reading this book is like riding an old wooden roller coaster. It’s both exhilarating and terrifying, and you’ll find yourself holding your breath until the very end because you’re not 100% sure that everyone’s going to make it to the other side…

Grape and Goat Cheese Salad with Honey Mustard Vinaigrette

Sometimes simple is key. It’s a hard lesson to remember when there are so many spices, sauces, and flavor combinations to experiment with, but we often create our best recipes when we throw together a quick, simple dish based on 2-3 main ingredients that sound good at the moment.

This summery salad works perfectly as a side dish. Or, make it a main course by serving with seared tempeh, half an avocado sprinkled with salt and pepper, or even grilled chicken.

I haven’t listed the exact amounts of greens versus toppings below so you can customize the proportions to suit your preferences. When we make this recipe, we use about 2 cups of greens, 1/4 cup of nuts, 1/2 cup of grapes, and 1 TBL of goat cheese per serving.

Grape and Goat Cheese Salad with Honey Mustard Vinaigrette

Servings: Vinaigrette will dress about 4 salads

Ingredients

  • Spring mix or other salad greens
  • Chopped raw nuts (we used a combination of walnuts and slivered almonds)
  • Plain goat cheese
  • Red grapes, halved
  • Honey Mustard Vinaigrette (see below)
  • Candied nuts for topping (optional)

Honey Mustard Vinaigrette

  • 2 TBL extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 TBL honey mustard
  • 1 TBL apple cider vinegar
  • 1 TBL lemon juice
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp pepper

Instructions

  1. Combine the salad greens, raw nuts, goat cheese and grapes (whatever ratio you like) in a large bowl
  2. In a separate bowl, whisk together the ingredients for the salad dressing, then pour a small amount over the salad and mix well to coat
  3. Serve with a few candied nuts (optional) and more salad dressing, salt and pepper to taste

10 Minute Abs

My friend Andrea introduced me to “10 minute abs” a few years ago, and it quickly became one of my go-to workouts. It’s easy to remember, and the only equipment required is a clock or timer.

It’s as simple as this: 10 minute abs = 10 ab exercises done for 1 minute each.

Done!

You can pick whatever exercises you want to do for the 10 minutes, but be sure to include moves that work the three major abdominal muscle groups:

  1. Rectus Abdominis (6-pack muscles that extend from the ribs to the pubic bone): Sample exercises include crunches, sit-ups and mountain climbers
  2. Internal and External Obliques (located on the sides of the rectus abdominis): Sample exercises include Russian twists, side crunches and side planks
  3. Transverse Abdominis (wrap under the obliques and around the spine): Sample exercises include standing cable twists and plank variations

My favorite series of movements is below. Now grab a timer, and let’s get to work!

10 Minute Abs

Complete the exercises below for one minute each in the order listed. After each minute, move straight from one movement to the next without resting.

  1. V-ups
  2. Full sit-ups
  3. Cross-body toe touches
  4. Bicycles
  5. Toe touch crunches
  6. Side plank (one side)
  7. Side plank (opposite side)
  8. In-and-outs
  9. Mountain climbers
  10. Plank with shoulder taps

V-Ups

Full Sit-Ups

Cross-Body Toe Touches

Bicycles

Toe Touch Crunches

Side Plank

In-and-Outs

Mountain Climbers

Plank with Shoulder Taps

 

 

Please note: I am not a licensed personal trainer or medical professional. Training plans, exercises, and related content on this website were derived from my own personal research and experience. While these routines have proven to be effective for me, you should always listen to your body and seek guidance from a medical professional before beginning a new exercise routine. 

Simple Curry Roasted Carrots

Introducing the world’s easiest side dish! Roasted simply with salt, pepper, olive oil and curry powder, these rainbow carrots are a perfect accompaniment to any hearty main dish.

Rainbow carrots tend to have a sweeter, earthier taste and slightly softer texture than the packaged carrots you’ll find in the supermarket. They have enough flavor to stand on their own (no watery carrots here!), so they’re perfect for roasting. I also like using them in recipes like Sweet Potato and Carrot Puree.

Simple Curry Roasted Carrots

Servings: 2 side dish servings

Ingredients

  • 6 large rainbow carrots
  • 1 TBL extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 tsp curry spice blend (I use Rupen’s Instant Curry Mix)
  • Sea salt
  • Pepper

Instructions

  1. Preheat the oven to 425°F
  2. Wash and peel the carrots, and arrange on a lightly greased baking sheet
  3. Drizzle with the olive oil, and sprinkle the curry spice blend evenly over the carrots. Season with a generous pinch of sea salt and pepper
  4. Roast on the bottom rack of your oven for 20-25 minutes, giving them a quick stir after 15 minutes. When they’re just soft enough to pierce with a fork, remove from the oven and serve