Last weekend I volunteered for an aid station at the Bear Mountain 50m/50k, part of the North Face Endurance Challenge series, and I’ve gotta tell you it was such a great time! This is the 6th year of the North Face Endurance Challenge series and the 5th year of the Bear Mountain events, which include a 5k, 10k, half marathon, marathon relay, full marathon, 50k and 50 mile races. Especially as someone who hopes to run a 50k soon the experience was so inspiring!
I knew volunteer coordinator Karen Braswell through my running club, so she placed me with some friends at the very last aid station on the route. We all drove up from the City together and arrived with plenty of time to check out the booths at the start, score a couple little North Face freebies and sign up for two different raffles. We even got fancy schmancy Gore-Tex North Face tee-shirts. All the shirts were blank, with a screen-printing service at the race finish.
Eventually we hopped into vehicles along with our awesome medical team and our aid station captains so the race staff could drive us out to our station – 1777 is on a little gravel road on the former site of Doodletown, an abandoned French Huguenot settlement. There we found everything we could possibly need to support our runners – even a camping stove so we could cook up some chicken broth!
After we set up camp and had made about a zillion PB&Js a group of representatives from The North Face (hi, Katie!) came down to help us cheer for the first group of runners. We were all very excited for our first few women, including Tracy Garneau, who looked really fresh and finished in first place.
I was extra excited because my friend Sophia was running the 50k. Since we were at mile 28 I figured we’d see her somewhere around 5:30 or 6 hours in, but by 5:30 we had only just seen the top 4 women. Just goes to show I drastically underestimated how technical the course was! Also it was Sophia’s first time running a distance beyond the marathon so she played it safe and took it slow and steady. She trotted into our aid station somewhere just before 9 hours, bright and bubbly and feeling great! We were all amazed by how at ease she was! Her goal was to finish before the cutoff time with no injuries and she did just that at 09:22:04. Congratulations to her on such a smart, steady first ultra race!
Runners reported to us that Bear Mountain was one of the most technical courses they’d ever run–at least three of them told me they’d had an easier time running 100 mile road races. Sophia said her best training strategy for the rocky terrain was following 20 mile long runs with 18 mile hikes through the woods the next day. Even so everyone was glad to be there, citing the breathtaking scenery and the fantastic organization of the race as incentives to run again.
Looking for some insight into how the race is run, I went directly to Karen. This was her first year as volunteer coordinator with the team, and she fully plans to return next year. I thought she did a great job – she was very approachable and was willing to accommodate us with whatever we needed as far as scheduling and placement. She even offered generously that any Salty Running readers can email her if they’re interested in volunteering for next year. She says her best experience was greeting runners at the end of the race with big hugs and hearing stories from them about how we volunteers gave them strength and spirit to help them finish.
Karen put me in touch with Race Director Nick Moore. She tried to introduce us the day of the race, but he was so busy dealing personally with a runner’s medical issue that I wound up emailing him a couple days later. He was nice enough to take time away from writing thank you letters and signing paychecks to call me up and talk to me about his experience.
Nick, who directs all the NFEC races, says runners next year can anticipate the same race courses and aid station layout as this year, so you can already take a look at the maps if you think you might be interested. What struck me most about him was how thorough he is – every element of the race is important to him–every runner, every volunteer, every inch of the trail–and nothing escapes his attention. For instance, because there was a chip timing issue at one of the checkpoints Nick and his team are reviewing over 3,000 photos of runners at the finish, checking the clock in the photographs to ensure the proper results will be reflected. Nick assured me the team was going to work hard until the stats were as accurate as possible.
All in all, every different aspect of my day reflected the dedication and care of Nick and the rest of the North Face team. A couple runners mentioned they felt the races were expensive but they also felt that the incredible organization, fantastic swag and dedication of the North Face crew was worth the “extra cost.” If you ask me, $90 sounds pretty cheap for a 50 mile race considering all the necessary elements, and $75 for the 50k is almost half of what I paid for the New York City Half!
If you’re interested in running a great trail race or even just spending a fun day in the woods supporting other runners I highly recommend checking out the NFEC series. In addition to Bear Mountain, they offer events near Washington, D.C. (coming up June 2-3), Madison, WI, Atlanta, Kansas City and San Francisco. You can learn more at their website, and can also follow them (and see some really awesome photos) on Facebook and Twitter.