Trail Running Titans Converge at The North Face Endurance Challenge Championship

<strong>Lizzy Hawker captured the women's championship in 2007. Can she repeat in '08?</strong><br>Photo: Tim Kemple

On December 6, 2008, the coastal mountains north of San Francisco will be the center of the trail running universe.

That's when the sport's über-elite athletes do battle against each other, across a ruthless-yet-gorgeous landscape, vying for a share of the sport's largest prize purse. Once the dust (and mud) settles, the winning male and female 50-mile runners will go home with $10,000 each. Second place receives $4,000 and third place will still claim $1,000.

While several hundred runners will tackle the event's other three distances (10K, Half Marathon, and 50K), the day's spotlight will shine on the 50-mile race. This will be the off-road race that sends shockwaves through the entire running community

And the hype is more than justified; the 50-mile field includes several legendary figures of the sport that have never competed directly against one another.  Last year's champion, Uli Steidl (Seattle, WA), and runner-up, Matt Carpenter (Manitou Springs, CO), are planning to renew their rivalry, and there will be plenty of top-flight champions nipping at their heels as well.

Uli Steidl
2007 champion Uli Steidl
Photo: Tim Kemple

Dave Mackey (Boulder, CO), who has won both the Headlands 50K National Championship and the prestigious Miwok 100K (course record) on these same trails, is hoping to compete as well.

"The guys to beat are without a doubt Carpenter and Steidl," says Mackey. "The only hope I have is if they beat each other up pretty good out there and then come back to me."

Other top-flight notables who have committed to the race are: 2008 Wasatch Front 100 champion Geoff Roes (Juneau, AK), 2008 50-Mile USATF National Champion Michael Wardian (Arlington, VA), and 2008 Endurance Challenge Bear Mountain champion Leigh Schmitt (Conway, MA).

The women's race features just as impressive of a lineup—perhaps even more so. The North Face athlete Lizzy Hawker, who took last year's championship in a gutsy performance, will make the return trip from the UK to defend her title. Hawker is fit and fresh off an astounding win at the Ultra Trail Tour du Mont Blanc in Chamonix, France.

Challenging Hawker will be fellow The North Face runner Kami Semick (Bend, OR)—winner of the recent Portland Marathon, who will be four weeks removed from the 100K World Championships in Tarquinia, Italy. "I can't pass up the chance to race in the Headlands for $10,000," says Semick. "I feel really fit, so hopefully Worlds won't take that much out of me."

Also, watch out for three-time National Mountain Running Champion Anita Ortiz (Eagle, CO), 2008 Leadville Trail 100 (CO) champion Helen Cospolich (Breckenridge, CO), and 2008 Angeles Crest 100-Miler champion Prudence L'Heureux (Bend, OR).

Runners of all abilities and distances are invited to run, volunteer, or just watch this monumental event. For details, including how to register, visit

New in 2008, The North Face Endurance Challenge 50-Mile Championship participants will race for more than a record cash prize, bragging rights, and pride. The men's and women's champion will also receive all-expense-paid trips to either The North Face Ultra Trail Tour du Mont Blanc in Chamonix, France, or TNF 100 in Beijing, China.

Pro Tips on Tackling the Challenge

The North Face athlete Joe Kulak knows a thing or two about running trails. Kulak, 40, has run over 25 100-mile trail races, including 12 completions of the grueling Leadville Trail 100 in Colorado. Kulak, a father of three who lives in Oreland, Pennsylvania, will run in The North Face Endurance Challenge Championship on December 6. He sat down to share a few pieces of advice for other Challenge athletes—whether they're beginner 10Kers or ambitious marathoners tackling their first ultra distance.

Q: What advice would you offer to somebody running his/her first trail race?

JOE: With no asphalt, traffic and city noise to contend with, soak in beauty of your surroundings. Take walking breaks and look around. If you're running too hard to carry on a conversation with another runner—or to thank the volunteers—then you're running too hard. 

Q: What if this is my first-ever ultramarathon?

JOE: Let relentless forward momentum (RFM) be your mantra for the day. Unlike the even-keeled pace of a flat road race or short 5K, the terrain, weather conditions and distance will dictate your pace in an ultra. A good rule of thumb: walk the hills, hydrate often, keep your calorie intake consistent (500 to 700 calories per hour), and manage your electrolyte balance.

Q: What kind of weather should I expect and how should I prepare?

JOE: This run covers some of the prettiest trails in the country. However, it is subject to the notorious Bay area micro-climates. The weather can differ from valley to valley and mountaintop to mountaintop. Expect a chilly, damp morning with fog and/or rain. Mid-morning through early afternoon, I expect the dampness to burn off. The sun should come out and temperatures could jump 15 to 20 degrees.

Start with a lightweight, water-resistant jacket that you can wrap around your waist. Some light gloves will keep your fingertips warm.

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