This story has been archived from on 12/19/2008


At The North Face Endurance Challenge Championship, a never-before-seen collection of talent vied for the sport’s biggest prize.

December 6, 2008, Marin County, California — For some, the journey began 364 days earlier, on the shivering Pacific Coast as the sun slinked below the horizon and cast a sullen shadow over the finish line of 2007’s The North Face Endurance Challenge Championship presented by Gore-Tex. It was there that champion mountain and endurance runner Matt Carpenter sat and collected himself after placing second in the 50-Mile Championship.

Without saying it outright, it seemed he had already resolved to return in 2008.

And so did many others. They joined many newcomers at the second annual Championship event. 812 runners in total visited the postcard-perfect Rodeo Valley to tackle distances of 10K, Half Marathon, 50K, and 50 Miles. Whatever the distance, certainties were as prevalent as the distant din of crashing surf. The courses would challenge legs, hearts, and souls. Tears would trickle. Blood would likely be shed. Friendships forged. And history made.

The North Face Endurance Challenge presented by Gore-Tex promised the sport’s single biggest prize purse. After all the miles were covered, the men’s and women’s 50-mile champions would return home with $10,000 each. Second-place finishers would receive $4,000 and third-place finishers could still boast a handsome, well-earned holiday gift of $1,000.

The purses – and the buzz surrounding this must-see event– attracted the sport’s most elite athletes.

Said The North Face endurance athlete Joe Kulak, who holds the speed record for running the four oldest and most prestigious 100-mile endurance runs in the country (called “The Grand Slam”), “the greatest ultramarathoners in the country were there – and the lineup at the starting line was just unbelievable.”

And, at 5 a.m., the athletes’ flashlights and headlamps left rapidly bobbing streaks that vanished into the darkness and up the first of many major climbs of the day.

Who would claim the day’s ultimate prize? Would it be defending champion Uli Steidl of Seattle, Washington, a 2:14 marathoner who barely held off Carpenter in 2007? Maybe the 23-year-old prodigal speedster Kyle Skaggs of Silverton, Colorado, who earlier in the year crushed the Hardrock 100-Mile Endurance Run Record by nearly three hours. Or might it be Leigh Schmitt, who took The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 earlier in the year at Bear Mountain, New York, thereby qualifying for the race. Geoff Roes of Juneau, Alaska, winner of the 2008 Wasatch Front 100 (Utah) would be there, too. And nobody could count out 2007 Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run champion Hal Koerner of Ashland, Oregon.

Or, would a previously unknown, a fleet-footed darkhorse shock them all?

On the women’s side, the match-ups were just as compelling – if not moreso. Even after 2007 Endurance Challenge champion and winner of the 2008 Ultra Trail Tour du Mont Blanc, Lizzy Hawker withdrew her entry due to injury, the lineup still read like a Runner-of-the-Year Poll. Nikki Kimball of Livingston, Montana, winner of The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 in Madison, Wisconsin, in October and 2007 USATF Ultrarunner of the Year would likely push the pace on technical stretches. The North Face endurance athlete Kami Semick of Bend, Oregon, would no doubt be right there – assuming her legs had recovered from a win at the 2008 Portland (OR) Marathon and second place at USATF 100K World Championships (Italy).

Semick was primed. “I can't pass up the chance to race in the Headlands for $10K,” she had said six weeks earlier. “I feel really fit, so hopefully worlds (World Championships) won't take that much out of me.”

Semick and Kimball would need to bring their “A” Games if they hoped to outrun the others. Three-time National Mountain Running Champion Anita Ortiz (Eagle, CO) would be there, as would 2008 Leadville Trail 100 Champion Helen Cospolich (Breckenridge, CO). Susannah Bek, who nearly beat Kimball at The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 miler in Bellingham, Washington in May, looked fit and ready to go, too.

And, as runners settled into a rhythm in the pre-dawn darkness, the coastal wind whispered with speculation. Who would it be? Who would take the sport’s biggest prize? And would Carpenter need to wait another 364 days?


Early in the 50-mile Championship, it became clearly apparent that it would be all-day track meet, with uber-talented runners pushing the pace, sizing each other up, looking for weaknesses, and doing battle. Course official Adam Ray, a local ultramarathoner, explains, barely able to mask his excitement: “I broke the glowsticks on the first 10K and watched everyone come through in a huge pack, where you see great runners huffing and puffing to keep up with even GREATER runners.”

In the early, dark miles, runners maintained a relaxed pace, some of them even carrying on conversations. Kyle Skaggs ran with the lead group, slicing through the cool 45-degree air. He says, “A group of probably about 12 of us stuck together until mile 13.”

Carpenter and Steidl were tucked into the group, too, along with Geoff Roes, Japanese phenom Tsuyoshi Kaburaki, and relatively unknown Shiloh Mielke (Weaverville, NC), a two-time member of the U.S. Mountain Running Team.

By mile 18, as the sun crested the East Bay hills and runners could comfortably click off their lamps, the lead group had pared down to seven or so, all within a minute of each other, chugging up a 1,600-foot climb to the Pantoll Aid Station. Carpenter and three other runners were just slightly ahead of Steidl and another, smaller group.

Carpenter recalls one runner – Mielke – turning to the group at that point and jokingly asking, “When does the real race start?”

From Pantoll, the course plunges into dense, overgrown forest, hurtling over crooked stairs, and over big rocks. The trail is appropriately named Steep Ravine, and Mielke disappeared, leaving the pack in his wake.

Says Carpenter, “He just flew down Steep Ravine … I think he did a rather interesting experiment going down there so fast and he paid for it.” Mielke eventually dropped.

Steidl also managed to put time on Carpenter on the Steep Ravine downhill.

At the bottom on the bone-crunching descent, at the seaside hamlet of Stinson Beach, Carpenter met his crew – his wife, Yvonne, and his six-year-old daughter, Kyla. “Last year, I’d come into a station and scrounge around a little bit for my drop bag,” he explains. “I’d lose a few seconds. And at this level you just can’t do that.”

Still, Carpenter lost ground as the pack passed by like greyhounds, weaving through the quaint town’s streets before vanishing up the Matt Davis trail, heading 1,700 vertical feet uphill. This is when many runners felt Carpenter, who has built his legendary status running up the steep slopes of Pikes Peak near his home in Manitou Springs, Colorado, made his move and took control of the race. He quickly passed Steidl and soon came upon the others.

“By the top I had wheeled everybody in again,” recalls Carpenter. “It was Geoff Roes and Shiloh (Mielke).” Carpenter, unsure of whether there were still some others ahead, turned to them and asked, “Gentlemen, who’s still ahead?” They replied, “Nobody.” And Carpenter pushed on.

Says Carpenter, “I didn’t really make a move up there. I just did what I’d done from the bottom and they didn’t respond.”

After a short out-and-back segment, during which runners could measure exactly where they stood (Carpenter, Skaggs, Steidl), they passed through Pantoll once again. Now Steidl had passed Skaggs, who had become somewhat dehydrated. At this point, Mile 30, Carpenter still held a two-minute gap on Steidl, but, entering the stretch run, and heading down into another deep valley, spectators wondered if Steidl could catch Carpenter. And, lurking only a few seconds behind, was Geoff Roes, hanging tough.

They all dove 1,000 feet down the famed Bootjack trail, devouring technical trail like Tour de France riders descending the Alpe d’Huez.

Carpenter, who has a penchant for recalling exact split times, says, “The whole downhill took 25:54 and, about 15 minutes into it, Uli was right there.”

Steidl says “I almost caught Matt at mile 32 - closed within 15 seconds.”

Carpenter was careful not to run the downhill too hard, but he was still concerned about Steidl. “I thought, he either flew down the downhill and he’d get killed, or else I’m going to get caught by him.”

It was a pivotal moment in the race for Carpenter. For the entire past year, he had trained with this race as his goal. And now, only 18 miles from redemption, it was being threatened. “I’m not gonna lie, I thought last year that the race would be mine,” says Carpenter. “Pretty much every hill I ran this past year, I had visions of Uli pulling away from me.”

But Carpenter’s nightmare was not to come true. He beat Steidl to the bottom of the descent and added a minute on the next climb, a stout, 600-vertical-foot jaunt through towering redwood trees.

By the time he reached the junction where the climb up Dias Ridge begins (Mile 36), he seemed to have held off Steidl’s charge.

Course official Adam Ray stood at the junction and recalls the sight of Carpenter pushing his limits: “Carpenter had this facial expression of a death mask, as he took a sharp left turn and ran like a mountain goat up Dias Ridge, which literally goes straight up hill on switch backs!”

With Dias Ridge under his legs, Carpenter began to get the sense that the race was his to lose. “I looked down and saw him (Steidl) still on the asphalt, so I figured I had about 59 seconds on him.” From the top of the climb, connecting to the famed Miwok Trail (Mile 41), Carpenter had the luxury of long sight lines that would afford him the chance to monitor Steidl’s progress. “I couldn’t see him,” he says.

Steidl, at that point, had mentally conceded. “At the top of Dias Ridge,” he says, “I knew I was running for second.”

Down in the scenic cove called Tennessee Valley, with only one major climb remaining, Carpenter finally relented and let himself savor the moment. “I figured nobody was going to catch me that day,” he says. Carpenter hustled up the last ridge (a climb he recalled as “evil” from the previous year), cruised down the other side, and won The North Face Endurance Challenge Championship in a time of 6:49:33.

Steidl held for second place, fending off some charges near Dias Ridge. His time of 6:54:45 was nearly three minutes faster than his winning 2007 time.

A battle broke out for third place, as Kyle Skaggs, after bonking midway through the race, caught Geoff Roes around Mile 36, and worked to chase down a podium position. “I closed to within one minute of third place, but he was able to maintain a good pace,” he says.

The mystery runner was Japanese endurance athlete, Tsuyoshi Kaburaki. Kaburaki clicked off a very impressive 7:01:11 ultimately claiming third place.

Afterward, many runners saluted Carpenter. Said Skaggs, “Matt is in my opinion the greatest long distance trail runner in the U.S. and certainly one of the best in the world.”

Steidl tipped his cap to Carpenter as well, before seemingly shifting his sights to 2009. “I plan on being back, hopefully for another great race between Matt and I, and maybe some others,” he said.

And later, in true sportsmanship, Carpenter, Steidl, their wives, and Carpenter’s daughter went out for dinner.


If the sign of a champion is knowing when to hold back and when to push hard, then The North Face Endurance Challenge Championship was the equivalent of a final exam for Kami Semick. Semick entered the race only five weeks removed from one of the crowning performances of her storied career: a second-place finish at the World 100K Championships. Two weeks after Worlds, Semick tackled a short, hill-training session. “It left my quads in shreds,” she says. “I struggled to walk for the rest of the week.”

So Semick went into Race Day with severely tempered expectations. “My race plan was to be conservative in the first half,” she explained. “Then after the turn around (Mile 26), start to pick up the pace if I felt capable.”

But would that game plan work against a stacked field of elite runners? With the long list of mountain and ultra-running talent, it was possible that a conservative early start would place Semick so far back that she’d never recover. And that seemed to be fine with Semick – “No expectations” became her mantra.

Semick recalls, “Once the starter’s gun went off, a few gals went out hard.” That front-running group included Suzanna Beck, a tenacious competitor with raw legspeed, seemingly due for a major breakthrough win.

Semick says, “I stuck with my plan, slow and steady.”

Funny things happen while running in the dark, and a few 50-mile runners experienced that law first-hand. “It was difficult to really keep an eye on anyone, much less the trail markings,” says Semick. The result was a cloud of uncertainty early-on over runners’ placings. Who was leading? Who was trailing? Shortly after sunrise, it would all be clear. Semick stayed steady.

Unbeknownst to the runners – including herself – Anita Ortiz (Eagle, CO) was in the early lead. Still, she reveled in the sights and scents all around her. She says, “At one point, when I looked back and across the hillside in the dark, the trail of headlamps was WAY cool to see!”

A bit back, Semick maintained her conservative pace, all the way to the first major climb to Pantoll Aid Station (Mile 18), a whopper that totals 1,500 vertical feet. “I spotted a gal in front of me,” says Semick. “And, from her running style, it didn’t look like Susannah (Beck).” It was Ortiz. After Semick quickly transitioned and re-supplied at the Aid Station, she pointed her trail-running shoes down the Steep Ravive Trail. This was the type of thunderous downhill that Semick feared would spell doom for her weary legs.

Ortiz, who had taken longer in the Pantoll Aid Station, soon passed her. Says Semick, “We exchanged pleasantries, and I felt no pull to try to keep up with her.”

Ortiz was having the race that many would dream of – all while drinking in the scenic views of the Pacific Ocean and golden hillsides. Then, it all crashed down on her. “I had tweaked my SI (Sacroiliac: at the bottom of the back) joint the Sunday prior to the race, and had been unable to run the entire week before,” she explains. “But I decided to go the race and try and at least have a weekend in San Fran.”

For Ortiz, the race started great she felt good until shortly after passing Semick on the big downhill and starting the next major climb. “My back seized up again,” she says, before shifting into the optimistic cheeriness that her friends love so much. “Honestly, the race was so much fun, that I was not about to pull out at halfway!”

As Ortiz’s back ached, Semick continued her steady pace. “ Stay slow and steady, stay slow and steady,” she said to herself, sounding like the Little Engine That Could. “I told myself, ‘not time to race yet.’”

Soon Semick came upon Ortiz. Semick, who had experienced similar problems a year earlier, tried to talk her through how to adjust herself to free up her joint.” As the two talked, Ortiz urged Semick to continue, to catch Susannah Back, who they estimated was a few minutes ahead.

At the top of the climb, during a short out-and-back segment, Semick was shocked to not see any other female runners. She was even more shocked when somebody at the turnaround point told her that she was in the lead. “What?!?!” she wondered. “How can that be?”

In the confusion of the pre-dawn darkness, Susannah Beck had apparently taken a wrong turn. Now, rather than being ahead of Semick, she was actually only a few minutes behind. Semick laughs about it later, “A lurking tiger, and I didn’t even know it!”

By the second pass through Pantoll (Mile 30), Semick had increased her lead over Beck to more than 11 minutes. Ortiz, meanwhile, decided to make the best of an injury-plagued day, and continued slowly. Beck caught and passed her at Mile 31.

Armed with the realization that she was the leader, and with over 60 percent of the race behind her, Semick shifted gears. “My mantra turned into, ‘Run strong but make no mistakes,’” she says. “My legs felt solid, and I could increase the pace.”

“No mistakes,” she thought as she flew down the descent. It was not the time to hold back. Wind rushed against her face. And the trail blurred under her feet. Then, WHAM!

Says Semick, “I was going too fast, and hit a rock wrong, fell to the ground twisting my ankle and banging my knee.” She sprang back up, shook it off and started again, more conservatively. But her ankle gave under her and could not hold weight. Semick thought she heard a pop as it shifted and sent pain up her leg. She sat on the ground as seconds turned to minutes, and participants in the 50K race passed by.

“I knew the race was over and I had really screwed it up,” she recalls. But then she thought of gritty, tougher-than-nails, ultra-running friend named Bev Anderson-Abbs. “What would Bev do?” Semick asked herself, and the answer was obvious. Semick rose to her feet.

“I hobbled for about 5 minutes,” she says. “But slowly, after about 10 minutes of slow jogging, I could finally take a normal step. About an hour later, the pain subsided. I pressed on knowing I couldn’t afford the slightest misstep.”

Running at less than 100 percent, Semick continuously expected to spot Beck charging up behind her. Yet Beck never appeared. “The next few long climbs afforded the opportunity to look back and see the competition,” she says. “I saw no one but the 50K-ers.”

Semick, despite a very safe pace early and an arguably reckless one later, held on to win. She arrived at the finish line in Rodeo Valley with a final time of 7:58:37. Susannah put on a charge, but ran out of real estate to catch Semick, finishing in 8:04:16. Ortiz endured her discomfort, claiming third place in a heroic effort. Her time of 8:20:16 put her roughly 18 minutes ahead of fourth-place finisher Nikki Kimball.

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