In Stride

How Clare Gallagher Pushed Through a Tough Day

Things didn’t go as planned for the reigning Western States champ at The North Face Endurance Challenge, but she fought through it. (And drank a lot of Coke.)

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Photo: Bryson Malone

Going into this year’s North Face Endurance Challenge Championship, Clare Gallagher was among the favorites. For one thing, she knew the course; in 2017, she finished second in this 50-miler that winds through California's Marin Headlands, up into the Muir Woods, and back down to the finish on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge. Having already won major races like Western States and the Way Too Cool 50K in 2019, the 28-year-old appeared to have momentum coming in.  

Unfortunately for Gallagher, it was one of those days. She had been battling a cold for a week, and ended up having what we can politely refer to as stomach issues. Nonetheless, she held on to finish in the top ten. Since sports narratives would be boring if we only told stories of glory and triumph, we caught up with Gallagher to learn more about her rough day of running in the northern California hills.

Photo: Bryson Malone

Gallagher is not a morning person, so it probably wasn’t ideal for her that the 50-mile event of the North Face Endurance Challenge starts at 5 A.M. She was up at 3 A.M. in order to have time to digest a pre-race breakfast. On the menu this morning: oatmeal with two fried eggs on top.

Photo: Bryson Malone

Ultrarunners are known for their camaraderie—a consequence, perhaps, of their shared enthusiasm for extended periods of unpleasantness. In the early morning gloom of Marin City Ball Field, in Sausalito, California, Gallagher and her fellow racers shot the breeze before the start, contemplating the misery to come.

Photo: Bryson Malone

Gallagher went out with the lead pack of women and hung on for about ten miles before taking a bad fall going uphill. At this point, she already knew it was going to be a brutal morning.

“I was trying to eat a gel every 30 minutes, but I was throwing up everything I was eating—and this is all before it’s even light out,” Gallagher says. 

“I was like, okay, it’s going to be a really awful day. I can’t eat anything. I’ve lost contact with the pack and I’m feeling lightheaded. It felt like I was on a vision quest that could take me 20 hours.”

Photo: Bryson Malone

One of the advantages of a 5 A.M. start is getting to catch the sunrise during the race. For those locked into the heat of battle for a podium finish, the morning’s splendor may go unnoticed. Gallagher, on the other hand, made sure to soak it in.

“A plus of being a little bit slower this year was that I was able to take in the sunrise,” she says. “We were way up on some hill—all you could see were the tops of the surrounding hills and then just an ethereal layer of clouds. I felt like we were floating.”

Photo: Bryson Malone

“Since it was so foggy, it just made for a very wet day,” Gallagher says. “We were all drenched in our own sweat, maybe five miles in. You’re just in this layer of your own sweat, with fog all around you. Then you get covered in dirt as you go through the woods. The Marin Headlands create quite a concoction.”

Photo: Bryson Malone

There were several times during the morning where Gallagher thought about dropping out. (The constant vomiting probably didn’t help.) Part of what kept her from doing so was the knowledge that her trail running mentor—Ryan Smith, the founder of the Rocky Mountain Runners—was likely to give her “a lot of shit” for DNFing without a good reason. 

Ditto her brother, who is a Green Beret and once told her that he would have to have a bone sticking out of his leg to not finish a race. (For the record, Gallagher finds this attitude ridiculous.) Also, her father had flown over from Denver to crew for her, so she figured she owed it to him to fight to the end. 

 “My family puts things in perspective,” she says. “It’s like, alright Clare, you signed up for this stupid sport, are you going to be a crybaby about it or just put a smile on your face?”

Photo: Bryson Malone

Gallagher’s father has crewed for her on several occasions, including the 2017 UTMB CCC 100K, which she won. Gallagher says that, given the range of emotions that ultrarunners experience in a typical race, it is really important to work with someone you trust—someone who can understand your body language at various stages of physical and mental depletion. 

As for her choice of fuel on the day, her rebellious stomach meant that she was forced to get most of her calories from Coke. 

“During Western States there were multiple times where I would throw up a gel in my mouth and just eat it—which is so gross, but you have to do it. I couldn’t do that today, but the good thing is you can troubleshoot. So I just drank as much Coke as I could. But without those glucose hits, nobody is breaking any records.”

Photo: Bryson Malone

As Gallagher struggled, it ended up being Bay Area local YiOu Wang’s day. She put up a smart, measured effort to secure victory in the women’s race, running 7:21:57.

Photo: Bryson Malone

Gallagher managed to hold on for a very respectable 8th place finish. (And it didn’t take her 20 hours either. Her official time was 8:12:25.)

“That just shows how ridiculous ultras are,” she says. “You think you are going to die so many times throughout a race—even if you win. The highs and lows are insane. I definitely had more lows in this race, but the beautiful thing is I was able to hold on somehow.”

Photo: Bryson Malone

Another motivating factor was the finish: “I wanted to keep going because the end of the race is so cool, to run over the Golden Gate Bridge. I think it’s one of the best finishes of a trail ultra: to go over an iconic tourist destination. That’s hilarious. Two years ago, I was flying—running six-minute miles on that bridge. I wanted to have that experience again, even though I was just kind of plodding along.”