An ideal course layout for elite speedsters and those taking their first strides in the world of ultra trail running, The Endurance Challenge Wisconsin course is run-able from start to finish, provided that you’ve trained properly. A large portion of the course takes place on the renowned Ice Age Trail located 60 miles southeast of Madison in the southern reaches of the picturesque Kettle Moraine State Forest.The North Face, https://www.thenorthface.com/get-outdoors/endurance-challenge/wisconsin.html
A few days post-race I’m back to zooming down the stairs and walking at a normal pace without a hobble or two giving away what I did on Saturday–running from morning ’til evening through the woods of Wisconsin. It’s been three years since I last crossed a 50 mile finish line and what a difference that lapsed time has made!
There are a few North Face Endurance Challenge Series trail races throughout the US and each location hosts a variety of race distances (ranging from 50 miles to 5K) in a weekend. I’ve had my eye on the Wisconsin one for a few years since it’s near my hometown and this spring I decided, this is the year I finally sign up for it. The confidence came from reigniting my love for running (I’ve run over 900 miles already this year, compared to around 400 miles for all of 2018) as the new year started, signing up for two half marathons in Washington (because they were priced two for one!), and serendipitously ending up with a running coach (I won a free month of coaching while at a running shop event) when I’ve often thought, “nah, I don’t need a coach”–which, technically, I still don’t need one, but I sure feel lucky to have a great one. My TeamRunRun coach, whom I’ve only met in person once, prepared me for both of those half marathons, while carefully incorporating the miles and training I needed to cross the Endurance Challenge Series Wisconsin (ECSWI) finish line. The past several months have consisted of running workouts (hills! speed!), plenty of easy miles, long trail runs followed by a not quite as long run the next day, and strategically placed rest days. Diligently getting in those miles–always preceded by a warm-up routine–kept me healthy and happy ’til race day. An old overuse hip/glute issue appeared about two weeks before getting to the start line, but with a few body work sessions and backing off training a bit, it was barely a second thought come race day.
I woke up a few minutes before the 3:30am alarm went off, brewed some coffee, took a shower (I always shower before a race and I think it’s more mental preparation than anything–a way to officially start the day and feel fresh) and stepped into my race outfit and gear I had set out the night before. Jen and I drove off around 4am (my sister and folks drove separately from us) and a half hour later we could see the start/finish area tents and fire pits lit up across a field. We arrived with just enough time for a portapotty stop, drop off gear bags (one for on course, one for the finish), a quick hello to my sister, and a brief warm-up. A typical day at that hour I’d likely feel drained, wishing to still be sleeping, but at a race, it’s nothing but exciting and energizing–runners and spectators and volunteers, all anxious for their special task of the day. The announcer counted down 3, 2, 1 for wave 1, quickly followed by instructing wave 2 (that’s me!) to approach the start line. At that point I spotted my mom and ran over for a quick hug (she would’ve been in tears either way, but at least I inspired the happy/relieved ones by catching her before the start) and then over to my dad and jumping back into the starting pack as the announcer counted down to 1 again.
Our headlamps and the moon lit the way as we started our day’s trek. My goal for these first several miles was to keep a comfortable and consistent pace, so as not to wear myself out before the real [challenging] fun started. Racers around me were chatting away and I pretended it was like listening to a podcast, while I kept to myself, focusing on the easy pace and not tripping in the dark. As instructed by my coach I walked up the hills (as did everyone around me) and first spotted Jen shortly before mile 2 and my whole family at the first accessible aid station. Race day brings out the best in me–genuine grins because I feel happy and grateful, more thank you’s than usual (to all of the amazing volunteers and encouraging spectators), confidence, and as my sister calls it, a signature wave (it’s consistent and crooked) I do when I see a familiar face.
Everything was feeling pretty good ’til around mile 10. Only a fifth of the way through the race and I was feeling sleepy and already feeling the miles on my legs. The beauty of a race though, especially a long one, are the little milestones along the way. Sure I thought about the miles run vs. the miles to go, but I tried to set my focus on the upcoming aid station–filled with snacks and smiles. My calories of choice were little boiled potatoes on a toothpick ready for dipping into a bowl of salt, washed down with a tiny cup of Coca Cola (part of the race swag was a small, lightweight reusable HydraPak cup that was easy to carry and fill up at each aid station).
Several of my long training runs were at Afton State Park in Minnesota, which provided a lot of similar terrain to ECSWI. Some mud, lots of dirt, roots and rocks to step over, hills (and more hills), prairie, and gorgeous Midwest nature views. The North Face describes this race as an ideal one for “elite speedsters and those taking their first strides in the world of ultra trail running” and after spending all day on the course, I wholeheartedly agree as someone who falls more in the middle of that experience range (years of road and trail miles under my feet, but not the quickest moving ones).
The bag drop aid station, McMiller, made its first appearance at mile 22.5 (and repeated at mile 34.9). As I ran in, one volunteer filled my water flasks while another brought me my drop bag (a dry bag filled with chips, Tailwind packets, socks, and sunglasses). I hung out for around 10 minutes, refueling and chatting with Jen, Cristina, and my folks and their new friend who was running his first ever race. From here I took off for the turnaround point at mile 28.7 and as I got closer to that aid station, the first real challenge was setting in–feeling a bit discouraged that so many 50 milers were already on their return trip. We all said “good job!” or “way to go!” to one another as we passed going in opposite directions, while I thought to myself “it’d be nice if you could move a little faster, legs and feet.” This part of the course was also home to many, many hills. “Fast” forward to running back through McMiller for another visit with my family, a couple more bites of Lays potato chips and Snickers bar, and I trotted off for the final 15 miles.
Here we are at the next big challenge of the race. Only 15 miles of 50 to go, but that meant at least 3 more hours of running, when 7 or 8 hours had already passed. All day I thought about random things–what we would name a kitten we’ll probably never actually get … training plan brainstorm for Jen … why is there a noisy gun range bordering such a beautiful area … how’s Eleven doing at my parents’ house … I wish Eleven were waiting for me at the aid stations too … Eleven would get so bored as an ultra spectator … should I eat something … wish I had some lemonade … THIS FLY BUZZING AROUND MY HEAD IS DRIVING ME INSANE … don’t trip (I tripped to the point of nearly falling at least a half dozen times that day) … keep moving … keep moving … nope don’t walk … okay good job on at least shuffling forward … just. keep. moving.
Once I hit single digits–9 miles to go–I felt a little more energized. And although it was undesirably warm, I downed a little packet of maple syrup that I honestly think gave me a boost a half hour later with 3 miles to go. I even passed a few other racers. My legs suddenly felt far less fatigued, and for the final speed boost my GPS watch flashed “low battery” so I dropped MINUTES from my pace in the last two miles to ensure I could record the whole race.
The last half mile (maybe more, but directions/remembering a course layout are not my strength) or so was along the same stretch of country road we had started on several hours earlier that day. I finished with a smile (typical!) and genuinely happy to have crossed the line in under 12 hours–over 4 hours faster than my finish at Zumbro a few years ago (harder course than ECSWI, but still a mighty improvement). Jen was proud of me, my parents were proud of me, and after having pushed myself through months of training and running far more steps than walking to that finish line, I was proud of me too.
Bonus feature: My sister shot and edited this video of the race!
- Hoka Speedgoat trail running shoes
- Balega socks
- Patagonia trail running t-shirt
- North Face men’s 2-in-1 running shorts (long spandex under regular shorts)
- Lightweight floral print running hat from a local run shop in Colorado
- Patagonia houdini jacket (stuffed into my vest & eventually tossed into my drop bag)
- Salomon S/Lab Sense Ultra 5 vest
- Two HydraPak 500ml soft flasks (one for water, the other for Tailwind Lemon)
- Sunglasses from a Shell gas station
- Garmin Forerunner 230 GPS watch
- Chapstick & eye drops
- Old iPhone SE (without data) to take a few pictures