At some point, I owed it to myself to find out if trail-running is something that I really love, or if it’s something that I’ve just been doing.
I ran a 50K in Wisconsin back in May, and I had a blast; I was buoyed by an unreal sense of accomplishment (and maybe just a smidge of vanity) after running further than I’d ever run before. Months later, some friends and I then drove up to Michigan for a 50-mile race back in August, and the runner’s high that I felt during those 12-ish hours out in the woods was even more intense. I left Michigan convinced that I was ready for a life of trails. I found within me an urge to go full-on Henry David Thoreau, ready to live deliberately and front only the essential facts of life and put to rout all that was not life and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
Hold on a second, I stopped to ask. Aren’t you getting a little ahead of yourself?
In each of these races, I’d undertaken and lived through something that I considered to be bold and new, which is a powerful emotional stimulant. What’s more, I’d had the good fortune of having good friends at my side for each of these journeys, which served to anchor those experiences in an extra layer of kinship. There is something inherently exciting in all that newness — but was I hooked on the experience itself, or was I simply drawn to the camaraderie and the raw anticipation of flinging myself into the unknown?
Immediately following the NCR 50-miler, I decided to find out. Once I could say with confidence that I’d suffered no lasting injuries from the run, I registered for The North Face Endurance Challenge 50K, taking place 3 weeks later in Eagle, WI. The North Face 50K was to be held in the same gorgeous Kettle Moraine State Forest that played host to the Ice Age 50K that I ran in May, which definitely factored into my decision to sign up. The race would cover different sections of trails within the Kettle Moraine forest than the Ice Age 50K, but I wanted to see if I could recapture something close to the vibe that I felt back in May 2013.
For this race, it would be just me — no friends, no family, and no support network to either gain strength from or fall back on. I’d already run 2 races of 50K or longer, so aside from a new course, this wouldn’t be anything I hadn’t done before. No, this would be an experiment to see just how much I enjoyed being out there. Just me, a couple hundred other idiots, and 30+ miles of trails somewhere in the forest that I’d first fallen in love with 4 months earlier.
Did I really love running trails, or was this all just a distraction until some other newness caught my eye? I figured that after another 50K, I might have my answer.
My teeth chattered as I left my car before sunrise, and even my windproof Gore-TEX jacket couldn’t keep a chill from entering my bones. I was scarcely 50 miles north of the Illinois-Wisconsin border, smack in the middle of September in the Midwest, but the overnight low had somehow dipped into the upper-30s.
I’d arrived at the parking lot 45 minutes before the start of the 50K, still needing to pick up my race packet. I walked toward a clearing where the organizers had set up a number of merchandise stands, sponsor booths, and open fire pits in full blaze. The process of picking up my race materials took all of 45 seconds, after which I scurried back to the relative warmth of my car. I knew that the temperature would climb into the 60s and 70s by the time I finished this damn thing, but now I was trying to figure out if I needed to wear gloves and a jacket for the opening miles.
I eventually reasoned that I would surely warm up once I started running, and 15 minutes before the race’s 7am start, I left the car for good. I was clad in a sleeveless North Face running shirt and Brooks shorts, with Salomon trail gaiters strapped over my Brooks Cascadia trail-running shoes to keep out debris. I buckled up my Mountain Hardware running vest (loaded with a 1.5L Camelbak drinking reservoir), donned my Nike running hat, and I pushed a button on my GPS-enabled Motorola MOTOACTV running watch to acquire satellite-lock. I sprayed sunscreen over my bare arms, and I coated my chest and the inside of my thighs with Body Glide.
I chuckled a bit as I thought about how much gear I required just to “get back in touch with nature.” I don’t know if Caballo Blanco would have liked me or not.
I spent these last few minutes looking around at my fellow inhabitants of this communal outdoor insane asylum, with whom I would be sharing these trails over the course of the next 4-7 hours. We all had a bit of a screw loose just to be standing here. It dawned on me that I was about to run the distance from my apartment in Chicago to my parents’ house in Naperville, only with a lot more hills added in for “fun.”
From out of nowhere, Dean Karnazes appeared with a microphone to speak some words of inspiration to the crowd. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but he made me feel like running 30+ miles and then maybe buying some North Face apparel would be a good idea, so I’d say he probably earned his appearance fee.
As the starter’s horn sounded at 7am and we got underway, I noticed Dean handing out high-fives to anyone running past him on the right side of the starting chute. Regrettably, I was lined up on the left. I found myself strangely wanting a high five from this man, if only to touch Greatness for one fleeting moment. Yet, outweighing that urge was an even stronger desire to not be a fucking tool that sprinted across the flow of the crowd just to swap dead skin cells with a guy I didn’t know, and so I stayed on my left side of the chute like a good little ultrarunner. Besides, I’d once high-fived Scott Jurek back in 2012 – surely that would be good enough to get me through this race, right? Does inspiration drawn from high fives have a shelf life?
Weirdly enough, the race started and ended with a about a half-mile of road running. We ran along the side of a 2-lane highway for about 5 minutes, and then crossed the road to enter the woods. We were greeted by a hill of some steepness as we entered, and the trail running began in earnest.
The trail was wide, with ample tree coverage overhead, and the terrain flattened out considerably after the opening hill. We came across some mild rollers here and there, but for these opening miles, I didn’t come across any hills that made me stop to walk more than 5-10 seconds at a stretch. I was trying to play it a bit conservative in light of the 50-miler I’d run 3 weeks earlier, but I still couldn’t help but goose the throttle a bit on the flats and downhills. It felt good to be out here.
I suppose that one day I’ll have to learn how to run ultramarathons without having a conversational partner (or partners) to keep me engaged, but this apparently wasn’t going to be that day. About 2-3 miles in, I had a brief exchange with 2 women near me named Melissa and Stephanie, and just like that, I had friends to run with for the next 20 and 27 miles, respectively.
Melissa is a 31-year-old travel enthusiast from Florida who has recently thrown herself into the challenge of running a marathon (or longer) in all 50 states; she’d been dragged up to this 50K in Wisconsin by her friend Mark, a man in his 60s who managed to place 3rd in his age group. Mark convinced Melissa to run this race by downplaying the difficulty of the distance, saying that a 50K would be “no big deal, because you don’t take the beating on trails that you would on a road.” My other new Facebook friend Stephanie (you’re damn right we’re at that point in our friendship) is a e-commerce designer from Neenah, WI, who had set out to run her first-ever ultramarathon. Melissa was gregarious and talkative, while Stephanie was a cheery ball of nerves full of optimism, but a ball of nerves nonetheless. Both of them could more than hold their own on the trails, though, and I found them to be excellent company.
I was struck by how runnable the course was; I wouldn’t go so far as to call it easy terrain, but it didn’t feel like anything approaching the Ice Age trail races. Our first 11 miles were all run somewhere in the high 9:00s or low 10:00s, with the lone exception being a mile where we stopped for about a minute to take aid. I definitely felt myself holding back, but had I been training/tapering specifically for this race, it could have been a monster PR.
I was running with a hydration pack because the aid stations were all 5-7 miles apart, but I’m sure I would have been fine if I’d just carried a water bottle. The aid stations were all well-stocked with typical ultrarunning food such as PB & J sandwiches, pretzels, potatoes, M&M candies, trail mix, chips, water, Gatorade, etc., and I never found myself wanting for anything.
After give-or-take 10 miles of running through flat woods, we burst into a clearing, where we would log some significant miles running through flat prairie. We didn’t have the benefit of shade overhead, but I found that without the distraction of watching out for roots underfoot, we could really log some fast miles:
Melissa and I chatted constantly, carrying on a conversation throughout practically the entire first 20 miles of the race. Stephanie was running strong alongside us, and she mentioned on more than one occasion that she was happy to have people there to take her mind off of the running. We were all on the same page — I was just as happy to have the company as they were. It’s possible that I could have sped up a bit and gone off on my own, but if that meant leaving my present company just to shave off a few minutes over the last half of the course, then the juice wouldn’t have been worth the squeeze. I didn’t come into this race with hopes of setting a new PR in the distance, although after 15 miles, it looked like I might do so despite myself.
The course stayed pancake-flat until we hit Mile 17, and the next 3 miles were quite hilly and undulating. This finally felt like Ice Age. I felt good enough to bomb some of the downhills, and I even ran up front on my own for extended stretches, but I took care to never get *too* far in front of Stephanie and Melissa. This brings me to one of those little things that I love about the distance-running community in general: sure, everyone running a race is technically in it for themselves, but you can’t help but bond with the people around you as the miles pile up. I certainly didn’t owe anything to those I was running with, but I wanted to do whatever I could to help them get through the race, anyway.
And whether Stephanie or Melissa knew it or not, they were doing the same thing — I’m not sure what my race experience would have been like if I hadn’t been running with them, but it probably would have been a little suckier.
As we passed through the aid station at Mile 22, though, I decided that I needed to make a break for it. Not even the awesome volunteers wearing tracksuits and blaring early-90s hip-hop from their boomboxes could take my mind off the fact that my quads were starting to burn a little more than they should at this point of a 50K, and I knew that I needed to get off my feet. It’s probably true that I hadn’t entirely recovered from the punishment I subjected my body to just 3 weeks earlier, and I’d been running for a long time by this point of the race (“Duh,” you might be thinking right now, “It’s an ultramarathon, you fucking idiot.” Your point is taken, but you didn’t have to be so vulgar about it). I told Stephanie and Melissa that I was going to pick up the tempo a bit and try and go off on my own; Stephanie was able to stay with me, but that was the last that I saw of Melissa until the finish line.
Over the course of the final 9 miles, it felt kind of great to pass people who had conspicuously passed me 8, 10, or even 15 miles earlier in the race. If you’re going to be the hare instead of the tortoise, then you’d better have trained for it. No, I don’t care if that sounded petty.
Somewhere around Mile 24-25, the trail turned to sand. I’m not sure what all this sand was doing there, or even how it was even formed this deep in the woods over what must have been centuries of weathering, I just know that I didn’t like it. At all. Chalk it up as another learning experience; I didn’t know that there could be long stretches of trail-sand in the middle of a state forest, and now I do. And damn, how I wished in that moment that I had trained myself for it.
The next 4-5 miles consisted mostly of sandy uphills and downhills, and as much as I tried to stay to the side of the trail, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was running on the beach. I openly cursed the course (which is SO not ultra), and I mean that I cursed the trail literally — I was serving up a blue streak of Fucks, Shits, and Goddamns as Stephanie laughed at my abrupt transformation from the happy-go-lucky persona that I’d been projecting for the first 75% of the race.
I looked at my watch somewhere around Mile 27, and by that point it was pretty clear that I would finish in under 6 hours. Given that I was only 3 weeks removed from running 50 miles, breaking 6 hours in the 50K and setting a new PR in the process would feel pretty damn good.
After yo-yo’ing with Stephanie for a bit (neither of us could seem to keep a consistent pace past Mile 27), I finally broke free and clear on my own just past Mile 29. There was an extended stretch of downhill trail waiting for me, and even though my quads were legitimately fried, I couldn’t help but attack them with what little strength I had left. I recognized this long downhill as being the same uphill that we climbed at the very beginning of the race, right after we entered the woods, and I knew that the finish line couldn’t be more than a mile away.
I logged my 31st mile, the flattest mile of the entire course, in a 9:16 split. I let my tongue hang out as I crossed the finish line in 5:48:45, good for a 21+ minute PR in the 50K distance. While I didn’t come remotely close to an age-group award like the kind I “won” at Ice Age, my time was good enough 105th out of 232 finishers.
I needed a beer.
After picking up my North Face race shirt and Smartwool socks after the race, I dumped all my gear in the car and waddled back to the post-race party. I loaded up on BBQ pulled pork and some salad, and I jumped in the beer line just as Melissa was grabbing a beer herself. I hadn’t seen her since Mile 22, but she finished only about 10-15 minutes behind me. She was in great spirits, and we sought out Stephanie to shoot the shit one last time before going our separate ways. I hope to run into both of them again some day; crazier things have definitely happened.
There was only one small matter left to resolve — I stunk. I smelled like a guy who had just run 30+ miles, and I had nowhere to shower before driving back to Chicago. Fortunately, a convenient solution lay just 200 yards away, in the form of Ottawa Lake:
I stripped away everything except my running shorts, and for the first time in my short ultrarunning career, I got to experience that most “ultra” of post-race experiences: a cleansing dip in a nearby lake. The water was balls-shrinkingly frigid at first (I DO NOT APOLOGIZE FOR THAT PHRASING), but the cool water felt like heaven once I was fully submerged. I stayed in that lake for a good 10-15 minutes, trying to de-stink myself as best I could without the aid of soap or shampoo. It felt primitive, carnal, and wonderfully low-tech.
My bath in the lake didn’t get me as clean as a hot shower at a hotel could have, but I felt as spiritually refreshed as I have in a long time.
So yeah, I’m in. I’m all-in on trail running. The trailier, the better, I say! (That’s a new word I just made up, by the way — feel free to use it in your own everyday lives). Give me all the trails.
I really liked this race on the whole, although all of the latter miles of sandy trail will probably be enough to keep me from coming back in the future. The sandy terrain wasn’t bad, it was just different; more to the point, it was something that I just wasn’t trained for.
The North Face puts on these Endurance Challenge races all over the country, with distances ranging from 5Ks to 50- and 100-mile ultramarathons (And this Wisconsin race, it should be noted, also had a 50-mile race as part of the weekend of events. I definitely wasn’t the biggest badass out on the trails). When I signed up for this race, a part of me was worried that I might be signing up for some overproduced corporate event. Those fears weren’t exactly abated when the race organizers trotted out Mssr. Karnazes, the world’s most corporate ultramarathoner, to fire up the crowd. But once we started running, it felt just the same as any other trail race I’ve run, which is a great thing. I was nervous that The North Face Endurance Challenge series might just be Competitor Group/”Rock ‘n’ Roll” equivalent of trail running, but I’m happy to report that they stayed true to what I believe lies at the core of trail running: good trails, great vibes, and a jovial post-race atmosphere.
I now know what I need to do next, and that is to shed the crutch of conversation during these long runs. I’m a pretty social person out on the course, much like a modern-day Emil Zatopek (just without all of that annoying “talent” to bog me down), but pretty soon I want/need to see what I can really do out there. It was Zatopek who said, “It’s at the borders of pain and suffering that the men are separated from the boys,” and I think I’m ready to train for that next step up. The desire is there, of that I have no doubt; now comes the tricky part of channeling that desire and actually putting it into practice.
I had questions coming into this race, and I’m happy to say that I ran away with the answers I was looking for.