Race Recap: North Face Endurance Challenge WI [Marathon]

With great pride and joy and crippling of knees and every other joint, I ran my first marathon, the North Face Endurance Challenge WI, this weekend.

The website describes it as:

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 Park.

I’m not sure I trained properly.

I’ve always had success with Hal Higdon’s training plans and used his Marathon Training Schedule: Intermediate 1 as my base. I share 50% custody of my two daughters, ages 3 and 5, work a full time day job, have a house and yard, and do about 15 hours a week at another job.

So I took Hal’s base schedule, looked at my rotating custody schedule, opened a blank calendar, and put the longest runs on days when the kids were with their dad.

When I have custody, I have to either run on my lunch hour or schedule a rest day.

I peppered the schedule with as much lifting and cross-training as possible, which is less than the winter/running off-season. My goal was two classes per week (boot camp, Body Pump, CX Worx, or KettleWorx), and I used iPhone apps to do at least 5 minutes of ab/core work after runs.

There were definitely some weeks, like a holiday week at the cabin, that I only ran.

I did a few trail races in the WI Trail Assail series. I’d show up extra early, run for an hour, and then do the race.

Whenever possible, I would do hills, but in moderation to avoid injury.

I thought I was definitely ready for a 26.2 trail marathon.

As if.

Race day, I used GPS to find the Kettle Moraine State Forest Southern Unit, which at one time, I confused with Lapham Peak (glad I looked at the directions!!).

It was easy to find, I have a state park sticker, and a line of volunteers in orange vests waved me into a parking spot. That was my first glimpse of the well-oiled machine that is a North Face event.

I went to find the bathrooms, and beheld a massive circle of tents, inflatables, bonfires, heaters, flags, banners, all emblazoned with brand name logos. Attractive volunteers were skipping about in puffy coats and cozy hats, looking straight out of Vail, not WI.

“There’s a different kind of athlete here,” I texted my fiancé. “The NAME BRAND athlete.”

“Damn them,” he replied.

One hour until race time, I peed the requisite 15 times, noting that the  5 a.m. 50 milers had already destroyed the restrooms.

It was cold. Forties, I think. I skipped my warmup in favor of staying warm, and sat in my car, reading the last pages of the second Fifty Shades book. (No comments, please.)

With 15 minutes to go, I stood awkwardly by a heater, admiring all the impressive hydration systems people had strapped to their bodies. Some looked ready to blast off to the moon.

And then we were off.

The pack was fairly small, and I stayed behind. I knew I had 26.2  miles to run, and I was in no hurry. Maybe I’d catch some of them later, I thought.

Famous last words.

The first 17 or so miles I maintained a great pace, around 8:33 minute miles, which isn’t all that impressive unless you’re actually running on that terrain, where solid footing is the exception and rocks, hills, mud, sand, and sticks are the rule.

The course was extremely tough, although apparently the least technical of the North Face races, and only rated two out of five stars difficulty. I would love to see the rest of their courses!

I kept myself occupied by chatting with the people around me, trying to be silly (why everyone gotta be so serious when they run?! Lighten up! These aren’t the Olympic Trials!) and enjoy the scenery.

Around mile 17 the wheels fell off.

I don’t mean that I got tired, or didn’t want to run anymore.

My left knee stopped wanting to bend and/or threatened to blow up like a balloon and float away into the sky. If I had been doing a training run or any other activity other than a marathon I had trained months for, I absolutely would have stopped, for fear of serious knee injury/surgery/death.

And the hills just kept coming. I walked most towards the end, my legs like Frankenstein, and gritted my teeth for the descents. Sheer agony. Ouch, rock. Ouch, root. Ouch, everything!

I began lamaze breathing, and reminded myself that I’ve endured some crappy things, and that physical pain is secondary to emotional pain. I’d live through this, and I could say I ran a marathon.

Then I really started losing it. I pictured the births of my children. I started talking to them. I cried for a bit. I pretended I was Katniss in the arena, and death monkeys were coming at me.

The race photographers were everywhere. I’d grimace, and wonder if they could see how much pain I was in.

“Let’s take a photo of the worst moment of her life, and charge $26.65 for a digital download!” I thought. (I would post the one I purchased here, but I’m still waiting for them to send it to me. It’s been more than 48 hours, yo!)

I stopped to stretch, a million times, then hobbled on. I wondered if I’d ever finish.

I did.

My fiancé saw me coming around a corner, and hoped that wasn’t really me, because that runner looked… broken.

I was.

As my friend cheered me on and my parents clapped and the fiancé snapped more unattractive running pictures, I crossed that damn finish line, and leapt for joy, three times. Except my legs wouldn’t work anymore, so I think I just jerked a little.

“Never again,” was the first thing out of my mouth, as the lower half of my body began to shake.

My family suggested an ice bath in the runner recovery area.

They huddled around and gasped as my fiancé pulled off my socks to reveal a giant (harmless) blood blister and a gash on my left ankle. I didn’t care—my legs were falling off!!! The blister and gash would go with them into the nearest garbage can when they carried my torso home.

I couldn’t sit still long enough to keep my legs in the ice. Pure torture.

“How long are my legs supposed to feel like this,” I moaned.

About 15 minutes, actually. I took some Advil and ate some Clif Bar Shot Bloks (also free in abundance at this race), and all was well.

I was overjoyed to be finished, but disappointed by my performance after mile 17.

If only my knee had cooperated!

Until I saw the results. I was first in my age group, and the 9th woman overall. Not too darn shabby for a bum knee finish. Apparently everyone else was broken by this race, too. Maybe that’s the point.

As Dean Karnazes was quoted on their website:

“If you can’t run, then walk. And if you can’t walk, then crawl. Do what you have to do. Just keep moving forward and never, ever give up.”

In my prize pack for my age group were a few Clif Bars and Shot Bloks, a really nice North Face running water bottle, arm warmers, lip balm, and a few other miscellaneous items.

I’d rate this event extremely AWESOME-SAUCE, very challenging, and would highly recommend doing at least one trail run per week or every two weeks on tough hills (if your knees can handle it). I would also recommend participation in a few half marathon trail runs beforehand.

Plan to hobble the week after the race, and wear makeup on race day—because the runners at a North Face event don’t look like any runners I’ve ever seen in WI. And they take a shipload of race photos.


Note 1: The aid stations at this race were fantastic. I nearly cried at mile 17 when a volunteer put a smiley face sticker on my bib and said it was special technology from North Face to make me run faster. There were many food and drink choices, and the Shot Bloks had toothpicks in them! How high class/appetizer-ish!

Note 2: I sort of want to try this again next year. I haven’t told anyone yet.


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