After a busy summer of wedding planning, getting married to the super handsome Nolan and a fabulous trip to Spain, it was tough to get in some good consistent running and almost impossible to get an actual race in. The North Face Endurance Challenge in Wisconsin, has always been on my list and I thought the marathon would be the perfect distance to throw myself back into some training. Before I run a race, I always try to do some research on the course and I find race reports on various blogs to be very helpful in planning or even deciding if I want to sign-up. Hopefully, this race report helps you! You won't find my splits, intervals or heart rates... or any numbers for that matter in this report (minus the mileage at aid stations), instead I'll tell ya a little bit about the course, atmosphere and any tips I think might be helpful. Long story short: if you're thinking about signing up for this one or even considering a trail marathon or ultramarathon (TNF has a 50K and 50 miler option), I highly suggest you choose this series. The race takes place at the beautiful Kettle Moraine State Forest, the Ottawa Lake Recreation Area to be exact. This is only a 2 hour drive for us city folk (Chicago). The marathon starts at 9:00am which is considered super late for the typical marathon race, however, it is perfect because you can leave Chicago at 6:00am and arrive with more than enough time to check out the scene, stretch it out, use the bathroom and throw down your first gel.
The North Face does an awesome job with the set-up at the start and finish. Music was playing, they had an announcer, North Face swag, fire pits to keep you warm, beer tents, recovery tent, meal tent, etc. Everything you would expect but really high energy (which is always a good way to start!).
They begin the marathon in two waves, which I really appreciate because on single-track trails, it can get really crowded in the start and can keep you from starting out at the pace you are looking for. I was in Wave 1 and they called us up to the starting line. The scene is colorful, with endless trees and rolling hills on the horizon. Deep breath, Wisconsin-I love this state. And, we begin! All the GPS watches beeping with the hit of a button, remind me we have started this glorious journey and for the next few hours, it's just us and the woods!
As the cheers send you off, the volunteers are there to guide you to the first trail.
The majority of trails are single-track on the Ice Age trail and if you are a fan of trails or a midwest runner nerd, you know the Ice Age Trail is real cool. There are some equestrian trails (I saw 6 horses!) and very little road, like so little you are on one once, maybe twice for a few minutes. The hills are very manageable (some climbing 200-300ft) and the whole course is run-able. Sometimes in trail races you might find yourself walking the uphills (usually in mountain races) but in this one, you can run the whole thing-another reason why it is one of my favorites in the Midwest. The route was incredibly well marked and Aid Station #1 lands at 1.8 miles: you won't stop at this one-you should have everything you need to keep you going for 5-6 miles. Aid Station #2 lands at 6.4 miles: this one you'll want to stop at for a quick refill of water (I use a handheld water bottle with pocket). The aid stations were stocked really well with all the fixings you could want. One racer even talked about the delicious peanut butter sandwiches he had eaten! YUM! I don't eat on runs shorter than 60K (only gels every 45 min for me); anything solid just doesn't agree well with my stomach, but everyone is different on race day.
The course was so beautiful with the leaves on the trees just beginning to change. The Wisconsin setting made for an enjoyable run, gliding up and down hills with a slight opening into a meadow, surrounded my prairie and tall grass. At 6.4 (2nd Aid Station), I felt like I had only ran 3-4 miles. I was right where I wanted to be and I was enjoying every minute of it!
Aid Station #3: lands you at 11.7 miles. Although the temperature was rather cold, the wind stayed away in the woods. This really helped with the running and was quite a surprise for you when you hit the open road (hello cool breeze!). Either way, the wind was manageable. There were also little bridge crossings over the low lying wooded area. Loved those! Did I mention there were porta potties at the aid stations? Remarkable. Luckily, I didn't have to stop to use any of them (there were close calls) but it was a nice convenience to see them at the aid station.
Aid Station #4 and you are at 17.3, you know the point where you don't hate life yet, but you definitely realize you are running a marathon and maybe the lamb wasn't the best choice last night... and hmmm I wish that porta potty was closer now. Ok, moving along... This section incorporates quick sand! Yep, the equestian trails are wide and flat, with an occasional hill. But, the quick sand tends to lie on the parts of the trail where tires would have ran over it. Choose the middle grassier part for a little more firmness and just keep running, that's all you can do at this point. YAY challenge=more fun!
If I had to give you a little bit of advice, it would be to not stop at the aid stations for longer than you have to (this goes for any race, triathlons included). Aid stations can become comfortable and make you not want to go back out (mommy!). Don't get comfortable. Get what you need and keep moving. This is how I run every race, but I really noticed how people took their time at these aid stations (probably because they were stocked with so much yummy stuff and those sconnies are SO nice, how could ya not stop and have a chat with 'em).
Aid Station #5: aww a marathoner's favorite part, the 22.6 mile mark. HA! Just kidding. In a way, you appreciate that you only have under 4 miles to go, but in a way... You still have under 4 miles to go. Here, you return to a loop that you went through in the beginning so it feels exciting because you know you are getting closer. With a little over just 2 miles to go, you reach a much needed and appreciated downhill that will run you right to the finish line. Happy Happy! There were two men cheering right before the downhill. They must have hiked the little over 2 mile hike to the top and bless their hearts for doing just that because their optimism and positivity was just what I needed. "Just over 2 miles to go! All downhill from here," they said over their clapping. Thinking this was similar to the cheer of, "You're almost there!" I asked, "Are you serious or are you just saying that?!" They laughed and said, "No, really!" They were right. Whoooosh! Down we go. And, no sooner there was the finish line! :)
Not sure if it was the Wisconsin atmosphere or the trail running etiquette (a mix of both, I'm sure) but every runner, volunteer and person at this race was incredibly kind and caring! Runners cheering each other on as you pass one another and volunteers getting you anything and everything you need. As you cross the finish line, the announcer reads off your name (pretty fancy for a trail race, huh) and you receive a shiny medal to show off to all your friends. The finish line immediately sends you to the recovery tent, where lots of delicious post-running treats await you. OH, and that beer tent! Yes, the beer tent. That was a nice plus too. Entry gets you a beer and free meal, very much appreciated!
Since this was a North Face Endurance Challenge, it was awesome to have North Face Endurance Runners Timmy Olson and Dean Karnazes present at all the post-race festivities. Timmy is from Wisconsin and I have raced with him a few times out West. He is definitely a huge inspiration to me and a great source of motivation. Check out his blog when you get a chance. It was so great to see the bigger names in ultrarunning at events in the Midwest and I wish we had more of it. Super inspiring and fun to be able to talk to these guys in person.
After a beer, some warm-up around the fire and a post-race meal, we hit up the awards ceremony. All that fun got me 2nd female overall in the marathon, which means I earned the North Face Endurance belt buckle and some sweet North Face swag, woohoo! I wanted this to be a fun run to get me back into the swing of things; I'd say it was a success and I feel so blessed to be able to do all these things I love. Trail running, racing and endurance sports, are true passions of mine. Any chance I have to run a race healthy, in stunning wide-open spaces of nature, I am in my glory. It made it all that much better that we were in a state I love (good ol Wisco) and my hubby was there with me! I hope you go out and sign-up or try something new! Don't ever let anyone tell you you can't do something. Adventure well.