Well, that was a surprise.
I ran the North Face Endurance Challenge Marathon this past weekend, and finished first overall in 3:21:15. Yup. Somehow, I won.
The North Face Endurance Challenge is a series of races and events taking place across the country throughout the summer. There are other 'challenges' in New York, Atlanta, Washington DC, and San Francisco. On the day of the Marathon (Saturday), there was also a 50 mile event and a 50K. Today (Sunday) there's a Half Marathon, a 10K and a 5K. Because of the fact that there was also a 50 mile race and 50K going on, I think the marathon field got watered down a bit, in terms of the real fast trail runners...but someone had to win, right!
I had originally signed up for this race as a final 'long run' before my #1 Goal Race this fall, the Glacial Trail 50K, which is run on the Ice Age Trail 15 miles from my house. I figured 26 miles on trails, with aid, would be a great way to fine-tune the nutrition needed to run 31 miles, and also get some hilly running worked in on tired legs. Because of that, I didn't really taper much going in to this run. In fact, on Thursday I ran one of my favorite 7 mile trail loops in what I think is a new fastest time for me. I had a full couple days at the office too, with plenty of time on my feet, so I was trying to go in to this event relaxed.
Still, I was feeling GREAT about my chances of running well, and I couldn't help but get a little excited about what Saturday my provide.
The race started at 9 AM in the Southern Kettle Moraine State Forest, near Dousman, WI. I was gone from home by 6:45 and drove down to Milwaukee, where my best bud, Josh, was waiting for me. Josh's brother has finished an Ironman, but other than that, I'm not sure he knew much about what he was getting in to by agreeing to be my "Crew." I had recruited him via email a couple weeks ago for a "huge favor that involved waiting, standing around, possibly getting muddy and wet (I was spot-on in that prediction), and pretty much using up your entire Saturday." Despite that, he agreed, and on the way from Milwaukee to the Start area I tried to explain exactly what I needed from him.
I had prepared a cooler with 5 bottles in it--one that I would carry from the beginning, and then 4 bottles that Josh would hand to me at each aid station (I cleverly marked them 1, 2, 3, and 4 to avoid any confusion :). Each bottle had a certain amount of electrolyte-replacement in it (in the form of nuun), and a certain amount of CarboPro for calories. The amounts varied depending on the amount of time I'd figure I'd be running between each aid station. I had also printed off several maps to help Josh get from point to point, with splits for a 3:40 finish. I guess I underestimated my finish time a bit. In my pocket, I carried a couple gels for a quick jolt of calories if needed, and S!Caps, which are salt tablets, in case I felt any cramps.
The course is a mixture of horse trails and single track, with an out-and-back section to start and end the route, then a 'lollypop' section, followed by an 18 mile loop, half of which is single track, and the other half is very hilly and rocky bridle trail. Here's a link to my Garmin Data for the run.
After some words from Dean Karnazes at the start, we were off. I ran with Tony, a friend from the area, for the first mile or two, just catching up and talking about our recent running. We were greeted with thunder and lightning, and then hail, for the first 4 or 5 miles. In addition to the weather from above, the fact that the 50 milers and 50K runners had also already been through this segment of course contributed to some SERIOUS mud. It was a mess. Tony and I passed one runner early on who mentioned that we should just get off the trails and finish up this marathon on the local roads. Uhh...no thanks. While the weather may not be ideal, it's, umm, a trail race.
Soon enough we came upon a straight stretch of the trail and Tony asked how many people were in front of us. I told him that the three runners we could see right now was it.
The five of us eventually turned in to four: Nic, Tony, Josh, and Doug. As we approached the first aid station, the fun and friendly conversation provided the information that this was Doug and Josh's first marathon. While I completely admit I was suddenly very seriously considering my chances of winning, I just kept my pace solid and easy. Tony mentioned at the start he was in the best shape of his running career (preparing to BQ this fall). Despite that, he'd agree that I'm a stronger runner at the moment. Both Tony and I had run the 50K here last year, so we were familiar with the course...which is relatively easy until you get on to the bridle trail about mile 15. That's when the hills really get going up and down and up and down. Because of this knowledge, I wanted to run very easily through mile 15.
The first aid station came at mile 5.5 and I never broke stride, just switching bottles with Josh (who no doubt was thrilled to be getting hailed on), and continuing on the Ice Age Trail portion of the course. Josh (runner) didn't stop in the aid station either, so the two of us pulled a bit ahead of Tony and Doug. Shortly Tony was back with us and Doug wasn't far behind. Somewhere in this part of trail I took my first of two major wipeouts...scraping up my left knee and slamming my new (and full bottle) into the ground, emptying a decent amount of its contents. I was back up pretty quickly and still feeling fine, no worse for wear.
At about mile 8, the trail exits the forest you and enter the 'prairies.' The trail is a mix of boardwalk (very very slippery when wet) and grass single track, meandering through the open meadows. Again, I reminded myself that its' easy to run fast through here because of the safe terrain and flat segments, but !remember! the race doesn't start until the hilly and rocky bridle trails.
Soon Josh asked if I wanted to pace for a while, so I passed him and kept going at what I considered a very sustainable pace. At some point Tony passed Josh, and while I could here their conversation yet, it seemed a bit quieter. I NEVER look back, so I thought perhaps they're slowing a bit. After the race, Tony and I were talking about this, and he had the same thought in mind that I did--that he was almost blocking for me :)
I opened up maybe 50 yards on them, but still kept my pace easy. I had decided Josh was definitley faster than me on the flat stuff...but I had a decent amount of confidence on my hilly and rocky trail ascending and descending from my time this summer on the Northern Kettle Ice Age Trail.
Soon enough Josh was back with me, and we picked up conversation right where we had left off earlier. That's what I really enjoy at the trail running scene--I've been in road races, running in the same pack of people for miles on end, and not a word is spoken. Here, everyone was so friendly, I was really wondering when my competitive juices would kick in, and I'd make a 'move.'
The final mile stretch in to aid station #2, at 11 miles, was terribly muddy but a straight clear view for the people at the aid station to see the runners coming...which, of course, meant I fell down in the mud again, in plain view of all of them. I felt really cool.
"Nobody saw that, right?" I said as I ran through the aid station. They laughed. Josh (crew, not runner) ran along side, exchanging bottles again with me. With the exception of my two wipeouts, I never once stopped running so far. Great crew!
I wasn't far from the aid station when Josh (runner) was caught back up to me again. Soon enough after that, Tony was back too. Josh asked what goals I had for today, and I told him I really didn't have any idea. He mentioned 3:30, and I told him that would be great for me too. I knew I was ahead of my splits, but I really had no idea how far ahead. At about mile 14 you leave the Ice Age Trail and make your way along a road, then join the bridle trail. I told Josh that this is where the hills start. And they start immediately...up and down, steeper than anything we've had on the course previously. This is about mile 15.
We ran up the first hill together, and as I went down the other side, I was able to open up a bit of a gap on Josh. He caught up on the next climb, but by the third or fourth hill, I had pulled away a bit. Well, I guess this is my 'move.' I didn't look back at all, and kept telling myself to go easy on the climbs, keep descending well, and remember that there's a lot of miles left.
As I entered the next aid station at mile 17.2, I again never broke stride, changed bottles with Josh, and kept going. This part of the course actually travels through an open field, so one could look back quite a distance if one wanted to. I resisted the urge to look back and see how much distance I had on Josh. I just knew that the next aid station was 5 miles away, and that at the 50K last year, this segment of the course beat me up a lot. There are really hilly sections (including the steepest hill on the course), but also really SANDY sections, where you simply sink in and slide around. As I left the aid station, I had two thoughts: 1) Keep drinking, and 2) If you don't walk, no one will catch you.
The realization of actually winning was really starting to become apparent now. I've never been in a situation where I'm running for place...let alone the win. I felt like I did a great job thus far of staying even, and running my own pace. Let's not ruin it now.
I walked for the first time all day at that big hill I mentioned earlier. It is long and steep, and there's a false 'summit' where the trail turns out of sight, but continues to ascend. At the top, my legs were really feeling the pace at which I'd hiked it. They felt 'crampy,' so I immediately got a Salt tab in, and got the water going again. I then ran down the backside at a decent clip.
The final aid station is at 22.5, and my only thought approaching it was to look as strong as possible. I had no idea who was behind me, or where, but I wanted to run right through that aid station, smiling the whole way. For the most part, I did, with the exception of a bottle handoff miscue after I tried throwing my empty bottle into the wind to Josh. That didn't work, and I broke stride just long enough to get my full one, and pick up the pace again. 4 miles left, one decent size hill, then a long descent, then a mile of road, and I'm home. Don't look back.
I ended up hiking a bit in this section, mostly in areas where the sand was TERRIBLE. I didn't want to fall or do something dumb, so I took it a bit easier. As I got back to a road crossing, it was pretty cool to hear the volunteers say, "Wait, that's a marathoner! First marathoner!!"
Soon enough I was descending the final portion of trail before going back on to the road to the finish. I was thinking about a lot at this point. Ellie and Eddy, and how pissed Ellie was going to be that she missed this. My sister, Kathy, who got me in to running, and now is struggling a bit with a knee injury that's keeping her from doing what she loves, and what she inspired me to do. My parents, who would've been my crew, but my dad had to work. I couldn't wait to call him. But mostly Ellie. She's given me so much MORE free time to run than I deserve. I feel like I do a decent job of time management, but, still...she's understanding of my running 'thing' and is so helpful. My biggest fan.
Finally, a right turn, off the road, and onto the last 20 yards. I managed a sprint across the line, finishing in 3:21:15. I even surprised the announcer, who didn't realize a marathoner was coming through. Pretty damn cool.
Not long after, Tony came through in 3:31 and second place! The day got even better. I was filthy, so I went over the lake nearby and took a dip, trying to clean up a bit too. The water felt great, and I ended up spending 5-10 minutes soaking in it, and soaking up the events of the day. It was surreal. I hung around for a couple (very, very small) cups of beer and the awards ceremony, where I scored a cool hydration pack and a big gold medal, and a handshake from Dean Karnazes.
Wow! I'm not sure what Glacial Trail can do to top this one. I'm almost afraid I peaked a bit early this season...