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Friday, September 24, 2010

North Face Endurance Challenge Madison

The North Face Endurance Challenge Madison races were this past weekend, and what an amazing turnout! Everything from meeting Dean Karnazes, the amazingly organized race, hail, thunderstorms, and the run itself were great.

The day started out at 5 AM with a wake up call of thunder, rain, lightening, knowing the 50 milers were just getting started, and that I was going to be running the same conditions in a few hours. This made me cringe a bit but also made me excited, what is trail running without soaking wet and covered with mud?

The 50k started great at 7 AM, and after a bit of motivational speech from Dean we were off. I love the endurance trail races, everyone takes off from the start then walks up the first hill, it is a bit anticlimactic with all of the energy out of the gate that transitions to a walk. The first few miles were a bit uneventful, by mile 5 I was feeling loose and picked up Rahim, my first running buddy for the day. Rahim and I were running an 11 min/mile pace, slogging uphill, through the mud, and down slippery rock hills. After convincing myself at the mile 7 aid station that my GPS watch was fully functioning (I have been questioning my Garmin 405 accuracy all summer), we set off for another set of rolling hills. Soon enough we heard thunder, felt rain, and we were pelted by hail. Here the running turned interesting, we were on one of the more rocky steep areas of the trail and as the rocks became wet they instantly turned slimy and slippery. We were running through a pine forest which just smelled amazing, all you could hear was the rain falling (and the hail on the rocks), but the temperature was warm and when mixed with the cold rain created an amazing mist at the tree tops. Sort of haunting, sort of pleasant, and even though we were soaked it was great and refreshing. It was an opportunity to wash off some of the mud and dried salt on my face. Soon enough though the rain stopped, and we made it through without a single spill.

At this point we were pretty much on our own and it felt like we were not even running a race. It is amazing how much the race stretches out after 10 miles, being only a select few are crazy enough to submit themselves to a 31 mile race, the number of participants is quite low (less than 300), and with all of the different paces and strategies in the race you really spend long periods of time without seeing anyone. Luckily both Rahim and I had nearly unlimited topics to discuss, which made the run entertaining and even more enjoyable.

We reached the mile 14 aid station soaked, but ready to go, from here we picked up Kelly, who stuck with us until the end of the race. Out of mile 14 I was feeling great, taking salt tablets ever 1-1.5 hours, eating gels, and drinking plenty of water. Well hydrated enough that I had to pee a few times, at which point Rahim came up with the idea of having running diapers, apparently for people like me who hold up their race partner on the course!

From here on out the three of us finished the race all the way to 31 miles. The mud became sticker and deeper throughout the day, and the trail kept throwing hills as us. We handled the course really well, a moderate pace on the flats (11/min miles), bombed the flats, and power hikes up hills. We kept going and going, stopping at each aid station were my runner wife cheered us on with her other running buddy caravanies of the race cheering others on. Each stop was great, a water bottle fill, a handful of potato's, some M&Ms, and we were off. Did I mention trail gaiters were the best gear investment I made on this race?

So the hills, lets chat hills. While the hills were moderate in size, they were steep, and frequent. You do a 100 foot climb, get to the top, go down, then you have another hill to walk up again. At one point in the back of my mind I really just wanted to charge the hills, but I knew I would pay for this in the end as there were 2-3 mile stretches of rolling hills every 2-3 miles. Luckily, in-between the segments of rolling hills there were many reclaimed flat wild flower fields were we could really pick up the pace and catch up on some time.

Both Kelly and Rahim are avid marathon runners. Kelly has a solid runner with a huge number of races under his belt, Rahim is working on a marathon a month in each state, plus he tackled an Ironman, and I am an avid trail runner, but the last ten miles of the race all of our were legs were pretty much numb. The mud never stopped, but I loved every minute of the race! I was exhausted but bounding down hills, taking the uphill’s, and ready to be done. In the end we cross the finish line together at 6 hours 18 minutes for a 12 minute/mile pace (albeit a little demoralizing with a 50 miler would blow past us doing 8 minute miles but whatever). We celebrated the race with other amazing runners, my wife, sharing stories about the day, and eating pulled pork BBQ sandwiches. What more could you ask for!

While this is one of the least difficult races in the North Face series, compared to Bear Mt in NY, Washington, or SF, there were plenty of challenges. One being the mud, there was a TON of mud and it really slowed people down. The other was the hills. I know I know, the Midwest is flat and easy, but this course definitely threw frequent ups and downs at you. The course was challenging, but absolutely doable, and I would recommend giving this one a try as their first ultra! Below is the GPS output from my watch of course we ran.

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