North Face Endurance Challenge: 50K – Madison, Wisconsin, September 15, 2012

Although this series of races is considered to take place in Madison, the actual location is Kettle Moraine State Park, about 60 miles from Madison and 40 minutes from Milwaukee. For that reason, and because flights to Milwaukee were less expensive than to Madison, my husband and I decided to fly to Milwaukee, stay at a convenient airport hotel, and rent a car to drive to the race venue. For our hotel, we chose Hyatt Place and that turned out to be a great decision: clean, convenient, and spacious. Since we used our Hyatt reward points, it proved to be a budget-wise decision as well.

We arrived on Friday afternoon around 2:30, picked up our Hertz rental, and checked into the hotel. After depositing our luggage in our room, we drove to the packet pick-up location, a sports equipment store called Laacke & Joys in Brookfield, a suburb just north of the city. It took only minutes to get my bib with timing chip attached, a set of arm warmers, and a red technical tee shirt. The shirt was plain on both front and back but I was told that if I left the shirt with the sponsors, it would be screen-printed with a race specific design and I could pick it up after the race. That sounded good to me; it would be a treat to have a shirt that distinguished between shorter races and longer ones.

From 6:30 to 7:30 that evening, there was to be a panel discussion and Q & A about the races at Laacke & Joys, so Darcy and I decided to get some dinner at a nearby Olive Garden and then return to the store so we could listen to the panelists and get more info about the course. I had all my usual concerns about getting lost on the trail and handling roots/rocks/hills on the course, so the more information I had about course markings and terrain the better. It turned out to be a useful session, and I learned that the course would be marked with signs (white with black arrows) pointing out directions, plus streamers in colors that matched our distance. Since I was signed up for the 50K, my color was blue. This matched my bib color, making it almost idiot-proof (although I did manage to almost get lost for a few seconds when I panicked after seeing orange streamers but not blue at one point).

We returned to the hotel around 8 pm, well past my usual bedtime, and I hadn’t yet set out my clothes and paraphernalia for the race. I worked quickly to pull out my crops, shirts, cap, and vest, plus energy bars, tissues, socks, etc. Because it was so late and I was extremely tired, I decided to postpone pinning on my bib to my vest and just called it a day. The alarm was set for 3:30 am, although I was sure to wake up earlier. In fact, I rose about 3, had my coffee and bread, and finished my preparations. I woke up my husband about an hour later. By 5, we were ready for the hour long drive to the park.

This series of races included a 50 miler which began at 5 am, a 50K which started at 7 am, and a marathon which began at 9 am. In addition, there was a marathon relay which began at 11 . These races were set for Saturday while a half marathon, 10K, and 5K were to take place the following day. One of the reasons I chose the 50K over the marathon for my distance here was so I could start at 7 am and not have to hang around waiting and getting more anxious.

Of course, this IS Wisconsin so it is quite cold in mid-September at 5 in the morning. Fortunately, there were warming poles with heaters that we could all huddle around; I made sure to stand very close to one until it was time to line up for the start. I wore a jacket, mittens with hand warmers, and a cap plus my hood. Once the sun came up, I quickly shed these, tying the jacket around my waist and pinning the mitts to my jacket. My husband (and everyone else) can always identify me by the flapping jacket sleeves that move around me as I walk.  There were at least two dozen portapotties close by as well as a gear check, beverage and food table, and packet pickup for those who missed getting their packets earlier.

Several hundred runners, walkers, volunteers, family, and friends congregated in the start area talking and shivering as we waited for 7 am. We started right on time. I jogged a little to get my legs warmed up as we made our way along Highway ZZ (a lot of the roads here in Wisconsin have letters of the alphabet as identifiers). This road portion lasted for only a mile or so and then we turned into a horse riding/wooded ski trail. Aid stations were set up about 5-6 miles apart and, because of this fairly long distance between opportunities for fluid, I carried a hand-held water bottle with me.

There were no mile markers per se (the RD explained, understandably, that it would be too confusing to set up markers for each race segment) but every aid station had the specific distance for each race on an easy-to-read board and that helped a lot.

The 50K had the extra 6 miles tacked on to the first part of the race and then it followed the marathon course. I quickly figured out that I could divide the approximately 32 miles of my race into thirds. Once I reached the second aid station, at around 11 miles, one third of my race was over. To me, that first section was the most difficult – it was single-track, with very steep grades and a tremendous number of roots and rocks that served as major tripping hazards. In fact, I did trip early on, falling hard on my right knee. No skin was broken and there was no blood that I could see, but the ground was very hard and my knee throbbed with pain. It hurt to run and to walk but I just ignored it as best I could. About halfway through the race, the pain subsided; I figured either my knee was now completely numb or I was so replete with endorphins that I could no longer feel any pain. Either way, it was fine with me.

The second 10 mile section was relatively easier. We entered the Ice Age trail, crossing several prairie trail sections. The temperature had risen considerably and these open cross-country areas had no shade. This made it difficult for some and I heard several people grumble, but I appreciated the warmth. I was able to make up some time here, although I still had to watch where I placed my feet. Every now and then an unexpected rock would rear up and cause me to stumble but I avoided any further face plants.

By the time I reached the 5th aid station, I felt confident I would make the 9 hour cutoff. This last 10 mile section included more prairie along with some horse trails with very deep sand. I found the last 20 miles much easier to traverse than the first 11, and I realized that if I had signed up for the marathon I probably would have had a much easier (though still difficult) race. The final few miles were along the same road we started on and it was such a great feeling to see the finish line ahead of me. It seemed like it took forever to traverse those last few yards but I finally crossed the finish line in 8:13.

Two young volunteers awaited me; one encircled my neck with a medal and the other handed me a filled North Face water bottle. The medal was silver and nonspecific, but the blue lanyard had both date and distance on it. My husband met me at the finish line, we picked up my 50K screenprinted shirt, and enjoyed the festivities for a bit before heading back to our hotel for the requisite shower and nap (and football – Florida was playing Tennessee and we had to watch). At half time, we had a great meal at Culver’s Frozen Custard, a fast food restaurant that is several cuts above the average. Evidently frozen custard is a major treat in Milwaukee (just Google “frozen custard” and Milwaukee) and I wanted to be sure and try some. Culver’s is a popular chain and in addition to a huge variety of frozen treats, it also serves great hamburgers on “butter buns” – plus sweet potato fries, one of my favorites. The frozen custard is rich and delectable – I found it quite addictive. It’s probably good we don’t live in Milwaukee or I would weigh 300 pounds!

I found this 50K to be a real challenge – mostly because of the difficult trail section at the beginning. For walkers who want to try a trail race but are cautious about rocks and roots, the marathon here would be a good choice (and it has a 7 hour time limit). I’m glad I did the 50K but I was definitely glad when it was over. My knee, by the way, is fine now; I iced it back at the hotel and on Monday and it is almost back to normal. I’ll be ready for my next race in a couple of weeks.

2 thoughts on “North Face Endurance Challenge: 50K – Madison, Wisconsin, September 15, 2012

  1. Congratulations! What a tough race. It’s a good thing that you’re such a tough lady. I have a trail marathon scheduled for December. I’ll let you know afterward how many scrapes and bruises I get. Best regards.

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