It had been three months since my previous race and I was ready. The anticipation in returning to the North Face Endurance Challenge Series in Wisconsin had been a motivating factor in my training and would serve as a good test leading up to my first 100-miler just seven weeks later.
Then several weeks before race day, Sept. 14, I came down with what I thought was a sinus infection. I put off seeing a doctor and getting antibiotics as long as I could. But it wasn’t until after I finished the 10 days of antibiotics that I discovered the real issue: a severe allergic reaction to ragweed.
Once I properly diagnosed it — two days before race day – I started taking allergy medicine. Good news — it began to reduce the effects of the reaction. Bad news — it mixed with the antibiotics still in my body, creating GI distress.
I would not soon forget my return to Kettle Moraine State Forest in Wisconsin.
No complications on race morning
My first North Face ECS race in Wisconsin was four years ago when I did the marathon. I followed that up the following year with the 50K, which I completed in just under 5:09, good enough to win my age group.
The race is appealing to me because it offers a very runnable course, incredibly helpful volunteers and amazing amenities for runners, including easy packet pickup and an energetic post-race party.
All North Face ECS races have a distance literally for everyone — from 5Ks all the way up to 50-milers. (I had hoped to meet Justin Grunewald, who won the 50-miler in just over six hours, after the race. But sadly our paths did not cross.) The races are held over two days, with the marathon and longer distances on Saturdays and half marathon and shorter events on the following day.
No matter the distance, the trails are expertly marked with colored ribbons, specifically coded to each race distance and your race bib. This is helpful as multiple runners are heading in both directions at different points. During my three races so far at the Wisconsin race, I never once got onto the wrong course or questioned whether I was going the correct way.
This year, as in past years, race morning was simple. There were plenty of parking spots within a short walk from the race start area, where there was a gear check tent. While there were port-a-pots, the park’s indoor restrooms were available with minimal or no waiting.
That was a good thing as my aforementioned GI distress accompanied me until about an hour before the race start. Soon enough it was time to race.
This was my first race since starting with coach David Roche, who expertly guided me through recovery from a hip/piriformis issue, relentlessly encouraged me and provided a training plan that had me well prepared.
As I chugged along, I summoned two particular thoughts of encouragement from Roche:
"Lean into the uphills, whether running or walking, and hike with purpose."
"Smile every fucking mile."
I set my A goal at 4:50, with my B goal at 4:59:59, then my C goal to just beat my previous 50K finish here. I knew one of the course’s more challenging uphills was very early in the race so I focused on easing back early, running hard when the trails allowed and then pushing as hard as I could to the finish. I envisioned getting to the aid station at Mile 11.7 in 1:45, which I beat by about eight minutes.
The aid stations are staffed by helpful volunteers and stocked with great options for refueling. Hammer Nutrition products were available, along with the customary aid station food including peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, bananas, salted potatoes, M&Ms, water, Coke and other fueling options. I appreciate that the North Face not only provides a fantastic downloadable runner guide for each race distance but that they included more information than previous years. The most important addition to me was identifying items that were vegan and those which were gluten-free, which as a Celiac I greatly appreciated.
I also appreciated all the volunteers, especially those from Bigger Than The Trail (BTTT) who were out in force. In fact, when I called out for someone to fill my BTTT bandana with ice, it was fellow ambassador Frayah Wasmund who quickly jumped in and obliged. LINK HERE
Truth be told, it was a helpful video provided by the race website that led me to have the bandana with me in the first place. When I watched the preview video, I was reminded that part of the course went through a section of Goldenrod, a common ragweed. I also did not recall how long of the race included that section. We ran roughly from miles 11 to 18, with about a mile break, through that section with the weeds primed for attack.
Fortunately, I was able to shield my nose and mouth with the bandana and did not suffer any allergy setback either during or after the race.
Hurtling and hurting toward the finish
I hit the Mile 22.4-mile aid station still where I wanted to be time-wise, 3:32:59. But the sun was now fully out and was starting to take a toll. I kept moving forward, running as hard as I could and power hiking with purpose when forced.
It was hard to know where I was among the 50K runners since there were other runners on course who were doing other distances. I knew the 4:59 goal was still in reach but I had to push.
When I made my final stop to refill my water bottles at an aid station, I also received some extra relief. A volunteer announced, “3.7 miles to the finish.” At the time, I thought it was actually a little further, but when I asked again, she confirmed: 3.7 miles to go.
That gave me a significant mental boost and off I went.
However, I knew my window to finish under five hours was slipping. The last longish hill that I power-hiked eliminated that possibility.
Disappointed but unbowed, I carried on and saw the finish area with about a mile to go as the trail emptied out to a road. Some of the marathon relay participants who were just beginning their loop ran toward me, offering smiles, well-wishes and high-fives.
I needed every single one of those.
As I neared the finish line, every single muscle in my body cramped. I was yards, maybe feet, from the finish line when I noticed my pace had quickly slowed. I pushed as hard as I could, finally lunging across the finish line and landing on my back.
And I don’t remember doing so, but clearly I had the presence of mind to pause my Coros Apex watch.
Official race time: 5:01:59. Second in my age group of 17, and 30th overall out of 241.
The post-race party, which is among the best I have attended, would have to wait a few minutes. Seeing my memorable finish, some first responders from the medical tent came out to check on me. I stood up on my own power and walked to the tent when they suggested getting into the shade.
Between the shade and a cold wet towel on my back, I quickly felt back to normal. After a few minutes, I asked them what I needed to do to be released. “If you feel OK you can go,” one said.
With a quick thanks, I was off to get my bag from gear check. Then it was time to eat, recover and celebrate.
My next stop was at a recovery tent where I tried out NormaTec boots for the first time. The tent also offered a CBD-based ice bath for the legs. After using the boots and enjoying being in the chair for about 15 minutes, I sought out food.
That was another change since the previous time I was there. Instead of a buffet-style line, each runner had a coupon good for up to $12 at any one of four food trucks. I appreciated the options at one in particular where I used my credit for a veggie burger (no bun for me), two bags of chips and a Gatorade.
Runners also received a credit for a beer. However since none of the options were gluten-free I passed mine along to a fellow runner who I’m sure enjoyed it.
After chatting with some ultra runners and sufficiently refueling for the start of the five-hour drive back home, I headed out.
In the following days, I would continue my recovery before the next push to the 100-miler. As for the North Face, I would love to return to Wisconsin or try out one of the other North American races.