Saturday morning at 4 a.m. my alarm went off. With a jump from the hotel bed in Whitewater, Wisconsin, I had no idea why I was awake. A quick look over at my running shoes and it hit me. It was go time!
At 5 a.m., the 50 mile race was scheduled to begin at Kettle Moraine for The North Face Endurance Series. Haven’t heard of this race series or Kettle Moraine State Forest? The North Face Challenge Endurance Series holds events in six different places throughout North America. Each series offers races for all distances from the 5K to 50 miles and even a kid’s race. This one is held in Eagle, Wisconsin, just an hour and a half from Chicago, in the South Unit of Kettle Moraine State Park.
A portion of the race takes place on the historic Ice Age Trail. The North Face Endurance Challenge Series Wisconsin (ECSWI) is considered to be lower on the difficulty scale, so it is a good option for a first time trail runner. I knew this race series well, as I had ran the marathon and fallen in love with the trails and scenery in this area. This year was different though, it was 50 miles. Not a marathon, not a 50k, but 50 miles. It was a quick ride over to the start at Ottawa Lake Campground, as the bright full moon shined down on the tall pine trees and the shining stars radiated through the dark night sky. It was silently majestic and I knew it was going to be an epic day.
Miles 1-34: Have you ever needed a headlamp to run? Although I have ran a 50 miler before, this was my first time running in the dark. The North Face 50 miler requires a headlamp until after sunrise. Running with your headlamp on, in the dark forest is what microadventures are made of and if you have any desire for adventure while running, I highly suggest it. The first 11 miles felt like a breeze on the wooded ski trails. It was flat and fast, with a few rolling hills. I smiled from ear to ear with the excitement and adrenaline that comes when you are surrounded by a community with the same passions and desires as you; not to mention being in the middle of the stunning state forest that is Kettle Moraine. After the lollipop loops, we headed south until about the 30 mile mark. It was then time to make our way back north. These 34 miles were a mix of “runnable” flat trail, open prairie and lofty hills, followed by cool breezy downhills. Hopes were high and life was good. The warmth of the sun hit my back and racing was fun!
Miles 35-45: Then, mile 35 hit. The battery in my watch died and I no longer had access to my mileage, time or when I would eat my next GU. And, when was that next aid station?! Oh boy, “Stay calm, be confident,” I kept telling myself. The sun began to peek through stronger now. It no longer felt like warmth on my back, instead it was getting brighter and hotter, making me uncomfortable. No water left in the water bottle. Seriously, where is this aid station? I could have sworn they said there would be one at mile 41 and I felt like I had to be at least through 44 miles. In fact, do I hear people cheering? Maybe that’s the finish line? No, I couldn’t be that lucky. Finally, I hit the next aid station. As I looked at the mileage board, frustration took over. I was only at mile 40.1. You’ve got to be kidding. 10 more miles. How? Why? I just wanted a La Croix and pizza. Ok, “Get it together,” I told myself. I took another GU and filled up my water bottle, and I started to run.
Miles 45-50: Somehow I made it to the last aid station. 3.7 miles laid ahead to the finish. All the happiness began to rush over me! The positivity was back. The sun was shining again, the warmth on your back kind. Let’s finish this! Two miles of sand trail, mixed with a few short hills and about 1.7 of downhill to the finish. As I made my way down the gravel road to the finish shoot, I sprinted all the way through the downhill and reminded myself to enjoy these moments.
As the feet moved through the finish, I thought about how special my journey had been in the woods; how supportive the aid stations were; how wonderful the group of people running had been; the perfect weather and the incredible organization of the race directors and leaders. That’s the thing about ultrarunning: you feel the support and love from people around you, but there are also moments when you are all alone, when there is no one cheering you on, when you feel like you have nothing left to give. You’re frustrated, upset, tired and feel like you won’t be able to get over the next obstacle. Then you take care of yourself, you listen to your body and it gets better. It always gets better. Ultrarunning is really the metaphor of life. With continued perseverance, taking care of myself, staying calm and confident, I was able to take home some hardware for an age group first place and seventh female overall.
If you haven’t tried an ultra or trail race, I highly suggest starting with The North Face Endurance Series in Wisconsin. This series provides runnable terrain, outstanding scenery, an easy commute from Chicago, Milwaukee or Madison, highly supported aid stations and an all-around well organized race. The eventful post race festival gets bigger and better each year, with an awards ceremony, music, food, drinks and games that provide entertainment for all those there to support you.