I have a guest post for you from my oldest sister Cresta. She ran cross country in high school, but took time away from it for medical school, three daughters, and then a fellowship in maternal fetal medicine. It was within the past 3-4 years that she came back to running and has accomplished quite a bit in that short time. She finished two full marathons and now, her first ULTRA-marathon, a 50k! She’s here today to tell you all about that experience.
Running was something that I enjoyed in high school, but lost touch with during much of medical school and residency/fellowship. I have unfortunately had my fair share of injuries since retaking up running in about 2008 (right after I finished my training and relocated to Wisconsin) – three foot stress fractures, pyriformis strains – all of which have improved substantially with my transition to primarily trail running, and a better focus on cross training. I have never been a fast runner, but I love to get out there for hours at a time to clear my mind after a crazy week at work.
I chose this race (North Face Endurance Challenge) because I have fallen in love with the Ice Age Trail, a 1000 mile National Scenic Trail located entirely in Wisconsin. I hope to run/hike as much of it as I can during my lifetime. I had previously run a ½ marathon on another portion of the same trail (ICEAGE50) and really enjoyed it. At that race, I was mesmerized by the ultra runners, a very friendly and supportive group, which appeared to have an average age much close to me than shorter distance runners (i.e., lots of grey hair with school age kids). When I found this race and saw that it was run primarily on the Ice Age Trail, I knew this was the trail ultra for me to try. In addition, it was within driving distance of my home (less than an hour away).
What: The North Face Endurance Challenge October 3-4, 2015
When: Saturday – 50 mile, 50K, marathon, marathon relay, kids run. Sunday – half marathon, 10K, 5K, kids run
Why an UltraMarathon?
As one runner put it, no one asks or compares times, they just want to know if you finished. It’s about pushing yourself, with few companions and limited crowd support. It is feeling comfortable in your head for 4-13 hours, depending on your speed and your distance. For me, juggling three young daughters, and a full time career as a high risk OB/GYN, I love the quiet of the trail. Having to focus on foot placement allows me to quiet my mind. I am a headphone runner and my runs carry quite the eclectic soundtrack: a diverse group of companions ranging from Jerry Garcia and Trey Anastasio to old school Dr. Dre and Eminem, with a little Decemberists thrown in for good measure!
This race is held in early October in Wisconsin. Fall in Wisconsin is truly a season to be experienced. The trees were just starting to change and a 40-50 degree temperature for the entire race made for perfect running conditions. It was mostly cloudy and just a light wind, truly perfect race conditions.
North Face does a great job of making trail running available to runners with any distance preference. Saturday’s events included a 50 mile, 50 kilometer, a marathon, and a marathon relay. Sunday featured a half marathon, 10K and 5 K. Both days had kids’ races to keep the whole family involved as well. There were reasonable limits on all races, from a 13 hour cut off for the 50 miler, to a one hour cutoff for the 5K.
Packet pick-up was very easy and convenient for me, as the only Milwaukee area site was at the North Face store 3 miles from my home. For those not coming from Chicago, Madison, or Milwaukee, pickup might have a been a bit of a drive. However, it was offered on two different days from mid morning to later evening, and packets could also be picked up at the race site on Saturday or Sunday.
The start line was dark and cold, but they made it very welcoming with lighted pumpkins, bonfires, and lots of friendly runners to meet. I am not a particularly outgoing person, but the groups I met at several of the bonfires were so welcoming that it was hard not to have a good time with them.
Gear Drop off:
Gear drop was easily marked and not crowded when I arrived on Saturday morning. Likewise it was relatively easy to pick up my bag after the race, without lengthy lines. Lots of port o lets (or whatever the correct term is for them) with lines of no more than 2-3 people even right before the race.
I was hoping for a drop bag site for the mid race, as I had seen for the 50K at prior trail races. However, those had all featured loops which made it easy for race staff to provide a drop bag site. This was not offered except for the 50 miler, and I was a little nervous that I wouldn’t be able to carry in everything I needed. However, this turned out not to be a problem at all as I was able to carry everything I needed and the aid stations were very well stocked (below).
Stations were offered approximately every 5 miles, with a great assortment of fuel – offerings included boiled potatoes to dip in salt (my favorite), pretzels, peanut butter sandwiches, fruit, chips, gel, shot blocks, water, electrolyte drinks, soda and candy (yay skittles, my favorite!). They also had ibuprofen and other first aid equipment (although the website said they would not be able to provide meds like ibuprofen, I did see them hand it out twice)
Aid stations were very well stocked with wonderful volunteers. There was at least one port o let at each aid station, which was very helpful as we were out in the state forest with no facilities.
I use an Ultimate Direction women’s hydration back pack, which is another wonderful review in and of itself. This vest has water in the hydration bladder and electrolyte solution in the 2 – 10oz bottles. I was able to fill it at every aid station. I also carried salt sticks, lactate capsules, 3-4 GU gels (restocked at aid stations), and blister guards. I carried my phone in a waist pack SPIbelt, as I had carried it in my vest on another trail race and it met an untimely encounter with the rocks on the trail when it fell out.
I think it would have been difficult to run without any of my own gear/hydration, as at times I needed some fuel or hydration more frequently than every 5 miles, so I do recommended some sort of gear pack. I also recommend running a long run with all you plan to carry ahead of time. I learned in a shorter trail race two weeks beforehand that the tubing for my hydration bladder would slip out of the pack and hit me in the shoulder if not situated in a specific way. I have had issues with calf cramps in the past, so in races where I am sweating a lot, I take a salt stick tab every 60 minutes or so. I made it through this race with absolutely no cramping and I am sure that being proactive was the key.
For me, nothing beats a good pair of trail shoes and compression sleeves – I have used Brooks Cascadias for the past two + years and have never been disappointed. I also wear Balega run socks. CEP compression sleeves are great, as you can change your socks/shoes if you get wet without having to pull them off. I wore a smart wool short sleeve shirt (much less stinky than synthetic fabrics on a long run!) and my go to run shorts, lululemon (run swiftly I think?)
I had had issues with IT band on long runs with a lot of rocky downhills, so I preemptively wore a knee support. Glad I did as my IT really started aching after about mile 25, and it was very helpful to have that extra support. I did switch it to the opposite knee halfway through the race, as my typically healthy IT was not happy with all the hills.
Most important part of my fitness fashion?
Trail Toes Cream – for those of you who haven’t used this anti chafe product, it is vital for long trail runs, where you may encounter mud, water etc. It uses bees wax and it is a thick product that I put on my heels and around my toes for longer trail runs. It is amazing. Since I switched to this, no blisters or discomfort even with wet shoes. It is easy to purchase on their website or amazon.
The course was absolutely beautiful! There were rare moments at the start and finish on pavement on the edge of country roads, but over 80% on gorgeous single track forest trails, including a large portion on my beloved Ice Age Trail. The course was essentially a 25 mile loop with a short repeat sections at the beginning and end.
My least favorite section was the wider equestrian section from about mile 22 to mile 27 or so. It was very sandy, and difficult to find areas on the side of the trail where I wasn’t struggling in deep sand. I ended up walking a lot of the hills in this part and I was just too exhausted to fight the sand. Sharing the trail with a couple of horses and their canine companion for about 3-4 miles when the horses weren’t sure how they felt about trail running companions was a little unnerving.
I eventually slowed down and they went ahead far enough that it wasn’t as big of an issue; when I was running next to them they were not too pleased and the dog darted in and out of their legs and near mine, didn’t help. But that was the only thing I would change on the course, it was otherwise a very beautiful course.
None. But this is what I love about trail races. I was alone on the trail for hours (yes hours) and it was so beautiful and peaceful and just enlightening. I had the opportunity to push myself with little outside encouragement and see what I could do.
Nice group of spectators, at the finish, although individual runners were not announced. Yummy Sierra Nevada IPA to finish it up. Food was also provided, included barbeque and typical finish line foods (bananas, protein bars) as well as serve your own protein recovery drink which was quite good.
The finisher’s shirt was nice in that it was made from recycled plastic (much like Patagonia has been doing for year) but was a bit ill fitting.
The medal was nice with the ribbon changed depending on your distance but the actual medal was the same. I was hoping that they would have some sort of finishers clothing available for sale at the finish because it was cold and also because North Face tends to make quality gear, but they only had display/sale of their winter ski/snowboard outerwear. Definitely a suggestion for next race!
Training- How to Fit it in!
For me, balancing family, career and fitness can be a challenge. I am very blessed as I have a spouse who is very supportive of my running, as long as I don’t try to make him go! Good babysitters are key, and again for me, without the help of my wonderful father-in-law and his wife, this would never have been possible. Lots of planning ahead with run schedules made months in advance but also having flexibility with a sick kid or spouse is important.
These bracelets are from my daughters. I had one on each arm. I ran in these so that they would have bracelets that went the whole race with me, plus then it was like they were with me too!
My training schedule for this ultramarathon included local road runs 3-6 miles 3-4 times a week, and a long trail run with lots of hills and rocks every weekend. I am fortunate to have a state forest (Lapham Peak – Kettle Morraine State Forest) with killer hill trails, only 15 minutes from my house. I would go there most weekends (Saturday or Sunday am depending on my call schedule and the kids) one day for a long trail run. I started training in late May with trail runs every weekend, typically between 8 and 18 miles. For me, this was the perfect amount of training to finish (my goal) but to not compromise my other enjoyment of Wisconsin summer. I did several trail halves over the summer, which I strongly recommend as well (Dances with Dirt Devils Lake, Ice Age 50, Lake Michigan Trail Marathon) as the running was quite different than road races.
Must haves for a trail runner:
- Good hydration system
- Good antichafing cream
- Good trail shoes
- Good hydration/fuel system
- Bug spray – long trail races are not a time to worry about chemical exposure – DEET is necessary if you are to avoid ticks and lots of mosquito bites in pine forests. But watch out when you spray – high DEET concentrations can destroy plastic (sun glasses, watches etc) in large amounts.
In closing, if you are considering an ultra marathon, I want to share the T.S. Eliot quote that my sister shared with me when I told her I was considering an ultra marathon:
“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”
Thank you Cresta for sharing your experience and tips for other runners interested in an ultra marathon. If you have any questions for her, please ask away in the comments!