The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Miler

"Oh crap…WHAT am I doing?"
That was pretty much the only thought going through my head at the beginning the North Face Endurance 50 miler. I was one in a sea of runners with headlamps and flash lights necessary to navigate the ups and downs of the trails in the pitch-black 6 am start. It didn't take me long to learn the trail running etiquette of calling hazards to my fellow runners (Stick! Mud! Ditch! Root!). When I missed a 2 person-tree collision around mile 4, I thought of my starting line friend Tim who had said, "Don't get out your mp3 player until sunlight." Yeah right…with terrain like this, you couldn't PAY me to have the distraction of music!

By mile 6, I had gone ankle deep in mud twice- shoe sucking, deep, squishy mud. As a "roadie", my first instinct was to worry about the blisters my soaking socks would inevitably create. That was the least of my concerns! Combined with wet leaves, the slick mud caked on my shoes made the entire course a hazard- especially the steep down hills. After a wrong turn for a quarter mile, the white ribbons marking the course guided us out of the woods and into an open field. The sun was beginning to come up and despite my less than stellar start, I was able to calm down and focus on getting a good rhythm.

Having chosen to have my first drop off bag at mile 21, I stopped only to take the rocks out of my shoes and ditch my headlamp at the first aid station. By this point, the field of runners was settling into "groups". I met Marathon Maniacs Bekkie and Joe as well as another gal right around my age, which is uncommon because ultra running isn't exactly a younger person's sport. I instantly liked Katie because she had a cute pink shirt on, a feeling solidified by her confession that this was (also) her first 50 miler, she had not (also) been over 35 miles, and she (also) was more of a road racer.
By the 4th hour at mile 21 (also well within the first hard cutoff), Katie and I had a "come to Jesus" regarding terms of our partnership: we were grateful to have shared the miles, but if one person was holding the other back it was totally fine to separate. When we got to the aid station, her husband Chris must have realized we DTRed because he attended to me as well. With fresh socks (hallelujah!) and a dry shirt, I felt like a new woman!

Even as the elevation changes became more drastic, I was able to maintain a steady pace with the help of my now established partner. After comparing running histories, recurring dreams, and deciding that giving birth wouldn't be that far from the pain we were experiencing, Katie and I both splashed into a mud puddle, completely soaking another pair of socks. We squish squashed to Aid 5 at mile 28, where my pacer was scheduled to meet up and run 7 miles. Charlie was waiting with a smile, fresh legs, and wait for it…a pair of extra socks!

Charlie, who was my coworker in 2004 and has been a great friend ever since, had planned to pace me only 7 miles that day. I was already grateful to have the QT from such a great athlete, but as we were out there I realized what a mental boost he was. Not only could he deliver great one-liner jokes, having 3 people watch for course markings was a blessing. Somewhere around mile 34, he mentioned that he may take us through the end. I'm not sure if it was our whimpering or what, but his "may" turned into a "definitely" and the three of us became a package deal for the rest of the race!

Combined with the sounds of a local shooting range in the distance (oh Wisconsin!), we twisted back to a tight single track portion of the course. The thing about trail running is you have to be alert and focused at all times…the second you let your mind wander, you've tripped on something or turned a non-turnable body part. Physically, I was feeling fine enough but my mind was all, "Isn't this running? Don't I get to zone OUT?!"

Mentally, I was so spent by mile 40 that I didn't even care about the two HUGE blood blisters on both of my big toes…in fact, I joked that they were an advantage as "extra toes", knowing good and well that when they popped I would be in for an even more painful ride. I fought an overwhelming urge to call Trey, who is still training at Fort Knox, for a pep talk...but I knew exactly how the conversation would go: "What do you need from ME? Call me back when you are finished with YOUR race!" He later confirmed that this is, in fact, how he would have responded. And it's one of the reasons why I love him.

As we made our way back to Ottawa Lake, Katie began to recognize some of the earlier markings and we realized we were less than a mile from the finish. I was perfectly happy with a slow grind in those last turns, but Katie and Charlie convinced me otherwise. Running is inherently an individual sport, but on Saturday I felt as accountable to them as any teammate and cannot imagine having done this race alone. When we finally crossed finish line in 10 hours 11 minutes (putting us in the middle of a field that was overwhelmingly male), trying to wrap my head around what I had just done seemed impossible. Although I felt exhilarated, stunned, overjoyed and accomplished, I couldn't help but still think: "Oh crap…WHAT did I DO?!"

ING Hartford Marathon

October 11, 2008

8 am start?! Isn't that really late?? After double checking the website umpteen times and asking the race director "if he was sure" (!) the race began at 8, I set my alarm clock to essentially sleep in on race day. My hotel was across from Bushnell Park, where the ING Hartford marathon began and ended, so I was able to take my time and enjoy a leisurely breakfast with other runners. Cindy, the breakfast attendant, asked "which one of you will win today?!" and then inquired if our marathon was shorter than the one they do in Boston. Bless her heart.

Despite being on extremely narrow roads, the first few miles out of the park and through downtown were great! I couldn't have imagined a more perfect autumn day- the sky was a stunning turquoise-blue backdrop to the intense reds, fiery oranges, and bright yellow leaves on the trees. As we went over the bridge and into a quaint residential area, complete with white picket fences, farm animals, and pumpkin patches, I thought "I am running in a Norman Rockwell painting!"

I ran these beginning miles quickly, clocking 1:22:46 at 10 miles. I don't recall thinking the pace was TOO fast; I was simply focused on my "first 10 miler". During a marathon, I always break the race up into 3 parts: 10, 10, and 6.2. During 1-10, I only allow myself to think of those miles. Mile 11, in my mind, becomes mile 1 of my "2nd 10 miler". The third segment, at a little over 6 miles, is when I'm "allowed" to break down the numbers on the clock. This allows me to digest the intimidating number of 26.2 miles and focus on the task at hand. I wanted to complete this race in under 4 hours.

Because of the out and back turnaround on a 3 mile stretch, I was able to see almost the entire marathon field- the frontrunners coming back as I was headed out and those behind me as I headed back. It was exciting to see the (many!) Marathon Maniacs who would give a thumbs up and an encouraging "hey, Maniac!" Even the spectators and volunteers noticed there were a lot of us- toward the beginning of the race I'd overhear them say, "there's another one" and by the end they were all, "Yeeeaaaahhh Marathon Maniacs!" Even the live bands, one about every other mile, caught onto our presence and gave shout outs!

I hit the half at 1:48:02, just before seeing the BEST spectator sign of the day: Running on King Street is better than investing on Wall Street! By the time we hit the waterfront at Great River Park, I was cruising just in time to hear my favorite feel-good association song, "Cupid Shuffle". I was with Trey in Kentucky when I heard it for the first time and my friend Terrill and I had a blast learning the dance, which is totally Electric Slide meets Soulja Boy. Anyway, I hit a button on my mp3 to turn it up (or so I think), but when the song played again, again, and yet again…yep, I realized I had pressed "repeat" instead. Nonetheless, I Cupid Shuffled my way through the "second 10 miler", hitting 20 miles at 2:45:50.

Crossing Founders Bridge and into Riverside Park, I was too distracted by the beauty of Hartford and enthusiasm of the spectators to notice the pain in my legs. One of the last live bands I heard was playing the Boss' "Born to Run" and I remember thinking, "okay, maybe not Norman Rockwell but definitely Nike commercial!" Finishing at the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch was picturesque and receiving a medal in its likeness was ohso cool…which is perhaps why I forgot to turn my Garmin off and didn't even know my results until a full day afterward!

In Connecticut, I ran 3:37:59, was 16th of 128 in my age group, and 446th of 1948 total runners. Don't tell Cindy I didn't win…