Julie Willis’ Notes from the Trail: So you want to do a Marathon

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The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. (And so are the hills.) I guess that’s how I’d summarize the experience of a first marathon—specifically, The North Face Endurance Challenge held this September 17th and 18th. Located in the Southern Kettle Moraine State Forest with the start and finish at Ottawa Lake, Southeast Wisconsin has the great pleasure of being one of four sites in the United States that hosts The North Face sponsored trail events: 50 Mile, 50k, Marathon, Marathon Relay, Half Marathon, 10k, 5k, and children’s race over a two-day period.

So why a marathon? And why a trail marathon? I love to run, and I also like to race. And I’ve done a lot of both over the past few years. Some experiences have been great and some—well, not so much. (Anybody love 100 degrees with high humidity…in July?)

One experience stood out among them all. I had an opportunity to pace a portion of the course for my dear friend and ultra endurance athlete, Tina Heil at last year’s North Face 50 mile run. (Tina has since gone on to win her [under 38 hour] award Buckle at the Superior Sawtooth 100 Mile this year.) My experience with trail running began with preparation to pace last year, and it was my first taste of the beauty and challenge of trail running. I was in love with the experience for sure, but it also helped me identify some key reasons why it was so fulfilling.

I love the training discipline—setting out a goal and systematically training for it. I had done my fair share of 5k-13.1 mile distance races, and felt like I had enough understanding of my own body and what it was capable of. I felt ready to push the limits again. I also felt confident that I had a good base of “race savvy” to draw from. As a trainer and coach, I understood what I would need to do in order to prepare for a significantly longer distance. The decision to choose a trail marathon over a road event for a first-timer seemed a little bold and a little crazy to some, but for me there is nothing more peaceful or sustaining than the feel of real earth under my feet, the smell of pine, the sounds of the forest. Both the baby-rocking beauty and sometimes bone-jarring reality of running among a living, breathing, changing terrain. Terrain varies, and sometimes very quickly. Running in that environment is interesting. Racing in that environment can be a wildly fun game of brain/body strategy. A lot to consider: rock, sand, skree, roots, ascent or descent. Which physical techniques/abilities to apply, and when to apply them. There is no time for boredom on a technical trail. Bottom line—I love to run. And I’ll continue to enjoy running roads, for sure…but the trail has my heart. Plus, I had loads of inspiration and support from family and friends. The decision was made. I would tackle a trail marathon. North Face.

The decision was made in December 2010, and I committed to the event the day registration opened. After many hours contemplating training schedules and calendars, it was settled—training would officially begin March 13th. Six months of careful training: allowing for the occasional cold, vacation, family event, adjustments in training (I’m 53 years old, and morphing a road training schedule to a trail schedule is hardly boilerplate—let alone for a master’s runner.) And so I began, a day at a time. A week at a time. Week after week. And month after month. I watched the seasons change. In snow with Yaktrax on, then off, then on again. I added layers and removed layers. I ate more and more as the miles increased. I ate less GU and more whole food as I continued moving forward. And mostly, I marveled at the process. I tried to be a good ambassador for us runner-types. I smiled and said good morning. I petted dogs and remembered their names. I thanked all the lady gas station and convenience store managers for such nice, clean restrooms. On my Easter long run, I packed little chocolate eggs and gave them to random walkers, runners, bus stop patrons. I collected interesting road items and brought them home to my husband: a ping pong ball on Canal Street, an empty pack of Marlboro’s in Jackson Park, swim goggles on Cleveland Avenue, a lost button near the Urban Ecology Center, a baby Binky on the South Oak Leaf trail. Close to 30 items—all with a story of their own and now a story about my training “wheres” and “whens.” People were nice, some were really kind and a few were kind of amazed at what I was doing and how far I could run. And some days, I started to feel kind of amazed myself.

There were a lot of decisions along the way. There were shoe decisions. I am a proponent of minimal footwear and generally trained in Merrell Pace or Lithe Gloves. I ran North Face in Inov-8 Bare-Grips and they did a dandy job all around, especially on loose, rocky climbs and damp sand. My go-to recovery shoe was Newton Distance. There were gear decisions too. I used The North Face Endura Boa Hydration Pack for Women and found it extremely well engineered and comfortable. The weather was as perfect as it could be, so clothing was easy. I stuck with my CWX compression shorts and my favorite old worn out, beat up zip-tee minus the sleeves. My swag included The North Face arm sleeves, which I wore until the second Aid Station (AS). I do better with whole food, so on race day I packed a whole grain SoyNut Butter and jelly sandwich and two packs of Peach Tea GU Chomps. My hydration was a slightly diluted GU Brew, which works well for me and was also stocked at each AS. Race breakfast was three Egg Beaters, two pieces of toast with honey, a large banana, 8 oz. of V-8 juice (full sodium) and coffee. I ate another banana 30 minutes before the race. Everything had been tried and tested many times before. There were no surprises.

With hugs from my husband, Gregg, and friends Paul and Tina—I was off. After the initial excitement of the start, I forced myself to settle in. I had been training for six months and had a reasonably good idea of how long I thought it would take me. I thought I had a shot at finishing under 5:30. But with a first time, it’s hard to fully comprehend the magnitude of either adrenaline or the demands of terrain on performance. My longest trail run had been 18 miles in similar terrain, longer on the road. Mentally, I had been rehearsing my Aid Stations (AS) in training: “OK, you just hit 6.3 miles. You’re at AS #1. Good, now you’ve gone another 5.3 and you’re at AS #2….” You get the idea. So, race day was no different. I felt great, and I focused on settling into a comfortable pace in good form. The kind that could carry me through the rough spots.

I stopped at each AS. A minute or two at some, less at others. Each AS with its own name: Ice Age, Wilton, Hwy 67, Piper. And each with its own culture. At a pre-race panel discussion Race Director, Nick Moore let us know that the Wisconsin North Face has a devoted volunteer army. With a 90% return volunteer rate, many of these AS see the same group of volunteers year after year. And they are wonderful! The best! The menus are intelligent and well stocked, too. Runners know what’s on the menu, and each item is easy to find. Volunteers couldn’t be more supportive, helpful or encouraging.

After the start and 1+ miles down Road ZZ and then Hwy 67, the marathoners disappeared through a clear cut into the forest. We were really on our way. The forest was cool and fragrant. The chatter stopped, and I began to focus on the sound of my breath, giving myself time to let my mind empty and my body really begin to click. Onto the Ice Age trail and single-track running—some of my favorite terrain. Dense foliage and some big kettles, more serious running here. Awesome beauty. At 6.3 miles at AS #1 Ice Age, I took out half a sandwich and downed two salted potatoes, met local news anchor and volunteer Charles Krause, thanked everyone and kept on going. Munching away. On my way to AS#2 (5.3 miles), I just about ran into Dean Karnazes who was racing side by side with Tim Twietmeier. Pretty thrilled to high-five the Ultramarathon Man, and watch these ultra-legends in action, I kept moving. Now through some forest, then wetlands. Numerous wetland walkways resembling little bridges. Running shoulder to shoulder with tall grasses at some points. Then the prairie…long views of prairie. And sun and some heat after the protection of the forest. At some points, just the color of a runner’s cap, far away—a mile or more, running a serpentine single track through real amber waves of grain…then the blue AS tent top. AS #3 Hwy 67 (5.6 miles) is the real end of the prairie in my mind. I have a history at this AS. I came through this one the year before as a pacer, with my friend. My thoughts were flooded with those very special memories as I pulled through. And…there she was? Yelling my name?…over…a Mr. Microphone? Somehow, she managed to be there at the right time. One part, really good pace per mile calculations and one part excellent super-natural powers, she was there alright. Big hug! “How did you get here—in the middle of nowhere?” “Where are the guys?” “Just missed me?” “I’m ahead of schedule.” A quick iPhone pic to prove I was here at mile 17.5. And feeling a little like the Travelocity gnome, I left my friend behind and broke out the last half-sandwich, nibbled some Chomps, and re-hydrated. I knew there was some tough stuff ahead. With some of the most challenging hills from Hwy 67 to Piper, and the beginnings of fatigue, I knew this leg would be a mental challenge as well as a physical one. I let myself meditate on some of the advice offered by some of the best trail runners: Dean Karnazes prior to the race: “Take what the trail gives you.” “Embrace the pain.” “Listen to everyone–follow no one.” From Diane Van Deren at the 2010 North Face: “Forget about outcome.” And Tina Heil: “Savor every moment, you have earned it.”

And then I was at the last AS—Piper! These volunteers know they are the last AS before the finish, and they’re happy to remind each runner that the finish is just 3.7 miles ahead. They’re also prepared to identify and treat runners that are showing signs of real fatigue, distress, or injury. They couldn’t have more helpful or compassionate in either situation. I downed two Pepsi’s, ate some Chomps, and thanked those wonderful souls. And then I started running for the last time that day. Forcing myself to stay present—and stay safe, I wanted more than anything to finish feeling strong. I also wanted to race. To keep ahead of my goal as much as possible. Back through the initial first loop of the marathon on the way back toward Hwy 67, there were now Marathon Relay runners blasting though the course toward us at top speed. “Woo hoo!” some of us shouted to them as they flew past us. And then a last ascent. One last, little reminder to accept what the trail offers…then out of the forest and onto the road. Immediately, I missed the forest—the shift to asphalt was stunning. But I had people to run to. And so I ran—as hard as I could with every thing I had left. The last mile and half, across the finish line. Nine minutes ahead of schedule, straight into my husband’s arms. Friends Tina, Paul, and Candice. Such nice people. It meant so much.

Now what? Recovery almost over. Putting some mileage on again. Still loving running and still loving the trail. Could I run it faster? Could I run farther? Would I do it again? YEP.

 If you’re looking for a truly professional event, impeccably supported with the best volunteers anywhere, The North Endurance Challenge doesn’t disappoint. As described on the website and in the Participant Guide:

An ideal course layout for elite speedsters and those taking their first strides in the world of trail ultra running, the Endurance Challenge Madison course is run-able from start to finish, provided that you’ve trained hard enough. Located 60 miles east/southeast of Madison, in the southern reaches of picturesque Kettle Moraine State Park, a large portion of the course takes place on the renowned Ice Age Trail.

The forested area, massaged by monstrous glaciers many millennia ago, contains wake-up-call hill climbs of 200-300 feet and enough undulating terrain to challenge even those granite-legged mountain runners. Overall, the soft, forgiving course is 80% single track, with slightly wider, equestrian sections sprinkled in between. This is the least technical of all the Endurance Challenge courses.

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