North Face Endurance Challenge - Marathon Race Recap

Meg and I drove up to Kettle Moraine State Park in Wisconsin for my target fall marathon and her half marathon this past weekend. My goals going into this race were simple: try to avoid making rookie mistakes this time around (i.e., no racing out too fast and crashing and burning halfway in ala Chicago last year), get some good miles in on a trail course, and largely disregard my time. I had alluded to this a few times earlier, but one of my motivations for running a trail marathon following the disaster that was my Chicago marathon effort in 2013 was to learn how to properly pace myself and, to a large degree, run by feel without regard for time. I’ve been steadily trimming time off my half marathon PR but didn’t want to rush into another marathon hoping to chase a huge PR without first getting some strategic stuff taken care of first. A trail marathon with tricky terrain, sparse aid stations, and some nasty elevation changes (at least for this flatlander) seemed like a good fit. 

The week of the race was busy for me - I’m interviewing for fellowships now in Hematology/Oncology (cancer care) and as such was in Michigan in the days leading up to the race. Despite the travel schedule, though, I was largely able to get my taper week runs in without incident, sans one six miler, and felt good heading away from Chicago on Friday night. 

We arrived in Wisky on Friday night, got some pizza and pretzels for a final carb load, and I hit the hay early (Meg’s race wasn’t until Sunday). I woke up early on Saturday - the weather looked a bit chilly so I ended up wearing my Brooks running jacket, my Nathan pack (once again, sparse aid stations) filled with Nuun grape flavor (they donate a portion of the proceeds to the Leukemia and Lymphoma society!), a Brooks cap, some Smartwool gloves, my Nike Wildhorses, and North Face Better than Naked running shorts. I opted to go ahead and run this race with my iPod nano as I figured there’d be a good chance I’d be largely completing this race solo. 

We made the fifteen minute drive to the starting area and I did a short 0.5 mile warm up. I felt surprisingly light on my feet and bouncy - the taper worked! I made my way back to the starting corral and bid adieu to Meg just before the race started!

The elevation profile for the race is below:

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The most obvious point here is that, despite all my efforts to incorporate hills into this training cycle, I was completely unprepared for this course’s elevation changes. That also being said, I pretty much acknowledged there wasn’t a whole lot I could do about that anyways - short of moving - and would have to just tough it out to the best of my ability. For a point of comparison, this is the elevation change for the Indiana Dunes where I have been training for the past 16 weeks: 

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So yeah. That’s all I have to say about that.

That all being said, I pretty much went out as planned - I wanted to cruise between 8:20 and 9:00 minutes per mile (my Easy Run pace for the Hansons plan) for as long as possible, knowing that at some point I would likely have to start power hiking some of the hills. Thankfully, the first part of the North Face Wisky course is largely single track in a mix of woods and prairie - very similar terrain to the Dunes, with a mix of sand and dirt. I was able to largely work with another runner for the first 10 miles or so, as well, to keep cruising at the quicker end of my pace goals.

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At about the mile 10 marker my unofficial running buddy got a little gassed - right around the time we were really hitting the meadows on the course and were outside the tree cover. He pulled off to the side and I kept cruising along as best as I was able - for the next six miles or so I largely covered the miles solo with the exception of passing some of the folks still working on completing the 50K and 50 miler racers (they weren’t running, needless to say). 

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The 13.1 mile mark came and went and I was still on pace - the 13th mile itself was a little faster than goal, in the low 8:00s/mile. Kept trucking along.

At about the 18 mile mark - the squiggly portion of the elevation map above - I started to really feel the hills. I had needed to power walk some hills prior to that point, mainly because of the technicality of the single track and the grade of the hills themselves, but by mile 18 I was too gassed, in all honesty, to try and save face by jogging in any meaningful way. Looking at my pace chart you can see the “noise” of my accels/decels/walking really takes over:

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All that being said, though, I felt relatively OK. My left knee was really aching from the downhill action but at that point I largely knew this race was going to be a success - and I was reassured by the fact that I was still passing people and had only been passed by my former running buddy from earlier in the race along with one other guy who I recognized from the earlier miles. Plus, we were back in the trees.

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At that point - about the mile 23 mark - I did my best to power walk up the remaining inclines and run/walk as little as necessary for the remaining three miles. I figured I was right around my Chicago PR from a year ago which - the course considered - I would be totally stoked with. 

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And that’s pretty much how it played out. I crossed the line in 4:03:59, roughly a minute quicker than Chicago, but feeling way way way better this go around (i.e., no vomiting, no semi-syncopal episodes, no aching pain prohibiting me from ambulating). I wouldn’t say I necessarily had a ton of gas left in the tank but I did feel like I had given a more “even” effort for the entirety of the 26.2 miles as opposed to crashing and burning prematurely. And that all led me to feel way better emotionally about this race - it’s amazing how going into a race without a clear time goal can be a great decision for one’s development as a runner. 

The final surprise came as the results rolled in for the other runners - I had placed first in my age division! I knew from last year’s race that breaking four hours was good enough to win the division but had zero way of interpreting what type of effort that time would require since I had never been on the course before. I had forgotten about that bit of research as I recovered in the finish chute but it was definitely a pleasant way to finish my day in Wisconsin.

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What’s next for this fall and winter? A few things. 

1) One more quality half marathon effort in November near my hometown: I PR’d at that distance earlier this summer on a tough course (the North Shore Classic, with its complete lack of tree cover in the second half) in some sub-optimal humid conditions. I’m hoping returning to my flatland roots in November in northern Indiana will give me a great shot at further lowering my PR at the half distance with the ultimate goal of going sub-1:30 in the next year or so.

2) One more quality 5K effort this fall. I haven’t put together a good 5K in the past few years as I’ve focused on getting back in shape after medical school and intern year by putting in miles for the half and full marathon distances. So I’m not necessarily expecting a huge PR. But it would be cool to taper a bit and see if I can put together a sub-20 effort with the long term goal of approaching an 18-flat time in the next two years. 

3) Getting together a quality bit of training for the Louisiana Marathon in January. From everything I’ve gathered it’s a flat, fast course and the weather in Baton Rouge is amenable to running a fast time in the middle of winter. I now have access to a treadmill so I’m hoping that I can approach that marathon with the true goal of substantially lowering my PR. It’ll be tough as I’m not entirely sure where my speed work will be done in the middle of the Chicago winter (tempo running on a treadmill doesn’t sound appealing) but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. That’ll probably be my last marathon race for a year or so at that point as I would really like to ultimately chase PRs (including beating my high school 5K PR) in the year or two after that. 

Thanks for reading, as always. 

I am

runmantra:

"I am—-just as you are—a unique, never-to-be-repeated event in this universe. Therefore, I have—just as you have—a unique, never-to-be-repeated role in this world. Mine is a personal drama for which I am at once author, actor, and director."

-Sheehan

4:03:59

Walked away with the age group win on a terrifically challenging, sandy, hilly course. I think it’s a PR but will have to verify later. Felt great for the most part, right around what I was hoping to run in Kettle Moraine which is pretty much the Indiana Dunes in marathon form. More to come later but I’m stoked.

Kara will receive all the hype and come race day we will all be chanting Desi..Desi…Desi