It’s been one year since I set my personal best time for a 50-mile trail race and stood on the podium of an ultra race for the first time. It was by no means the most competitive race on the ultra planet, but toeing the line a year ago with a goal of breaking 9 hours & besting my then-best time by 45 minutes, only to find that I would crush my goal by crossing the finish line in just under 8-hours was quite the surprise.
I’ve been working with The North Face throughout the year on their Endurance Challenge Series, but the Wisconsin event was an anxiously awaited benchmark for me. Not only is it the location of my 50-mi personal best time, but it is also my home course literally just 30-minutes from where I live. I’ve placed 3rd female at both of the prior TNF events, but for WI I had my mind thinking about 1st with a goal time of 7 hours 30 mins for a finishing time. I’ve had the experience of setting my expectations too high for myself previously this year and it almost drove me to quit, so even though I set my sights high, I keep my expectations reasonable. First place and a 7:30 finish would be the goal but I committed myself to taking the race as it came.
I had at least enough experience over the last 12 months to feel I had some place near the front of the crowd so at 5am I lined up with the race leaders and headed off into the dark morning.
My natural desire is to hit the early miles fast. That’s pretty much a formula for failure for me, so I hung back and found a decent pace through the first 7 miles. I entered in AS 1 to find myself just 10-mins off my pace from the previous year. No big deal, it was early in a long, long race. With my “warm-up” miles out of the way though, I shot into the woods to run a hard 21-miles to the Emma Carlin AS. Through these early miles I had the company of a Madison runner whom I met out at TNF D.C. event earlier this summer. We had the same pace and a similar goal time so we stuck together. It seemed we also had a comfortable understanding that there would be little talking going on at the pace we were pushing, but I was grateful for his presence nonetheless.
Though the course is forgiving, it’s the rolling hills of the Kettle Moraines that can chew a runner up. As I ran through the McMiller AS (mi-16) on my way to Emma Carlin (mi-28) I was able to hit the hills and pick up speed at the top. On the way back I found myself hiking the hills slower and slower, and yard by yard I lost my speed. Coming back through McMiller on the return (mile 34) I knew I was chasing 2nd place by just minutes, but I couldn’t seem to ask any more of my legs with yet 16 miles to go. My only hope for the illusive 2nd place would be if she completely lost her legs and I held on. (At this point 1st-place was out of the question. I saw her miles ahead of me and killing the pace as she danced in the ranks of the top 10 runners of the entire race, of which she placed 4th overall!).
Counting down the miles and back through aid stations I couldn’t help but realize by my crew’s support that I likely wasn’t going to catch 2nd place. Disappointing as that may have been I knew I still had a chance at my personal best time so I pushed through the miles with a new goal of improving last year’s finishing time. I kept saying to myself, “You can be okay with another 3rd place finish if you beat your time. Just beat your time.”
Coming through the last AS with 3.7 miles left I had just over 30-minutes left. I would have to run faster then a 10-minute mile on trails and up the hills on tired legs that had already run 46 miles in order to best my time.
I put my head down and got moving.
As I hit the hills I kept focusing on my new goal. I couldn’t reconcile how I would feel if I didn’t beat my time so I ran as fast as I could. I stayed patient but consistent up the final hill through Scuppernong and as soon as I reached the top I dug deep for whatever was left and hit the downhill hard.
I emerged out of the woods and looked at my watch; 8 minutes left to break my PB. I ran with my arms and used the pumping to move my legs. Seconds felt like minutes so I kept glancing at my watch as the final mile reeled in. I turned the corned to Ottawa Lake Park and reached even deeper; 4 minutes left. As the big red arch came into view I realized just how ridiculous it would be if I saw the finish but couldn’t muster enough will to get there before my PB. “Get there faster”, I repeated to myself louder then the screaming ache from my legs.
One final turn down through the ditch and up over the road, I crossed into the finish a whopping 2-minutes faster then my previous personal best…hehe success!
Another podium finish and I can’t be more excited about my new personal best time of 7 hours & 57 mins for a 50-mi trail race, but The North Face Endurance Challenge-WI means something completely different to me this year. What I remember the most is not my medal or time, but the familiar faces I saw volunteering. As I made my way through the hard miles on the trail, I ran from friend to friend at each aid station. Their smiles and cheers pulled me through to the next.
I may be biased but there’s something special about the WI/Midwest ultra running community. In each of their faces I know that it doesn’t matter whether I run a fast 8 hour race or a beat-the-cut-off race. All that matters is that I run and try. What more could anyone ask for from a group of people willing you to do something as great as finish a 50-mile race?