On Saturday, September 16th I ran the North Face Endurance Challenge 50k in Wisconsin. This was my A race for the fall, the one I went into with big goals. I recorded my training with monthly recaps as part of MCM Mama‘s Tuesdays on the Run linkups. It was a hot steamy day, with temps approaching 90 by the afternoon. What started off as a great race, quickly became a walk fest, and while I ended with a PR and an age group win, part of me is terribly unhappy with the result.
Wisconsin 50k runners begin at Ottawa Lake Camp Grounds and run towards the Scuppernog trail head. I had done two long training runs at Scuppernog to prepare and felt very confident in this section. Then participants proceed to the Ice Age Trail for a small loop on horse trails and then a larger loop on a mixture of wooded trails and open prairie. Those prairie sections were ROUGH in the heat. I was not expecting to be in the open so much – about half of the race is through these open sections with no tree cover. To finish, the trail loops back around and intersects with an earlier section to take runners back to Ottawa Lake. Aid stations are every five to six miles: 6.9, 11.5, 16.8, 22.4, and 27.7. Check out the map below:
The terrain varies during the course. The Scuppernog area is very rocky. The prairie sections consist of long grass that’s been trampled down, with slight rolling hills. The later section of the race, starting around mile 22 through 29ish, is extremely sandy. It was like running on the beach! Basically, half the race is in open prairie, running on grass or sand, which is way more than I expected.
Obviously, neither I nor the race director can’t change the open fields or sandy terrain. I’ll just have to train differently to prepare for that. But what I really hope DOES change is the spectator support. For the 50k, spectators can only be at the start line, mile 6 and the finish line. I told my parents not to come watch because they would have been waiting around for hours without being able to see me. When we are baking in the sun, it would be really nice to have some moral support.
Race Day Evening/Morning
Conveniently, packet pickup was available at the North Face Store on Michigan avenue in Chicago. On Friday, I picked that up and the race t-shirt (just a plain blue one!) before driving up to Wisconsin. I stayed overnight at a Staybridge Suites in Oconomowoc. I chose that hotel for a kitchen to make my typical pre-race dinner meal and morning toast. Plus it was just a 20 minute drive to the start line. Unlike Ice Age, ECS Wisconsin 50k runners did not have a drop bag, so I didn’t have to worry about packing that. Instead, I just brought my Ultimate Direction pack and carried what I thought I’d need with me: tart-cherry energy bites, sweet potato cookies, salt tabs, and Nuun Performance. I would rely on the aid stations for water refills and extra food.
My pre-race meal was a heavier lunch consisting of my typical tempeh, sweet potato, and black bean meal that I had practiced with throughout training. In the evening I did simple toast and nut butter/fruit. In the morning, I woke up at 5:30am and ate mango almond butter toast and drank chai tea. I left the hotel by 6:10 to make sure to arrive by 6:30. That gave me 30 minutes to get mentally ready, use the restroom, do a short little warmup before the race started at 7am.
That day, there was the Wisconsin 50k and the 50 mile, marathon and marathon relay. It was a similar setup to when I ran the Endurance Challenge in Ontario last summer. I knew about 20 people from November Project participating in the relay. They stayed at the start/finish area and ran the Scuppernog section. That meant the 50k would hook back up with them at the end of the race. I was looking forward to having a big group of people to cheer me in.
They sent us off in waves so the trail wouldn’t get crowded. I was in wave 2. About one mile into the race, we came to a huge hill. I was the only one in my wave to walk it, but later I picked off everyone who passed me. I smiled smugly each time I did so.
Honestly, miles 1-22 I felt great. I kept it slow and controlled for the first hour and a half through Scuppernog and onto the Ice Age trail. After Aid Station 3, I began to increase my speed. I was going through a lot more water than what I normally do, and would have to fill up both water bottles at each aid station. I ran out of Nuun Performance, but luckily the aid stations had Skratch. I actually did not use the food I brought with me until mile 24ish or so; I think the heat kept me from feeling hungry. Seeing the food at aid stations reminded me to eat. I was THRILLED to see boiled potatoes and salt! I ate one every time, in addition to a peanut butter and jelly wedge. Also Coke as a treat at 22 and 27.7.
I was flying through the first few sections of the prairie, especially after leaving Aid Station #4 (16.8 miles into the race). I felt phenomenal until mile 22 – by then I had passed everyone who had run up the initial hill. But then, I hit the wall both physically and mentally. I was hot. I was definitely getting sunburned. I was sick of seeing flat open fields. It didn’t help that I tripped around mile 24 – in the middle of a field with absolutely nothing around! Who does that?!
There were times when I was in the fields, sweating my ass off in the sun, praying for hills to come so I would have an excuse to walk. Never thought that would have happened. But then I began to walk even in the flat prairie and the sand. I was really mentally fatigued towards the end and wish I had a friendly face. I ended up taking my phone out at mile 26 to text my mom. She had texted me mere minutes earlier “keep going!” as if she had that mommy spidey-sense that I needed encouragement.
At mile 29 I passed a guy walking. He said, “You know you’re the 4th place female right now and the 3rd place girl isn’t too far ahead of you. She’s scared of you.” WHAT?! I thought I was doing well, but not that well! I gained on her and saw her in the distance ahead of me, sometimes walking, sometimes running. I tried so hard to muster up the strength and energy to run faster. It helped seeing Stewart, a co-leader of November Project, on her leg of the marathon relay. We were able to run it in together.
But I didn’t make it in time. My official time was 5:06:58.
Thirty seconds. That’s the amount of time that separated the third place finisher and myself. Thirty. Stupid. Seconds.
I achieved all the goals that I set out for myself – get a PR (I did by twenty minutes) and place in my age group (I was first). Way deep down, I had entertained the idea of getting on the podium, but I wrote that off as I would have to be the only running in order to happen. To know that I could have stood on that podium if I could have found a mere thirty seconds somewhere in the race is putting a huge grey mark on my experience.
Dealing with Satisfaction and Dissatisfaction
So how do you deal with that feeling? That feeling of getting your goals but begin really unhappy with your performance? Most people wouldn’t be so mad at themselves for getting a personal record and for winning their age group. But I’m a competitive perfectionist who beats herself up all the time. Obviously, that’s unhealthy. And to be honest, that’s why it’s taken me so long to write this race recap. I simply didn’t know how to process it.
How do you give value to two opposing emotions and find a way to appreciate both? How can I be happy with achieving a HUGE twenty-minute personal record and an age group win? I wallowed in that dark “what if” rabbit hole for the rest of the weekend and the better part of last week. And then my friend Laura told me to write about it. To find a way to give space to both emotions and acknowledge both. Writing is how I process my thoughts and feelings, so I penned the pros and
cons “points to improve” list below:
Pros: I wasn’t as tired physically as I was during the last miles of Earth Day 50k and felt strong on all the hills. I prepared well for elevation. I got a freaking PR by 20 minutes. I won my age group. I only fell once. I passed 4 girls and 17 guys in the race (not that I was counting…) and was only passed once. I learned a lot more this training cycle about what types of workouts work better for ultra marathons. I had a good time after the race with November Project friends.
Points to improve: I was not able to find the mental drive to push faster. I missed the podium by 30 seconds. I hit the wall around mile 22/23, so clearly my hydration/nutrition was off in the heat. I was not prepared to run on sand.
This writing exercise helped me a lot. Clearly there were more positive points than negative ones, and seeing that written out has gotten the disappointment out of my head. Well, MOSTLY out of my head. At the very least, I feel better about the race after writing this than I had before.
This 50k is well organized, the aid stations had everything I needed or wanted. Plus they started handing out water, ice and wet towels to try to cool us down. I like having a “home base” at the start/finish line where everyone hung out. The race is also conveniently located close to Chicago. On a nice weather day, I’d recommend ECS Wisconsin 50k… on a hot weather day, I’m not so sure. I’m glad I was able to process my emotions and turn what felt like a failure into action steps. Onward I go!
Have you ever gotten a PR but been upset anyway? How did you handle it? How do you handle disappointment in general? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!