|Morning mist. All photos are courtesy TNFEC.|
I've never been to the Midwest before, having mainly stuck to the coasts. So when The North Face offered me a chance to run in the third of six Endurance Challenges across the US at Madison, WI, I couldn't turn it down. Over the weekend of September 15-16, the event includes races from a kids' 1-miler to the flagship trail 50-miler which was the one for me, all hosted by Dean Karnazes.
Having seen the Championship event in San Francisco, I knew to expect a well-organized and fun race, albeit without the extremely deep field of that final event. So when the pre-dawn start forced the runners to leave the outdoor heaters and jog out in a stream of head-lamps, it's impossible not to get a thrill from the prospect of a day on new trails.
The early miles went by quickly running and chatting with local Eric Senseman at the front seeing the whole field on the out-and-backs. As we hit sections of the Ice Age Trail in the dawn light there were fields of mist covering the prairies. The sandy and green scenery reminded me of running where I grew up in Northamptonshire in the UK, except with more defined trails. But the small hills hit us like waves, never big but fairly steep and definitely relentless.
|Just after dawn with Eric Senseman|
|Running the first half with Eric Senseman (watch out for him too)|
At half way the race began and the hills gave me a lead before first-time 50-miler, Mike Bialick, caught me and pushed the pace closer to 6 min/miles on the flats. I didn't want to speed up as we weren't even at 30 miles yet but I decided to hang with his pace so he couldn't gap me. I also thought that he might be going out too hard for his first foray into this distance, so forcing him to keep up his effort levels looked like a smart move.
|Hanging on to Mike Bialick just after the marathon distance|
That paid off and several miles of tree-covered and wide trails later I re-took the lead into the 35-mile aid station, building up a three-minute margin by 40 miles. Until this point I hadn't considered the course record of 5:59 but with the forced pace and the threat of Mike behind I didn't want to sit back and relax.
Those final miles included some soft sandy sections that couldn't be avoided, even along the side of the trail and on tired legs sand is not what you want to face. What you also don't want to see is Mike charging along 30 seconds behind you when he seemed to have been out of it. So with just two miles left I kicked it up a notch, hoping that if I could keep him far enough behind then I wouldn't be forced to sprint finish the final 0.8 miles on the road.
To my relief it paid off and I held on for 5:57:39 with Mike barely a minute back - an incredibly impressive debut for him at 50 miles and he's bound to have some great ultra results ahead of him. Full results from the 50-miler are here.
This is a fast trail course with 6,282ft of ascent but no big climbs. The closest race I can compare it to is American River 50 in California, except AR50 is faster due to half of it being on flat bike paths. It's well worth a trip, especially to see that ethereal early mist.
Also, this was the longest outing for my light TNF Hyper Track Guide shoes (available 2013), which are the best trail shoes I've ever used. A huge improvement in racing shoes by TNF and suitable for virtually any terrain.