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North Face Endurance Challenge 50k

As is usual in the days leading up to a big race, I was sure I was coming down with a cold last week. I didn’t actually feel sick, but just a bit “off.” I had that slightly headachy feeling, was extremely tired, and I was convinced my throat was getting sore. I have come to realize that this is my body’s reaction to the last week of taper, but it makes me very paranoid every time. So from Wednesday on, I was drinking OJ, getting lots of sleep and popping extra JuicePlus+ capsules in an effort to ward off the sick gods.

It worked, and I got a great night of sleep the night before the race. I was asleep by 10pm  on Friday, and when my alarm went off at 4:25am, I was genuinely confused. It took me a moment to remember that it was race day. Normally I toss and turn all night, afraid that I will over sleep, so this was a nice change. I got up and immediately made my coffee and had my breakfast of toast with peanut butter, honey and cinnamon. I saved my banana for later because I just wasn’t that hungry. I got dressed and threw a bunch of random running tops/jackets in my bag because I had no idea what to wear considering the weather. My friend James picked me up at 5:15, and we made the drive out to Ottawa Lake.

All the way out there it was pouring rain and lightning, and I couldn’t help but think about the poor 50 mile racers who set off in the dark stormy weather at 5am. By the time we got there it had stopped raining, but it looked like we were in store for more throughout the morning. I decided to wear a very light paper-thin running jacket over my tank top, just for some protection from the elements. Here I am pre-race, before making my final wardrobe decision:

We made our way to the starting area, and I was already regretting the jacket. It was pretty warm (probably around 60 degrees), and I knew I really wouldn’t need it. The jacket is really light though, so I figured it wouldn’t be a big deal to just tie it around my waist. I ran into some friendly faces before the start and chatted for a bit, wishing everyone luck. We all knew we were in for a crazy, sloppy, muddy, and wet race, and I was really excited! Right before the race started, Ultramarathon Man himself Dean Karnazez was on hand to give us a little pep talk and wish us luck. That was a pretty cool surprise. He is much smaller in person than he looks in photos. A lot of photos make him look really beefy, but he actually has a pretty typical marathoner’s build.

At 7am sharp, we were off. The course started out with a little bit less than a mile on the roads leading out of the park before we hit the trails. Once on the trail, there was an almost immediate long uphill. I just took it easy, knowing I had a long way to go. My first few miles were in the low-mid 9 minute range, which was perfect. My stomach was feeling a little bit unsettled, but I was hoping that would just go away. In the first few miles I got passed a lot. I tried not to worry about it and just focused on running easy. By mile 8, I was pretty much alone. The occasional person would pass me, or I would pass someone here and there, but for the most part I was alone with no one else in sight. I was glad that the course was marked very well with ribbons and signs, because I have a fear of getting lost on a trail run.

The terrain was varied, but a lot of it was not surprisingly mud. I am talking deep thick mud that tried to pull my shoes off several times. It was very slippery, sometimes I would plant a foot and it would slip any which way. It made for slightly slower travels than I would have liked. There were some sections where it would be pretty flat for a few miles, and then I would come to a section that was very hilly and reminded me of running at Lapham Peak. For the most part, I chose to walk up the really big hills in order to save energy. Later in the race, there were some very sandy sections, which was also a challenge.

My stomach continued to feel really unsettled through mile 15, and I started to worry that I would be able to take in enough calories. I started the race with my handheld bottle full of Heed, but that’s only around 150 calories. I knew I needed to start taking in some nutrition. There was an aid station around mile 16, and I decided to take a mint chocolate Gu as well as 1/4 of a banana. I refilled my bottle with water only, because I have never tried whatever sports drink they were serving. The aid stations were every 5-6 miles, and they were very well-stocked with food, liquids, and great volunteers. After I took in the calories, my stomach felt really bad for a few minutes and I was worried. But then out of nowhere I started to feel better. The next few miles I would just get twinges of pain, but it finally disappeared once and for all.

Coming into that aid station, it had started to rain again, and as I was leaving the skies broke loose. One of the volunteers told me I looked great and to try to “stay dry.” I looked at him and we both started laughing at the absurdity of his statement. It was seriously pouring. There were loud cracks of thunder that made the whole thing feel pretty epic. I chatted with a guy on the trail for a bit, and then I wiped out. I planted in the mud and just went down before I knew what was happening. Luckily I wasn’t hurt, and was able to pop right back up and keep going.

The next few miles were pretty tough. My legs were really starting to get tired, and I knew there was a long way to go. Around mile 20, the trail got very hilly with lots of ups and downs, and I went to a bit of a dark place mentally. Not only had I not run as far as a marathon yet, but once I did, I still had 5 miles to go. I just kept telling myself to keep moving forward, and it would be over before I knew it. The next aid station was just before mile 22, and I had a Hammer Gel and another 1/2 of a banana. I saw some pb&j sandwiches at the last minute, but decided not to eat one. There was a sign telling us it was 5.3 miles to the next aid station. I knew that was going to seem like a really long ways, but I made it my goal to get there and have some pb&j. Gotta have some motivation, right?

I set out again, and here’s where things got sort of fun in a way. I started to see some of the guys that had passed me earlier in the race, and I started to pick them off one by one. My legs were really hurting, but it felt great to start passing people. Each time I passed someone, I told them nice job, and they told me I was looking great and running smart. My only focus now was on that last aid station. After what seemed like forever, I finally got there. I had a mocha Clif shot and refilled my water bottle. There was a sign that said 3.8 miles to go, and I was so happy. I didn’t even bother with the pb&j, I just wanted to finish!

Once there were 3 miles to go, I felt like I had a second wind and the pain in my legs was gone. They were beyond tired, sure, but I really felt like I could pick it up to the finish. With about 2.5 miles to go, I passed a woman who I had my eyes on early in the race. I knew that I was close to the road back into the park when I hit the long downhill that we had climbed in the beginning. Running down that hill was killer, my quads were screaming at me, but I was making good time. Once I hit the road I kicked it into high gear and somehow ran the last mile in 8:12. I crossed the finish line in 5:08:49 with a huge smile on my face, so happy to be done. I got my finishers medal and water bottle, and then I heard my friend Joel calling my name.

Joel had finished the race in a smokin’ 4:02, and he was parked in his lawn chair near the finish line. I talked to him for a bit, and he told me he thought I was the 3rd or 4th female finisher. I couldn’t believe it. I went to get some food and met up with James. This race probably had the best post-race food I have ever had. I ate a roll with peanut butter, some veggie soup, an amazing salad with cranberries, feta cheese, and walnuts, and 2 of the most delicious cookies ever. They were oatmeal craisin chocolate chip, and I probably could have easily scarfed down 3 more.

Around 1pm they posted some of the results, and James went to look at them. He came back and told me I was 3rd overall female and 1st in the F21-29 age group! I still couldn’t believe it, but I was so happy. For my 3rd place finish, I won an awesome North Face running jacket and a bronze medal.

My lower body was completely caked in mud.

Here are my official results:

Finishing time: 5:08:49

Average pace: 9:54/mile

31/142 overall

3/30 females

1/6 age group (F21-29)

All in all it was a great day. Even though I still have mud in my toenails, I am already looking forward to more ultrarunning and trail running in the near future. Official race photos should be ready in a day or two, so hopefully there will be some good pictures from out on the trail. Happy running!

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How I trained for a 50k

When it comes down to it, training for a 50k is not all that different from training for a marathon. Sure, it’s 5 more miles than a marathon, and every step past the 26.2 mile mark will be into uncharted territory, but it’s only 5 miles, right? Right, someone please tell me that when I am at mile 28 on Saturday. Then run fast because I will probably attempt to punch you in the face.

Here’s a course description from the North Face Endurance Challenge website:

An ideal course layout for elite speedsters and those taking their first strides in the world of trail ultrarunning, 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.

There are not an abundance of ultramarathon training plans floating around out there, but there are a couple I found online which I used to loosely base my long runs on. For this race, since my goal is not to finish fast, but to finish without dying and finish strong (the latter may be pushing it), I made my focus on running lots and lots of miles. My weekly mileage peaked out around 60 miles, which is actually quite a bit for me. My Saturday long run peaked at 26 miles, three weeks out from the race, followed by a 20 and a 10 the two weekends after that. I generally ran 5-6 days a week, swam 1-2 days, and biked once on Sundays, usually 35-60 miles.

Being that this is a trail race, the key thing I did during training was to get out on the trails. Makes sense, right? Once a week, usually Wednesday, I headed out to Lapham Peak and ran 10-15 miles on the brutally hilly trails out there. My pace on these runs was very slow (think 10 min/mile range), but it got my legs used to running on lots of hills and uneven terrain. I am pretty sure hopeful that Saturday’s course is a bit less hilly/steep than Lapham Peak, or you may find me keeled over in the woods come nightfall.

Last year I ran the half-marathon at this event:

Last year the event was in late October, it was chilly but beautiful! I plan on trying to get lots of sleep tonight to rest up. I feel ready and I’m excited to take on the challenge. T minus two days!

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And it begins again

Steve and I have officially registered for Ironman WI 2011.

So.Excited.

This past weekend I was quite the spectathlete. On Saturday Steve participated in his first half-ironman in Lake Geneva, and I was there to cheer him on. Though the weather was less than stellar (cold & rainy), he did a great job and finished with a smile on his face. Here he is just about to cross the finish line:

And showing off his bling:

I am so proud of him for how far he has come! From basically no exercise whatsoever to a 70.3 mile race in less than a year. Amazing!

On Sunday we headed out to Madison to watch some of Ironman WI and soak up the energy. I was able to see several people I know on the run, which was great! We hung out mostly on State St and cheered for the runners, then headed to the finish line for a bit. I got pumped up big time for 2011.

Monday was the day to register for next year, and it was a serious mess. The online registration got so bogged down that we kept getting all kinds of errors. After a phone call to the credit card company to verify that our card was charged (ouch!) and a call to Active.com, our registration was confirmed. Man, they need to come up with a better system.

This year has been the year of running for me. I didn’t have the motivation for biking, I just wanted to run run run. So rather than drudge through training for a half-ironman, I simply decided not to. I was worried that I really wouldn’t want to train for Ironman next year, but after being in Madison and feeling the race energy, I am ready.

My year of the run will culminate this Saturday, as I take on the North Face Endurance Challenge 50k. That’s 31 miles of trail running, and I can’t wait to be out there! I also have a few ideas for the old blog, so stay tuned…

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I am finally getting around to writing up my race report for last Saturday’s race. Steve and I headed up to Florence, WI on Friday afternoon. After a total GPS FAIL, we finally found our B&B and got checked in. I so wish that I had taken a picture of our room, called “Santina’s Delight.” I actually can’t believe that I didn’t document that, because it was hilarious. Let’s just say it was powder blue and full of cherubs. Let your mind run wild.

After we dropped our stuff off, we walked over to the race packet pick-up. We got our numbers and shirts, and decided to stay for the pasta dinner, since the only other restaurant in town boasted “Italian-Mexican-American Fare” on the sign. A little sketchy if you ask me. The pasta was good, and we headed back to “Santina’s Delight” for some R&R. We did have a very nice balcony overlooking Fischer Lake, so we lounged around for a bit before hitting the hay.  

 5am came pretty quickly, and I got up and started my pre-race ritual. Canned coffee from Whole Foods (no I don’t usually drink canned coffee, but you gotta do what you gotta do), peanut butter bread, and a banana. Here I am all ready to go:  

  

Steve drove me to the race, which had a 7:00 start, and then headed back to get ready for his 10k race that started at 8:30. There was a pre-race meeting to go over course markings and the river crossing and such.  

Photo Credit: Bill Flaws

Let me back up here. The week before the race we got an email from the race director that said this:  

“Bring two pairs of running shoes if you have them.  There is a stream crossing at 17 miles, just before the aid station, and we will drop off a fresh pair of shoes for you if you want them.  About a month ago I saw two deer cross and they made big splashes but made it across gracefully –  barely broke stride.”  

Ok, no biggie. I packed my road running shoes to change into since I don’t have an extra pair of trail shoes. During the pre-race meeting we found out that this was to be a little more than a stream. In fact, it is actually a river big enough for boats.  

The race started, and all 38 runners were off. The start/finish area was at Keyes Peak Ski Lodge, so naturally the area was quite hilly. I settled into a very comfortable pace. My goal for this race was not to run fast, but to run comfortably and really enjoy myself. Here I am around mile 3:  

Photo Credit: Bill Flaws

 One requirement of the race was that everyone had to carry a 20 oz water bottle or other hydration system. The race was all very environmentally friendly, so this eliminated any cup waste. I didn’t have a water belt, so I purchased a handheld water bottle with a strap. I thought it was going to annoy me to no end, but it actually worked out fine. A lot of times there were 5 miles or so between aid stations, so it was nice to be able to constantly have water available. I tried to remember to take a sip every couple of minutes to stay hydrated. Mile 9:  

Photo Credit: Bill Flaws

As you can see, I was just enjoying myself. The trails were beautiful, and I was just trying to pay attention to my surroundings (and the trail markers!) and take it all in. Right around mile 18 I came to the river crossing. There was a sign marked “swim,” which just pointed straight to the water. Then there was a sign marked “run,” which pointed to a little trail leading down to the water. There was a rope strung across the river to hold onto, and a guy in the middle to help people across. Here’s how it went down:  

Photo Credit: Bill Flaws

Photo Credit: Bill Flaws

 Here my feet got swept out from under me by the current:  

Photo Credit: Bill Flaws

 Making it out the other side:  

Photo Credit: Bill Flaws

Photo Credit: Bill Flaws

Right after this there was an aid station where I changed into my dry road shoes. It felt nice to have dry feet, but this may have been a bit of a mistake, as some of the trails after this point were a little more technical, and I was wishing for my trail shoes. The water was cold but very refreshing, and my legs felt great for the next few miles due to the impromptu ice bath.  

I passed a few people in the last 5 miles, and because I had been taking it easy, I still felt really good. The biggest hills were around miles 24-25, because we had to come up the back of the ski hill and then down the front to the finish. Here I am coming down the final stretch:  

  

That guy came out of nowhere and passed me right at the end. And crossing the finish line:  

  

I finished in 4:21:13, which I was really happy with for my first trail marathon. Steve also finished his first trail run ever, which ended up being a little more than a 10k due to some poor course markings. Here we are after the races (yes, Steve ran the race in his Vibrams):  

  

I ended up winning my age group, only to find out the next day that I was actually last in my age group (there were only 3 of us). The other two took second and third overall (I was 4th), so by default I was the only one left for the age group award. No matter, I’ll take it! I won a sweet Mountain Hardwear hoody:  

  

Steve took 3rd in his age group and won the cutest little bottle of local maple syrup. Here we are with our goods:  

  

Afterwards I was too lazy to take a shower, so I just lounged around covered in mud:  

  

My poor road shoes didn’t fare so well:  

  

Once I mustered the energy to get cleaned up, it was time for…what else?  

  

Mint fudge in a waffle cone. Holy yum!  

So there you have it. I think I may be addicted to trail running now, it was so much fun! I may have mentioned to Steve that Boston next year may be my last road marathon (gasp!). Of course he didn’t believe me, but we’ll see. 🙂

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Oh yeah…

So I’m running a marathon this Saturday. To be more specific, I am running the Keyes Peak Trail Marathon in Florence, WI.

It was kind of last minute, but I found out about the race, and Steve and I decided to head up north for our anniversary weekend. I am running the marathon and he is running the 10k. I have never run that far on trails before, so it is sure to be quite the challenge. I am not nervous though, I am doing this for pure enjoyment, with no pressure to go fast at all. I am sure I will be walking some of it, especially if it is really hilly. I know the course will be really beautiful, so I am trying to devise a way to carry my camera, but I don’t know if that’s going to happen.

My longest run since the marathon on May 1st was this past Friday, when I ran 11.5 miles on the Ice Age Trail in 90 degree heat and humidity. I really did a number on myself by not carrying enough water, and ended up super-dehydrated and sore. Now I am just taking it very easy until Saturday and trying to rest my poor muscles.

It didn’t help that this past Saturday and Sunday I was pretty much sitting all day and didn’t get any change to excercise or move around to flush out my legs. I was attending a course in Green Bay to become a certified running coach. Now I just have to pass the test and you can call me Coach Laura!

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Now that I have bored you with my running history, let me try to be specific as to how exactly I was able to break through and take a huge chunk off of my marathon time. First of all, I will be frank in saying that at least some of my fitness carried over from training for and completing Ironman WI last year. I took my body to a whole new level of fitness, and on some level I know that has helped me to become a faster runner. However, the following are things I did that are specific to training for the 2010 WI Marathon:

1. Treadmill Intervals. I would say that 95% of my speed work in training for this marathon was on the treadmill and not the track. Why? It forced me to run faster. I didn’t trust myself to be able to keep the paces I wanted if left to my own devices on the track.

My interval session every week consisted of repeats of various distances, from 400’s to 1600’s. The training plan I followed based the goal times for these intervals off of my 10k pace. Since I have never actually run a 10k race (except on a gnarly trail), I think I estimated that pace to be somewhere around 7:30/mile. The training plan would say something like 12×400 at 10k pace minus 55-60 secs. Therefore I needed to run my 400’s at 6:30-6:35 pace.

On the treadmill this is easy. Ok, not easy in a physical sense, but easy to make sure you are on pace. Crank the thing up, then run your ass off or fall off and look like a total dufus. I usually made a custom playlist the night before these workouts to keep me pumped up. Though some of these workouts were killer and I wanted to die at times, I always felt an awesome sense of accomplishment when I was done. 

2. The tempo run. These workouts really gave me confidence. They were anywhere from 4-10 miles, and just like the intervals, the training plan gave me goal paces to hit depending on the distance. Again this was based on my estimated 10k pace. There were days when I headed out not believing that I could sustain the goal pace, but I almost always did, often times even faster. I did all of these runs outside, and used the auto-lap feature on my Garmin just to check each mile split. It was motivating to hear the watch beep at the end of each mile and find that I was running faster than I thought.

3. The long run. I did almost every long run at or better than marathon goal pace (8:23/mile). This is the opposite of what many training plans tell you to do, many of them prescribing a long run pace that is 1-2 minutes slower than marathon goal pace. The plan I followed would have had me doing my long runs at 8:30-8:45 pace. I did this in the beginning, but as the weeks went by I found I was comfortable running faster, so I went with it. It helped my body to know exactly what it felt like to run faster for longer distances.

4. I ran with a faster friend. This was key for me. I did almost every long run, as well as the marathon itself with my friend James, who is much faster than me. During our long runs, I automatically ran faster (while he was still running super-easy I’m sure). Having him run with me at the marathon was invaluable, and I don’t know if I could have done it alone. It would have been much tougher for sure.

5. Bank time early. This also goes against conventional wisdom, which emphasizes not going out too fast in the race. My goal was to start the race running at an 8:10-8:15 pace, banking 8-13 seconds every mile that I could give back at the end if I needed to. I knew it would be a fine line between pulling this off and really going out too fast and crashing. However, I know myself and how I typically feel in the final miles of a marathon. I can’t see being able to pick it up at the end, or even holding pace.

In reality, I went out much faster than this, but I felt great so I went with it. By mile 20 I had banked almost 4 minutes, and I took great comfort in knowing that I could slow down if I needed to (which I did), and still meet my goal. At the end I felt awful and had absolutely nothing left, but I made it. I had no rush of endorphins to carry me across the finish line. I was completely spent, but that was the plan. I’m not saying it was a good or bad plan, but it is what worked for me.

 

So there you have it. That’s how I went from a 3:56:31 to a 3:37:49 in exactly one year. Hopefully some of these insights can help you in your training for an event or just running in general. Once again, they are things that worked for me, and not all of them will likely work for everyone. For example, if you are a beginner, it is probably not a good idea to do your long runs faster than marathon goal pace, as it will take you too long to recover from those harder efforts. I have noticed that over the past 7 years of running and doing triathlons, my body can recover from long workouts much faster than it used to. It took me a full 6 years to get to the point where I feel I am making real solid improvements, and my running is where I want it to be.

A few years ago if someone told me I would complete an Ironman and qualify for the Boston Marathon, I would have laughed in their face. Now I am wondering what else is possible…

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Before I post about how I was able to improve my running enough to qualify for the Boston Marathon, I thought it would be fun and helpful to give you a history of the previous marathons I have run, from the beginning.

I have been running marathons since 2003. My first one remains one of the most memorable. I raised $4200 for Team in Training, traveled to Alaska, and completed the Mayor’s Midnight Sun Marathon in Anchorage in 4:07:47. Ever since that first race I was hooked. I knew that someday I would break 4 hours, and that was my ultimate goal. My next 3 marathons were all Chicago, in 2003 (4:15:18), 2004 (4:27:10), and 2005 (4:17:00). I really wasn’t getting any closer to the 4 hour mark, in fact I couldn’t even beat the time from my first marathon. I decided it was time to do something different in training. Up until this point, I had never really done speedwork, and I’m sure all of my running was probably done at the same steady (slow) pace.

The next marathon I signed up for was the Lakefront Marathon in Milwaukee in 2006. I decided this was the year I would break 4 hours. I started using a 3-run-per-week training plan that included one interval run, one tempo run, and one long run per week. I also cross trained twice a week, usually biking. That October I ran a 3:57:03 at Lakefront. I was so happy to have finally accomplished my goal. I ran Chicago again three weeks later and finished in 4:27:20, thus running my fastest and slowest marathon to date in the same month. I considered giving up marathons at this point because I honestly didn’t think any other goals were possible. Yes, maybe I could beat my time, but Boston qualifying or even a 3:50 was so far out of reach I didn’t even consider the possibility.

In 2007 I did not run a marathon. I can’t remember the reasoning, other than I had a friend’s wedding on the date of Chicago, and I just didn’t sign up for anything else. I still ran throughout the year, but nothing longer than probably 6 or 7 miles. I didn’t think I would miss the marathon, but by the end of 2007 I was hungry. I decided that I would run Chicago again in 2008. I also got into triathlon around this time and signed up for my first half-ironman. Running in 2008 was memorable because I ended up training my friend Cammie for her first marathon. We did our long runs together amidst hours and hours of good conversation. I didn’t have any goal for the race other than to run for fun. I finished in 4:10:58, though deep down I knew I had the fitness to run a lot faster than that. Without a goal pushing me it just didn’t happen. I went home feeling a little bit unsatisfied.

In 2009 I heard about the inaugural WI Marathon in May, and decided I would carry over my fitness throughout the winter and go for a PR in the spring. I followed the same 3-run training plan, and I was feeling so good about where I was at that I made my goal for the race not only to PR, but to break 3:50. Though I was on pace for most of the race, my stomach got the best of me and I had a horrible finish. I still PR’d with a 3:56:31, but it was a huge disappointment.

Fall of 2009 was Ironman WI. Though I did not do another fall marathon, I ended the year in the best shape of my life and decided to go for a major PR at the WI Marathon in 2010. As I started training my goal was to break 3:50, but my running was going so well that thoughts of Boston started to creep into my head. I didn’t want to get my hopes up, but I started to wonder if the impossible had become a possibility. My long runs were on pace and I was feeling great. I knew that if everything came together on May 1st I would be golden. Well things obviously came together and I was able to finish in 3:37:49, good for Boston qualifying and also a huge 18:42 PR. I am still amazed with how far I have come in one year, and next I will try to go into specific detail on how I was able to get faster.

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