November 23, 2016

Now I’m a Trail Runner: The North Face Endurance Challenge

What better way to make the transition into trail running (and overcoming an injury) than to sign up for and conquer an endurance challenge in Wisconsin?

Exactly nine months ago, I was progressing very well from over a year of physical therapy to treat chronic tendinitis in my hamstring. I was finally at the point where, one year removed from completing my first Ironman triathlon, I was ready to get back to exercising.

During my recovery months, my ability to participate in endurance sports was not an option, so I started spending a lot more time outdoors. Hiking, light mountain biking, backpacking, and camping trips had replaced my long hours in the pool and running on my neighborhood roads.

I decided that now that I was ready for my epic comeback to amateur endurance races, it was time to merge this love of the outdoors with my athletic pursuits.

I was going to be a trail runner.

A group of runners setting off on their run.

Four months later, after exploring dozens of trails in Phoenix and Flagstaff, Arizona, I was fully in love with the sport of trail running. I decided that I wanted to try my first trail race. Then, that one little adventurous part of my brain that leads me to bigger and bigger adventures (and occasionally, an injury or two) chimed in and dared me to go beyond a trail race, and commit to an ultramarathon.

I located The North Face Endurance Challenge race series and decided it was perfect. Looking through the list of upcoming races, I saw the Wisconsin race that would take place in Kettle Moraine State Forest.

I’ve never done a trail race.

I’ve never done an ultramarathon.

I’ve never been to Wisconsin.

Perfect!

I arrived unnecessarily early to the state forest where the starting line was set up on the morning of the race. I combatted my pre-race jitters and “what did I get myself into?” mentality by allowing myself to take in the beauty of my surroundings and the energy of the event and its participants.

About 200 yards from the starting line of the race sat Ottawa Lake, perfectly still and shrouded in a thick fog that was illuminated by the rising sun. My typical pre-race restlessness, self-doubt, and sense of urgency that I had felt dozens of times before were nowhere to be found.

Not here.

In the starting line festival area, runners stood around fire pits and warmed up while stretching and sharing casual conversation. I laced up my trail shoes, a pair of The North Face Ultra Endurance GTX® Shoes, that I started wearing a couple of months before.

The North Face Ultra Endurance GORE-TEX® Trail Running Shoes

There wasn’t a lot of science that went into my shoe selection. I just wanted a trail running shoe that looked cool, was light enough, and was waterproof.

“How do you like those shoes?” asked a tall, fit man who was stretching his calves on the other side of the table.

I explained that I liked them, but felt like I hadn’t really put them to the test, with most of my training occurring in the Arizona summer on dirt trails.

“Well, you’ll put them to the test today. I’ve had the same ones for a few months and they’ve been great,” he said.

I smiled and wished him good luck in the race, ensuring him that I was excited, but hiding the fact that my only doubts were tied to my own ability and performance rather than that of my shoes.

The race started slowly, running along the state highway and off into the tree-lined trails of Kettle Moraine State Forest. I made it through the first 10 or 12 miles of the race not out of pure adrenaline or pushing myself like I had anticipated, but simply propelled forward by the sheer beauty of my surroundings and the cheerful energy of my fellow runners.

In my first visit to Wisconsin, I learned two things: Wisconsin is an incredibly beautiful place and people from Wisconsin are incredibly nice.

Near mile 17, as I started to feel my legs get heavier, I kept myself occupied by looking at my surroundings and reminding myself of my pledge earlier in the year that someday, I would be a trail runner.

It occurred to me at that point.

How do you become a trail runner? You run a trail. I was a trail runner.

A sense of pride and empowerment erased any fatigue and I was propelled forward on the Ice Age Trail.

Enjoying my newfound identity as a trail runner, I flew through the tree-lined single track until my shoe caught a tree branch that was hidden by the soft-packed dirt, sending me face first onto the trail, handheld water bottle flying out of my hand and landing 10 feet in front of me.

I was back to reality. I got up and brushed myself off, surveying for any injury beyond the subtle ding to my pride and decided that I was fine to continue. Spitting dirt out of my mouth, I slowed my pace and rejoined my fellow runners.

I arrived at the next aid station with my arm, clothing, and face covered in dirt. I looked up to find a group of about six other runners similarly marked up from the trail.

They smiled and greeted me with a call of “we have another one!”

After explaining to them that I thought I was alone in crashing on the trail, a gentleman from an older age bracket said, “there are two types of trail runners. Those who have fallen and those who will.”

Maybe I was a trail runner after all.

I smiled, cleaned myself up, and retied my shoes. Looking down at their unscathed appearance, I thought to myself that at least some part of me was ready for this race.

I slogged through the final miles of the race and arrived at the finish line. I sat in an ice bath in the GORE-TEX® brand tent and watched the other racers crossing the finish line. The surrounding area felt more like a music festival environment than the end of an ultra endurance race. People smiled, enjoying beverages and sandwiches, each sharing their own war story from the trails that we had all just conquered. I had a momentary sense of accomplishment for completing this race, but immediately started looking forward to the next time that I could get a trail race on the calendar.

I’m a trail runner now.

View from the starting line of The North Face Endurance Challenge Wisconsin.

The North Face Endurance Challenge Wisconsin was my first race, but it certainly won’t be my last.

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