My first two 50Ks, just 10 weeks apart, met a goal a year in the making and also paved the way for new challenges.
By Henry Howard
Last year, I had the opportunity to interview one of the most inspirational people I have ever met, Noah Galloway.
Best known for his amazing performance on Dancing With the Stars, Galloway is a double amputee from injuries he suffered in the Iraq war.
During our interview, Galloway told me “everyone should do something that scares them.” I decided to accept his challenge, upping my ultra ante — doing my first two 50Ks just 10 weeks apart.
An inspired ultra challenge
It was a fitting challenge for me, given that I would be a 13-time marathon finisher by the time I would attempt and complete my two-ultra quest. It was also a fitting tribute to Galloway, who himself has completed marathons — including the Marine Corps Marathon and the Bataan Death March Memorial (twice) — as well as Tough Mudders and pretty much any other hard-core endurance event you can name.
I had already committed to running the Buckeye Trail 50K as my first ultra marathon, and later added on the North Face Endurance Challenge Series event in Wisconsin, Sept. 17 for my second.
I learned a lot about myself from the two events, and also learned quite a bit from the first to the second race.
A goal in mind, strategy in place
I had run the Wisconsin event last year as a marathon. Once again, the North Face race directors put on an excellent race. From the easy packet pickup and educational panel discussion to the helpful volunteers to the post-race party, the North Face Endurance series is top notch. While I am still working on my 2017 race calendar, I hope to find a spot for another one in the North Face series.
As is the case with all events in the North Face ECS, this year’s 50K was held the same day as the 50-miler, marathon, marathon relay and half marathon. Shorter distances were held the following day. Even with all those runners —246 in the 50K and more than 600 overall on the first day — I never experienced crowding as is often the case in trail races.
We started out at 7 a.m. with temperatures in the low 60s and little evidence of the light rain that fell the previous night.
My goal was to run between 5:15-5:20, based on my previous finishing time at the marathon last year. If everything went perfectly, I could see a 5:00, but if things went poorly, I just wanted to beat 6:00. So I set out through Kettle Moraine State Park, aiming to beat 1:40 in each of the 10-mile sections.
For nutrition, I was delighted beyond belief that Tailwind Nutrition would be served at the race, along with the customary aid station food including peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, bananas, salted potatoes, M&Ms, water, Coke and other fueling options.
I bypassed the first aid station at the 1.8-mile mark but stopped briefly at the next one a little more than 5 miles later. Even though I was feeling good, I wanted to keep hydrating and refueling with real food. Since I had practiced my fueling strategy with PB&J, M&Ms and bananas, those were my fuels of choice during the first couple of aid stations. No stomach issues whatsoever and I cleared the first 10-mile mark about 7 minutes ahead of my 1:40 goal pace.
The course had an elevation gain of 3,886 feet. Throughout the day, runners went up and down hills and darted across the prairies. The hills seemed to be less brutal than the Buckeye Trail, though I also exerted patience and conserved energy by choosing to walk up the hills regularly. (That was among the lessons learned from the first ultra.)
I was moving well through the woods and continued to embrace the aid station goodies while sipping Tailwind in my OrangeMud pack that I wore. At the 20-mile mark, I was still about 5 minutes ahead of pace. However, it was a little after 10:30 now and the sun was starting to bake the runners.
Never give up
It was around this time that I reflected back to Galloway. He faced tremendous odds in survival, much less completing his endurance sports. If he can will himself through endurance challenges, then so can I.
Several mantras bounded through my head at this point: “Never give up.” “Relentless forward progress” (the title of the magazine story on Galloway). “You can and you will.” And probably some others that I have since forgotten.
The miles continued to tick away … 21, 22, 23 … my legs were heavy but still working hard … 24, 25, 26 … I was now into my second longest run ever … 27, 28, 29 … less than two miles to go. At this point, I knew that the last uphill had been completed. I headed back toward the finish-start line, knowing I would have a huge PR. The only question was by how many minutes.
After my watch signaled Mile 30, I pushed down a little harder on the accelerator, looking for the intersection that would indicate a half-mile to go. At this point, there was a steady stream of 50-milers returning from a turnaround point and heading back to the trails. We exchanged high-fives and well wishes and soon enough I was making the turn toward the finish line.
My final time was 5:08:52, a PR of over 75 minutes. The time was good enough for 27th overall and first of 16 in my age group.
After seeing the results at the pop-up tent at the finish line area, I headed over to the food area where a local caterer had a decent assortment of options. (I would have preferred more gluten-free choices but they were helpful in helping me find what I could tolerate.) Among all the items on the spread were chicken noodle soup, a vegetarian chicken patty, shredded pork, tossed salad, potatoes, fruit, cookies and more. And, each runner over 21 was entitled to a free beer from another vendor.
In addition to the race shirt, food and drinks, finishers received a great medal. Combine all the swag with a well-organized race, great volunteers and everything else I have mentioned and you have an event that offers value and fun for every level of runner.
A new challenge
So what’s next for this runner? Reflecting back to the challenge issued from Galloway, I am once again upping the ante. I will sign up, race and complete my first 50-miler next year. While I would absolutely do North Face races again in the future, I am not sure where that first 50-miler will be.
But wherever I cross that finish line, it will be a lynchpin to the next goal that scares me — a 100-miler.
I get by with a little help from my friends
In addition to Noah Galloway’s inspiration, I had support from my running coach and various products I have used in my training and races. These were among those who I credit with assisting my on my ultra runs:
Marathon Training Academy: My second ultra conquest came almost exactly two years to the day when I finished my first marathon being coached by Angie Spencer of Marathon Training Academy. I tapped her for her expertise after an injury forced me to miss a half marathon earlier that summer. Thanks to Coach Angie, I am now staying healthy, getting faster and knocking off goals.
Tailwind Nutrition: During races and hot weather runs, I mix Tailwind with water to make sure that I am replenishing as I go. I generally use a half serving of the individual packets for 16 ounces of water. You may prefer more or less, depending on how it meshes with your system.
Ucan: I start my race days and long training runs with a single serving of the chocolate flavor of Generation Ucan, and peanut butter on a gluten-free bagel. It’s a good combination of protein and carbs that works well for me.
Orange Mud: I trained with my Orange Mud single-bottle hydraquiver after becoming displeased with options for handheld bottles. Carrying something on your back for 5 hours may sound uncomfortable but I rarely if ever noticed it during the ultra.
Brooks: My first experience with Brooks ended quickly with shin splints but I recently tried their trail shoes and was pleasantly surprised by how much I like them. The Brooks Mazamas are built for speed and non-technical trails, a perfect combination for my successful North Face ultra.
Injinji: Some endurance runners focus their energies on their shoes and other gear, leaving socks to chance. I would heartily recommend trying Injinji socks for trail runs. The individual toe approach works well especially when covering long distances. And when dashing —or splashing — through a river crossing, Injinji socks dry quickly and help prevent dreaded blisters.
Swiftwick: Last, but not least, are the compression socks I wore in the hours and days after the ultra. My recovery went better than expected thanks to the Swiftwick compression socks I wore.