Review: North Face Endurance Challenge Marathon

Screen Shot 2015-07-14 at 4.33.23 PMBeautiful scenery, hilly trails and scrumptious aid station food await those willing to try a challenging course in race distances from 50 miles to 5K.

By Henry Howard

My 10th marathon was the most challenging, hardest and slowest that I have finished so far. It was also one of the most rewarding.

The North Face Endurance Challenge Series hosted an event Oct. 3-4 in Kettle Moraine State Park in Wisconsin. (Other sites included Utah, Washington, D.C., New York, Ontario and the series finale in the Golden Gate area of California in December.)

Review: North Face Endurance Challenge Marathon

In addition to the marathon, competitors could also choose to run a 50-mile, 50K, marathon relay, half marathon, 10K or 5K race. Whatever the distance, runners were treated to a great course, tremendous volunteers and a rewarding adventure.

A+ effort for organizers and volunteers

The winner of the 50-mile event was Tyler Sigl, whose finishing time was 5:55:40 — a 7:07 pace. Sigl broke the tape more than 33 minutes ahead of the second-place finisher. Overall, 193 people finished the 50-mile race, while 240 completed the 50K, 144 did the marathon, 45 teams handled the marathon relay and 854 crossed the finish line for the shorter events, held on the second day.

The race start times were staggered so that competitors would not clog the trails, where the courses intertwined. There was plenty of room on the dirt trails where competitors could pass each other. As runners crossed a field to get from one section of trail to another, it was single track but easily passable. Runners navigated around normal trail obstacles like rocks and tree roots, and piles of horse poop — after all the trail does welcome runners, hikers and horses.

Personally, I was a little concerned about how well the course would be marked, given my unfamiliarity with the area and the number of different races being held simultaneously. However, the course was expertly marked with ribbons (which matched the racers’ bib colors) identifying where to go. Additionally, signs pointed the way in areas where there may have been confusion.

Not only did volunteers set up a challenging yet easy to navigate course, they also were rock stars at packet pickup, the start-finish area and the aid stations. Packet pickup was held at several locations, making it easy for people to choose the most ideal one for them.

On race day, it was a fairly typical October morning in Wisconsin. The temperature was around 50 degrees with a fairly strong breeze. Good race day weather, much better than the rain showers that were predicted when I eagerly checked the forecast 10 days earlier.

There were a handful of fire pits scattered about the start-finish area where runners, volunteers, family and friends could warm up. Volunteers were helpful at the gear check area and other regular race stations.

Run to eat, eat to run

For the marathon, there were aid stations at roughly 6.7, 11.2, 16.5, 22.1 and 24 miles. I skipped the first and last one but took full advantage of the middle three. And when I write “took advantage,” I mean I ate more during this marathon than at any of the other nine 26.2s I have completed.

The aid stations were stocked with cheerful and helpful volunteers, as well as goodies including M&Ms, peanut butter and jelly squares, soup, potato chips, pretzels, potatoes, coke, water and more. At the aid station just after mile 11, I knew that I needed some calories and energy. After grabbing a couple of handfuls of M&Ms and soft potato bites, I was off again.

I quickly realized how important the nutrition would be. At that point, I was cruising at a pretty good pace. Then I met a series of steep (for me) climbs that literally slowed me to an on-and-off walk between mile 14.5 and 16.

These hills were game-changers. I power-hiked up hill after hill, and ran down them when I could. Once the trail led out to a field, I knew the aid station would be close by. I picked up the pace and was greeted by another aid station featuring M&Ms, PB&Js and more. After chatting with the aid station workers and refueling, I headed back out.

I focused my energies and thoughts on getting to the next aid station, which worked until I looked up at another steep hill. Knowing my original goal (4 hours) was not going to happen, I focused myself on my B goal — 4:30 — and treating the race as a preparation run for an ultra marathon. I was going to run hard when I could, power hike when it became difficult and test my nutrition. During previous marathons, I had never eaten much on the run — an orange slice here, a Jolly Rancher there and various kinds of gels.

But this marathon gave me the opportunity to experiment and test what my body wanted and could handle. I was pleased to learn that the M&Ms, PB&Js and other nutrition were all handled smoothly.

As I re-shifted my priorities, I also had the opportunity to meet and talk with other runners — er, walkers — a side benefit I usually only experience as my legs are turning over more quickly. A shout-out to Brent from Iowa City, a 50K finisher who I had a good conversation with as we moved uphill together.

I wondered if I would see my running coach from Marathon Training Academy, Angie Spencer, who completed her first 50-miler race. Our paths never crossed until the post-race celebration at the nearby home of mutual friend and MTA member Scott Abraham. However, earlier in the race, I unexpectedly found my Twitter friend Angie Maske-Berka (@AngieMaskeBerka) who was also competing in the 50K race.  

The push to the finish line

After my last aid station buffet around mile 22, I knew that I had what it took to reach the end. I ran the last four-plus miles without stopping — even for the final aid station — and finished strong, just under 4:30.

As I crossed the finish line, a pain that I had been dealing with during the race reappeared. The bottoms of both my feet began to cramp, as they had when I transitioned from walking to running. After grabbing a banana for the potassium, my feet started to feel better and there hasn’t been a recurrence since so all is well. That lesson did serve as something to consider if a similar cramp occurs during the ultra I am aiming for in 2016.

The post-race party area was excellent. Good music, helpful volunteers and a nice food spread that included a choice of chili or turkey and rice soup; a sandwich with chicken, pork or a veggie burger; salad; chips and more. Even though I burned a ton of calories — the Garmin estimated around 3,200 — I was able to recover pretty quickly.

Run this race if you . . .

  • Want a challenging course, full of dirt, hills and scenery.
  • Are training for — or considering attempting — an ultra marathon.
  • Don’t mind long stretches with little crowd support or other runners around.

Don’t run this race if you . . .

  • Are looking to PR.
  • Have never run a long trail race before.
  • Are new to long-distance races.

Would I do this race again?

Absolutely. The North Face Endurance Challenge Series is well-organized and offers something for everyone — from the speedy ultra runners to the novice marathoners to someone trying a 10K or 5K trail run for the first time.

I have a long list of races on my to-do list, including an ultra marathon in 2016. I’m still plotting out the race calendar and may very well select another North Face race next year and/or later down the trail, er, road. And when I do, I’ll bring my appetite for challenging hills and tasty treats.

Scott, Angie, and Henry after North Face Endurance Challenge

Scott, Angie, and Henry after North Face Endurance Challenge

This was by far the toughest marathon I've run. 26.2 miles up and down trail hills in a scenic state park in Wisconsin. I didn't step in horse poop, get lost or die so I am calling it a win.

This was by far the toughest marathon I’ve run. 26.2 miles up and down trail hills in a scenic state park in Wisconsin. I didn’t step in horse poop, get lost or die so I am calling it a win.

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