2012 North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile Ultra

Posted by on September 24, 2012

Last weekend was the big kahuna for me. My first 50 mile ultra. If you asked me at in the spring about completing a 50 mile ultra I would have said, “I;m not ready for that distance”. To be honest 50 miles was not even on my radar. My goals this year was to just get started in the ultra game with a few 50k races. I had never run farther than a half marathon before this summer so making the jump to a 50k seemed challenging. This summer I wanted to train and build a solid base, convince my weak mind that running ultra distances was something that I could do, and try to remain injury free. It turns out getting my mind in the right place was very easy for me. Getting the body there had been the big challenge. The physical is certainly a work in progress even as we head into the fall/winter season.

The past 4 weeks have been hell for me at work. We are doing a reorg and it has consumed a lot of my time. We planned to launch the new organization the Monday following the race weekend of my first 50 mile. I certainly did not plan that right Ugh! Talk about bad timing. My training had dropped off significantly the last 5 weeks but I tried to just keep the wheels on the training bus knowing there was no way I was backing out of the 50 miles. Even dropping down to the 50k was not an option. I was committed mentally. I was either going to go down in flames or rise to the occasion. I prayed for the later.

I managed to get the Friday before the race off despite everything going on at work. My wife was crewing me and I was running solo without a pacer. A pacer was allowed at mile 28 and 35 aid stations. I originally wanted a pacer but in the end trying to organize it was just too much with everything else going on. I train alone and I was going to race alone.

Terra and I made it up to Wisconsin in time to pick up my race packet, find a hotel, and get in a decent last meal at an Italian restaurant. Terra drove the entire six and a half hours from Des Moines to Milwaukee. I grew up in Wisconsin and two friends were planning to come out to the race. My buddy Cory ended up helping Terra crew me and another Friend planned to come out after he was done working. By 8:00 PM Terra and I were in bed getting some quality sleep. Everything seems to be going as planned. We had no problem waking up at 3:30 AM and quickly packed, grabbing a quick breakfast at the hotel, and drove the 20 minutes to the races.

We arrived about 45 minutes before our 5:00 AM start. Only the 50 milers started at five. North Face had a nice setup for the two-day event and people were wandering around the event area. It was a nice, star filled sky, cold Wisconsin morning. It was a cool but I felt fine in shorts, t-shirt, and a long sleeve shirt.  I wore my knee brace just out of a precaution and of course I had on my trust Altra Lone Peaks.  I had my Nathan vest on with a new 32 oz bladder of water. The new bladder made the pack much lighter. This was a great upgrade (downgrade?) to the already great Nathan pack.  I also had my Garmin 305 strapped to my wrist.

As the race director started to make a count down announcements the realization started to set in. Terra snapped photos while I got nervous. I knew my training could have gone better the last four weeks but I did what I could and was as prepared as I possibly could be under the circumstances. I kissed Terra and told her I loved her. The gun sounded and everyone started out on the only mile of road we would see until we retraced the same route at the 49 mile mark.


As soon as I passed the chip timing sensor I realized I never even turned on my Garmin 305. Doh! I quickly started it and followed the heard of ultra runners onto the pavement and then eventually into the woods a mile down the road. People chatted and I fell into my normal solitary trance trying to distance myself from the loud runners.  I had both a camping head lamp and my mountain bike light. The headlamp was useless really.  Not bright enough.  My mountain biking light on the other hand was the brightest light I saw all morning as we ran the double track in the woods until the sun started to rise.  I handheld the mountain bike light and put the battery back in the front pocket of my Nathan vest. It worked better than I was ever expecting. By the time I reach the first aid station I was able to turn off the lights.

I had studied the race map enough prior to the race and planned to take the race one aid station at a time. Even in my current less than idea shape I did not think I’d have any issue with the cut-off times unless I was injured. Here is a break down of the aid stations. Click the image for a larger version.

As expected, eventually the pack started to fall into similar pace groups. I just listened to the various conversations. I really only spoke to anyone when someone tripped and fell. I’d offer encouragement and try not to trample them in the process. We raced the first six miles on double track trails. I gave Terra a few updates on my iPhone using the Voxer app. The app allows you to send voice messages. No need to type messages.  This worked perfectly!

The first 12 miles flew by as the sun came up and we all eventually turned off out lights around mile 6. I hit the first two aid stations and spent minimal time refilling my water. I seems to be much quicker than each group I rolled into the aid station with each time. I was taking a Gu every 2 miles and grabbing what I could at the aid stations to eat. I meet Terra and Cory for the first time in a parking lot that crossed the trail. This was around mile 13 I think. I dropped my lights off, grabbed some more gels, stripped off the long sleeve and hit the trail again. everything was going wells.

 The first 20 miles had a mix of double track and single track. There was also very tight single track across the moraines with a good amount of wooden bridge trails that were some time quite long. I loved running on them. I did take two photos and below was one of them that had a very nice wood trail.

When I came into mile 21 aid station I knew this was when the real work was going to start. I was feeling really good, well hydrated, and still taking Gu every two miles. I knew from studying the rack packet the next two aid stations were meant to weed out the weak and injured. The route had the 50 milers doing 7 miles out to the 28 mile I aid station the back on same trail in reverse to give us 35+ miles. This was the most undulating section of the trail. It was short hills up then short hills down. Most of the hills were not runnable up. I didn’t see anyone running them anyway. It was tough on the feet at this point and I was starting to feel the miles taking their toll on my lower legs.

This out and back section was also the first time I saw the leaders pass as they were coming back from the 28 mile aid station and I was heading out. I was at about 23 miles in as they were around 30 miles. This made me feel good for some odd reason.  I guess in most races you see the leaders much earlier in a race like a half marathon or a 5k.  I give words or encouragement as the leaders passed and it gave me an energy boost.

It was about mile 25 when my lower shins started to hurt. It was not shin splints since I know what they feel like. It was about a four-inch section of shin just above the front ankle. The pain continued and progress for the rest of the race. It was on the way to the 28 miles aid station that it hit me that I was over halfway. It was an odd feeling knowing I had to do another 25 miles.

At mile 28 aid station I saw Terra and Cory again. I decided to change socks since I could feel dirt and sand in my shoes. I also changed shirts and dropped my Nathan pack for a water belt with two eighth oz bottles. A small pocket held three Gu packs and my iPhone on the belt. I rubbed on some more Glide to the nipples and nether region. I grabbed some more food and headed back to the aid station. This 14 mile stretch was all 50 milers. As I set out  I knew the hills were going to hurt but I also knew it got easier the close I got to the 35 mile aid station. I hit my lowest part of the race after leaving 28 mile aid station. Other than my shins nothing hurt really bad at this point. Energy was good but the mind starts to ask question about your body.  I pushed through the mental and physical pain and looked forward to seeing Terra and Cory at the 35 mile aid station. 

I was getting close to the aid station at mile 35. Cory actually hiked in a mile and I was happy he did. I was out of water and he had a full Gator Aid for me. Life saver! At the aid station I grabbed some soup and refilled water. I also took a bottle of Gator Aid with me. The two 8 oz bottles were just shy of what I wanted to drink over 7 miles.  But it was just shy so I think it worked out for the better. I know losing the pack really helped.  At the aid station Terra let me know that I had now run farther than I ever had before. It felt pretty good to know I was still chugging along with 35.5 miles under my belt. I was tired and hurting more than I ever have but with fifteen mile left there was no chance of not going forward with purpose and determination to finish.

It hit me for the first time and I was going to complete this mofo and with a decent time.

In my head I broke up the last fifteen miles into five-mile chunks. I knew I could walk each legs and make the final cut off but I was still pushing forward. I saw the crew again one more time over around mile 40. This was also the first time I started to pass marathoners that started later in the morning.  It certainly wouldn’t have been as enjoyable without Terra and Cory crewing me.  Seeing them at mile 40 was a joy.



It was open field running for the majority of the trail since mile 35. The heat was starting to get to me a little so I upped the liquid intake as much as I could. As I left mile 40 aid station it was ten miles and two aid station left before the final mile long road to the finish. I was running as much as I could and power walking the rest. Any down hills were really painful on the shins. It was on the last ten miles when I realized I could pull off a sub ten-hour 50 miler if I really kicked it to high gear. But in reality my high gear at this point was a broken clutch stuck in third gear.

For about the last forty miles I was part of a small group of runner that would pass each other only to be passed between aid stations. We all leap frogged almost the entire list 10 miles. I chatted with most of them as we joked about the next time we would pass each other. That made the time go fast and kept me in a good mood. I found a big feather about five miles from the finish. I picked up the feather and carried it in my hand the rest of the race. It was some kind of totem for me and I wanted to give it to my younger daughter when we returned home.

At the last aid station I was told there was 1.8 miles left. .8 was trail and a final mile on the side of the road. It was a glorious feeling to see the finish line in the distance, to hear the music playing, the announcer calling people out as they cross the finish line, and knowing I would see Terra. Runners ahead of me were crossing and the crowd with the crowd cheering. I put everything I had into that last mile. The pain in my ankles was like nothing I’ve experienced as a runner.

I finally crossed the finish line with my arm outstretched and the feather in my hand. Terra was right there an I gave her the biggest hug I could muster. My time was 10:16 and much faster than I was expecting. I had a goal to finish before my Garmin 305 ran out of battery and I managed to do it. I was expecting a 11+ hour 50 mile so seeing the 10:16 made me pretty happy. 


I felt great to finally sit down for a couple of beers and a very tasty hamburger. I picked up my shirt and had it silkscreened with the 50 mile graphic. Another friend showed up who I have not see in 10 years maybe. It was great to see him, talk, and glad he made the drive out. We hung out for a while then we all headed back towards Madison to find Terra and I a hotel.  We had plans to meeting my two friends for dinner after a shower.

I could hardly walk after the race and I knew something was wrong with my lower shins but not sure what. More on that later.

In the end I did it. My first 50 mile ultra. It was a great first race for me despite the lack of training the last few week due to work.  But all that doesn’t matter now. I think I picked the perfect race for my first 50 miler.  I can go into the Fall knowing I exceeded my first year of ultra running expectations. I am glad I did the 50 mile race this year and not wait for 2013 to do it.  Just knowing that I can do it gives me a lot of confidence I can take into my future training.  Next year is going to be pretty fantastic as I plan for more 50 miler races.

See the elevation gain and the map below.


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6 Responses to 2012 North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile Ultra

  1. Mike McElmeel

    Ed-Excellent job.. glad to see an an old paratrooper doing well. I ran on those same trails on my first 50 miler but you beat my time by 30 minutes. Wish me luck as I attempt my first 100 miler in November.. Mike

    • Ed

      Thank Mike. I was really surprise at my time and other than my lower shin issue I felt pretty darn good. Even the week afterwards I was never sore. The 100 is on my ultimate plan but there is no way I could do it this year. Not a chance. Maybe if I am crazy luck next fall. If not then I think the following Spring.

      Where are you doing your 100 at? Maybe I could help crew you.

  2. Mike Place

    I couldn’t be happier to read this! Nicely done, Ed. You’re the man. I’m so pleased!

  3. Ben

    Thanks for the blog. I just found it today as I was researching the Northface 50 miler in Wisconsin. I just registered for this race and it will be my first 50 miler and my first trail race. I did the Northface 50K in Kansas City in November, but it was a road race. I will be running the race with a friend so I will at least have a little companionship along the way. Your post was very encouraging and motivating. I can’t wait!!

    • Ed

      Hey Ben. The WI North Face is a great first 50m. I am planning to run it again this year. Good luck and maybe we will run into each other at the event.