Fun times in picturesque Wisconsin! Thanks for checking out blog post number 2! Tis another long one I’m afraid! I’m still learning!
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Song for the moment: Recover (Cid Rim Remix), by CHVRCHES
Why Wisconsin of All Places??
Well, not just for the cheese. My friend Lauren – having already ran the nearby Ice Age 50K back in 2012 – decided that she was ready for the big step up to the 50 mile distance, and this one seemed like the perfect choice. The North Face Wisconsin race is coined as being an ideal introduction to the distance – with it having the least technical terrain and having the lowest elevation change of all the Endurance Challenge Series races. After I learned that Lauren, along with Heather (also her first 50M), Sally (doing the 50K) and Kyle (doing the marathon) were all flying out from NJ for the event, I figured it’d be another great destination race weekend – so I got on board too for the 50M.
And since I ran it back in 2012, I figured it’d be a perfect “benchmark” race – where I could see how much improvement (if any) I’d made over the last year. Trail races are not like your typical races where you can take your time from one race and try to compare it to another. The trail technicality and elevation change makes each course very very different. So running the same race again can give you a really tangible way of assessing your progress.
Setting the Target and Training for Battle!
Last year, I finished 8th overall on this course with a time of 7 hours and 30 mins. So, this year, the main target was to get as close to 7 hours as possible (I wont lie – I wanted to beat 7 hours!). Looking at previous years’ results, I figured sub-7 would maybe even earn me a top 5 place. And I knew from last year I’d done A LOT of walking – on hills that I’d happily scamper up these days. A lot of that was down to my living and training environment at the time. I worked (and effectively lived) for a year (Feb 2012 – Feb 2013) in a Chicago suburb called Naperville. It’s flat there. Extremely – and excruciatingly – flat. I recall posting on a forum to ask where any good hills were nearby, and people suggested things like multi-storey car parks, or pedestrian overpasses! I did a little bit of car park running out there, but it was a bit sketchy to say the least. Runners are few and far between in Naperville – in general – so most drivers don’t really look out for them as any sort of force of habit. Now imagine the attentiveness of said drivers in a multi-storey car park – far from the domain of any sane runner. I think I did that twice before succumbing to the grumpy, horn-tooting buggers hiding behind their tinted-windowed SUVs. My training was all distance back then – with hills only being a luxury of my occasional weekend trips back to New Jersey or elsewhere.
Compare that to now – where I reside predominantly in San Diego and can run up and down hills to my heart’s content! And that’s what I’ve been doing pretty much on a daily basis out here. Mileage has varied between 40 and 55 miles per week, with a little 50 mile race in San Francisco thrown in there too back in August. And the America’s Finest City Half Marathon – also in August – where I got to test out my speed!
In the buildup to the 2012 Wisconsin race, I was also coming off of a long period of recovery from an earlier back injury that had ruined my winter season (including my snowboarding trip to Whistler!). So all in all (and to cut a long story short!), with there was clearly scope for some improvement on last year’s time.
Diet has also been a big changing factor with the move – but that’s definitely for another post (when I get around to writing it!). I’ll just say that I’ve been heavily invested in a healthy plant-based, organic diet – after being inspired by the recent “Eat & Run”, by Scott Jurek, and also “Finding Ultra”, by Rich Roll. In the latter, a man in his forties transforms from a lethargic, sedentary, obese, downward-spiraling lifestyle – to competing (with success) in double marathon distance races and ultramarathons. All through a plant-based, whole food, vegan diet. And of course – lots of physical training.
Pretty much every day of the working week I’ll make myself a power smoothie of kale, beetroot, spirulina, apple, carrots, mangos, limes, or whatever else comes to hand. And then there’s the usual hipster foodstuffs – like quinoa, brown rice, sprouted-grain bread, almond milk, miso, lentils, beans, edamame and such. I actually love my diet right now, and have never enjoyed eating more. I can’t say I’ll ever be truly vegan (I literally just ate a boiled egg with Tabasco!), but I am near enough off of animal products – and I feel healthier, more alert, and stronger for it. Stay tuned for another article on my veggie habits!
5am: Headlamps On.. It’s Race Time!
The race – like all North Face 50M races – set off at an ungodly 5am. Thankfully Heather managed to locate Lauren and Kyle (Kyle who was out supporting 4 hours before his own race!) and we got to sneak in a quick team photo (above) 30 seconds before the start. I then shuffled my may down to the start line – where ultramarathon man Dean Karnazes was finishing off addressing the athletes – as he likes to do at these things. As the announcer gave the 10 second warning, headlamps were switched on, watches were readied (not for me thanks; I don’t need that distraction!) and we set off on our merry march into the darkness.
From the start, I wanted to remain in the top 10 – so that I could keep track of my position (single digits are much easier to remember!). It’s always easy to get carried away and think that you can go a bit faster in those earlier miles. But today, I definitely took heed of previous experiences of burnt out legs come halfway, and tried to control my pace in the hope my body would thank me later (as it turned out though, my quads were still on fire by mile 25!!).
Running in the dark, in the middle of absolute nowhere, is just the most tranquil experience ever. It’s just you and that single cone of illumination in front of you. For that little hour and a half , you are alone with your thoughts – with no external distractions. It’s definitely got a meditative feel to it, and is always my favourite, most memorable part of any ultra that I start with a headlamp.
Run Rabbit, Run!
At the first aid station at Scupernong (6.9 miles in), I had hoped to dump my headlamp. But unfortunately it was still dark out, so I had to carry on with it. I knew my next drop bag wasn’t til mile 21, so I’d have to wear that big bulky device for another 2 hours of running. It was here that I paired up with the then 6th place runner Alex Leon for what would be another 15 miles of running together. Well actually we got talking when we both found ourselves off course after missing a right hand turn in the darkness. He was clearly a fast guy, with a half marathon PR of 1:18 and a 2:50 marathon under his belt (compare with 1:22 and 2:52 for me) and a second place in his first and only other 50 miler (6:35). I told him I’d happily try and stick with him for the whole race. He modestly branded himself as the rookie and said he’d be happy to finish in 7:30. I knew from the pace we were going, we were well on for a 7hr pace though. And so we continued to work off each other – taking alternate turns as the rabbit. This kept us on a pretty fast, but still comfortable pace all the way through dawn and beyond, and I don’t think I would have ran as good a race as I did if it weren’t for Alex’s help.
After about 15 miles, you emerge from the forest into a prairie section of the park. This place was just mind-blowingly scenic as the sun rose – showing off the thin layer of mist above the fields of wild grass that we carved through on our little singletrack trail. My feet got wet pretty quickly – thanks to all the morning dew over the trail. Alex and I continued to take turns to rabbit, with me eventually feeling the need to pull away and build up a gap (not so much because I wanted to get ahead, but because I knew I needed to poo!! And I didn’t want to lose my valuable friend and rabbit!).
It was all going so well! And then the hurt began. This started pretty much when the hills started. And that was after the McMiller aid station (21.3 miles in). I got rid of the headlamp finally and grabbed a big swig of Hammer Sustained Energy from my drop bag. Alex and I hit this aid station at the same time, and when I saw him darting off, I finished rummaging around in my bag and grabbed a water refill from the aid station (7.1 miles til the next aid station – is a long time when you’ve just ran 21!). As I got back into the forest, I was baffled as to why i couldn’t see Alex ahead. I got myself quite demoralised actually. First of all, I’d lost my running buddy – leaving me wide open to all those pesky desires to just stop and walk when things get tough (machoism reigns supreme when you have a running buddy!). Secondly, I felt like I’d slowed ridiculously, if I could let Alex get so far ahead of me so quickly. 7th place was not where I wanted to be! This was definitely the lowest point of the day. Well, as it turned out, Alex had actually went to the toilet at McMiller – which was why he was nowhere to be seen! And all the time I thought I was falling further behind, I was actually building a gap!
The rolling hills of the out and back section between McMiller and Road Z (28.4 miles in) were torturous. I forced myself to run as much as I could, but I knew I had to do it all in reverse on the way back to McMiller, and that prospect wasn’t an exciting one. I got to see the leaders though, which was nice (they were sooo frickin’ far ahead of me!). When I asked at Road Z what place I was in, they said 5th. Eh… Whit??! I argued that they must be mistaken. I was certain I was 7th. I was definitely confused why I hadn’t seen Alex, and that’s when it dawned on me that he must’ve got behind me somehow. Still, that only put me in 6th. As it turned out, the 5th place guy had taken a bit of a fall and had to bail or slow right down before the halfway point, and that’s what had led to my surprise place improvement. Suddenly I was rejuvenated! It was GAME ON AGAIN!
Leaving Road Z, I saw Alex coming in, and suddenly it all made sense! I also saw 2 more guys close behind him and figured I’d better get motoring for the remaining flat section before the hills began again.
Don’t Forget to be Sick!
So I seem to have this thing where I’m sick in every 50 miler I do – at around 30 miles in. I don’t know if it’s the gels or what, but my stomach just does not like all the sugariness that I typically ingest during these races. I tried my best to fight it and look strong as the other racers cheered me on as I passed them during the return leg of the out-and-back, but eventually it was really starting to affect my pace. So I pulled up and let loose by the side of the trail, twice. A passing runner (she was cute!) was kind enough to ask if I needed them to get help from the nearby aid station, but I assured them this was standard and par-for-the-course for me! As in previous races, I felt a lot better after this, and I proceeded to just eat basic solids (like potatoes and, well, that’s pretty much it) for the remainder – along with drinking plenty of water. I really need to stop with these gels and see if I can get over it.
After returning to McMiller, and seeing Lauren and Heather (for a second time actually!), it was finally time to escape the 50 miler course extension and get back onto the shared course (where the 50K and marathon runners were now evenly spread). Just before emerging from the woods and rejoining the road, I remember feeling pretty whacked. I actually lay down on my back and did some inversion and some stretches to try and remedy the now useless quads. All I managed to do though was cover myself in pesky little prickly things off the ground! They took miles to get rid of! Upon reaching the road, I saw the now 6th place guy emerge about 100 yards behind me, and I thought “Sheeeeit!”. I figured he had to be gaining fast and my 5th place hope was now rapidly fading.
I soldiered on, running every hill I came to – apart from the monsters. And it was during these monster hikes that I’d look back and see him coming at me. One time I even heard some 50K runners behind say “50 miler! Good job!” and I looked back and he was 50 yards down the hill from me (I bet he was pissed off they’d given him away)! Those were not pleasant miles at all. I remember thinking it’s much easier mentally to be the chaser than to be the chased… But somehow I kept him behind me. I guess he was hurting just as bad.
The Final Push
Somewhere between the complete mental abyss that was mile 40 through to the final aid station at 45.6, I recall thinking that I was actually going to make it – and potentially even hold off the guy behind – if I could just keep making any sort of forward, non-walking progress. That’s when I started thinking about beer, and visualising the finish area – specifically crossing the line under the big red inflatable North Face arch. I thought BRIEFLY about pulling some sort of finish line move. Anything even mildly gymnastic was clearly off the table. And that’s when Miley Cyrus crept into my mind. Right when my brain’s usually robust teeny pop defence systems were down, in she crawled. So I thought – can I twerk my way across the finish line? Do I even know what a “twerk” looks like? Picture me grabbing my crotch MJ-style, and grabbing the back of my head – whilst running, on sand, with water bottle in hand – and trying to make some sort of bizarre sexual grunting expression. Yeah – not pretty. I shelved the idea instantly, but had a wee chuckle. (I later learned from my more pop-culturally-aware friends that I needed to stick my tongue out – kind of like a really thirsty dog – for it to be a truly recognisable Miley; bullet dodged!). Well anyway, that little mind wander inevitably left me with Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” playing away incessantly on repeat in my head (it took me about 10 minutes to even notice that something seemed a bit samey…).
Thankfully I was able to switch out of worst DJ ever-mode and back into competitive race-mode with the arrival of the final aid station. I grabbed a final salty potato (stomach was not accepting anything else after the barfing) and exited swiftly without the 6th place man catching up (he was close though – I could see him approaching and really hoped he didn’t have a final kick left in him!). 3.8 miles to go? That’s a 5K and change. Easy (I say now!). As I left the aid station, I asked the girl at the aid station for the time. “What he say?” is what I heard back. “Ya got the time?” I shouted back in my best American accent. “11:32am”. OK… math time! That left me 28 mins to complete a 5K plus 0.7 extra. I figured I could squeeze out a 22 minute 5K, leaving a comfy 6 minutes to hammer it home. In retrospect, that was pretty bad math. At my pace at that point (8:30 min/mile), 26 mins would have been more on the money – just for 5K – and 32 mins for the full 3.8. So, realistically, the damage had already been done – in terms of finishing sub-7 hours – from all the hill-walking (and flat-walking!) I’d done earlier on. Nonetheless, that little mental miscalculation gave me all the drive I needed to beast out those last miles and see it home. It was flat. Very. But I quickly realised I had precious little left in me, and I opted to carry on with the current pace – just to make sure I didn’t balls it up completely. Coming out of the forest after a seemingly endless 5K and seeing the cops (or park rangers?) gave me a massive lift! I knew from this point on it was paved road all the way to the end. You quickly hear the din of the finish area festival and the finisher announcements and it’s just a simple matter of digging in for what is a pretty negligible distance given how far you’ve just came. Turning the final corner – off of the road and onto the grass of the finishing chute – the crowd seemed to be going crazy (turns out they hadn’t seen a 50 miler come through in almost 40 minutes!). I clapped them and felt that uncontrollable grin come on. I glanced at the clock and saw the time of 12:02:something-or-other. “That’ll do me fine!”, I thought. With total elation, I crossed the line as they announced my name. “Let’s hear it for our 5th place runner: Lindsay Hamoudi, from Highland Park New Jersey!”. Naturally, the only appropriate thing for me to do was to pump my fist! All thoughts of Miley Cyrus completely eradicated – thank god.
I was delighted with my performance on the day. Winning my age group and finishing top 5 in a North Face race is a huge deal for me. I know there’s still scope for improvement (less pooping, less barfing, less wandering off course, less lying down, less walking, less twerking, etc), so I will no doubt return again next year (hopefully with another entourage of friends!) and see if I can get under that elusive 7 hours!
Nutrition wise, I’ll probably start running with whole foods – like dates, raisins, nuts, seeds, etc. Or even pita and hummus – a la Scott Jurek. My body just doesn’t like these sugary processed products, and I need to start listening to it. One thing that did help though I’m sure was the Salt Stick caps. As tired as my legs were, they were able to keep motoring on thanks to these little babies.
As for shoes, my trusty New Balance MT110s were fantastic as always. I can’t see me switching to Hokas any time soon!
And as for the company, well, see picture below. You guys are awesome! We need to do more of these destination races methinks.
And they all lived happily ever after.
Thanks for reading!