When talking about the race my parents kept referring to me as "the girl who was going to win it," but I found that highly unlikely. I knew the course was going to be hilly but more runnable than I was used to. I thought for sure there would be some fast road marathoner who could win it. All of my training this summer has been for Skyrunning races or for long adventures in the backcountry. I have no speed in these legs of mine and I think I was more apprehensive about this race course than for a race like the Rut or San Juan Solstice.
Throughout the weekend multiple people wanted a comparison of the bluffs of La Crosse to the mountains of Colorado. As far as Wisconsin is concerned, La Crosse is certainly hilly, but the terrain isn't easily comparable. Here are some numbers to compare: At the end of the Hixon 50k we had the biggest climb of the race coming in at ~500 feet of gain; at the end of the Ouray 100 mile race Cory had a climb with ~5,000 feet of gain. The climbs in Colorado are much longer and steeper which give the runner a mental and physical break from running. I haven't done a race in Colorado where I didn't take a sustained walk break. The Hixon 50k felt really difficult because even though it was hilly, I never got to take that walk break I was looking forward to. A runnable course is difficult in it's own way.
Before I get into the details of the race, it's important to describe two key things about people from the upper Midwest, things that were only glaringly obvious to me after spending so much time away. First of all, people are generally polite to a fault even if it comes at their own expense. Secondly, people are bad at dealing with conflict and when forced, people will handle it as passive aggressively as possible.
Alright, onto the race. A good group formed at the race start and it was obvious that a lot of people knew each other. It's exciting to see such a strong ultra community in Wisconsin. The start of the race was relaxed and unceremonious and people seemed tentative to take any sort of lead. I hate leading and somehow, even though I was determined to start conservatively with my dad, I was the first girl to hop onto the single track that wound through the woods in upper Hixon. I didn't mean to but everyone was so polite about letting other people onto the single track that no one wanted to lead the train. Dad stuck close behind me, breathing like a freight train, and I just felt bad. I felt bad that I was making dad go out to fast, I felt bad that there was a train of super speedy guys trapped behind me, and my heart sank as I realized that I was not going to enjoy these first three miles of the race. One spectator cheered, "Isn't pack running the best!?" and it took all of my resolve not to say, "F*** you. Nobody thinks that right now!"
I contemplated letting the guys pass, but at the end of the train I could see two girls and you can't just let only guys pass. After a mile or two, dad said he was going to have to drop back and I was hoping some of the guys would use the wide corners as an opportunity to pass. I hugged the side of the trail and hollered back that they could pass if they wanted to but the guy behind me said that he was happy with the pace. Finally as we neared the end of the three mile loop some guys shot by me and eventually a girl caught up to me (her name was Kim). She looked strong and experienced and passed me with ease as we ran through the first aid station.
Next up we had four more miles of winding and rolling single track. I dialed it back and realized I needed to do a better job of taking care of myself. My quads were already on fire and I felt way more extended than I should have. I let another girl pass (Jennifer) and she looked like she wasn't even trying. She seemed to be falling a lot but it looked like she was having fun playing in the woods. It was time to work on my mental state. I was tired and not enjoying myself and that's not the way to start a race. I talked to some guys around me and met a nice guy named Dave and another guy named Al who had lived in Pittsburgh for a few years. Reminiscing about Pittsburgh took my mind off of the race and as we ran through the next aid station and descended into the Quarry section, I felt my mind hitting reset on the day.
Shortly after the Quarry aid station
At the bottom of the Quarry
I tried to keep up with Al as we hit a short road section and began the out and back loop to the Miller Bluff aid station. There was a woman not far behind us and I wanted to keep a comfortable lead on her. She caught us at the aid station since I stopped for water for the first time, but I gained on her on the downhills. As we bottomed out at the lower Hixon aid station, I was getting excited for the big climb that I had heard so much about. We did another rolling loop and the climb began. I could see the woman a switchback behind me and was impressed by her uphill ability. I thought we were only halfway done when a spectator told me that we were almost at the top. I hadn't gotten to take my walk break yet!
I felt a little cranky as we finished the loop and came into the start/finish aid station at mile 15.5. I was hoping to build more of a lead on the woman during the climb. My mom gave me some Tailwind and I stopped for water at the aid station. That allowed the woman to catch up to me. As we hit the single track section again we talked briefly and I started to pull ahead. She stayed within one or two switchbacks of me for the next three miles and I determinedly caught back up to Al. Just before the aid station, I caught Al and tried to encourage him since he seemed like he was hitting a rough patch but was determined to put a gap on the woman behind me in the next section.
I ran through the aid station at mile 18.7 and was feeling great. I felt strangely emotional and overwhelmed with happiness at how beautiful the course was and how perfect the weather was. I cruised through the next few miles and the woman behind me was no where in sight. Due to the nature of this winding single-track section, I was able to see Al's bright shirt a ways back but was relieved to know that I had put a sizable lead on the woman. I stopped for a few seconds at the Quarry aid station at mile 22.7 for a water refill and pushed on through the fast, flat section ahead.
Glorious single track
During this time, only one guy passed me on the road section and he was flying. Later he told me that this was his first trail race and the roads were just more comfortable for him. As I began the out and back loop to Miller Bluff I saw Kim, who I thought was in first, and I estimated she had 10 minutes on me. I thought Jennifer was between us so I started speeding up trying to catch her. I blew through the aid station, ran up the hill, ran up the road section, and picked up my speed as a hit the long downhill to the Lower Hixon aid station.
I passed a guy who was walking and then I excitedly caught a glimpse of what appeared to be a girl in front of me. I excitedly thought that maybe I could get second place. I quickly caught up as she was moving quite slowly and was furious when I saw who it was. It was the woman who I had fought so hard to put a gap on at mile 18. I usually try to give people the benefit of the doubt and I contemplated not mentioning this part of the race but it still bothers me so much. This was the best-marked course I have ever run so it seemed unlikely that anyone could get lost. As I came alongside her, I asked in typical passive-aggressive Wisconsin form, "When did you pass me? I thought you were behind me?" Her response was simple, "Oh, I don't remember when I passed you." I was enraged. I was 100% percent sure that she did not pass me because I never even stepped off the course to pee.
I was so mad that as I ran by her, I told her that she should probably not continue since she had cut the course. I was mad at myself for being mad. I blew through the Lower Hixon aid station at mile 28.4 determined to not let her even get near to me. I turned over all of the possible scenarios in my head of how, where, and why, she could have cut the course. Maybe she got lost and didn't mean to. She had rolled her ankle, so maybe she had cut the course to get to an aid station faster. Surely she wouldn't finish the race since she had not run the whole route. I still don't know what her story is because I couldn't bring myself to talk to her after the race. Even though I still beat her, I was so angry and Wisconsin people are non-confrontational. Again, I really want to give her the benefit of the doubt because, though cutting this course would be easy, there really was no incentive to.
I was happy to finish in third place behind, who I learned were, two very respectable competitors. I talked to Kim, the woman who had passed me at the first aid station and ended up getting second, and found out that she used to work at a camp in Colorado and that she and her husband had lived in Montana before moving to Duluth, MN. She told me that she used to race a lot and had done Western States and Hardrock. What she didn't tell me was that she had actually been top 10 twice at Western and had finished in 4th at Hardrock. As her kids got older, racing became a less prominent part of her life and this was her first ultra in a while. I wish I also could have talked more to the winner, Jennifer, who seemed awesome and I heard she is also a mom. It's always so encouraging to hear about women who can balance being a mom with being a bad ass runner.
At the end of the day, it was probably the best first-year event that I have ever been at. Jake, Tyler, and Michael put on a flawless race and they had an incredible crew of volunteers. I'm so thankful I got to participate in this event and experience the amazingly gorgeous trails in La Crosse. I hope these guys have a long and successful career of racing and race directing.