I’ve been an avid runner for more than half my life but I’ll be the first to admit that I generally prefer to stay within my comfort zone. For instance, I’m totally biased towards distance running over sprinting, road running over treadmill running and even scenic city routes over forest trails and I rarely, if ever, compromise.

Surprisingly enough, back in 2015 I decided to finally step out of my comfort zone by signing up for a half marathon trail race as part of The North Face Endurance Challenge Series in Madison, Wisconsin. To be honest, at that very moment I felt completely overwhelmed by feelings of fear and intimation.

Related Article: My First Half Marathon Trail Race: A Personal Quest to Conquer the Intimidation

TNFECS ECSWI Nina Cherie Franklin PhD 2These feelings persisted from the time I initiated my training regimen until the very minute my feet hit the trails on the Sunday of October 4th. After all, I had never run a trail race before! Ultimately, I survived the Endurance Challenge and, to my surprise, it wound up being the most enlightening and empowering race experience I’ve ever had.

I started the half marathon trail race with the simple goal of just finishing it.

After months and months of getting lapped by vets while training in local forest trails, I had already checked my ego at the door and humbled myself. Plus, I’ve always been somewhat of an introverted athlete anyway—More concerned with my inner feelings of well being as opposed to the goings-on of folks around me.

This personal quality proved to be a strength during my trail race excursion. Compared to city roads and smoothly paved paths, the authentic trail environment inherently introduces a whole other set of obstacles that warrant one’s full attention.

TNFECS ECSWI Nina Cherie Franklin PhD 4The bulk of The North Face Endurance Challenge took place in the Ice Age Trail housed in the southern unit of Wisconsin’s Kettle Moraine State Forest.

This trail is comprised of just about every type of terrain you could imagine from loose to hard-packed dirt, to sand and mud, to rocks with dirt, to gravel with rocks, to large rocks, sticks and tree roots, to overly grown grassy terrain, to even large animal fecal droppings.

Adding to the challenging nature of the trail are the ever-changing, seemingly never-ending series of rolling hills and turns, insanely steep climbs and abrupt valleys that promise to test every bit of the endurance you thought you had. Collectively, the course itself was way more physically demanding than I’d originally anticipated.

Truth be told, The North Face Endurance Challenge felt less like a half marathon and more like an obstacle course! At the end of the day, the lower body strength and general muscular endurance I’d strategically built up with resistance training is truly what got me to the finish line.

I wasn’t at all prepared for the magnitude of the Ice Age Trail.

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TNFECS ECSWI Nina Cherie Franklin PhD 3In spite of it all, I simply can’t deny the euphoric sense of oneness I felt with nature; particularly during those brief running periods where the trail went flat and I was able to fully breath in the fresh air and phytonicides from the forest trees.

The entire experience was truly unforgettable and I look forward to giving it another go-around in the near future.

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TNFECS ECSWI Nina Cherie Franklin PhD 5My final finishing time was 2 hours and 50 minutes, which is considerably slower than my traditional road running speed.

But, of course, I could easily subtract the 10 or so minutes I squandered snapping random selfies and scenic photographs of any and everything that looked interesting—I’m a blogger, that’s what I do ☺.

The obvious question is whether or not I’ll take on another trail race of this magnitude. Honestly, I’d definitely do it again, but certainly not without vetting the actual race course in advance. If you’re considering participating in any trail race for the first time, whether a 5K, 10K or half marathon, I highly encourage you to do the same.

TNFECS ECSWI Nina Cherie Franklin PhD 1Although I lived in Illinois, I should have made more of an effort to prepare myself for the unknown, perhaps by driving the short distance to Wisconsin and exploring the Ice Age Trail firsthand. In truth, a lot of the energy I wasted was mental, simply due to an underlying trepidation about the next upcoming climb or some hidden obstacle.

Sure, I ran amidst the local trails in preparation for The North Face Endurance Challenge but the extent of obstacles within these courses didn’t measure up to the Ice Age Trail by any means! In the end, the Endurance Challenge presented way more of a “challenge” than it actually had to be.

Learn from my mistake and fully scope out your first trail race before you even attempt to run it!

TNFECS ECSWI Badge Nina Cherie Franklin PhD

In preparation for my next race, I’ve already begun the process of searching for the more challenging trails in and around my area. I’ll surely be ready next time.

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