Iowa in the waning days of summer conjures images of long, dry rows of corn stalks, dust and last gasps of humid, hot air.
Not this year. August in the Des Moines-area experienced flash flood warnings during the final wet weeks of an odd summer. Organizers for The North Face Endurance Challenge Des Moines event didn't know what to expect as they surveyed the course one week before the main event.
As organizers surveyed the area, it quickly became apparent that the course would need to be re-routed, as several trails sat submerged under the recent floods. Organizers and volunteers logged extra time to ensure an accurately measured, well-marked course for Challenge participants.
By race day, parts of the course were still soggy, but that didn't seem to slow down the athletes. Runners and organizers sighed with relief when race day dawned to cool temperatures and a rain-free forecast.
In the men's 50-mile race, 28-year-old Karl Gilpin of Russellville, Missouri, bolted to an early lead. This was the first-ever ultramarathon for the former Division II All-American cross-country runner, so he wasn't quite sure what to expect. "I had never run longer than a marathon," he said. Even so, it grew obvious that Gilpin's marathon PR of 2:32 would translate to a quick 50-mile race--as long as he held himself together over the long haul.
"I had no clue what kind of pace I needed to run," said Gilpin, reflecting on the race start. "I ran conservative, but even then I was at the front of the pack."
But a 50-mile race poses different challenges than a 26.2-mile marathon, and Gilpin admits that he had some rough patches. "My pace was a little fast in the middle, and I paid for it." By the homestretch, Gilpin was slowed to a shuffle that had him counting the minutes until the finish. "I walked/ran the last three or four miles," he says. "It's accurate to say I was a little haggard."
Despite bonking near the finish, Gilpin held for a very impressive victory and time that will rank among the nation's fastest 50-mile marks this year. He broke the finisher's tape in 5:39:05—an astounding 6:47-per-mile pace.
Gilpin's win earned him a first-prize check for $1,000, presented to him by Dean Karnazes, on behalf of The North Face. He also won an automatic berth in the 2007 North Face Endurance Challenge Championship, scheduled for December 1 in the coastal mountains north of San Francisco, California, where 50-mile runners will compete for a $10,000 prize.
Susie Gray Dyck had the sort of race where everything seemed to fall into place--she felt great and flowed with positive energy. This was the first-ever ultramarathon for the 27-year-old middle school French teacher from Ankeny, Iowa, although she had run six previous marathons, including the very difficult Pikes Peak Marathon. "I love to push my limits," she explained. "Since I've done quite a few marathons I thought this would be an interesting next step."
Dyck was warned that 50-milers can turn south in a hurry right around mile 35. Up to that point, she bopped along and enjoyed herself. She cherished the start in the darkness: "It was a great sight when I glanced back and we were like a snake of headlamps all evenly spaced every three feet or so, just weaving through the trails."
Still, Mile 35 loomed like a massive mountain, and Dyck ran smack-dab into it. "The rolling hills between miles 32 and 45 were killer," she explained. "My quads felt like someone was slamming them with a hammer with each step."
But she endured. "I tried to push myself because I knew I would be more disappointed if I finished and felt like I had a lot more to lay out on the course, rather than just going hard and leaving everything I had on the trails." Dyck's dad paced her through the tough stretch and soon she neared the finish.
At the finish, Dyck was fairly certain that she was the second woman to cross the finish line, with a time of 8:10:10. By her estimate, it seemed somebody else had completed the course ahead of her. Indeed, one woman who had registered for the 50-mile race had already arrived, but it was questionable whether she had completed the race's final 1.8-mile segment. After race organizers performed a thorough audit of aid station check-in sheets and spoke with other race officials, they concluded that the she had not completed the entire course and awarded first place to the jubilant Dyck.
Later, Dyck said, "In hindsight, the man at the last (aid station) said something when I checked in with him that made me think that he thought I was the first woman."
Dyck hopes to race in the San Francisco Endurance Challenge Championship—especially since her Des Moines victory wins her a trip to the big event on December 1. But it's not a sure thing. "I am still trying to work out the trip with my school. Since my husband is coming home from Iraq, I am using my personal days to see him, and I am not sure yet whether taking (time) off to travel to the race will be permitted."
The Endurance Challenge Des Moines, like every other Endurance Challenge event, included shorter distance options aside from the 50-miler. Many other athletes took part in the 50K, half marathon and 10K races.
25-year-old Russell Leino was one of them. Leinoo, who lives in New York City, grew up in the Des Moines area and was home visiting his parents for Labor Day weekend. He ran cross country and track in high school and college. How would his short-distance leg speed translate to a 10K?
"I had only done one 10K before this event," said Leino. "But that was a college cross country race." After graduating from Harvard, Leino ran fairly regularly, estimating 15 to 20 miles per week, mostly in New York City's Central Park.
Leino explained how he decided to run the Endurance Challenge: "I was looking to do a tune-up before my upcoming half marathon and thought it might be fun to race again back in Des Moines. I did a search for races that weekend, found this North Face event, and signed up. Also, I had never seen an ultra-marathon before, so thought it might be a fun event to come out and watch those guys as well."
With a home-cooked meal in his belly, Leino bolted from the starting line and never looked back. He seemingly cruised to the win with a finishing time of 35:56. "I felt generally pretty good and relaxed," he said. "I would have liked to have someone to run with, but I think I ended up running pretty even splits so it worked out all right."
It all worked into a nice homecoming for Leino as well. "I definitely had a good time, as did my parents, who came to watch, and thought the pre-race goodies, BBQ meal and race prizes were exceptional."
The North Face Endurance Challenge next travels to the Pacific Northwest, where athletes will test their fortitude against the trail terrain above Seattle, Washington on October 6, 2007. Participants can choose between a 10K, half marathon, 50K or 50-mile ultramarathon. 50-mile runners can compete for a $1,000 winning prize (awarded to the top-finishing male and female) and a trip to The North Face Endurance Challenge Championship on December 1 in San Francisco, where they will run for their share of a $20,000 purse.
For additional information on The North Face? Endurance Challenge Des Moines or the other upcoming events, go to www.thenorthface.com/endurancechallenge.