Canada’s Anne-Marie Madden has run The North Face 50 Mile Championships several times, but this year she put together a race day that totally satisfies her. In this interview, Anne-Marie talks about how her strategy of running her own race played out, her latest-race battle with Addie Bracy for their podium positions, and how the landscape of women’s trail ultrarunning has changed over her time in the sport.
Read our results article to find out what else happened at the front of the race.
iRunFar: Meghan Hicks of iRunFar. I’m here with Anne-Marie Madden. She’s the second-place finisher of the 2019 The North Face 50-Mile Championships. How does second place sound?
Anne-Marie Madden: It sounds great. I’m very happy. A podium finish here has been something I wanted for half a decade, so…
iRunFar: I’ve seen your name on the entrants list for this race so many times. What keeps bringing you back to The North Face?
Madden: I think the course should suit me. It’s beautiful. It’s always a deep field and you get to see a whole bunch of your friends. It’s like a good end-of-the-year reunion for the trail people, especially North Americans. Although we got, you know, a French contingent that I think took two of the three men’s podium spots.
iRunFar: They really dropped in and took care of things.
Madden: Yeah. It’s always a great race. And for someone who lives on the West Coast, it’s not too hard to get to compared to some of the big European races and stuff like that.
iRunFar: The women’s race seemed to go out pretty hot and in a pack, but you didn’t seem to be part of that early women’s pack. You were a little bit off the back.
Madden: Yeah, we all climbed together up from the start line, up the major steep climb. Then, when we hit the slightly more rolling hills at the top, either they picked it up or it just didn’t seem like a pace I didn’t want to be going that early on, so I kind of fell back. I think Sarah Bergeron-Larouche, who’s from Canada, she was around me, so I wasn’t alone. But we’re very different runners. She’s an amazing downhiller and I guess I was kind of just chipping away on the hills. So, we weren’t actually running together despite being kind of around each other. We’d do this yo-yo leapfrogging sort of stuff.
So, yeah, I was just running my own race early on. I was fairly okay with it, but I had probably blown out of proportion in my mind how far ahead I thought everyone else was and how far back I imagined I was. The fog was so thick, you could not even see headlamps ahead of you on switchbacks. The descents – at least for me – was super tough from a visibility standpoint. The fog just made it so I couldn’t figure out the ground features. You can’t quite get into a good downhill groove and you never really quite know where the ground is. I hit a water bar super weird that I didn’t even realize was there. There was three of them in total. After that I was much more wary. On the second loop, I was like, oh, I know they’re here.
But I felt good. I was just like, “If my good day lands me in 10th or something in this deep field, that’s fine.” At that point I felt like I was having a good race for me, and that was okay.
iRunFar: You have done this race a number of times, so you know this course well. You know that the middle part of this course is where you see the steepest hills and the bits of technicality that this course has. It’s kind of where the game changes.
Madden: Yeah, you know that the race doesn’t really start until halfway. The first half of my race just felt so fun, effortless, and positive. I knew that in the second half at some point, you’re all of a sudden going to just feel it [the fatigue], but I think being prepared for the worst meant when that time came, “You knew this was going to happen, just keep pushing.” I’ve gotten to understand now that no one is feeling all that good at the end. Probably, having Ellie Greenwood as one of your good friends gives you a strange concept of how I think people should be finishing races, right? She just crushes second halves and makes that seem like the norm. But that’s probably just something she’s uniquely really good at.
It’s tough. You can’t feel amazing that whole second half. For sure, coming out of Muir Beach and up to Coyote Ridge was my tough point. My quads were seizing so badly at one point that I had to stop. It was like, “Okay, will I be able to keep walking?” It sort of settled and then two or three minutes later they sort of loosened up and started functioning again. It was like, “Okay, this is just sort of how these things go.” All of a sudden your legs recover and you can run better again. That’s just ultrarunning.
iRunFar: Ultrarunning in a nutshell right there. I don’t know quite where you moved up into podium position. Was it somewhere in the second half of the race?
Madden: Actually, coming up Cardiac. There were a lot of us running close together. I was running with Keely Henninger at that point, Abby Hall was close behind us. Abby Levene may have been there as well, but I couldn’t see her. Then, we passed Anna Mae Flynn and I passed Keely. Coming into Cardiac, you start to see people [spectating]. I asked, “Oh, am I in fifth?” David Roche and Megan Roche said, “No, you’re in third.” “Really? Oh!” So then I thought to myself, “Don’t screw this up. If you’re already in a podium position, don’t go blow up in the second half and like fall back to 15th.” But thankfully that didn’t happen.
iRunFar: Don’t be the person that does what no one wants to do.
iRunFar: It seemed like you had a lot of play left in your legs, compared to the other women around you. When you came upon Addie Bracy, who had been in second place when you’d been in third… we had a couple reporters out on that stretch when you two were pretty close together still. It just looked like you had more game left.
Madden: Maybe, I guess I did. I’m only saying that because I did manage to pass her and barely hold her off.
iRunFar: Where did that actually take place?
Madden: At Tennessee someone said, “You have three minutes to the next female.” I didn’t know who, but I did know there was a second-place female there. I actually always kind of liked that hill. I find that one [the Marincello climb] is runnable or, as we talked about earlier, “shuffleable.” Yeah, so I just kind of shuffled my way up the hill, moving okay. Once you get to the top and it starts to undulate, before you get back onto the singletrack and you’re heading towards the bridge. It’s so confusing because there’s 50k runners and so there’s women all around, but I did see a woman that, in my brain, was like, “That really does look like Addie Bracy.” She had the backwards hat and just Addie’s sort of style of running and stuff. I thought, “Oh, okay.”
At that point maybe I was a minute or so back. So I was like, “Somehow, in not that long of a hill, I’ve eaten away two minutes [of Addie’s lead on me], so I guess at this point anyways I’m moving a bit faster. Coming through that aid station, someone told me [the gap was down to] 45 seconds. Then, you get on that really nice side hilling and I could see her right there. So I just took my nutrition, drank my water, drank my Coke. It was basically like, “You’re not drinking or eating again until the finish, because now you’re just really going to have to give ‘er.” I felt okay, but everything hurt. You’re not really feeling amazing, but I just kind of slowly ate away at the gap and then right when you turn left at those switchbacks…
iRunFar: Off the trail and onto the bridge.
Madden: Yeah, it’s like a proper 90-degree left. I passed her and she was so nice and positive. She’s like, “Go get it! You ran a smart race.” She let me pass. She wasn’t trying to block my way or anything.” Then, she really dug deep because didn’t let me go. She was still working hard and wanted to know if there was anyone behind me, which I didn’t really know. No one had been saying anything. No one had been telling me what was going on behind [me in the race] for sure. I said, “I think for sure you’ve probably got a podium spot locked, but I can’t guarantee that.” Over the bridge was hard because she’s super fast. She’s an amazing trail and road runner, so she’s not really the person you want…
iRunFar: Were you shoulder checking Addie Bracy behind you?
Madden: Yes! [Laughs] But there’s so many people on the bridge that you can’t see. Then, when I was coming down the bicycle switchbacks after the bridge, I’d done maybe a couple and then I could see her on the bridge and still not that far back. If she managed to find that last gear… I definitely didn’t have it locked up until the very end.
iRunFar: Until you crossed the finish line. At the end of an ultra, you’ve already had a hard day. What is it that makes you say, “There’s 7k left in this race, I want to go for second place here. I’m not satisfied with this”?
Madden: Second place is a bonus, but I always want to finish feeling like I left it all out there, I gave it my all. Unless it’s like a training race or something where you’re planning for more of a consistent effort and not giving it everything. But when I come here, I want to give it a go. This is, for me, an A race. I didn’t want to then have a sprint finish with her and then end up back in third and think of all these places where maybe I could have pushed harder or have regrets about how I ran my race. You’re just like, “Well, I can do 5k. We can just dig deep.” It’s funny because you’re trying so hard, but you’re really not going all that fast. You’re like, “Wow, if this was an actual 5k, I’d be going at least a full minute faster than this right now for this effort.” But that’s just how it is at the end of an ultra. No regrets.
iRunFar: You’ve been a part of this sport of trail ultrarunning for a while now. What do you have to say about the evolution of the sport when it comes down to, I don’t know, not exactly a sprint finish, but close to it to podium in a 50-mile ultra?
Madden: [Laughs] It’s what nobody wants. When you think about Lake Sonoma [in April 2019] and YiOu Wang and Anna Mae’s finish, it was so epic, right? With 400 meters to go, I think, and uphill! Oh man, that just looks so painful. I’d actually had recurring dreams where I’d had to sprint across the bridge with an unknown individual for an unknown finishing place. It wasn’t like I was fighting for first or anything.
iRunFar: How did you visualize?
Madden: In the race, I was like “At least she’s 100 meters back.” Because in the dream we were shoulder-to-shoulder. That was worse. You’re so tired by then. You’re not this joyful, exuberant person and so it’s kind of frustrating because you’re having to weave around people and dodge people and sometimes there’s a full five or six people across and so you’re having to kind of like shout and give people a heads-up that you’re coming. It’s a very mentally exhausting finish also from a people navigating…
iRunFar: Navigating the Instagram photo takers.
Madden: All those people have every right to be out there, but I think they’re also being told when they get on the bridge that there is a race in progress so, you know, if they could keep that in mind so that when I had the pain face at that stage.
iRunFar: It’s hilarious that there’s that added psychological element to the end of this race now.
Madden: It’s an amazing landmark and I really love bridges, so it is phenomenal that we cross it, but it’s tough for sure.
iRunFar: I know it’s not fair to ask people at the very end of an ultramarathon what they’re doing next, but have you thought at all about your 2020 season?
Madden: I have a few general goals. I’m thinking of Tarawera. I haven’t heard back from them – well, yes, I got an email from them saying “In November, we’ll get back to you.” If that pans out, that would be great. But we’re going to New Zealand for sure around that race to visit family, so I’d love to make the two work.
Then, probably Lake Sonoma, just because I went into it this year basically the three weeks when you’re supposed to be doing all your workouts and all your volume, I was not running at all because I was still kind of injured after Way Too Cool. I’d love to go back to that race feeling ready for it and have a good race. March and April here is such a beautiful time of year, the grass is green and it’s pretty spectacular. I know Skip Brand is working toward trying to get 50% women entrants in that race and that’s a pretty awesome goal. So, maybe Sonoma and then I’d like to take a chunk of the year to train for maybe a road marathon and go for a road PB. Probably some other ultras in there, too. Apart from Tarawera, I haven’t really planned the full year out yet.
iRunFar: Well, congratulations on your second-place finish. I guess we’ll be seeing you at the 2:00 a.m. Club tonight?
Madden: Definitely! I’ll be starting next door drinking margaritas and eating tacos.
iRunFar: Excellent. I like your style. Well done.
Madden: I don’t do beer so, you know, I gotta get a margarita in.
Madden: Thank you so much. Thanks for everything you guys do.
The second article in a two-part series about the hip-hinge position for efficient running.