Before I really get rolling, I need to thank my equal parts loving/concerned/patient/worried/excited/proud/happy/wonderful wife Katie for going on an adventure to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan with me so I could run a race that was inspired because I wanted to push myself, but also because it was a reference to a Hemingway story and also one of my favorite IPAs. All great reasons to pick a race. It also promised to have beautiful scenery. Spoiler alert: it didn’t disappoint. Thank you to Great Lakes Endurance for putting on a spectacularly scenic, yet challenging race, and all of your beyond friendly and helpful volunteers.
For the sake of brevity, I won’t fill you in on the whole entire weekend. But, I will say if you find yourself in the UP near Tahquamenon Falls, definitely check out the Shipwreck Museum and eat/drink beers at the Inn in Paradise.
I’m going to break the race down into three parts, the opening 9.8 miles, 9.8 through 19.2, and then 19.2 until the finish.
The Beginning: Marathon Des Sables|Lake Superior, MI Edition
Race morning started with getting dropped off at the Tahquamenon Falls State park and getting bussed out to the start line at 5:30am. Both 50k and Marathoners gets bussed to their start areas. We arrived to the start area early, perhaps 6:30 or so where there were portajohns for our use. The mosquitos were raging and another runner was kind enough to let me use his bug spray. After milling around in the early morning Michigan chill, we get started around 6:55, just before our scheduled start time at 7:00. The opening 2 miles are along a beachy access road. This should have been the first sign that sand was going to be a factor for the race. I should mention here that the course had been changed from the previous 3 years with more utilization of the North Country Trail for the first third of the race than the first three iterations. I was somewhat shockingly with the leaders already. The eventual winner was ahead by about a half mile, and I was running with another gent practically stride for stride clicking off low 8’s, high 7’s. After getting to a campground, we took an abrupt left into the woods and onto the NCT – -this is where the bushwhacking started. Ankle and waist high ferns helped obscure the trail, so I was wasn’t placing my feet with the greatest confidence. I was still running 2-3 with the other gent as we started to hit the shoreline trails where the sand started to get more loose. It was difficult to get traction on the trail, but running off-piste wasn’t all too enticing, narrow with more low vegetation and sticks and other debris. We caught up to the leader somewhere between miles 3 and 4. We were all running in a group when we hit a sunny field and road and took a left we shouldn’t have. Within 1/3 of a mile we had turned around but now were behind the chase pack and we scrambled to regain our lead. About a mile after that I decided I didn’t want to keep pressing so hard with a marathon left to go and dropped off the pace. The next 4 miles took us along beautiful bluff overlooking Lake Superior, the water hitting rocks musically, the sun majestically shining on the water, the sand making me work for every inch. Part of the course was along what I’d call a sandy Jeep road, I felt I was running in the 8s by effort, but just couldn’t drive forward. My hips were starting to wail like Janis Joplin. Other portions of the trail were along the bluff line and slightly in-land and made for some interesting scrambling through ferns and a fun game of ‘is this a trail?’. Eventually the trail dumped onto a sand dune which I essentially glissaded down and then over a cool swinging bridge and to an aid station around 9.8.
The Middle Miles: Heat and the Hunt.
Once out of the aid station, I started to run into the rear guard of the marathoners and the next 2ish miles were very similar to the bluff-line running we had already experienced. The course started to cut in and through the burned over district. By now it was well into the morning and the sun was starting to really do its thing. There were few if any clouds. This area is where you first start to duck and weave with the river and there were some eddys that I really wanted to take a soak in. Once through the burned area, I finally got some legit wooded areas and started to lengthen my stride a little bit in the hopes that I could start to make up ground on the 2 guys ahead of me. I was pretty happy to be 1/3 of the way in and sitting in third place in my first ultra, but thought if I could conservatively reel them in, then I would still be sitting in good shape by the end. I figured low 9s, high 8’s could do it. I passed by a lot of marathoners and the camaraderie in trail running is just so much more endearing than in larger road races. We all had great supportive things to say to each other and you can never really lose with a conversation about the shoes you’re wearing. Side note: I was wearing Hoke SpeedGoat 2s which were great for the true trail sections but didn’t quit have the traction in the sand. If I were to run this race again and the course were to be the same, I would wear shoes with deeper, hardier lugs for the first almost half and then switch at the Culhane Lake Aid Station, which is where were are now in our race recap and mile 14.2. I was hoping to see Katie at this aid station and grab some coconut water, but much to my dismay she wasn’t there. I restocked on water and used the last bathroom on the course as well as emptied my shoes of sand and relaced them. I was doing really well making sure I was always drinking water and had plenty in reserve and getting Huma gels in every 4 miles, doing status checks every 2. Around mile 16 while in the woods, I did a status check and realized my hips were already fried. The balancing act in the sand had really done a number on them. But the rest of my legs felt good and I was still breathing pretty easy. Continuing through the woods, the terrain started to get a bit more rolling but the trail was easy to wind along. I popped out of the woods and to the 19.2 aid station, and much to my weary eyes was Katie! I was able to drinking about 2/3 of a coconut water and resprayed with bug spray before heading out. I was trying to ascertain where the first two runners were, but no one was quite sure.
Last Long Section: Attack of the Horse Flies
I was about to hit a stretch of relatively flat, packed sand road and so I really wanted to motor hard. The motor was fine, but the wheel bearings just didn’t want to spin. So I did a decent job maintaining my pace in the 9s. After the road section, I made a left turn back onto the trail. At this point there were a lot of dips and a few switch backs and I started to hear to hooting and hollering behind me that I hadn’t heard all day. The trail spent a good amount of time in the shade and then cresting on some sunny ridge lines. But, here, in the interior of the course, the horse flies started their assault en-masse. I haven’t a clue what they do with their time when they don’t have runners to harass, but they kept up an incessant barrage all around my head (I would later wash at least 2 dead horseflies out). The last aid station came at mile 24.5. While I was refilling my water bottle two women 50k runners came cruising, and I mean cruising, in to the aid station. These were the hooters and hollerers. I started out at a decent clip trying to put a bit of distance on them while they resupplied. However, the trail now got very technical with lots of divots and roots and branches. Had my hips been in better shape, I think I could have danced along this section better, but it was not to be. The women were now stride for stride with me as we snaked along for about a half mile. I knew I need to take a gel and wasn’t all that into being stalked, so I let them by thinking two things – -first, that they had battled hard and earned passing me but secondly, that if I could get a second wind I could catch up. They were out of sight in short order. With the horseflies buzzing me like Maverick in Top Gun, I did a mix and match of trying to attack the uphill short climbs and cruise on the flats, however my hips just wouldn’t let me get some free speed on the downhill drops. I felt like I was going down stairs. And slowly.
Eventually, the trail joined with the half marathon course, so aside from my watch and the mile markers saying I was close, I knew I truly was. The course and trail at this point was wide fire road with some sunken muddy sections. Oh, I should say there are great elevated wooden walkways over some swampy sections. I can’t 100% tell you the miles, but they are in this area here before linking up with the half course. I finally crossed a road where the gentleman working the crossing informed me I only had a 1/3 of a mile to go, so I started looking like a runner again. I heard the finish line and then, then there it was. I crossed with a big smile very happy to be done and immediately went over to Katie. I however, had not crossed the last timing mat about 15 feet from the finish line, so about 2 minutes after finishing I ‘officially’ finished in 5:04 on the dot.
So, now I can officially call myself an Ultramarathoner! And I won some awesome syrup for being the 3rd male, 5th overall.
Other quick notes:
*Katie’s sister’s boyfriend Brian ran the half! However, some yahoo changed a directional course sign and unfortunately killed Brian’s and many others race and tacked another 3 miles on that they weren’t expecting.
*I was catching up to the two women that passed me, they finished almost precisely two minutes ahead of me and definitely had a larger gap on me than they at mile 27. If this had been a 52k, who knows what could have been.
*I learned an incredible amount from training for this race and running it. I now know how to hydrate and fuel better, how to manage heat and humidity, how to self-support during runs and races, and how to triage and manage personal situations with a better sense of sanity. I also know I need to a) run longer if I’m going to continue doing these. It seems as though all those that finished ahead of my had at least 10 miles more per week on average and had sustained that longer than me. And b) I need to run more on trails proper and not rely on long road runs and short trail runs to have it all come together.
*Michigan beer is great.