This past weekend, several members of Team G(race) made the 6+ hour trip to the Western Michigan port town of Manistee to participate in the North Country Run trail marathon and half marathon. For me, this was the most anticipated race of 2012. When I had to give up on my original goal of 10 half marathons this year, my new goal was to do my first trail half marathon. Even though my training for a trail race over last couple of months would indicate otherwise, this was the race I was most excited about.It was only a small portion of our team doing this race, counting myself there were 5 members of Team G who signed up for it, 4 doing the half and 1 doing the full. Regardless, anytime you can travel somewhere with some of the people you’ve been training with for weeks and weeks, race time is when we can all enjoy the fruits of our labor. I took a half day off from work on Friday, 1) to avoid taking a full day of vacation, and 2) to avoid having my daughter miss a whole day of school on her 3rd day of the school year. Unfortunately we didn’t leave our house until close to 2 pm, which was going to put us close to arriving past dark. The drive north to Michigan was smooth sailing. I had never been in Western Michigan, so going through Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, Grand Rapids, Muskegon, etc. was all new, so the drive wasn’t too boring. Due to our late start, we arrived at the campground around 9 pm. It was definitely a challenge putting up a tent in the dark but fortunately my team members helped us out and we were well situated by 10. Another teammate showed up after we did, and we were able to get him set up as well. What a great team!
Before heading to bed, we had a quick team meeting to agree on our departure time. Jim, our lone full marathoner, needed to be to the race by 6:30 for his 7:20 start time. The half didn’t start until 8:20, but we decided to all ride together (parking was going to be limited at the start line, plus we wouldn’t to be there when Jim started.) It was about 11 pm when I was in the tent, ready to go to sleep. I set my alarm for a little after 5, which normally would be sufficient. This picture of our dog Riley symbolizes how much quality rest I got that night. Well, maybe not that bad, but it feels like I was up every hour. When it was time to get up, the next challenge was getting the bagels and peanut butter out of the back of the van, quietly and without turning on lights. I passed that test, got a cup of coffee for the rode (thank goodness Dwight had a coffee maker at his camper!), and we were off to the Manistee National Forest.
We arrived at the race in plenty of time, found a parking spot fairly close, and we were all ready to watch the start of the full marathon. It’s hard to describe what the atmosphere was like. With a limit of 500 participants combined in the full, half and ultra (50 miles), it was no bigger than many 5k’s I run in. Yet, there was a big race buzz in the air, and groups there to support the ultras were setting up tents. The conditions at the start were good, on the cool side actually, but the forecast called for 80s by midday. Although the gnats were bad in the start/finish area, we were told that once we got back in the trails they wouldn’t be (this proved to be true).
The full marathon got underway about 15 minutes late (there was a tree down on the course that the race organizers worked to clear), and the ultra about 15 minutes after that. Scott, Lori, Dwight and I started together, in the back third of the half pack, as this was the first trail race for all of us, and on a single track trail it made sense for us to start near the back. The first mile was on the road (by mistake, the half course was supposed to just start on the trail), and when we got to the trail, Dwight and I were together, and Scott and Lori were together a little behind us. The first half of the race I felt really good. Dwight and I walked many of the long uphills, sometimes by choice, other times because the pack in front of us walked. We picked our spots to pass people in front of us, and we took advantage of the downhills. By the time we hit the 2nd aid station between miles 6 and 7, I had run more on trails in one run than I ever had previous to Saturday. Oh, the aid stations. They were wonderful! Cookies, pretzels, chips, oranges, bananas, pineapple. I could have stood there eating the fresh pineapple for several minutes, but I knew the ultras would need it more than me.
After mile 8, the course became tougher. A runner we were with early on, who had run the race last year, warned us that miles 8-11 were difficult. There was even a trail marker sign that indicate the upcoming trail was “More Difficult”. I think Scott or Lori snapped a picture of it but I didn’t have my phone with me. The walk breaks became more numerous and longer as we past miles 11 and 12, and just when it seemed like we would be done soon, when my garmin was already at 13 miles, a volunteer said the finish was still a half mile away! My legs were screaming at this point, but I made it to the finish, with my garmin reading 13.97, in 3:00:33. I didn’t have a time goal at all, I was happy just to finish and not trip and fall anywhere. Dwight and I did see a couple of people take pretty good falls, and Dwight almost fell himself but somehow managed to stay on his feet.
Everybody finished, a little sore, a lot dirty, but happy we accomplished our goal of running our first trail half. (Jim, who is our race workhorse, has run many trail races.) Here we are at the finish.
If you cannot tell by this picture, take a look at these medals, 16 oz and made in the US. I haven’t figured out where I am going to display mine yet.
Several other observations and tidbits to share about this race:
- Having beer at the end of a trail race is a necessity.
- Not a new discovery, but runners in general are the nicest people. While waiting for the rest of the team to finish, I had a nice conversation with a runner from Chicago who was waiting for her friend. Both of us had just completed a race in state #10 in our 50 state challenge. We shared race and training experiences, and connected on Twitter.
- The best performance of the day? Recently turning 65, Dwight was the oldest participant in the half. He won his age group obviously, and finished about 20 seconds in front of me. I hope to be running like Dwight when I’m his age.
- Our campground was right next to Lake Michigan. The 68 degree water felt great when we returned from the race.
It was the hardest half marathon I’ve ever done, but my first trail half marathon was a success, despite my lack of training. I have two more half marathons this year, Air Force in 2 weeks and Columbus in October. Then my focus turns to Ragnar Florida Keys, which is the first weekend in 2013. I’m thinking I’ll do another trail half in 2013 perhaps, but I’m happy that I can cross a trail half off my list, and another state.