July 27, 2009

Grand Island Marathon

One of the things that I enjoy about trail running is that each course is so different, even when they are on opposite sides of the same lake! Moose Mountain Marathon on the North Shore of Lake Superior comes to mind ;)

Back to Grand Island Marathon...

Made the 8+ hour drive to Munising on Friday - it was my first pilgrimage back to the U.P. since graduating from Michigan Tech 26 years ago. Yeah, I'm old. Where did the time go? I've driven the stretch of M-28 right past Grand Island I don't know how many times when I was in college, but never took the time to explore it or the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. I'm so glad I went back to run this beautiful race!

Grand Island is part of the Hiawatha National Forest and is located about a half mile off shore from the mainland. Because of the remote nature of the course, just getting to the start line is part of the charm. I'd been warned by someone who'd run this race a few years ago to make sure to get to the boat dock early - some runners were late to the start that year because they didn't catch the ferry early enough. Because there wasn't room for all of the runners to park at the dock, shuttle buses started making the rounds to all of the local hotels at 5 am Eastern time to pick us up and drop us off at the boat landing (the bus shuttle and ferry ride were included in the race fee). Considering the hour time change, I had to get up at 3:30 am Central time to eat, get dressed, and catch the bus.

Got to the boat dock while it was still dark, but the pre-dawn light was showing rather ominous looking clouds (the forecast was for rain and scattered T-storms all weekend long). The winds were calm and Lake Superior was like glass. Fish were jumping out of the water. While we were waiting at the ferry landing, I started chatting with one of the dock workers only to find out that we graduated the same year from MTU. Small world.

View of mainland from Grand Island boat landing
(couldn't get AutoStitch to work).

Finally got over to the island where we picked up our timing chips and found the spot to leave our drop bags. Everything was well organized and was running smoothly. The rain was holding off, but the mosquitos were fierce. Glad I put some DEET on beforehand! It was getting light out and the smell of the pines after the night rain was refreshing. I love the smell of the north woods after a light rain :)

Finally, it was time to toe the line and get this party started. The course basically circumnavigates the island on a 23 mile long trail with one short little out and back section to make the run a full marathon distance. With Lean Horse looming just 4 weeks away, my goal for this race was to treat it like a 50 miler by brisk walking all of the uphills (even the gentle ones) and trying to maintain a steady 13 min/mile pace. I was hoping to feel fresh as a daisy at the finish, and I figured that this would be a good test to see if I had the mental discipline to do what I needed to do (power walk) when everyone else would be doing something different (running). Having a strategy is useless if you can't execute it!

We started out on a flat sandy road that eventually turned into a two-track. A little bit of mud would be present all day long, but nothing too bad. The first 4 miles were pretty flat and I was taking it at a slow and easy jogging pace. Felt very comfortable. Temps were nice - probably close to 60 degrees, but very humid. Shortly past the 4 mile aid station, we started what was probably the longest and most noteworthy climb of the course. We were in a tunnel of mostly maple trees - it must be stunning in the fall with the autumn colors. This was the short out and back leg, and the only time I saw Tom the entire weekend (never did see Nancy). I was near the back of the pack, which is exactly where I expected to be. Power walking this section was going well. Got to the turn around and had a fun downhill run back to the aid station - right about the 7 mile mark.

Shortly after the 7 mile aid station, we came out of the woods and onto a long white sand beach. Everyone was trying to run on the wet sand right at the water's edge - it was like playing cat and mouse with the waves of Lake Superior lapping at your feet. The beach run is about a mile long with sandstone cliffs at either end and you can see the Pictured Rocks across the water. Awesome. The skies were actually showing some clearing and the weather would turn out to be beautiful!

Trout Bay Beach

At the end of the beach, we began mile 8 by heading back into the woods for a short uphill climb on single track to the top of the 200 foot tall cliffs. We ran for several miles in the woods along the cliff tops on wide, flat, roads that provided occasional views of the Pictured Rocks off to the east.

Hidden Beach

This was where it got tough to execute my power walking plan, because it was pretty flat for several miles and was very runnable. I just stuck to walking even the smallest of inclines, and by now I was pretty much alone on the trail. Had a Clif Shot just before the 11 mile aid station and continued on along the cliff tops for more spectacular scenery. Peering down from the top, the water of Lake Superior is so clear that you can see all the way to the bottom. Very interesting patterns in the sand, and strange looking perfectly straight lines under water as a result of the local geology.

At about mile 14, I started passing people even at my slow pace. We had another short beach run, then another single track climb back up to the cliff tops once more.

North Beach

Made my only aid station stop at mile 16 to refill my Nathan - still sticking to the power-walking-anything-remotely-uphill plan. Very easy running the rest of the way, which made the walking plan more challenging, especially since I was starting to pass more people. Several people. Heard some twigs snapping in the woods off to my right, but never did see the bear that was most likely creating the noise.

Went through the last aid station at mile 22 and was jogging the gentle downhills and flats. At about the 24 mile mark, the course comes near another beach (we didn't run in the sand at water's edge this time - just on a trail near the beach). You could see 2 smaller nearby islands off to the west and the mainland once again came in to view. I'm still passing people. Nobody's passing me.

Finally got to the dirt road that led back to the start/finish area near the boat landing. Crossed the line feeling pretty good - like I could go for another 10 miles or so - but not like I could do another lap. My pace was 12:14, so even though I was doing lots of walking, I still need to slow down a little more to conserve energy if I'm going to pull off a 50 miler in 4 weeks. I'm feeling very nervous about Lean Horse!

A huge thanks and congrats to the RD and the small army of volunteers who supported all of the runners for this spectacular event! This was one of those races where the number of volunteers may have exceeded the number of runners when you consider all of the aid station volunteers, folks patrolling the trail on mountain bikes, radio support, medical, transport, etc. I'd love to run this one again, especially since dense fog and rain rolled in the next morning and I didn't get to spend as much time as I would have liked exploring the island or other hiking trails in the area.

Grand Island Marathon is run on a relatively flat, non-technical trail that would be a perfect introduction to trail running (there is also a 10K for those not feeling up to a marathon distance). Unlike running Moose Mountain where you don't dare take your eyes off the ground if your feet are moving, this course provides plenty of opportunity to soak in spectacular scenery while still making forward progress. Highly recommended!

July 12, 2009

Trail Closures & Other Frustrations

It's been kind of a frustrating week!

Went out on Tuesday morning before work to get a good tempo run in at Bredesen Park, which is walking distance from my house. Only to find that the trail will be closed for resurfacing/maintenance/whatever. For. Three. Weeks. I had just enough time to get to Bredesen, do my thing, and get to work. Ended up having to scrub my workout that day.

Went out to Hyland Saturday morning to get some trail time in. I decided that the flatter terrain at Hyland is closer to what I'll encounter at Grand Island and Lean Horse compared to Afton, and it's a LOT closer to home. Just about every trail I encountered at Hyland was blocked off for maintenance/replanting/whatever. The only open trail was the flat wood chipped trail along Hyland Lake, which isn't much to speak of. No notice of how long this is expected to last. I was so pi$$ed that I went around some of the barriers and did 6 miles anyway.

Today I ended up with a 10 mile run around Lakes Calhoun, Harriet, and Isles. At least the path was open. Wanted to try some new sports drink for Lean Horse - Sustained Energy by Hammer. This stuff has a little bit of protein in addition to maltodextrin, which would be beneficial in longer runs. Problem is....it tastes like crap! I even tried the unflavored variety, and believe me, it isn't "unflavored." Tastes kinda like pancake batter, but sticks to the back of your throat and makes you gag. I even added some Hammer raspberry flavored gel - no joy.

I've got a lot of things to sort out before the end of August!

July 5, 2009

Afton 25K 2009

Afton is where I ran my first trail race 2 years ago and has become one of my favorite training sites in addition to being one of my favorite races. This year it landed on the Fourth of July, which turned out to be a warm but very humid and overcast day.

Got to the park early enough to score a good parking spot and have time to visit with several runners before the race: Jim, Dan V, Marise, Keith, Wayne, (I'm sure I'm missing a few). Before long it was time to toe the line and begin our single 25K loop of the park. The first 0.85 miles are mostly downhill on a gravelly horse trail before taking a left turn up the first of several steep climbs (total elevation for the 25K loop is a little over 5000 vertical feet). This first climb leads to the open prairie of the Africa Loop, which is a relatively flat, grassy trail. I seemed to be breathing a lot harder than normal for the pace I was running, and I was already feeling overheated even though the temp was only about 70 degrees (humidity was 90%).

A short distance later the trail leads downhill to the first of 5 aid stations, which is about the 2.5 mile mark and the beginning of the Back 40. I blew through AS1 without stopping and began the mile and a half loop through the woods which leads back to the same aid station (AS2) to top off my hand held with Heed. A short mix of woods and open meadows, a few ups and downs, then another climb back up to the Africa Loop. Thankfully the sky remained overcast or this section would have been a scorcher! After more relatively flat running on the grassy Africa Loop (the blackberries are starting to show on the bushes but are still very green), the course turns into the woods for a fun, runnable downhill that leads to AS 3 at the 6.1 mile mark. Londell was there taking pictures and told me that the first place woman had just run through the aid station shortly before I got there - except that she was on the other side of the table (AS 4). Hehehe.

Refilled with Heed, popped some electrolytes, grabbed a few pretzels and some ice, and headed up towards Nigel's Hill. While this is a noteworthy climb, it is basically a gravel road and is very runnable. Usually. Not today. I did some slow jogging at the beginning of the climb, but was really feeling hot with a queasy stomach and needed to slow down to a walk. I told myself that since this was my strategy for Lean Horse (walking all of the uphills), just think of this "race" as a good training run for the Half Hundred rather than trying to better my Afton time. Just keep up a brisk walk; keep moving forward.

Finally got to the top for another short stretch of flat, exposed running and then the somewhat tricky descent of Nigel's Hill. A short easy run along the river and then the long, tough climb up to the Campground. This is probably the longest and toughest climb at Afton and this little loop is one of my favorite hill workouts! Had a Clif Shot on the way up and was actually passing several people even though I was just walking. The Clif Shot seemed to help a little and I was able to run the rest of the way to AS 4, although the downhill is a little tricky. Stopped for another refill, more pretzels and electrolytes, and probably the best tasting fresh strawberries I've ever had. That really hit the spot! Also managed to grab about 5 ice cubes and was able to get them to stay in my hat. This seemed to help immensely, and I started passing people the entire way along the long, flat rail trail that runs parallel to the river.

The end of the river trail brings runners to the Meat Grinder at about the 11 mile mark, another nasty uphill that is technically tougher than the Campground Hill but not as long a climb. A few more ups and downs through some woods and open prairies, then finally in to the last aid station where Tom, Nancy, Eve, and others were taking care of us. More strawberries and a final refill of Heed, then off to the very fun snow shoe loop. While this part of the course is probably my favorite trail at Afton, I don't run it very often because I usually emerge covered with ticks even when I use DEET. Unlike the other trails which are typically 3-6 feet wide, the snow shoe loop is single track through woods and open meadows with tall grass. Tight, twisty turns, some technical running with rocks and roots, some short steep ups and downs that were a little slippery - this is just flat out fun to run! Too bad that I'm usually cramping when I get to this point.

Eventually the trail led back out to a wide grassy path and one more hill that I had to walk before running in to where John P, Wynn, Larry, and others were working the finish line. My time wasn't very good, but I didn't expect it to be given the trouble I was having with the humidity. Met up with Wayne and Marise who both had good runs, and soon others were stopping by to chat too. Had a great post race feed of barbequed burgers, watermelon, and chocolate chip cookies, and I ended up spending several hours hanging out and socializing afterwards. There were so many people at this race! Was able to see Steve, Carl, Zach, Dan M, Les, Bryan, and several others finish the 50K. Finally got to meet Mike, Bill, and Lynn (who will also be running Lean Horse), had time to chat with Molly about her adventure racing, Maria about Bighorn and numerous other runs/races, and Helen who won the women's 50K (again).

Thanks to RD John, Alicia, Afton State Park, and the army of volunteers who continue to do an awesome job every year putting on a premier event! Great trail, great volunteers, great aid stations, great post race barbeque, and great friends - I can't think of a better way to spend the Fourth of July :)

Hope to share the trail with all of you again soon!