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.
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.
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!