I had originally planned on running the 50 mile when I registered for the North Country Trail Run back in early January, figuring it would be a good way to combine an ultra run on a new (for me) trail with a family visit in Michigan. Unfortunately, my winter taper led to a spring taper and a tweaked achilles, which led to a summer long taper while struggling with endless heat and humidity. Before I knew it, we were in the middle of August and I had managed only one 20+ mile run since running the 50 mile at Surf the Murph last October. Not enough for pulling off a 50. I emailed the RD and asked to switch to the marathon, but never heard anything back. As I was packing and getting ready to leave for the 2 day drive to Manistee, a message went up on the North Country facebook page stating that there would be no further changing of races. Crap. Quickly threw my "ultra stuff" into the car just in case and starting driving south east to get to North Country (that's not a typo).
Got to Manistee late Friday afternoon and headed over to the Big M trail head in the Manistee National Forest for packet pick up. Was able to confirm that I could just run the marathon after all (whew!) and picked up lots of swag: coffee mug, race shirt, polar fleece vest. This would also be the start and finish area for the race, so at least now I knew how to get there.
Woke up to an already warm (low 70's) and very humid morning and got to the start area just before sunrise. Trail and ultra runners are typically a pretty tight bunch, so it seemed very odd to be at a race and not know a single person. But, trail and ultra runners are also a very welcoming bunch, so it was no problem finding people to hang out and chat with. Everyone kept mentioning how difficult the hills are on this 25 mile loop course. It is also a popular mountain bike and cross country ski trail, all single track (my favorite).
The 50 milers took off, and we would be right behind them only 30 minutes later. This didn't make much sense to me: sending a herd of turtles down a narrow single track only 30 minutes before unleashing the hares on the same course probably got a little messy once the faster marathoners caught up to the slower ultra runners. Oh well, another good reason to run the marathon instead.
Before long, we were lined up and ready to go. We did a short little lap around the parking area to spread out a little before heading down the trail. My strategy was to treat this race as if it was a 50 miler: walk the ups, jog the flats and downs. Basically, a nice training run with no expectations of time or pace - just a fun day in the woods. With about 200 of us, we were like a freight train rolling through the woods for awhile. No sense trying to pass anyone - just relax until people get more spread out. I kept waiting for the huge, steep hills that people had warned me about, but they weren't showing up. Just a nice, smooth, somewhat twisty trail with gently rolling hills - kind of like Ice Age without the rocks.
Shortly afterward, I took my first digger when my calf cramped up and I caught my toe on one of the few roots on the trail. I figured that I'd better pay more attention to fluid intake and S caps, even though I thought I was on target in that regard. Cramping after only 10 or so miles isn't a good thing, even in the shorter marathon race. The hills were neither big nor steep, but they were there and they were starting to catch up to me. Kind of like "death by a thousand razor blades" type of hills.
Back on down the trail in the beautiful forest, I noticed occasional thumps as acorns were hitting the ground. Started wondering if I was going to need a helmet - I think the squirrels were having a little game of their own to see how many runners they could hit....LOL. Time seemed to pass quickly and soon I was standing in aid station 5. Another runner was there too, warning about the upcoming monster hills. We headed out about the same time and chatted for a bit before she dropped off. I found the entire trail very runnable, but was still getting twinges in both calves and needed to slow down a bit just to prevent full blown cramping. Passed through aid station 6 and shortly afterward came upon more volunteers lugging coolers of food to aid station 7 located more than 3 miles away. That seemed very inefficient since the aid station they would be staffing was only a mile from the start/finish parking area, but that's what they were directed to do. Things that make ya go, "Hmmmm."
Caught up to a pair of women who had gotten off course and done some bonus miles, but they were still enjoying their day in the woods. We started talking about muscle cramping and one recommended trying coconut water as a remedy. Not coconut milk, but coconut water. I've never heard of it, but it might be worth a try.
Got through the last aid station and let the lone volunteer know that his relief was on the way, then headed down the trail for the short run to the finish. There was a nice, long, gentle downhill that seemed to go on forever (probably closer to 0.75 miles), then we eventually ended up on a two track. I took one last hard digger and left some blood in the forest - still not really sure what the heck tripped me up - but both calves locked up and it took a minute or two before I could continue. Was able to walk the cramps off, but decided to hold off on running until I could smell the finish line. I'm really gonna have to check out coconut water ;)
Finally made the trot across the finish line where we were given finishers medals and a bottle of water, then headed over to the barbecue for a freshly grilled burger and potato salad. I skipped the beer and desserts, but hung out for a little bit on what turned out to be a hotter than expected day (mid-80's and very humid). I'm glad I was able to drop down to the marathon because there's no way I would have pulled off a 50 miler on this day.
Thanks to first year RD Chris and his crew for taking over an established classic race so that the rest of us could have some fun in the woods! North Country is a good size race for a trail event (actually, 3 races: a 50 mile, marathon, and half marathon with a total of 600 runners on single track) and I don't think many people realize the time and energy it takes to pull these things off. The race organizers have already sent out a survey seeking feedback so that they can continue to improve the event in future years. The small army of volunteers were AWESOME! If you're looking for a non-technical trail with twists, turns, and roller coaster hills in a beautiful forest that are a pure joy to run, I highly recommend heading to Big M and running one of the North Country Trail races.
1 day ago