I’ve pictured myself running on a beach, my steps straight, smooth and dry. The reality? Not so much.

But that, chicos y chicas, was the only downside to what was otherwise a fun, well-organized race on Grand Island, north of Munising in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Put on by Great Lakes Endurance, Grand Island is host to a 50K plus full and half marathons through mostly packed sand or dirt trails with Lake Superior vistas, and even a peak at the Pictured Rocks Lakeshore.

Well-worth convincing la familia to come up to the U.P. for a week in July, the race has been on my radar for a couple of years. This Puerto Rican was drawn by the promise of riding a ferry across water to run on an island.

Registration was easily done online with clear instructions and regular email communication as we got closer to race day. There was a lot of information, for example, on packet pickup, race day etiquette (zero trash) and transportation.

Packet pickup

Packet pickup was held at the Munising Holiday Inn, on the west side of Munising. There was plenty of parking, a nice welcome sign, and enough people working that registration was very quick. Hours were from 3-9 p.m.

Bibs were chipped; each race had its own color; and plenty of safety pins were provided.

Grand Island Trail Half race review

Holiday Inn welcomes Grand Island runners.

My two boys and I took advantage of the timeline to take a Pictured Rocks boat tour for about two-and-a-half hours. These rock formations are a must-see if you’re making the trip for this race.

Part of the Pictured Rocks tour before the Grand Island Half Marathon packet pickup.

After our adventure and packet pickup, we picked up pizzas at the aptly named Pictured Rocks Pizza also on the main drag in town, this time on the east side. The place was packed but offered outside and indoor seating, a friendly staff and delicious pizzas and bread sticks. We may have dug in immediately upon arriving back at our Jeep. Don’t judge.

Transportation to the island

Race morning also ran very smoothly. I parked at Munising High School where a shuttle quickly took us bleary eyed runners to the ferry. We didn’t have to wait for either the bus or the small boat (there were about 30 of us) and they had ferries running the route fairly often. There were no portable toilets at the high school, but the ferry dock had a couple of easily accessible pit toilets.

Upon arriving at Grand Island, we got to wait for an hour-and-a-half, spending at least 30 minutes in line to use the toilets. The ultra crowd was already gone by the time we arrived; marathoners lined up about an hour before us half-marathoners.

Grand Island Trail Half race review

Grand Island race welcome banner.

Instructions were shared by bullhorn several times, including what color flag to follow and where (blue, to the right of the trail for the half).

And we’re off

I’m estimating about 250 half marathoners, if not 300, set off right at 8 a.m. Like most trail races, the pack was orderly and friendly.

Even us back-of-the-packers got a few cheers as we crossed the timing matts.

The first few miles were wooded, packed sand or dirt. I wouldn’t call it terribly technical, but a bit hilly.

Grand Island Trail Half race review

Grand Island Trail Half Marathon had lots of scenery.

And then, the beach.

Chariots of Fire music

Somewhere around mile 4, we were directed to the Lake Superior shoreline. I tried to avoid getting my shoes wet. Don’t. It’s impossible.

Grand Island Trail Half Marathon race review

Grand Island Trail Half Marathon’s most beautiful and hardest portion.

The sand is angled so that the dry stuff was uneven and hard to run on. One woman managed to go to the very top of the dry sand, but she walked the whole way and she looked like she was struggling.

The rest of us sucked it up and ran on the water where the sand was packed and a bit easier. Even so, I found that mile to be the hardest of the whole race by far. The view was breathtaking, with crystal-clear water and blue skies, and a portion of the Pictured Rocks in the background.

As soon as we were done with the beach portion, a couple of runners switched their socks at a conveniently placed bench. I figured everyone’s socks would get soaked immediately anyway and didn’t think much of it.

Were I to do this race again, I would take a moment to take the sand out of my shoes and switch socks. I had to stop later anyway because the sand had bunched up under my arch and felt like a stone.

Why we all signed up for this particular race

The rest of the race was also beautiful. Around mile seven, I started to see some of the ultra and full-marathon runners heading toward the finish line.

I stuck with my 4:1 run/walk intervals, so I took a lot of photos. The terrain was relatively smooth, with some rocks and a tree root here or there. Mosquitoes were out in full force, so make sure to use bug spray and to bring some with you (I bought the wipes and was glad to have them).

Two aid stations were well staffed and offered water and Honey Stinger for fuel. I didn’t stop, so I’m not sure what else they had nor how efficient they were at filling up the required water bottles or hydration system bladders (remember: no trash).

Finish line

There were friends and family members waiting at the finish line and were kind enough to cheer people as we came in. A race volunteer immediately handed me a receipt with my time and placement, then directed me to get my medal. Like the Two Hearted Trail Half Marathon medal, it’s made of wood and hung with yarn.

A happy chica after finishing the Grand Island Trail Half Marathon.

Runners who placed at the top of their age group got gorgeous, colorful glass medallions.

A bunch of folks spent some time by the dock, swimming or at least getting some of the grime off in the lake. The after-race treats were delicious, especially raspberry and oatmeal bars that were to die for. There were also bananas, cherry juice and some other energy bars. The race description said there would be watermelon, but they ran out.

Final thoughts

I would definitely do this friendly, fun race. Like any good destination race, we took advantage of the timing and spent the week sightseeing around the U.P. Hope to bring some friends with me next time!

What’s your favorite destination race? What makes for a good trail race? How do you feel about running on sand? (Click on “Continue Reading” to leave a comment.)

You may be considering running a 50K because your friends have promised you that you’ll get to eat M&Ms at each aid station with abandon. Or because you like the idea of an ultra marathoner sticker or magnet on your car. You may have even run a bunch of half and full marathons, and think it can’t possibly be much more difficult.

It is. Really. But so, so worth it.

I’ve only one 50K but I am in the middle of training for my second this September. I can tell you it’s incredibly difficult, but also more rewarding than any other type of running I’ve ever done.

Whatever your reason, here’s the skinny on what it really takes to train for an ultra marathon:

  1. An indomitable spirit with a sprinkle of insanity. In a word: grit. There is no way you’re going to get through five runs each week plus cross training plus making sure you get enough sleep if you’re not dead-set on reaching your goal. Our Saturday morning long runs start as early as 5:30 a.m. Who wants to get up at 4:30 on a Saturday? Crazy people, that’s who. And only those of us who are not-quite-normal will get to the start line.

    An especially crazy 18-mile run, made better by great company.

  2. A lot of time. The training plan my friends and I are using calls for four time-based runs, from an hour to an-hour-and-a-half each, plus a long run on Saturday mornings. When you’re slow like us, a long run can take from three to five hours at a time. And — get this — you have to run for at least an hour the day after your longest run of the week. It helps to have a familia who is OK with all of this, or at least one that likes to sleep in a lot.
  3. Patience (a.k.a., a sense of humor). Tell someone you’re running a 50K (or longer) ultra marathon and be prepared for lots of questions about your sanity. Even non-runners understand that some people sign up for — and run — marathons. “Run a bunch of miles to prove to yourself that you can? Got it.” But an ultra pushes you right into freak (or unbalanced) category. “What, a marathon wasn’t long enough for you?” I actually had a 15-minute conversation with a nice man at work. A former runner, he wanted to chat about why I run longer distances instead of concentrating on shorter races, but trying to get faster. Bless his heart. (See #1 above).
  4. Friends who are just as crazy as you are. Bonus points if they’re experienced and can share awesome tips like what to pack for your ultra, including the need for a drop bag. Most importantly, friends who may think you’re crazy, but who nonetheless support your insanity by meeting you for runs at 5:15 a.m. a couple of weekdays before going to work.

    Some of my crazy runner friends.

  5. Gear. Sure, you can train for a half or full marathon wearing a tech shirt and shorts, plus nice running shoes. An ultra requires an extensive list of must-have items, ranging from a water/hydration vest so you don’t die from dehydration during your long runs, fuel (like Gu or SportBeans or, in my case, even cheese sticks) so you don’t die from hunger, and salt/electrolyte tablets so you don’t die from dehydration. I’m not exaggerating about that whole dehydration thing; training for a fall race means long runs in July and August when it’s just plain hot. Another must-have: A nice running watch that not only tracks your mileage and pace, but one that can last whatever time you think it’ll take you to run 31-plus miles.
  6. Access to trails. A lot of ultras are run on trails. To run 31 miles on trails, you need to train on trails. There’s just no way around that. Trail shoes are optional, but well worth the investment. (See #5 above).
  7. Accepting that you will be hungry. All. The. Time. There’s a reason why people training for 26.2 gain the “marathon many.” I tend to eat every two or three hours anyway, but the extra running has be starving an hour after my last meal. It’s easy to put on a few pounds during training.

I may weigh 600 lbs. by the goal 50K, Run Woodstock in September.

Bonus: I am very fortunate to be surrounded by a tribe of experienced runners, so I asked them to share their best tips on what it really takes to run your first ultra. Here’s what they had to say:

Vicki: “It takes friends to run with and motivate you.”

Melissa: “Don’t skip mid-week runs. That will come back to haunt you mile 28…”

Emily: “Loss of sanity. Other insane friends cheering you on and assuring you you can do it.”

There you have it. If after all that, you still decide to take on your first ultra, I hope you succeed. It’s a fun, crazy, insane, exhausting, time-consuming, expensive endeavor. But I wouldn’t change a thing about it.

What’s on your race schedule this year? Have you ever done an ultra? What are some of your favorite tips? (Click on “Continue Reading” to leave a comment.)

The day began at o’dark-30 on Saturday morning with a 45-minute drive from our campground in the great metropolis of Beulah to Traverse City Central High School to meet up with the other runner chicas.

Tip: Look at a map before you book your hotel/campground so you are not surprised on race morning that you have to drive FORTY-FIVE minutes at 5 a.m.

My friend Vicki was her usual wonderful self and picked up my packet on Friday night so I could just board a school bus to take us to the finish line, about 20 minutes away.

Tip: Arrive early because the parking lot gets super busy and you don’t want to miss the bus to the starting line.

We arrived with plenty of time to freeze use the port-a-potties twice, take lots of selfies and catch up with friends.

Tip: Be prepared to wait to use the aforementioned toilets. The lines were super long.

While there are no pace groups for the half marathon, Bayshore does provide markers so you can line up by estimated pace. The crowd is huge, but we didn’t have any trouble finding a good spot to start and quickly got into our 2:1 interval rhythm.

Tip: Be sure to line up with your proper pace group because you don’t want people to shove you out of the way like a certain president.

I should note that the race begins with a significant incline and continues with many smaller hills. Train appropriately.

Tip: There are also 10k and full-marathon options.

Lots of runners walked the first, big hill.

Vicki, plus our friends Jen and Lindsey, and I easily got into a great rhythm, mostly following the pre-programmed timer that told us when to walk and when to run. While I prefer to just run, I followed Dr. Awesome’s advice to try the intervals as a condition of being able to actually run this half.

Tip: Try the intervals if you’re building up your mileage. It’s a great way to run further distances without dying.

Vicki, Jen and I trained many a Saturday for this race.

We had already decided that we would enjoy this race, no matter what, so we did stop a few times to take photos.

An amazing view early on during the Bayshore Half Marathon.

The vineyard and lake views are really why many of us signed up for this particular race, so we made a point of enjoying them.

We also enjoyed the amazing course support, from the organized water and Gatorade stations to the random set ups from people who live on the course. There were a few particularly fun ones, including the stop where everyone was wearing red, blue and white onesies, the one with the ladies holding signs that read “If Trump can run, so can you!” and the group that was blowing bubbles across the road.

Another fun feature were the chalk messages on the asphalt, including the usual “good job” and “keep going,” plus our names in front of the Team Playmakers tent around mile eight.

Tip: Make sure you’re paying attention when grabbing a cup because some tables held beer in addition to water and lime Gatorade.

It was heartwarming to see just how many families set up in front of their homes along the course, blaring music, yelling encouraging words or just making a racket with cowbells.

Despite some whining, Vicki, Jen, Lindsey and I finished strong. We were tired, yes, but there was Moomers ice cream to be had, so we perked up right away.

The Moomers ice cream was worth the 13.1 mile run.

Tip: Spend a little bit of time at the tents. In addition to soda, chocolate milk, the ice cream and cold water, there was a ginormous tent full of homemade cookies — the chocolate-cherry oatmeal cookies were to die for.

In the end, the race was fun, well-organized and definitely worth the trip. I plan to repeat it and hope to see y’all there!

With Vicki, Jen, Lindsey and her kids.

Have you run Bayshore? What did you think? Would you do it again? (Click on “Continue Reading” to leave a comment.)

If you’ve been running 5Ks in the Lansing, Mich., area for a while, you’ve probably seen the moon and stars logo for the Max’s Race 5K on the Michigan State University campus every summer.

Our familia has a connection to Max’s family. He and our oldest son were classmates in preschool and us parents traded stories about the boys’ progress while waiting for after-school pickups or at school functions. He was as cute and sweet as he looks in photos.

Max

Max’s mom, Natalie, and I have kept in touch through the years, running into each other here or there and connecting on Facebook. When I saw her reminder about the upcoming race, I just knew you’d all want to hear their story.

Please consider signing up for the June 24 race.

By Natalie Hool

My name is Natalie and I lost my 6-year-old son in 2005 to a night-time seizure.

Max Matthews contracted bacterial meningitis in 1998 that left him with a few struggles at the age of 7 months, including hearing loss. He was the youngest recipient of a cochlear implant in Michigan when he had the procedure three days before his first birthday. 

This year, his birthday and Mother’s Day fall on the same date. In 2006 it did, too, but I couldn’t even get out of bed. This year, I am completely ready for the flood of emotions coming my way all because back in 2005 a decision was made to create a foundation in Max’s honor, the Maxwell C. Matthews Foundation.

Our main event is called Max’s Race. It is a 5K run/walk with a kids fun run.

Sparty joins the Max’s Race fun.

Sparty, the MSU cheer team and face-painting clowns all join in for the festivities. Our 12th annual race takes place on June 24, 2017. Our route on the Michigan State University campus begins at the “big rock” east of Farm Lane.

Credit: ©TimeFramePhoto.com

The foundation’s motto is to “Create hope for kids and their families.” To that end, we have made donations to Sparrow Hospital‘s pediatric programs and the Davies Project. It is important that the money we raise is for kids like Max and their families.

This race really means the world to me. It is like a piece of Max is right there, touching me. The feeling that comes from all of the participants and volunteers coming together and thinking about him is indescribable. 

I am also a runner and there are so many race options in the summer. Please consider attending Max’s Race! Watching adults and kids come together for a great experience with Max on their mind is heartwarming and has been integral to my healing. 

Max’s Mom

Some runs mean just getting through the miles on the training plan. Others, well, let’s just say that they are more than just putting one foot in front of the other.

I’ve known for a while now that there’s something about the Marl Lake trail near South Higgins Lake State Park in central Michigan that can feel magical or whimsical. There’s just something special about a trail that can assault your senses with both the sounds of your trail shoes crunching on dry leaves and the smell of pines that smell like Christmas.

Marl Lake

Today’s experience assaulted something I didn’t even know I had: fear. Fear that a recent diagnosis of runner’s knee would finally bench me.

Sure, I’ve come back from hurt shoulders and my dumb butt. And I’ve been trying to remind myself that if I take a step back, invest in my recovery and do what I’m supposed to do, that I’ll get better.

But there was always that voice in the back of my head that wondered if that was really true.

Just a quarter of a mile into my run, I felt loose and relaxed. And then the runner’s high snuck up on me, like I did on the poor couple taking each other’s pictures and who jumped when I got closer (sorry!).

Runner’s high is strong with this one.

The trail was relatively smooth, with little to trip me. I was in the zone.

Until a couple of dogs darted toward me, barking but with tails wagging, their owners close behind. They warned me about upcoming flooding, but encouraged me to go forward, even offering up a long branch one of them was using as a walking stick.

Declining with a smile, I set off again, grateful that others were also enjoying the beautiful scenery.

Soon, I saw the water-covered trail the women warmed me about.

There’s always a way.

I easily walked over the logs someone had gathered over the big puddle and kept on going. Hmmm. Someone else had seen this obstruction and done something about it.

Things got wetter and wetter on the trail today.

And then, well, I just couldn’t get around. There just was no way to avoid the lake-like puddle on the trail.

No way around this one.

Sure, I could have run through (I see you, Corey Baker) and gotten my feet soaked, but I instead backtracked and re-read the trail sign, which showed another way.

Trail maps, love ’em.

Thankfully, the new route was flat and soft, covered with either dead leaves or pine needles.

Like with our running journey, sometimes the trail is smooth.

And then it hit me: the day’s trail run was an allegory for my running journey.

Sometimes, it’s perfect (runner’s high), but it’s often full of surprises (sorry again, surprised couple!) and detours (did I mention I’m injury prone?), but I always manage to get to the other side.

And then, wham, a fallen tree (or an injury) tries to stop you again.

A giant tree blocked my path during today’s trail run.

I could see that there was already a narrow area of trampled grass where others had obviously been running or walking. They’d created a new path around the fallen tree.

Just like I’m not the first person to ever get a runner’s knee diagnosis. Others have been there before and found a way to get back on track. There’s always a way, even if it means taking a step back or making your way around.

I’m not alone. I just have to follow the trail set by others to get to the other side.

With that comforting realization, I picked up my pace, running faster than I ever have on the trails before. My heart lighter than it’s been since the diagnosis. A smile on my lips.

Have you ever been injured and worried you’d never get better? What helped? Also, do you run through or around a big lake-size puddle on a trail? (Click on “Continue Reading” to leave a comment.)