running

I’ve been running for five years now (three of them on trails) and I still make newbie mistakes. But you don’t have to.

There are lots of ways you can run on trails without getting lost or getting eaten by mosquitoes. Here are my best tips:

  • Plan. Just last week, I headed out on what I knew would be a three-mile trail run with no water, gear or phone. Sure, I was fine, but I would have been a whole lot more comfortable in the full sun with a little bit of water. I also missed taking pics of the deer I saw on the trail. And a bit of mosquito repellent would have saved me from bites all along my ankles.
  • Leave a trail. OK, you’re not Hansel and Gretel, but at least tell someone where you’re going, how far you’re planning to run and when you expect to be back.
  • Know where you’re going. Get as much information about the route before you head out, whether that’s getting a paper map or taking a picture of the map on the trail head.
  • Learn to read a map. In Michigan, trail maps typically show you where each marker is. Most trails also are assigned a color and list a distance. For example, I just ran through the yellow trail around Fort Custer State Campground in Battle Creek, Mich. Because I looked at the map, I knew it was a four-mile loop and that I could pick it up right by my campsite. But you should know that the distance between each marker does not necessarily correspond with a particular mileage. So, there may or may not be a full mile between mile marker one and two. The map may or may not show the distance between the mile markers either.
  • Related: Use the map, but pay attention. I ran that yellow trail three times in the week we camped at Fort Custer. The first time, I had already been running for a mile around the campground, so I went out a mile on the yellow trail, turned around and headed back. However, the second time, I didn’t look at the marker by the campsite, so it took me a few minutes of looking at the map to see where the trail connected with the campground so I could get back to my campsite. Doh.

    After a while, most trails look the same, so pay attention.

  • Pick one trail and stick to it. If there are multiple trails that intersect, pick a color or a trail name and stay on it the whole time. If you’re new, you may notice that some trails appear to split off, leaving you wondering whether to make a turn. Remember that most trails are like the highway; you want to stay on the main road unless there’s an arrow pointing to your exit (in this case, trail).

    Look closely: The yellow trail continues on the left, but you would have wanted to turn right if you were following the red trail.

  • Run with friends if you can. I don’t mind running trails by myself, but running with friends is a whole lot more fun. Plus, you get validation from them that, yes, you are definitely approaching a hill and should walk instead of run for a minute to catch your breath. And the jokes about just needing to be faster than all the other runners when encountering a bear never get old.
  • Have fun. Trail running — at least for us back-of-the-packers — is supposed to be slower and more enjoyable. Look around. Enjoy the view and the sounds. Maybe you’ll even fall in love with trail running. And remember: not every stick is a snake!

Do you run on trails? Any tips for newbies? Any mistakes you’ve made that you’ve since corrected? (You may have to click on “Continue Reading” to leave a comment.)

We had heard the stories beforehand: The time when Shannon almost died. The steep hills. The shoe-sucking mud pit.

But nothing prepared us for just how hard it would be to get through one of two loops for the Old Farts Running Club‘s The Mummy Trail Marathon and Half in Lowell, Mich. It kicked our butts!

With a bum knee bugging me for the past couple of weeks, I signed up for the full marathon on race day, thinking that I would DNF (did not finish) halfway if I had to. I really wanted the gear, which was pretty awesome and included a zip-up jacket, neon-yellow running T-shirt and a towel. All items had either the mummy logo or the name of the race.

Race organization

I arrived at 7 a.m. for an 8 a.m. start. Registration was super quick and organized.

There were stacks of jackets, T-shirts and sweatshirts to riffle through, but each runner got to pick exactly what they wanted. There were stacks of even more clothes after the race and each runner got to pick another item which now included stacks of sweat pants, track pants and shorts.

The gear was stacked on a picnic table, but we all took home a really nice jacket or sweatshirt and there were plenty of sizes and styles to choose from.

There are flush toilets in a building right by the start line and the race is small enough that the line was short.

Speaking of the start line, the race director gave clear instructions, we all lined up and we started right on time.

The trails were very clearly marked with small flags, spray-painted arrows and homemade signs that both encouraged and taunted us.

One of the many taunting signs along the trail.

The race organizers also have some sort of sick love for Chuck Norris who managed to make us feel unworthy every time we saw his face.

Hold me.

Water stations were tidy with plenty of cups and big trash cans. The station at around mile 8 had three of the Old Farts whose names grace some of the toughest spots along the course. They lulled us into a false sense of security by giving us sliced watermelon, cookies and Coke.

Don’t let these smiling faces fool you. The men were friendly but the portions of the race named after them were brutal.

Difficulty

It quickly became apparent that if we were going to do two loops and finish with 26.2 miles, we were going to have to reserve some energy, so we did a lot of walking. Looking back, that was one of our biggest mistakes. One mile had hills so steep, it took us 45 minutes.

How steep, you ask?

We had to crawl on our hands and knees a few times before reaching ropes that helped us climb, but that also made us feel like we would fall backward and plunge to our deaths.

But because climbing up steep hills wasn’t hard enough, this one had huge rocks.

Rocks? Sure, because the hills weren’t steep enough on their own.

And the trees. Oh, the trees. Trees blocked the trail so many times that even when we were running, we quickly had to stop to go over — or duck under — downed trees. At least two of us banged up our knees and got nice cuts and bruises. Never say I didn’t bleed for my running!

We crossed a few streams and slid down a few extra-steep spots on our bums.

 

We were grateful for the ropes, but wanted to lie down and cry whenever we spotted them because we knew what they portended.

No happy ending

We survived the toughest trail race I’ve ever seen. Even the Two Hearted Trail Half, which I considered relatively technical, and the Run Woodstock 50K were easier than today’s course.

Toward the end of the first look, the course gets a lot less technical, so my friends and I discussed going back out to do a second loop. My knee was holding up pretty well, but we were all plum tired. And we must have looked it because one of the race organizers (who happens to be a coach) basically told us we were done.

And we were perfectly OK with that. He even gave us half-marathon finisher medals and told us we did great. So we technically didn’t DNF and it felt like we earned those darn medals.

Lessons learned

There is no way I could do the full marathon at Old Farts. Well, maybe at some point. This was definitely not my year.

Would I sign up for the half? In a heartbeat. And I would run a lot more than I did today, knowing that we “only” had to do 13.1 miles (or more like 13.5 by my watch), making it a shorter trip.

I also was very glad that I had my friends’ support. I can’t imagine going through all of that by myself. There were many times when we encouraged each other, helped each other face our fears and pushed each other to get to the finish line.

The chicos both finished the full, but the chicas and I did one loop instead. That we’re all smiling after the race is a testament to our friendship.

In the end, it wasn’t the race I had signed up for, but I wouldn’t trade the experience — or my crew — for anything.

What’s the toughest race you’ve ever done? Would you consider our change of plans a DNF? Have you ever DNF’d? (You may have to click on “Continue Reading” to leave a comment.)

 

While a chica really can’t have too much running gear, having two kids in college at the same time this year, choosing which items to add to my collection is going to be harder than ever as Skirt Sports (affiliate link) releases its new fall line.

I’m a Skirt Sports ambassador and get a generous discount on the gear, but I’m not being compensated for this post. I do, however, get to share a 20 percent discount code with you so you can shop with abandon: FWC20. The code can’t be combined with additional discounts, coupons or promotions.

So what’s so special about the new Skirt Sports fall line? New patterns and new items.

New patterns

The redesigned Pocketopia Capri in the new Love Triangle pattern.

There are items in at least three new patterns: Love Triangle (in shades of green that make this Spartan super happy), Flyaway (a Ruby red repeating pattern that happens to be a butterfly wing) and Romance (a repeating horizontal pattern that has all of the season’s new colors, including greens and the new solid color, Ruby).

One of my favorite Skirts, the Happy Girl, in the new Romance pattern.

 

The Hover Capri in the new Flyaway print.

New items

While Skirt Sports is slowly releasing the new fall line, you can already buy some new items that are sure to become favorites.

The one that I’m most intrigued about is the Reflective Bolero Jacket, made with a highly reflective fabric and designed to be folded tightly and stored in, what else?, your Skirt pocket. It’s also wind and water resistant. Isn’t it cool?

The new Reflective Safety Bolero is designed to fit in your Skirt pocket.

Skirt Sports used that same fabric for its new Reflective Safety Skirt, which can be worn over shorts, capris or leggings.

Here’s a closeup of the new Skirt Sports reflective fabric.

The company’s popular Gotta Go Skirt now comes in a capri. It features a built-in trap-door so you can, well, go while on the run. I haven’t tried this one and am not yet sure whether I’ll be taking the plunge.

The Gotta Go Capri Skirt features a trap door that allows you to go potty discreetly while on the run.

While I can’t provide any details, I can tell you to expect some wool items to arrive in the coming weeks. Between the new patterns and the new, warmer fabric, I’ll be spending all of my clothing allowance on running gear. Again. Unless, of course, y’all tell Santa I’ve been a very good girl this year.

Have you tried Skirt Sports gear? What’s your favorite item? What do you think of the new patterns? (You may have to click on “Continue Reading” to leave a comment.)

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? (You may have to 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? (You may have to click on “Continue Reading” to leave a comment.)