trail running

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.)

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.)

A year ago today, I listened to my running mentors, took a leap of faith, and signed up for my first ultra marathon. The idea of running for 50 kilometers (31 miles) seemed nearly impossible, but I figured I could always walk my way through the course and still spend some quality time with my runner friends … once I met up with them after the race.

I not only survived the Run Woodstock 50K and had plenty of company, but it was one of the most fun events I’ve experienced since I started running in 2012. Aid stations stocked with cheese sandwiches, potato chips, M&Ms and regular Coke aside, the event showed me that I could reach an insane goal just by doing a few very basic things. Basic, yes, but not always easy.

Six months later, I find myself perusing the Run Woodstock website and pulling out my credit card. Again. Perhaps running ultras is like childbirth: If we remembered the pain, we’d all just have one kid (or run just one).

I learned a bunch of things (8 lessons, in fact) from that first ultra that I plan to follow. I’m adding a few more now that I’ve had the benefit of a few months to think back:

  • It’s all about the base. Running in the Michigan tundra in the winter is plain hard. As with all things running, it’s all of those miles leading up to race day that really count. So I’m making sure that I put in the time now. To do so, I’m following the Hal Higdon Half Marathon Intermediate training plan so that I’m ready for my first half of the year: the Gazelle Girl Half in Grand Rapids. Starting early means I will have a strong base before full-blown ultra training begins.
  • It’s also about the experience. Sure, the race was a fun event. But what made it memorable — and worth repeating — was the time I got to spend with my runner friends. A bunch of us made a weekend of it, including camping at a local park, a Friday night dinner at a local restaurant and a potluck dinner after the race.
  • Think about the time immediately after the race. I spent months and months plotting out just about every detail of my race, including packing my drop bag, buying the perfect hydration pack and breaking in a second pair of trail shoes (in my case, the Brooks Cascadia). But I never planned for the time immediately after we got done. I now know to pack a small bag so I can take a HOT shower immediately. I would have given up a kidney for a lukewarm shower after all that time on my feet. Because we (gladly) waited for our friends to finish, I had to wait a couple of hours before showering. Not bueno.
  • A trail race requires that you train on trails. A lot. A group of us run on local trails most Sunday mornings and I certainly ran on trails whenever we were on one of our camping trips. Both truly helped. But I need to increase my trail running significantly this year, plus do a lot more hill work. While I finished upright after 10-plus hours on my feet, working on endurance will make for a more-pleasant experience.
  • Don’t expect anyone to understand. Why spend that much time training for such a long race? Are you crazy? Who does that? All questions I’ve been asked and, frankly, can’t really answer to the asker’s satisfaction. I no longer expect them to understand.

This all said, I haven’t actually signed up for the Woodstock 50K yet. I certainly want to and am hopeful that my friends will be by my side. What do y’all say Ultra Sole Sisters? (Click on “Continue Reading” to leave a comment.)

There is very little time to do anything but run when training for a long race. Four or five runs per week, including a three or four hour long run on Saturdays means less time for … (insert just about any activity here). Now that I’m not running quite as much, I finally feel like I have a bit more time.

So after listening to my running friends’ advice, I’ve decided to do a few things:

Cross training. Yoga’s not my favorite thing, but it is a necessary one. I’ve spent some time on my Gaiam mat with Rebecca Pacheco’s videos on the Runner’s World magazine site. I like that she focuses on moves specifically for runners. I also rode my bike with el husbando last week and we plan to do so again more often. Mental note: Need to buy a more-comfortable bike seat. (Yup, old-lady seat, here I come!)

Someone thought yoga looked like fun.

Someone thought yoga looked like fun.

Core work. I keep telling myself that I would dust off the Jillian Michaels DVDs I already have, but I haven’t quite yet. I did find a 30-day plank challenge you can do in your PJs. If the personal trainer who developed the videos can do them in her pajamas, then I figured I could give the thing a try. A thunderstorm kept me inside on the treadmill for a couple of miles tonight, so I did day one on the yoga mat and didn’t die. We’ll see what my bum shoulder thinks of this tomorrow.

Plan. I’ve been poking around one of my favorite Michigan runner blogger’s sites, looking for race reviews. So far, I know I want to do the Gazelle Girl Half, Grand Island Half, Two Hearted Trail Half and the Detroit International Half. I haven’t decided whether I’ll be doing another long race, but there’s talk among my runner friends of heading back to do another Run Woodstock event. (Translation: If they jump off a cliff … I’ll be signing up for the 50K with them again.)

One thing I’ve learned about myself is that I need a goal (or 12) to keep putting in the work. It’s been fun to have more time to do things like watch the Rome series with our favorite teenager, or to support my friends on their long runs because they needed company.

But I do know that I need to start signing up for some events to keep myself running through the winter months, even if I do look like the Michelin Man.

To that end, I’m considering doing at least a half marathon each month next year, including several on trails. What do y’all think? Do you have any Michigan races you think I should consider? Have you signed up for any 2017 races already?

tuesdays-on-the-run-1

You’ve spent a season training for your big race. You’ve put in hours and hours on the road or trail, you’ve run your race, gotten your medal and posted your accomplishment on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Now what?

First, it’s normal to have a bit of a letdown after achieving a big-deal-whoopie running goal. So much of your time and energy has been focused on getting to the start line that few of us spend much — if any — time thinking about what comes next.

What’s a runner chico or chica to do? That’s why I’m writing about the most challenging aspect of running right now for the Tuesdays on the Run link-up hosted by runner bloggers MCM Mama Runs, My No Guilt Life and Marcia’s Healthy Slice.

For me, it’s figuring out what to do after meeting a big audacious running goal, so I turned to my runner friends. Here’s what they said:

Kari: I’m new to running as of last October so I have some hefty goals ahead of me. With that being said, I started small and my race distances just keep growing. Is there really a limit? I truly don’t think so. Only thing that is limiting is our imagination and belief in ourselves. If a new runner sees a 100 miler in their future, I’d say “you got this” and encourage. Setting a new goal (signing up) is what has kept me motivated to succeed.

Erinn: Set another goal. A smaller goal — but still a challenge goal. Like best 5k (work on speedwork) or another fitness goal like pull ups, more paddle boarding for core strength, and all the while looking at other options. Word of mouth is the best way to ultra. If another runner tells you that “you’ll like this race,” heed their advice.

Shannon: I’ve both taken time off and just ran for health. I’ve also gone bigger and longer. Currently, I’m racing a lot, and I look forward to late November when I don’t have any more planned races. But the reality is that in November I’ll feel like I have no direction and I’ll feel lost, just like the last time I didn’t have any goal race scheduled.

Emily: I kind of just keep training for the next thing, even if it’s smaller than the big goal race, it helps keep me moving. Though, in autumn I don’t really need to extra motivation. The perfect weather is usually enough to get me moving because it’s just so beautiful.

Barb: I make a new goal after a big race. I already know what my next goal is, speed. I now know I can do the distance but now I want to get faster.

Janet: After the big goal, relax, enjoy the time and then get back to running. I run because I’ve experienced life when I couldn’t run and that sucks! So run because you can.

Corey: I’m typically depressed and irritable and eat non-stop until I sign up for the next big race. Running Grand Rapids marathon Oct. 23 which will qualify me for marathon maniacs, a goal I set for 2016. I’m looking now for my next big goal after that though, otherwise I’ll fall into winter holiday hibernation and gain 10 lbs.

Samantha: Bringing down the miles and giving our bodies a break is healthy. But … I’m scouring the Internet for upcoming races because I’m feeling crazy.

As for me, I haven’t yet decided what I’ll do next, whether I’ll be focusing on distance or speed, for example. But what I do know is that I’ll take a cue from my mentors Brandess, Janet and Shannon: I’ll be focusing on helping my friends reach their goals. Because that’s what I love the best about running: other runners.

What’s the most difficult aspect of running for you right now? Feel free to share your own blog posts below. (Click on “Continue Reading” to leave a comment.)