Race Review

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.)

 

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.)