My ultras this year have followed a pattern; feel stiff and low on energy the day before, sleep well, and wake up feeling fine on race morning. And so it proved with the Veterans Memorial. I got to the starting line Saturday morning fired up and eager to run.
The race officially began at 8 a.m. but Kurt, the race director, gave the “masters category” (50 and older) an option to start at 7:00. An extra hour of cooler temps? No brainer! “Be there at 6:30 for a required safety briefing,” Kurt emailed me.
I dutifully arrived on time and picked up my race bib. Only one other person would start early, a nice lady named Ruth, who left just after 7. I made some gear adjustments and was ready around 7:15. Kurt told me I could start. “What about the safety briefing?” I asked.
“Oh, yeah, safety briefing!” he said. “You are responsible for your own safety, look both ways when you cross a street, watch for traffic, and a headlamp is recommended at night.” Got it! No ten-page disclaimer needed. This is ultrarunning. You’re expected to know the risks involved. I turned to face the rising sun and headed down Ludington Avenue. On the sidewalk. Safer that way.
How I Approached the Race
I split the race into three 50-mile stages, because “thirds” is how ultras seem to work for me. I feel great for the first third, things get interesting in the second, and the final third is struggle, recovery, and (usually) strong finish. I set up crew stops at the aid stations roughly ten miles apart, and additional ones in between. With these in place, I could focus on a few miles at a time instead of how much total running was left.
A couple of small worries nagged at me. To fully rest my legs I’d run very few miles in May, and I hoped I hadn’t lost any conditioning. And my feet had suffered from pain and blistering during my March 50-milers. Were they tough enough to go three times that distance?
The solution to such worries is to let them go, and trust the training. I’d run all winter and raced all spring, and the fine folks at Body Specs had kept my body in tune. Feeling restless on race day was a good sign.
Stage 1: Ludington to Chase (AS 5)
Hey, This is Fun
I soon caught up with Ruth and we chatted a few minutes while we ran. Despite several abdominal surgeries and leg issues, she’d completed 124 miles in last year’s race before having to drop with a physical issue. She was hoping to complete the entire distance this year. Man, if she had the determination to go the whole way, what would be my excuse? My pace was faster than hers, so I wished her good luck and moved on.
Once out of Ludington, I followed back roads toward AS 1 in Scottville. What a relief to switch from heavy, noisy traffic to quiet, shady dirt roads. With a crew stop every few miles, there was no need to carry extra clothes or food, just a handheld water bottle. I was running easy and light, and felt terrific. For those first ten miles there was nowhere else I wanted to be, and nothing else I wanted to be doing. It was that elusive, nirvana-like state that every distance runner hopes for and relishes when it happens.
The next leg took me into the Huron-Manistee National Forest. When I arrived at AS 2, nothing was there yet except the sign. Thank goodness for my crew! Refueled, I ran several miles deep in the woods along double-wide dirt tracks. Some runners didn’t care for this stretch, but I enjoyed it. Except for the biting flies, which have an annoying habit of following you for a long time. (Hint to runners: Always wear a cap in the woods.)
Trouble Rears Its Hot Head
The heat hit on my way to AS 3 at Bowman Lake. I was back on paved roads in full sun, with the temperature already over 80 degrees. I ran through every shady spot, but I was really looking forward to cold water and a break. Except I couldn’t find the aid station, and my phone was acting up, refusing to dial my wife’s number.
Hot and frustrated, I finally got through and she patiently directed me to the correct spot. After I cooled down and refocused, we prepared for a long afternoon in serious heat. I got slathered in sunscreen. I took a hand towel and soaked it in ice water, then tucked it under my cap. This would keep my head cool and protect my ears from the sun, too. It would prove essential to surviving the heat on both days. The next leg to Baldwin and AS 4, while not exactly comfortable, were bearable.
I jogged into Baldwin and the head of the Pere Marquette Rail-Trail, the course for the next eighty miles. A gravel path with no shade stretched into the hazy distance. I soaked my head several times with ice water and took salt tablets before leaving the aid station.
As I walked toward the trail, two other runners came in. One was on the relay team, and the other, a fellow named Dean, was running solo. “I was hoping to catch up to you!” he said as we shook hands. I congratulated him and then headed down the trail.
I was a bit disappointed, but not surprised. I hadn’t expected to win the race, and was pretty pleased I’d held onto the lead this long. I checked my watch; just past mile 38. Let me lead until mile 40, I told myself, and picked up my pace a bit. It gave me something to focus on other than the long, hot trail.
When my watch read mile 40, I took a walk break and relaxed. It was a moral victory, but better than nothing! Then I dared to look behind me – and saw nobody. Surprising, but maybe he took a long break.
I’d asked my crew to change from five-mile stops to three miles due to the heat, so I had two stops before AS 5. At the second, Dean’s crew truck was also there – and there was Dean! Where did he come from? Okay, I thought as I headed back out, this is where he passes me for good. After a half mile or so, hearing no approaching footsteps, I looked back – and again, saw nobody.
I got to AS 5 at Chase and took my planned 30-minute break, stretching, foam rolling, eating, and enjoying the time off my feet and out of my shoes. We chatted with Dean’s crew, and kept an eye out for him. But by the time I got up to move on, he hadn’t arrived. We were all a bit concerned, but I had a race to run. One stage complete!
Stage 2: Chase to Loomis (AS 10)
There Will a Be a Brief Pause for Nostalgia
On my way to AS 6 at Hersey I passed through Reed City, and had a flashback moment where the Pere Marquette Trail intersected the White Pines Trail. At this spot in 2012, riding my bike from Ann Arbor to our campground in Empire, I’d turned north onto the White Pines, expecting an easy ride and instead getting an ordeal that, fortunately, ended with my safe arrival in Cadillac right at nightfall.
The sun was on its way down this day too, finally. The temperature had cracked 90 degrees, so I walked quite a bit, running only in the shade or if I felt cool enough. This was not according to plan, but in an ultra, conditions dictate and the runner adapts. To use an Aikido analogy, the runner is Uke, who must fit with and follow the situation rather than direct it. So I did. After all, everyone else was running in the same conditions.
Impossible to Get Lost? Just Watch Me
On the way to Evart (AS 7) as it began to get dark, the temperature dropped and a cool breeze sprang up. Rejuvenated, I began running steadily again, enjoying the idea that I had a whole night of good running ahead.
Suddenly I heard footsteps behind me. At mile 68, someone was finally going to pass me. He was a relay runner, as impressed with my distance covered as I was with his pace. Soon he was out of sight. He wasn’t wearing a headlamp and it was getting dark fast, so I worried a bit about him. But this was a well-defined trail. No way to get lost, right?
Then the trail took an odd turn by some industrial buildings – and ended, seemingly – at a road intersection. In the light of my headlamp it looked like it might continue on the other side of the road. To my left was a paved path that also might be the trail, but there was no VM150 sign, and nothing in my turn-by-turn directions about this. After a few moments of indecision I turned left and hoped for some kind of confirmation.
The path ran parallel to the road and passed by an industrial area. There was no sign of the relay runner, or indication I was nearing Evart, or traffic, or anything else for that matter. I was all alone in God knows where.
I called my crew. They weren’t sure where I was either, but the relay crew was with them. Someone headed back along the trail to find me, and just as we worked out I was indeed on the correct path, I spotted him. We jogged into Evart together to applause and my effusive thanks.
Next up: The rest of that first night, what other runners encountered that night, and Sunday dawns wet, hot and humid. How did I, and the other runners, hold up? Read it here soon!