Saturday, August 22, 2015

North Country Trail Run - Marathon 2015

Start/Finish Line area pre-race
Even before I had run my first marathon in Chicago in October 2014 I had already signed up for my second. In hindsight I may call that a bit crazy, particularly after having been very humbled after finally running the Chicago marathon. In reading up on some of the finer trail races in Michigan I came across the North Country Run and was instantly impressed with everything I had heard. It seemed to be incredibly well organized and took very good care of the runners. I was also intrigued by the prospect of running the entire course on hills in the Manistee National Forest. I found out that sign-up was happening around the end of August (2014) which was only a few days away. I started following them on twitter to find out exactly when the sign-up opportunities opened and I quickly realize that this race was going to fill up fast! With some irony, the sign-up window opened as I was doing a trail-run on the Poto Trail at Pinckney and I pulled over, got out my smartphone, and did the sign-up right there on the trail.

Fast forward almost 12 months and here I was with my family having driven up to Wellston to camp the night before near the Big "M" trailhead. I was so excited for everything I'd heard about this race and its course and couldn't wait to get started.

I was up about 5:30am for the race this morning.  I wanted to get up early enough to have time to eat before the race, but yet not so early that I would be sitting in a dark tent for too crazy long.  Once up I hopped out of the tent, I went and grabbed some food that I had set aside in the car. I worked on this and got the clothes I wanted on me so I was mostly ready to go.  Around 6am I got the others up so that we could pile in the car.  I felt bad having to drag the boys out of their sleeping bags in the dark but we couldn’t think of a better way to go.  We did the 10 minute drive over to the Big M trailhead and Sarah prepared to drop me off.  I brushed my teeth by the car before she left and the rest of the group headed back to camp to get some more sleep.
Start/Finish Line Area pre-race

It was a busy place already when I got to the race start at just before 6:30am.  It appeared the Ultra-runners were already on their way and the music was a-going.  There wasn’t much to be done other than to mentally and physically prep.   Up to this point I was thoroughly impressed with everything about this race from their being so organized on every detail to the caring mindset that came through all their communications.  I was now at that point of just being excited about getting into the race itself.

At just after 7am they did the national anthems for the USA and Canada and they enjoyed celebrating the fact that folks from quite a number of different nations had registered to run in the North Country.  About 7:15am promptly they got us off and running.  For the marathon I believe there were close to 200 runners.  I started off with perhaps 30 people ahead of me.  The race starts off with an initial loop of around ¾ of a mile that heads northeast from the Big M trailhead and then loops back to near the start, it then heads south away from the trailhead.  I tried to make sure I didn’t head out too fast, but of course the danger is the legs are feeling so good and the tendency is to run to the feel of the legs.   I did the loop in about 7 ½ minutes which led me to believe it was definitely well under a mile in length and I had a pretty decent pace.  I had passed a few people in there.  I began the race nutritionally by eating a few of my CLIF shot bloks and for the first few miles I popped the remainders of them til they were gone.

On the trail above the start/finish. This would be the
view near the end of the race on approach
As we passed the start area again after the initial loop we then headed south on a trail that would be begin by traversing the edge of the hills.  At just over a mile and a quarter in we started our first real climbing on the trail.  I was taking this initial hill pretty easy, according to plan.  At about 2 ¼ in we started a long gradual incline that seemed to climb a narrow valley between the hills.  We gained about 200 feet over a half mile in there.  I was keeping pace with handful of people passing a few and one or two passing me through these initial miles.  

I had my first real surprise of the day somewhere between miles 3 and 4.  I suddenly felt a stinging sensation in my right calf.  Though I never visually saw one, I was certain it was a bee sting.  The area didn’t swell too bad, but it kept a slight stinging sensation and pain for perhaps the next hour.  When I hit the aid station #1 I asked them about it and they said this does happen a lot.  They gave me an antiseptic wipe to help clean the area.  

"Big M" Trailhead.  Took this just before the national anthems pre-race
(I'm throwing in random pictures throughout the write-up,
took very few photos during the race)
In the stretch between aid stations #1 and #2 I got caught up behind a group of about 5 that seemed to all know each other.  At first I began to look for the right moment to pass them all.  Another guy came up on all of us from behind and he started tailing as well.  After following them for about a mile I decided this would be a great group to pace with.  We were probably running 9 ½ minute miles.  The realization also struck me, they were doing a lot of talking, and though at the time I felt like I could move on ahead of them, wisdom told me they were intentionally keeping the slower pace.  So I stayed with them.  I figured if they could run this pace and keep up conversation they were bound to be speeding things up later on.

Somewhere after Aid Station #2 I got stung by another bee, or at least that’s what it felt like.  On the top of my right foot just where the ankle and leg meet I felt a momentary searing pain like the one before.  Again, I couldn’t see any visual evidence of what had happened but I felt it.  Now I had two stinging sensations to deal with.  Luckily it didn’t seem to affect my leg’s running ability.  I slowed down and stopped momentarily as this one had happened to assess things.  When I got going again I was able to catch my “group” and tail them for awhile longer.

The trails through these early miles were just fantastic.  There was the occasional uphill but so far things felt good on it all.  It was all mostly single-track forest trail but what was interesting was the types of trees and forest styles would change.  It made for some beautiful running and I enjoyed taking it all in.  The temps were also good probably in the upper 60s with the occasional sun poking through the tree cover.

Here I am on approach to the finish line (Photo credit: Sarah)
As we passed Aid Station #3 at just shy of 11 miles I was still feeling good.  My Runkeeper track had me doing under 10 minute miles most of the way which was a good pace, maybe even too fast for my own good.  Leaving the aid station the trail makes its way up one of the bigger climbs of the race.  It was here the group I’d been trailing with seemed to break up finally.  I can recall having a bit of watermelon and a GU at the station and then moving forward passing finally a few in the group and starting to work the switchbacks.  I tried to take it pretty easy on the hills and they didn’t blow me away too bad.    It was in this area, to the best of my recollection, that I also had my only fall of the day.  It was on flat terrain within a narrow track between some tall plants that hugged the trail and I caught the trip of my shoe on something that sent me down.  Some kind runners just ahead of me heard me go down and they even stopped for a moment to ask if I was okay.  Thankfully it was some soft dirt that I landed in and I was fine.  Just a bit dirty.  I thanked the other runners for stopping and sent them on.  This is one of the parts of trail-running I love, runners are all out there running as if we’re all on the same team.

As the runners spread out more I found myself mostly running by myself the rest of the way.  I still held pace pretty well heading into the halfway mark and then on to Aid Station #4 which was at 14.8 miles.   I had been working to pop a GU at about every 5 miles and I was also taking a pair of Hammer Endurolytes every 45 minutes to keep electrolytes in balance.  I would realize towards the end that I had underestimated my Endurolytes usage.  I only brought 8 tabs along and I feel strongly I could have used more.  Especially as the temps rose into the 70s in the latter half of the race and things felt muggy, I’m sure I was losing more salts and other minerals than I was getting back.  Unfortunately, the container I carried them in only held 8 and I let that limit what I carried.  Next time, I need more.

At Aid Station #4 was the bag drop, a feature I didn’t utilize, so after grabbing some refreshments I carried on.  It was shortly after this station that I found a tree to go and “water”.  Needed that break to empty things out.  

After Aid Station #4 I began to feel my pace slowing a bit.  I would attribute a bit of that to fatigue but the course was also designed to have some of the more difficult hills towards the end.  As the terrain gained more my pace slackened into the 11 minute mile region.  In my months of training leading up to this I had resolved that I wouldn’t hesitate to have short walks when necessary, especially on uphills.  I’d read this may actually help the overall pace on these long marathons, especially on trails, to get a route of running and walking as necessary.

Around mile 17 I could tell I was going to be in trouble again as I had been a year prior at the Chicago Marathon.  I could feel the beginnings of cramps in my calves and I began to walk more especially on the hills.  I tried to keep my fluid intake going from my Rev6 and to keep my running moments modest in pace.  

Runners always have the oddest of faces when captured
mid-race. I was nearing the finish here. (Photo credit: Sarah)
I made it into Aid Station #5 at 17.8 miles and really tried to refuel best I could.  Coming out of the aid station I had a good mile or so where I thought I might have revived and I was back to a 10 almost sub-10 mile pace.  However, the hills really hit in earnest around mile 19 and I was all but spent.  The cramps and fatigue sent me to a walking pace and I was in bad shape.  I walked a quarter mile or so and then tried to get my run going again but that probably only last a tenth of a mile.  I was also feeling the stuffiness of the increasingly humid air and had moments where I felt like I couldn’t even breath as well as I needed to while running.  

I pretty much walked all the rest of the way to Aid Station #6 at 21.65 miles realizing that my hopes of a  4:20 finish were going out the window.  I had also taken my last Endurolytes tab hoping that would save me from the cramps but it felt like it only lasted a few minutes.  My appetite was going and I felt like anything sugary like the GU or a granola bar were just unthinkable.  At the station I grabbed a few chips to get some salt and gatorade drink for the electrolytes and pressed on.
Leaving station #6 I resolved to try and run best I could without going into full-blown cramps.  I made it about a half mile at a 12-minute pace and then had to walk again as I could feel the muscles going.  Even trying to get a running pace on the downhills would lead into spasms in my calves which made it difficult to find any speed.  I was being passed by a number of people even some of the crowd of half-marathoners that were now on this part of the course.  I had a nice gal offer me some salt tabs when we got talking about muscle cramps and I made the mistake of not accepting her kind offer.  

The only plus in here was I was able to get just enough moments of running in between the walks and the cramp avoidance that my overall pace was just over 15-16 minute miles.  I made it to Aid Station #7 barely being able to hold it together beyond walking.  They were helping another gentleman, I think one of the ultras, with cramps and looking for salt tabs for him.  I was tempted to go for help myself but again, somewhat mistakenly thought I was so close to the end I would be alright.  Station #7 was up on a ridge and was a beautiful location.

View from the overlook mentioned just below.  This was between miles 24 and 25.
About a half mile beyond Station #7 we arrived at a unique part of the course.  The course headed up a small hill to an open area that offered some beautiful views out to the east, and then the course double-back on itself back down the hill and then on to a service road that would finally take us down to the start.  I snapped a few pictures from the overlook and then carefully made it back down to the service road.  I had a few moments of decent running on the road.  I was looking at the watch and figuring out now if I could at least beat a 5 hour finish time.  That was the new goal and I really wanted to beat it.  

This is where the course doubles back on itself heading
up to and from the small hill with the overlook
As the road started to level out into a straightaway that headed out to the trailhead I had my most painful moment of the day.  Where up to this point only calves had been only modestly cramping the right one finally locked up completely.  I went to a dead stop, nearly fell, and did everything I could to try to alleviate the pain and get the muscles to stop locking up.  I thought for sure my 5-hour finish was lost.  I think I was at about 4:43 in time and I had over a mile to go. It seemed like an eternity I had stopped there but in reality it must not have been more than a minute or two.  I was able to get moving again and it seemed like things held together just enough.  I passed the trailhead and start/finish area with mixes of jogging and walking.  I even saw Sarah and the boys and had a moment of encouragement from them.  However, I wasn’t quite done yet.  The course had us do the 0.7 mile loop one more time to finish the race just as we had started. And so I made the tortuous run by the finish line to another near mile of suffering.  I ran a few moments in there and mixed some jogging and just wanted to push enough pace to finish under 5 hours.  The loop went by quickly and I was heading back up to the finish mustering up every last bit of energy I had.  I finally made the finish at 4:55:56.  By the grace of God, I beat the 5-hour mark by 4 minutes.   
Almost to the finish! (Photo credit: Sarah)
After finishing I quickly found Sarah and the boys as well as some drink and a banana.  I was feeling many of the same feelings I had after Chicago’s marathon last October.  A full physical and even emotional exhaustion set in.  I walked around a bit to keep the blood moving but also felt that glassy-eyed light headed feeling coming and going.  I went and found a place to sit on a guardrail near the parking lot.   

With the finish always comes the bundles of questions of what I could have done differently. Having struggled again in the last 8 miles for now two marathons I would really like to figure out how to solve that.  After this one I think I need to improve my in-race nutrition.  I think I have too much artificial sugar (GU, Shot bloks, granola bar, gatorade) and not enough salt.  Especially on a sweaty day like this, I want to find a way to incorporate perhaps some easy to eat pretzels as well as a more reliable supply of Endurolytes to keep the electrolytes as balanced as possible.

Eventually I was able to get my body calmed down and work up an appetite.  The Race Organizers had a full meal going on including pasta, burgers, dogs and a whole bunch of sides including corn on the cob.  I can’t say enough how this Race was so well planned and took such good care of everyone runner involved.  I was even able to purchase meals for Sarah and the boys for only a few dollars a person.  It was just wonderful.
The food service area at the finish line (Photo credit: North Country Run)
Another thing worth mentioning is how during the main races they also had Kid Fun runs going on.  Each of my boys were able to run the initial lap the marathon course followed and then receive a basic kid’s medal and a t-shirt, all for free!  They loved it so much and they wanted me to come back and run this race again just so they could have fun too.

In hindsight, I will undoubtedly hope to return for this race again.  I am making plans for a different marathon in 2016 but am almost certain I will want to be back to North Country in 2017 and maybe every year after.   The whole experience was just wonderful at the race, the course was beautiful and challenging, and this little corner of northern Michigan a delight.

Finishing Stats
Time: 4:55:56
Place: 50th of 175 finishers
Age Group: 6th of 11 finishers

Half-marathon and Marathon Finisher's Medals (Photo Credit: North Country Run)

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