Running is a great excuse to travel. One of these days I'd love to convince my husband, Jake, that running from city to city while on a 3-week tour of Europe is absolutely essential to the progression of my running career...but until that happens I have to stick to more local events. So Jake and I headed northward to Mackinac City this past weekend for the Great Turtle half marathon and 5.7 mile races.
The races were held on the popular tourist destination of Mackinac Island, and part of planning for the race will need to include a ferry ride if you're not staying on the island itself. Talk to anyone, and you'll hear that staying on, around, and near either Mackinac City or Mackinac Island can be pricey. Many restaurants, shops, and accommodations shut down for winter after Labor Day and rates can get a bit cheaper, but the island itself usually requires reservations made weeks or even months in advance.
Jake and I chose a local B&B, the Deer Head Lodge, that was a block from the ferry line and extremely convenient with free parking. There were also home-cooked meals for breakfast that were well worth the extra splurge on a place to stay, besides accommodating my gluten- and dairy-free diet.
Getting to the island by ferry takes only about 15 minutes, and the race has a late start at 11:30am so there is plenty of time to get there, get to packet-pickup, and get settled without rushing. Packet pick-up was smooth and fast, and we both took advantage of the well-organized gear drop. The volunteers were mostly local high schoolers, and they were doing a great job of tagging everyone's bags and placing them in the appropriate lines for retrieval after the race. The race is chip-timed by Gault Racing, which also does some local races around Lansing. I was delighted to see a perk I hadn't expected: my first name printed right on the front of the bib! Besides the normal irritation of waiting in long lines for the bathrooms before the horn, the entire pre-race activities seemed to be efficient and well-executed.
Each distance had its own start with a shared finish line. Jake's 5.7 went immediately up into the steep, densely-forested hills of Mackinac State Park. Both races are run on a combination of paved trails and smooth, sandy trails. None of the footing is technical, and save for a few narrow spots the trail is wide enough for easy passing. The 5.7 continued to gain altitude for the first 2 miles, then came sharply down to a 2-mile straight-away before finishing on the grass in front of Mackinac's famous Mission Point Resort. For the shorter race, there were 2 aid stations and all trails were clearly marked with white chalk. Getting lost wasn't really an issue, and occasionally the forest parted for a few stunning vistas of the Mackinac Straits and the awesome Mackinac Bridge.
The half marathon has a nice 2.5 mile warm-up before we, too, begin a steep incline. I had studied my topo map and was expecting this, but I was also expecting a bit of a reprieve around Mile 5. That came in the form of a wide open turn that slightly began an easy descent. It's of extreme importance to also note that there are no bathroom stops whatsoever on the entire course of either race, but you are primarily surrounded by the thick forest of the forementioned state park, so it's possible to manage, which I did. The pre-race email and pamphlet said there would be a porta-john at Mile 5, but that meant leaving the race course and traveling about 1/2 mile down a dirt trail to reach it, then traveling that same 1/2 mile to get back on course.
The reprieve at Mile 5 lasted exactly 1/2 mile, then began a series of relatively difficult ups-and-downs that wound through the very private residential section of permanent islanders and heading generally UP the entire way. Mile 7 brought us out into the open for a few moments, just long enough to see an enormous freighter making its way through the Straits with the Mackinac Bridge in the background- it was awesome! Lots of runners had started walking the steep hills at this point, and as if to boost morale, the freighter gave a few long, low blows of its horn, which was also pretty awesome. I was managing the hills fairly well at this point and pleased that my hill workouts had paid off...but I also had a nagging pain in my left hamstring that was giving me a bit of concern.
Miles 7-10 were pretty brutal. I kept expecting to go down, but all we did was climb and climb and climb...there were tons of up-and-downs that just started to feel like a constant incline no matter what I did to my form. My pace slowed considerably around Mile 9 when, after picking my way carefully down a very sharp decline, I looked up at yet another punishing hill. I'd started to lose it a bit I think, because all I could get going in my mental-speak was "What goes up must come down! What goes up must come down!" I did my best to maintain good form and not go crashing down the hills...after Mile 9 my hips and knees were really feeling it so there was no real way to get up or down other than very carefully.
The trail snaked for miles through the dense brush and pine forest until it finally emptied out around Mile 10 in a familiar spot, and at long last we went down...and down and down and down...I was sorry I had ever wished for down. At the bottom, we emptied back out onto the straight-away the 5.7 course also finished on (and we had used as that nice warm-up about 100 years ago, it seemed). This portion of the race would be an excellent way to gain back lost speed and pass tons of beat-up runners like myself: it's long, flat, and straight. I suppose if I'd had anything left at all to give, I would have given it here. But my body was not feeling good, and when I saw the big '11' on the pavement I knew it was time to hunker down and just maintain the last few miles.
The chip time I received (2:36:31) was not a PR for me, but it was faster than my first half earlier this year, the Bayshore Half Marathon, up in Traverse City. For what it's worth, I ran my own timer during the race but stopped it when I made my forest pit stop, and that time (2:26:09) is another 6 minutes faster than my second half, the CCRR back in September, and would be a PR for me. Considering the wicked-hard course and being on about 4 hours of sleep, I was damn pleased with my performance...until I stopped running. I was hot on the course in the beginning, and I ditched an old tech shirt at my famous Mile 5 pit stop, but by the time I crossed the finish line I was freezing and in excruciating pain, which I don't give away at all in my finish pic- what a great poker face! I had a moment or two right after I crossed that I wasn't really sure if I was going to be OK- I noticed another well-managed race preparation right then: an ambulance right at the finish helping a few worse-for-wear runners. I was never more thankful for a gear drop then I was at that moment- I think it is easy for runners who have been exerting themselves at a relatively high rate for hours to go into shock at the end of a tough race, and without my stash of down, fleece, and dry clothes I might have been the one in the ambulance.