Saturday, July 28, 2007

2007 Grand Island Trail Marathon

A Pictorial Tale of Two Races

It is amazing how over 26.2 miles that your attitude can completely change from one extreme to another. This is my tale of how this happened to me on a small island in Lake Superior.

Part One

Back in early May, while still three weeks prior to my goal marathon, I began to wonder what I would do next. I was coming off of a monster 300 mile month in April and was beginning to taper toward what I had hoped would be a Boston qualifying marathon in Green Bay. I knew that the Cotton Row Run would follow in late May, but had no real plans for distance racing this summer. That is when I fell in love with the idea of combining a small vacation, with seeing old college friends, seeing my parents and of course, running a trail marathon. The only problem was that the marathon was a short 9 weeks after my planned Green Bay marathon and I worried that I would not have enough time to rest, re-peak and taper in time to be ready.

Well the Green Bay Marathon came and went, and I fully committed to the Grand Island Trail marathon, only after qualifying for Boston in Green Bay, and doing enough research to determine that I could in fact train for a marathon in 9 weeks when coming off of a fast road marathon.

When the day finally arrived, I went into the Grand Island trail marathon about 80% healthy after having recently strained my left achilles tendon at the end of a 22 mile long and hilly trail run. I had taken proper rest in the taper period and had gotten as healthy as I was going to get, given the time I had. I wore an achilles band for the race, which put some pressure on the tendon and relived some of the pain, but not enough to say that I was completely healthy for the race.

The weather in Munising, MI was in the mid 50's as we arrived at the dock to board the ferry for Grand Island. Given the island was about a mile off shore, I would later discover that the temps were maybe a few degrees cooler when we landed on the island at just before 6am eastern. After getting up at 3:30 am, seeing the sun come up in the distant horizon was a welcome sight.

Upon arriving on the island, I could see that this was truly was a runners run. There were no frills whatsoever. There was a tent that you could freely store your bag and just a few port-a-potties for runners to go. They offered only 4 aid stations, each of which you had options of water or HEED, poured by volunteers from large pitchers, directly into the 20oz bottle (minimum size) that runners were required to carry. Runners not carrying something to contain water were not allowed to start the race. There were no garbage cans, as anything you brought onto the island, you had to take off. Grand Island is a National Reserve, which, to be honest, I think is the poor man's version of a state or national park.

There were a handful of what I would call elite runners at the starting line. One guy in his mid 40's who was coming off of a 2:39 road marathon in Green Bay in May and the winner of this race the last 2 years, and another up and coming ultra runner who had run 2:40 road, was training for a 2:35 road and finished last year. Other than that, the field I felt was pretty thin. I had expectations of finishing somewhere in the top 5%, which is always my race goal. For that to be true, I would have to hit 15th place or higher.

With the sound of the air horn, the runners were off. As I normally do, I began slowly and let many, many runners pass me. I would say that after the first mile (7:26) that I was only in the top 50 runners. This mile was a little fast for my taste, but it wasn't anything that would put the rest of the run in jeopardy. I had planned on running in the mid to high 7’s for the first 2-3, but I felt that given the cooler conditions, that being several seconds ahead of pace, that I wouldn’t suffer later.

I cruised along through the 4 mile mark in 29:46 (7:26 pace) which was right on target of where I wanted to be, given the gentle rolling landscape of the first 4 miles.

Mile 5 was where I knew the first challenging hill would lie. It looked steep from the plan and profile the website had shown, but due to the scale, it was difficult to tell over what distance the 250' climb would range. It turns out that it was over less than 1/4 of a mile, leaving a 1/2 mile split of 4:27. I was able to make up for it on the top of the hill, where the terminus of the out and back portion of the course was found. At that point I counted 25 runners ahead of me before I came to an unmanned turn around cone. Seeing other runners on the way back down the hill felt pretty good and along with the downhill, I pushed it pretty well coming back down.

After getting back on the island's perimeter trail for no more than 50 yards, we were detoured across a wooden planked section that lead out to the beach. I had read from previous years that the beach section was about 200 yards long, to which I thought that it would be a moot point. To my dismay, this year's course had some changes and we ended up running for over a mile on the beach, at the waters edge. The 2-3' rolling waves had torn away from the beach, leaving a 6-8" drop from the soft beach sand shelf, down to the water. It was futile to run on the soft beach sand, so most runners chose to run on the harder ground near the waves that continued to crash in. I tried to time my stride as to miss the waves by stepping up on the soft sand shelf with my left foot while my right foot was in between waves. It was the only way to keep from getting wet feet with just over 20 miles left to cover. When both feet were on the hard packed sand, my right foot was landing below a 30 degree slope of sand. Changing wave patterns and a sloppy and uneven stride resulted in two wet feet by the end of the beach section. I figured that this was better than beach sand in my shoes.

Between miles 10 and 15 there was only one visible runner in sight, as I had settled into nearly the same position as I would finish at. The lone runner I could see in front of me took turns leading each other, alternating after each of us fell 2 times over the 5 mile stretch. This was pretty much no mans land; we were up on the edge of the cliff section of the island, but inland far enough that it was just like a run in the woods on a 2 rut road. There were few rocks and only slightly more roots for obstacles. After 15 miles I was around the pace that I thought was possible, 7:39 min/mile for a total time of 1:54:49.

I knew that I was in for a difficult next 6 miles with 1 minor and 1 major hill climb (over a 2 mile stretch culminating at mile 21) but I had no idea that they would be precluded by another stretch on the beach. As wonderful as a though of having my picture taken with the cliffs of the island and the early morning Lake Superior shoreline in the background, traversing across the soft sand I was moving at a snails pace with miserable form and I felt like I was running through concrete.

I no sooner came off the beach to an immediate hill climb before the next aid station. It was slightly motivational to see a small group of people at the mile 16 aid station, but then there was a lonely stretch ahead. The next six miles from 15 to 21 involved another fall and 2 separate stretches of walking to the final ascent of the run. After 9 minute miles for a total of 54 minutes over the 6 mile stretch, I had dropped my overall pace from 7:39 down to 8:03. Seeing a 25 second drop in just 6 miles really had me down, not to mention that the most recent fall had left me with pain in my left foot. I wasn't sure how bad, but I knew that I had done dome damage to my left big toe and worsened a possible blistering situation between my two smallest toes.

Part Two

This is where it all turned around for me though. I was through the toughest stretch of the race and though I had been passed twice in the last 6 miles I hit the last aid station, refueled and caught my second wind. My dad had been mountain biking from aid station to aid station and when I saw him at mile 21. He shouted words of encouragement but little did he know what was coming next. I knew that I needed more than encouragement, more than a refill of HEED and more than a Power Gel. I asked him to ride along with me. The spans between runners was great enough and I was in no danger of winning, so I thought that it would be helpful for me and something exciting for him as well. In the 5 previous marathons, he and my mom had always hopped along the course, but he never had a chance to see me for more than 10-15 seconds.

It was kind of comical to watch him move his bike from where he had carefully parked as to be out of the way at the aid station, to the trail where he could get on and start to peddle. When you run a tough marathon, even a little humor like this can help provide additional motivation.

So together we took off, over a two mile stretch in which I would reclaim all of the elevation in the form of loss that was gained up to mile 21. Miles 21 and 22 were much stronger and more along the pace that I should have been running all along. We talked a little while I ran, but mostly it was just having him ride slightly behind me that was compelling me forward. He kept telling me that I looked strong, that should keep going.

At mile 23 I decided it was time to make a move. I could see a couple of people in the far distance ahead of me and I knew that now was the time to take advantage of the fuel left in the tank after a conservative start; after all, that is my game… start slow and finish strong. I picked up the pace from 8+ minute-miles to sub 7’s. Within the first mile I passed 3 runners. I didn’t just pass them though; I blew past them. If you have ever done this or had it done to you, you know what it does. It makes the person that you are passing feel belittled and weak as they see how strong the person passing is. I use my passing gear as I run past these 3, and after a short off course loop (to make up the difference to 26.2 miles I am sure) I have but one more person to pass. Within a quarter of a mile, I overtake him and as I leave him in my dust, I hear him complaining that I had cheated and not taken the side trail. This was one of the few people to pass me before the hill climb and now that I strongly passed him, I think that it agitated him to the point where he couldn’t believe it. I simply murmured that I had taken the side trail, and basked in a little glory of running so strong this late in the game.

At mile 25.5 I finally admitted to my dad that I was tired. He joked about how he couldn’t understand why, that I had only been running for a few hours. His joking tone provided another nice lift for my spirits and my tired legs. We started to see a few more people along the trail, and I knew that we were close. I had asked my dad to stick with me until mile 26 before he biked ahead for picture opportunities. I did have a chance to possibly pass one more runner, and even though I was able to close a 60 second gap down to 15 seconds, I couldn’t get any closer.

As I made the final turn just after mile 26, we were back at the start section where all of the 10k and fast marathon finishers and spectators were gathered. This is my favorite part of the marathon. I forget about the pain hard work that it has taken to get to this point; not just during the race, but the countless hours of training to be in this position. I smile from what I am sure is ear to ear, yet I am still focused and don’t raise my head much; I keep focused on the ground 6-10’ in front of me, as this is still a trail. My way of acknowledging the crowd is by a small wave with my right hand, while keeping my arm relatively low. It is this 60 seconds that makes me want to run another marathon, and another beyond that. The benefit of the narrow shaded trail for the last 26 miles was great, but having people line the end of the race feel pretty cool.

I run through the finish, seeing that my time was all three’s; 3:33:33. I make sure to smile for the pictures before turning my left arm and lifting it high enough to stop my gps.

Laura and my mom and dad are at the end to congratulate me making sure that I am alright. It is probably a funny sight to see, how a marathoner can just have run 26.2 miles as fast as they can given the course and the conditions, but they are completely helpless when it is over! I can’t stand up straight that well, and basically need assistance with just about everything.

Relishing in the fact that Lake Superior’s waters are just a few feet from the finish line, I strip off most of my clothes and join the other runners who are now standing waist deep in 50 degree water. The icy cold water hurts but I know that it is helping to pump the blood from my heart to my extremities and push out the excess lactic acid and waste that my muscles have produced over the last three and a half hours.

What more could you ask for after a marathon but an icy cold bath in 3 quadrillion gallons of water?

After the race, I hear stories of how the lead two runners, that started out standing next to me at the starting line, battled it out over the entire race. Apparently they ran shoulder to shoulder, taking turns passing each other and leading, until a great photo finish. In the end, the 2nd place runner from last year overtook the more senior runner and preventing Jim Harrington from winner his 3rd Grand Island Trail Marathon. I wish that I could have been there along the course to see the battle and at the end to witness the final push. In the end they were separated by a mere 4 seconds.

After the swim was over, it was time to board the ferry again and head back for the mainland. There is a good chance that I will never be back on Grand Island ever again, but the few hours I spend on them in the early hours of July 28th, 2007 will live on in my memories for many years.


So you may have noticed in many of these pictures that I was sporting a really bad mustache and sideburns. This look isn’t something that is generally worn in today’s day and age and other than playfully joking that I would shave my beard and go with a mustache to antagonize my wife, I have never had one. So why did I do it?

I was hoping to pull a little boost from the early 70’s Steve Prefontaine look! I thought at one point that I was the only one who knew what I was up to, but as I passed one of the runners who had taken to a walk in the hill climb from 18 to 20, and I patted him on the back, mentioning that this was a humbling race, he looked at me and said, “I know what you mean Pre.”

The End

Thanks to Laura, Mom and Dad for their help on this race. I couldn’t have done it without them.