Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Why do I wear LIVESTRONG?

Why do I wear a LIVESTRONG bracelet on my right wrist? As a reminder to remember.

For the last 2500 days (6 years, 10 months) I have worn a yellow silicone gel bracelet on my right wrist. While the reason I first put it on and the reasons I continue to wear it have changed, what has not changed is the fact that it has never been taken off; not once. That is an amazing piece of endurance silicone! Let’s take a look at what it has meant to me over the years.

The earliest documented proof that I can find in photos of having it on my wrist was at the Fox Cities 5km in Menasha, WI on September 26, 2004. Just a month prior at the Cheese Head and Disco 5km in Hilbert Wisconsin it doesn’t show in the pictures, so I will declare 9/26 as day 1.

The bracelet was part of the "Wear Yellow Live Strong" educational program intended to raise money for cancer research, raise cancer awareness, and encourage people to live life to the fullest. Selling for $1 each, the initial plan was to raise $25.1 million for the Lance Armstrong Foundation. The goal was reached within 6 months, and there have now been 80 million LIVESTRONG bracelets sold to date. The band became a popular fashion item in the United States by the end of the summer of 2004. Lance and his popularity were peaking as he was in the middle of his 7 victories at the Tour de France and whether you like him or not, he took that fame and turned it into some beneficial with the foundation. Everyone was wearing yellow and I will admit that the first time I put it on was just to be cool.

After the popularity of the bracelet had faded, I was tempted to take it off. They were still being worn by some athletes and people who had gone through personal loss as a result of cancer; neither of which I thought applied to me (as I had not taken my first step as a runner.) Or had it? Back in 2001 I was living in Neenah, Wisconsin and life was going along pretty well. Meanwhile, a hundred miles away in my hometown of Kingsford, Michigan, my Uncle Donald Charette was diagnosed with cancer. Though I always called him my uncle, he was actually my cousin, as he was my dad’s older brother’s son. He had kids older that were older than me and was nearly my dad’s age so I always called him Uncle Donald. While we didn’t have a day to day relationship, every fall when the leaves would change colors, the entire Charette clan would be at our hunting camps and spend most weekends together. I have many fond memories of him throughout the many cold Novembers in Upper Michigan. That summer he had been in the middle of remodeling his camp and while the weather seemed hotter than normal, he had been losing weight. He didn’t think much of it, but it turned out to be a side effect of the cancer that had taken over his body, which would quickly take his life. His funeral was more somber than others I had been to as everyone liked my Uncle Donald and was sadden how his life was taken so abruptly. It was at that time, that I dedicated my LIVESTRONG bracelet to his memory. Anytime I would look at my right wrist it would be what I needed to remember his contagious smile and think about his memory. While this probably should have been the reason why I put it on in the first place, at least it now had personal meaning to me.

Fast forward to the early summer months of 2009. Lance had retired from cycling and I had gone on to run 17 marathons and ultramarathons, all wearing LIVESTRONG. The most memorable of which was my first Boston marathon in which I was able to finish with my parents in the crowd. The memory of my uncle Donald had somewhat faded and the yellow band on my wrist wasn’t really reminding me of anything. I was so engulfed in my own quest for running greatness that I had turned off the rest of the world. Then unexpectedly I was reminded of the harshness of our world when my childhood friend Scott Giuliani lost his long battle with cancer. Growing up in Kingsford, Scott was becoming a great multi-sport athlete and I was just an uncoordinated geek who tagged along, but Scott was one of the good guys who stood by me. Though our paths diverged later in life, I always admired him and his strength right up until and through his passing.

Then just days later in an ironic twist of life, my Dad’s best friend Dave Lavarnway had a heart attack and died. Dave had a unique perspective on life but was very honest and would always say it like it was and he commanded my respect. Without a second thought, I drove the 900 miles back home so that I could see Scott’s parents and tell them what Scott had meant to me and then to attend Dave’s funeral in support for my dad. It was a very difficult few days but their deaths again brought new meaning to the LIVESTRONG bracelet. After that week, anytime that I looked down or saw it show up in pictures, I was reminded of the unfairness of life and that we should take every opportunity we have to live it to its fullest as you never know if today might be your last day. I am sure that the loved ones Scott and Dave left behind would give anything to have just one more day to spend with them.

Then just as it had before, the memory of these two faded and I was no longer reminded daily of the impact they had on my life. I was back to my selfish ways but to a much more destructive level that eventually lead to my divorce in 2010. Running and other self-centered activities had become my false idols and I was spiraling out of control. As I have written recently (Turning my Life around on the Trap Hills Traverse and Receiving God’s Grace) I was able to turn my life around this year. Through the caring support of my family, friends and loved ones, I have been born anew. It has been an eye opening experience and my faith continues to grow every day. Whereas the days when I was putting myself above all else are gone, I realize that they are not that far behind me. I am not perfect and despite having changed my life, I still struggle everyday with the addictions and behaviors that had broken me down. I must remember everyday what my purpose in this world is, for even the most devote Christians are tempted by sin. So just as it was before, then again in, I have a daily reminder that I need to work hard to be a better man and that comes in the form of a yellow silicone gel bracelet around my right wrist.

I don’t feel guilty that sometimes it takes life’s major turning points to make us realize that we have gotten off track and we need to realign our priorities. We all get wrapped up in the details of life and while it is not always as severe as the passing of a loved one, frequent reminders of our faith are a good thing. The hope is that the closer you get to walking in God’s footsteps that you need less and less reminders, but I know that I am full of sin. I am thankful for every blessing I have received and while I don’t deserve God’s grace, I now have a reminder with me every day to remember the reasons why I keep asking for it.

Why do I wear a LIVESTRONG bracelet on my right wrist? As a reminder to remember.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Receiving God's Grace

Ephesians 2:5-8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God

What does it feel like to be touched by God and receive his Grace?

This is an epilogue to a recent story of how I was able to figure things out while running the 28.2 mile Trap Hills Traverse, which can be found here.

A few weeks ago I met with the priest of my local church back home. As we wrapped up our talk, he stood up, placed his hand on my head and told me that for one solid calendar year he would pray one decade of his daily rosary for me. While I understand that no man should come between you and the God (1 Timothy 2:5 For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus) to have a friend in Christ to love me that much, the love of God is so much greater and I am at his mercy.  During our talk, he used this analogy to which I have expanded upon below.

Imagine you are trying to assemble a thousand piece puzzle by yourself and you work on it every day. The puzzle is a picture of the sky, so while all of the pieces are different, they are all the same color blue. You are really good at placing the pieces on table inside the framed edges but you are trying to force pieces where they don't belong. Every once in a while you find the right one and while that is gratifying, despair ensues as you realize that the puzzle is far from complete. There is a picture on the box and even instructions inside but you are too stubborn to look at them and you never ask for any help. This goes on for 10 years and ultimately you give up.

This is where my life has been. I was searching for my purpose and thought that I could do it on my own. I gained confidence through running and through an addictive personality, I found that the more I ran, the faster I became, which made me want to do it more. It was a vicious cycle. I would run races weekly trying to find what was missing in my life. I would capture an occasional win, but that would be followed by the depression that I had to start training all over again to get back to that false high. I was spiraling out of control and I was too stubborn to ask for help.

Now image if you had looked at the box and read the instructions. The first thing you read is that you have to admit that you can not put together the puzzle alone; but you have to ask for help. Realizing this, the pieces start to almost place themselves.

Finally I was able to open my eyes and see what I was missing. I realized I was living selfishly, never putting anyone before me and trying to put together the puzzle on my own. For the first time in my life, I was able to put someone else before me and it felt amazing. Yet I was still obsessed with the puzzle.   I also realized that I was chasing temporary glory for myself with winning medals and the real reason for competition was noted in 1 Corinthians 9:25 Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.

Now imagine that you are feverishly solving the puzzle and you see that there are only 5 empty pieces in the middle of the puzzle that remain. With great excitement, you reach into the box and realize that there are no more pieces left. The remaining instructions are missing and you don't know what to do.

I was able to learn so much about myself and how to be a better person but I was unable to solve the puzzle because I ran out of pieces. It was only by admitting that I was not in control of my life and placing my path in the hands of God was I able to find the rest of the instructions. The puzzle pieces weren’t missing after all, I just wasn’t ready to see them and there was a reason why they all were joined together in the center of the puzzle. I was being tested to see if my heart was ready to finish the puzzle. He showed me that the missing pieces where my friends, my family, my loved ones and the last two were me and God.

One of the most amazing things that I have noticed since receiving God's Grace has been the clarity in my life. I see a purpose and I understand what the priorities of my life should be. As read in Micah 6:8, He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. Understanding this can help put all else into perspective. I realize that God should be loved above all else. Only then can your heart be prepared to love another. To accomplish this I need to continue to learn more about my faith through reading the bible and going to church via 2 Peter 3:18 But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen. and following more closely in his footsteps.

Among the many things that have become clear, include balance.  Working on balance in my life is important and to constantly remember not to invest all of my energy into a single task.

Faith has helped me to recognize that I need to focus on being a better listener/communicator and I have been working hard on this everyday.

I am relaxing more and enjoying life, not living it by a schedule. I have been talking openly about my feelings and thoughts with loved ones even if it about uncomfortable things. This is something I would never have done before but with this clarity it is so much easier.

I also want to get back to reading and writing short stories more as I find much pleasure in this.

I am also venturing out of my shell and trying things that I never would have in the past and making them part of my life; no more will I be bound by my past and what I was comfortable with, but will expand it out to experience the joys of the rest of the world.

I have also found that while I have always been considerate and thoughtful, I feel a deeper sense of caring for all people and things. Grace has empowered me to see things in a different light and appreciate them so much more. No longer do I appreciate the simple beauty of the tree but recognize the beauty of the entire forest for which it lies.

My running will not suffer, but I suspect that it will improve greatly as I now run to honor and serve the Lord and have new purpose.  1 Corinthians 6:19-20 Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body.  With difficult decisions ahead on the role that this sport will have in my life, I fear not.  Philippians 4:13 I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.  It is with this strength that I know I will make the right choices guided by His direction.

I want to strive toward becoming someone you are proud to know; for who I am, not how fast I am or how far I can run.  I admire my dad dearly and his is known to be a great man, a man for which you are a better person for having known.  There is much work ahead but I can best honor him and our Heavenly Father by trying to be the best man that I can.  I will show those close to me how much they truly mean and to continue to express my love for that special someone in a way that is more than they have ever known, as in John 15:13 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends.

I am learning to appreciate the gifts that I have been blessed with and and trying to figure out a way to use these gifts to help others in need, even it is just to inspire them that change is possible. While I am not as fast as Olympic marathoner Ryan Hall or is my faith as mature, I think that we share something in common. He has been able to use his gifts to inspire others to follow in the footsteps of the Lord. I am reminded of Matthew 5:16, Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven. If you haven’t watched Ryan’s Passion for the run video, it is worth checking out using this link.  My life has not had incredible hardships, but I have many experiences and gifts that I want to share with others and hopefully better their lives.

Ultimately, believe in yourself, as God believes in you. Jeremiah 29:11 reads - For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. I know not what that path holds, but I know that it will be greater than anything I have ever known.

So what does it feel like to be touched by God and receive his Grace?  Though we don't deserve it, God has shown me His grace by providing strength and guidance and the ability to change my life and it feels like nothing I have ever felt.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Trap Hills Traverse

When I first talked with Don Kermeen of Superior Shores Resort, who was listed on the Peter Wolfe Chapter of the North Country Trail as proving shuttle rides for thru-hikers and informed him that I was going to run the Trap Hills Traverse and wanted to be picked up later that day, he was confused.  His specific words were, "You want to do what?"  Eric Hansen's Hiking Michigan's Upper Peninsula guidebook, recommended this as a two or three day hike with a rating of "difficult". Now I know why no one had completed the section (to the best of my knowledge) without stopping to camp for the night.

The Trap Hills Traverse is a 28.3 mile section of the North Country Trail in the western part of Michigan's Upper Peninsula from the Gogebic Ridge Trail to Victoria Dam Road.  When I came across the trail in a  Backpacker Magazine article from 2002 I thought that it might be a great opportunity to spend some time in solitude to think about life and what better way to do it than under the skies of God's creation.

I left home just after 4am central and with the two hour drive, an hour time zone change and getting my gear ready, I started at 7:28 am eastern at the very obscure Gogebic Ridge Trail head on old M-64, which after a short bit connected to the NCT.  I had my new inov-8 Race Pac 32 to carry my food and water for the day.

Seven hours, 55 minutes and 13 seconds later, I stopped my watch on Old Victoria road, which was about an hour slower than I thought I would be.  While this is probably the fastest known time for the Traverse, that is not what I was out to do. I was not seeking personal glory or recognition.  My motivation was the continual pursuit of understanding my purpose and pondering God's gift's to me.  Though I will admit there is a sense of accomplishment, it is different than anything I have felt before.  I was not running for me, I was running for God.  As Leo Buscaglia noted, "Your talent is God's gift to you. What you do with it is your gift back to God."  I was able to experience many highs and lows while taking in some of the most amazing vistas this area has to offer.

I grossly under estimated several things about the Traverse and the day in general.  The first was the weather; it was supposed to be overcast and 50% chance of rain.  While nary a drop fell all day, the temperature soared into the upper 80's and my water supplies ran low early, which I recognized, and started to fill up and purify where needed at every stream crossing, which were ample.

The terrain seemed to ascend or descend for more than half of the run.  After looking at the profile,  now I see why this run was so tough!  While the trail was plotted along the top of the ridge, it would drop so sharply on rocky slopes, making running down impossible.  On the climb back up it was much of the same, without a single switchback all day.  Then when peaking again to a flat rock bald, the sun would rear it's force and slow me further.  On second thought I should taken my trekking poles!

Though I had many maps in my pack, and the trail was often marked with plastic blue diamonds or blue paint, there were so many blow downs that most of the time you could not see the next marker and it was a guessing game.  Several times I would come to a cleared section and have to try several different routes before figuring out the real path, doubling back to the last known trail marker each time.  Between the trees blocking the route, the overgrowth of the season and the lack of foot traffic, the trail was hard to follow in certain sections but mostly the single track in the flats was good trail.

I thought that when I hit Norwhich Road in 3 hours and 34 minutes, coming off of a few miles of easy running trail and having completed 15 miles that there was a chance I could finish in under 7 hours.  After a brutal climb right back up to the crest of the bluff, I realized that the trail was much more difficult on this half.  I started to fatigue around noon at the five hour mark and begin to fast-hike with virtually no running from about mile 23 to the finish.  The final 13+ miles took 4 hours and 21 minutes.

While I was lost many times and thought about how I might miss my pick up time and be stranded, I was never afraid.  I prayed long and hard on this day that somehow I would have the strength to finish and that everything would work out.  When I got to Victoria Road almost 30 minutes late, I found that I had good cell phone coverage, which is practically unheard of in this area, and was able to call Don.  He was supposed to be waiting for me and I thought he may have left already.  It turns out that he had forgotten, but quickly made his way down to pick me up.  I think that this was the answer to my prayer!  I managed to listen to all of the books in Genesis on my iPod as a change of pace over music.  It was very enjoyable!

While there were many difficulties encountered on this day, I do not look at them as negative.  When talking with Don on the ride back, he said, "I can tell that you are a glass half full kind of person."  That really struck me as I had always been a technical and realistic thinker but have been trying to be more open minded and optimistic.  I have turned the corner on many things that I am trying to accomplish in my life and while the learning process is continual, it was made evident by Don's comments that he could sense I was making good progress.

All in all it was a great day.

This was the start of the trail.  I couldn't see the trail either!

Now can you see why it was easy to lose the trail?  It is right here:)

The guidebook said to look for this ridge because in 20 miles, I would be standing on it!

Thank God that the trail traverse this and did not climb it!

Atop Lookout Mountain down over Victoria Dam.  Almost there!

Can a leopard change his spots?  I believe so.

I have realized many things lately in my life that were in dire need of change.  The way I was living was not working for me and it was affecting those around me.  I have been headed down a destructive path for many years and while I started to change late last year, I was so far off of where I need to be.  I can not continue with living life the way of the past where I put myself before all others.  While I have been able to put someone else before me, I really needed to be putting God before all else.  While I have been able to focus on Him, I have been able to focus less on myself.  It is a continual process and while I am not finished yet, I am working harder than ever to be a better man, a better friend and a better person.  While afoot for nearly eight hours I was able to think clearly on my life and here are those honest thoughts.

For years now I have been trying to fill a void in my life and I have done that through running.  I was chasing and chasing something, never knowing what I was looking for or missing.  I would get a temporary high with each race but then would feel more empty after than I did before.  It was only through attending church that I realized that running had become my false idol and the void in my life was faith.  This does not mean that I am going to stop running races; that would be sacrificing the gifts that I have been given.  But now I realize that God does not care how fast or how far I can run.  I want to run to enjoy running, to return the gift to God and to stay healthy but my outlook is totally different.  I also realized that I do not truly enjoy ultra running.  I have spent too much time trying to be someone else (because of the people around me enjoy it) and not enough time being me.  I love to trail run and be outside and will have to think long and hard about wanting to run ultras in the future.  Why would you keep doing something, even if you are good at it, if you don't truly enjoy it?  Running is one of the many things that I now do, but it will no longer be who I am.

I have an extremely addictive behavior so it is easy to slip into a personal vice.  I live every day with it like a disease, but I will not let it get the best of me.  I have been shown that there is so much more to life than running and for a decade I have been missing out.  While running across the Traverse yesterday, God was testing me in so many ways, once of which was to see if I would stop and enjoy the scenery or if I would just push through as fast as possible.  At every chance, I stopped to take it all in, smell the roses so to speak, and take a few photos to remember the beauty of the Ottawa National Forest.  I continue to work on this, but want to break out into an uncomfortable place and experience things that I would never have before.  This will also help bring the balance into my life that I so desperately need.

I have come to realize that being able to relax and let go is a good thing, understanding that rest is good for even on the 7th day God rested.  While it is ok to write things down as to not forget them, I don't have to live my life by the schedule or a checklist.  Thinking like an engineer is ok when at work, but I have to say that being stripped of this burden and living more relaxed has been very enjoyable.  I have been practicing just enjoying life, not feeling like I always have to be doing something.  

Today, when I spoke to the Father (at the church I attended growing up) after church, I told him that there were many reasons why I wanted to change.  He said that it was a reward as a priest to see when someone has been touched by God.  It does not matter how I got to this point and while I thought I was seeking Him out, it turns out that He was seeking me, but I had to be ready to accept him.  It was a very emotional meeting but he listed to me and provided very good insight when I told him that I wanted to live a more Christian life.  I want to do this for me.  He told me that I am a work in progress with room for improvement, but the important part is that I have asked for help, from him, from God and from others around me.  This is one of the many ways that I know I am ready to change, is that in the past I would never have asked for help.  I was either too afraid, too embarrassed or not ready to act.  I have found peace in him, feeling his presence in me and while unworthy, I am ready to ask for grace and incorporate Him into my life through prayer, church, the Bible and other ways. 

These are not just words, nor are they not temporary changes.  I hope others close to me can accept and respect these changes.  Like the way a muscle must be stressed and torn during exercise to properly recover, repair and grow stronger, I too have been broken down and am opening myself up.  I've been lost for many years but now have asked for forgiveness.  At the suggestion of a friend, I have started a journal so that I can write down more personal thoughts and feelings.  I am thankful for those around me who have helped me realize what I was missing.

God has a purpose for me.  While I was lost and feeling alone, he was always there for me even though I could not see him.  God has not given up on me.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Trap Hills Traverse

On Saturday, July 16th I will be thru-hiking the Trap Hills Traverse, a 28.3 mile section of the North Country Trail in the western part of Michigan's Upper Peninsula from the Gogebic Ridge Trail to Victoria Dam Road.  This was not planned or even thought of until this morning when I came across it in a Backpacker Magazine article from 2002.  I was immediately intrigued and after thinking and praying about it,  I was inspired to commit.  I am not seeking personal glory or gratification.  My motivation is the continual pursuit of understanding my purpose and pondering God's gift's to me.  I find peace under the skies of His amazing creation and hope to further explore my faith thinking about Ephesians 2:8 and a quote by Leo Buscaglia while afoot.

Ephesians 2:8 - For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God

Leo Buscaglia - Your talent is God's gift to you. What you do with it is your gift back to God.

Though undeserving, I know that God will show His grace to me tomorrow by giving me strength and guidance, and by taking care of me on the journey.  It would be a bonus if He got me there in time to meet my ride back to the start:)

Michigan' Trap Hills
(Content courtesy of http://www.northcountrytrail.org/pwf/traphills.htm)

As for the geologic history, the story begins about 1.1 billion years ago, as a great rift opened in the area now home to the Lake Superior basin. Molten lava flowed from the rift and across the landscape, and streams from surrounding highlands carried sediments into the rift basin. When the lava cooled and the sediments of sand and cobbles were cemented into rock, they formed layers of basalt, sandstone, and conglomerate, respectively. That the Trap Hills are here today is due largely to the hard, erosion-resistant nature of the basalt and conglomerate, which cap most of the ridges, and are also well-exposed where the ridges are cut by streams to form falls and gorges.  Another name for a basaltic lava flow is Trap Rock, or Trap; hence the name Trap Hills.

Between many of the rock ridges of the Trap Hills are found valleys of varying width, basically oriented north-south or northwest-southeast, and home to such streams as Bush and Whisky Hollow Creeks. Rock exposures are rare in these valleys, but perhaps numerous faults and fractures are present in the rocks there, causing those rocks to be susceptible weathering and to erosion by streams. Continental glaciers moving from north to south probably helped scour and smooth out these valleys as well. Other faults are likely responsible for the valleys of the smaller streams, like Gleason Creek, which flow southward off the bluffs.

History of the Trap Hills

Earliest human use of the Trap Hills began in prehistoric time, as native peoples occasionally used the area for hunting and extracted small quantities of copper from veins in the rock. This same copper attracted Europeans, who began exploring the hills toward the end of the first half of the 19th Century They were encouraged by Michigan State Geologist Douglass Houghton's reports of the copper deposits in the western U.P., and by the moving of the famous Ontonagon Boulder, a two-ton mass of copper, from its original location in the West Branch of the Ontonagon River near Victoria to Detroit. Both events took place in 1841, and by 1850 over a dozen mines and hundreds (or more) of exploration pits could be found in the Trap Hills. Most famous and successful of the mines were the Norwich Mine, north of the bridge over the West Branch on Norwich Road, and the Forest Mine at Victoria. Towns supporting these mines prospered in accordance with the success of the mine at the time; that success varied depending on the price of copper, the cost per ton to mine the copper, transportation issues, competition, and depletion of ore bodies.  By early in the 20th century, all mining had ceased, and the mines and their supporting communities began to be reclaimed by nature.

Friday, July 1, 2011

2011 Keyes Peak 50km

June 25, 2011
Florence, WI

This summer I was fortunate enough to escape the heat of Alabama and spend a month with my parents in my home town of Kingsford, Michigan and work remotely.  The real reason for the pilgramage was to spend some time with my Mom and Dad during a period in which they would both celebrate birthdays (57th for my Mom, 60th for my Dad), Father's Day, and their 39th Wedding Anniversary.  The trip also lined up with the 2nd running of the Keyes Peak Trail Runs in Florence, Wisconsin.  In the inaugural year I was fortunate enough to have lead the marathon from the start and took the overall victory.  This year race director Jeff Crumbaugh of Great Lakes Endurance, added a 50km distance and immediately sparked my interest.  The events also earned national recognition by Runner's World as on of the top 32 trail races in North America.  This distinction was sure to help draw a good level of competition to this small community in northeastern Wisconsin.  Trail racing is relatively new to this area and ultrarunning is brand new so you can imagine my surprise when I saw this marquee welcoming them to town.

Read more here...

Two days before the race I took the mountain bike out to the southern portion of the course specifically to check out the infamous river crossing at mile 23 on the 50km race. Last year the crossing, which is the confluence of the Pine River and its main tributary, the Popple, was moderately high and surprisingly swift. I was washed downstream to the more shallow rope crossing before sloshing up the bank and onto the final 8 miles. The few days since I had arrived in Michigan had been cold and damp, highlighted by 5" of rain on Tuesday. I needed to mentally prepare for crossing by seeing the river in advance. What I saw on the way to the crossing was gravel roads engulfed in standing water, nasty mud on logging roads and a fresh berm to prevent vehicular traffic at the half-marathon mark. Here are some snap shots of the course.

Climbing the berm

The swampy roads

The XC Ski trail stream
When I finally made it to the river crossing, it was clear that there was no way we would be crossing it on race day. The current was faster and the level was higher than last year making it impossible even to add a rope downstream for a safe crossing. The course markings lead up to the river crossing, but it was my guess that Jeff and gang marked from the start up to the river and didn't see how bad it was until they got there. I suspected that they would change the course and this was confirmed at packet pick up on Friday night. The course would now be an out-and-back.

There was a smaller turn out than I thought with only about 50 starters in the marathon and 50km.  That didn't matter much though as I was focused on the fast looking guys who stood at the starting line.  The temperatures were good to start at 55 degrees but by noon it would rise by 20 degrees and with the wide open sections, it was certain to be warm.  I had it in my mind that I would not run the first mile up the back side of the ski hill at a blistering pace like Pete Witucki and I did last year, for which we both payed for late in the race.  Before I knew it, I was sprinting up the hill in my roclite 285's alongside Jason Schatz from Madison, with Pete and Josh Wopata from Indiana close behind.  Ironically, none of the four of us were from Wisconsin!  Jason and I chatted through the first few miles but while he was running with ease, I was working too hard to be running under 7 minute pace for the first 5km of a 50km race.  So I wished him well (he was wearing x-talon 212's) and I backed off to a more comfortable pace.  It was not long after that Josh caught up to me and not long for him to blaze past.  He too was nice and we exchanged a few words about the race and I tried to give him some pointers on the course before he was out of sight.

The race start with Pete Witucki to my left
Mentally I had split the course up into four sections.

  1. Start to the Pine River crossing at the oxbow at mile 8
  2. The oxbow to the turn around
  3. The turn back to the oxbow at mile 23 where my parents would be waiting
  4. The oxbow back to the end
The first section included the climb up the ski hill but them was steadily downhill to the river on very runnable gravel or jeep roads and very little mud so I hope to make good time.  The depth of the standing water on the roads surprised me several times, but otherwise I managed the section very well and according to plan.  I stayed true to my hydration and fueling plan and fought through the sandy sections, splitting the first 8 miles in 55:32 for just under 7 minute pace.

The second section involved much more climbing, grassy jeep roads with ankle deep water, muddy logging roads, climbing over the berm at 13, followed by a nasty single track section with waist high ferns covering up the uneven footing.  To top it of, after turning off of a cross country ski trail and back onto the gravel road near LaSalle Falls, there was a mile and a half climb to the turn around.  The effort was about the same as the first part, but the pace was slower due to the poor footing.  What was important was the fact that my mind was strong and I was feeling strong.  I had not seen Pete in some time, but figured that I was at least 10 minutes behind the leaders approaching the turn, but was caught off guard when I saw Jason more then a mile away from the turn; he was eating up the course!  As the turn was closer and closer, there was no sight of Josh.  I came to the turn and very quickly I saw that Pete was right behind me and Josh followed; he said that he had taken a wrong turn somewhere and gotten off track.  Let's just say that he was now running on adrenaline and passed me before LaSalle falls on the way back.  I hit the turn around in about 1:54, which with a different finishing mile than the start, was a little less than half way.

Just as I was able to see the gap to the leaders at the turn, so where the people behind me, and me them.  I don't think that I saw the 5th place runner until the top of the climb at LaSalle Falls but then there was a steady stream of runners, including the first female at the mile 14 aid station.  It made me a little nervous to see how close they were!  There would be little margin for error in the second half of the race.  The temperature was climbing mile after mile on the way back as I passed 50km runners still on their way out and marathoners on their way back.  It was a nice mental boost to see other runners instead of the loneliness of the first two hours.  Slower runners were very nice on the crowded single track with two-way traffic, stepping aside for me.  I tried to return the favor with words of encouragement or letting them know what was just ahead on the course.  Everyone seemed to be in such great spirits!  It felt like I was slowing too much but my splits were still in the low 8's through the hardest part of the course.  I walked for the first time at the 20 mile mark (2:32:01) to take an S! Cap and two Alleve.  I had been taking S! Caps regularly but was starting to cramp slightly so took an extra.  This probably wasn't the best idea as it upset my stomach a little and made me want to throw up.  For some reason my left instep was bothering me impact which was the reason for the NSAIDs.  Pete passed me while I walked and after that I tried to stay with him but it wasn't long before he was out of sight too.  I was still running pretty well and was on track for a sub 4:10, which was my secondary goal, knowing that it would take a sub 4 to win.

I met my parents at mile 23 and took a second bottle from my mom.  I grabbed a handful of MM's and some bug spray before taking off again.  The fast downhill from miles 2-8 at the start would now be a steady 10km of climb to the top of the ski hill.  I did walk some of the first climb and made small talk with some of the marathoners and encourage them, but for the most part I kept a smooth running motion, albeit slow.  I had it in my mind that if I could keep it under 9 minute miles through the final few miles I could still slip in under 4:10, but other than the tough mile 24 where I struggled a little, I was able to stay in the low to mid 8's and plod along.  I was worried about tired legs on the soft sand before coming back through the final aid station but it wasn't too bad and before I knew it, I was turning back onto the pavement at Country Road D and heading toward Emily Lake.  To my surprise, I could see Pete ahead just by maybe a quarter mile.  Maybe it was the thought of a top 3 finish or maybe I could smell the barn, but I picked up the pace and tried to close the gap.  The closer I got the more I thought that maybe we could push each other in the final 5km and come in together at the end.  So when I finally caught up, we ran a couple of miles together and talked about the day and the race as we passed a few more people.  I laughed when he said that just because we were going to run it in together that it didn't mean that we had to hold hands!  Together we hit the crest at mile 30 but I could tell that he wanted so slow down.  We talked about it several times and I felt bad leaving him and we had decided to finish up together but finally he started to walk and told me to go and so I went.  I felt good and wanted to push hard through to the finish so I knocked it down to 7:30 pace as the road wound around the top of the ski hill.  I narrowly missed a turn coming down the slopes but there were some great course marshals volunteering that guided me back on track and I cruised down the hill, pushing to keep it under 4:07 and crossed at 4:06:49.

Coming down the ski slopes to the finish at the lodge
Having run the majority of this race in solitude I was really able to take in the beauty of my surroundings and reflect inward on what I was really doing out there.  Not everyone can run and even fewer can perform at such at a high level.  Most of the time I focus on how I performed and how I was able to overcome the tough stretches and it is just a focus on me.  The more I think about it, the more I realize that I have been blessed with the ability to run and given the gifts to compete and from there it is up to each person to realize there own potential and search for their limits.  Without getting too deep or too spiritual, I just want to say that I do feel fortunate and am thankful for every step that I am able to take and I am finally feeling like my running has a purpose.

Final Results

Full results from Sam and Kara Graci with SuperiorTiming.com can be found here.

PlaceNameCityAgeTimeTime Back
1Jason SchatzMadison WI293:42.420:00:00
2Joshua WopataWestfield IN313:46.5704:14.8
3Eric CharetteHuntsville AL354:06.4924:07.4
4Pete WituckiChicago IL304:08.1625:33.2
5James WebberOtsego MI284:40.4157:58.9

Handmade Finisher Awards from local hardwoods

Post swim in the icy cold Keyes Lake

Elevation Profile

MilePaceTotal TimeAve Pace