Sunday, July 29, 2012

Grand Island Trail Half Marathon Recap

Well, it's amazing how differently you can react to a race, simply because of different expectations put on it.  In May, I was unjustifiably disappointed with a 2:05-something finish at the Kalamazoo Half Marathon, because I had put a lot of pressure on myself to break two hours.  Yesterday, I was (and still am) over the top thrilled with finishing the Grand Island Trail Half Marathon in 2:32-something.  What was different?  Oh, a number of things, I suppose....First of all, I expected yesterday's trail race to be slower for the very fact that it was on trail.  Secondly, after dealing with my sore piriformis for a month or so now, I knew that that would slow me down, and I set my expectations accordingly.  In fact, I took my run/walk interval timer so that I could do a run/walk, and - for the first time ever on a major race - I took my camera phone (even though it is bulky), so that I could take some pictures along the way.  Also, coming off of a 10-day vacation with my mom and the kids, I really just wanted this event to be fun for me - no pressure.  And it was!

So, first of all, the Grand Island Trail Half Marathon is a beautiful event.  The scenery up on the Lake Superior shoreline of Michigan's upper peninsula is breathtaking.  Having been to the Denver and Colorado Springs regions of Colorado twice now, I was struck by the similarities....Okay, so there were no towering peaks, but the hills were high enough and pine-covered enough to fool me at least some of the time.  And, with the crystal waters of Lake Superior and perfect weather, I really was bowled over by it all.

I had been looking forward to this event for quite a while, ever since Great Lakes Endurance, the outfit that puts on the Grand Island races, had come to talk to our running club a couple of years ago.  I wasn't sure that this was the event I would end up doing, but I knew I wanted to do one of their events.  Their premise of eco-conscious racing and sourcing everything, inasmuch as they can, locally and/or organically is what got me initially intrigued.  The fact that I could finally fit in one of their events at the tail end of our Michigan vacation this year made me very happy and I looked forward to this race with much anticipation.  Plus, this would be the first longer distance destination race that I would do on my own - without Hubby by my side - and for some reason that was important, too.

Sunrise over Grand Island
Getting into town the night before the race, we had gotten lucky and were able to stay overnight at the Holiday Inn Express in Munising, which happened to be where the race "expo" and packet pickup were set up.  (We had been waitlisted.)  Besides being the center of race activity the day before the race, the hotel also offered a fantastic view across the water to Grand Island.  From our balcony, I enjoyed looking out at the island where I would run my second ever trail Half.  The hotel staff was very accommodating, having welcome bags for the runners which included a Larabar, water, and some trail mix, and breakfast was set obscenely early at 4 a.m. for runners.

Packet pickup was easy.  There wasn't really anything in the way of goody bags or swag, but you could buy some items if you wanted.  With the race bib, you got a nice, orange, short-sleeved technical shirt.  They were selling some wood medallions that said Grand Island Trail Marathon, I believe, and if I had known then that there wouldn't be any race medals handed out at the finish, I might have purchased one.  But I didn't, so I didn't, and that's a minor regret.

Getting over to the island the morning of the race was made very easy.  Shuttles were scheduled to pick runners up at a number of area hotels, as well as the local high school, and deposit them at the ferry dock throughout the morning.  The dock happened to only be a half mile from my hotel, but the shuttle arrived just as I stepped out, so I took advantage of the lift and rode to the dock in style.

Waiting at the ferry dock.
Waiting for the ferry was fine too.  I was only there for a couple of minutes before one puttered up to pick us up for the short, five-minute hop to the island.  Being in the half marathon, which was slated to start at 8 a.m., I was kind of impressed as I waited for the boat at about 6:45 that the folks there had the presence of mind to call out for any marathoners or marathon spectators trying to get over for the 7 a.m. marathon start to jump the line.  A couple people took advantage of that.  There was plenty of room on the boat, though, so most of us were able to hop on board.

After the short ride, I got to the island just in time to see the 7 a.m. marathon wave (the first wave had gone off at 6 a.m.) get their final instructions and start.

7 a.m. Marathon start.
That left me with an hour to wander around the welcome center, read the historic signs, and get myself ready to go.

Seeing as I have had issues with my piriformis, I had brought my trusty softball in my drop bag.  I took a few minutes to roll that out.  Then I swapped my sandals for socks and my New Balance 101s.  Clif Blocks were placed in the appropriate pockets, as was my plastic-baggied cell phone.  I sucked down a Roctane (cherry lime for the record) and mixed my Gu Brew in my handheld.  (Funny how after I belittled that beverage so much for the Kazoo Half, I have taken to running with it for longer runs. Hmm, there is a lesson there somewhere, I am sure of it.)  I dropped my bag under the tent they provided for just such a purpose and then walked to the start.

At the start.
We got our last minute instructions - follow the blue flags, not the orange - the horn sounded, and we were off.

With trail races, as with trails, I find there is a wide variety of what qualifies as trail.  This race was no different, and we ran a gamut of different terrain. Starting off we headed down a hard-packed dirt road (or maybe it was paved?) with a fine covering of sand over it.  The footing was very good and heading through the woods was pleasant.  There were some mild ups and downs, but mainly it was pretty flat.  Overall, the course was mainly shaded.

First couple of miles of trail was more like a dirt road.
At four miles, we reached the first aid station.  Volunteers there were very solicitous and helpful, filling our water bottles with our choice of Heed or water, and then asking if we needed anything else.  I hadn't really drunk too much yet, so I didn't need a refill at that point. In addition to the liquid refreshment, they had Hammer Gel and Endurolytes on hand, neither of which I required.  The volunteers were super friendly and complimented me on my choice of pink attire, which was fun.  (I no doubt had some witty reply to that, but I can't remember what it was anymore.)  There were no cups at the water station.  In keeping with their eco-friendly philosophy, the event required everyone to carry their own hydration units with them and carry out their own trash.

Coming out of the first aid station, we emerged onto the shores of Lake Superior.  This was where I would run what for me would be the hardest part of the race effort-wise - the beach.  For fully one mile, the course took you through the sand.  Trying to run on the harder-packed wet sand was easier but I found myself constantly dodging the waves that were breaking on the shore.  Opting for the squishy sand just out of reach of the waves ensured dry feet but meant struggling with the footing and turning your ankle a few times.  I mixed it up as best I could, and by the time I got to the end of this stretch, I felt I had gotten pretty good at judging which waves were going to get my feet wet and which ones were not.  I did get wet a couple of times and turned my ankle a couple of times, so obviously for me neither sand option was ideal.  The breathtaking beauty of this stretch of the run, though, made up a lot for the difficulty.

Coming onto the beach was breathtaking.

Hmmm, dodge the waves?
Or brave the deeper sand?
Coming off the beach, we headed back into the woods onto a single track trail that would lead up the bluffs.

A runner behind me was nice enough to offer to take
my picture.  I get the feeling a lot of people were being
running tourists that day.
The climb had been described as the most difficult part of the race, but I found it gradual enough to not be that tiring or problematic.  Much to my hamstring's dismay, I even managed to run most of it.  From mile 7 to 9, we were back on the dirt road with a gradual downhill into the Mile 9 aid station - the second and last one.

Getting out of that aid station, we turned again onto single-track trail.

It's also here that we started merging with the marathon runners for the first time.  I am not sure who exactly we were seeing, but most of them still seemed pretty fresh.  (I got more compliments on the pink socks, but I don't mean "fresh" in that regard.)  That first mile after the aid station was very pleasant with good footing and soft, pine-needle covered ground.  From about Mile 10 to 12.5, though, the trail took a turn along the top of the cliffs.  While the views were beautiful, my recent tumble two weeks ago on the trails had me running very cautiously.  This stretch was littered with half-buried roots and rocks.  I only had to flex my fingers opened and closed to remind myself that another fall would be very unwelcome.  (Unfortunately, my hand is still sore from that fall.)  So, for better or for worse, I slowed down a lot.

Trail along bluff.
View from the top. The water was crystal clear.
Coming down off the bluff is a gradual event and before you know it, the finish line appears around a curve.  Crowds were cheering, a surprise after a fairly - although not completely - spectator-free run.

Finishing in 2:32 was a bit of a disappointment for about a tenth of a second.  It only took one good mental headslap to remind myself that I should be very happy with that time.  Sore piriformis, trail run, stopping to take pictures - I should be pleased that I finished so well.  Indeed, this is a trail half PR for me.  (The first I finished in about 3:15 after being sick.)  Finally, I am not 100-percent sure of the accuracy of the course, as my Garmin clocked 13.34 miles, rather than 13.1.  Although I trust its accuracy under ideal conditions, I know that woods and bluffs have a tendency to mess with it - so I take the exactness of the results (both my watch's and the race's) with a grain of salt.

As I mentioned earlier, I was a bit surprised to see there were no finisher's medals, as I thought someone else had said there had been some in years past.  I didn't sweat it too much, though.  I am happy with my shirt and the memories of the experience.  If you happened to be fast enough to win an age group award, though, you would have received a beautiful blown-glass medallion, a worthy match for the surrounding area's natural beauty.  It makes me wish I were faster.

I couldn't resist cooling off in the waters of Lake Superior after the run.
Getting back to the mainland after the event was as streamlined as arriving had been.  A constant stream of ferries ensured runners didn't have to wait long to leave if they didn't want to.  Once back at the ferry dock in Munising, a line of shuttles clearly marked with different hotel names waited to take runners back to their cars.

So, all in all, I have to say I really enjoyed this event. I am already thinking of how to get back next year to do it, too.  It was well run, well organized.  The scenery was amazing.  The people were friendly.  My only regret is that we had planned to drive the several hours home afterwards, opting not to stay the night after the race.  I would have been more than happy to hang out for another night, enjoying the amazing weather, going swimming in Lake Superior and maybe having a glass of wine or two on our balcony overlooking the lake.  Oh well, that is why there will be a next time.

Despite the piriformis, I was pleased with how I ran.  I really felt good overall.  The piriformis was a disappointing thorn in my side. It twinged at the start, but then was basically good until about mile 6 or so.  Then I could feel it tightening, and eventually it started sending those shooting pains down my hamstring.  Despite that, I was happy that my overall conditioning felt really strong.  I never did go to the run/walk.  And although I did walk a couple of times, the breaks were kept brief.  That's how good I was feeling.  In fact, for much of the race I felt that I was just gliding along.  I don't feel like I really hit any sort of wall, and for that I am grateful.

As to not having Hubby along,...standing on my own two feet, as it were?  That was kind of a bust.  I found that in the end I missed having him there to share the event with.  So, next time the plan is to drag him there too!  I wouldn't want him to miss out again!


  1. This looks like a beautiful race to run! You got some beautiful shots of the scenery along the course.

    1. Thanks! It is very beautiful, and a great destination event! You should try it sometime!

  2. i am reading the website and it says you get a medallion!