Saturday, July 27, 2013

Run the Keweenaw 25K Race Report

Do you want to challenge yourself?  Take your trail running to the next level? (Or maybe skip a few levels?) Do you have masochistic running tendencies but prefer to sugar-coat them in a shroud of eye-popping scenery?  Well, then have I got a race for you.

Husband and I recently trekked up to the far northern reaches of Michigan's upper peninsula (the U.P. or the "Yoop") for a race that would teach me humility and kick my ass at the same time, all while surrounding me with an environment that made me want to say, "Please, race, give me more!"

The Run the Keweenaw weekend of races was held July 13-14, and I successfully completed the 25K Keweenaw Trails Run held on that Sunday.  (Two other events, the 6K Mt. Baldy Summit Run and the 12K Copper Harbor Trails Challenge, were both held on Saturday, as were the kids' 2K fun run.)

According to their website, Run the Keweenaw is organized by the Copper Country Ski Tigers and the Keweenaw Trails Alliance.  This is a race that originally was started by Great Lakes Endurance, but when they decided to pull the plug on it, the locals took it over.  That's how committed they are to the event.  Solomon is a big supporter of the race, which makes it appealing.  (After all, who doesn't want some Solomon swag?) To say this run is low-key, however, is an understatement.  When the calendar flipped from April to May of this year and there was still no sign of registration opening up, I started to get antsy.  An email sent to the contact address, however, solicited an immediate response and registration opened later that same week.  Okay, we were in.  Time to make plans.

Part of the charm of this event is that if you are the type of person who thinks if a little is good, then more must be better, they really have a category for you.  The Run the Keweenaw (or RTK) category allows you to sign up for all three race events - and vie for awards in that series.  Cool, huh?  After all, who doesn't want to race a 6K Saturday morning (which is actually 12K because they neglect to tell you that once you reach the finish at the top of the mountain you still have to get your sorry ass back down), sit around getting all stiff and not knowing what to eat for eight hours, and then run a 12K at 5 p.m.  that evening?  And then get up the next morning and run those crazy trails all over again - for twice the distance?

Right. As it turns out, a lot of people want to do that including my husband, so that is what he signed up for.  If you are not quite so masochistic, however, there are plenty of options for you too. In fact, the beauty of the weekend and how the races are all spaced out is that you can mix and match the events however you want.  It's kind of an la carte race opportunity, versus a set menu type of thang.  And, that is what I decided to do, namely, the Mt. Baldy Summit Run and the 25K.

So, those were the big plans.  The reality of the situation for me was that a few weeks before this event, I seem to have developed a neuroma in one foot.  That meant, no hills for moi.  Poopers.  So, decisions had to be made.  Long story short, I opted to drop the 6K Summit Run and just put everything I had into the 25K.  As an option, I could have switched to the 12K (the race officials were really accommodating), but I figured if I were in for 12, I might as well go for 25. So, on to race day....

The morning of race day dawned nice and clear.  And, after two nights of tent camping I was well rested (not!).  For being so far north, it was actually pretty warm with high humidity in the air.  (Lucky us.) Our campsite was a mere minutes away from the start in downtown Copper Harbor, and with only 40 or so people in the race, parking wasn't a big issue.  So, having bug-sprayed myself to within an inch of my life (mosquitos and black flies were thick), it was time to get going.

The start isn't that memorable for me for some reason. Consisting of a person at the start line looking at his watch, there may have been a gun, an air-horn, or simply a shout of "go!"  To be honest, I don't know.  All I do know is that before I knew it we were off.

Leaving the start area at the community center's parking lot, the route immediately puts you onto a trail that traces the edge of a pond.  The wide, meadow-like swath that we had to follow lulls you into a false sense of "I've got this"-itis.  I found myself quickly falling into step behind some other runners who seemed to be going a reasonable pace.  (I hadn't worn my watch so had no sense of what that reasonable pace might actually be) and soon was making small talk with a lady who drove up from Oshkosh - my neck of the woods, so to speak.  It all seemed to be going splediferously when the first obstacle reared its ugly head - a large section of river know, those ueber-large round pebble-like stones that people like to put in their garden?  Well, Copper Harbor is rotten with them.  Have I mentioned the neuroma in my foot?

(For those not in the know, let me explain what a neuroma is.  According to the Mayo Clinic's website, it "involves a thickening of the tissue around one of the nerves leading to your toes." Even if this isn't a neuroma, but say a stone bruise or a touch of tendonitis, for me the end result is the same.  There is inflammation right under the ball of my foot. So, yeah, see where I am going here?  Running on rocks doesn't really feel that great.)

In fact, I have to say, that given the givens, this was probably the WORST possible event I could have picked for my foot: large rocks, rampant uphills, crazy single-track trail - all the fun stuff I am NOT supposed to be doing right now while this recovers. Ah well.

After picking my way through the rocks of doom and cutting over an actual city street, we were shunted onto a mountain-biking trail, and there we would mostly remain for the rest of our 25K jaunt.

The first five miles or so took us up, up, up to the top of Mount Brockway.  This was mainly on single-track trail, up a series of switchbacks, through the ferns and wooded hills.  Given the foot and the fact that I would do it anyway, I started walking the hills I came across, which were plentiful.  See, while the overall net elevation change was a gain here, it was actually masked in an infinite series of small inclines and straightaways.  So, while some races might say you'll go up 600 feet and you just climb up, this was an endless tease of up, done. Up, done.  Etc.  Needless to say, it was not long before I started slipping off the back of the pack.  The one saving grace was that the gentleman in front of me had the same obnoxious neon orange colored shirt on that I did.  So, occasionally, I would catch glimpses of him through the trees, but for the most part I was on my own.

This aloneness was never felt so keenly as when I thought I came across a bear.  Now, in my defense, I had bears on the brain.  In Wisconsin there had been a couple of news stories recently about bear attacks, and I have a couple of friends who have encountered bears while driving, walking, and running, etc.  I have heard more about bears in recent weeks than I could bear.  Couple that with the fact that everywhere you turn in the U.P. they "educate" you about the native black bear - and, yeah, I had bears on the brain.

So, when I was on the trail, all by myself, in those first few miles and came across a musky, not-very-pleasant stench, immediately followed by a tremendous crashing in the ferns off to my right, I froze.  I had visited a bear rescue last summer in the U.P., and while I cannot with pinpoint certainty claim that what I smelled was bear - in fact, my rational mind finds it really hard to believe there would be one around when all the other runners had gone by not that long before me - I do have to say that is what my mind screamed at me as I came to a dead stop.  And, I repeat, I have never felt more alone than in that moment.  I was traversing a series of long switchbacks and where I stopped happened to be at the turn.  Standing there, breathing hard, heart pounding, I wasn't sure what to do, because either direction I took on the trail would take me right past where the noise had been.  In the end, I continued on, because going back didn't change proximity issues, and - really - the goal lay ahead.  Although I finally did end up laughing at myself a bit for my perceived foolishness, I have to say that the rest of the run was characterized by me talking and singing quite loudly to myself.

So, after I was able to put the scene of that weirdness in my rearview, I continued on for a while without incident.  It wasn't long, however, before I started to hear howling noises.  Shit.  Really?  Are there wolves, too?  So, by now you can tell I am a city girl.  Every noise is suspect in the woods, I guess.  Of course, I was really alone.  I mentioned that, right?  Sucks to be last and slow.  That's not to say, I never was aware of other runners.  As I mentioned, I did see the guy in orange occasionally.  And, every now and again, I would hear talking or laughing, as the runners ahead of me neared me on a switchback somewhere above.  Although creepy in and of itself, it was strangely comforting at the same time.

So, the howling.  I probably ran a mile thinking that there was a wolf pack somewhere before I finally figured out that those weren't wolves I was hearing, but rather cheers.  And that every time there was a "howl" it must be because a runner had gone by.  Sure enough, after a while, I popped around a corner of the trail and there before me was a large group of people in the woods, on the side of the mountain, having a picnic and cheering the runners on.  Unreal.  But funny.

It's about this time, too, that I noticed the sweep bike behind me for the first time.  Oh no! Run faster!

So, it's always darkest before the dawn, and so it was in this race too.  After entering one of the darkest patches of woods I would swear I have ever been in (think Fairy Tale dark), I popped out onto a road - to not only an aid station, but also one of the most breathtaking views I had ever seen (mostly because it was unexpected).

Walking the trail with the family the next day, here is the view I got....
We figured during the race we came down this mountain, traversed the valley a bit before climbing the mountain you see on the other side.

After accepting a cup of "aid" (the volunteer didn't know what brand it was and more's the pity because it tasted good) and allowing myself to be reassured that the sweeper wasn't going to DQ me for slowness (Remember Jungfrau? I think I worried more about the bike than the bear at that point.), I continued on my journey along the ridgeline of the mountain.  If I had been more cognizant about my whereabouts, I might have feared for my life.  The dropoff appeared pretty severe the next day when we hiked this self-same patch of trail with the kids. However, during the race, I barely took note of it.  In fact, there were a couple of other places during the run that I might have worried more if I had paid attention...notably a wood-slat bridge that was clinging to a side of the mountain in the woods, and a signed "Cliff!" on the trail at one point.  A false step on any one of these would have been a cruel race ender.
My one official race photo - along the ridgeline - after surviving the first climb.
Leaving the ridgeline, the next several miles were a wonderful, joy-filled, "yahoo"-yell of a downhill jaunt, initiated by a weird little series of wood-slat bridge, slalom-like switchbacks.

This was followed by more traditional trail switchbacks, which had me feeling like I was flying through the woods at lightning speed.  In fact, I was having such a great time, I had visions of passing people until I realized they would have been gleefully flying down the trail at that point, too.

At about mile 6-7 in here is when I did encounter some real Michigan wildlife, which almost left me too hurt to continue the race.  Yes, a chipmunk jumped out of the bushes.  Now, this may sound funny and overly dramatic, but when you are dealing with a sore foot, the last thing you need is to emergency jump a critter that then has you landing with excessive force on the hurt foot.  Ouch.  The sad thing is I *still* may have just nipped the little bugger's tail as I landed.  Anyway, things slowed down a bit after that while I tried to sort out what damage, if any, had been done.

As I continued running, I was happy that it seemed that I may have gotten away with my little leap.  My taped foot was holding up, and while it was certainly more sore now, it didn't seem to be sore to the point of needing to DNF myself.  (By the way, here are a couple of pix of my foot all taped up post-race.  Like all the dirt on my ankle?  Love them trails!)

So, here is one of those parts of the trail that is a little hard to explain, but if you are into mountain biking or crazy versions of downhill skiing, then this will make sense.  However, we ran through a long series of moguls on the trail.  Yes, they are probably what you are thinking of: short little STEEP hills about four feet high or so and at such an angle that it would help if you could run on your toes (which I was trying not to do because of the foot).  So, I ended up using momentum to carry me over most of these.... I would run down a little hill and use my momentum to start up the next.  That would carry me almost to the top, where I would walk a couple steps to the crest, then run down the hill, etc.  It was not the best thing for the foot, but it was different and fun in its own way.

So, at the start line, we had been told that there would be aid stations at miles 5, 7, and 12.  Foolishly, I forgot to refill my water bottle at the first aid station (so overcome with emotion I was not to have been attacked by wildlife and to have survived the hill climb in the first five miles), but I comforted myself with the fact that I only had two miles to go until the next water station.  After the long downhill, the chipmunk incident, and the moguls, I noticed I was running out of beverage, so I started nursing it along, ... and along, ... and along.  When I finally popped out at the second aid station after catching yet another glimpse of the sweep bike (thankfully, he was spending a lot of time talking to the aid station volunteers and perhaps trying not to crowd me), I was ready to proclaim that stretch of race as the LONGEST two miles I had ever run in my life.  As it turns out, though, it was actually four miles, which explained a lot of things, and went a long way towards making me feel better about the day to that point.  I had even considered dropping out at that aid station, given how long it felt like it took me to get there.  But now that I knew I only had six miles to go, I felt reinvigorated.  Woot!

The aid station volunteers were so great to be standing  around in mosquito heaven waiting for my sorry ass to turn up that I felt obliged to make a little small talk with them (okay, maybe it was nice to have some human contact before continuing my solo journey into the woods again).  After some self-deprecating humor about how slow I was, I was amazed to hear them proclaim how they thought we were crazy and amazing - how they would NEVER run these trails.  Of course, they were mountain bikers and ride them all the time.  Uh huh.  I had to eye them suspiciously, because of course who were the crazy ones now?  I would sure as heck never bike those trails.

Much of the rest of the race has become a bit of a blur.  From the second aid station, I started up a very long wood-slat bridge that seemed to go on forever.  The next three miles (until the last aid station) was supposed to be uphill, and it was.  There was supposed to be a section in there, though, called Stairway to Heaven, which I anticipated might be...well...stairs. Or at least a defined uphill slog.  However, it wasn't.  Stairway to Heaven is the name of one of the local trails (other awesome trail names include Der We Went, Woopidy Woo, and Dza Beet), and it is marked by a lot of those little wood-slat bridges (some seemingly clinging to the side of the mountain like a train track ("she'll be comin' round the mountain when she comes....")), single track trail, and rocky outcroppings to cross.  However, whereas I had anticipated a well-defined uphill, this seemed more characterized by a subtle but persistent upward tick in terrain.  In fact, it took me a while to figure out that was why I was walking so much.  And here I thought I was just getting tired.

(By the way, if you want to check out one of the BEST examples of an online trail map ever, go here:

With about a mile or so to go to the final aid station, I finally caught up to that guy in orange, who was doubled over at the top of a long incline.  Although I had been trailing him for most of the race, he was having his own troubles.  It turns out he was not trained for the distance due to injury, and the hills and trail experience and running the other races were just generally wearing him down. (As a side note, his son did quite well in most of the events, I later found out.) We ran together after that, and I have to say just having someone around perked me up a bit.  I found I didn't take as many walk breaks, and I definitely picked up my pace a bit.  I have said it before and I'll say it again: I am L-A-Z-Y.  Left to my own devices, I don't push myself nearly as hard.

Popping out of the trail for the first significant time in nearly three hours was kind of surreal.  It was like being lost at sea and suddenly being found (not that I have ever experienced that).  Being on a road again was refreshing, and while I would like to say it put some pep in my step, that only lasted for a short stretch because it wasn't long before that road made a significant move up a hill, which had me and my new friend both walking.  Towards the top of said hill, though, we finally made it to the final aid station at the side of a golf course.  After spending so much time in the woods alone, it was weird to see people actually playing golf - seemed out of place.  At the aid station, we realized we only had 5K left and it was almost all downhill.  Woohoo! Here we go again - my favorite part.

I had a great time going downhill.  My legs were tired, but I still had the energy to jump rocks and dance along the trail.  Even my new friend commented on how I still had a lot of hop in my step.  I don't know about that, but I knew I was almost done and doing my favorite part of trail running.  My hop wasn't quite where it needed to be though, because I did catch my toe a few times.  Luckily, however, I didn't fall.  With about two miles to go, I think, I found myself running solo again, as the man in orange said he couldn't keep it going and wanted to slow down for the last bit.  I continued on, drawn by the fact that I could practically taste the finish line.

Finally, FINISH LINE AHEAD. I came out of the woods to a road, and those were the words chalked on the pavement.  This last stretch had us following the road back to the starting area.  I told myself not to get too excited.  After all, I didn't have a watch, so who knew what "ahead" meant.  A half mile? A mile? Two?  What I did know was that I was beyond ready to be done.  I had had it with this race, with my foot, with my lack of conditioning, with the heat, the bugs, the imaginary wildlife, and even the shadow of that sweeper bike behind me.  I wanted to STOP.  When I finally came across the volunteer who turned me onto that last stretch of meadow trail (where we had started) and said it was just a short jaunt around the pond, I could have kissed him.  Then I started that short jaunt, belatedly figuring out that we apparently had very different definitions of short.  I ended up walking several times during my circuit of said pond.  My legs were toast and I just didn't care anymore.  Finally, though, FINALLY, the finish line.  Relief.

I wasn't last.  My friend in orange made sure of that, but I was second-to-last, and it took me about 3:40 to finish 15 miles.  A new PR (the kind you don't usually aim for).  I felt a bit bad coming in ahead of the man in orange given he was ahead of me for most of the race, but oh well. What are you going to do?  At the finish, I was greeted by my husband, who had had his own turmoils that day after his two races the day before, and our friends and kids.  A quick look around showed that while I had been lucky and not taken a spill on the trails, not everyone had been.  There were some significant cuts and bruises going on, but I guess that can happen if you are faster than a walk for the whole race.

We stuck around to wait for the award ceremony to start, missing the runners' buffet breakfast that had been laid out.  The husband was hoping he might place somewhere, but although it was a small crowd of participants, there were a lot of competitive folks with some talent.  It turned out not to be his lucky day for the RTK, but he enjoyed the experience.  For myself, I kind of wish I had run all three races, as I might have had a chance at the SISU award (a Finnish term for "perseverance").  As it was, though, we hung out and soaked up the bonhomie of the race crowd, caught some Solomon and Smartwool swag being tossed out to the crowd and enjoyed the continental-breakfast-to-go our friends were nice enough to carry out to us (after they had already taken our kids in to eat!)

So, if you made it this far in this posting, know that this was an AWESOME event.  I may have not had the best day at it, but it was an amazing experience.  It's out of the way, and I think that might prevent it from ever becoming huge, but I also think that is part of the appeal.  The trails, while hard, were incredible, and the folks running the show just downright friendly and nice.

I so want to do this again.

There are so many other things I could talk about with this race, but I have to end this post somewhere. If anyone has any questions, though, let me know.  I would be happy to answer them where I can.

As a final note, sorry about the lack of pictures, but I really didn't feel like carrying a camera this time around.  And I am glad I didn't.  If I had brought the camera, I probably would have been out there until dark.