When I finally decided on the idea of running an ultra-marathon, I knew that I wanted it to be part of a larger destination trip. Great Lakes Endurance, puts on some great events, but I wanted to check out all the options.
This isn’t to diminish the trails in my own back yard. In Northeast Ohio, the Cuyahoga Valley National Park and surrounding Metro Parks contain over a hundred miles of beautiful trails. The Burning River Endurance Run is a great 100-mile race held here and is a Western States qualifier. The start/finish is only a couple miles from home.
But the commitment and training involved for an ultra-race are enough that I wanted to take the experience one step further. To explore something new. To go somewhere I’ve never been. Racing on the same trails of my training just wouldn’t do.
Being from Cleveland, and wanting to drive for this trip, the search included a driving radius of around 8 hours. Essentially, Ohio and the five states bordering Ohio. Add in Upstate New York for good measure.
Pennsylvania has some incredible terrain and I know of several great ultras. I was already signed up for the Laurel Highlands 50k relay and gave it at least some thought to run the full event. But at nearly 6,500 feet of elevation gain, this seemed a bit steep for my first ultra.
There was the Highlands Sky 40M in West Virginia. This race has been on my radar for a couple years as a point-to-point race traversing ridges through the beauty of the Monongahela National Forest. Unfortunately, Highlands was cancelled for both 2020 and 2021.
There are a few ultra-races in the Finger Lake Region of Upstate New York. I’ve driven through once before and it looks like a beautiful area for a race.
Cincinnati, Ohio is a city that I enjoy spending time. Louisville or Lexington, Kentucky would also make great destinations. Some time spent on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail coupled with the rolling typography for a race could make a great destination 50k.
Elevation is not what comes to mind when I think Indiana, but the Owen-Putnam State Forest 50k climbs over 4,500 feet and describes itself to be the toughest trail race in Indiana.
All great options, all would be great choices.
I knew I had to do some trout fishing on the trip and decided on leaving early to give me a few extra days prior to the race. Here was the plan.
The drive from Cleveland to the Upper Peninsula really was an easy one. I made it to Saginaw, Michigan in about four hours. Soon after Saginaw, the traffic north on I-75 all but disappeared and the speed limits increase to 75 mph. It’s not an incredibly scenic stretch but a very comfortable drive at that.
Once across the Mackinac Bridge, I headed west along US Route 2 and the views were amazing. It was nearing two o’clock in the morning but it was a clear moonlit night. I found myself stopping several times just to listen to the waves rolling in and take in the view over Lake Michigan.
The destination ahead was the Fox River State Forest Campground.
I continued along Route-2 until heading North along Michigan-77 through the town of Seney. For any literary fans, Seney is mired in historic lore in part to Earnest Hemingway’s visit in 1919 after his service in World War I. One of his best-known literary works, “Big Two-Hearted River” was based upon his visit.
He arrived through Seney with two friends for a fishing trip and is thought to have gone along the East Branch of the Fox River. Apparently, the fishing is better on the Fox, but I suppose “Big Two Hearted River” does make for a better literary title. A story I heard several times from U.P. locals, or Yoopers, as I learned they are sometimes referred.
Once through Seney, it would be another five-mile drive along a dirt road to arrive at the Fox River State Forest Campground. I was relieved to find on arriving at 3 am Wednesday morning that there were open campsites – seven of them to be exact. I was the only person there.
I explored the camp and settled on site number four. A nice picnic table and a fire ring, just as described.
After setting up camp and just a few hours’ sleep, the Fox River over the ridge of the campsite was calling. Hemingway once had this to say about fishing Northern Michigan in a letter to a friend:
“Absolutely the best trout fishing in the country. No exaggeration.”
Perhaps this is a stretch, but who am I to disagree. It was good fishing. But I will say this.
I could’ve spent weeks along the Fox River and never tired of it. But alas, there was something else I came here to do.
After 3 days of difficult hiking and fishing along the Fox River, it was time to head on my way for the featured reason of this trip. A destination 50k.
Oh yeah, now that I am tired and sore from fighting up and down a two mile stretch of river along difficult terrain, it was time to go run 31 miles.
I did get a quick nap before packing up and heading to packet pickup in Newberry on Friday evening.
How is the course I asked? The race director, Jeff Crumbaugh, was near by and walked over to a map of the course to take me through. He was out the day before to mark the course and shared that everything was very runnable.
"Is there much sand?" I asked.
A bit of a silly question if you have ever been to the U.P. Everything is sand.
The elevation profile of the 50k course is only 1,763 feet. This was much less elevation than even my longest training run of 26.2 miles back home.
But deep, soft, sand was my concern. The kind that saps the energy right from under your shoes and turns every stride into a more difficult fraction of a stride.
“There is some softer sand” he replied. “But the recent rain has left it packed fairly tight. The stretch of more difficult sand is a couple of miles where the course follows along Lake Superior.”
I left the packet pickup and drove the 30 minutes to the Tahquamenon Falls State Park. (By the way, Tahquamenon rhymes with phenomenon as kindly shared at some point by a local Yooper but it never fully sank in to pronounce it properly during the trip.)
Arriving at around 7 pm I managed to pick up an ADA accessible site despite not having had a reservation before they were fully booked up. This saved camping at another State Forest Campground that would’ve been another 20-minute drive in the morning to catch the 5:30 shuttle bus from the upper falls.
After a good meal and few hours rest, I was able to catch a quick shower, break camp and make it to the bus right on time. This really felt like a win after four nights of less than stellar sleep in a tent.
I left my running hat was all, no big deal.
And I forgot to stop and pick up any racing food. I’m generally not picky. Any gas station candy, bars or snacks will do. The aid stations were stocked with Hammer Gels, drinks, and tabs but I like to have a few different things to carry with me.
I had a full pack of six rich dark chocolate bars packed in the car. They would have to do.
The shuttle was shared by both 50k and marathon runners. An early morning ride of “where are you from” and “have you ran this race before” type conversations.
We arrived at the start line a bit early and the folks from Great Lakes Endurance had a few porta potties alongside a pair of “start” signs on either side of the dirt road.
It didn’t seem to matter that we blocked the way as no cars were seen down this road other than for a few runners being dropped off and a few others supporting runners that were there to see the start.
And we were off!
The race began down dirt (or more aptly described as sand) roads with runners separating into packs.
I settled in with a group, several of which were also taking part in their first ultra-distance event.
The pace felt right around 11:00 minutes or so and we blew through the 3.5-mile aid station.
We crossed the Two Hearted River on our way north to Lake Superior.
Our first view of the lake came around the mile four mark as we joined the North Country Trail. The fog was still burning off from the morning and there was a beautiful stretch along the bluffs.
It was around mile six that we hit Jeff’s stretch of difficult sand from the pre-race briefing.
It was a little bit wet as described and not terrible at first on fresh legs. But after a mile or so, it absolutely took its toll on the calves and feet.
He said that his ears would be ringing as we hit this spot! I’m guessing they were.
We struggled to keep pace with every step more difficult than the one before.
The footing would get better for stretches just offshore, but never fully improve until we turned south away from the lake.
It was a welcome site at mile nine to see the mouth of the Two Hearted River where it meets Lake Superior.
This meant that we would soon take a turn to the south, away from the lake and the difficult sand.
I had a quick pit stop at the restroom of the Two Hearted River State Forest Campground.
Another moment to empty my shoes of sand.
My hydration pack was still holding strong from the 2.5-liters I started with.
“Next aid station 5 miles” they said…
Rich dark chocolate bars would fuel the way.
The trail is headed south and inland.
A fire had burned out much of the land ten years ago.
Charred remains still stand of the pine forest with ferns and pine saplings coming back to take their place.
At the start of the race, I had Gatorade in the main 1.5-liter hydration bladder of my Solomon pack and Liquid IV mixed in each of the .5-liter soft flasks on the front. All were nearing empty.
The mile fourteen aid station at Culhane Lake was a welcome site.
An aid volunteer used a pitcher to refill my bladder with some Gnarly Hydrate and I was quickly on my way.
Chocolate bar reserves were still holding strong and tasting good.
The trail was perfectly marked by Great Lakes Endurance at every turn. But this stretch is remote.
A wrong turn could equal a very bad day and a lot of extra miles.
Each mile was marked with a sign as we went. A helpful reminder that we were still on track.
With only sixty or so entrants to the 50k, and all of us spread out at this point, most of the rest of the race could be spent seeing no one in front, or behind.
Even with excellent markings of turns on the trail, the mile markers became a much-needed assurance that you were still on track and part of a race - not forever lost in the U.P. to become an accidental Yooper because you never found your way out.
The aid station at mile nineteen was just in time.
I was ready to refill on everything hydration. And a Hammer Gel would be a very welcome change to more dark chocolate.
“Should the eight-hour cutoff be a concern?” I asked a volunteer.
“Not unless the next five miles go very poorly” he said.
I left that aid station feeling good.
Miles nineteen to twenty-two mostly followed a narrow dirt road with just enough incline to unmistakably know it was there.
It wasn’t hot out.
But it was humid.
Despite diligent hydration and a couple of SaltStick Caps every hour…
I began to cramp up in a bad way. Every new movement left another muscle group uncontrollably locking up.
I had previously run a marathon trail race. And I had a 26.2-mile training run in this training cycle.
Experiencing cramping was nothing new for me.
But feeling that way and realizing that I still had 10-miles to go was something new.
I was rotating between spurts of half running, half walking, and feeling most of my energy being spent on swatting black flies.
They weren’t biting, but they have a way of circling and digging their way into hair that is absolutely maddening. What I would’ve given for the hat left in my car at that moment.
I went for broke.
I drank down a last pickle juice shot that I had in my pack. These work wonders for me when I cramp up. If you cramp while running, you really need to try these.
I washed that down with a chocolate bar, most of my Gnarly and the last of my six remaining SaltStick Caps.
My stomach may never forgive me for this, but it kept me moving forward.
The course soon turned off the narrow dirt road and returned to single track. The flies subsided under the pine canopy, and soon, I was approaching the last aid station at 24.3 miles.
Again, I was ready to refill on everything.
I hadn’t seen anyone for miles.
“How long since anyone has come through” I asked at the aid station.
“It’s been a while” was their response.
“This is the last aid station, so you are almost there!”
Electrolytes were the only concern on my mind.
I refilled my hydration pack and both .5-liter flasks. I took two Hammer Endurolyte Caps and packed four more for the road. Two more gels and I was back on my way.
I was right around five hours in at this point with six miles to go.
The eight-hour cutoff was comfortably in control with nothing left to do but finish.
There was no turning back.
As with any race, the last miles were the worst, but at the same time the best.
If you don’t know what I mean. There is only one way to find out.
I finished the race in 6:50:04. 29th of 48 finishers.
I stayed near the finish to congratulate some of those in the group that I started with and had finished ahead of me. And, to welcome some that were close behind to cross the line.
After some lunch and a celebratory beer at the Camp 33 Brew Pub there was only one thing left to do.
Walk the most painful quarter mile conceivable, then down and back up 89 stairs to see the second highest waterfall east of the Mississippi, Tahquamenon Falls.
It was all worth the walk, and the trip.
If you ever find yourself looking for a destination 50k, I can absolutely recommend checking out Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Great Lakes Endurance, and the Two Hearted Trail Race.
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