In the Summer of 2015, I had the pleasure of crewing my buddy John for his first 100 mile race. I thought about how dumb it sounded to run 100 miles but some how in that was able to justify that maybe I should attempt “just” a 50 mile race. With the same goal of making sure the race was in a new state, I took to Google in search of what would be my first 50 mile race. After some quick searching I read about this race that sells out within a few weeks and apparently has the best swag around (I mean these people must not have seen a Possum event, just saying) and the registration was just a few days away. So there I was, a full year before the event, I registered for the 2016 North Country Trail 50 miler in Wellston, Michigan.
|Map added manually as Garmin failed to save the run 😦
Race: North Country Trail 50 Miler
Location: Wellston, Michigan
Date: August 20, 2016
Finishing Time: 11:43:14
I used all the training for marathons in 2016, as a base before ramping up after the Playin’ Possum 50k in May. I had to switch gears of the speed goals of the first half of the year and know that the goal is to make it through 50 miles still standing. There were some tough training weeks as I kept putting more and more miles on my feet. I am so thankful for all the support that I got from Team Possum. From encouragement when I wanted to slow down, to people joining me on long runs, there was never a lack of support while I prepared. The icing on the cake was that a few weeks before the race, John offered to join me as a pacer and help Kaela with any “crew” needs during the race.
The week of the race had quickly approached and one of the few things I was hoping wouldn’t end up happening, looked inevitable. Now if you have read some of my other race reports, you know my track weather with great weather for races. This race was going to fit right in line. Checking the 5 day forecast, showed 80% chance of thunderstorms the entire day. I remember just laughing as I told Kaela about the weather, since she was going to have to be stuck in it with me as well (she wasn’t thrilled about that).
Two days before the race, we made the drive up to where we were staying in Cadillac, Michigan. I wanted to have some relaxing time the day before the race so I decided heading up early would make sure not stuck in the car the entire day before the race. Kaela, Bella, and I spent the day before race in Traverse City checking out what Northern Michigan had to offer. We walked around downtown and along the water just enjoying the time, with no real schedule or agenda. It was also Bella’s 7th birthday so we set up her birthday cake in one of the open lawns of a park on the water for her photo session (don’t judge).
After we left Traverse City we made our way to Lake Michigan and drove down the coast before heading to packet pickup at the start area. Up to this point, everything I had experienced about the race was fantastic. My experience wasn’t as golden as the picture I had painted in my mind. When we arrived at the pickup area, we seemed a little confused as there seemed to be little to no guidance. Kaela and I stood for a few moments trying to understand where we should be going to get my bib and items. I saw out of the corner of my eye a gentlemen walking away from table around a bend with what looked to be race items. There didn’t seem to be much organization and flow in their check in process and it started to make me think if other facets of the race were “organized” the same way.
Before heading back to the hotel, Kaela and I drove to all the crew spots that she would be meeting me at the next day just so she could get her bearings on where to go. After making sure we were both on the same page with crew locations we headed back towards our hotel to meet up with John and grab dinner. I had spent the drive back trying to decide on food and quickly found out that apparently pasta with red sauce is not an easy thing to find in Cadillac, Michigan. After me getting pissed off (for no reason other than frustration and nerves) and Kaela making multiple calls to restaurants, I finally got me some basic pasta, while John and Kaela had an amazing meal from Clam Lake Brewing company located in downtown Cadillac. Back at the hotel, we ate dinner, discussed plans for the race, watched some motivational Ginger Runner videos, then laid down to get some sleep.
“Hunny…hunny wake up, I didn’t hear your alarm.” Well that was a different sound than I was used to waking up to for races. My phone was charging on Kaelas side of bed and apparently she missed the first alarm and only caught my “no seriously you need to get up” backup alarm. Lets just say it put a little pep in my step as I had to get ready and out the door a little faster than originally planned. We had a 40 minute drive to the 6:30am start, which allowed me to relax and get mentally prepared for race. I had put in the work and training, other than an injury, I told myself, there was no way I was not leaving Michigan without my 50 mile finish medal.
On the way to the starting line it rained on and off but nothing to crazy. John and I did however notice that a pretty gnarly storm was working its way right towards us but looked like we had a few hours until that would happen. We arrived to the start about 30 minutes before the race start. I had started to set up my vest and get everything ready to walk to starting area, when an announcement was made that the start was going to be delayed 15 minutes as a storm was about to roll in. A few minutes later a pretty good rain band came through the area. We hung out in the car just to stay dry, until the rain passed. Took a quick pee in the woods, grabbed all my stuff and headed to the starting line about 20 minutes after originally planned start.
The race director was going over some last minute instructions and details about the course and markings. Once he finished those details, he decided to let us know that yet again we would be delaying again for 15 minutes for another band of storms that was going to roll in. At this point John and I were wondering what kind of trail race postpones because of some rain (not a Possum event I’ll tell you that!). As we were making our way back to the car (again) we saw some lightening off in the distance, and so did the race director and crew. Add another 30 minutes to the delay!
We sat back down in the car trying to stay relaxed and loose but really I was just ready to run. My caffeine pill was kicking in and it was becoming wasted energy. I decided to start eating as though I was already on the course as at this point any food I had in the morning was no longer going to be supply me energy at the start. We took a look at the radar and noticed it was just light rain for the next 4-5 hours before a strong band of storms made it over Lake Michigan and hit us, but there was no real reason of why we delayed in the first place, other than people not wanting to get wet.
Almost an hour after the scheduled started, we made our way back to the starting line to line up. While I stood in the starting area, I tried to calm my nerves and anxiety about the race. It was a long way and this was not going to be an easy race and then on top of that the delay pushed my nutrition plan out of wack. I took a deep breath and said a quick prayer, that God would help settle my worries of the unknown and help me mentally be focused and in the moment. As I opened my eyes, I felt more of a peace over me. Now I was ready.
“Runners. On your mark. Go…”
The event was comprised of 3 total events with staggered starting times; the 50 miler, the marathon, and the half marathon. The 50 miler and marathon start with a 1 mile lollipop loop before heading into the 25 mile loop that I would be tackling twice. I used this little 1 mile loop to let all the rabbits pass me and for me to get a read on the conditions that I would be in. The rain packed down the sandy trail which made for similar running conditions as I was used to at Delaware State Park, which made me very happy. As I came back around the start, Kaela and John were there to cheer me through it before heading to their first crew point.
We had come up with a plan the day before that Kaela would meet me at a few of the crew points to keep me up with tailwind, gels, and waffles so I didn’t have to carry an entire laps worth in my vest. We used the crew map located on the race website and it showed that I would see her at approximately mile 8, mile 17, and then back at the start of my second loop. So it was going to be a little while before I was seeing them again. Back to the course!
The trails were running pretty smooth with the occasional root that you had to focus on, but overall no real issues with the footing. I came up on a group that was holding a comfortable pace, so I decided to hang with them for a few miles. In miles 2-3, we hit some pretty good size hills. Not necessarily all that steep but pretty long, so we turned to a power hike because no reason to burn out in the first 5k of a 50 miler. By the top of the climb I had out power hiked the group I was with and was already alone in the woods. I cruised through the downhills on the other side of the climb and passed 1 or 2 runners as I made it into the first aid station at just over 4 miles. I was hoping for some real food like PBJ but aid station was pretty bare. I just ended up grabbing some chips and refilling my water before making my way back on the course. I had been on a plan to eat a gel/waffle every 30 minutes but after a couple I decided to move back to 45 minutes as my stomach started to not enjoy it.
Leaving the aid station, I caught up to a couple of other runners and we took down the trail together. About a mile after the aid, we saw a group of 4-5 guys running towards us saying they lost sight of the pink flags that indicated the correct trail for us, and only saw yellow flags which for the half marathon. We stood and talked about the directions we had come and to think of any possible turns we had missed. Luckily there was a trail map posted and myself and another guy pointed out that the course ran the outside trail which we were on and in the direction they were heading originally. They were cautious and decided to head back towards aid and re-track steps to make sure didn’t miss, but my little group was confident and we just pressed on waiting to see more pink flags. Just over a 1/2 mile later, the pink flags started back up and the worry of being lost was gone!
At this point I started doing some math in my head (which is never a good idea when running) and realized that there was no way I was going to see Kaela and John around mile 8 because I was already 6 miles in there was yet another aid station before I got to their location. I was planning on having a bottle of tailwind per hour and was stretching it to get the 8 miles between seeing them, and now it was definitely going to be longer. I arrived at aid station 2 to find, yet again, no real food of any substance. Just had fruit, candy, and chips. I started to overthink and worry about nutrition since the crew location was further than originally depicted and the aid stations were not giving me the real food I was needing between the gels schedule. This overthinking lead me to slowing down my pace and losing the group I was pacing with.
Pushing through a little mental fatigue (way too early) I made it to aid station 3 and to see my crew. I explained that this was much further than expected and we need to be prepared for it on the second loop to make sure I have enough food on me. They refilled my bottles and gave me some more gels/waffles to carry. I also got a nice message from my brother-in-law and his family as they made a little sign wishing me good luck. It was definitely a nice “pick me up” from the previous thoughts I was having. After the aid station, I made my way up to the steepest climb of the race. By the time I had gotten to the top, I felt like any energy I had gained at the aid station was depleted. I was able to cruise the long downhills and pushed through on the flats and uphills.
Before I realized it, I had made it to the next aid station and was really looking forward to some real food as my stomach had enough of the gels. However, once again there was nothing of substance available. Don’t get me wrong, the fruit was delicious, but I needed something filling like a PB&J, grilled cheese, or even just some warm soup. The race director had sent out emails a few weeks prior saying these items would be available but I hadn’t seen them. I got a little pissy about the lack of food and just blew through aid station quickly hoping that I would have better luck at the next where I would again see my crew.
The next few miles started to play some mind games with me. After a climb from the aid station, I hit a flat section that seemed to be never ending. I could just see straight ahead for what seemed to be miles. The woods were so dense that it felt like you were in the middle of nowhere and that I was not going to ever make it out. Once I finally did make it out, the straight and narrow changed quickly to rolling hills and curves! Luckily there seemed to be more downhill than up, but it really started to do a number on my quads. Around mile 16 my slow pace turned to a walk. Walking that early in a 50 mile race was not a part of the plan for the day. Mentally, I started to go to a dark place and could not snap out of the funk. And to make matters even better, the weather decided to peak its head again and start pouring. It felt like the rain Forrest Gump talked about where it was coming up from below me.
Finally started to hear some cheers through the trees and realized that I had made it to the next aid station. As I came in, I remember telling my crew that sub 11 hour goal was far gone and now the goal was just to finish. They could tell that I was not all there and in poor spirits. They gave me some encouragement and told me to push through and make it to the start/finish area where they would have a change of clothes for me and we could re-access the goals at that point. Seemed simple enough since I was only 7 miles from the start/finish, but those miles did not come easy.
I ran when I felt like I was able to, but most of it seemed like a crawl. I kept focusing on my watch, which caused me to get frustrated with the amount of time I was losing. I started to think that maybe I would just drop down to the marathon distance as it would still cover my state goal and just mark it off the list. That thought only lasted a quick moment as a spark came over me and I said to myself “I didn’t come to Michigan for marathon, I came here for 50 miles.” That jolt of energy pushed me through the final 5k of the first loop, cruising through the final two aid stations before making my way to the starting area.
As I came into the start area, Kaela and John had made some friends that were allowing me to change clothes next to their tent. The rain had not let up at all so we decided that I would just change shirt and socks, instead a full off change. I tried to get changed quickly, load up gear and get out as soon as I could not to waste any precious time. I gave Kaela and Bella a kiss and started back on the course with John for the second loop.
John was a big encouragement as we started off letting me know that I was still doing great especially with the circumstances with late start and weather. He also brought up to me that it was clear that I was very far behind on nutrition and that he was going to be controlling my eating for the remainder of the race. We started off at a decent pace cruising through the first few miles up to the first climb around mile 28. This is where things started to fall apart again. My legs did not want to keep moving and it was taking everything I had just to put one foot in front of the other. It was even more aggravating knowing that I had trained so hard and it looked like I had just sat on the couch for the last 6 months.
John stayed in front of me most of time, telling me when I should start running. I would listen to him as long as I could then go back to my slow walk. As we approached the first aid station, he recommended, some coke just to get some caffeine in my system and to help settle my stomach. I hadn’t had a dark soda in almost 11 years and wasn’t sure if that was the best option but in my state of mind, whatever John handed me I just took (probably not the safest option). We made our way through some runnable sections that I pushed through the best I could. By the next aid station, John really started to annoy me with his “coaching”. I knew he meant well and was looking out for me, but with the hurt locker I was in, I wanted nothing to do with what he was saying. He kept pushing me to run any flat section we came to as we were losing lots of time with my “mopping around”. One encouraging thing was that after any bit of running that I started myself he was say that was a great section and try to keep my spirits up.
With my legs getting super heavy and my body feeling weak, I asked John if I would have time to sit for a couple minutes at the next aid station to help me regroup mentally. He knew we were just over a mile from the aid station where I would also be able to see Kaela and said that if I ran into the aid station that he would “think about” letting me sit down. It felt like it took everything I had left in the tank to make it to that aid station. When I arrived all the volunteers had this look on their face that confirmed I looked like crap and they didn’t know how to handle that.
But then there she was. Kaela had a chair set up for me to take a seat and also some food ready for me to eat. All of a sudden my spirits were lifted and my attitude was a little bit better. After listening to John for the last 2+ hours, it was great to see Kaela and hear her words of encouragement and how she believed in me to get this done as I only have 15 miles left. I knocked back a caffeine pill and ate some grilled cheese and fruit. I asked Kaela if she could head to the next aid station instead of skipping one, just in case I needed a similar type of stop. I gathered my vest and bottles and took off up the trail as John stayed back to grab some additional food for me. John caught back up to me just before that steep climb. Even in the pain I was in, it felt like I tackled that climb better than I did on the first lap. As we approached the top of the climb, I let John know that the next section was rolling and that I would take the lead and push as long and as often as I could. I felt like I was moving pretty well through the rolling downhills and having a decent power hike pace on any inclines.
Now this is about the point where John got to enjoy running in the crazy weather. It was raining just as hard as it was in the first lap, but this time it was not ending. We started comparing the weather to possum events and talked about how this is our type of weather and my body seemed to agree. It clicked in my mind about running back home in horrible conditions and my body just kept on moving. My walking pace started in increase, and even better is that I was actually running more than I was walking. Seeing Kaela turned my mood around and for some crazy reason that horrible weather was the icing on the cake. Before I knew it, we were at the next aid station that was 4 miles away. I didn’t spend much time there, just grabbed a quick bite, refilled water, and kept on moving. I apologized to Kaela for having her show up there because I didn’t end up needing her. I later found out that she had also been caught by the horrible weather and ended up soaked while setting up my chair and supplies waiting for me to arrive (sorry babe!)
After this aid, we made a short climb and made it to the super flat and long section of the course. The soaked trails made for some hop in my step and fun “playing in the rain.” We saw a runner off the in distance and I made this little game of calling them possum bait. I keep my head down at the trail watching my steps while John trekked behind me. I went as long as I felt I could before taking another walk break. John said that I went for just over 2 miles without stopping which was the furthest single stretch I had gone since the first lap. We made our way to the area that was my darkest in the first lap and all of a sudden it didn’t seem so bad. The hills didn’t seem as long, and the distance to next aid station felt like it was a few miles shorter. As we made our way through that inner section of trail, we passed some more possum bait before making it to the next aid station, the last one that I would see Kaela only 7 miles from the finish.
|The “floating” aid station aka underwater
It much better spirits, I refilled all my bottles, grabbed some food, and made my way back on the trail trying to not spend to much time waiting around. John stayed back to grab some additional food for me, saying he would just catch up to me. Coming out of that aid station, however, I just took off. I felt strong and was going to keep cruising for as long as I could. It took John a little while to catch up to me because I ended up covering a good amount of ground while he was at the aid station. Funny moment was when John finally did catch back up to me, he had brought back some ramen and grilled cheese. I took a sip of the ramen and something tasted a bit off. I rinsed out my mouth with some water and then took another sip and had to spit it out and just dumped out the entire cup. John started to snicker a little bit and I knew he was up to something. He told me he had put another caffeine pill in the ramen to give me another “burst” of energy.
The next few miles we just cruised on by more and more possum bait. Every time I saw a runner in the distance, I’d call them out and power through until we passed them. In that last stretch of 13 miles, I did not allow a single runner pass me. In the last few miles I started to feel some blisters forming and the bottom of my feet really started to hurt, but I just tried to ignore the best I could by starting some conversations with John. As we hit the final stretch, I had a plan of walking from the final aid station, up to the top of the last hill and then running all the way down to the finish. Approaching the aid station, John yelled out asking the volunteers how long it was until the finish. “Just over a mile…” John instantly got on me and said that I was not walking any of it and to move my ass.
Pushing up the final hill and the cruising the steep decent, I gave all I have while my feet were on fire. With each step I could hear the music getting louder and louder, we had made it. Through a clearing in the trees, I could see and hear Kaela cheering me into the finish line. I went into what felt like a full out sprint through the finishers chute before crossing the final step of the race.
They placed the giant medal that almost seemed to topple me over around my neck as I crossed the finish. Kaela quickly came to me giving me a hug and kiss before actually realizing how bad I had smelled. John walked over and grabbed a seat and I made my way to massage table to try and loosen up my quads a bit. We met back at the car, where I kept giving thanks to Kaela and John for not letting me give up and pushing me to the finish. John and I got changed and then we headed back to Cadillac for a well deserved meal at Clam Lake Brewing Company. Since we had Bella, we had to sit outside in a little bit colder weather but it was nice to have the fresh air and also just be in the company of the two main reasons I had just finished 50 miles.
There is just so much that took place to get me to this point that its hard for me to try and summarize it all quickly. I first learned that Cadillac, Michigan is literally in the middle of nowhere (lol).The race, IMO, was not well prepared for the nutritional needs for those doing the 50 miler race. That being said the volunteers were amazing and accommodating in every way. I learned a lot about how to overcome mental and physical fatigue and to dig deep to pull out all that I have to finish the task at hand. I learned how important nutrition is and how it can make or break you in a race. Most importantly, I learned that with an amazing support team, you can accomplish anything! It was an amazing experience completing 50 miles and I hope to be able to have the opportunity to do it a few more states along this journey.
Thank you so much for getting through this very long post. John was capturing the day with my GoPro and that video is on my YouTube channel (link below) so make sure to check it out to get a better view of what it was like on the trail. There is only one more race scheduled for this year, so I will see you in Chicago!