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my journey down the trail

About 15 weeks ago, I began trail running. Trail running is like road running but it begins where the pavement ends. It has taken me to hidden trail loops in local forest preserves, to vast networks of rough-and-tumble mountain bike trails, deep into the tall pines of the north woods, along the remote and isolated beaches of Lake Superior, and eventually to places of the spirit that I’ve yet to only glimpse.

Yesterday, I completed my first official endurance run (some call it a race) when I ran the Grand Island Half Marathon in the Hiawatha National Forest. Grand Island is in Lake Superior in Michigan’s upper peninsula just off the shore from Munising. It’s a beautiful 49 square mile (31,000+ acre) national Bound to Finish Heading to the finish line and feeling really strong. Heading to the finish…preserve, heavily forested and flanked by 300-foot tall sandstone cliffs. It’s breathtaking and remote. The course offered two-track forest roads, single-track trails, beach running, some technical climbs, cliff-side views, and a fast descent to the finish line.

Having trained for weeks leading up to this event, I knew my body was ready, but I was still nervous. I was worried about the unknowns of the course and about how I would be affected psychologically by the race itself for all of my running leading up to this day, I had run alone. I wasn’t sure what my mind would do in a field of 300 or so. I wanted to be sure to run my race. My goals were simple–to finish, not to get hurt, and to have fun. I didn’t want to get caught up in what others were doing–to have competition get the better of me. This was about my run. (To be honest, though, I just didn’t want to be the runner one step in front of the sweeper bike at the end of the pack. And while I worked hard to put it out of my mind, I did have a very conservative time goal/expectation for myself–but this was not my focus.)

Maybe the hardest challenge of the day was getting up at 5am (4am for me, still on Central time) and getting my butt going in the cold predawn hours. Really, it wasn’t that bad–as the adrenaline was already flowing. In retrospect, we probably got going a bit earlier than we had too, as the “halfers” didn’t start until 8am, but I was nervous and didn’t want to miss the bus or ferry. It was good to get there a little early, to get a feel for the people and how things were organized. We were on the island by around 6:45am, and got to see the marathoners take off.

We milled around, I picked up my timing chip, and Chris snapped some photos. (I feel bad that she wasn’t in any of them.) By the time 8am rolled around, I was more than ready to run. The course was beautiful and pleasant. I can say I enjoyed every part of it and didn’t have any especially tough moments. (This, of course, probably means I didn’t run hard enough, but that’s okay as my goal was just to finish and have fun–at least for this first time out.)

The people were great on the trail. I observed runners helping one another out, encouraging one another, and just being good friends to one another–even if they just met. I loved this aspect–the camaraderie on the trail. I ran with a few folks along the way and enjoyed some conversation, but no one took offense when it was time to focus on the trail ahead in silence.

In training, I used Jeff Galloway’s walk-run method, which served me very well. My plan was to continue this method during the race itself, which Galloway stresses as essential. I found it hard to walk early on, though, being tight in the pack during the first few miles. Once things thinned out a bit, I took a few walk breaks–forced myself to–as I feared what the second half would be like if I didn’t. I skipped many of my walk intervals, though, shortened the others to about 30 seconds or less, or shuffled instead of walked. I think this more aggressive approach to the race helped with my time in the end, which was better than any training run I had previously at that distance.

All in all, I felt prepared for the terrain. I had trained on everything the course threw at me–hills, single and wide track trails, a bit of technical work, even beach running. I think I did very well on the beach, in fact, where many runners fell back. That five mile beach run I had a few weeks earlier helped considerably, I think, to get me ready for the mile of beach I faced on this course.

Heading into the last three miles, I began to think I kept too much in the tank for this run. I picked it up a bit and pushed hard across the finish line. Hearing people cheer the runners on made a difference. I had heard that it would but didn’t appreciate fully how much it helped until I experienced it first hand. One of the volunteers along the route was clapping and telling us we had already won and that we were good role models for others. In the moments of an endurance challenge, these words make a difference. I truly appreciated every kind word that was said to me along the way.

By far, my biggest source of strength came from Chris and Aidan who supported me every day leading up to the race. They gave up many of their Saturdays to be my trail crew on my long runs–meeting me at checkpoints to refill my water bottle and cheering me as I finished. I attribute much of my strength on the actual race day to Chris’ work in helping me “carbo load” with some delicious pasta dishes during the days leading up to the event. I had the needed glycogen stores that kept my legs feeling strong throughout the distance.

As for my first “big race,” the Grand Island Half was a blast. I met all of my goals–finished, had fun, and didn’t get hurt–plus I beat my secret time goal by more than 30 minutes. I couldn’t ask for more.

Next up, a full marathon. I only hope the experience is just as positive.

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