It’s about time I put pen to paper and wrote this report, while I still have the memories in my head. This is the third year that I’ve signed up for the Marquette 50K. The previous two times that I’ve registered, I’ve ended up not running it. Either I wasn’t in shape for it, or scheduling conflicts got in the way. The tough thing about registering for this race is that you need to commit on Black Friday the year before the race. They open up a sale that day, and on most years it completely sells out. They do keep a waitlist, but I think they need to do a better job of publicizing that, because according to the results over 100 people of the 350+ registered for the 50K, didn’t start the race.
As appears to be the custom for my races out of town, my friend Mike B. and I traveled together. However, unlike Marquette, this was a guy’s weekend, as Lisa was staying home for a relaxing time on her own. I got up very early on Friday to get in a 2 mile shakeout run before cleaning up and waiting for Mike to show up in his minivan. I opt’d not to bring my trailer for this one, and just share a giant tent that Mike has. He also brought along a couple of cots so neither of us had to sleep on the ground.
The drive to Marquette is around 7 hours, mostly through rural northern Wisconsin. As we got over the boarder into the upper peninsula of Michigan, we ran into a serious amount of rain. This ended up slowing us down a lot, but we were comforted by the fact that this storm was going to mostly miss the Marquette area. It’s never fun to set up a tent in the rain, so we wanted to do whatever we could to get to the campsite ASAP and get things buttoned up before any rain started to fall. Our timing was great and we were set up and ready to head to dinner before any serious moisture hit. Our friend Greg pulled up into the campsite next to us, and the three of us headed into town to meet up with Lynnea and Heather for food.
We had a nice dinner at the Iron Bay restaurant, along with a couple drinks. However, we all realized that our wake up call was 3:45am, and we needed to hit the sack. Gratefully, the campground was mostly quiet that evening and I was able to get a fitful 5 hours of sleep. Too soon though it was time to get up and start getting ready.
Because I had just done a 100K two weeks before, I had no intentions of racing this 50K. There is a generous 12 hour cutoff for the 50K, and I knew that I could completely hike it and still have time to spare. We arrived at the start, and started getting ourselves ready. Mike was running the 50 mile version of the race, which is the opposite in terms of cutoffs. He would need to push hard to make the initial 50K cutoff in 8.5 hours, and then turn around and hit a solid final 20 miles to get in before the 15 hour total limit.
Starting a race in the dark (5:30am) gives you the advantage of seeing the sun rise. This is an incredible mental boost when running, and getting to experience it in the first ten miles of the race really makes the time fly. Those miles before the sunrise feel like a different race, contributing a small bit of mental trickery to help you cope with the notion of being on course for many, many hours.
The race course is divided into a 10 mile loop to the south, that everyone starts on. Then you return to the start/finish area and head out on a 20 mile loop to the north. The 50 milers come back to start/finish a second time and head out on a second 20 mile loop, but this time they do it the opposite direction. I really liked having the clear demarcation between the first 10 and then the 20. It created a nice breaking point where I could adjust strategy and approach the second 2/3 of the race with a different view.
In fact, that had been my plan all along. I would go out strong on the first 10 miles, and then just hike the 20 as a tourist. I figured that would be all that my legs would be good for. Despite being the easier section, I wasn’t able to run quite as hard as I wanted to on the first 10, due to a couple of very technical sections that required slowing down. This was complicated by some bottlenecks of people who were still bunched up. None of the climbs in this first 10 miles were that bad, but there were enough sections of rocks and roots that I wasn’t able to go flat out. I managed to finish the first 10 in under 3 hours, and was feeling really good. I was well on track for a potential 10 hour finish.
I got back to the start/finish aid station and found my drop bag. My plan was to grab my hiking poles and use those for the next 20 mile section. I was feeling pretty good though, so I just attached them to my vest and headed back out on course (after fueling up). As I left, I got to run a bit with Wayne Nelson, who’s a bit of a legend in the Minnesota ultra and trail scene. It was fun to meet another Minnesotan on course, and we shared a mile or so before he managed to leave me behind. Despite feeling good, I knew I shouldn’t push it too hard. There were still a LOT of miles to go.
The first big climb of the race is actually not one of the “four peaks” that are advertised. The Sugarcube mountain (as I came to find out) is right before the Sugarloaf aid station. It’s a rocky peak that requires a bit of scrambling to find your way up. It’s not terribly tall though, and when I got to the top I was treated to a semi-decent view, in light of what I was about to experience. I knew that I wasn’t supposed to hit the first of the four peaks until after the next aid station, so I didn’t spend much time on this “little” mountain.
I came into the Sugarloaf aid station and realized I needed to empty my shoes of rocks. They didn’t have any chairs for runners, but I managed to find a nice rock to sit on. I got my shoes emptied, and my stomach full of food and headed back out for what I was told would be a long stair climb to the top of Sugarloaf. Sure enough in less than a mile I came upon the first of the wooden staircases that would bring me to the top. I actually don’t mind stairs, and many times prefer them to climbing up rocks. They just take a certain mindset and understanding, and once you get your mind away from the monotony of them, they’re actually quite easy.
I crested the peak of Sugarloaf (along with a boatload of tourists) and was treated to what would become my absolute favorite view of the race. The view from on top of this mountain is spectacular. You’re near the shoreline, and so on one side you have the expanse of Lake Superior. On the other side is the rolling hills of the U.P. I spent a bit too much time up here taking photos, and savoring the view, but soon enough I knew I had to start the decent down.
The path down the other side wasn’t nearly as nice as the stairs going up, but it wasn’t terrible. I also knew that after Sugarloaf I would be treated to 5-6 miles of relatively flat terrain along Lake Superior. I was starting to physically tire, so despite being on very runnable terrain, I had a tough time actually moving quickly. Instead I enjoyed the beautiful scenery, and at one point I headed down to the shore and dipped my hat in the water. The water was still cool enough that it was incredibly refreshing on my head.
It was in this area that I started to realize that I might need to poop. I didn’t remember seeing a bathroom at the last aid station, and I started to worry that none of the aid stations had porta-potties. I hadn’t packed any toilet paper, and even if I had, the area I was in seemed like a very developed park. I didn’t want to risk getting caught by day use visitors with my pants down off the side of the trail. After a couple of miles I spotted my salvation. A parking lot was about 100 yards off to my left, and there was a vault toilet there. I ran over and as I approached the door a lady jumped out of her car and ran to the door of the bathroom and started knocking, and telling her young daughter to hurry up, because a runner needed to use the toilet!
The young lady left the toilet and I did my business, and sure enough that made everything feel a lot better. As I hit the trail I started feeling my legs under me again, and I broke into a jog. I was feeling great, and decided that my plan for the mile 21 aid station would be to change my socks and enter the final 10 miles with a good head of steam.
I did make a crucial mistake though at that aid station. In addition to changing my socks I also needed to refill my water, and make more Skratch electrolyte drink. In my ultra-brain I started doing everything myself. Instead, I should have been relying on the volunteers to fill my bottles while I dealt with my socks. I wasted WAY too much time futzing with packages of powder and bladder closures. It’s a good lesson for next time… let people help!
I headed out on the next section and came on the second “peak” of the four. Called Bareback, this mountain was mostly a long slow climb up granite boulders, with little to mark the trail except for some ribbons hanging from trees. On more than one occasion I had to take a moment and look around hard, to see where I was supposed to go. It was on this peak that I pulled out my poles. Yet, by the time I got to the top I decided that they weren’t actually helping, and that they were slowing me down. So, I put them away and never used them the rest of the race. Another interesting lesson learned.
Coming down the hill I managed to get in some running again. I had been leapfrogging some folks (who I think were from Illinois) and with my new found energy, I was able to finally pass them for good and get in some solid miles of jogging. It was only 4 miles to the next station, and I was feeling really good. The miles were clicking away, and my legs were holding up way better than I expected. I came into the final aid station raring to go, and so I didn’t take a lot of time. I ate a bunch of food, and downed a lot of pop before making my way up the third of the notorious peaks… Top of the World.
Despite the ominous name, this climb was absolutely most enjoyable of the entire race. It was a LONG climb to the top, but the trail was nicely buffed out and there was nothing technical about the ascent. These are the kinds of climbs that I can really rock, and before I knew it I was on… top of the world. Because of all the intersecting paths, there was a timing mat on top of the mountain. I crossed over it, took a couple of photos of the amazing view, and started the, equally, buffed out descent.
The fact that the 3rd hill was so mild put me in a tremendously good mood. I looked at my watch and started doing some math. I realized that a sub-10 hour finish would be easy at this rate, and I might even be able to get close to 9:15-9:20. But then I encountered… Hogsback.
I’ve climbed a lot of Lake Superior mountains, from Moose Mountain, Carlton Peak, and Mystery Mountain. None of them compare to Hogsback. As I was running along I looked to my left, and there was a couple of people slowly making their way up a steep and technical ascent. I steeled myself for what was to come and tried to climb as best I could. Part way up the hill I came across Heather, who was having a rough time on this mountain. I gave her some words of encouragement (I think… I may have just complained about his mountain needing to eat a bag of d**ks), and then passed her by.
The final section to the ascent goes from a marked path, to a sheer granite rock scramble. The next thing I knew I was on my hands and knees, trying to find anything I could grab on to, to get me to the top. It felt like it took forever, and the entire way my mood soured. By the time I got to the top, I didn’t even care that the view was the most spectacular of the entire course. I didn’t care that I could see forever, and that I only had 2.5 miles to go. Hogsback had broken me.
After spending a few minutes being way too grumpy to the awesome volunteer on top of the mountain (sorry!) I went to head back down. The volunteer directed me where to go and as I looked over the edge I realized that there was no path. Just a steep granite rock face that you slide down on your ass. I muttered more curse words under my breath, and began to crab walk down this rock face, praying that I didn’t rip my nice PATH Project shorts.
Once I got down the rock face I came across Mike, who was making his way up the mountain on his second time around for the 50 mile race. He was hurting bad, and I was in a bad mood, but I tried really hard to be encouraging. I knew that he had a really easy stretch if he could just make it over this damn mountain, and I told him so. We parted ways and I began the slog back to the finish line.
At this point my left knee was feeling twingy from the climb (I might have banged it on the rock), and I was still grumpy. I looked at my watch and realized 9:15 wasn’t going to happen. My mood did lighten as all of the 50 milers passed me, and I was able to give them some encouragement, and cheer them on. They had a tremendously hard day, with a race that has very difficult cutoffs. It made me pause and remember that I had the easy task.
Soon enough I was down the mountain and on the final stretch to the finish. The last mile of deer trail took forever. I was ready to be done, and I swear I could hear the finish line music from miles away. At one point I came across the campground and I knew that was the final quarter mile. Soon the fence appeared that would guide me to the finish. I ran as best I could and crossed the line in 9:38. Not my best time for a 50K, but a marked improvement over my 10 hour estimated finish.
I headed to the finish aid station and grabbed some food before joining a bunch of the other Minnesota folks who were reminiscing about the day. We all hung around for a while before I decided to head out and wipe down before changing clothes. I knew I had quite a few hours before Mike would finish so I took the opportunity to hit a local brewery in town, Blackrocks.
I ordered up a flight of beer, and as I started sampling, my friends Carrie and Rob came in. We all got a table together and started chatting about the day. Greg, Jake, and another guy who’s name escapes me, joined us, and before long we had filled one of their picnic tables with runners. At one point in the evening I checked the live tracking and realized that Mike would be finishing soon, so it was time to head back.
I grabbed the camp chairs from the van and went to watch Mike finish. Greg went to get pizza with Heather, so it would be ready at the campground when he was done. Soon enough Mike came across the line, beaten up, but successful. Some of his first words to me were, “Never let me do this again.” Marquette 50 Mile is a beast, but Mike finally had redemption on his DNF from many years ago.
After a quick recuperation we headed back to camp and enjoyed some quiet time with pizza, beer, and friends. Sleep was sounding better and better though, so we soon hit the showers and then called it a night. We had a long 7 hour drive home the next day, and a good night sleep would mean the difference between an easy ride, and suffering. Despite some neighbors deciding to play their guitar late into the evening, sleep took me quickly.
The next morning we packed up, and then all met up at Cafe Bodega for breakfast. I thought I was hungry for biscuits and gravy, but really, I should have just gotten the eggs and bacon. Soon enough though it was time to leave, and we began the journey home. Google routed us around some storms, and before we knew it, we were on I-94 into the Twin Cities. All in all, a nice easy ending to an amazing weekend.
Marquette was a very different race than Badger, but equally as challenging. It made me work in a very different way, and having the two back-to-back, made for a wild couple of weeks. I’m not sure if I’ll be ready to tackle the hills of Marquette right away again next year, but I can certainly see myself returning someday. It’s a beautiful race in a wonderful town. The atmosphere is pure trail running, and I felt like I was among family. I’m grateful to the folks who put this race on, and would recommend this to anyone looking for awesome views and technical terrain. You won’t be disappointed.