North Country Trail Marathon in Michigan was my 26th marathon. It was supposed to be just for fun, just my husband and me on a little trail racing adventure. I left marathons and all serious racing in 2013, as I was aiming for the Olympic Trials. Unlike my build-up for #25, I did not have a big mileage base, wanted to ride bikes more than run, and my idea of fast was very different as I prepared for marathon #26. Still, my competitiveness wasn’t completely gone; I wanted to race, whatever that meant that day.
My husband nailed every workout on our FIRST training plan, but I was not as successful. I struggled with fatigue or lack of motivation in the middle of the training cycle and bagged several workouts in favor of doing more hills or going by effort with no watch. Cross training also slipped towards the end, but I went into race weekend relatively optimistic because by the last few weeks of training running seemed more natural. During race week I was pleased to feel that familiar prepared feeling I used to get before a marathon; the feeling that I’m fully rested and holding myself back from doing all the things you’re not supposed to do because of your upcoming marathon.
The North Country Trail Marathon is run on the North Country Trail in Manistee, Michigan. It’s a beautiful old sand dune area overgrown by pines and ferns. The trail has a few roots but, for the most part, is a friendly single-track mountain bike trail. I ran this race back in 2007 and 2008 when it was still a relatively small event with just a marathon and a 50-miler. Now the race has added a half-marathon and it sells out a full year in advance. The volunteers are great, the trail can’t be beat, and the food after is even mostly vegan-friendly. I can see why they sell out, but I miss the small race vibe this race used to have.
My race plan was to run by feel with a goal of four hours if the legs and hills allowed. My inner competitor made an appearance early and I went out moderately aggressively in the first few miles; tucking in behind two men running around 8-minute pace. I was fine with that, figuring I’d settle in and that this would give me a good position on the single track trails where I would not have to work to pass any groups.
My husband, on the other hand, wasn’t as calculating about his race start. I watched as he bolted ahead, but was relieved that he didn’t race away with the leaders and instead ran at a smart pace.
I followed the two gentleman in front of me and wondered if I was running too hard through the first aid station. I filled up my water bottle and got startled by another woman who pulled in right behind me. Then I realized I was actually racing. We left the first aid station with her right on my heels. I called back for her to holler if she wanted to pass, but she didn’t hear me over her headphones and seemed content to follow my lead.
Our pace seemed to be faltering a little, which was mostly due to some climbing before the second aid station, but it got me worried about breaking four hours and I decided at the second aid station to blow through and set my own pace. I upped the effort and thought to myself it was pretty early in a marathon to feel so uncomfortable, but I just ran with the fear of getting caught.
I raced through the woods all alone at an awfully uncomfortable pace. My parents made the trek out to root for me at each aid station. I think their support was instrumental to me continuing to hold off second-place. But not by much! After each aid station I listened for cheering, or glanced back when I hit a dose of switchbacks. She was too close for comfort!
Eventually the full marathon catches back up to the half-marathon loop and I finally had company, albeit the kind I had to pass with many friendly “on your lefts.” It was nice to see people regardless. Unfortunately one of those people ended up being my husband with around four miles to go. My legs were rebelling, but his had waved the white flag. He fell victim to poor nutrition, the hills, and maybe that too-fast start. I was bummed to pass him, but he urged me on without him and promised to give a holler if the gal in second caught him.
This is the point in the marathon where experience is key; my 25 previous marathons and several ultras left me with the right nutrition plan and no doubt about what my legs could handle and just how much suffering I could withstand. The husband, on the other hand, has only run a few marathons and the nutrition wasn’t dialed in. He struck out, as many do, at the marathon.
I soldiered on, listening intently for his warning cry that never came, and as I trudged up the last long out-and-back hill before a final half-mile loop I realized, barring disaster, that my 26th marathon would be my first win. Turns out running paranoid works for me, too, as the second-place woman finished over ten minutes behind me; I could have just shuffled it in with my husband and still snagged the win. While there was no tape, and it was certainly not my most trained-for event, I did run it with all my heart and think back on the event fondly. Just goes to show, you never know when it will be “your” day.
I should mention this race was over a year ago (I’ve been busy, what can I say?) but the pride and memory are fresh in my heart and I still wanted to share that day with you.