Back in February an email entered my inbox from Nick Liversedge (Midwest MHW Rep) via Mountain Hardwear that was requesting an athlete to come to Grand Rapids, Michigan in June for a little three-day race and to do a talk at the local running store. I looked at my calendar, thought a little while about a race in Michigan and didn’t have anything booked yet so I said sure. With that short exchange I found myself in Grand Rapids Michigan this past weekend answering questions such as “Why’d you come to this race?” The simple answer is because someone asked and I always take requests like that seriously and with a bit of flattery that they would actually want me to come to their race. Also of course, I’ve never been to Michigan and it would be a good opportunity to see another part of the US I hadn’t been to, meet a new corner of the trail running world, and low key local trail races always have a cool vibe that I miss just going to big competitive races sometimes.
Mostly, that’s not due to a different feel at the more competitive races but just because of me. I’m competitive and a highly competitive race changes the feel around it for me. Not to say I didn’t want to win and put in some good hard work this weekend but the expectations aren’t there in my mind and I’m free to relax a bit and not stress over whether I’ll be able to perform up to my perceived potential. In the three days of racing I put in a good hard 10k on Friday night, a moderate but harder than normal 26.2 miles on Saturday, then after two course records I figured going for a third in the Half on Sunday would be another good challenge as long as my legs came around.
But that’s not what’s important, who cares about that, it’s certainly not going to be on irunfar.com tomorrow. The locals that I was hanging out with don’t care (I don’t think), they only care whether as a professional athlete coming into their town I was a jerk or not, if I take myself too seriously, and what I do for granted. Well, I don’t think I gave them that impression; at least what I was told to my face was the opposite. For me these trips like this get back to the heart of why I started trail racing and gave up a lot of the roads and track. Why I feel more at home with a crowd that sits around on the grass after the race is over, drinks beer, and camps out in a field the night before instead of needing a hotel room. I was fortunate enough to make some new friends this weekend. Most I’ll never see again but if I do, we’ve got something in common already.
I love doing stuff like this. On my flight out to GR, I sat next to a pro mountain biker on his way to race and I mentioned how it’s going to be a fun weekend because I have three days of racing, camping and hanging out with trail runners. Then he says to me, “yeah, I hate hanging out with mtn bikers. I liked it for the first 10 years I was doing this. “If I ever get that kind of attitude, please, force me to retire. I know most mtn bikers are cut from the same cloth as trail runners, so I know they’re just as much fun to hang with.
I really hate to write this blog post because I feel like I’m just going to make a lot of people jealous with the weekend that I had so I’ll spare you most of the details aside from a few gastronomic details that were quite spectacular experiences.
The people of GR love trail running and they have a great community with support from Gazelle Sports, so needless to say I had a full weekend on tap. I was picked up at the airport by Byron Pittam (my excellent “handler” and MHW sports marketing guru (vote for Byron for MHW head sports marketing guy in 2013)), went for a short run from the luxurious Riverfront Hotel before being whisked away to Gazelle Sports for a talk they scheduled that evening. Gazelle has played host to numerous other pro trail runners and is a primary reason that trail running is flourishing in West Michigan. It went pretty well and I feel like I’m getting the whole speaking thing down a bit better, though the poster signing still feels weird for me.
Then we went to Stella’s. where we met up with some guys from Gazelle Sports that I also happened to meet last year at Transrockies, small world. Oh baby, that was a good burger. This was like heaven. 200+ whiskeys where the soup of the day was…whiskey. Really, whiskey. The burger was voted best in America and I, after a not that extensive search, tend to agree with them. Cool place. Great food.
Friday we ran some local trails before heading down to where the race started later that evening at Yankee Springs. Our morning run was at the local ski hill. Michigan Mountains. Huge. At least 250ft tall. I was a little intimidated coming from the west coast so I didn’t even attempt to summit that day but formidable as it was, Byron was able to make it to the top and only needed 3 donuts and some apple cider afterward before becoming coherent again.
Oh oh, this is awesome: To my amazement, GR was able to out do Portland. If you’ve seen Portlandia then you’ll know what I’m talking about. First, me, Joe (local dude) and Byron stopped at a local coffee shop straight out of Portland (ok, could be anywhere, but wait, gets better), then we head to lunch at Trillium Haven, a true farm to table restaurant owned by one of the Gazelle Sports owners. We get in and the waitress starts to tell us about the restaurant, how it’s farm to table, local ingredients, yada yada. Then not only does she know where the chicken and turkey comes from but she actually raised them, kills them herself (we even know how after the conversation turned a bit more gruesome), and brings them to the restaurant. BOOM, take that Portland. You got nothin on the Midwest. She was actually pretty hilarious about the whole thing. Great food though and really cool that stuff like that is catching on in other parts of the country.
The races all started around a boy scout like camping cabins at Yankee Springs Rec Area. It was a cool setup with rustic bunk house style cabins and a central kitchen/dining area that would be a great spot for a high school running camp or trail running camp. The surrounding forests are lush rolling hills winding with smooth single track trails that take you on a dizzying tour of the woods where you quickly lose orientation, have no idea which direction is which, and find yourself just wondering if you’re actually getting anywhere or just spinning your wheels through the forest when it all begins to look exactly the same. With several turtles hanging out on the trails you also began to wonder if you were just seeing things too.
The next morning, Saturday, was the marathon. After too little sleep and a 10k that I probably pushed too hard on after having a ton of fun flying on the banked corners of the course, the marathon felt a little harder than it probably should have. After the first loop of the 2 lap course felt like I’d been out there for several hours I came through and found out Byron decided to sleep though it. The prima donna athlete that I am I immediately had a fit like a 3 ½ yr old (trust me, I know what one looks like) and fired my “handler” on the spot. He later made it up to me by making me breakfast so I re-hired him.
The rest of the day, after I finished of course, we hung out on the grass with a beer, nice weather, and good people to watch as the 52 milers came through the finish area on each of their 4 laps of the course. After having to do 2 laps I couldn’t imagine having to head back out for two more but there were some real troopers out there. And I found possibly the most ingenious product on the market after Swiftwick socks. 2Toms (they make anti chafe stuff) makes a product called Stink Free. There is no way that any product made my man should ever be able to take the smell out of my shoes short of burning them, because the smell is out of this world. But, I sprayed some on my shoes, or I may have just saturated them, and to my wonder and amazement, they were indeed stink free. Truly amazing. Almost as amazing as the woman that wants to date Dakota Jones. Hey, I told her I’d set her up. Consider this an introduction.
While GR might be known as Beer City USA, it’s debatable that they are better than Bend in that department. Lets call it a draw. I will admit that they do indeed have some rather delicious stouts including the Breakfast Stout from Founders that tasted like I took my morning mocha and poured a bottle of stout into it and the Dragons Milk that was so rich I had to nurse it for about 2hrs. Sad, I know, but it was good.
Sunday dawned earlier than I would have liked and I made my way out for a short warm up way too close to start time to feel like trying to run a fast half marathon. Within a half mile of the start Darin (Gazelle Employee extraordinaire) informed me that the course record was way faster than I thought I was capable of running this course on this day at 1:22. My competitive nature began to flow and I found my legs coming around to a speed that I thought might at least get me close. It was way more fun to run a course like this fast anyway so I pushed on for a good time trial. The trails this weekend were deceptively difficult and taxing. While it’s pretty flat overall the rolling nature of the hills force you to change pace every minute or so transitioning from a short grunt climb to sprinting downhill. Doing that over and over never lets you get into any kind of rhythm. Coming into the last aid station was the first time I could gauge a rough finishing time and I knew it was going to be close. Pushing it pretty hard over the last couple of miles my legs felt better than they have in quite some time so I was pretty happy to feel like some strength had returned to them after a few weeks of just feeling kind of lethargic. Crossing the finish line in 1:20:35 I was pretty happy with the weekend and the amount of work I was able to get in.
My thanks goes out to Kim and Phil the RDs who invited me out and put on a cool low key trail event and Nick our Montrail Rep for making it happen. The hospitality I was shown while there from Gazelle Sports and everyone I met was amazing as it always is with the trail community.
Byron, I’m putting it out there: I will crush you in a donut eating contest, you do not want to tempt this.
Dakota, I have digits for you.