Friday, July 26, 2013

Run the Keewenaw: A Festival of Trails (Copper Habor, Michigan)

Copper Harbor, Michigan, Keewenaw Peninsula
A couple of weeks ago I travelled back home to my motherland, Michigan's Upper Peninsula (U.P.). However this was not a relaxing sight-seeing trip or beach-volleyball family reunion. No, this trip was strictly business. I was there to run!

Though I was born and suckled on the shores of Lake Superior, spending my early toddler years and many a childhood summer on a small Indian reservation called Bay Mills, I'd never really seen much of the Upper Peninsula beyond the 3 acres where my grandmother (a transplant from Austria) raised chickens and goats, baked fresh bread from scratch, picked and ate wild mushrooms (some edible and some semi-poisonous), and canned every manner of fruit or vegetables (she may have even canned Viennese Schnitzels, but that's neither here nor there).

So I was excited when I learned about a trail-running stage-race called the Keewenaw Running Fesitval, held each year on the Northern-most tip of the Upper Peninsula in the old mining community of Cooper Harbor. The Keewenaw is famous for many things -- though mainly for snow, of which they receive around 20 to 25 feet per year.

However, the Keewenaw is also known for a few other things including: mosquitoes and biting flies, Cornish pasties, saunas (and all things Finnish), craft beer, and world-class mountain biking trails. Quite an eclectic collection of "must see" attractions. And I was eager to experience them all!

"Run The Keewenaw: A Festival of Trails" is a weekend stage race consisting of three individual races: a 8K hill climb on Saturday morning, a hilly 12K trail run on Saturday afternoon, and an even more hilly 25K trail run on Sunday morning. Each race offers prizes for the top 3 overall and the top 3 in each age group. In addition, for competitors doing all three events, your finishing time is added up from all three events and awards are given to the top-five runners with the lowest cumulative times.

My new friend Riccardo
I was originally planning to travel together with another Bay-area runner, Caitlin Smith, who is also originally from Michigan. However, when Caitlin wasn't able to go, I reached out to the race organizer to see if I could catch a ride from the Houghton airport (40 miles away) with a local runner as all the car rental places close promptly at 5:00 pm (even though the second of only two daily flights into town doesn't land until 6:11 pm).

The race director put me in touch with a great guy -- Riccardo Tortini, an Italian PHd student studying at Michigan Tech. Riccardo also happened to be the defending Keewenaw Festival champion from last year! Riccardo picked me up from the airport, put me up at his place, introduced me to the local runners, and showed me the town. We even managed to sneak in a quick 5 mile run Friday evening at the "Tech trails" at the university.

The trails were quite impressive -- clearly designed for mountain biking with high banked curves, big ramps, and technical boardwalk stunts. I must say however, after the short 40 minute run at 8:00 pace in the Michigan heat and high humidity, I was sweating profusely and breathing much harder than I would have liked. In the back of mind, I was already worrying about how the race would go tomorrow. Not to mention the fact that I had just run Western States only two weeks before.

Luckily my mind quickly shifted from running to beer as Riccardo drove us over to the local microbrewery, Keewenaw Brewing Company (KBC), who was serving up $2.50 pints of delicious craft beer. Twenty dollars later, I no longer had a care in the world! I was ready to run.

Mt. Baldy 8K Hill Climb

Riccardo and I miraculously managed to wake up and make it on time to the starting line on Saturday morning with no ill-effects from a long evening of Cascade hops "carbo loading" at the pub followed by only a few hours sleep.

Race headquarters at an old school house
Photo @Gowtham
The race headquarters were located in an old school house, which really gave the race a warm, quaint small-town feel. However, while the field was relatively small with only 67 runners, I knew the competition would be intense as the field included a number of really fit looking runners including Riccardo (last year's champion and a 2:48 marathoner), Scott Vanasten (winner of the Ice Age 50K), William Holbert (a young college track runner wearing the most brightly-colored ridiculous pair of running shorts I'd ever seen), and a number of other really fast-looking guys.

The race began and a group of runners went out hard including Riccardo, Scott, William, and a few others. I held back, lingering toward the rear of the ten person lead group. The first kilometer was on a slightly uphill paved road before making a left turn and heading into the woods on a wide fire road. Riccardo and Scott were already opening up a big lead on the rest of the field, and we would unfortunately never see them again until the top.

I waited patiently until the first steep sandy section to make my move. Riccardo had described the course to me in pretty vivid detail, so even though I had never set foot on it, I felt that I knew it well. Once we hit the steep sandy climb I attacked and quickly passed a group of 4 or 5 other runners. I could see two more runners just 20 or 30 yards ahead of me, but it took me forever to reel them in.

"Where eagles fly!" on top of Mt. Baldy in Eagle Harbor
I caught up to William (the young track star in the silly shorts) on a steep technical section about a mile from the top just as he abruptly stopped running. I kept pressing and reeled in the other runner, a guy in a white shirt, just before the final steep section before the summit. As we approached the make-shift finish line on top of the wind-swept barren summit I wasn't sure I was going to make it without collapsing. Thankfully my heart didn't explode and my legs didn't seize up with lactic acid.

I crossed the finish line in 3rd place, seven seconds ahead of the 4th place runner, but a good minute behind Scott and Riccardo, who took 1st and 2nd respectively. While officially billed as an 8K, according to my Garmin the course was just shy of 6K (about 3.6 miles) with over 1100 feet of vertical gain. With that kind of elevation profile, I was quite happy with my 27:54 finish time which averaged out to about 7:36 pace.

Still, if I hadn't realized it before, I knew now that I was definitely going to be in a tough battle if I wanted to come home with a podium place for the three-race series!

Cooper Harbor Trails 12K Challenge

After the morning hill climb (which requires runners to jog back down the mountain to the start), Riccardo and I decided to grab some lunch and a beer at a local restaurant and brewery called the Fitzgerald (or "Fitz" for short). While the food options were quite limited -- especially for Riccardo who is a vegetarian -- the beer menu was about 20 pages long, with at least 4 or 5 pages dedicated to local Michigan-brewed craft beer.

"Recovery drinks" between races
I ordered the pull-pork sandwich and nice light summer brew (Whitsun wheat ale). Excellent choice on the beer. Questionable choice on the lunch fare, which I would still be burping up hours later at the starting line of the afternoon 12K. Well, you can't win 'em all.

As we lined up for the start of the 12K, I wasn't feeling particularly confident. The morning hill climb had been much more painful than I expected, and now I was a bit terrified of how much this race was going to hurt. The gun went off and as expected Riccardo and Scott shot off to the front and were quickly out of sight.

I found myself in third place, running harder than I would like, trying to protect tenuous lead over the two or three person chase pack behind me that included young William the track star (who had traded in his obnoxious multi-colored running shorts from the morning for an equally questionable pair of zebra/cheetah print shorts) and Simon Carn (who was in my age group and had finished only 45 seconds behind me on the opening hill climb).

Sweet biking trails, but scary to run on!
The course was challenging, but beautiful, taking us through the forest on some amazing mountain biking trails. The terrain was rolling, with lots of banked turns and wooden boardwalk sections that would have been awesome on a mountain bike, but which were actually quite frightening to run. I kept worrying that one of my toes was going to get caught between the loosely spaced wooden planks, or that my foot would break through.

I basically ran the entire 12K at my all-out 10K race pace, constantly glancing behind me to see how much of a lead I had on my pursuers. I felt like I was constantly running on the edge, flirting with a disastrous blow up. Yet somehow I managed to keep it all together. Just as I was coming out of the woods and on to the last half mile homestretch of mowed lawn, I heard footsteps behind me. Ugh. I turned my head, hoping it wasn't Simon as he is in my age group and I at least wanted to hold on for the age group win.

Finishing sprint!
Photo @Gowtham
Luckily it was young William, the track star, flying by me in his zebra/cheetah shorts. I briefly tried to surge and go with him, but my legs were having no part of it. I watched him pull away, finishing ten seconds behind him in 4th place, but 33 seconds ahead of the next runner, Simon. Although the race was officially listed as a 12K, my Garmin again showed as being shorter -- only about 10 or 11K or 6.6 miles. But I wasn't complaining. And I was quite happy with my 49:27 finish time, which averaged out to about 7:31 pace.

After catching my breath, I learned that Riccardo had edged Scott out this time, by 18 seconds, putting them in a virtual dead heat for the overall lead after two races. William and I finished 3 minutes behind Riccardo and Scott, pretty much ending any hope I might have had of winning the series. But I was still in 3rd place, and I was ready to give everything I had left on Sunday to hold on to my podium spot!

Carl Olson Memorial 25K Adventure Run

Sunday I woke up with a feeling of dread. Normally I wake up on race morning excited and eager to run. But after racing twice on Saturday at a pace significantly faster than I normally run on my little 50 and 100 mile jogs, I wasn't particularly looking forward to more 7:30 pace suffering. Luckily I think everyone else was feeling the same way, as the 25K race start was much slower and more mellow than Saturday's hill climb and 12K.

Holy humidity, it's hot!
Photo @Gowtham
Riccardo and Scott took off together, chit-chatting at a leisurely 6:30 pace on the relatively flat opening mile before the first long four-mile hill climb began. A young twenty-something year old named Andrew with fresh legs (who hadn't raced either of Saturday's races) went out in third place, while young William and I ran together in 4th and 5th.

Not too far behind us we could occasionally catch sight of the 3 or 4 person chase group that included Simon, the other guy in my age group who I only had about a minute lead over in the standings.

William and I worked together for quite a few miles, trying to keep Andrew in sight. We were running strong and moving well. But then somewhere around mile 8 or 9 on the second long 3 mile climb, William abruptly fell off the pace and disappeared. He would fade quite a bit, but hold on for 7th place. I was also struggling a bit on this climb, partially perhaps because I was now suddenly running alone without company and definitely also because I had run out of water.

As I approached the aid station at the top of the last climb, I could see that Andrew (the guy in 3rd place) had a fairly significant two or three hundred meter lead on me. With only 5K to go to the finish, all of which was downhill, I doubted that I would be able to reel him in.

Trying to outrun the various biting bugs
Photo @Gowtham
So I was quite surprised when only minutes later I saw a figure running on the trail head of me. Alas, it turned out to be my buddy Riccardo who had apparently fallen and then cramped up. He was still moving, but no longer running at his normal speed. I handed him my water bottle (which I had just refilled at the aid station) as I passed by and told him to drink it. I pressed on, now in 3rd place, hoping that I might catch Andrew and/or Scott.

However it was not to be and I never saw either Andrew or Scott until after I crossed the finish line. I finished 3rd on the day in 2:03:14, about 1:18 behind Andrew and almost 4 minutes behind Scott. My Garmin once again showed the course to be short, though this much closer to the stated 25K distance, measuring almost 24K or 14.8 miles. But who knows how well GPS technology really works deep in the woods of Michigan on winding switchback trails in a town whose claim to fame is that they don't have (and don't want) cell phone coverage.

In any case, based on my 3rd place finish in the 25K, knew that I had locked up 3rd place in the overall standings. The question was now whether my buddy Riccardo would finish in the next 4 or 5 minutes to preserve his overall lead over me. Otherwise, if he took too long out there, he could slip to 3rd overall and I would move up to 2nd overall in the standings. Tick, tick, tick... no sign of him yet.

The Dramatic Final Conclusion...

Until next time my friends... stay thirsty.
photo @Gowtham
Luckily for Riccardo he managed to keep it together and came in with 18 seconds to spare, good for 5th place on the day and 2nd overall in the three-race series. I was happy for him... though slightly jealous of the free pair of Salomon shoes he took home for 2nd place. But I didn't go home empty handed either as I won a bar of home-made soap! And a bunch of other cool stuff including a Salomon waist pack, a framed photo of the Porcupine mountains, a pair of trail socks, a hand-made necklace, and three jars of homemade jam. Not too shabby!

After the race, Scott (who won the 25K as well as the overall series) had to take his wife to the hospital for surgery on her finger which she had severely dislocated during a hard fall on the trail (note: the surgery went fine and she was released later that day).

Riccardo and I joined Mark, Phil, and Tom (friends of Scotts who had all driven in from Madison for the race) for rehydration and calorie replenishment (i.e., beer and pizza) at a bar across the street. After lunch and beers, we debated what to do next and eventually decided, quite wisely, to walk over to the local microbrewery for another pint or two. Work hard, play hard!


Mark Tanaka (Ultrailnakaman) said...

Dunno-- I'd be more nervous on wheels than my feet. Unless I had some of that beer first!

Unknown said...

Outstanding report! I live in the Eastern UP and went to college at MTU. I have contemplated the KTF several years and may have to bite the bullet now and do it next year. Glad you enjoyed your time back in Michigan! I'm from south of the bridge originally but live 1 hr NW of the Bridge now, just 45 minutes west of Bay Mills.

Big Johnny Burton said...

Hi Brenda! Thanks. It was a blast. You should definitely give it a shot. There actually weren't a lot of women, so you might have a good shot to place well in your age group and win some home-made jam! But fair warning, the trails were much more hilly and much more technical than I expected. I was pleasantly surprised! I didn't fall at all, but I saw quite a few people cross the finish line with a little dirt and blood. I think many people fell on the wooden boardwalk sections, which can be a bit slippery. But in any case, there's plenty of good local beer to kill the pain afterward :)

Clark and Luke said...

Great race report and recap of the local brewery options. I also grew up in the UP before moving away, always great to come back for races. I ran the Carl Olsen in 2012 and waaaay back in 1997, both fun races. I also noticed your local runs - I've done a few great trail runs in the foothills overlooking Pleasanton, Half Moon Bay, Roseville and Modesto when travelling for work. Great trail running in your neck of the woods too, eh?

Sam Robinson said...

So, I think Caitlin and I are going to do this in July after the mountain champs the weekend before!

Big Johnny Burton said...

Awesome. You guys are going to have a lot of fun. I'll have to introduce you both to my friend Riccardo Tortini and some of his friends from Wisconsin. Those guys are a lot of fun to hang out with.

I am hopefully going to be running Hardrock 100 this year on the same weekend, so I won't be able to join you guys this year. But I'd love to make it back some other year. If not for the races, at least for all the great craft beer there :)