Earlier in the year, Marty told me that she wasn’t going to bike this incredibly challenging mountain bike 58ish miler, but run it. I thought I’d do it too. I have run a 50 before, why not again? Especially somewhere new and fun?
New and fun were the trails in the UP, starting at the cross country ski center of Marquette Mountain, continuing into the birch and sand Noquemanon Trails Network, along the rail trail expanse of the Iron Ore Heritage Trail, and finishing in the rocky RAMBA trails in Ishpeming. These trails are in iron and copper mining territories, and they are brutal.
The race embraces its reputation as the hardest mountain bike race in America, with ‘Blame Danny’ as part of their branding. Danny is the architect of some of the trails. There’s a short video here that shows mountain bikers bombing down the descents that I slipped and tumbled and scrambled up and down in my time on the trails.
Mountain bikers and runners sometimes have a contentious relationship, on and off the trails. There have been a few times in the past when a biker, probably assuming I didn’t know trail etiquette, would get aggressive as they were about to pass me. Not so at this race. The bikers started after us, and since I am a back of the pack runner, they overtook me early in the race. I moved to the right to let them by, and got so many encouraging hoots and hollers. So many of them said ‘I could never do what you’re doing!’ I replied in same. They reminded me that they could coast. I reminded myself in my head that I am dangerous on a bike.
Marty has done her best to teach me to mountain bike, and even with her expert tutelage, I am no good. I am nervous, clumsy, and can’t grasp simple concepts. But when I do have a particularly good time while on my bike (i.e. not hitting trees, actually descending hills), I like to exclaim ‘Yeah, bitch!‘ at the top of my lungs. I recently came to the conclusion that I’m the Jesse Pinkman of ultra running. Brash, dumb, and blindly enthusiastic. Also, hard to kill.
And on Saturday, I did not get killed by those trails. I started in the back of the pack, and my fellow back of the packers Marty and Nick dropped early in the race. Marty and I were together for our 50k two weeks ago, and I called getting her across the finish line a Friendship PR. Now that Marty wasn’t going to complete Marji, she switched her focus, along with some other friends, to supporting me through out the race. Marty and Alex drove all over, helped by Nick and Dan, to meet me at checkpoints for food and water, fresh clothes and better head lamps. She earned her Friendship PR.
The race was hard. Humidity was high, the sun unforgiving on the rail trail. The terrain was unlike anything I have ever run. I felt great at mile 18, fueling on peaches, oranges, strawberries, and Coke, and picked up my trekking poles. I then got a little aggressive in the start of the RAMBA trails and took the ascents too hard, making myself seriously nauseated. In the low 20s I had thoughts about quitting the race. But then I got to the next checkpoint and Alex fed me potato chips and I set a timer for fifteen minutes and reclined in the passenger seat of his car. After seven minutes I turned it off and headed out again. I was not quitting.
At mile 32 I saw Marty and my friends, and the look of pride on her face when she saw me trot in smiling was enough to show me that I could do this. I enjoyed some support and took off again, being sure to run out of the aid station, just to prove I could.
It started to get dark, and the trails were even more challenging, and I slowed way down. But I was still going, and so were a couple I met on the trail at the very beginning. They were the only people still doing the 50 that were slow like me, and I kept overtaking them on the trails, and then getting more aid and starting each section behind them. I wanted to be in front of them, so I wasn’t dead fucking last. By the time I saw Marty and Nick again, they told me they had dropped. It was official, if I did finish, I’d be DFL.
I left my friends at mile 42 with a big smile and a loaned headlamp, and was ready for the home stretch. I was on the trail for five minutes when the sky opened up. The rain came down and the lightning cracked and I was soaked to the bone. The trail backed up to an ORV trail and some Yoopers on ATVs asked if I was okay, seeing me alone, in the dark, in the rain. I told them I was doing a race, and I was. They gleefully responded ‘well, there’s lightning, and you might die!’ We all might die, ATV riding Yoopers, we all might.
Those last 16 miles were the hardest. I had four miles until I saw Marty again, and by the time I did I was covered in mud, from tits to toes. I don’t know how many times I fell, but I do know that each time I got back up. I actually bent one trekking pole beneath me on a particularly nasty fall on a downhill. Bent, of course, is better than broken. At mile 46 I put on clean clothing and gulped down more pickle juice, and headed out again. It was three am by this point, and I was weak and spent, but I was fucking doing this shit. I saw Marty and Dan for the last time at mile 49, and went out for the home stretch.
Dan had dropped out of his 100 miler earlier in the day. After fighting the trails for about sixty miles, he got turned around and off track, and decided to call it. He grabbed a nap at the house and then transitioned to supporting me. He kept telling me how positive I was, and how impressed he was. Staying positive is important to me. It’s a little bit of a mantra.
I really needed that mantra on the last piece of trail. I got off course and turned around at least two times. There was one bit of technical trail that I suffered through twice. But then the sun rose and I found myself at Marty’s car in Ishpeming, about a mile from the finish.
Just like Marty and me, Dan is doing a mile a day running streak, too, so he offered to run that last bit with me. It was really a stroll, but I ran the downhills coming back from Jasper’s Knob, because sometimes it’s just easier to let physics win.
I finished in downtown Ishpeming, at a little past 8 am. I was one of only 12 people to finish, and one of only four women. Danny Hill shook my hand, and I responded ‘I thought this shit was supposed to be hard.’
It was hard. But so am I. Cancer didn’t kill me, and neither did Marji. What’s next?