Marquette Trail 50 Race Report
“I hate running. It’s boring and hurts my knees.”
That sums up my thoughts on running up until four years ago. I couldn’t understand why people liked to run, and I had no interest in it. My wife had been running for years, and I was starting to get more out of shape than I was happy with, so I decided that I need to do something.
In 2010, I decided that I would train for a sprint triathlon. That way I would only have to run a couple days a week and could spend my other training time swimming and cycling. I chose the Oshkosh Tri because it was in August, and that would give me most of the summer to train.
I started out by running two miles. It wasn’t fun, and my knees didn’t like it. That summer I ran a few days a week with my longest run being 5 miles. Running became easier and slightly more enjoyable. The triathlon went well, and the run was my best part.
I decided that I would run a couple 5Ks that fall, and then in 2011 I ran two 10Ks with the second one being a trail race. Training for and running the trail race was when I fell in love with running. From there I was hooked. I started reading books, articles and race reviews and was fascinated by the world of trail running. I continued increasing my weekly mileage and the length of my long runs.
In 2012, I ran a road half-marathon in the spring (Cellcom Green Bay) and then a trail marathon in the fall (Lapham Peak) . Both races didn’t go as well as planned, and my training was inconsistent and undisciplined. Those poor performances were motivation to be more focused in my training. In 2013, I decided that I wanted to run an ultra. I started training for the Surf the Murph 50k. During my training I also completed my second marathon, the Minocqua No Frills Marathon.
Both races were good experiences and I wanted to continue to go further. In addition to the peace and serenity that trail running provides, I became fascinated with exploring what I was capable of when I was willing to push myself beyond my comfort zone. T.S. Eliot summed it up perfectly when he said,
“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”
Another strong motivation for me to continue pushing my running was our daughter who has an undiagnosed disorder and is unable to walk unassisted. Seeing how hard she has to work to try and walk made me realize how much I took for granted my own health and provides more than enough motivation to keep going.
All of this lead my to sign up for the Marquette Trail 50. I had read some reviews and race recaps and it looked like a great course and fun event. I started training in late February for the August race. Whereas my training in the past had been inconsistent and without a clear plan, this time I followed a detailed training plan that I found in the book Relentless Forward Progress by Bryon Powell. I found the book to be very useful, and I agreed with his overall running philosophy. The training schedule also seemed like a good fit for my life schedule.
We had an exceptionally long and cold winter this year in Northeast Wisconsin, which made training difficult at times since we don’t have a treadmill and all my running is outdoors. My training went amazingly well. I think in the 25 weeks of training, I only missed a handful of runs and hit most of the weekly mileage.
I luckily didn’t have any major injuries or setbacks during the training. I continued to feel stronger and stronger as the weeks went along. My longest training run was 31 miles with a couple 25 mile runs as well. I also ran the Cellcom Green Bay Marathon in May and set a PR, which gave me confidence that my training was working.
It’s Finally Race Weekend!
We drove up the Marquette the day before the race for packet pickup and to check out the city. My wife and I had never been to Marquette, and we were impressed with what a beautiful city it is. It snows way too much to live there, but it’s nice to visit in the summer.
The night before was filled with the normal nervous energy mixed in with stress that comes along with the uncertainty of what was going to happen the next day. I’ve spent the last 25 weeks training and focusing on this race; what happens if it doesn’t go well??
I tried to get as much sleep as possible, but with the 5:30am (Eastern time zone) start time I knew it wasn’t going to be much.
The alarm went off at 4:00, but I was already awake. A quick shower to fully wake up, a cup of coffee and a Clif Bar and we were ready to drive to the trailhead. I can’t thank Sarah enough for all of the support she has provided me during my training and during the last 12 years of marriage. Training for an ultra can be disruptive to family life and she’s be great in encouraging me and supporting my running habit.
We arrived about 45 minutes before the start of the race. The moments before a race is a fun time to people watch. In addition to the 50 mile run, there is also a 50k run with the same start time. Talking to people from different backgrounds all with different experience levels is a great learning experience. There were many first-timers as well as old vets that have been around the world of ultra running for a long time.
As sort of a “gear junkie” this was also a great time to check out what gear people were using. I’m mostly interested in the different shoe choices but found it interesting all the different types of hydration systems people had. I decided to go with one handheld water bottle and a smaller waistpack to hold my phone and some gels. I could also store a few gels in my shorts, and since the aid stations were spaced closely together, I didn’t feel I need to carry much with me. The longest segment was 7.1 miles and most were in the 4-6 miles range. Other people seemed to have enough to last them the entire day without needing aid stations.
The shoe choices are always fascinating to me and they ranged from a guy in sandals to several people wearing Hokas. I think the most common shoe brand that I spotted was Salomon followed by Brooks. I’m a zero drop guy and run mostly in Merrell shoes. For this race I decided to start out with the Merrell Ascend Glove and had a pair of Merrell Bare Access Ultra’s in my drop bag for some additional cushioning in the final stages of the race.
For GPS tracking purposes I started with my Garmin 220, but it only has a ten hour battery, and I’m not that fast so I borrowed my wife’s Garmin 305 and put it in my drop bag that I could access at mile 40 and use for the final couple of hours.
Andrew the race director gave his pre-race briefing, and we all lined up ready to start our adventure. The race is small with a 200 runner limit between the two races. The 50k race ended up having 86 runners and the 50 mile had 75. The race started and we were off into the darkness of the early morning.
Forestville Pole Barn – Dead River Steel Grate Bridge
The first part of the race is wide open on some of the roads around the trailhead and was mostly downhill which was a great way to ease into the race. We then moved onto the trail system, which was mostly single track and would be for the majority of the remainder of the race. I luckily got behind some people who were going slower than I wanted to go and there wasn’t room to pass. This was perfect because this forced me to go slower than I usually do.
The first five miles went by quickly, and we came to the first aid station just as the sun was starting to rise for the day. While it was cool, mid-50s, it was humid and I needed a refill. I topped of my water bottle, grabbed a few fig bars and was off. My nutrition plan for the day was to drink a combination of water and water mixed with Clif hydration mix, eat Clif Shots between aid stations and then eat real food at the aid stations. This has worked well in training and my stomach hasn’t been an issue during training. I would sometimes run soon after eating to force my stomach into adapting how to process food while running. Of course I’ve never run for more than 7 hours so time would tell if this strategy would work all day.
Dead River Steel Grate Bridge – Forestville Pole Barn
The next segment was 5.6 miles and would take us back to the start/finish area. There were a few technical areas during this part which were made easier by the fact that the sun was now out and we could turn off our headlamps. I had some good conversations with the other runners around me, many of whom I would see off and on for the rest of the day.
We made our way back to the Forestville Pole Barn where Sarah was waiting. It was great to see her at the aid stations. It’s always nice to get an extra shot of motivation. I got rid of my headlamp, restocked my gel supplies, filled up my water bottle, gave Sarah a kiss and headed out for the big loop.
Forestville Pole Barn – Sugarloaf Mountain Parking Lot
Bees! That sums up this section of the course. Many of us were stung during this section. I ended up being stung twice, which apparently was getting off easy. I heard of people being stung 5-6 times. It was definitely an adrenaline boost and extra motivation to run a little quicker. Other than the bees, nothing too eventful here. Some minor hip pain, but nothing too serious. It happens occasionally and usually goes away during the run. My nutrition and hydration plan continued to be working well. I was eating gels every 30 minutes or so and then eating fig bars, PB&J sandwiches and some potatoes at the aid stations.
Sugarloaf Mountain Parking Lot – Harlow Lake 1st Bridge
Shortly after the aid station, we climbed up Sugarloaf Mountain. The climb was a mixture of stairs and technical trails.
Once we got to the top we were rewarded with beautiful views of Lake Superior, Marquette and the surrounding areas. Most of the runners took time to soak up the views and the fresh lake breeze. One of the great things about trail running is that you have time to stop and enjoy the scenery.
After descending the back side of Sugarloaf, we ran a long section along Lake Superior. This section was the most runnable part of the course with great views of the lake. The trail was wide, smooth and was a good chance to run for a good stretch.
This was also the longest section between aid stations at 7.1 miles. I ran out of water with a little over a mile left, but luckily it’s wasn’t a hot day so it wasn’t a big deal.
The Harlow Lake aid station was the first time we got to our drop bags. I switched socks, changed to the Merrell Bare Access Ultra shoes, reapplied some Body Glide, restocked my gel supply, and ate a PB&J sandwich and potatoes.
I was a little over five hours into the race and was feeling good. The only issue was that I had stubbed my right big toe on some roots and rocks. Nothing too bad, just minor discomfort at this point.
Harlow Lake 1st Bridge – Harlow Lake Railroad Grade
The most memorable part of this section was the climb up Bareback, which was rocky but not very steep. I had a good conversation with another runner from Green Bay. It’s always nice to meet another trail runner for Northeast Wisconsin.
This was also the shortest section between aid stations at only 3.5 miles.
Harlow Lake Railroad Grade – Forestville Pole Barn
Hogback!! The defining and most memorable part of the entire run were the climbs up and down Hogback. Before we got to Hogback we had to run over Top-of-the-World. The combination of these two climbs made this the slowest and most difficult section of entire race, but also the most enjoyable.
This is also the first time I saw the front of the pack 50 milers running the big loop in reverse. I was amazed how easy they were running and the fact that they were more than two hours ahead of me at this point.
The climb up Hogback was rockier and steeper than I imagined and I had to use both hands, which was difficult at times since I was using a handheld water bottle. Once we came to the top the difficult climb was more than worth it. We were treated to an amazing view that overlooked much of the course.
Forestville Pole Barn – Harlow Lake Railroad Grade
“31 miles down, only 20 miles left.” This was my thought when I reached the start/finish area. Once we reached the Forestville Pole Barn, the 50k runners were done and the remaining 50 milers had to go back and do the big loop in reverse. Mentally this was a major checkpoint. If I could make it to the 50k mark feeling good, then I was confident I could finish. My stomach was good, knees were good, and most importantly I was mentally doing well. The only issue I had was that my right big toe was still hurting, but with the adrenaline it wasn’t anything that prevented me from running. I knew that I had plenty of time, and I could almost walk the remaining 20 miles and still beat the cutoff.
I tried not to take too long at the aid stations because I knew if I stopped running it would be harder to start up again. I refilled my bottle, drank some Coke, got some gels from my drop bag, ate some fig bars and potatoes and had a brief chat with Sarah.
What? We have to turn around and go right back up Hogback? This time we would be climbing up Hogback first and then Top-of-the-World. Since we were going in reverse I saw many runners on their way to the 50k turnaround. This was a nice change of pace since for most of the race I ran alone. With fewer than 150 runners on the course there were long sections where I didn’t see anyone. It’s amazing all the things your mind goes through when you are out in the woods running for hours and hours. I brought along an mp3 player but never used it. I tried to stay in the moment and soak in all the sights, sounds, feelings, thoughts etc. that I was experiencing.
Harlow Lake Railroad Grade – Harlow Lake 1st Bridge
A short easy section going over Bareback and back to the Harlow Lake aid station. I passed a few runners that looked like they were hurting. I was still feeling physically and mentally strong. My goal for the reverse big loop was to pass more runners than passed me. So far so good. I was only passed once and I passed at least three runners. The Harlow Lake aid station would be the last time I would have access to my drop bag. I switched watches since I was already over 9 hours and the Garmin 220 has a ten hour battery. I switched over to Sarah’s Garmin 305 for the final 11 miles. I also emptied out my shoes, restocked my gel supply, had some Coke and ate a PB&J.
Knowing that the next section was the easy runnable part along Lake Superior was good for my confidence. My legs were feeling ok, some quad soreness, but I knew I could run most of the next section at a decent pace. I knew that I had to make the next 7.1 miles with my one water bottle so I had a few extra cups of water before I left.
Harlow Lake 1st Bridge – Sugarloaf Mountain Parking Lot
During the first part along the lake I ran with a guy from Grand Rapids, MI and it was nice to have a conversation with someone. While I like being alone with my thoughts, it is nice to have the distraction of talking to another runner to make the time go by a little quicker. We ran together for a few miles before he took off and went ahead.
Near the end of this segment we needed to climb back up and down Sugarloaf. The climb up had a few stairs, but was mostly technical single track. When I reached the top I took a very brief break to check out the view before I headed back down knowing that I was almost to the finish.
I reached the Sugarloaf Mountain Parking lot and knew that I only had a little more than four miles left. I saw Sarah one more time, refilled my bottle, had some Coke and fig bars and was off.
Sugarloaf Mountain Parking Lot – Forestville Pole Barn
It’s hard to describe the feelings that I experienced during the last four plus miles of the race. The energy that I had during the final miles was incredible. I ran faster than I had since the beginning of the race many hours before and had the highest runners high I’ve ever experienced. All of the negative thoughts that I had of not finishing, or getting injured or having a miserable experience went away. I had worked hard for six months and the finish line was finally here.
Overall the race was a great experience. The course was beautiful and had a wonderful mix of smooth runnable sections, technical singletrack, challenging climbs and rocky descents. The course was marked extremely well with ribbons and flags making it very easy to stay on course. The aid stations were well stocked and placed close enough together that I didn’t need to carry much with me. All of the volunteers were very helpful and encouraging. I would highly recommend running the Marquette Trail 50 if you are an ultrarunner in the upper Midwest, and I cannot wait to run it again in the coming years.
Thank you so much to my beautiful wife Sarah for her wonderful support and motivation during my months of training and during the race. It was great to see her at the aid stations and helped me get to the next one knowing she would be there.
I set my watch to have laps of 2.5 miles because this worked out to be a good reminder of when I needed to eat again. Below are the splits for the laps from Strava.
Merrell Ascend Gloves (first 21 miles)
Merrell Bare Access Ultra (final 30 miles)
Smartwool Micro Toe Socks (first 21 miles)
Icebreaker Multisport Ultra Lite Micro (final 30 miles)
Brooks Infiniti II Notch Shorts – best shorts ever!
Tek Gear Sleeveless Performance Tee – cheap and comfortable
Garmin Forerunner 220 (first 40 miles)
Garmin Forerunner 305 (final 11 miles)