The Marji Gesick 50 mile and 100 mile race held in late summer in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan is as unique as it is difficult. A self-supported race, no aid stations or outside help, that requires runners and bikers to share the starting line and navigate the miles of single-track mountain trails. The race has established an identity, and truly prides itself, in toughness. The terrain is as rocky and uneven as any trail that could possibly be run, with ascents and descents that are not only steep but seemingly endless. The 50 mile race, begins at the base or Marquette Ski Mountain and climbs and falls for a total of 18,200 ft before ending in downtown Ishpeming 55.2 miles away. Most racers never get that far and the high rate of “quitters”, as high as 70% in some years, is boasted of by the race organizers in much the same way a parent might brag of their honor student. It is a test of endurance in every sense of the word, and that is what drew me to this race. I wanted to see If I could survive; to see if I could keep going beyond what I have done in the past, beyond what I have trained for, and beyond what I believed I could do.
The weather was fittingly harsh when I landed on Friday afternoon, the day before the race. The temperature was on it’s way down to a low of 36 degrees and the wind was howling with gusts of 40 mph. I had planned to stay in a tent near the base of the mountain that would be my first climb the following day, so my first task was to find enough fire wood to keep me warm and brace my tent for a rough night. I actually enjoyed my night in the woods, though, and although the idea was to toughen up for the race by sleeping on the hard ground, I was surprisingly comfortable. The morning came quick but the best decision of the day was to take time to rekindle the fire and warm up with a hot cup of coffee and my breakfast of a peanut butter bagel, banana, and an avocado. I layered up for the initial climb up Marquette Ski mountain, filled up my pack with 2L of water, and 700 calories of nutrition to last me the first 19 miles. Although the race stresses the self-support ethos, they graciously allow racers to access a drop bag at 19 miles and again at 40 miles. The only thing left to do was run… all day long.
Over and again I told myself not to run too hard up the initial climb, which consists of a very steep ascent straight up the ski mountain, then back down. Unfortunately, adrenaline and a congested pack of eager racers rendered that strategy moot. Regardless, I felt great as I finished the first hurdle, shed my layers, and crossed over a short pedestrian bridge that led to the next mountain, then the next, and the next. For the next 18 miles, I would run up the ascent until the pitch was too steep to maintain a descent pace, then I would power hike. The descents were fast and I just had to keep my feet moving quick enough to keep up, that and not fall. One aspect of trail running that I thoroughly enjoy is the ruggedness of uneven and rocky ground that requires constant attention to where the foot falls. This 18 mile section, and the entire race really, forced me to focus on every step as I scurried from rock to rock avoiding the loose ones. My pace hovered around 9:30 min/mile even though several steep ascents felt more like climbing than running. Still, I cruised into Jackson Park where I could access my drop bag feeling great and as one of the top three runners.
I planned on staying for about ten minutes but I felt so good that I simply refilled my pack, ate a little food, and took off. My water pack had sprung a leak, the only real hitch of the day, so I had to carry a one-liter water bottle and I reloaded my pack with another 800 calories of food. The second leg was a 27 mile stretch that was truly cruel in the way it twisted up, down, then back up the mountain. This was the point that in the race that tested me the most, and it did not take long. Around mile 24, I began to feel the twitches of impending leg cramps. I decided I had to push through them, but the precarious situation I found myself in reminded me of a specific road trip from my college days. I was driving late at night through the smoky mountains in North Carolina with two friends when we found ourselves in the middle of a blizzard. As the roads became covered in ice and snow, my SUV would fishtail as soon as we hit 30mph, but I feared that if we stopped the car might not have enough traction to start up again. That was how I ran for the next 10 miles; too fast and I would cramp, and I knew that if I stopped and I would never finish the race. Amazingly, pushing through worked and my legs began to feel better the longer I ran, with one big exception. I had read about DOMS (delayed onset of muscle soreness) that comes from the eccentric pounding of downhill running, but training in Florida just didn’t give me much of a chance to experience it firsthand. At mile 30, we became well acquainted.
Suddenly, as if a switch had been flipped, my legs would not release to allow me to run downhill. I had to catch myself with each descending step, further exacerbating the pain. It occurred to me as I painfully, and slowly, descended a steep section of trail, that although I had already covered over 30 miles but still had more that a marathon left. I had been told that the last 15 miles bordered on demonic, so suffice to say the mental challenge began here. I told myself I had to get to Jackson Park, mile 40, before the sun got too low. This was more than just motivation, though, because my pace was so fast in the first leg that I decided not to bring my headlamp for the second leg. I reasoned that I would be back well before dark. Unfortunately, my pace slowed to 13 min/mile, then 15, and finally settled at 18 min/mile as the downhills took their toll. In this stretch, I passed perhaps half a dozen racers that had quit but had no choice but to continue because they were over ten miles from the nearest road crossing. I turned to God, literally, and asked for the strength to take one more step. Then I asked again. The spiritual aspect of running for me is two-fold. I feel God’s presence when I am disconnected from the world running through remote areas of wilderness, and I can feel His spirit in the creation all around me. I also turn to God when I am faced with my own weakness and limitations. As the sun moved lower, driven by desire and faith, my legs moved faster. I had to finish.
I did reach my drop bag before dark, but of course this just meant that I now had to tackle 15 miles of ridiculous terrain by the light of a single headlamp. I stayed in place for just minutes, afraid my legs would get used to the rest, and headed out for one last leg. In an unexpected blessing, I was joined during this last section by an old friend that heard I was running and found me at a road crossing to act as a pacer. My pace was slow and steady and unchangeable, though, so he ran by my side adding light to the trail and keeping my mind distracted from the constant pain of each step. When the last mountain was crested, we emerged from the dark and headed down the homestretch of main street Ishpeming. I crossed the finish line as the 8th runner, but way behind the elite few, and graciously accepted a handshake and smile from the race director. In this war of attrition, it was a victory by sheer persistence. I would say it was a refusal to surrender, but in truth I think the key is to surrender to the pain but to continue running nonetheless. I thoroughly enjoyed the challenge and difficulty of this race, and I was overjoyed to have finished. In the end, this race was a matter of getting to the point where I truly didn’t feel I go any further and just taking another step. That is the beauty of running ultramarathons and the key to completing them. It is also the lesson I take from this race into the rest of my life.