Some races just stick with us: our first-ever race, a half marathon we ran with a dear friend, our fastest 5K, our most satisfying marathon…maybe  something completely new and different for us, like a triathlon, muddy obstacle race or “color run.”

Whatever the distance, venue or outcome, we hold these particular events close to our hearts and maybe even return to them time and again because we just enjoy them so much. Like that playlist that never fails to get us moving, or the certain flavored fuel that energizes us during a long run, these races become tried-and-true go-to’s for us.

After nine years of racing, a handful of events stand out vividly in my mind, for various reasons. This past weekend’s M22 Challenge in northern Michigan is one of those races for me. This run-cycle-paddle triathlon is a start-of-summer tradition for me and hundreds of others who push themselves to trek up a 130-foot dune climb, ride 17 miles along Lake Michigan and the rolling hills of Leelanau County, and paddle the blue-green water of Little Glen Lake.

Here I am near the finish of the 2.5-mile run, the first leg of the M22 Challenge.

Here I am near the finish of the 2.5-mile run, the first leg of the M22 Challenge.

In the transition area, having just completed the 17-mile ride, I see my friend Pam, who snapped this photo. I was so happy to see her, and I also felt great about nailing the bike portion of this race. Up next: the final leg of the M22 Challenge – the paddle in Glen Lake.

 

This past weekend I participated in my fourth Challenge. Since I’ve written about my experiences with this race several times in the past — you can read my first race recap here, my second attempt here, and my third Challenge here — I wanted to do something a little different this time around: showcase a few stories from athletes who put themselves out there this past Saturday, including a father-daughter duo, a 65-year-old mother and grandmother racing to honor her triathlete son, and a 44-year-old mom of two who earned herself a spot on the podium. These athletes, with their own personal motivations, certainly consider the M22 Challenge an especially memorable and meaningful race.

M22 Challenge Athlete: Joyce Grush, 65

I have known Joyce for many years; we attended the same church years ago, and I always will remember how she showed up at our home with a hot and delicious meal after the birth of our third child, Alex. We’ve kept touch over the years, mostly through Facebook, where we can keep up on each other’s lives through photos. It was there that I learned of the passing of Joyce’s son, Eric. I was heartbroken to read the news, and yet also encouraged by Joyce’s amazing faith. Not long before the Challenge, she sent me this message, which really touched me:

“Call me crazy, but I’ve signed up to do the M22 Challenge, at 65 years old (what was I thinking!). I have taken on this challenge as my personal way to remember and honor Eric. He loved triathlons (swim), competing in his last one after getting a brutal chemo treatment earlier in the week – what a fighter! My goal is to finish, and to keep doing all the things that I enjoy as long as I can physically do them – that is how he lived the final years of his life, in spite of the cancer.”

Joyce and me at the finish.

Joyce and me at the finish.

I was beyond thrilled when I was able to catch up with Joyce at the Challenge finish this weekend. She wore a t-shirt featuring photos of Eric and a saying from her son’s high school debate days that played on their last name: “Grush It!”

She had a fantastic race experience on Saturday. Here’s what she shared with me: “The event was such a great experience for me, brought some healing, and lots of joy! My favorite part of the courses was the bike ride, in spite of Inspiration Point. My amazing takeaway was to be acutely aware of the sorrow I carry deep within me daily, and, to experience, at the same time, unspeakable joy at being able to participate in the M22 Challenge – I didn’t think it was possible for those two things to sit side by side in my deepest inner being.”

 

M22 Challenge Athletes: Jeff and Nora Blanchard

Jeff, 46 and an avid cyclist, has competed in a number of races, including the M22 Challenge. This time, his 15-year-old daughter Nora joined him. We’ve known Jeff and his family for a long time — Emma and Nora are good friends who have known each other since first-grade — and I was really excited to hear the two of them would be there together on Saturday. At the finish I asked Nora how it went, and she answered, “It was so much fun.” She also added that she hoped Emma would join her next year. (Me, too!) Nora was among the youngest athletes at the Challenge–she was one of just two 15-year-olds participating. Also, this father-daughter racing duo opted to go the decidedly non-easy route when it came to the paddle portion of the race–rather than use kayaks, they each used a stand-up paddle board on the 2.5-mile water course.

“It was nice to ride with my dad because we both gave each other a lot of motivation and perseverance to keep on going,” Nora says, “and I also just had a lot of fun doing it with him.”

Nora, 15, with her dad Jeff. This was Nora’s first M22 Challenge — and definitely not her last!

M22 Challenge Athlete: Jennifer Cutler, 44

Jennifer, a longtime Pilates instructor and owner of the Traverse City studio Pure Pilates, is an M22 Challenge veteran — she’s participated in six of the seven Challenges, including the very first one. She’s a big reason why I continue to do this year after year; we’ve made it a girls’ getaway of sorts, with us spending the night before race day in nearby Glen Arbor and biking together to the start line. This year, with a time of 1:45:07, she came in third place in her age group. This meant she snagged a super-sweet M22 medal (and some cool bragging rights, I say!)

“I come back every year because I always have fun and leave excited thinking about the next year,” Jennifer says. “Also, the three events — running, cycling and paddling — are some of my favorites, and I get to do it in one of my favorite places to be, Glen Lake. My race last weekend felt good. The weather was perfect, I felt strong, and I enjoyed seeing a lot of smiling, familiar faces at the end of the race. The M22 is a great race with great people and in a great area — it’s truly something special.”

Jennifer on the podium -- she earned a third-place age-group winner award. Way to go, my friend!

Jennifer on the podium — she earned a third-place age-group winner award. Way to go, my friend!

 

Next year’s M22 Challenge is set for Saturday, June 11, 2016. Registration begins on March 1, 2016 at 8 a.m. and is limited to the first 900 registered racers. You can find more information about the race here »

Whether you’re new to this race, or have completed it in the past, check out these blog posts I wrote for M22 that feature survival tips and info on fueling & transitions.

Hope to see many of you there next year!

Sunset over Lake Michigan ~ night before race day, Glen Arbor, MI.

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