I just want to have fun.
These are the words I repeated to myself, and shared with friends, in the days leading up to this Saturday’s M-22 Challenge, a 22-mile run-bike-paddle triathlon about a 45-minute drive from my house in beautiful Leelanau County.
Coming off an intense 18-week marathon training program—and a fantastic yet equally intense race over Memorial Day weekend—I was ready for a race where I could go a little outside my comfort zone (because this is good and cycling is so out of my comfort zone), let loose a little and not worry about time or pace, and simply enjoy.
This is exactly what I got—and then some—which not only was extremely welcome following those long weeks of running in all kinds of weather, but also amazing because it was part of a three-day weekend that ended up being downright exhausting—in the absolute very best kind of way.
By now, lots of people have heard about the M-22 Challenge, an event that started with just over 100 participants and has grown to this year’s nearly 1,000 athletes. Created by the guys behind the M-22 brand—brothers Keegan and Matt Myers and their dad Matt Sr.—the Challenge “promotes and showcases the area’s amazing natural resources and beauty.” What this means: you’ll be fully immersed in the picturesque landscape. Your 2.5-mile run includes climbing the Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes, your 17-mile bike ride takes you along the blue-green waters of both Big Glen and and Little Glen lakes, and your 2.5 kayak (or stand-up paddle board) in Little Glen Lake offers stunning, panoramic views of the quaint cottage-dotted shoreline and the towering Dunes to the west.
You have to sign on for this summer event in spring, and you’ve got to be quick about it. It fills within hours of online registration opening. But it’s so worth the effort. I’m grateful for my friend Jen, who has done every M-22 Challenge since it’s inception, because she pushed me to sign on to do this year’s event. She also got me signed on for my first Challenge a couple of years ago.
The day before the event, I was several hours north, on Mackinac Island with my fifth-grader for his end-of-year school trip. It was an early morning—the parent chaperones met at the school just after 6 a.m.—and we didn’t return to Traverse City until 7:30 p.m. that night. The trip was a ton of fun, and we couldn’t have asked for better weather. Still, there was a part of me that wondered how in the world I’d be getting up early for a triathlon—a triathlon that also required an early start since I’d need to drive nearly an hour to where Jen was staying on Glen Lake with her family so we could bike to the start line a mile away.
I can do this, I kept telling myself. It was all good. I’m going to have FUN.
The stars aligned and I actually got myself up and out the door race day morning with time to spare. This doesn’t happen a whole lot for me. But I’m working on it.
It was another gorgeous northern Michigan morning. Here’s the view behind the cottage on Little Glen Lake. Heavenly.
In typical Heather-and-Jen fashion, we cut it close getting to the transition area to set up our bikes, helmets and other stuff. (Do you have a friend like this? Someone who makes you laugh and smile so much, and you just get silly around each other? This is Jen and me. We’re kindred spirits. She’s also a fierce athlete, an amazing Pilates instructor, and inspires me daily).
There’s just something about the atmosphere at a race start that is so invigorating. Ambitious people all around, lots of talking and high-fiving. Volunteers and spectators lined up, shouting out words of encouragement. The cherry-red, deep-blue, vibrant-orange and banana-yellow kayaks lined up in rows along the shoreline, plus the scores of road bikes in corrals, also added to the excitement.
It’s still new to me, this triathlon thing, and I like it. It’s so different from a straight-up running race, and yet the vibe is the same. Plenty of participants who have been training hard and are out to snag PRs, as well as those who are more inclined to simply have have fun and savor an experience. I realized I was somewhere in the middle: I wanted to enjoy this to the fullest, knowing I hadn’t trained on my bike or kayak really at all (OK, nada), but I did want to feel strong and good and do my very best. And hey, a PR over my last Challenge wouldn’t be bad, either. (Can’t help my teeny-tiny competitiveness, with myself, what can I say?)
The race started in waves, seemingly by age and with the elite athletes at the front. We found a spot in the middle and ended up taking off within the third wave.
The not-quite-a-5K portion, I’ve now decided, isn’t so easy. Not just because you’re climbing 130 feet to the top of sand dunes less than a mile in, but because I’m not a sprinter. I am a distance runner. It takes me about 5 to 6 miles to get into a groove. So it felt hard, even though I wasn’t going all-out, to do this first part of the race. But I felt good overall, and I even pushed myself to run the entire way up the Dunes (it became a slow slog at points, for sure).
At the crest, you head left and run across the sand to the edge where it turns to brush and dune grass. You run down the steep Dunes at that point—you’re still on sand—and then turn right onto a path that takes you through some light woods and back onto the pavement. Before you know it, you’re back to the transition area.
Jen and I separated during the run–she, too, is more of a distance runner and she wanted to save her energy for the final two legs of the race–but when I came into the chute toward the corral where we’d placed our bikes, she already was there. “How’d I get here first?” she asked me. We’ve long joked that I’ve got the run covered, she’s the cyclist who smokes me. I chalked it up to still recovering from the marathon, but really, she was just on and was nailing it from the start. I sat down to put on my shoes, opened a Roctane and took in about half of it in hopes it would power me through the next 17 miles, and I told Jen good luck on the bike as she headed off.
I’d borrowed a bike from a friend, and luckily my shoes clipped in without having to do any adjustments pre-race. The first section of the bike ride is a steady incline before you’re rewarded with not only a glorious downhill, but a sweeping view of Lake Michigan before veering to the right to head toward Glen Arbor about two miles away. From the get-go, I felt strong on the bike. This was a big change from my first M-22 Challenge in 2011 when I was getting passed left and right. I know, it’s all about finding your own pace and doing your own race. Still, getting passed as much as I did was pretty discouraging after awhile. This time, though, was different. I found my pace earlier and fell into a groove. I reminded myself to not go out too fast–I knew I needed strength for not only the remaining portion of the ride, but also the significantly steep stretch up Inspiration Point between miles 9 and 10–and I just felt … strong. I held on to this feeling with everything I had.
I kept a steady pace through Glen Arbor, where you’re treated to glimpses of quaint restaurants and shops (including one of the two M-22 shops), and on through the stretch alongside the Crystal River. I made sure to take sips of water on flat stretches and I think having a good feel for my bike gears (not so last time around) really helped me continue with a steady-strong effort. As happens in a road running race, I found myself alongside the same riders. One would go head, another would fall back, but we’d all pretty much stick together. The woman wearing the rainbow-colored compression socks made me smile with her encouraging words to her fellow riders. At one point, as we made our way up a hillier section, she turned to me and said, “Pull up on your clips.” That stayed with me–it works–and I did this every time we got to an incline. This especially came in handy at Inspiration Point–this is one seriously tough hill. You feel like you’re going in slow-motion, but I kept at it, digging in and reminding myself I’d run 26.2 miles. I could go up a hill. On a bike. Sure.
I did, and let me tell you, the ride down the hill is fast, a little scary, but so much fun. You’re literally racing down the hill, the tall leafy trees a blur of green. It’s so beautiful along every part of this race route–there is not one single section that’s anything but breathtaking. You feel lucky to be out there, as challenging as it can feel, on your legs and lungs. It’s incredible.
I couldn’t believe how strong I still felt at miles 15, 16…then there was just one mile left. Knowing these roads and the course itself definitely helps. I knew, rounding the corner onto the final straight stretch of M-109, that I was close. I would be there soon, and then it was kayak time. The closer I got to the Dune Climb to the left and the transition area to the right, the louder the crowd of spectators and volunteers. I slowed down, preparing to dismount (please, please, God, don’t let me fall off this bike as I take my shoes out of the clips), and as soon as my feet touch the ground, whoa, did my legs ever feel like jelly. I kept moving forward, running/limping alongside my bike to Corral D, where I set my bike, tore off my shoes and socks, and ran barefoot toward the rental kayaks. As I made my way there, I looked to my left and saw … my sole sisters Krista and Cassy screaming my name. How amazing. I screamed back as only an endorphin-crazed athlete can, and ran toward the the line of yellow kayaks. A volunteer directed me toward one and I got into the surprisingly warm water of Little Glen Lake.
I have to add at this point the post-race comment my friend Dave, a talented runner, shared about the kayak portion and how there are some very talented kayakers out there: “Damn those fast paddlers!” Exactly, Dave!
Nothing like a little kayaking to humble a girl.
I am a novice kayaker at best. A recreational paddler. It’s fun. But have you ever tried to go fast in a kayak? It’s tough! I’ve now decided, having done a 2.5 mile kayak route in 41:29 (two minutes slower than my 39:12 paddle time in 2011), that this is the leg I need to work on for next year. My run was almost exactly the same as ’11, and my bike was 11 minutes(!) faster than two years ago; I did 17 miles in 59:29 compared to 1:10 in 2011.
Ah, well. I was having fun. Music pumped at the first buoy–a boat was stationed out there and rocked out some tunes for racers–and I soaked up the fact that I was in the middle of one of the region’s most stunning lakes in a national park on a Saturday morning.
Toward the end of the paddle portion you’re treated to a gorgeous view of the Dune Climb. I continued to not push it too hard, though I admit that within a few hundred yards of the finish, as I heard the crowd cheering on finishers, I cranked it up a bit. All along I kept thinking, “use your core, use your core.” I learned from the last time that my arms and shoulders could either be verry sore the next day, or just a little sore. I aimed for just a little sore. I tightened my abs, lowered my shoulders, and dipped the ores in just slightly, not too deep, as Jen instructed (Pilates, baby, Pilates).
And then it was time to hop out of the kayak and make a mad dash for the finish. Krista captured this moment.
Jen, who ROCKED this race, finishing 10th in her age group, met me at the finish.
I was so happy to have felt so awesome throughout the race, and yep, I was thrilled with my time of 1:57:13–a PR of 9 minutes. Mostly I was smiling, with my sense of accomplishment, yes, but also because I’d done this race with my wonderfully inspiring friend Jen and because Krista and Cassy–and their adorable, cheering kids–were there. As is the case when you run a hometown race, I was able to chat with so many other friends, including my girls Michele and Lisa, both of whom had amazing races, too. Joe and the kids were back in Traverse City–Alex rocked out his last soccer game of the season–and after I got home we packed up for a couple nights of camping at the Traverse City State Park. It was a whirlwind of a weekend, but tiring and exhausting in all the right ways.
I’ll end with what Lori, a fellow M-22 Challenge participant and Michigan Runner Girl reader, had to say about Saturday’s event:
“M22 was a blast!! I have completed many running events, but this was my first triathlon event. So much fun! I wasn’t the fastest, but didn’t do too bad, 2:02 (but I stopped to take a couple pictures!). I didn’t face plant in the sand, I didn’t crash my bike flying down those hills, and I didn’t tip over my kayak…I think it was a success!”
This is a great northern Michigan race. Actually, it’s a great race, period. It captures the beauty of the area, but it’s also very organized and just an all-around good event. I can’t wait to do it again. It’s the perfect post-marathon, start-of-summer-celebration race.
Want to learn more about the M-22 brand? I interviewed Matt and Keegan for a feature story awhile back. Read it here »