When I decided to go the distance and switch from the 10K to the 25K at this weekend’s Tahqua Trail Run at Tahquamenon Falls State Park, I did so mostly because I’m in the midst of marathon training and figured a longer route would be smart with just three weeks before my next 26.2. And, I do prefer double-digit distances over shorter races, not to mention a long, new-to-me trail race in a remote area of the Upper Peninsula sounded pretty sweet. (As long as I didn’t come face-to-face with a bear).

The, um, trickier section of the Tahqua Trail Run 25K.
The, um, trickier section of the Tahqua Trail Run 25K.

But I didn’t expect the change in race distance to be a relief. As in, I was actually relieved I didn’t stick with only running 10K. Here’s why: those final 6.2 miles, particularly the last four miles, are very, very hard—way more technical than I expected—and had I only done the 10K, which is run by participants in both races, I would have missed out on nine absolutely majestic, peaceful and beautiful North Country Trail miles prior to hitting that section of the race that proved pretty humbling.

15.5 miles Saturday morning rather than 6.2—just perfect. Even though it did mean I twisted my ankle something fierce. (It’s elevated and on ice as I write this).

By the way, I’d been told the final 10K was rough, by more than one person, but my stubborn self somehow didn’t quite believe it would be all that difficult. I run trails a lot, after all. I run hilly trails.

Ha. I was completely and utterly humbled. Those trails up there in Tahquamenon Falls State Park—the most technical part was the four-mile-long foot trail along the river leading to the Upper Tahquamenon Falls—include “shin-high” tree roots, lots of mud, steep inclines, stairways, tilted wooden bridges and narrow, tall-grass-lined winding pathways. At times it felt like an obstacle course, au natural. It was gorgeous, the flowing river beside you, the sound of the Lower Falls, and later the Upper Falls, a serene backdrop to your footfalls, but it was tough.

I can see now why this comment from a past 25K participant is posted on event organizer Great Lake Endurance’s web site:

“Although this is the first race of its kind I’ve ever done, I cannot imagine there could be a more spectacular course anywhere in the world. We came as a family, with the kids running the 10k and adults the 25k. We will be back next year. Absolutely loved the first nine miles and am planning for how to train better for the last six. The kids had a blast. They are experienced x-country competitors and this race added a dimension of excitement that has them “hooked” on trail running.

Well said.

I’d absolutely run this race again. Here are some takeaways from my experience running it, as well as how this is a perfect place to camp, too. (Reason #1: there’s no cell service, at least not for us with our AT&T phones and gadgets, so we all were completely unplugged. Strange, but really, really nice.)

Double- and triple-checking your race day must-haves the night before is even more essential when you’re sleeping in a tent. I had thought I’d set everything out, next to our air-mattress bed, but I ended up realizing too late that I’d left my orange-flavored Gu Chomps back at the campsite. There just wasn’t time to turn around and retrieve them, and I was freaked out a little…but I had my hydration set (a bottle strapped to an arm band), and I knew Hammer Gels would be available at the three aid stations. Not ideal. But I’d be OK.

Alex and Joe got up super early to drop me off at the Upper Falls so I could catch a bus to the start.
Alex and Joe got up super early to drop me off at the Upper Falls so I could catch a bus to the start.

About that early-morning bus ride…All 25K runners were bused from one of two locations—I joined about three dozen other runners on a bus from the Upper Falls parking lot—at 6:30 a.m. Saturday. From there we traveled just over four miles west of Whitefish Bay to the Tahqua Trail. About a half-hour or so ride.

Smoking a cigarette apparently helps some runners. The trail is remote, so the bus dropped us off a mile from the start line. It was chilly—high 40s/low 50s—and I did wish at times I would have brought a bag to drop at the start (a car would carry it back to the finish for runners). But it was also nice to not have to worry about hauling anything. I wore my Brooks arm warmers—I swear, I can’t say enough great things about these—and I walked at a steady pace to keep warm. I reminded myself that soon enough I’d be working up a good sweat. As I walked alongside three other women, I caught a waft of smoke—not campfire smoke, but cigarette smoke. I looked ahead and noticed it was from a guy in front of us, one of the runners. I’m not going to judge—to each his own, maybe taking a few drags helps in some way?—but it was surprising to see a runner about to tackle 25K puffing on a cigarette.

It’s interesting people-watching at the start of a race. I tried not to worry about all the other runners spraying themselves with bug spray (another thing I forgot, oops), or that many of them had Camel Baks strapped to their backs (should I have brought mine?) and instead I stretched and got in line a couple of times for one of the three Porta Johns set up in the woods. It’s all good. You are prepared. You will be fine. Just do your own thing.

Lower Falls.
Lower Falls.

Even small races are “crowded” at the beginning. At the cowbell-ringing start (loved it), we took off on a dirt forest road along the Tahquamenon River for about one-quarter mile. Then it was a right turn onto the North Country Trail, a single-track that winds through spruce swale, pine ridges, lush bogs, Jack Pine savannah, and past the Camp 10 and Water Tank lakes (no moose sightings, but apparently this is where they’ve been spotted). Early on, on the single-track, you’ve got a runner right in front of you as well as one on your heels. It’s a bit disconcerting because you’re also staring at the ground as you get used to the terrain to make sure you’re not tripping over anything. A couple of guys behind me got frustrated enough at the pace and kindly asked if they could come around at the next clearing. I felt like I could go a bit faster, too, so I join them in passing a group of three women.

I couldn’t wait for that first aid station. My stomach was rumbling by mile two—a new occurrence for me that early on in a race—but then I remembered how I’d been up for three hours at that point. The pre-race banana I’d eaten on the way to the bus kept me going at first, but I was looking forward to grabbing my first gel.

Blue skies, cool temps, sunshine. Perfect running weather.
Blue skies, cool temps, sunshine. Perfect running weather.

The aid stations were perfectly spaced. At mile 3.5 I came upon the first aid station—friendly volunteers, lots of gels, cold water and HEED (Hammer High Energy and Electrolyte Drink) available. The other two stations were at miles 7 and 9.5. I took a Hammer Gel at each, and filled my bottle with water at the second station and with HEED at the final one (knowing I’d likely need an extra jolt for the final miles.

Miles 4-8 whizzed by. I felt in such a groove at this point of the race. I truly felt like I was in my zone. It was just so much fun climbing hills, running the switchbacks—my legs, thankfully, felt so very strong and capable—and the scenery truly was breathtaking. I marveled at the expansive forest surrounding me, the blue mirror-like lake off in the distance at the crest of one climb, and the barely-there path before me. I especially felt at ease after I found myself completely on my own; I’d been running fairly closely with four other runners but then stopped off to the side to tie my left shoe. It ended up being the very best thing that they passed me—I stood up, took a deep breath, and carried on my way. A pressure I didn’t know was there lifted; I could just go on at my own pace, not try to stay with a pack.

Cowbells! About 9 ½ miles in, you reach the Lower Tahquamenon Falls campground. If you run this race and want your family to cheer you on, book a spot in the campground near the Lower Falls viewing area (our campsite, one of the last ones available when we booked it in the spring, was in another section of the park). I loved coming into the campground, hearing cheers from campers (and lots of cowbell-ringing). Little kids smiled and said, “Good job!” as I passed by. It was a nice mid-race boost.

Four miles to go...
Four miles to go…

And then it got interesting. Very interesting. I’ve visited this state park many, many times throughout my life. I’ve even hiked parts of the River Trail that runs from the Lower Falls to the Upper Falls. But walking and hiking this trail is entirely different from running it. Or, I should say, attempting to run it. It was more like navigating. The River Trail features old growth hemlock and yellow birch. Big, big tree roots. There are wooden bridges at parts, as well as stairways the closer you get to the Upper Falls. I still felt fairly nimble, having run the first nine miles of single track well enough, but this portion clearly required extra attention.

And then, I fell. My lungs felt strong at this point—I wasn’t winded at all as I think I might be at mile 11 of a road race. The thing about trail running is you have to go slower. And add to that my goal of just finishing strong, not going out and running my fastest 25K. But my legs were a bit tired, with all the winding, single-track pathways I’d maneuvered over the past couple of hours. At 11.5 miles, my foot caught a root and I fell forward, my hands breaking my fall. OK, so I fell. That’s to be expected. This has happened to me before. I feel OK, get back up, keep going.

Then I really fell. I was cruising along, thanking God and the Universe for the beautiful clear day, the opportunity to be out in nature, to run this race…and then, right after seeing the mile 14 marker, I came down hard on my left foot. Immediately my foot turned and twisted in that awful way. I sank down to the ground, clutching my foot, already willing it to be OK. Just a mile to go, just a mile to go. I can’t be hurt now! I gave myself a few moments to breathe and sit. It hurt, badly. Then I told myself to get up, walk it out. I walked for awhile—stairs were just ahead, so I slowly walked up them. A runner who has finished the race but is back on the course to find his son was coming toward me. “You’re almost done!” he told me. I share that I just fell, twisted my ankle good, and he asked if he could help. I thanked him, knowing I just needed to keep moving. And I did. I start up a slow jog, and it felt OK. Just keep moving.

The Finish was near. Maybe the whole mind over matter thing really is true. Yes, I decided it definitely was, as I trucked on with the finish line in mind. I couldn’t wait to see my family, and I was very thirsty. My ankle miraculously stopped hurting and I could even run the final mile in, near the Upper Falls viewing area, through a short nature walk in the park, and finally into the Finish chute to a small crowd of cheering runners and spectators. Joe is there with our kids, snapping photos and hugging me after I cross the line. Finish time: 2:56. 9th in my age group, 17th female.

Made it!
Made it!

This campground has it all (did someone say brewery?) Aside from having a swollen, throbbing ankle (the pain hit hard not immediately after my race, or even that afternoon, but that night), our camping + running weekend was just so much fun. There are plenty of places to explore with your family (trails, waterfalls, a cool outdoor park & animal display staffed by a park ranger at the Upper Falls), as well as a brew pub and gift shop on site. We planned to buy a growler of their craft beer, but the bartender tells us that they ran out. “There was this trail race here this weekend,” he says, “and all these runners came in and bought a total of 60-70 growlers of beer. One guy bought six.” Yep. We runners like our beer. The campground also is close to the small town of Paradise—a place that holds a special place in my heart since it’s where Joe and I honeymooned forever ago—and the Whitefish Point Lighthouse and Shipwreck Museum. We spent Saturday evening there, collecting rocks and watching the sunset over Lake Superior. (I sat on a piece of driftwood—my ankle was a.n.g.r.y.)

We love this place.

Have you been to Tahquamenon State Park? Ever run this race? 

Do you combine camping and running? 

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One Response to “Exploring the North Country Trail: 2013 Tahqua Trail 25K”

  1. David Nowaczewski

    I just finished up a vacation in the UP and ran the trail from the lower falls to the upper falls and back on Friday morning and am really stoked to get back up for the race someday. How neat that you switched to the 25K and were able to take it all in.

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