By Bari Fitzpatrick of Live Laugh Run Breathe

When I signed up for the Michigan Wine Trail Half Marathon in Baroda, Mich. many months ago, I wasn’t really thinking about the fact that I would have just run in a 200-mile relay, or that I would have ran four other half-marathons and a 25K this year. I registered for this Aug. 25 event with the idea that I was going to have a great girls’ weekend, on my childhood stomping grounds, with lots of wine and laughter, with a little 13.1-mile race thrown it. That’s exactly what happened.

The West Michigan WINErs before the race.
The West Michigan WINErs before the race.

Girls’ Weekend

What started out as a few friends getting together turned into a team of about 20 women. We called ourselves the West Michigan WINErs and managed to do some group training runs (which also included wine practice) in the weeks leading up to the race. Molly coordinated team shirts and they were a HUGE hit on the course. LOTS of purple was seen running through wine country Sunday morning.

We showed up in Southwestern Lower Michigan in force Friday night and met at RyeBelle’s in St. Joseph for dinner. The food was delish and the beers were local and good; it was just a bit pricy. After dinner, we hit a couple of the local bars for more drinks and fun. If you are in St. Joe, I highly recommend The Buck. Spin the Wheel of Indecision and let it choose your beer fate!

Saturday morning was the local farmers market to pick up goodies for dinner and then wine tasting. We went to the White Pine Winery tasting room in downtown St. Joseph, and the wines were very good. Packet pickup was at Baroda Founders Winery, so we stopped for samples there as well.  After Founders, we headed out to Gravity Winery, which was by far my favorite of the ones we visited this weekend. Amazing wines, beautiful views, and they also served excellent food. Gravity does their tastings a bit differently – each wine is paired with a cheese (for the whites) or chocolate (for the reds). I LOVED this and found a few styles of wine I would not have ordinarily chosen because I wanted the pairing. During our wine tour, we also drove the course – which was quite intimidating.

One of the directional signs that are all around SW lower Michigan.
One of the directional signs that are all around SW lower Michigan.

Most of the women were staying at a place called Chalet on the Lake in Stevensville. These are A-framed cottages with nice views of the lake. Jenn, Molly and I stayed at Jenn’s mom’s house so we headed back there for dinner with her family. After dinner, we went to the beach to unwind with a glorious sunset and then headed back to Jenn’s for an early bedtime.

The Race

We arrived at the race site about 30 minutes before the race was to begin. This is cutting it a bit close for me, but I figured with only 500 people running, it would be fine. It really wasn’t. Parking was easy and the volunteers directing us were awesome. However, there were only six or eight port-a-potties and the lines were VERY long. It seemed everyone decided to show up at the same time. The start of the race was delayed about 15 minutes because so many people were still in line at the bathrooms. The PA system was also not working well so it was hard to hear what was going on. Even though we came down as a “team,” we were all running our own races. During the race, I ran with several of the girls but I also knew I needed to do what I could do considering my training and injury.

“Let the sweet fall fragrances of numerous vineyards and orchards carry you past 6 wineries along this one-of-a-kind rolling Southwestern Michigan USATF Certified half marathon course!” The website isn’t kidding when they say “rolling” course. It was one of the hardest courses I’ve ever run. The hills were relentless. The race started on a three-mile uphill where I found a long line for the port-a-potties and stopped. The rest of the course was up and down hill until we came back to the initial three-mile section, which was now a nice downhill. The hardest section was around miles eight and nine, but there was an aid station here (Gravity Winery). The volunteers were awesome. Aid stations were at mile 2, 3, 8.5 (this was too far apart and I’m SO glad I was carrying my own water), and 10. At mile 10 there were ice-cold towels (heaven!) and just before mile 11 was a fire truck spraying water.  We got to the finish line to find out they ran out of medals. Only 180 of the 500 medals they had made it to the race – the rest were still in Chicago. The race director was very apologetic and took full responsibility for this. In the true spirit of the running community, many of those 180 gave their medals to people who didn’t get one. I was one of those lucky people – last year’s Master’s winner, Brian “Yoda Jedimaster” he calls himself, gave me his medal while we were all celebrating the race back at Gravity Winery. The finish area had a few things to eat (cookies, pretzels, bananas) and they had lots of wine. There was also a keg of beer from Round Barn Winery and Brewery, but they ran out. This beer drinker wasn’t happy about that but at least I got one glass of beer before I resorted to wine. All runners also received a wine glass with the logo on it (the race will be changing its name next year to reflect the logo).

A collage of the wineries passed on the course.
A collage of the wineries passed on the course.

The pros:

  • Beautiful but challenging course
  • Easy packet pick up
  • Volunteers were awesome
  • The cold towels and fire truck
  • The roads were closed and the police did a great job of keeping the runners safe
  • Booze at the finish line
  • Pretty medal
  • glass

The cons:

  • Unorganized start
  • Not enough port-a-potties
  • Aid stations poorly spaced (they were located at winery locations rather than an even 2.5 or 3 miles apart)
  • Hills if you don’t like running hills (I actually like them because it breaks up the race)
  • Running out of medals – I felt a little guilty getting mine later knowing most of my friends did not get one
  • Running out of beer
  • Chocolate milk or bagels at the finish would have been outstanding
  • The shirt is pretty ugly – women got a sort of mustardy color and the men’s were burgundy.  I wish I’d ordered a men’s this time even though the women’s shirt fits me well
Sunset from the St. Joseph North Pier Lighthouse.
Sunset from the St. Joseph North Pier Lighthouse.

Would I run this race again? Yes, I would. I think the race director, Brad, learned a lot this year. He went from only 100 runners in the inaugural race last year to 500 this year and just wasn’t totally prepared. Even with the hitches, I think he did a great job with damage control. I had an email Monday morning apologizing for the medals situation and how he was planning to mail out medals to anyone who didn’t get one. As for the race itself, I would go in much better trained to run hills and hopefully wouldn’t be showing up to the starting line injured. This wasn’t my worst half at 2:35:35, but it was nowhere near what I’m capable of running (my PR was set this year at Bayshore when I ran a 2:07). Considering I stopped for 5 minutes at the bathroom and another 5 minutes when one of our teammates was hurt and waiting for medical, I’d still say I ran a decent race.  I’d just like to know how well I could tackle that course healthy and trained.

Plus, all the fun to be had around the St. Joseph, Michigan area can’t be beat.

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