By Ali Lopez
Each November, the Bell’s Beer Iceman Cometh Challenge brings thousands of mountain bikers to northern Michigan. The point-to-point race starts in Kalkaska, Mich. and finishes 30 miles later at Timber Ridge RV & Recreation Resort on the east side of Traverse City. Cyclists navigate dirt roads, two-tracks, abandoned railroad beds and the world famous Vasa nordic ski trail. It crosses just one paved road as it winds through Pere Marquette State Forest. This year’s conditions proved particularly challenging, thanks to super muddy trails.
So, what does this all have to do with running, you ask? Well, a group of trail runners decided it would be really fun to run the course the day following the Iceman mountain bike race. Since the course signs would still be set up, we could actually find our way through the twisty, winding trails. We created an event on Facebook dubbed “The Iceman Runneth Challenge” and invited anyone to join for the full 30 miles, or any part of it. Jonny Tornga was the brains behind the organizing. He even got Blue Tractor, a Traverse City restaurant, to set up an aid station for us at mile 20 with water and yummy runner snacks. I helped with promotion (a.k.a. convincing others to join the fun!), and we ended up with a fun crew of 11 runners.
Iceman Runneth Challenge
At 7 a.m. on Sunday morning, Jonny, Trevan, Zach, Doug, Britt, Nick, Jon, Ken, Rich, Alex and yours truly gathered at Timber Ridge and a bunch of wonderful friends gave us rides to the Kalksaka airport to begin the adventure. The morning was chilly—32 degrees at the start—and there was a good deal of snow on the ground when we got to Kalkaska. We set off at 7:45 a.m. feeling pretty excited about the day ahead.
The group set off at a pretty “quick pace” and I knew that it wasn’t sustainable for me to keep that pace for 30 miles. So after keeping with the group for about two miles of singletrack, I slowed down and hoped that the course would be well marked and that the group would wait up for me if there were any tricky spots. The first six or seven miles were pretty nice, easy flat singletrack and not as muddy as I was prepared for. All of the BIG arrows marking the course were still up and it was really easy to follow. Around seven miles in there was an unstocked aid station still set up on the course and the group had stopped there to refuel and wait for me.
Bring on the Mud
We took off again and the group spread out a little more, with the initial adrenaline rush wearing off and the pace slowing a bit—at least enough for me to have some company. The next section was deep in the forest with more singletrack and A LOT muddier. The good slick, greasy kind of mud that keeps you working harder to stay upright and not slip sliding on your butt. It was also pretty rutted here from 5,000 riders the day before! There were some hills but nothing crazy and we met up again another few miles down the trail, took some pics, ate some snacks and took off again.
At this point we are on some nice gravel and dirt roads in the Sand Lakes area so the footing was much better and we could pick up the pace again a little. Although, near the end of the gravel section is a sandy, steep climb that definitely required a power hike. We were all looking forward to crossing Williamsburg Road because we knew that was about 20 miles in and also where our aid station would be.
We hit the aid station (mile 20) and in my mind the halfway point! We were hoping to have some runners join us for the last 11 miles, but no luck. Instead what waited for us was a table filled with treats and water. There was bread, peanut butter, jelly, bananas, cinnamon rolls, Oreos, pretzels… something for everyone. I had been fueling with my new favorite coffee-infused energy ball creation (recipe available on request!) but for some reason was drawn to the Oreos. Not sure the last time I had one, but found myself eating three of them and enjoying it. (Healthy Chef Ali ultrarunner-approved treat).
While we were standing around munching and refueling another runner came running by. (Hi Tyler, if you are reading this.) I yelled out to him and offered up some food and water. He was running a smaller loop and thought we were all a little nuts, but in a good way. I think he really enjoyed our hospitality though. We spent a few minutes at this aid station waiting for some friends to show up, but started to get too cold standing around so we took off again. Just as we left and got a few hundred yards away they showed up and yelled and cheered for us…. Spoiler alert… don’t worry, we got to see them at the finish!
This section of the course had a lot of familiar trails for me, as I run the Vasa 25K trail fairly often. This section starts with some nice and easy, wide sandy trails but quickly has two pretty big climbs (one called Anita’s Hill—can’t remember the other.) Then it is back to the 25K and the sandy up and down trails. Most of the elevation for the course is in this section. We got to the 25K and 10K junction and found another aid station, this one still set up from the day before with oranges, apples, water and ice.
We took off from here and I was feeling pretty strong at this point, since I paced myself pretty well during those middle miles. I was able to pick up my pace and the group mostly ran closer together at this point. There was a slight change to the course this year as they added in the 5K Headwaters trail, which is my least favorite part of the Vasa pathway, especially after already running around 26 miles; it offers quite a bit of climbing, but since I am an excellent power hiker I was able to gain some ground and get in the middle of the pack now. (Finish strong!)
Finish Line in Sight!
Once through the 5K we were back on the 25K headed toward Timber Ridge, which offered us three big climbs before spilling out onto the campground and through the bridges and underpasses of the Iceman finale. Fun fact: according to the course description, this is the toughest finale to Iceman yet. About 25% of the race’s total elevation comes in the last four miles!
Unfortunately they had taken down the finish line banner but we didn’t really need that. Nicole and Megan (from the Traverse City Track Club) had set up a finish line buffet in front of the lodge with coffee, tea, beer and Nicole’s amazing no-bake cookies!
We really had such a blast running this great course. A few highlights: for Jonny and Alex, it was their first 50K and we even had a little “celebration” for Jonny complete with certificate and custom medal (nice work Britt and Trevan). We hadn’t known Alex before the run but after spending 6+ hours together we all are friends now! Ken’s pregnant wife was three days past her due date and actually let Ken come out and run with us. Good woman! Nick and Jon came down from Canada to run with us, making our field of runners international.
And thanks to the Iceman peeps for allowing us to run the course and use the name for our little run. We would love to do this again next year, and make it even bigger and better. Maybe Short’s Brewing would like to get involved????
Note from MRG: Congratulations to each runner who participated in this inaugural event! A special shout-out goes to organizer and MRG podcast producer Jonny Tornga, who is training for his first ultra marathon later this winter and completed his longest run to date during the Iceman Runneth Challenge. Way to go, Jonny!
Listen to Jonny and Ali talk about ultra running with fellow ultra runners Britt and Zach during this recent MRG Podcast episode here.