By Ali Lopez
As some of you know, I finished my first 50-mile trail run back in June and promptly signed up for second one in September. Well, I had been on the waitlist for the Marquette Trail 50 50K race a few months back and I got notified that I could sign up, so I decided about that it would be a great training run for my September run. I read the race description, chatted with a few folks who have done the race and signed up for this late August race. Let the adventure begin.
The Marquette Trail 50 consists of 50-kilometer and 50-mile distances.
The course is mostly single-track, climbing the four peaks: Sugarloaf, Top-of-the-World, Bareback, and Hogback. All the peaks have views of Lake Superior, and portions of the course skirt its shoreline. Much of the trail consists of moderate to difficult terrain with some very significant climbs and technical areas.
According to Ultrarunning Magazine, the course is rated 3 out of 5 for terrain (“hilly”) and 4 out of 5 for Surface (“Trail with substantial rocks, roots and/or ruts.”)
Okay, so it sounds pretty tough. Understatement. Little did I know how tough and fun it would be. (Two words most well-adjusted people don’t usually put together.) But hey, life is all about getting out of that comfort zone and doing hard things!
I left Traverse City Friday afternoon to head up to Marquette with a wonderful couple (Tim and Kate) that I had never met, thanks to my dear friend and trail running goddess Erika. At this point the rain was coming down and I was planning on setting my tent up at another one of Erika’s friend’s campsite. On our way to packet pickup I made a quick call to a motel next door to my new friends and was able to score a room due to a last minute cancellation room. Sweet!
We got to packet pickup and I had a moment of panic when they did not have my name on the registration list. Thanks to having the confirmation email on my phone, they were able to issue me a bib. (Thank goodness for technology!) Then we went in search of food and drink. We landed at Blackrocks Brewery and had a beer and a yummy quesadilla from the taco truck out front. Not my usual prerace meal, but also not my usual race ☺ After dinner we went straight to the motel to get ready for a 3:30 wakeup.
Up (Very) Early
Race morning was beautiful. Had my steel-cut oats with peanut butter and maple syrup and big glass of water and then headed to the start at 4:45 a.m. The race has a 5:15 a.m. meeting and a 5:30 start. At the meeting they said it was easy to go off course and instructed us to look for the orange markers along the course, and I made sure to listen, as my specialty is getting off course. The moon was beautiful and the temps were around 60, with the forecast calling for sunny and 70s all day. Perfection!
I started the race with my new friend Kate, and ran for the first hour and a half in the dark with our headlamps lighting our path through the old growth forest, with lots of trees and plenty of twisty singletrack, roots and rocks to make it very interesting. The sunrise was beautiful with the almost full moon still out (sorry no pictures, but I was focusing on not tripping and falling at this point.) It was so cool to see the line of headlights bobbing through the woods as we traveled the winding course. I was excited when the sun came up so I could start to really see the beauty of the course. Course note: For the 50K we would run a small loop of 11 miles, head back through the start/finish area aid station and then run the big loop of 20 miles. The 50-mile runs the 20-mile loop again backward!
The first aid station was about 6 miles in, featuring water, HEED and some gels. We stopped briefly for water fill-ups and ventured on. The small loop has a few climbs and runs along some lovely lakes and a dam. Before we know it we have logged 11 miles and are back at the start/finish aid station. I am pretty hungry at this point.
PBJ, potatoes, olives and pickles all sound pretty good for breakfast with a few pretzels and a granola bar shoved into my pocket (aka pocketsnacks) for later. We have 6 miles until the next aid station (a.k.a. picnic, coined by Kate). Kate’s husband Tim was there cheering us on and we would see him multiple times on the course.
Just Keep Climbing
The big loop has all of the 4 peaks on it and it is where things get real. The temperatures remain beautiful. The sun is bright but there is a cool breeze and lots of shade. (Spoiler alert: this will change.) The first section has quite a bit of climbing and what I thought was the first peak at around 15 miles, but turns out it was only an “unofficial” peak (Sugarcube.) We hit the “picnic” and got my new favorite treat, peanut butter on a tortilla—amazing and bonus points, it fits perfect as a pocket snack.
Tim is here again to greet us and we head out for the big peaks. Less than a mile and we start climbing toward Sugarloaf. At this point we actually climb stairs (more than 300 of them, according to the couple in front of us who are counting them all.) Following the steps we keep climbing on granite boulders until we reach the summit. And wow, first breathtaking view of the day. Lake Superior was shimmering in the distance and the other peaks were surrounding us.
We descend Sugarloaf and head out to the “easier,” more runnable part of the course. We are running directly alongside Lake Superior at this point, sometimes way above the lake and other times directly alongside it. The smell of the pine trees was so lovely. The surface was sandy, pine-covered and at points rooty, providing some relief from the granite for a bit. The temps were starting to climb a bit at this point and Kate and I joked about just stopping here and spending the afternoon on the beach. We saw two other runners who were walking back up from the beach toward the trail who looked as if they had taken a quick dip to cool off. After our run along the lakeshore, we are headed to the next “picnic” and Tim comes running in to greet us on the trail. He joins us as we head out. Watermelon is my favorite at this “picnic.” I am needing hydration and some deliciousness. At this point we are four miles to the next “picnic.”
26.2 Down, 10K to Go…
The next peak is Bareback and more singletrack, rock climbing and descending, summits, views. Many times along the trail you are almost on the edge of a cliff looking down and hugging the edge of the boulders as you descend. After Bareback we hit the final “picnic” before the finish. (And of course we see Tim again.) Nothing is looking good to me here. I think my stomach is done with eating and chewing, but I manage to have some watermelon and grab some pocket food just in case. At this point we have run a marathon and “only” have 6 miles and 2 big peaks to climb (anyone can run a 10K, right?)
We head out and right away start climbing up more boulders. Let me just say that when I say “climbing,” I really mean climbing, like hands grabbing trees, grasping at rocks, pulling myself up and crab crawling down the boulders. The next peak we reach is Top of the World and it truly feels like that. It is a 360 view that again takes my breath away. We descend and shortly after begin the climb to Hogback. The climb was epic. At this point I was crawling and grabbing roots, rocks, trees, anything to pull myself up (yay core training and yoga!) All the while, I’m trying to spot the next orange marker. Not always easy to see while focusing on moving ahead. The climb to the summit here was brutal but worth every step. And the climb down was no joke. Crab crawling down boulders and squeezing into rock crevices, watching every step to make sure I am landing on solid footing. Definitely my favorite part of the whole race! The run into the finish was another 2+ miles and was mostly singletrack at this point, but not necessarily downhill. As we near the finish we can hear the cheering and music, so Kate and I did our best to sprint in and cross the finish line together.
An Ultimate Trail Runner Race
I can’t say enough good things about this race. It challenged me in every way, mentally and physically. The course required you to use all of your skills as a trail runner. The terrain was so varied and provided every type of running surface. The volunteers were amazing—filling our bottles, reminding us to eat, encouraging us. And the race director, Laura, was there at the finish handing you your medal (yay for a female race director!). The medal was really cool as well. It was a replica of the “brass check” that was given to miners to use as they entered and exited the mines for safety. I also feel so grateful to have run the whole race with my new friend Kate (and meet the best cheerleader ever, Tim.) If you are up for a challenge, get this on your 2020 race calendar. Oh, and for those who know me, I managed to only go off course once or twice but quickly found my way back. Even more amazing, I managed to stay upright the entire race!