As we experience our first significant snowstorm of the season — numerous areas of the state are getting hit especially hard, thanks to lake effect snow — it seems a fitting time to catch up with one Michigan runner who is helping athletes embrace the elements during the coldest months of the year. Mt. Pleasant runner and race director Ryan Hackett, who is behind the popular Michigan Half Marathon Series, is again offering a wintry mix of races known as the Winter Warriors Series for those of us who, as he puts it, “like to train and race outside during the tough winter months.”

These races include: The Snowmans Half/10K/5K on Jan. 25; The IceCube Half/10K/5K on Feb. 15; and the Mud Dogs Half/10K/5K on March 22. This series of three winter races in Mt. Pleasant, Mich. can be done separately or, if you’re feeling especially warrior-ish, as a package of races.

Ryan Hackett's buddy Matt Frazier, in the black shorts, ran his first half marathon three years ago at the Snowmans Half. he has since gone on to become an Ironman athlete.
Ryan Hackett’s buddy Matt Frazier, in the black shorts, ran his first half marathon three years ago at the Snowmans Half. he has since gone on to become an Ironman athlete.

MRG is partnering with the Winter Warriors Series this year — keep reading to the end for a special race discount code, just for you all! I’m also eyeing one of these races myself; The Snowmans Half in January or IceCube Half in February would be a great Boston Marathon training race, I am thinking … I’m excited about this partnership because it’s given me an opportunity to learn more about Ryan and his passion for running and racing in Michigan.

“I think what I like most about running in Michigan is that you can drive 10 miles and be running along a lake, on some trails, through a city … or down a country dirt road,” Ryan shared. “Each area of running has its own aspect of joy to it make each run a good run.”

Here’s more from my conversation with Ryan, including how he discovered running, the things he’s learned from organizing road races, and tips for staying strong, safe and warm while running outdoors these next few months.

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Mt. Pleasant runner and race organizer Ryan Hackett.

First, can you please share a little about your own running journey? 

Growing up I was always involved in sports. I was never really a star athlete, but I had a good work ethic that allowed me to be an above-average athlete in most sports. I played soccer, rocket football, basketball and baseball from elementary on up to middle school. I dabbled in cross country and track in 8th grade but never really considered myself to be a runner until my sophomore year, in 2001, when I decided to run cross country instead of play football. That summer I guess you could say we (my coach and two other guys) started up the Shepherd Running Club, which is still going strong today. There were only three to four of us who showed up consistently, but it paid off in the upcoming season — the team went from nearly last place in the conference the previous year to winning the conference title. To me that was a big deal since all of the football players razed me quite a bit for quitting football, saying things like “Shepherd is a football town, no one cares about running,” or “cross country is for f–gs.” By the time my senior year came around, there were about 8-10 guys who would show up consistently to the running club and later on that season we finished third at the D3 state championship. After high school, I ran for a short period at Cornerstone University, but found out that the school was not the right fit for me since I wanted to go into a health profession. So it only made sense to go back home and attend Central Michigan University since they have an excellent health professions program and it was just down the road from my home.

How about race organizing — when did this begin for you?

I think it was around that time, going to CMU, when I started to play around with the idea of setting up some races. The ideas started to sprout up as the guys from the CMU Running Club were always trying to get me to go to races with them, but I really couldn’t afford it since most of them were $40. Then one day someone from the group mentioned a college student who organized a race to “support a student in need of financial support.” We laughed about it, saying what college student isn’t in need of financial support? Yet I was in the same struggle, so the idea kept popping back into my head that we could host a race to help cover the finances for us to pick out a couple key races. I played around with the idea for a while but it wasn’t until the next year when we had a new club president who sounded excited to give it a try. That’s when I finally made the move and went into the bank to try and set up an account for the registrations to be deposited into. When I sat down with the bank manager she suggested that I go to the court house, obtain a small business DBA and then donate the money over myself since I was was the only one who was truly trying to develop and coordinate the race. So I went and did it! Only to return 30 minutes later as the newest business owner in Isabella County. From there I set up my first race, “The CMU Winter Warriors 5K” Only 36 people showed up and it generated something like $75 for the running club. (Since then I’ve kept the running club involved and they’ve receive around $7,000 through the Winter Warriors Races).

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How about this wintry running view! The Winter Warrior Series includes three separate events — held in January, February and March — and include half marathon and 10K options.

Tell us about your Michigan Half Series and Winter Warrior Series…

I decided to put on the Winter Warriors Race Series a year later after I organized a test run for the Michigan Half Series that took place in the fall of 2008. It was called the Michigan Half Marathon Mini Series in which it was only three races compared to the seven that I desired to host in the future. Some people really hated me from those races because they thought I was going to host it like the Detroit Marathon or something (come on, you paid $15 for an individual race and $40 for all 3, what were you expecting?). There were no finisher medals, shirts were an option for a higher entry fee, and it wasn’t chip timed. Thankfully I had a lot of encouragement from local running friends who would tell me things like “They are signing up to run a race, not have you hold their hand and wipe the sweat off their forehead for three hours.” Or “It’s your race Ryan, you can set it up how every you want.”

So once the mini series was complete, I figured “Why not keep after things and host a series of winter races?” So I did. When I hosted my first race I really liked encouraging all of the runners calling themselves “winter warriors” and so on, so I basically decided to tag the name back on and upgrade it to a 10K and half marathon like I did with the mini series. Over the next couple of weeks I came up with the race themes and names. It took me a couple more days to make up the artwork on an awesome computer program called “paint.” One thing that was great about the artwork was that it helped promote the races as a low key-event — this way people didn’t show up thinking they were going to be racing in a big time race like the Detroit Marathon again. After that the awards came … and they were pretty much a failure the first time around (Styrofoam snowmen that fell apart when I handed them out, icecube trays with the race name and age group written on the bottom and a super super rich chocolate pudding, Oreo mix that came in a bowl with the race name and age group written on the bottom). By the next year I had them mastered, thanks to a couple of buddies of mine at the CMU Art department who showed me how to cut and bend the plexi glass into the standing figurines that they are now.

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Michigan runner Maggie Rettelle running last year’s Icecube Half. You can learn more about Maggie, who lives in Midland, in this post on MRG

How would you describe the race experience for each of these winter races? 

Each of the winter warrior races are themed-based on what the typical weather conditions are like during that time of the year. Snow-covered roads in January, ice-covered roads in February, and then once all of that melts it’s muddy in March. Each course is also on an out-and-back course with a T section for miles 4.5-8.5. A lot of runners like this because they can see each other a couple of times to cheer each other on. From that point on runners will usually experience a bit of wind coming from the north. So miles 8.5 -10.5 can get nasty depending on how bad it’s blowing. After that they are on the home stretch to see me waiting at the finish line cheering them in. That is when they can go inside to scoop up their hooded sweatshirt (you have to finish to get it!)

Who are the runners who sign on for these events?

At first I had some not-so-winter warrior-like people show up, even though there was a disclaimer on the registration page and website that said “If you are intimidated by ice, snow, wind or mud these races are not for you.” But typically the races will bring out all of the hardcore winter warriors. People who like to train and race through all of the tough winter months. Not only that, but a good handful of people will also use the races as a way to train for a spring marathon or Boston. So a lot of times we’ll have people finish by running through the finish chute to run another 3-5 miles.

Anything new with any of these races in 2015?

There are a couple new things to the Winter Warrior Race Series this year:

  • The start and finish line will now be located a quarter mile from its original spot (was just behind O’Kellys Sports Bar, now at the The Comfort Inn Conference Center).
  • Another change is that I’ll be dropping finisher medals and bringing in pint glass. I know some people run just to collect race medals, but in the past they have caused too many issues since I have to order them in one month ahead of time. With pint glasses I can order them in about 10 days before the race and have an accurate count.
  • The final change to the this year’s Winter Warrior Race Series will will be that 1st, 2nd and 3rd place finishers in each age group will receive an award. That’s 180 snowmen, 180 Slick Ricks (IceCube figurines), and 180 MudDogs.

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What do you feel runners like most about these races?

Ultimately they are there to run a race, but I think what runners like most about these races are how much they can get for such a low entry fee. Runners can pay $25 (5K) -$35 (half marathon), or $80 (for all three races) and receive a custom bib, hooded sweatshirt, pint glass and the potential hand crafted awards that are designed based on each race theme. The races are also chip timed, the race photos are free and after the race they have the choice of a coffee and a bagel at big apple bagel, a beer or a smoothie at Tropical Smoothie. If I were to pick from any of those I would have to say people like the awards the most (those suckers take me about 60 hours to make collectively).

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Any training or racing tips for the Winter Warrior Series?

First, I would highly recommend finding or buying a wind breaker. It doesn’t have to be something top notch. Just something that can cut the wind from blowing through all of your clothes and freezing you on windy day.

Secondly would be studding your shoes with sheet metal screws. It’s super cheap and works great on both the pavement and ice. That and it shouldn’t ruin your shoes or penetrate through the shoe to poke your foot … unless you run in a minimalist shoe. Here is a link on how to do it:

Finally, I would advise people who are struggling to get their long runs in to try and do some double work-out days that add up to a little more then what they will be doing for their long long run (gotta do a little extra if you aren’t doing it all in one shot! When doing them, don’t focus on speed … focus on that amount of time you’re on your feet.

Where do you love to run?

I love to run on trails. Any bit of trails of are great for its soft touch under the foot, but I think it ultimately comes down to the constant need for attention –sometimes when I’m out on the road I catch myself settling in and not trying my hardest. But with trails it has me engaged the entire time.

If I had to choose a specific place that I love to run, I would have to go with the Hanson Hills just outside of Camp Grayling. I’ve done the Great Lakes Relay 10 times, the North Country Trail Relay five or so times, Dances with Dirt one time, the Kewenaw Trail Running Festival two times and the Grand Island Marathon one time. I loved them all, but Hanson Hills has 65ish miles of trails packed within its 11ish mile outer loop.

Do you have a favorite post-run meal or indulgence?

Hmmm … I’m not a very picky eater, so usually I’ll take whatever I can get my hands on. If I’m at home I’ll usually end up going for something that is solid and salty. If it’s something that is provided post-race, I’ve noticed that fruit sacks really seem to get me excited.

Anything else you’d like to add?

The main thing that I would like to add is that these races have been a purely grass roots process. No sponsors, no outside investors and no donations… just me taking in the pre-registration funds to order in the race products to have ready for people the on race day. Not only that but it’s been a great socio-economic tool for our communities as it has put roughly $25,000 back into local organization and while purchase as much race product as I can locally.

Ready to become a winter warrior? You can sign up for one of three race packages here. Or, register for just one. SPECIAL RACE DISCOUNT OFFER for Michigan Runner Girl readers: Use the code MRGwarriors for $5 off individual races and $10 off a multi-race package.

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