By Erica Walsh
I became aware of the North Country Trail Run after completing the 2019 Michigan Ragnar Trail event. Training for Ragnar Michigan Trail was the first time I had spent a good amount of time running on trails. I really enjoyed being out on the trail amongst the trees and nature, both during the event and while training for it. After Ragnar, I started looking for different trail running events not too far from St. Joseph.
In general, the half marathon distance is my event of choice, but I was coming off a stellar year of participating in events and was feeling great. When I found the North Country Trail Run and saw that a 50K race was available, I was intrigued. I’ve run two marathons in the past—the 1999 Fox Cities Marathon in Appleton, Wis., and the 2002 Ogden Marathon in Ogden, UT—and wanted to challenge myself to an ultra distance.
The North Country Trail
Registration for North Country Trail Run opens the weekend of the previous years’ race, which typically takes place the last weekend of August and fills fast. I found the race prior to the event in 2019 and had an interest in running the half marathon, but the event was full for the 2019 race and registration for the 2020 event was not yet open.
Once registration opened for the 2020 race, I debated signing up for the 50K. Although I was intrigued by the 50K ultramarathon distance, I wasn’t ready to commit. With my marathon experience, I knew how much time is needed for training for an event of this distance. I missed the opportunity for the half marathon distance as it filled quickly, so that was no longer an option. Mid-October 2019 registration for the 50K was still open so I decided to sign up. I sent a message to my training partners and my friend Bridget agreed to train and run with me. I was grateful that I would have someone with me on many training runs and during the race.
Training (and shin splints)
Training started in March 2020 after running base miles in the fall and winter. Training was going well until the end of April when I developed shin splints and had to start missing runs. I was disappointed by this development. It turns out that having all races canceled in 2020 worked out in my favor—I was able to recover from shin splints and defer my registration to 2021.
Round 2 of training started again in March 2021 and was on track. I incorporated more cross-training into the plan this time to help reduce the chances of developing shin splints. I was running three times a week, cycling twice a week, and strength training two times per week. This seemed to help and I was able to stick to my training plan.
Taking to the Trails
As part of training, Bridget and I also participated in two other trail runs during the summer: the Yankee Springs Trail Run Half Marathon at the beginning of June and the Hurt the Dirt Marathon at the end of July. Normally, the Hurt the Dirt event is held the last weekend in April but was pushed to July in 2021 due to pandemic concerns. Both events were enjoyable and I would highly recommend both.
Prior to the Hurt the Dirt event I was feeling some minor pain in my shins again, but not bad enough to be concerned. I ran the marathon and my shins had a hard time recovering after. I waited a week to run and meanwhile substituted more cycling into my training. When I ran again, my shins still were sore. I waited another week and again the same outcome.
I was frustrated at this point that I was two weeks out and considering not running the event because of shin splints. I made an appointment with a sports medicine doctor to rule out a stress fracture. Thankfully, no stress fracture showed on the X-ray so I went ahead and decided I was going to participate even if I had to walk the whole 50K. Thankfully, by not running much during the month of August, I was able to run mostly pain-free.
Race day started early, with a 6:30 a.m. start time for the 50K run. I was up a bit after 4 a.m. to eat breakfast, have coffee, and make sure all the important things got done before leaving the hotel in Manistee. Packet pickup started at 5:30 a.m. and Bridget and I arrived at the Big M Recreation Area at about 5:45 a.m. We got our bibs and the rest of our swag, which was plentiful—it included a hoodie, a t-shirt, a hat, a mug, a 50K sticker, a laundry bag, and a post-race meal ticket. The packet pick-up process went smoothly as there were many volunteers helping the racers gather their items.
Walking back to the car, Bridget and I realized that neither one of us had packed a headlamp. It was still dark that early in the morning and I was worried about tripping at the start of the race. I’ve been used to early morning brightness that it didn’t even occur to me to bring one. Navigating the parking lot in the dark was difficult. Thankfully, my friend and training partner, Marsha, who was kind enough to drive to the event but was not participating, had a small flashlight in her vehicle that I used for about the first mile until the sky began to brighten.
In addition to the darkness, it also started to rain before the race director corralled the racers to the start line. Most racers took shelter under trees or building overhangs as long as they could. Once at the start line, the rain continued a bit but did stop before the race started. The race director gave some direction to the participants and then we were off.
The first three miles were a small out-and-back loop. The end of this loop took us back to the start/finish area and the first aid station. By this time the racers had reshuffled and were running with those who were at the same pace. Heading into the woods I knew there was a big climb around mile 4. Sure enough, there was a long steady climb. After walking up the hill, we found ourselves in a great pack of about six runners and continued on.
Watch Your Footing
It turns out that I needed to worry about tripping even in the daylight. At about mile 7, I tripped over a root or rock and went flying. Thankfully, there was a signpost in front of me and I was able to catch myself before I hit the ground.
The next 2.5 miles were quite pleasant as we were chatting with the couple in front of us. It was nice to have new people to talk to. Bridget and I are always quite chatty with each other, but we’ve run many miles together so it was nice to have a fresh conversation. The couple running with us was using the NCTR as a training run for a 100-mile race that they’d be participating in later in the fall.
Before I knew it, I was at the first drop-bag aid station around mile 9.5. I had packed my bag with extra Skratch Hydration Mix and gummies, some pretzels, extra socks, hat, and a change of shirt but all I needed was to take my shoes and socks off and clear the sand/dirt. I then indulged in the delicious peanut butter cookies that the aid station was offering and some flat coke and plain old water.
Getting into a Groove
Then the middle miles set it. I felt the majority of the middle section was flat with a section of hills for fun. Hills are always fun, right?! In addition to the hills, this is where I started to feel the heat and humidity of the day. A few more stops at aid stations to refill my hydration pack with ice and water. The ice was just the thing I needed. Carrying the icy water on my back felt good. One aid station was offering potatoes and salt, watermelon, and other goodies. I think the bees were enjoying the buffet as much as the runners. The aid station volunteers were doing a great job dealing with the tired runners as well as the bees. At another aid station, I stopped for some water and pretzels. I think the sweetness of the Tailwind and/or Skratch I was running with needed something salty to cut through the sweetness. The aid stations were stocked well.
Around mile 20, the 50K runners were directed to an out and back. As Bridget and I were on this section, we ran by a mud puddle that I swore we had run by in the first 3 miles. I even said that I recognized the mud puddle, but who recognizes a mud puddle? After the familiar puddle came a bigger mud puddle that looked really inviting to jump in and cool off, but I restrained myself. We were then at another aid station that was our turnaround point. We would revisit this aid station again with just under 3 miles to go. This was also an aid station for the half marathoners and I had a bit of envy when I overhead that they had 2.8 miles left.
The next 8 miles or so were a slugfest. It was hot and I was tired. There were quite a few hills. This is where I had to just keep putting one foot in front of the other and remind myself that every step was one step closer to the finish. Finally, I arrived at the aid station I visited during the out-and-back portion. Knowing that I had just under 3 miles to the finish was the motivation I needed to keep going. I knew that I’d be done shortly.
There were some more hills to climb and an awesome view with about a mile left. I stopped for just a moment and continued on. The rest of the race was downhill. I kept thinking I should be hearing the finish line and when I finally started hearing the cheers and announcer, I knew I was almost at the finish.
Finish Line in Sight
We exited the trees and there was the finish line. It was great to run in and hear the spectators cheering. It was even better to hear the announcer call out my name as I crossed the finish line with Bridget and was awarded the largest finisher’s medal in my collection.
The post-race meal was excellent. There was a variety of choices—burgers, veggie burgers, and brats as well as many side dishes. I enjoyed every bit of this meal since all I’d had since breakfast was trail snacks.
Once the post-race meal was finished, it was time to head home. After a quick clean-up and clothes change, we were headed back to St. Joseph.
I would recommend running the North Country Trail Run at any distance. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to run the 2022 event due to other summer plans. I am looking forward to returning to the North Country Trail Run in future years.
The 23rd annual North Country Trail Run has filled for this year—the race is set for Aug. 27-28, 2022—but a waitlist is available. Learn more here.
Erica Walsh lives and runs in St. Joseph, Mich. She’s an American Council on Exercise Certified Personal Trainer and Health Coach, providing one-on-one training to her clients. She’s also instructed group exercise classes and conducted group and individual health coaching sessions. Watch for more training tips and motivation from Erica in upcoming posts.
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