Michigan: Mellow Marathon

Run Woodstock is organized by the same people who do the Dances with Dirt races and was an easy drive from the Detroit airport. It had been on my list of possibilities for a while and when I saw that I could get a flight, rental car, marathon entry, and a hotel night (with a night camping after the race) all for less than $400, I signed up. In contrast to their Dirt races, the Woodstock races were supposed to be less muddy and on flatter terrain. Distances ranged from 100 miles or 100k (both starting Friday at 4pm) down to 5ks (natural or not, starting Saturday night) so the Saturday morning marathon had a 10 hour limit. No problem, man.

Previous years’ results showed over 1,000 participants across the seven timed events. It looked like many people set up camp for the weekend and they had showers available. I decided to be cool like the big kids and camp. After the race, of course, because why would I sleep on the ground the night before a race? I carefully shoved my tent, sleeping bag, thermarest, and running stuff into my carry on suitcase to make sure everything would fit, then I started obsessing.

web map
Most of the 13.1 mile loop that would be run twice.

And the Garmin version:

After an early (for me) flight to Detroit, I picked up my tiny rental car and did some sightseeing on the way to my very cheap hotel in Whitmore Lake, about half an hour from Hell Ranch where the race took place. I then went to pick up my bib and check out the trails. By the time I got to the ranch, the 100M and 100k had started and the party was underway.

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Packet pickup Friday after the 100 had started.

They had several tents with people selling pizza, race souvenirs, sandwiches, drinks, and the registration table where you could pick up bibs, wristbands if you had paid for showers (oh damn, I forgot a towel!), and buttons for all of the activities that you did during the weekend. I eventually earned a tie dye button. After getting my stuff, I walked through the campground to see where I would be sleeping the following night, then walked across to the pasture/parking lot across from the campground. I realized I would have to check out of the hotel and get there fairly early to get a space with all of the people registered for the 50m and 50k that started an hour before the marathon. I then wasted way too much time looking for a place to buy a towel and never found one. I slept well except for being briefly awakened by the very loud storm around 3am but quickly went back to sleep after congratulating myself for not camping the night BEFORE the race.

Race report: It was still raining when I woke up and headed to the race. The car was fully packed and I had all of my race food with me (instructions were very clear that aid for marathoners or shorter included only water) and I brought cash to buy a coke at on of the tents at the start area as I finished the first loop. I was pleased with my foresight, minus the towel, and excited as I drove to the pasture parking lot. After the storm, the lot was a mud pit. Good thing I was there in plenty of time and had my bib already. Bad that I did not have 4 wheel drive. I made it to the start in time and with a crowd almost twice the size of Bear Brook, we headed down the road. The first miles were on road and a crushed gravel path. They were very runnable, straight, and not too interesting. The most exciting thing was where the real trail intersected with the gravel trail on the first loop and two guys came out fast, in perfect synchrony, and had obviously been running for hours. These guys were Real Trail Ultrarunners and I think that’s where my desire to try running really long started. But I’m getting ahead of myself. After 5-6 miles and an aid station that really only had water, we got to turn off from the gravel to nice single track. Muddy, slick singletrack! It wasn’t as slippery and slimy as Gnaw Bone, but the effects of the previous night’s storm and hundreds of runners was evident in the next several miles. It was pretty flat – only about 500′ per loop.

Less than 1000′ feet total.

As we came through the campground after the first loop, I looked for my coke dealer with my bills ready. I remembered the drinks tent was just next to the start line. Sadly, the tent was all the way across the campground from our marked trail and thanks to that funny mindset I get sometimes when running, I was unable to justify going that far off trail. Instead, I just looked hopefully at all of the crew waiting for their ultrarunners but was too shy to ask anyone for some coke.

I headed back into the woods for the new section of trail that would start the second loop and take me to the intersection where I had earlier seen those two gazelles running effortlessly. Along this section, I saw signs for the 10k, 5 mile, and 5k turnoffs, and the “natural” 5k turnoff. When you sign up for any of the timed races, you also get entry into the 5ks and maybe a 10k. The evening 5ks had a natural option that I was pretty sure meant naked, as I’d explained the day before to a friendly stranger on my flight. Later in this loop, I met another runner who had participated in the natural 5k the night before and confirmed it was a nudity optional run and that it wasn’t as bad as expected. The second loop was much like the first but the mud was somehow slicker. I’ve since learned that the correct term is “buttery” and it’s better than sole sucking mud. The later miles in the loop were in a very cool forested area and went quickly as I talked with a runner from Boston. She had run the Stone Cat marathon that I was looking forward to running in November. She promised the aid stations were far superior to the ones here where they really were only water and maybe Gatorade.

Cool, shady forest and no mud in the final few miles.

We finished well before the 10 hour cutoff and she went back to continue crewing for her husband who was running the 100 miles. She was kind enough to share a delicious coke that I was maybe fantasizing about aloud about for too long. I was impressed that she could be up all night crewing, run a marathon, then continue supporting him. When I said as much, she said she likes him a lot and they have more fun together. Sounds like a good approach to a relationship.

After the finish, I wandered back to my car in the mud pit and set up my tent across the road at the campground. There was a definite Woodstock-ish scent to the air in the campground. I took a shower in the shower trailer where most of the stalls required you to pull a lever to keep the water on. Some enterprising runner had tied the lever to a towel hook in my stall so I got to enjoy a steady stream of hot water. Then it was tie dye time and back to my tent to enjoy some Zingerman’s baked goods and a nap. After sunset, I went to see the hundred milers finish. The finish line party was still going when the last ones came across at midnight. I had a short nap in the tent and was gone by 4am for my drive back to Detroit and 630am flight.

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Bonfire at the finish waiting for the last 100 milers.

Off trail: A friendly stranger on the first flight from home was undaunted by my “leave me alone” signals of a book and headphones in my lap. Responding to his “Where are you headed?” with the explanation that I was going to Detroit for a trail running festival called Woodstock and that my suitcase was full of camping gear did not dissuade him from continuing the conversation. Mentioning the natural 5k seemed only to pique his interest further. Sadly, he was flying home to another state halfway across the country. I got to enjoy my book on the next flight to Detroit.

Even if you have absolutely no intention of talking to anyone on a flight, and you are without question uninterested in any kind of relationship, you may want to think twice about pulling out your hardback library copy of The Improbability of Love before you meet your friendly stranger/seat mate. I still blush furiously almost two years later thinking about it as I type this. It’s a good book though.

My first stop after picking up the rental car was Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor. Friends have been buying me their baked goods as gifts for years and I finally got to try the real thing in person.  I bought plenty to enjoy after the race. Ann Arbor was nice but crowded, some sort of football game.

If you plan to shower after a race, be sure to pack a towel. Soap and a washcloth are handy too after a muddy trail.

There does not seem to be a wait 3 days before calling rule anymore – I got a text from the friendly stranger shortly after landing at home Sunday morning. Thankfully, he asked about the race and not the book.

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