Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Race Report: Keyes Peak Trail Marathon

In keeping with my training plan of running a trail marathon as a last long training run two to three weeks before my DWD 50ks, last weekend I ran the Keyes Peak Trail Marathon in preparation for my upcoming 50k at Dances with Dirt Devil's Lake in July. I chose this marathon for three reasons:. I had never been to Michigan's Upper Peninsula and wanted to see the beautiful scenery; it is in the Trail Runner Trophy Series; and it had a river crossing, which I had never done in a race before.

I had researched the race in advance and had read race reports. One report talked about mud, hills, ticks, and a river crossing. Sounded like a lot of fun to me!! Well, truthfully, I wasn't that excited about the ticks, but I bought an industrial sized bottle of bug spray with DEET and was ready to go. The race was also an environmentally aware race. All racers were required to carry bottles, and no paper cups would be used on the course. In addition, it was an automatic disqualification to be observed dropping any litter on the course. I was totally on board with that and thought this was a wonderful way to run a trail race.

As we made our way up and across the Mackinac Bridge the weather was perfect, sunny and beautiful. The water was beautiful shades of turquoise and blues. However, as we headed out the 2 and got closer to the MI/WI border, it was looking dark and cloudy. Finally we had a bit of a downpour. Yikes. I was worrying then about the condition of the trails and the water level in the river. On a previous year the river crossing had to be canceled because conditions were too treacherous for the runners to cross.

By the time we got to Keyes Peak, the storm had mostly passed. As we were driving down the road looking for the campground we were staying at, I saw a sign that said Keyes Peak Ski Resort. That was the starting line and packet pick-up. Then just about 300 ft. down the road was the entrance to our campground. What great luck!! The campground I had booked us at was literally next door to the race start!

We checked into our cute little cabin and headed over to packet pick-up. It is a small race, less than 300 runners total in the three races (50k, marathon, 10k). Packet pickup was a small affair. No big race expo here. What was here, though, was an incredibly friendly race director and staff. The race director was so nice that he even took groups of people outside to explain the course and to answer any questions. You could tell how much he cared about the race and that his main concern was a great experience for all runners.

Most people had questions about the river crossing. He explained that there were two options: swim across or cross with a rope. The water this year would be about "waist deep" and very doable. There would also be a guy there to help with the crossing. Some people looked a little worried. I thought it sounded like loads of fun.

"No Nonsense" arm warmers
The race start time was 7 am. I suddenly decided that it was going to be cooler than I expected at start time. I was expecting lower 60s, but they were now saying low to mid 50s. That is a little chilly for me standing around at the start. I decided I would need arm warmers. A quick check of my running bag revealed that the arm warmers were back in MI. It was off to town to find a Walgreens for a pair of knee socks to become improvised arm warmers. I thought they turned out pretty good for the $1.99 I had to invest in them. I thought the "No Nonsense" brand logo was fitting as a mantra for the challenge ahead.

Race morning was an unusual one for me. Because we were so close to the start and the race was so small, there was no need to get to the race early. Even with the 7 am. start time, I was able to sleep until 5:30 and still get to the race with plenty of time to spare, even with stopping for three applications of bug spray. (I was very serious about avoiding ticks).My improvised arm warmers worked well to keep me warm waiting for the start, but by start time, it had already warmed up to the upper 50s, so I ditched them before I headed out. 

The group at the start for the 50k/marathon was probably around 100. The start was the typical low-key ultra start, with the race director saying something like "Ready. Go!"  We sped, jogged, or hobbled off the start line. The race was at a ski resort. The finish was down the ski hill, but the start went up a dirt road that paralleled the slope. It was a pretty good hill with just enough mud to make it interesting. It was similar to the start at Gnaw Bone, only not as long and not as muddy.

Once we hit the top of the hill and got to the ridge, we began about 6 miles of mostly downhill, some of it pretty steep. This suited me fine. I love downhill running and ate up this part of the course (including one mile split of 7:40 -- what was I thinking??). As I was doing it, though, I was not naive enough to think that I would not have to pay. Southern Michigan around where I live has no place to train for a sustained 3 or 4 mile downhill stretch. My quads were not prepared well for this type of pounding, and I knew there would be big pain in the future. I put that thought to the back of my mind, though, and decided to take maximum advantage of the parts of the course that played to my strengths.

The course itself was not what I expected. It was almost entirely on dirt roads, with very little of the single track that I love so much. On the positive side, the footing on the dirt roads was very good, and unlike some roads, these were very flat and easy to run on. It would be a good course for a road runner, not used to technical trails. The scenery was also beautiful, lots of trees and greenery, and lots of shade, which became important as the morning progressed. In general, I was cruising along and having a pretty good time.

Along about mile 13, though, things turned not so fun for me. First of all, the second half of the course is predominantly uphill, which is never fun for me. It was also warming up, which for me is not a horrible thing, but when mixed with uphills just adds to the overall discomfort level. However, my real problem was the nausea. Despite having taken S-Caps religiously from the first hour on, I was having waves of nausea. There is nothing quite like being nauseous, hot, and climbing a hill, knowing that there are still 10 more miles of hills to go. It made me cranky.

On top of that, I was hungry, but there was a little battle going on between my brain and my stomach. The conversation went something like this:

Brain: "If you want to avoid a total shutdown here you better send us some more of those carbs."

Stomach: "If you send us any more of that gooey, sweet stuff, we are sending it right back out!"

I went through this almost continually for miles. I had a lot of time to think about it too because there were some really hellacious hills in this section. The worst hills on the course tended to be right after the aid stations. One of them was so steep I wondered whether vehicles could really make it up.   

The one bright spot on the horizon was the river crossing. For the marathoners, this is between mile 18 and 19. As we approached there was a volunteer there asking us whether we were doing the swim or run option and yelling it out for the volunteers on the river. I took the run option, which meant crossing with the rope. There was a volunteer to help me down the steep bank to the water and another to help with the crossing. The guy on the rope was awesome, giving really helpful advice and letting runners know where the big rocks and deep spots were. The water was moving fast in the middle and up to chest deep for me. I got knocked off my feet one time, but had a good hold on the rope so did not go under. Mostly the water just felt really good and the crossing was fun. That one experience was worth the trip.

This is not me. It is a representative picture of the river crossing from  Running  in the USA.
After the river crossing was an aid station. I was not changing shoes, but I did need to do something about my nausea. I had Gatorade in my hydration pack and decided that I might be better off with just water, S caps, and gels. I had pretty much drained the pack by then, so I had a volunteer refill it with water. She was so sweet. She filled it with the pack on my back, which I was very thankful for. I didn't want to take it off since it had taken me about three miles of fiddling to get it to sit just right.  

The water in the pack helped a bit, but I was still nauseous in those final miles. I was cheered a bit by realizing that it looked like I was going to break 5 hours, but it was not a guarantee at the rate I was moving by then (mostly a walk). There are some really cruel hills in the race between miles 22 and 24. Things were not going well.  I got passed by the only woman I had seen since about mile 7 of the race. She was very sweet and tried to encourage me to run with her to the end, but I was in my own private hell at that time and was not able to rally and join her, especially when we hit some runnable (for her) uphill. At about that time, I realized that I could break 4:45 if I picked it up just a bit, so I tried to pull myself together for one last push to the finish.

Me with my bottle of syrup
I was so happy when I finally started to get glimpses of the lake, ski lodge, and finish line through the trees. The finish was down a big ski hill which was fine for me. My legs could handle one more downhill with the finish in sight. I finished with a 4:34:35, which was a new trail marathon PR for me. I was also 6th woman overall, but only 3rd in my age group. The age group award was a bottle of Wisconsin maple syrup, which was cool. I also really liked the finishers medal, which was wooden and hanging from a piece of twine.

The finish line treats appeared to have been homemade, and the whole race had a really homey, small town feel. I would have enjoyed it a lot more, though, if I had not been in so much pain. My legs were not ready for the amount of continuous downhill and made that very clear to me when I stopped. I was in more pain after this race than even the Gnaw Bone 50k. Still it was a great experience and will be good training for the Leading Ladies Marathon which is also a downhill course.  

Friendly Volunteer!
All in all, it was a good experience.  It is a well run, well marked race. The race director is a nice guy who cares a lot about the event and the runners. The course is pretty and very runnable, good for those just switching from road to trails. It did not have enough single track to suit my preferences, but probably others were thankful not to have to deal with technical trails. I did not run into any of the dreaded ticks mentioned in other race reports you might see online. The river crossing was a fun element for me. The volunteers on the course were excellent and very friendly. 

Friendly Crew at the Last Aid Station

It is exactly the type of low key race that makes me love trail and ultra running. The experience was definitely worth the trip. 


  1. Great race review and congrats on a PR! Sounds like a race I would love, especially the river crossing portion!

  2. congrats on the pr! what did you think of the up? were you able to do any sightseeing on your way back?

    1. Jessica,
      I loved the UP, but unfortunately we did not get enough time to really do any sightseeing. I am hoping for another trip up there before too long with more time to look around.

  3. I love reading your posts............such interesting races you do!!!!!!!

    1. Linda,
      Thanks. I am getting to the point where a race has to have something different to attract me for me to want to go. I look for interesting ones, but I also find that most trail races have something interesting to them.


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