Dances With Dirt 50K @ Hell, Michigan

My Weekend In Hell, MI @ the DWD 50K: A novel by Brandon Yonke complete with probable typos and other errors.

Friday, Sept 20, 2013
This day has been one of the most unique days of my life. I left Grand Valley today at about 12pm to head to Hell, MI for the Dances With Dirt 50K trail race. I packed up my backpacking gear and tent since its taking place in the state park, and you never know when you will need gear, right? I figured, according to google maps, that it would take 1 hour and 51 minutes. I arrived to the Pinckney State recreation area around 2:15, and then got lost for the next 2 hours. I went down a whole bunch of dirt roads, which lead to the middle of nowhere. (thanks, gps) I finally found the town of Hell, which consists of 3 buildings: a food shack, a tourist shop, and a post office. Just after the store was the road that i was looking for, which i thought i would never find. If the GPS was right, the crooked lake campground should be at the end of the road- dirt road. I was met by a gate blocking the roadway after 3 muddy miles. In a small fit of rage, I got out of my car, and decided I would just walk through the woods because THIS IS WHERE THE CAMPGROUND SHOULD BE! 5 minutes later, I came to a picnic table and firepit. WOO! found the campground, but had no idea how to get there, if that makes any sense. I went back to town, stopped at the store, and chatted with the locals for a second before asking for directions. I was informed on how to get to the campground… THE LONG WAY. So i drove down yet more muddy dirt roads to get to the campground, which was soaking wet from the recent rain. I have a tent. not gonna work.
It is now 5 oclock and the race check in / expo is starting, so i decided to drive back into town and go to that. I checked myself in, and asked where people are camping at. Hell Creek Ranch is the answer, they say, and for only 10 bucks.
Fast forward 20 minutes, and im at hell creek ranch. I inform the guy in the office that i want a rustic site for the night, and will be out by 5am. He says it will be 20 bucks, and got all upset when i said i was told it was 10. I left.
Now, Im running low on gas, Im hangry (hungry/angry) been driving around for 5 hours… And have an idea.
I went back into town, back to the store, and found the guy i talked to earlier for directions and whatnot. I asked if he was the manager, to which he replied “son, i own this whole town. what can i for ya?” (literally, he does own the whole town haha) i told him my situation, mentioned that the race is really close to the store, and asked if i could camp in his parking lot/ field for about 10 hours. His face just lit up. He said “son, you’re in Hell. Its’s the greatest town in the world. I remember the days when i would run like you. back when i was i the military we ran all the time, i loved it. i loved being outdoors. I wish i could race still. so you go ahead, park that car, and put your tent anywhere you feel. And actually, We are hosting Hellfest here tomorrow, so we are having a big bonfire tonight and hearses from all over the country are coming to try to break a guinness world record. so feel free to stay all you want.” I was like WHATWHATWHATWHAT!?!?!?! I asked how much money he wanted. He refused any. After talking for a while more with this guy, John, I found out that his son is from my hometown of kalamazoo, and is the chef and co-owner at my favorite restaurant, the Crow’s Nest. It’s a small world.
So here i am, camping for free in Hell michigan, surrounded by hearses and surprisingly normal people, while a world record is being attempted, about to run for 31 miles.

11pm- Its raining. packing the tent up and sleeping in the car.

-Saturday, Sept 21, 2013

I woke up in the backseat of my car, where sleeping is more similar to planking than anything else. It was debatably the worst nights sleep ive ever had. Anyway, It was 5am when i woke up and I had to use the bathroom  I opened my door, forgetting that I had locked my car for the night, which resulted in me, the car in a field full of hearses, setting off my alarm. I had no idea what was going on- i just woke up- and Im in the back seat. After roughly 45 seconds of alarm and lights flashing, I shut it off, hopped in the drivers seat, skipped the bathroom, and drove right on out of there.

I arrived to race HQ at about 5:15. I put on all my gear and ate breakfast- coconut water and focaccia bread- before actually making way way to the portajohns now. Turns out, some jokers came by race HQ and tipped a bunch down, so a bunch were coated in that blue bleach stuff- could be worse, but hey, what can you do?

Gun was at 6:15. I wandered over at about 6. It was about 100 yards to the start, and I could swear i was there 30 seconds when the gun went off. Time to go, albeit earlier than i expected.

The sun was far from being up, so we all had on torches/headlamps/iphones whatever you call em nowadays. It was cool to see 200+ headlamps shining sporadically in every direction, im not gonna lie. I made my way to the lead pack where I was met by 3 guys in the 50M and one from the 50K named Pete. I figured that if anybody was going to stay in the lead pack, it would be pete, so I joined pace with him, roughly 9min/mi at the time.
The trail was soft dirt at the time, dark, shadowy, silent, and peaceful. I couldnt help but think of the Robert Frost poem that goes “The woods are lovely dark and deep, but i have promises to keep, and miles to go before i sleep, and miles to go before i sleep.” It seem like a perfect example of the imagery. It wasnt long before the flags that marked the trail headed off into nowhere, cutting through the woods on a path that was nearly non existent. This is trail running at its finest. The only way to navigate was look for the little reflectors on top of the flags, and watch your footing.

We came to a wooden bridge that cut over a swamp just before twilight. you could see a sliver of sunlight, but most of the stars, and the silhouette of trees in the far distance, as well as reeds and cattails. Again, very sceneic.

Just before sunup, Pete and I were running at about mile 5, when I saw a shadow move on the trail up ahead. I was behind pete at the time, and couldnt make out what it was, so i alerted him of the situation. All of a sudden a pair of eyes reflected back at us. It was a big, shaggy, black dog, and it just stood there, occasionally wandering toward us. We stopped in the trail to figure out what exactly was going on. This thing was the dictionary definition of a zombie. We had no idea if it was crazed or rabid or what. Pete, who obviously has more guts than me, walked slowly by the dog, while I ran the other way looking for a path around it haha. Pricker bushes on both sides, and no sticks to put distance between my self and the dog. I manned up, and with a burst of adrenaline and clenched fists, shimmied my way past the ghostly creature. I just stared blankly ahead. Weird.

At the first aid station, pete asked for coffee and waffles or bagels or something of that type, in a semi-joking, semi-serious question. The response from the volunteer was “I’m afraid you’ll have to go to Hell for those.” ah the first of the puns for the day had just happened. We shared a laugh, and they wished us the best on our run, and we continued.

At Mile 5.5 or so, just shortly after the aid station (I think my order is correct  ) we came to the first crossing in the trails. We could go straight, or left or right onto a dirt country road. Somebody had came by the night before and removed all the markings, (thanks to whoever that was) so i pulled out the map I remembered at the last moment and we tried to figure out where to go. Some time later, maybe 4 minutes, a group of runners caught up to us, and we figured to go right on the country road, which, thankfully, lead in the right direction. I was just starting to get light at this time, however, the clouds seemed to be getting heavier and some light drops of rain started falling. The rain made for rather slick running on the dirt roads.

about 2 miles later we made it back to the marked trail, which soon brought us to the major aid station of the race, located at Hell Creek Ranch (which is where Run Woodstock 100’s are based) I stocked up on water and PBJ sandwhiches, which were like a gift from heaven. Wonderbread with Jif has never tasted so good.

The next section of the trail was pretty wet if i recall the location correctly. Thanks all that really happened haha.

After aid station 3… idk like 16 miles in (?)… the trail marker/ flags turned to orange, and darted off into the un-trodden woods. The “trail”, which didnt really exist, took us over fallen trees and through tall grass before dumping us into a ravine, which immediately shot up to the steepest hill I have probably ever had to run up. It was a hands and knees ascent in some places, grabbing exposed roots and sliding backwards in an occasional dirtslide. My guess would have to be 200ish feet of gain on the hill, but thats just a guess.

Mile 19 brought us through some more off-trail running for a moment, but quickly turned back into trail along a river. Then, an orange flag, signaling that the trail had ended. We looked across the river, and there was another orange flag signaling where the trail picked back up. Time for a swim! The water was about knee deep. nothing too bad. The trail wound about the river and the side of a swamp for another couple miles before going back to off-trail again. We found another flag at the edge of the river. This time, more flags were sticking out of the water, so we followed. The water varied in depth from ankle to mid-thigh. we went under a bridge where a cameraman took what is most likely going to be the coolest race picture ill have. after a couple hundred yards of running through water, we came back to land. after climbing the bank, we popped out of the woods, right behind the building i camped at the night before. There was an aid station with a bunch of people dressed in costumes saying “Welcome to Hell! what can I get for you?!” haha the pun never got old. I fueled up on a banana and Gu, but somehow I didnt need any more water. We ran past the parking lot, which was now full of the hearses that were expected to show up which was a very unique sight haha.

A long dirt road uphill was ahead of us, and the trail darted back into the woods, becoming “off-trail” yet again. The trail lead us to Silver Lake, Which was one of the exchange zones for the relay. The area was packed full of people, and the flags we were following went right through them. I passed through the aid station here empty handed and just kept running. It was a bit of a pain to push through the large crowd, but they were there in part to cheer you on as well, so i didnt mind too much. I got to start passing the relay teams, which were all craftily dressed and named. I passed the classic tutu wearers, the gangsters, the mullet wigs, some inmates, and a lady whose shirt simply said “badass”, which I somehow found humorous. Not long after, I came to a split in the trail. Pink flags, which I was following, went one way, and orange ones went off into trailless woods again. Unsure of which way to go, I got out my map. It was soaking wet, clumped together, and otherwise useless. I asked people if they had maps- nobody did. I backtrack a minute or so until I ran back into Pete, who said to follow pink until the end, and good luck.

This was at about mile 25. I was starting to fatigue mildly, but kept pushing the pace at 7:50’s. A guy from the relay got pretty irritated when I was trying to pass him, and noticeably sped up to pass me again. I was thinking “bro, we arent even in the same race, calm down!” haha.

Some long uphills came up on the trail, followed by lots of rolling hills. The woods suddenly parted, and I knew where I was. I could hear people cheering and music playing. It was the finish. I wound up getting lost AT the finish line, believe it or not, unsure of which flags to follow yet again. The pinks did some weird fork type of thing. I was told to just run though the finish line, so i shrugged it off and did!

Pete followed in roughly 5 minutes behind. We celebrated with a cold dip in the lake after receiving our medals and threw on some winter jackets before heading over for pizza, bananas, seemingly gallons of water, and a freshly tapped Bell’s Two Hearted at the finish tent. We chatted with the race volunteers, officials, and the Bell’s crew for a while, all of whom were awesome and incredibly friendly people.

I left around noon after congratulating the fellow finishers. I got back home much more easily than I did getting there haha. didnt get lost once.

-Sunday, Sept 22, 2013
Today, I feel pretty normal for the most part. I almost debated going out and running the Grand River ravines this morning, but after walking down and up the stairs, decided I’m not feeling as fresh as I thought. Shocker, I know.

All in all, I really can’t say enough good about the race and the people who were out there making it happen. It was an incredible day. I am already excited to head to Gnaw Bone next year, hopefully for the 50Mile. They boast about also having the hardest 10k in the world there, so I kinda have to see it. Dances With Dirt did an awesome job, the locals of Hell were incredible people (haha), and lets be honest, Domino’s and Bell’s made it all worth it as well.

Best, and see you on the trails.


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