The North Country Trail Run takes place in Manistee, MI every year at the end of August. This was its sixteenth running and is clearly a year-to-year tradition with a large number of the athletes and spectators. Likewise, it is becoming a tradition for myself; It is hard not to love everything about this race.
My weekend started with a three hour drive from Portage, MI up to Manistee. Once clear of Grand Rapids, the state quickly becomes less saturated with people and more saturated with trails, mature forests, and at least on this weekend, trail runners eager to get covered in dirt. When I arrived up in Manistee, I drove down a side road into the Manistee National Forest to head to Big M Trail, where the race is held. Next year I will remember to pack a wheelbarrow for the bib pickup. Swag swag swag. Seriously cool swag. I left there with a custom printed bib, pint glass, t shirt, hat, and sweatshirt. All of it was included in registry. If you want, you can buy a polo, jacket, shot glass, stickers, or even next years registration. There’s a bit of everything- the race makes sure you leave well equipped.
After bib pickup, I went to find a camping spot, which is the best part of this weekend I think. By campsite, I don’t mean I wandered in to the woods like normal. There is a huge group campsite that is hosted by a generous trail run loving family that opens up their property for runners to camp on for the weekend. In addition, they supply home cooked food, bonfire, smores, portajons, yard games, and the best part- desert. (This year it was blueberry cobbler and cake. I ate too much of both.) I spent the night catching up with the community and swapping race stories. People from 40 states attend the race, so it’s easy to be like “oh I see you have your finisher hoodie on of my dream race, tell me about it.” Great people, great times.
I slept with the rain fly off of my tent and got a great view of the pure Michigan sky, sans light pollution. I highly recommend a quick 3am wake up to see the multitudes of stars in northern Michigan.
In the morning I headed out to the starting line, about a mile away, to see the 50 milers start off and wish best of luck to a few buddies I knew in the race. At 6:15am a bunch of headlamps danced into the woods as a decently large crowd cheered them on their way, backed by some music from the race DJ who worked for the next 15 hours. It was a cool sight- one of the kinds that sends a small shiver through your body; a shot of adrenaline so to say.
The whole thing repeated at 7:15 for the marathon. I started the race with a solid group of athletes up front, and a couple hundred trailing back. I had remembered how thirsty I seemed to get between aid stations from last year, and carried my Ultimate Direction Fastdraw 10 bottles along with me. A quick loop on the one mile loop lead us out to the much bigger 25 mile loop the rest of the course takes place on. Rain from the day before had made for a pleasantly packed sandy surface; soft ground, yet plenty of traction and not so much sand spray to your calves. The entirety of the trail is easy to run on. There is nothing technical or that will lead to a substantial slow down like rocks etc. The occasional root will remind you to pick up your foot though.
Our front group started off blazing through the rolling hills and bombing the downhills. Admittedly, I’m sure it was too fast. We started to break apart around mile 9. I pushed it as much as I could through 16, but honestly just wasn’t feeling it. Maybe I was worn out, maybe the taperless training week was too much, maybe the oxygen in Michigan is just too concentrated (shout out to colorado, miss you :p)… who knows. I continued on nonetheless, more expectant of it as a training run though. I was astounded at each and every aid station by the preparedness of the volunteers and their help with filling bottles, getting food, etc.
In the final mile the trail makes a quick ascent to a breathtaking overlook of the Manistee National Forest. Be ready to be rewarded for your efforts with some 15ish mile views of the horizon. Then, bomb down the big, soft, and sandy hill to bottom out at the finish area.
I crossed the finish line in the same exact time as last year, plus or minus a couple of seconds, which I was really surprised about judging by how my legs were feeling. I proceeded to navigate my way through the cornucopia of food that was prepared at the finish. Veggie burgers (me!), beef burgers, brats, pasta, potatoes, fruit, more fruit, crunchy stuff, granola bars, CHEESECAKE, and, last but not least, five kegs of Founders beer.
I had to save the latter for later, as my day of running was not over. I ran over to my car and threw on my Ultimate Direction SJ Ultra Vest, bottles loaded with Tailwind and the back stuffed with endurolytes. I returned to the race area just in time to find my friend Carolyn running through- I would pace her for her final lap/25 miles of the 50.
It got pretty warm in the afternoon, somewhere in the mid 80’s. Speaking for the both of us, I think we both can give credit to the aid stations for keeping us both hydrated and nourished. The cold ramen noodles were surprisingly satisfying and packed a bunch of much needed salt. Paired with some cold watermelon, we were running good. The combination of the two food in everyday life will probably never happen again though haha.
We pushed on, running flats and downs and powerhiking the ups, which seemed to be working well. A group of Around mile 40 I realized that my feet were starting to swell a bit. It was the first instance of notable swelling I’ve had in a while. probably since Superior 100 last year. It really made me realize how nice the footshaped build of my Altra Lone Peaks is, as my feet were uninterrupted by the edges of the shoes. Even ten hours in to the day I had no signs of blisters.
Once we reached the second to the last aid station, Carolyn go into the “lets get this over with” mentality. We ran just about all of it, going crush mode on the few remaining hills. The last aid station came up quick, and we knew that the best part of the course was coming up. Our climb back up to the top of the overlook once again reviewed the expansive views of the Manistee National Forest. We gazed on our way past, and sped on down the hill. A minute later, Carolyn rounded the final corner and made it down the quick downhill straight to the finish area, crossing the finish line of the 50. She got the factually largest medal in the country on finishing, and to my surprise Chris, the RD, presented me with one as well since my total mileage for the day had now totaled 50 after pacing Carolyn. The medal is huge and heavy. Like, serve your next dinner guest an Oreo pie on it.
That Founders beer was imminent. After over 10 hours on the trail, it was a tasty way to wrap up the day, along with seconds, thirds, and sixths of all the other food. People hung out all night long as we all waited for the last person to come in around 14.5 hours. This race, as many, is a great reminder that the community of trail runners is so supportive, and that when we work together we are infinitely capable. This was once again the case the next day. I swept the course of the half marathon, picking up flags and stray trash for a nice 15-ish mile shakeout. About mile 10 I caught up with the final athlete, Judy. Judy was having a tough day; she had missed some flags and gone off course, and had pulled something in her leg that had kept her reduced to a walk all day long. Nonetheless, she carried on. Through the ups and downs she powered along, hardly breaking stride, even if it was a walk.
After establishing that she was otherwise in good shape, hydrated, and was bound for a finish, I continued on to sweep the course. Half a mile up, the grey skies turned on us and it downpoured, complete with thunder and lightning. I quickly ran back to Judy, only half surprised to see that she was still hammering her way forward. Simply amazing. We chatted a bit as rain crashed down around us- her mention of the waist deep frozen swamp at Huff 50k put the current storm into a nice perspective- all of a sudden, it wasn’t so bad.
She reached that final hill and headed up to the top, and then descended on the final half mile of the course. I stayed back to collect all the flags that marked the hill, and flew on down. I made it to the end of the woods just in time to see Judy emerge to the finish area and walk across the finish line. It was an inspiring moment for sure. I applaud her resilience and mental fortitude. She didn’t let anything keep her from that finish line, and better yet, there was a crowd of spectators and volunteers at the finish, in the rain, awaiting her crossing. We have the best community of people here.
So, to sum up those 1,645 words above, the North Country Trail Run is worthy of your entire weekend. Hang out. Eat food. Meet friends you may or may not know yet. Drink a beer with those friends. Watch stories unfold. Be inspired. Leave with tons of swag. It’s a great time, and I hope to keep returning in the future.
Do the racers, volunteers, and community a favor and give this article a share- inspire some more folks to get out for the fun, and get those volunteers the recognition they deserve!
-See you on the trails