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Aug 28, 2012

North Country Trail Half Marathon Race Review

5 miles on the schedule today.  I call them recovery miles because I'm still recovering from the hills of teh North Country Run.  Wow that was some fun running!


Short Version:

Finished in 2:18:43(chip time)
Overall Place:  35/266
AG(M40-44):  5/23
An instant PR for me today for my first trail half!

Hot and hilly run.  It seems to be the theme for many of my races lately.  It was a great race for my first trail half marathon.  I will run this again.


Registration/Packet Pick up
Registration was a very easy process.  Sign up on the internet and you were good to go.  I decided a little too late and did not get as much bling because of it.  The first 100 that sign up for each race get some incredible packages with their packet pick up.  There was two options for packet pick up.  You could pick up your packet at the start area the day before from 4:30-8:30pm or you could pick up your packet the morning of the race from 5:30am until your race time.

I decided to pick up mine the day of the race considering that it was about 2 hours from my cottage.  The race was run on the Big M trail in Manistee, Michigan which is near Cadillac.  I was up at 3:30am, did my usual rituals, and headed out.  There is one thing for sure - in Northern Michigan, when it's's dark!!!  I'm happy I had my GPS with me because it made the place much easier to find.  The race had an address to get there and that made things very simple to find the location.
Packet pick up at the trailhead
Once again, I got there way too early(about 6am) because I was worried about parking.  I was able to park right near the start.  Parking was literally 100 feet from the start of the race and the trailhead.  It could not have been any better than this.  I wish I could get that close for most of my races.  Once thing I did notice was many people brought folding chairs to sit in by their cars before the race and so they could sit and eat after the race - is was a very casual atmosphere.

The race had a list of our names so you looked up your number and they gave you your race packet.  I received a shirt, a cinch bag and my race number along with a chip to attach to my shoe that had to be returned.  I still prefer the throw away chip but it worked just fine and considering there was not a huge crowd, it was not an issue.

While I waited for my race to begin at 8:20am(which ended up starting at 8:45am - more about that later), I had time to get a picture and I was able to see the marathoners and the 50 milers start their race.  Wow.  It was an incredible feeling to see the people ready to run 50 miles.  They also had a special appearance by Marshall Ulrich, the ultimate Ultra runner.  He was there signing and selling his book, Running on Empty.
The finish line before the race
Marshall Ulrich - the legend!
The race announced he was there and nobody went up to him so I jumped at the chance to meet him.  I told him that I bought and read his book.  Unfortunately, I did not bring it with me since I didn't think I would have a chance to see him but he actually was there after I finished as well.  He signed a coversheet of his book for me and I was able to get a great picture with him.
Marshall Ulrich still at the race a couple hours later.
Wow!  I would have expected him to be gone.
He signed his promo book cover for me!
Plus a little good luck to start the race!
This guy is incredible and his book is great as well.  What a nice down to earth guy.  He actually started off all the races as you can see here.
4 wheeler to start off each race with Marshall Ulrich at the helm.
Start Area
The start area was quite organized.  We started right in the parking lot of where the trailhead is.  This is also where packet pickup was located as well as the finish area.  Everything is very close.  There were plenty of port-o-potties to use and they were also located very close to the start.  There was a $5 parking fee for the trail which was used to pay for the maintenance of the trailhead(and not charged by the race).  I had no issue with this and appreciated that the race told us in their Newsletter about the fee.  You put your money in an envelope with your car information and then put a stub on your car and drop the money in a safe.  Very simple.  One thing I will say is that because it was still dark out, it would have been nice to perhaps have a few more lights around to see better.  Many people had their headlamps but since I was only running the half marathon, I did not think to bring mine.
Parking lot/start of trailhead

It's the Big M trail system we ran - beautiful but hard!
It was a gun start but a chip timed race.  The gun started the race and the timing mat was at the finish.  I'm not sure why they didn't see a need to have a timing mat at the start especially when you have gone to the trouble of having the system there.

The course was incredibly beautiful.  I wish I had brought my camera but I was afraid of carrying it the whole time during the race.  I'm actually glad I didn't bring it since the course was quite hilly.  There is no time to take pictures during the race unless you actually stop because you have to watch the course all the time so you don't trip.  The race started by going out onto the road for a mile before heading into the trail.  Once in the trail,  you really needed to concentrate the entire time you were running.  The trail was single track running which certainly made it interesting.  People were very courteous and all you had to do was say "on your left" and they would move off the trail a bit so you could pass them.  There were many, many, many hills and down hills.  Some of the hills were quite steep and seemed to go on forever.  The down hills also were quite hard and you really needed to be careful and slow down or take smaller steps as you ran down it.   I think the climbing was actually easier on my legs - my quads are toast from those down hills.  About mile six, a girl in front of me tripped and fell right on her face.  Wow!  She was Ok but it freaked me out.  As I continued on the course I passed several people who you could tell had fallen and I also saw several more at the end of the race.  I was proud of the fact that probably only a half dozen or so people, at most, passed me from start to finish.
Course per Garmin - the race said GPS did not always work but it did for me.
Notice the elevation on some of those miles - Yikes - 4,570 feet of elevation change
Also, note the best pace vs. average pace.  You were flying down hills
Did I mention hills?
As the course went on, it became harder and harder and it was necessary for me to walk portions of the uphills.  I'd get through them and then start running again.  I saw several other runners doing the same - some as soon as mile 2!  At first, I was running quite fast through the downhills but as I got tired, I could not run the downhills as fast for fear of falling.  I tripped a couple times but never actually fell.  One time, I hit a tree root so hard my glasses fell off but I recovered and continued on.  I also thought the course was a little sandy in parts which made for a more difficult race overall.

Here's what it looked like on the map.  They gave us this little map(about 2" square) in order to run with it in case we got lost.  A great idea!  You will notice the course change in the beginning which was the out and back on part of the road.  This also put us well over 13.1 miles.  I'm not sure why they changed it but I believe it had to do with congestion on the trails with the marathoners and Ultra runners.
Great idea to have this in case you got lost.
The course was well marked but I'm happy to have back up.
Fortunately, the yellow flags were what we followed and everything was very clearly marked.  I will say that the race said it would be every 150-200 feet that they were marking but there were areas which it was much further.  It did not matter though as you just needed to follow the single track.  There were times where I ran for a couple miles without seeing anyone but mostly I was running behind someone or someone was running behind me.  All turns were also very clearly marked.  It was a great experience.

Aid Stations
I only used the aid stations for water.  There were other things to eat though.  I also saw watermelon at one of the stops.  All the aid stations looked well stocked and the stop I went to had cold water in a cooler.  The race told us to bring water bottles but they did have some cups.  Since I carry a water bottle, it worked out fine.  I actually drank about 40 oz. of water which is crazy for a half marathon.  I can also say that the volunteers were very friendly and also commented that you looked strong and you were doing a great job which was nice give little support otherwise out on the course.  There were four aid stations total.

Finish Area
The finish area was also clearly marked since it was almost where the starting point was.  About 150 feet from the finish, there were people sitting at the sidelines watching you come in and cheering you on.  You felt like a rock star considering you were the only one coming through at the end(at least for me).

One thing I wish I had brought(or the race would have provided) was some baby wipes and/or wet towels.  My legs were so dirty and it would have been nice to clean up a little while I ate after the race.  I am glad that I decided to bring my flip flops though since it was nice to get my shoes off.  I got a rare blister on one of my toes(third one in three years) from all the downhills.  The blister was on the top of my toe where it kept hitting my shoe as I went downhill.  I didn't take a picture(like you want to see that?) but did burst it as soon as I finished and it's already healing up nicely.
Was not expecting to be so dirty!
I can't image how dirty the 50 milers were?
A pic of a few runners finishing the half - great finish support.
Finish before the start of the race
Flags of the States represented - 35 states I believe they said and one guy from England
More State Flags
Speaking of food, this was great and not something I was used to for road races.  They had bananas and water at the finish but you also got a hamburger, a beer, chips, baked beans, pretzels and soup.  It was a really nice end to the race to be able to eat lunch before I had to drive two hours back to the cottage.
Baked beans, bananas, chips, pop, pretzels
Cooking the burgers! Yum(Black bean veggie for me - really good)
They had some really great things to go with the race.  You received a shirt, a cinch bag and an awesome medal.  The medal is actually the countries largest medal for the half marathon.  Isn't that cool to have one of these?  Also, if you were one of the top 100 to sign up, you also got a Custom North Country Race Jacket(with your name on it), A race hat or running shorts, and a North Country Hand Towel - WOW!  Check out the bling I received:
Great shirt - I don't have purple
A little on the girly side but I'll use it.
Women probably love it for sure!
Big Plus - NOT one sponsor on the shirt!
Cinch bag - Notice no sponsors on it either!
Largest Half Marathon medal in the country
Hand made; cool!
Here's a size comparison from my last half
Haha!  Wow!
This is really where the race was lacking in my opinion.  Race day organization was Ok and everything was very easy overall.  One thing the volunteers should have told people was about the $5 parking fee as you picked up the packet.  I just happen to overhear someone talking about it and the only reason I thought about it.  To be fair, the race did mention it in the Newsletter.

Also, my biggest pet peeve, they started the race about 25 minutes late but it was not the races fault(I think - could they have got it fixed early in the dark?  Hard in the woods) as there were some trees down on the trail stopping volunteers from getting to their aid stations.

The biggest issue I say for lack of organization was on the Facebook page.  It's great that the organizers set up a Facebook page to give information to the runners but many of the runners were asking questions and they went unanswered(at least on Facebook); that would be very frustrating.  I will say though that their website was very clear on everything and there were also several Newsletters that gave the runners information which was great.

Happy to be there....and finished.
Overall for me this was a great first experience for a trail race.  I was hopping for a 2 hour finish but after running this and seeing the overall results, I'm quite pleased with my standing in the race.  It's more difficult to review this race because I don't know what to expect at a trail race so I'm really comparing races from the roads.  The experience was different.  They say the trails are easier on the joints but I'd say they are much harder to run.  Out of the nine half marathons I've done, I would say this was the hilliest/hardest.

The trail runners and organizers are much more relaxed but of course there were also less people too.  The marathon had 156 finishers and the 50 miler had 113 finishers so overall still a very small race(535 total finishers) compared to some I have run.  I really enjoyed it and it would be hard to have many more people unless you went out in waves to help with congestion.  For this race, the amount of people seemed to be good and it did not feel overcrowded at all.  Would I do this race again?  Absolutely but it is kind of far to drive in the morning of the race from where I'm at but I felt it was worth it.  You also could have camped very close to the trailhead as well or stayed at a resort in nearby Cadillac.  Perhaps I'll run the marathon there someday?

Have a great day and....Keep Running!!!!


  1. That is indeed one huge medal. I love the T-shirt, but maybe because I'm a girl :-)

    Oh, and lots of trail runners use as a strategy to walk the uphills and criss-cross run down the hills as a may to manage their energy and help prevent falls. Sounds like this was a great race.

  2. Great job Jeff!! Love the review as I am considering the 50 miler next year.

  3. Yes, this and Bayshore are two Michigan runs I have to take. Great Swag.

  4. Great review. I enjoyed reading it. And that medal is awesome!

    I hope to run this someday (in the way far off future) so thank you for sharing your insights.

  5. Thanks for the awesome review with elevation map, etc. I'm kind of lured by the giant medal but not purple shirt. Pinning your review so I can read it again.

  6. I'm signed up for this half marathon in 2013 and I'm so excited!! I'm reading the race site right now and looking up places to stay the night before the race ... and then places to stay near Traverse City the week after the race! :)

  7. Great tips, thanks for the review. I can't wait to run this and I was one of the first 100 and get the jacket (woohoo).

  8. I will be running the 50-miler in a few weeks. Here's to hoping the elevation isn't terrible -- I stopped doing hills months ago thinking this was going to be relatively flat. Here's to not-ruinous mistakes!