Embracing unexpecteds

Exploring new terrain at the Yankee Springs Trail Run 

You plan for an ultra marathon, but there are always unknowns and unexpecteds that cause you to adjust plans.  

At Yankee Springs State Park in southwestern Michigan this past weekend, unexpecteds were abundant, making for challenging race through the beautiful backwoods of southwestern Michigan. The Yankee Springs Trail Run is put on by Switchback Endurance and includes a 10K, marathon, night half marathon and the double marathon. I did the double, which is four half-marathon-distance loops along single-track trail switching back and forth between beach sand and rich black dirt. I wouldn’t have noticed the trail composition so much if it weren’t for the rain, but more on that later.

My challenges with the unexpected started before I even got on the trail. I looked at the map a couple weeks before the race and decided a campground that ran along the course would be a good place to set up for the weekend. With my campsite right next to the trail, my pickup truck could be a fifth aid station. I was setting myself up for success, no doubt. All I had to do when I got up on race-day morning was walk the two or so miles up the trail to the start-finish, register and wait for the 8 a.m. start. But when I woke on race day, I started thinking that maybe driving to the start was a better decision and an extra aid station was not the best choice. So I packed up camp, hopped in the truck and drove to the start.  

While planning in the weeks leading up to the race, I decided to use the first loop to gauge where I could make time and where I needed to hold back. The map showed most of the elevation change in the second half of the loop. I ran Kettle Moraine 100 three times  - DNFing twice and finishing one - so I knew what hills in that part of the country looked and felt like, and could inflict on unsuspecting runners. They were short, choppy and many, and I expected the same at Yankee Springs. I was wrong.

When I reached the second half of my first loop, I was surprised to find few hills. But even with the seemingly flat terrain, I was not moving any faster. In fact, I was tiring. Then it hit me. I looked down the trail and noticed the earth gradually sloping up. It was the same amount of climb as Kettle, just over a longer stretch. So all the training for steep, choppy hills wasn’t going to help me on this gradual incline-decline situation. I faced a new challenge. If I run all the gradual inclines, I would eventually bonk. If I walked every time I saw a slight upgrade, I would lose time. So, I found a middle ground in running the first half of these inclines and walking the second half. The new strategy took getting used to and it’s tough to tell if it paid off because there were plenty more unexpecteds to factor in. 

The weather wasn’t one of the unexpecteds. I knew that rain would be part of the event. Like Kettle the two years prior, thunder and lightening kept the downpours company. Since I was expecting this and since I experienced chafe-fest 2017 at Kettle, I was prepared. I had a change of clothes and plenty of lube to keep everything dry and slippery. What I didn’t expect was a fall that nearly ended my day.

The rain had created slippery conditions along some trail sections. Much of the trail was fine sand which drained well and was easy to move through, but it was the black dirt portions that got slick as the water soaked in, turning it slimy. Most of the time it was a slight slip here or there as I went from sand to dirt, not enough to challenge your balance too much. But as I was running along a stretch – I’m not even sure how it happened – my right shoe slipped sending it along with my legs out from under me. It happened so fast I didn’t have time to put my hands down to block the fall. My face slammed into the dirt, leaving its impression in the muddy trail. I got up quickly and looked down at where my face slammed into the muddy trail. Then I looked just to the right and saw it – a rock about the size of my head. I missed cracking my skull open by inches. I stood there for a few seconds to collect thoughts before turning back to the trail. 

I was more hesitant with my steps now, which was causing me time. Slippery spots along the trail seemed more threatening. I slowed when I saw anything black and slimy coming up instead of trudging through like a true trail runner. It took a few miles but I was eventually able to reason with myself that the fall was a fluke and as long as I was careful, I would remain upright and intact, which I did.  

As the day went on, the rain tapered until the sun came back out for the last loop. The advantage of rain is that it keeps things cool, so I was a little concerned that the sun would bring the heat. Fortunately, things stayed cool as the cloud cover returned. Coming into the final lap, there were claps of thunder in the distance. They sounded far away so I didn’t think too much about them. My concerns were less with severe weather threats and more with aid station food. 

Let me stop here and say that the Yankee Springs Trail Run aid stations were amazing, and the volunteers were trail gods. It went beyond the fact that they were friendly, encouraging and just fun to be around. They knew the course, and they told you what was coming up and what you needed to know to stay safe and be successful. 

The thing that threw me was that there was no soup as advertised on the website. One of my go-tos in these races is hot chicken soup, so when I saw it on the list of aid station goodies I knew I was golden. It works some kind of magic on the stomach that other foods fail to do. I understand that I am also a big snow cone fan, at least according to an Ultrarunning article. But anyway, back to the soup. I think I was going into loop two when I asked the aid station volunteer when they would begin serving soup. He knew nothing about it, so I moved on thinking that maybe the other aid stations had it and he just wasn’t aware. After a sweep of the stations, I found there was no soup for me. Not a big deal by a long shot, and it taught me a lesson that if you want soup you better bring soup because nobody owes you anything, and nothing is guaranteed or should be expected in ultras. And if you want to run on dry trails stay out of the upper Midwest.  

Have you ever been outside on a beautiful summer day in the woods? One of those days when the sun’s out and it’s a little humid, but nothing unbearable? A breeze rustles the leaves in the late afternoon and you think, how nice. You look through the trees and see a few clouds gliding into the clear sky. Then as you’re sipping your old-fashioned, those few puffy white clouds turn swirling gray and black. It goes from stone-cold silent to 70 mph straight-line winds in a matter of seconds. Large trees groan and crack as they sway violently in the wind. Limbs snap loose from giant canopies and join the flurry of detached tree leaves all falling to the forest floor. 

I was in the last half mile of my last loop when the wind started twisting giant trees into pretzel shapes. Limbs were falling all around. The first thought was to take shelter under something, but there was nowhere to go. The trees were the only cover and they were under siege. So I kept moving and that’s when the hail started. With hail comes tornados. To this I thought, well running in the woods ain’t a bad way to go

After another 30 seconds the hail let up as I turned onto a familiar stretch of two-track. Within a minute I rolled into the final 300 yards. Before the finish, you run through an open field lined with cabins. Earlier in the day spectators were out here on the cabin porches and in the grass cheering on runners as they passed. Now they were taking shelter in the cabins as it continued to pour. The cool thing was that when they saw a runner coming they came out to cheer. It was an incredible feeling. The rain was falling so hard you could barely see the cabins only 50 feet away. But you could hear the cheering and the cowbells and it was amazing. I crossed the finish line, and was immediately ushered into the timer tent for shelter and to help hold the tent in place. The race’s nerve center was at risk of flying away as the winds continued to gust in the deluge. 

A guy I am guessing was the race director handed me my finisher medal, a metal cup with the Yankee Springs logo. I have to say of all the races I have done this is by far my favorite medal. Maybe it's tied to the excitement and bliss I experienced during the last half mile running through the wind, hail and rain, but that cup is something special and I suspect it will be around for some time to come.  

I helped the race directors and the University of Michigan medical team hold down their tents until the wind died, before walking the 100 yards to my truck. I knew then that my decision to drive to the start was the right choice. Otherwise I would be back on the trail walking the two or so miles back down the trail to the campground. Now I had a short walk to a dry truck. 

Unexpecteds happened at Yankee Springs as they do with every ultra. I’d say that is part of the allure for many who choose to do these events. They say ultra runners are problem solvers and there is plenty a problem to solve when you are out running for hours on end. 

Yankee Springs is one of the best-coordinated events I've ever been a part of. It's small now, but I think because of its stunningly gorgeous location, and the skill, care and love that go into its planning it is poised to grow into a great destination race in coming years. You can tell it is organized by runners. When you have volunteers who help guide you through your run and know what you need before you do, you know you’re dealing with pros with a passion for running. Between this and Don Kern’s Grand Rapids Marathon, the western Michigan running scene is one to watch and get to know. I am so glad I chose to run here and I look forward to returning in the future.