Wet but Wonderful: the Marquette Marathon, August 30, 2014 (Marquette, Michigan)

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I always try to look for a race over Labor Day weekend to keep me occupied while my husband focuses on our first hometown college football game. So far I have completed two Tupelo Marathons and one Heart of America Marathon. This year I discovered a relatively small race in the Upper Peninsula town of Marquette. When I checked the FAQ last March, the time limit was listed as 6 ½ hours and the local airport serviced Delta and its affiliates. The town is medium-sized, with a population of about 24,000, and has several hotels, restaurants, and bookstores, plus Northern Michigan University. The course for the first several years had been a double loop but for 2014, it was changed to a point-to-point. This all sounded great so I signed up, made my hotel and plane reservations, and watched the weather predictions as we got closer to race day.

Just to be sure everything was in order, I revisited the race website in mid-August and double-checked the FAQ again. To my surprise and consternation, the time limit was now listed as 6 hours. Despite my best efforts, all my recent finishes have been just over the 6 hour mark. I realized that in a race with only a couple hundred marathoners, I would be at the very end and possibly all alone. Not only would this increase my chances of getting lost on the course, but I would also be forcing the volunteers to stay past their allotted time, something I hesitate to do out of consideration for their time and effort.

I began to reconsider whether I should do this race. Before I made a final decision, I emailed the race director about my situation to ask about an early start. Lo and behold, Jeri, the very kind RD, said it was not only possible but she would even drive me and another slower runner to the race start and would let us start an hour earlier. With that assurance, I went ahead with my plans to fly to Michigan on Thursday morning. It took three flights and most of the day to arrive in Marquette. The airport was tiny with no taxis visible so I had to call a local cab company to come pick me up. The drive from the airport to downtown took about 25 minutes. My hotel was a new Hampton Inn right on the shores of attractive Lake Superior. My first night was spent in a room overlooking the parking lot, right next to the ice machine and linen closet. When I realized that rooms on the opposite side of the corridor faced the Lake, I asked to switch and my next two nights were spent in a quieter room with a beautiful view.

After settling in on Thursday, I walked over to Marquette Commons at 6:30 pm to introduce myself to Jeri. She and a group of volunteers were stuffing goodie bags and getting everything ready for packet pickup the next evening. Jeri confirmed that she would pick me up in the Hampton Inn lobby at 5:30 in the morning for the 45 minute drive to Ishpeming, the marathon start. I was relieved that all was moving according to plan. Now fatigue from the long day’s journey was starting to have its effect on me so I stopped to get a pizza at Little Caesar’s, ate a few slices, stored the rest in my room’s fridge, and then went to sleep.

Packet pickup did not begin until 6 pm on Friday evening, so I had the whole day to explore. I began by walking several miles on a biking trail along Lake Superior. The weather was cloudy with a slight drizzle and temps in the low 60’s. During this leisurely walk I met a husband and wife from Austin, Texas, who were also doing the marathon. We chatted a bit and, as it turns out, we saw each other several times during the actual race as well as on the return flights to Detroit and Atlanta. Like I said, it was a small race, but it did seem to attract runners from around the country and beyond.

I ate breakfast at the hotel and my lunch was leftover pizza. When my husband travels with me, my food choices expand but when I am by myself, I tend to ‘eat cheap’ – I do not have enough appetite to eat 2 or 3 big meals a day. However, I can shop to my heart’s content without Darcy along and so I spent several hours looking at souvenirs, books, and clothes. One of the best parts of the day was my foray to the Marquette Regional History Center. This museum had a number of great exhibits, including a special display on tourism and recreation in the Upper Peninsula. I enjoyed learning about the history of the region, the Native American culture and background, and the area’s reliance on iron ore and mining.

At 6 pm I walked a couple of blocks to the Commons again for packet pickup. I was surprised to see a long line of people waiting to get into the building – and all of them were pre-registered for the marathon or half marathon. It turns out that this year showed a remarkable increase in marathon participants. In past years the number of finishers ranged from 163 to 196 but in 2014 that number increased to 278! Once I reached the check-in table, things moved swiftly. I received my bib with chip on the back, some safety pins, and a clear plastic drop bag filled with samples and coupons, as well as a long-sleeved light blue gender specific technical shirt. There were also some booths with gels and race gear as well as a vendor giving away apples, oranges, granola bars, and water/sports drink. Then it was back to my hotel room to get things ready and to try and sleep.

My alarm was set for 3 am but I awoke earlier to have breakfast – coffee and a bagel with peanut butter. The message light on my room phone was blinking; Jeri had left a message around 10:30 pm confirming our meeting time for Saturday morning. Relief washed over me as I realized that everything was all set. At 5:15, I wandered downstairs to the lobby. There I met the other early starter, Hajime Nishi from Japan, an advocate of ‘slow running’; he was doing Marquette as his 665th marathon. After finishing Marquette, he then planned to drive to Wisconsin to do the No-Frills Marathon on Sunday. Jeri met us right on time and we spent the drive to Ishpeming chatting about races.

It was still dark when we arrived at the race start, but Jeri had arranged for a volunteer to lead Hajime and me in a jeep for the first 4 miles or so. At 6:30 am, just as runners began arriving for the regular start, Hajime and I stood behind the chalk mark on the ground and when Jeri gave the word ‘GO’ we took off. Hajime’s slower running pace matched my faster walking pace perfectly, at least at the beginning. Later on, Hajime passed me and managed to stay several yards ahead for the first half of the race. At some point, though, I passed him and crossed the finish line about 20 minutes before he did. I was extremely glad for that early start because I was always in the center of the action, although for the last 8 miles runners were much more spread out and sometimes I could not see anyone ahead or behind me. Signage was excellent so I never worried about getting lost.

The weather was in the low 60’s at the start and there was an 80% chance of rain. The first 2 miles were dry so I had hopes that perhaps the weather forecast was wrong; maybe the rain would hold off until the race was over. No such luck! It soon began to drizzle, then pour, and it kept raining until I reached past the halfway point. For the next 5 miles, the rain stopped and my clothes began to dry off – until the rain started up again with a vengeance and this time it did not stop and the temperature dropped another 5 degrees while the wind picked up. But the weather was the only negative aspect of this race – in every other way, the race was excellent.

The new point-to-point course is beautiful (even in the pouring rain, it was lovely). The race begins in the iron mining town of Ishpeming, then runs through Negaunee, another mining town. Much of the course follows the Iron Ore Heritage Trail and is mostly paved although there are around 8 miles of crushed gravel and dirt (my gaiters came in handy here). I kept expecting to see deer in the forested areas but the rain must have kept them hidden. However, I did come across rabbits, chipmunks, and several (unfortunately) dead frogs. At mile 16, racers begin to come into the town of Marquette and follow along the borders of Lake Superior, first heading south past my hotel on a short out-and-back stretch and then north to Presque Isle on a longer out-and-back. At mile 25, runners head back to downtown, going up a long but gentle incline until finally there is one last turn and a few final blocks to the finish line.

Aid stations appeared about every 2 miles, with porta potties at most of them. Volunteers were special – they served as our primary spectators and cheerleaders as well as tending to our needs for drink and gels. The course was well-marked, with black arrows (for the full) and red arrows (for the half) and course marshals at crucial turns and street crossings. The out-and-backs were enjoyable because I always like to see and cheer on other racers; in fact, I unexpectedly saw Evelyn, a runner from Chicago whom I had met at the Athens Marathon a year ago. What a small world!

I crossed the finish line in 6:07:11 (after adding in that extra hour) so I was extremely glad for the early start; it turned out that I even finished 2nd in my age group. A volunteer placed the medal around my neck and I stopped at the food table for some chocolate milk. There was plenty of food left – fruit, cookies, chips, bagel quarters, but I wasn’t very hungry. I was damp, though, so my goal was to make my way back to the hotel for a hot shower and some dry clothes. Later, I walked – slowly – to the Northland Pub inside the historic Landmark Inn, where I had a tasty lunch of Portobello mushroom burger with sweet potato fries and a local microbrew. There were lots of good choices for places to eat and I was torn between several possibilities, including the highly recommended Vierling Restaurant. But these will have to wait for another visit. My flights home began early Sunday morning and I needed to pack and get some much-needed sleep.

This race shows great promise to become very popular, especially if the early start was widely publicized or if the time limit were lengthened to 6 ½ or 7 hours. I’m sure lots of Maniacs and 50 Staters would be eager to visit and do the race. Walkers should definitely consider the Marquette Marathon as long as they take advantage of the early start.

A postscript – on my return to Florida, I discovered that my checked bag did not make any of my flights. It turns out that the gate agent in Marquette checked me in as another person with my same last name, but different first and middle names. She obviously didn’t look at my boarding passes or my driver’s license. As a result, my bag flew to Las Vegas with this other person’s name attached and it took several helpful people in my home airport as well as Delta baggage control to call LAS and get my suitcase delivered the next day. I learned my lesson well – now I will make sure the name on that baggage sticker is mine and not someone else’s!

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