I just got done writing this race report and I figured I should start by apologizing for this post being so long and for the lack of photos to keep your attention. GLR isn’t really an event for spectators, so finding decent photos is a challenge. Also, this race is unique and deserves some explanation.
This last weekend (July 15th-17th) I returned home to Michigan to run Great Lakes Relay (GLR). GLR is a race across the upper portion of the Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. The start is approximately in Oscoda, MI on Lake Huron and the finish is on Lake Michigan at Empire, MI. The total mileage for the race is usually somewhere around 275 miles. There are about 60 legs and the distance for each leg can vary from 2 miles to just about 10 miles. The race takes place over 3 days, but this is not 3 days of continuous running. Each day we start running at 6am. After your team finishes you have the opportunity to take a shower at a local high school and then everyone camps at designated areas. Each team consist of 10 runners (well, should consist of 10) and each runner must log 24 miles for race. There are two categories, mixed and open. To run in the mixed division the team must have at least 4 girls. GLR does reward your team for having masters or female runners. Female runners get a 10% handicap. The master’s handicap system is slightly more complicated. Starting at 40, the runner gets 1% handicap and then 1% more for each year after 40. The handicap takes jumps at 50, 55, 60, etc. Unfortunately, the handicap doesn’t help my team, but it is still important to us because this means that teams that are behind us could technically be beating us do to the handicap system. As for how the teams travel during the relay, each team is allowed to have 3 vehicles (generally stocked with PB&J, pretzels, Gatorade, and water). I think that should cover the basics of GLR.
GLR is an awesome race, but it does have a lot of challenges. This race is run in what seems to be the middle of nowhere (I thought I lived in the middle of nowhere until I ran this race). Paved roads are a rare sight and seasonal roads are much more common. Just in case you are wondering, a seasonal road is just a road that isn’t plowed in the winter, but after many years of driving on these seasonal roads I would say that they don’t do much of anything to the roads. Then just to make things easier, a lot of the roads do not have signs. Also, a lot of the exchanges are done where the trail we run on crosses a road. These crossing are almost impossible to spot because the trail is single track and usually barely visible. Now you may be wondering how each team manages to navigate to each exchange. The answer is that the race director has made some very specific directions for the vehicles that require the constant use of the trip meter. If you don’t follow the directions then you are almost certainly going to get lost, or even create a traffic jam for the 200ish vehicles by going the wrong way. This is why there are significant penalties for being off route. There are even some sections that only allow one vehicle per team to go to and they must have a certain color sign. The penalty for being on the wrong road, going the wrong way, stopping at the wrong spot, not showing your team number, or not having the right color sign is 2 hours. So driving is a very important part of the relay and my team learned the hard way early on. I remember our first year, on the first day, and within the first hour we took a wrong turn right into a race official and were presented with our first 2 hour penalty.
Navigation is also a major issue for runners. Getting lost is actually a pretty big part of the relay. Most teams will keep track of how long their team has been lost for. The course is not marked with arrows or signs, and certainly not mile markers. If the race director is able to get the proper permits the first two days are mostly on the shore-to-shore (STS) trail. Usually, we are allowed on the trail every other year and this was one of those years. STS is marked with blue dots on trees. I will admit that they have slowly been adding more blue dots, but there are still nowhere near enough. Also, it doesn’t help that the dots aren’t permanent. They will of course fade over time and other natural events will cause them to disappear. I remember getting lost one year and the only way I managed to find the right path was by getting lucky and spotting a blue dot on a fallen tree. I’ve been pretty lucky over the years and the longest I have been lost for was probably about 30 minutes. There have been other people on my team that have been lost for up to 1.5 hours. Then when not on the trail, some of the directions look like this:
Continue straight for a total of 2.15 miles to a T in the road.
At .6 mile the road turns to the right.
At .7 mile go left at the Y (still on Blair Town Hall).
At 1.5 miles you come to an intersection with a pine tree in the middle, continue straight for another .75 mile to T in road.
Turn left at T for 1.4 miles to the exchange at Vance (no sign).
If I remember correctly, these directions don’t even contain all of the Y’s and side roads that you pass, so sometimes you just need to make an educated guess and hope for the best. This was much harder of a challenge in the past, before the increase in the number of runners using a garmin. You would just have to have a good feeling of your pace and guess when you would reach .7 miles. Sometimes you would reach a road with a minute to go on your expected time. Are you running faster than expected? Is there another road just up ahead (almost certainly)? Do I turn or continue? Then you choose and just hope you’re not lost.
I must admit that it is very hard to explain GLR, it is just kinda one of those things you need to be there for. I hope that explanation hasn’t bored you and you have a bit of an understanding of what GLR is. There is a lot more I could talk about, but I figure I should move onto my team and the results.
I have been going to GLR with my team for 8 of the last 9 years (missed one year due to a trip to Europe). This started because my High School Coach wanted to run it and needed a team. He also wanted his runners to stay in shape over the summer so GRL was perfect to help motivate people to run. We eventually had to split into two teams (now I think there may be three), with one team being the fast team. After a few years we have settled on the name Thundering Pickles. This year the team captain was unable to run because his second kid was due the week of the race (we gave him a hard time about that). So this year the team consisted of some of my old high school cross country teammates and then some random runners that we know in Michigan.
Now for my results. I had a relatively short weekend and only ran 25 miles. The first run was 5.9 miles on STS. The trail was not much of a trail. There was so much growth that the trail was barely visible. I was mainly just running from blue dot to blue dot. There were also a large number of down trees. Occasionally I would have to hurdle or duck under one, but most of the time I would have to take a short detour around it. If the distance was right then I was well under 6 minute pace, but the distance just didn’t seem right. I think I was probably right around 6 minute pace though. Next, I ran the first leg of the race the second day. Another 5.9 miles, but this time it was on a narrow back road. There were rolling hills and plenty of sand. I did enjoy having some people to run against because towards the front teams the gaps between teams can get very large and if you don’t run one of the first five legs then you may never see another runner (while racing at least) for the rest of the day. This run felt pretty good and I averaged just under 6 minute pace. The second run of the day was an awful 5.4 miles. At this point during the race we were on the section of the STS that sees a lot of horse traffic. In these locations, the single track trail is very easy to follow because it is pretty much a one foot deep trench cutting through the forest. The only problem with this trench is that the bottom of it is sand. So this section of the race is a lot like running on the beach except it isn’t flat. Every now and again you can get out of the trench and run along the edges of the trail, but this is risky. You will be forced back into the trench by a tree or all the undergrowth. The risky part is that the edges are generally very soft and you are very likely to slide back in, risking your ankles or even a fall. I averaged just under 7 min/mile pace on this leg. I didn’t feel too bad about that because everyone loses time on the trails on the second day. The third day I started with a familiar 5.4 mile leg. I ran it twice before and one year I got lost. I had a pretty good idea where I went wrong and felt that I knew the directions now, so I thought it would go well. Luckily, my teammate before me decided to drop a sub 5 minute mile and catch one of the front teams. This meant that I would have someone to run with. The run has some pretty significant hills and a lot of sand, but not as bad as the STS trail. The person that started with me gained a bit of time on me, but I still averaged just under 6 min/mile pace. My last run was just a 3 mile run on narrow road over some rolling hills. No problem right? That is what I thought until after the first mile. After that mile I just felt like the last 4 runs hit me all at once. I ran 5:57 for the first mile, then barely held on for a 6:17, and I worked as hard as I could to finish with a 6:27. A terrible run for a relatively easy route, but I was glad to be done. The temperature was already around 90 and still rising. Overall, I was happy with my performance. The goal is to one year average 6 min/mile (that is usually close to the winning pace) and I am definitely getting closer. I just need to find a way to compensate for that trail portion then not die the last day.
As a team we did very well. We took 5th which is very good. We also did relatively good with directions and were only lost for about a total of 1.5 hours. The average pace for day 1 was 6:42 for 95.25 miles, day 2 was 6:55 for 100.7 miles, day 3 was 6:08 for 77.55 miles, and total average pace was 6:37 for the 273.5 miles. For comparison, the winning team had an average pace of 6:04. The front teams are usually college teams (such as Eastern Michigan and the University of Michigan) and college alumni teams. This year the winning team was the University of Michigan alumni team called M-10. Results (in excel format) here.