Monday, September 03, 2007

WHERE IN THE WORLD IS GRAND MARAIS?

That's what I asked when I found this triathlon on the Internet a few weeks ago. Was it on the east side of the state? Near the Thumb Area? Near Detroit? Or was it on the west side of the state, on the way to Chicago? No. Wrong on all counts. I had to do a Mapquest search to figure out where it was: 6 hours north, across the Mackinac Bridge, into the Upper Peninsula. Okay then. Well, it will be a nice long weekend, and hopefully a downtime weekend, after Ironman Kentucky. I thought it would be a nice respite after all that heavy training and race for Don. Of course, we both signed up for this before his ill-fated race, but he still agreed to go and see how he would do.

Grand Marais, I found out, is in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, on a Lake Superior bay. To get there, we went by Mapquest directions, which I should know better by now sometimes lead you off the beaten path or worse yet on a wild goose chase. We had both as it turned out.

After driving the nearly 4 hours to the Bridge, Don made a miscalculation on directions, and we ended up driving nearly 100 miles out of our way--50 each way. By the time he discovered his mistake and we turned around, our now 6 hour trip was turning into more like 7 or more! And we drove at least 2.5 hours through wilderness, and 35 miles down dirt roads that would rattle your teeth out if they were loose. Its not somewhere you are going to just drive past on your way through the UP to somewhere else. Without a map, I doubt you would find it, and if you took the local's "shortcuts," you would wonder how the place even existed.

But it is one of the most charming places I have ever visited! I loved it

Anyway, we started making the trip back in the right direction. Those 100 miles were 100 miles of seeing almost nothing along the highway--a few small wood framed or ranch style houses; a closed up gas station here and there; maybe a tavern; an old mobile home or two, but not much else. When we finally got to Newberry, we had reentered civilization, finding a McDonald's and a Pizza Hut to choose for lunch. We chose Pizza Hut and, if you can believe this, ran into someone I work with! Talk about a small world?

While eating our lunch, we discussed the route we would need to take to continue to Grand Marais, and the fact that we wanted to visit Tequamenon Falls, so going through Newberry wasn't all bad, since that was where we needed to turn off to the Falls. Don went so far as to ask an employee at Pizza Hut about how to get to Grand Marais from the Falls, since the Falls were still 35 miles from the highway. The guy gave him directions, a "shortcut" that would eliminate our coming "all the way back" to the highway. More on that later.

We went to the Falls and found it not terribly crowded. Its a beautiful wilderness area, but to be honest, after visiting the different waterfalls in Yellowstone and Glacier Parks, I found them a little less exciting. What was interesting though was the hundreds of steps you needed to go down and climb up to see the falls: 94 at the Upper Falls; 116 at the Lower.

I was happy to see that all that stair climbing did not affect me too much, other than to get my heart pumping a little harder. Don, on the other hand, is still suffering the effects of the cancer drug and found himself huffing and puffing less than halfway up. :( But he was a good sport and went along anyway.


When we decided to leave, then the real adventure began. We followed the directions we were given to take the "shortcut" to Grand Marais. As I mentioned before, that shortcut entailed driving 35 miles on unpaved roads. Its a snowmobiler's mecca up there that's for sure! There are hundreds of miles of unpaved roads, and we were "lucky" enough to have found several. And as I mentioned, to save us maybe an extra 10 miles--10 miles on paved roads--we took the shortcut recommended by the local.

Again, talk about wilderness!! Nothing but forest and a dirt road to look at for the 35 miles--which took more than an hour to travel and it was getting late in the afternoon.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, we arrived at yet another dirt road, but the sign at least pointed to Grand Marais. We found out later there is an intricate trail system on unpaved roads all through the UP with numbered routes, so if you are going one place, you follow those numbers. But we didn't really figure that out until much later either.

We arrived at our destination after 6pm and hoped our hotel room hadn't been given away. I had confirmed the day before, but never said we would be that late. The hotel was way up on a hill, down yet another dirt road, and at a deadend. It was a small mom and pop motel, but very reasonably priced, clean, and quite large. And the motel boasted a "view of Grand Marais Bay from each room." This is the view from our room.

Grand Marais is one of those quaint UP towns, a former logging town, but now basically home to maybe several hundred locals and tourists throughout the year.

We headed down to the beach area, so Don could check out the water temp. We ran into a couple of people doing the same thing: a 75 year old gentleman and his wife, and a younger guy quite concerned about the need for a wetsuit. The younger guy mentioned the fact that last year the water temp was only 51 degrees! I was starting to get a little concerned myself then hearing that. But Don said the water felt fine when he went for a short swim, so I was going to rely on that. Still, I figured I would wear a wetsuit. The older gentleman and his wife were quite charming and had a lot of history in doing triathlons and 5ks--between them in 23 years they had done over 1100 events! And did he ever have a kewl bike!

Here is another picture of Grand Marais Bay.

That night, we went to the local brew pub for dinner, Lake Superior Brewing Company. We were told by many it was the best place in town to eat and find a good microbrew. They were right! The place was crowded, and we had to wait quite a while for a table, but it was worth it. I had a whitefish sandwich and Don had a burger, both reasonably priced, and I tried a pale ale, while he went for a wheat. Both very good.

The next morning, we could sleep in! The race didn't start until 1:30! But still, we woke up early, and were out and about by 8 am. We went to another local eatery for breakfast, a saloon by night, a restaurant by day. One thing I couldn't help but notice is when you are in the UP, there is no shortage of places to sit and drink or buy liquor! The gas stations, markets, and every restaurant all sell alcohol, and not just beer. All have a fine selection of whiskey, vodka, rum, etc. I suppose when you are snowed in all winter it becomes a favorite passtime!

After breakfast, we headed over to the beach again, since Don had spied a few others checking out the water. Everyone said it was cold but "not too bad." I didn't even want to venture a guess what that might mean. Then they started talking about the bike course, wondering if we had checked it out. No? Well you head out of town and "up to the falls and back." These are different falls than what we saw on Saturday, but the word that caught my ear was the "up." "Oh yeah, its all uphill on the way out, but you get a nice downhill on the way back. The key is to hammer on the way up." Yeah, hammer. That's what I always do.

Of course, we had to check this out, so off we went on another adventure. We still had a few hours until race time, so why not? Another "problem" for the day was the wind. The wind was blowing between 20 and 25 mph, and of course we had to ride into the wind on the way out.

Notice the flag.

As promised, the first part of the bike course was up. Lots of up in the UP, are you noticing the coincidence of those letters?? I was dying seeing this, and Don was just chuckling. The only problem was, we couldn't find the turnaround, but we did find other things to see:






This was at the "Log Slide" a 500 foot drop into Lake Superior, previously used for dropping the lumber into the water to take to the barges. I wasn't about to get near the edge, but you can see Don was more brave than me. There was also a man with a small child in a backpack and his wife with a baby in a front pack that had climbed all or part of the way down. She struggled coming up, and it took her husband quite a while with that load to get back up.
Notice the caution sign posted, warning of the difficulty of the climb, and warning of the delay in being rescued.











Then we went down another path and saw this overlook, which reemphasizes the drop to the lake.


















It was getting windier and even looked like the threat of rain when we headed back to the hotel. Don wanted to lay down for a while before the race. The temperature was in the upper 60s and windy, so I figured it would stay cool for the race, even though it was taking place in the middle of the day.
We didn't eat lunch, and I wished I had, but I did eat a little something we had in the room; it just wasn't enough I found out later.
We headed down to the race site, and I was surprised at how much warmer and sunnier it had gotten in an hour. But the wind was still blowing.
I was also surprised to see so many people now on the bike racks that were empty when we went by there earlier to pick up our packets.
As you can see, the transition was very crowded. I looked around at the various people there and found a mixture of some very serious looking athletes along with a lot of younger women and men and teenagers. You name the bike, and it was there, ranging from rusty old 10 speeds, to mountain bikes, to bikes with Zip wheels, and quite a few of those high handlebar bikes. I had to move a lot of stuff out of my way to even find a spot on a rack for my bike, and Don squeezed his way onto another, but as it turned out, we were right by the swim transition:

Notice the beach and the long climb back up the hill to our bikes. There was a set of stairs, about 40 of those, to make it "easier."
The swim was just a short 300 yards, and they had roped it off, starting down the beach and ending at the path you see. The ropes were set in quite close to shore, the water was still deep enough to actually swim, but parts were shallow enough to walk. I was still debating on the need for my wetsuit. Everyone who had tested the water said it was fine--"much warmer than last year." I kept hearing that over and over. I finally decided on the wetsuit, and attempted to get it on, now quite sweaty, as it was getting extremely hot in the sun.
The prerace meeting was held, and all the usual information was given, along with this unusual bit of caution: "While on the bike course, watch out for bears." Now I would doubt you would find this in any triathlon prerace meeting anywhere else! LOL! Biking through the forest, it was a good likelihood, according to the race director, that we would see some wildlife. Okay then. Too bad I didn't pack a rifle.
Swim: And soon, we were ready to start. This year, there was a total of 150 participants, while in the past there had been less than 60, so the race director asked if we wanted to do men first and then women on the swim? Heck yeah! So the men started and 3 minutes later the women took off.
I had tested the water earlier, and since I was so hot with the wetsuit on it felt refreshing, but it still took your breath away when you put your face in. So when I started, I started doing the Tarzan swim, avoiding putting my face in, but then I just plunged in. It was crowded, but I was surprised at how crystal clear the water was. Almost looked good enough to drink! So it was easy avoiding the feet in the face. I could see most people were walking when possible, but I avoided doing this as long as possible. Right at the end, there was a turn to go in and that was all jammed up with men and women, so I was forced to a walk there. Then it was hoof it up the beach and up those steps.
I have no idea of my swim time or T1 or T2 time. There were no chips: just start your watch on the shooting of the flare. Oh, and no swim caps were given out either. Good thing I had my own.
T1 was a big mess, mess meaning all the sand and dirt all over everything. They had huge buckets to clean off your feet in, but by the time I got up to transition, the water had so much grass, dirt, and sand in that it didn't make much difference. And I forgot my little transition stool, so I was forced to sit in the dirt to get off the wetsuit. It was impossible to not get dirty, and impossible to get your feet clean or dry, so I just put my socks on over the dirt, grass, and sand and took off.
Bike: I wasn't the last person out of transition by a long shot, but it was hard to tell exactly how many people were left, since there were quite a few relay teams. I had a hard time clipping in at first, and heard comments to that effect from spectators who found the whole triathlon, bike clips, etc. quite foreign. It almost looked like the entire town was out for this event, and if they weren't, they were on their porches or in their yards cheering everyone on. As I headed out of town, I fumbled with a gel, since by now I was hungry. As I fumbled, a young girl I passed a few blocks before now passed me, on an uphill. I eventually passed her again though. But that's really all there was, uphills, so I just pedaled along as best as I could. Don and I had both put our bikes into lower chain rings and gears ahead of time, and this certainly helped. While I was finding the hills challenging, my legs weren't screaming that it was impossible.
By the time I reached one of the steepest climbs, I could see what looked like a bike down near the top and someone had stopped to assist. As I got closer, my fear was confirmed: it was Don. At first I thought he had crashed, so I stopped to see what was the matter. He was looking dazed, but said he hadn't crashed, he just couldn't make it. I felt extremely bad for him. He said he just didn't have any energy, the power drained out of his legs on that climb, and he started getting dizzy so had to stop or fall over. A medic was with him and said he was taking him back, so I decided to go on my way. I was near the crest of the hill, and it was nearly impossible to get going again, but I pushed the bike up with one foot a little and hopped back on and continued riding. I didn't know what or how to feel, just knew I might as well finish the race.
One woman had passed me while I was stopped, and I could see it was likely I wasn't going to catch her again, but the young girl I passed early on still hadn't caught up to me, even though I had stopped, and no one else had passed me either, so that was encouraging.
The race description had promised breathtaking views and they were right. We passed by Big Sable Lake, totally pristine and wild, and looking like it probably had hundreds of years ago. Here, with the wind blowing so hard, I was actually getting a spray from the lake, or so I thought, when in actuality, we got hit with a cloudburst shortly after here! The rain came down in a deluge, but fortunately no thunder or lightning. Now the front of the pack bikers were returning on the screaming downhills, in the pouring rain. A little scary to me. One guy dropped a chain on the longest, steepest, curviest downhill, and I was a little concerned for him, but apparently he didn't crash. It continued to rain hard for about 5 more minutes, and then, before I knew it, the turnaround was just in front of me.
I like the out and back courses just so you can see who is behind you, and I was surprised at how many were. There was one woman working hard at catching me, but that didn't happen until the last couple of miles before the finish, and then it was because I did something stupid.
While the rain let up some, the roads were quite wet, and being very smooth roads, I was getting a lot of spray from cars going by and from my own tires. On that last steepest, curviest downhill, a truck passed me, and sprayed my sunglasses (which I realize I didn't need anymore, but where was I going to put them??), slightly obscuring my vision momentarily. And then I saw it: something big and black on the side of the road. "Oh my God, its a bear!" I did shout this out loud. I started thinking fast, figuring I was going to have to stop and back off, so I unclipped. And then, as I got closer, I saw what it was: a blackened tree stump. LOL! So just then, while I'm unclipped, going down a screaming downhill, and unable to get any gears on my bike in time, that other woman passed me. Not only passed me but disappeared from sight. (The road was curvy!)
We were 2.2 miles from the finish, but I just made sure no one else caught me. And while it wasn't totally flat going back, it wasn't all that bad either, mainly since it was drying up and the wind was behind us finally.
I'm back into town and into transition, and looking around to see if I could see Don, which I didn't. I quickly reracked my bike, changed shoes, which were very hard to get on even with the lace locks because my socks were sopping wet, and didn't take any water with me, which was a mistake. It was very overcast still, but it was getting warm again. But I was determined to catch that other woman!
Run: The run out was mainly uphill again. I didn't remember reading that! People were running hard into the finish, including one woman I knew to be in my age group. Here she was, all done, and here I was, just starting. Typical. But I did see that other woman ahead. She was walking. Okay, if I can't catch her walking then I'm just a pathetic excuse of a triathlete was all I could think. So I pushed a little harder than maybe I should have in the first part of the run, but I did eventually pass her. It had to happen. I was starting to not feel so good though. It was getting quite warm, not hot, but I was very thirsty and was starting to get a little crazed for water. I hadn't drank much on the bike because of all the rain and downhills, and I was feeling it. My legs were getting tired too, and I just wanted to see the turnaround in the worst way! I could see so many people coming down the hill heading back to town. I just wanted to turn around too. Finally, at the halfway point, at the top of a hill, they were handing out some water and ice. I was extremely out of breath, and it took me a moment before I could drink the water. I was pretty much at a bonking point, probably from not eating lunch or having enough water. But I could see the back of the pack bearing down on me, so I had to move on. I hate to say it though that after another couple of minutes I allowed myself to walk. I had to catch my breath. I was feeling crappy and just let myself walk. Naturally, a young woman passed me. Not in my age group, I told myself. Don't care. I could not, however, let that other woman pass me or any others, because one or some of them might be in my age group. The advantage of the out and back.
I continued on, but going downhill I was running much faster than I should have and was constantly out of breath. I finally had to walk again, but didn't care. I couldn't breathe any more! And now the sun was out full force, I was starting to bake, and I was dying of thirst, so I was extremely happy to finally see the finish area. All along the run course, people were on their porches clapping and cheering, so that kept me from walking the whole thing, I'm sure.
I'm happy to say I wasn't last by any means, took third in my age group (probably out of 3) but did not have a great run time, I'm sure. No results other than total finish time, and no breakdown when they do, I'm sure.
Don was sitting on the car bumper as I ran past and I'm sure he was glad to see I was finally done. He'd been waiting a LONG time.
This is a Chamber of Commerce event in a small town, so they aren't real sophisticated in scoring--someone writes your number and time down on a slip when you finish and they tabulate these manually at the end, so it took quite a long time to get this done. That and the fact there were several others out there after me by quite a while. The race director announced that next year they would have chips "but you'll have to remember to take it off your bike shoe and transfer it to your other shoe if you wear bike shoes." LOL! No clue about chip straps. I'll have to be sure to e-mail him with this new fangled idea.
And there was a surprise men's winner this year too: the guy we first talked to the night before the race, who was worried about the swim, who rode an old, rickety 10 speed. Don't let the small town atmosphere fool you into thinking there aren't serious athletes in the UP.

I would love to go back to this place, especially now that we found actual paved roads leading right to it! Boo for Mapquest! And I truly found this race to be the most interesting to date.

8 comments:

Phoenix said...

That does sound like an interesting race. I'm sorry it went badly for Don but I'll bet he was proud of you for finishing. You gotta watch out for those bears!!

Shelley said...

WOW..I have to say this place is beautiful and I MUST get to see it someday!!

bunnygirl said...

What a gorgeous place! I'd take a good OR bad race day there, no prob!

Lisa - Slow & Steady said...

It sounds like quite the adventure! Loves the pictures too - beautiful!!

Fe-lady said...

You guys go to the neatest places! Love the pix of the waterfalls and the beaches! Now, if you go to Bolder's posts, you will definitely know that the triathlete's worst enemy is bears! (At least it's a cyclist's worst enemy!)
Congrats on your third place finish! Did they have awards three deep? I mean, if they didn't even know that chip timing was...did they even know they were supposed to recognize age-groupers?
Good for you for sticking out a hard race! Hope Don is feeling better!

WADDLER26.2 said...

I love the photos. Sounds like a really cool place. Way to han in there and get it done. I also hope Don is feeling better.

SWTrigal said...

That is a really pretty place and I admire your adventurous spirit! Hope you hubby is OK..

shytrigirl said...

Wow! That place looks wonderful to this desert rat.