I’ve run races on roads, on trails, and I’ve certainly done plenty of stair races. The race I did on Saturday, though, combined all of those disciplines, and more! My finishers medal was well-earned… and earning it required doing things I’ve never done before.
The race was the 20th Annual Mount Baldhead Challenge, in the cute little town of Saugatuck, Michigan, where I once helped operate the only chain ferry in the United States. The race is advertised as “The Ultimate Multi-Terrain Race” and they’re not joking! We’ll get into all the different terrains in a bit.
First, some basics. You can sign up for the 7.5-mile race, or the 12-mile race. I signed up for the 7.5 miles, because that’s plenty for me. I normally don’t run more than a 10K, which is 6.2 miles, so completing this race would be my longest run ever. I’ve only run more than a 10K once before, during a 10K race at the beginning of the year, where I missed a turnaround point and ended up running 6.4 miles instead of 6.2. This race is longer than that accidental run by 1.1 miles.
Mt. Baldhead is a hill, if I’m being honest. The summit is less than 800 feet above sea level, so “Mount” might be a bit generous. But it is the tallest point around, and tall enough that the US Air Force put a radar station at the top of it, and used it throughout the ’50s and ’60s.
The radar station looks, from a distance, like a giant golf ball resting on top of a tee. Actually, it looks that way up close, too.
The 7.5-mile race and the 12-mile race start at the same time, but in different locations, one on each side of the Kalamazoo River, right across from each other. Packet pickup was on the other side of the river from my start line, so after getting my bib, I got a school bus and was shuttled over to my start line.
It was my first time on a school bus since high school, and some memories came flooding back!
After disembarking the bus, I had about a half-hour to warm-up and stretch. The race started, supposedly, when a boat in the river fired a cannon, but I used the word ‘supposedly’ because I never saw the boat, thanks to trees blocking my view.
We started right at 9am, and the race began on a road. I wasn’t worried about finishing 7.5 miles, but I was concerned about setting a good pace and not walking any of it, so I started a little slower than normal.
Less than a half-mile later, we turned off the road, and onto a narrow trail, only wide enough for one person. And here’s where things got fun – and hard. Trail running is a challenge, because the ground is uneven and covered with trip hazards, like rocks and roots. This trail was hilly and windy, curving through the woods, up along ridges, down into ravines. I got stuck behind a little traffic jam and was forced to walk up a steep hill when I didn’t want to, but I only let that happen once. The second time, I stepped off the trail, dodged and weaved around a couple tree trunks, and reemerged onto the trail, having passed four or five people.
The scenery is beautiful – there were glimpses of water everywhere – but I couldn’t enjoy it, because trail running requires a lot of focus on where you’re going and where you’re going to step next. I couldn’t help but look around at one point, when the trail entered a bright clearing, and there, in the distance, was Lake Michigan, stretching to the horizon. The trail made a sharp turn to the left, and that’s when I realized that there wasn’t packed dirt under my shoes… there was sand. I was on top of a dune, running through sand, with waist-high grasses on either side.
The sand dune escapade only lasted a minute or so, and then back into the woods. About 1.8 miles into the race, I tripped on something or other, and took a tumble. I wasn’t injured, and thankfully, I didn’t take anyone down with me. I lost about 10 seconds as I got up and brushed myself off, but I kept running. 30 yards later, my Bluetooth headphones started losing their signal, and that’s when I realized I lost my phone during the fall, so I circled back, found it on the side of the trail, and kept going.
The route finally lead us out of the woods and back onto a paved road, but the next challenge was about a 1/2 mile away: stairs. 302 of them, up to the top of Mt. Baldhead.
I was pretty tired by this point, but I knew I could pass some people on the stairs, and I did. A couple dozen of them! My burst of energy fizzled out about 1/2 way up, though, but I kept going, at the same pace as the others around me.
I was ready to collapse at the top of the stairs, because I’m used to finish lines at the top of a stairway, but I was miles from finishing this race. And the most challenging part was just starting: Sand. And lots of it.
The stairs went up one side of the mountain, but the other side was a big sand dune, and we ran down it.
Running down a sand dune isn’t too hard – you gotta raise your knees pretty high with each step – but what came after was the most challenging part of the race: running across a flat part of the dune, with a couple uphill rises that sucked all the energy out of me. It’s so hard to run up a dune, because with every step forward, you slide backwards!
All this dune running was to bring us to the water, and soon, we were running along the very edge of Lake Michigan, with the water lapping at the soles of our shoes.
This sort of beach running is much easier, because the sand is wet and firm and doesn’t give way nearly as much as dry sand does. It was a welcome change. It didn’t last too long, though, and then it was back to running uphill in dry sand, to a parking lot. I had to walk across the lot, about 20 steps, just to catch my breath, and on the other side of the lot was another regular ol’ trail. Trail running isn’t easy, but it was a welcome sight.
There was roughly another mile on trail – and, actually, part of that was on a unpaved road covered in gravel, so add that to the list of various terrains. But this point I was utterly exhausted, and as the trail finally ended at a road, I glanced at my watch. There were still three miles to go.
Those three miles were all on paved road, a big loop around Lake Kalamazoo, and I buckled down and tried to keep a consistent pace. I focused on the music in my ears, the pretty houses I was passing… anything but the actual running. The route took me through a marina, past boats that were in and out of the water, and across the main bridge that connects the towns of Saugatuck and Douglas.
I had studied the route well enough to know that the bridge was the beginning of the home stretch. Only a little more than a mile left! I knew, at this point, that I was now in unchartered territory, having running further than ever before. The last mile is somewhat of a blur, but I remember turning the final corner, and seeing the finish line in the distance, and then hearing them announce my name as I crossed the finish line. A volunteer handed me a medal, and another volunteer handed me a bottle of Gatorade, and then I was on the ground, sitting in the middle of a city street that was closed to traffic, unable to stay standing.
I had done it. I had run more than ever before: 7.5 miles, and on all sorts of terrain! Paved road, unpaved road, trail, beach, dune, and stairs!
My time was 1:30:37. I finished 173rd out of 301 total runners, and 7th in my age group (men 40-44), out of 13. My splits and mile pace were slow, but that reflects the difficulty of the various terrains, in addition to factoring in my fatigue.
In addition to setting a new personal best for distance, I also set a new record for time spent running: 1:30:37 is probably 20 minutes more than I’ve ever spent pounding the pavement (or sand, or dirt, or whatever).
This was my 32nd race of the year. Only eight more to do in my #40years40races challenge! Just completing 40 races in one year is a monumental challenge. I’m very proud that I’m stacking my list of 40 races with some very challenging events like this one!
Keep it up, David!
Follow me! I’m @keepitupdavid on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. There’s also a “Sign Me Up” box on this page (at the top of the right-hand column) where you can subscribe to receive new posts via email!