By MIKE NORTON
First, a word of confession. I’m a walker, not a runner.
I could dress this all up with some talk about why mine is a less obsessive-compulsive approach to fitness, one that allows me to slow down and enjoy the world around me, but the truth is that running just doesn’t fit my personality. On the road of life, I’ve always been in the slow lane.
On the other hand, you can’t live in Traverse City without knowing lots of runners because this is a runner’s town. Folks have been out running the city streets and pathways as soon as the ice began to clear away last month, and now that spring is edging reluctantly closer they’re beginning to emerge in earnest. There’s even a brand-new festival starting up this month to promote a new wrinkle in the local runners’ universe.
It’s the Traverse City Trail Running Festival, and it’ll be held April 12-13 through the woods of the Pere Marquette State Forest, starting and ending at Timber Ridge Resort (better known for hosting the annual North American Vasa ski race in February.) The festival will begin with a 10K relay race on Friday, and continue the next day with a series of 11K, 25K and 50K races.
“The Pere Marquette Forest is such a beautiful area, and we’re certain that runners will love the scenery,” said Eric Houghton of Endurance Evolution, the promotional company that’s organizing the event. True enough – I love walking, skiing and snowshoeing through that area, which will include a fair-sized chunk of the Vasa trail and goes through a picture-perfect landscape of Up North pines, firs and hardwoods – but it won’t make a runner out of me. I would inevitably trip over a tree root, or my own shoelaces.
But the announcement did start me thinking about all the racing events that are held in or around the Traverse City area these days. Without even trying, I could think of dozens – from little 5Ks all the way up to major marathons. On May 25, for instance there’s the Bayshore Marathon, a little race that’s grown so famous – and so popular – that it turns away hundreds of runners every year for fear of ruining the charm and character that have made it such a popular event for the past 28 years.
Hosted for 31 years by the Traverse City Track Club, the Bayshore promotes itself as “a marathon for runners, put on by runners” and is certified as a Boston Marathon qualifier. This year the Bayshore will allow 11,400 runners in its three races: the main marathon, the half marathon, and the Bayshore 10K run.
Why such big interest in a small-town race? Mainly, it’s the setting. As its name implies, the Bayshore’s route follows the shoreline of East Grand Traverse Bay up the Old Mission Peninsula, an area that features some of the most breathtaking views available on any marathon course. On one side there’s the famous bay with its Caribbean array of jade green, cobalt blue and turquoise water. On the other side, elegant residential areas gradually fade into a landscape of vineyards and orchards where, since the race takes place in May, participants are often treated to the sight of thousands of blossoming cherry trees.
But many runners are just as charmed by the small-town cheerfulness of race spectators, who make up for their lack of numbers by their friendliness and creativity (how many marathons feature ice cream at their refreshment stops?) and by Traverse City plentiful tourist amenities. That may explain why races also play a prominent role in the area’s many festivals.
In fact, the National Cherry Festival’s July 6 “Festival of Races” was the area’s first official footrace; it began in 1973 and is now in its 40th year). But there are also races at almost every other local festival, from Kalkaska’s National Trout Festival (April 27) to the Empire Asparagus Festival (May 18) and Bellaire’s Rubber Ducky Festival (Aug. 17). Even the local wine industry has gotten into the act: each fall the winemakers of the Leelanau Peninsula hold a seven-mile fall run through their vineyards called the Harvest Stompede (Sept. 7-8), which also includes tours and tastings at their wineries.
For some competitors, even a marathon isn’t enough of a challenge. Triathlons are becoming an increasingly popular option in the Traverse City, and there are now at least four different versions of this grueling running/swimming/cyling event going on in the area this summer.
The first is on Saturday, June 8, when the fourth annual M-22 Challenge takes place. Founded by kiteboarding entrepreneurs Matt and Keegan Myers, the 22-mile triathlon combines a starting run (including a climb up the Sleeping Bear Dunes!) followed by a 17-mile bicycle race around Big and Little Glen Lakes and a paddling race (kayaks, surf skis of stand-up paddleboards) across Little Glen Lake.
Then, on July 7, the twelfth annual Inter-Rockin’ 3 is held in nearby Interlochen, featuring three different options -- 1.5k swim, a 40k bicycle race and a 10k run; a 500m swim, 20k cycling race and 5k run; or a 5k run, 20k cycle race and 5k run – as well as a pair of “aquabike” events that ferature just the swimming/biking parts. On Aug. 18, there’s the Traverse City Triathlon, held at Bowers Harbor on the Old Mission Peninsula. Finally, on Sept. 1, the Grand Traverse Resort & Spa sponsors the annual BAREFOOT Triathlon.
Running doesn’t shut down with the end of summer, either. On Sept 28, there’s a Run Vasa! event, a late-season run (5K, 10K and 25K) at through the Vasa Head Trail. On Oct. 13, there’s the Lighthouse Half Marathon – a very scenic three-mile run around the Mission Point Lighthouse on Old Mission, and just before Halloween there’s the Zombie Run, which attracts lots of runners (my daughter included) who like to dress up as rotting corpses when they run.
Hmmm. I know I've missed a bunch. Too many races....