A snowy start to the 2013 Trail Running Festival

A snowy start to the 2013 Trail Running Festival

By MIKE NORTON

Thanks to its beautiful scenery and moderate climate, this little resort town on the Lake Michigan shore has long been a popular destination for runners, with over 30 races held in the area each year.

The forests that surround Traverse City are also crisscrossed with miles of hiking, cycling and cross-country ski trails. But until 2013 no one ever thought about holding a running event on any of them. Now the annual Traverse City Trail Running Festival does exactly that: it’s a two-day series of off-road foot races through the wilds of the Pere Marquette State Forest.

This year’s festival, which will be held April 11-12, features races of several lengths  on a variety of singletrack and two-track trails. It begins Friday evening with a two-person 10k relay (in which each runner runs five kilometers) with individual races of 10k, 25k, and 50k on Saturday morning.

“The idea is to get off the pavement and onto some nice singletracks with some trees around you, to be running in that beautiful forest instead of sucking auto exhaust at the side of the road,” said race organizer Joel Gaff.

Trail running is much like the classic sport of cross-country running (except that distances tend to be longer, the terrain is usually rougher, and there are fewer rules) and it is rapidly growing in popularity around the world. In the U.S. alone, the number of trail runners has grown from 4.5 million to more than 6 million in the past six years.

img_9214 - CopyRunners say they enjoy the sensation of racing on unpaved trails, as well as the more serene and beautiful surroundings the sport provides. (Appropriately enough, a portion of the proceeds from the event go to TART, the group responsible for creating and maintaining the local trail system.) Like most trail running races, the Traverse City event is limited to 300 racers to preserve that aesthetic experience.

There are at least two more trail running events scheduled in the Traverse City area for 2014. The inaugural Run the Ridge 10K Team Relay – a 5p.m. evening run through the forest where each member of a two-person relay team completed five kilometers of trail -- will be held May 10. And on Dec. 6, the Farmland 5K presents runners with the challenge of a trail race that includes man-made obstacles and fences.

There are plenty of other races in Traverse City for those who want to stretch their legs in the area’s splendid landscape. On May 24, for instance, some 5,000 runners from around the country compete in the annual Bayshore Marathon, a three-race event now in its 32nd year. 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.

2013 Bayshore Marathon

2013 Bayshore Marathon

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.

It’s a rare weekend that doesn’t have a least a 5K race in Traverse City or one of its neighboring villages – from this weekend's Leapin' Leprechaun 5K and the May 11 Mother’s Day 5K to the National Cherry Festival’s 15K and 5K races on July 12 and the Sept. 3 Harvest Stompede through the vineyards of the nearby Leelanau Peninsula.

Harvest Stompede

Harvest Stompede

Autumn doesn’t slow down Traverse City’s race schedule; if anything, it gets even busier. On Oct. 5, there’s the third annual Sleeping Bear Marathon & Half Marathon – an out-and-back marathon course that takes runners past Little Glen Lake and through the village of Glen Arbor, with breathtaking views of the Manitou Islands and Sleeping Bear Dunes along the way.

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 three different versions of this grueling running/swimming/cyling event going on in the area this summer.

The June 14 M-22 Challenge, for instance, combines a 2.5-mile 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 or stand-up paddleboards) across Little Glen Lake.

Then, on July 13, the Inter-Rockin’ Tri, Du, Sprint Tri 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. And on Aug. 17 there’s the 6th Annual Traverse City Triathlon: a swim around Bowers Harbor on the Old Mission Peninsula, a cycling race, and a run through the Pyatt Lake Nature Preserve.