Friday, August 15, 2014

Great Lakes Relay, Part II

by Jamie Stec

Michigan farmland near Cheboygan. Photo courtesy of J. Stec
Day Two

The second day of the Great Lakes Relay began before 5 a.m., with three vehicles full of blurry-faced runners caravaning south on I-75 to the start, in the rolling farmland below Cheboygan. My car carried the runner for the second leg, and we arrived early to figure out our game plan, and to wait for the runner who completed the first leg.

We were so early that we decided to continue down the seasonal road to find a gas station, but after advancing only a half mile or so, we realized that we were bottoming out too much to go on. We turned around and headed back the way we came. We were stopped by two bikes, sitting perfectly in the road. “Oh,” I thought. “Someone just parked here to run off into the fields and pee.” I was wrong. Those were our bikes--that flew off of the back of our car on that terrible road.

We remounted our bikes and hurried on to the exchange to wait for the first runner, the one from our group that we would consider the most highly strung. More and more runners were arriving, and she was nowhere to be found. We contacted her by phone to realize that she and many others were lost. Her 4.7 miles of rolling hills had turned into almost six miles of panic.

We were about to take off to find her when the car wouldn’t start. Our battery was dead. Another runner’s support vehicle good-naturedly offered a jump, and their runner even waited to help before taking off. It was heart stopping and then immediately heartwarming. The Jeep was running, so we sent the second runner on her way, picked up our lost lamb, and continued down the road to find gas.

We stopped for gas in the incredibly charming town of Topinabee. Topinabee is a small resort community on the edge of Mullett Lake. The lake and surrounding township were named for John Mullett, a surveyor from the 1840s, but we, of course, made a variety of jokes about the lake having business in the front and parties in the back. All of our teammates had made the stop as well, and we milled about, drinking coffee and regrouping, and having a small funeral service for the first pair of dead running shoes. 

Casualties of the Great Lakes Relay. Photo courtesy of J. Stec
Once again, I was part of a group of runners who were starting later in the day, so we meandered through back roads to arrive at our next exchange point, at the corner of Sawdust Pile and Tin Shanty Roads, two actual, legitimate roads outside of Gaylord, and not the location of a horror film. We arrived at the exchange with hours to spare, so naps were attempted. 

Photo courtesy of J. Stec
Photo courtesy of J. Stec
Very Snoopy-like attempt at sleep. Photo courtesy of J. Stec
The terrain of day one, on the North Country Trail, was absolutely beautiful, but the dry, dusty, unshaded fire roads that led to the trails were not pleasant. Day two, with paved roads and fast food drive thrus, was a welcome change. The legs were still very pretty, with deer and streams, but you felt a bit closer to home while running them; they seemed more comfortable and less alien.

My first run of the day was called ”The Graveyard Detour”. As an amateur gravestone historian, I was really excited to run past an old cemetery. Unfortunately, the detour was away from any graveyards. It was about four miles of challenging, rolling dirt road, and it was such a relief from the agony of the escarpment the day before. I felt strong and the hills felt easy. I was only slightly annoyed by the sunglasses I had neglected to leave in the car.

Just before the end, I saw my childhood friend’s husband, who was on another team. He had already finished, and he loped back to me to run me in, cheering and yelling for me for the last tenth of a mile. It was fantastic to see a familiar face at the end, and even sweeter knowing that Bruce had recently celebrated five years of remission for testicular cancer, and me one year for breast. We posed for a photo together; two survivors.

Photo courtesy of J. Stec
My team picked me up and took me to my next leg, which was only a few miles away. According to Bruce, this was a rookie mistake. We made quite a few rookie mistakes that weekend, the first of which was simply being rookies. Apparently it was extremely rare (and ill-advised) to have a team consisting entirely of rookies. This could be added to the ever-growing list of stuff that nobody told us! But we rookies soldiered on, literally, to the next leg, which abutted Camp Grayling, the local military base.

This leg was another four miles of hills, but they weren’t rolling. They were sledding-level, and they would have been perfect for sledding, with the deep snow-like sand of which they consisted. The first mile or so ran right by soldiers practicing their live munitions training. The Abrams tank would fire, and the concussion would cause the ground to shake and your vision to blur. It certainly added an element of danger to the run.

Photo courtesy of J. Stec
I ascended the dirt hills and came up into beautiful farmland, passing horses, butterflies, and a Border Collie relaxing in a driveway. It was pastoral and lovely, but I was spent. I was dying toward the end of it, and I was passed by some runners in a car. ”The faster you’re done, the quicker you can drink beer!” they hollered. Although I have been sober since 1998, I love a nonalcoholic beer after a run. I remembered that I had an O’Doul’s in the car cooler, and I sprinted for the finish.

The end of day two found us in Grayling. The farther south we were, the better the amenities seemed to be. That isn’t a judgment on the UP or the northern part of Michigan--more of an illustration of how important a modern Ramada and black olive and mushroom pizza could be to an exhausted runner. Day two was in the books; 105.9 miles covered between ten runners, some of whom had better attitudes than others. Still no bears.

For Part III of Jamie Stec's experience at the Great Lakes Relay, click HERE.

About the author

Jamie Stec is a wife, mother, Healthy Living Director/Certified Personal Trainer, and runner. She does the first two at home in Mount Clemens, Michigan, where her family has lived for nearly 100 years, the third at her local YMCA, and the fourth wherever she can. In her spare time she reads, rescues feral cats, and beats cancer. You can read about her funny and touching journey at

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