Deb and I just got back from a long weekend in Holland, Michigan. While we were there, I ran the Riley Trails Marathon. This was a trip we planned several months ago. Deb wanted to visit Holland, and they had a marathon that fell on the weekend on our anniversary.
We booked this trip before the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s not something we would have planned in the current environment, but Michigan isn’t currently a “hot spot.” We were a little nervous about traveling, but we decided the risk was manageable. There are lots of other places where we wouldn’t consider traveling right now.
We flew to Michigan Thursday morning. The closest major airport is in Grand Rapids. From there, the drive time to Holland is about 50 minutes. It was the first time since early March that either of us had been on an airplane. Air travel is quite a bit different than it used to be. Without knowing what to expect, we arrived at the airport two hours before our flight.
Ordinarily, we would’ve taken a taxi, but we decided to drive to the airport instead. Parking at the airport is expensive, but this way we didn’t have to get in a car that had been used by who knows how many other people.
Inside the airport terminal, masks are required. The only time we took them off was at the TSA checkpoint, where they need to see your faces as they look at your photo IDs. There wasn’t any line to check a bag, nor was there a line at the TSA checkpoint. The only line was going through the scanners.
The airport terminal was far less crowded than it used to be, but not as quiet as I expected it to be. About half of the shops and restaurants were open.
The airline isn’t doing their usual mid-flight food and beverage service. Instead, everyone was given a plastic bag with hand sanitizer, snacks and a water bottle. Masks were required during the flight, but it was a direct flight, and the flight time was only an hour and a half from gate to gate.
By the time we got to Grand Rapids and picked up our rental car, it was almost lunch time. Before our trip, we did some research to identify restaurants that had outdoor seating. We picked out a restaurant in Zeeland, which is on the way, but when we got there, all of the outside seating was taken. Several large groups were seated about five minutes before we got there. We found another restaurant in Zeeland that had plenty of outdoor seating. After lunch, we continued to our hotel.
Holland, MI was settled by Dutch immigrants, and the town still reflects that heritage. They have an authentic Dutch windmill that’s still operational. When I read it was the only one in the United States, I was skeptical. Two years ago, we saw an operational windmill in Pella, IA that was built in the Netherlands and then shipped to Pella, where it was assembled. The windmill in Holland was actually used in the Netherlands for more than 200 years. In 1964, it was disassembled and shipped to Michigan, where it was reassembled.
The windmill is located on an island at the east end of Lake Macatawa. The island is also home to Windmill Island Gardens and Little Netherlands Village.
Next, we drove downtown. We didn’t spend as much time window-shopping as we originally planned. Neither of us slept well the night before, and Deb was feeling dehydrated, so we had an early dinner, stopped to buy groceries, and then returned to the hotel to relax.
Because of COVID-19, the restaurant at the hotel is closed. That meant we couldn’t eat breakfast there. That led us to discover Russ’ Restaurant, which has excellent breakfasts. Deb had their cinnamon bread French toast, and I had a Belgian waffle with pecans baked into it.
Many of the indoor attractions are closed, but we had no trouble finding things to do that were mostly outdoors. After breakfast, we went to see a collection of Wizard of Oz statues outside the library. L. Frank Baum, who wrote “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” had a cottage near Holland, and is believed to have written portions of the book while he was staying there.
While we were there, we walked across the street to see the gardens and fountain in Centennial Park. In the spring, they have tulip gardens here.
Next, we went to Nelis’ Dutch Village. This is a mock-up of a Dutch village, which also has souvenir shops and amusement park rides for children. Ordinarily, they have demonstrations of how delftware and wooden shoes are made. Those aren’t going on right now, but we still saw the exhibit areas and read about them.
We also saw the animal barn.
We were at Nelis’ Dutch Village for more than three hours. While we were there, we had lunch in their café.
After spending so much time at the Nelis’ Dutch Village, Deb wanted to get off her feet, so she took a break at the hotel, while I went to Riley Trails Park to preview the trails I was going to run on during the marathon.
Because it was the day before the race, the course wasn’t marked yet. There’s an extensive network of trails that crisscross the park. Not knowing the course, I just ran trails at random for a few miles. I didn’t know how much my route had in common with the marathon course, but I got a better idea of what to expect. These trails weren’t unusually technical, but they seemed much more tiring than running on roads. I also realized I should wear gaiters during the race. I regretted not wearing them for my training run.
After I got back, Deb and I went to De Klomp Wooden Shoe and Delftware Factory. This is the only factory in the United States that makes Dutch delftware. Their shop is the only place it’s sold. We saw lots of delftware in the shops at Nelis’ Dutch Village, but those were all made to be sold as souvenirs. Here, we saw some that were made to be sold to local families. You could buy complete table sets. We also saw how it was made. One woman working there was shaping clay, while another was hand painting the designs.
From there, we drove to the beach at Holland State Park.
We didn’t go there to swim. The southern end of the beach is the best place to get a view of the “Big Red” lighthouse.
Our last stop of the afternoon was packet pickup at Riley Trails Park. Then we went downtown to eat dinner. We didn’t have reservations anywhere, so we had to inquire at several restaurants before finding one where we could get outdoor seating without waiting long. We had dinner at an Irish Pub on 8th Street, before going back to the hotel to relax.
Saturday was race day. Our hotel had a basket of grab-and-go breakfast snacks, so I was able to have a muffin and some tea before leaving for the race.
The race organizers had to make a few changes because of COVID-19. Normally, the race would’ve started in town at Benjamin’s Hope, and each lap would’ve included a mile on streets getting to and from Riley Trails Park. Instead, the entire race was held in the park. The field was limited to 100 total runners for the marathon, half marathon, and 10K. Finally, instead of having a group start, we were told we could start anytime after 8:00 AM. The race was chip-timed, so our actual time on the course would be timed, regardless of when we started. We had until 5:00 PM to finish.
Deb dropped me off a few minutes after 8:00. Some runners had already started, but I saw several others milling about in the start area. I wore a buff around my neck, which I could pull over my nose and mouth when I was near other runners. Once I started running, I was mostly by myself, so I could pull the buff down around my neck.
The course was six laps of a trail loop that was roughly 4.4 miles. There was only one aid station, so I had to carry a bottle. I packed a fuel belt, but neglected to pack an empty bottle. Deb had an empty 15 oz. bottle of mango juice that fit surprisingly well into my fuel belt. Deb rinsed it out, and I used that. After filling my bottle with Gatorade, I checked in with the timer. As soon as the previous runner was clear of the starting line, the timer told me to start.
It was 64 degrees at the start, but I expected it to get up to 80 by the time I finished. According to the forecast, there was about a 50-50 chance of a morning thunderstorm. Thankfully, that never materialized.
Shortly after I started running, I felt liquid splashing against my back. Before long, the back of my shorts felt wet. I reach back and felt the bottom of the holster of my fuel belt, and it was wet. My bottle was leaking. I stopped and drank about half of my bottle. Then I continued running. After that, I didn’t notice any more leakage. Halfway through that lap, I drank the rest of my bottle. My plan for the rest of the race was to drank half a bottle right after filling it at the start of each lap, and then drink the rest about halfway through the lap.
The trails we were running on were mostly mountain bike trails. The surface was mostly dirt, but in some places, it was covered with pine needles.
Most of the course had good footing, but in some places, there were roots. There were also numerous sections with loose dirt.
On my first lap, I was usually within sight of at least one other runner. I could see the orange trail markers, but I had the luxury of just following the runners in front of me. I ran somewhat cautiously, as I have a tendency to trip on roots. They weren’t everywhere, but there were enough that I had to be careful.
We were sharing the trail with bikers and hikers. The bikers were pretty good about announcing when they approached. Everyone was good about moving over to make room for people who were passing.
In the last mile of my first lap, I moved ahead of another running, so I no longer had anyone to follow. After that I had to pay more attention to the course markings. Mostly, I looked for them when I came to a junction, so I would know which way to turn. Between the junctions, watching for markings wasn’t as impor3tant, but it’s always nice to see one, as reassurance that you haven’t missed a turn.
By the time I finished my first lap, I was already in need of a bathroom stop. It must have been the two cups of tea I had before leaving the hotel. As I reached the parking area, I saw an outhouse and a port-o-potty. The outhouse was closer to the trail, so I used that. That was a mistake. It stunk.
I came into this race with a streak of 11 consecutive sub4 finishes, but by the time I finished by first lap, it was obvious I wouldn’t run that fast. I was on pace for a time in the 4:30s, and if anything, I was going to slow down in subsequent laps. My pace was much slower than my pace for road marathons, yet it still felt tiring.
I refilled my bottle with Gatorade, but immediately drank half of it. My hope was that that would prevent any leakage through the cap as I ran. As I began my second lap, I again felt drops hitting my back. I pulled the bottle out to check. The cap wasn’t on straight. After I fixed the cap, I didn’t have any more problems. In subsequent laps, I paid more attention to that.
About half a mile into my second lap, I tripped on something hard. I didn’t fall, but my right quadricep absorbed a lot of shock as I fought to keep my balance. I never saw what I tripped on but it felt like the stub of a root sticking straight up out of the dirt. Right after that, I ran up a short hill in loose dirt. I could feel the soreness in my quad. I wasn’t sure if the sore quad would slow me down in subsequent laps, but I ran more tentatively after that.
Toward the end of that lap, I started to feel the sun shining through the trees. I knew it would warm up, but if nothing else, I thought we would always have shade. That reinforced the idea that I needed to forget about running for time, and just run at a pace that felt comfortable and sustainable.
In my third lap, I paid close attention when I reached the same spot where I stumbled before. I tried to see what I tripped on. I knew where it was, but for the life of me I couldn’t see what I tripped on. Earlier, I assumed I was just careless. Now I realized that wasn’t the case. It was a bit scary that I could trip so badly on something that I couldn’t see, even when I was looking for it. What other invisible trip hazards were lurking about?
I wasn’t half done yet, but I was already getting tired. I always find trails more tiring than roads. On a road course, the hills seem more manageable. I may slow a little going uphill, but I can speed up going downhill. The shorter, but more frequent hills on a trail course take me out of my rhythm. I slow down going uphill, but I can’ t speed up on the downhill, for fear of tripping on a root.
I got through my third lap without incident, but I was getting tired. It was also getting warmer. I reached the halfway mark in roughly 2:20, but I expected the second half to be slower.
When I finished my third lap, I saw several runners in the start/finish area. Those were half marathon and 10K runners who had already finished. For the rest of the race, I would probably only see marathon runners.
Ordinarily, I feel more confident when I pass the halfway mark of a marathon. Having three laps done, but three to go didn’t make me feel confident. When I reached the 15 mile mark, I could tell myself I only had 11.2 miles to go. The distance remaining was almost four miles shorter than what I had already completed, but even that didn’t inspire confidence. I needed to finish my fourth lap.
So far, I had only seen one other runner in this lap. There were 44 runners doing the marathon. If we were spread out evenly around the loop, that would work out to 10 runners per mile. Why wasn’t I seeing more of them? Late in the loop, I finally started to see them. I passed five or six more runners by the end of that lap.
With less than a mile to go in my fourth lap, I tripped on something. This time I fell, but it was a soft landing. I landed in soft sandy dirt and rolled. I got up quickly. I wasn’t hurt, but it shook my confidence. I looked back to see what I tripped on. I didn’t see any roots. I saw a few small pine cones scattered across the trail. Did I really trip on a pine cone?
Within a minute, I saw a runner in front of me fall. He got up quickly and didn’t appear to be hurt. Where he tripped, there were some big roots. What was my excuse?
Before the end of that lap, I tripped and fell again. This time, there was no doubt my foot had caught a root. I was going downhill, which made it scary. Fortunately, I had another soft landing in soft sandy dirt. I had to pause briefly to brush the dirt off my legs.
I expected to feel more confident with four laps done and only two to go, but now I was concerned about having more falls. I made it through three laps without any falls. Then I had two in my fourth lap. Because of the fatigue in my legs, I wasn’t picking up my feet as much. Because of my mental fatigue, I was more prone to lapses in concentration. I had less than nine miles to go, but now I was worried about getting through the rest of the race without tripping again.
I was no longer thinking about pace or distance. I just wanted to get through the remaining two laps without more falls. The next time my watch recorded a split, I didn’t bother looking at my time. I just celebrated getting through a mile without falling again. I hoped to do that each time I finished another mile. That didn’t last long. Halfway through my 19th mile, I fell again. It was my third fall in a span of two miles. For the third time, I had a soft landing, but it took time to brush the sand off my legs.
Right in front of me, I could see a shiny knob of a root, just barely protruding through the sand. That wasn’t the one that tripped me though. I looked back and couldn’t see any other roots. It occurred to me that it wasn’t a coincidence that I kept falling on the sections with loose dirt. It’s never the big roots that trip you up. Those ones you can see. The ones that trip you are the ones you can’t see. I suspect I kept tripping on roots that were hidden by the loose dirt. The dirt gives way under your feet, but the roots don’t.
Late in my 5th lap, I felt a small rock inside one of my shoes. Why didn’t my gaiters keep that out? Looking down, I could see that the back of that gaiter had ridden up above the back of my shoe. The other one had done the same thing. That must have happened one of the times I fell and rolled in the dirt. There wasn’t much I could do about it now. It would feel uncomfortable for the rest of the race. Fortunately, I had less than six miles to go.
As I entered the last mile of that lap, I was aware that I had fallen twice in this same mile during my previous lap. I looked for the section with the pine cones, but never recognized it. Maybe I’m so focused on immovable hazards like roots that I don’t notice the movable ones like pine cones.
With half a mile left in my 5th lap, I felt my left shoe drag over the top of a root as I was running downhill in loose dirt, but I was able to keep my balance. I’m pretty sure this was the same hill where I fell on the previous lap. It’s possible it was the same root.
I made it through the last mile of that lap and began my last lap. Usually, on a multiple loop course, this is where I would pick up the pace. I typically measure out how much energy I have left and figure out how fast I can run the last lap. That wasn’t going to happen in this race. First, I didn’t have any energy left. Secondly, I was afraid I would get careless and have another fall. I just wanted to get through my last lap safely. At least I was I was able to rejoice in knowing that I was passing everything for the last time.
I was particularly wary in the first mile. Once I got past the place where I had tripped before, I felt slightly more confident. I didn’t speed up in that lap, but I also didn’t slow down. By now, I recognized every turn and hill on the course. I knew which line I wanted to take to avoid roots or to get the best traction. I also knew where a few of the “invisible” trip hazards were.
With each lap, I was noticing more sections with loose footing. They were tiring, and they gradually wore me down. Earlier, I was relieved that we didn’t get rain. Now, I realized that was a mixed blessing. The soft trails were the result of dry conditions. It seemed like it had been several days since these trails last saw any rain. A little rain would firm them up.
With two miles to go, I felt like I was almost there. With one mile to go, I knew there were hazards, but I was confident I could avoid them. I got through the entire lap without incident and finished in 4:48:36.
The finisher medal depicts Riley Trails Park. The squiggly blue line is actually a map of the loop that we ran six times.
Because of COVID-19, there wasn’t a post-race party. Finisher T-shirts will be mailed. Races are different now, but it’s no less satisfying to finish one.
While I was running, Deb was shopping. First, she went to the farmer’s market on 8th Street. After that, she went blueberry picking. When I finished the race, I saw a message from Deb saying she was already on her way to pick me up. She got there about 10 minutes after I finished.
I was covered with sand, and I had a skinned knee from one of my falls. When we got back to the hotel, I washed off the dirt and cleaned up my knee. Deb noticed that I also had a smaller scrape on one of my elbows. After rinsing the sand out of the bottom of the bathtub, I took a hot bath to sooth my sore muscles. When I was ready to go out again, we had an early dinner at the New Holland Pub on 8th. Deb had a salad with strawberries, goat cheese, and toasted walnuts. I had their “pickle pizza” with bacon, cheese curds, and dill pickles. I also had a flight of four versions of New Holland’s Dragon’s Milk stout.
It wasn’t until during the night that I realized I had a sore spot on my right hip. There’s no visible bruising, but it’s a little bit sensitive to pressure. The next morning, I also felt some pain in my right knee the first time I bent down to pick something up. I don’t think either my knee or my hip is anything serious. They’ll probably both feel fine in a day or two. I’m more worried about my left Achilles tendon. It was starting to feel tight during the race, and it feels even tighter today. That was a trouble spot earlier in the year. I thought it was completely healed, but the uneven footing on trails can be really hard on Achilles tendons.
Distance: 26.2 miles
Average Pace: 11:00
Lifetime Marathons/Ultras: 404
Michigan Marathons: 4