The Great Cranberry Island 50k is a race that you should add to your list of races you need to run at least once.
I really wasn’t sure what to expect going into the race. It starts at 11:30 in the morning on a small island off the coast of Maine, where you run multiple loops along the 2 mile paved road that goes from one end of the island to the other.
Because it is such a small event, you get a lot of personal attention that you just can’t be afforded at a larger race.
Because you run out and back on the same loop 8 times, you get to know all of the other runners and volunteers throughout the race as you pass one another over and over again.
Going into this race, I didn’t know what to expect. I ran the Exeter Marathon back in April, and since then have run the Pineland Farms 25k and (a week later) a 12.1 mile mountain run at Sunday River.
Other than those 2 runs, though, I haven’t really gone over 12 miles for a single run since April as I’ve been keeping my mileage in the low to mid 40s for the most part. The longer runs that I have gone on have been predominantly on the trails.
Not exactly what I would call prime training for a 50 kilometer road race.
Why Run GCI?
Gary Allen invited me up to run the race and mentioned some of the folks that would be there, such as Chuck Engle (the Marathon Junkie) and Larry Macon (who has run 105 marathons in a single calendar year.)
Some thought that running loops over and over again would get boring, others think that even a half marathon on the roads is too long and why not run on trails, and some thought both.
For myself, I figured that it would be a good introduction to what it might be like to do a 12 or 24 hour loop race.
For a timed race, you strive to go as far as possible in a certain time limit rather than to cover a certain distance in the shortest amount of time. The 50k would only involve about a 4 hour commitment while giving me a good idea about what it might be like to constantly cover the same ground.
I’ve also found that I really enjoy the smaller races that don’t have hundreds, thousands or tens of thousands of runners. Add that on to the fact that Great Cranberry Island is a few miles off shore from Mount Desert Island, we would have permission to camp out for the night, and they’d feed us beer and lobster, and how can you say no?
The Personal Touch
When you got off the ferry, there were signs there to greet the runners and let them know they were in for something special.
For example, one said, “If you start to feel good during an ultra, don’t worry, you’ll get over it.”
Another said, “Life is short, running makes it seem longer.”
As we began the half mile or so hike to the fire house and church where we’d be pitching our tents, we noticed that the runners names were nailed to the telephone poles, which makes for a nice souvenir to take home after the race.
At the start and finish area, there was plenty of space to lay out your own personal aid station and for the most part was plenty of food and drink to get the runners through each lap. There were two official aid stations, the second being an unmanned water stop near the far side of the island.
The locals on the island all came out to watch, and some kids set up their own aid station near the ferry. Their aid station was my favorite, with cold water, plenty of gatorade, and hosings on demand.
With the extra aid station, this meant that in total there were 45 aid stations along the 50 kilometer course, which is almost 1½ aid stations per mile. Many residents also set up sprinklers near the side of the road, which was great because the temperatures were a record high of 97 degrees with 90% humidity.
There was a Life-Flight helicopter demo scheduled for the island the day of the race, but because the President was vacationing a few miles away on Mount Desert Island they grounded all unnecessary flights.
This meant that we got to set up our tents before the race instead of having to wait until afterwards, which was convenient as it’s always easier to bend down and pound in stakes before running over 30 miles.
Unfortunately, a boy from the island flipped over his handlebars and hit his head after the race started, so they needed to call in the Life-Flight Copter after all. So, while the tents were all set up, they’d all been dragged into the woods so the helicopter could land. I’m pretty sure that I heard that the boy was back on the island by the time we sat down for the lobster bake and that he was okay.
Given the record high of 97 degrees and the 90% humidity, I think that it is safe to say that it was not quite cold, even on the starting line. Everybody was in high spirits, though, as we lined up and got ready for the shotgun start.
Before the race, Chuck Engle asked me if I was up for going out in 6:10s, which if you read above about my training you’ll understand why I got a good laugh out of that.
My original plan was to go out in 7:30s and to use a run/walk system similar to what I did at Exeter.
With Chuck jumping out to an early (and never relinquished) lead, I settled into a 7 minute per mile pace that I felt was comfortable enough not to destroy me later in the race. Plus, it allowed me to run with Adam Daniels and Ty Thurlow.
I’ve raced Adam a few times before and I knew that Ty was itching to run slightly faster than I was planning on, and the conversation was enjoyable between the three of us so I decided not to use the run/walk and be forced to run alone right away.
We stayed together for the first loop, and then Adam and I pulled away from Ty a bit. Adam wound up sitting in second place for about 18 miles, although I took a quick trip into the fire house at mile 7 (the start of loop 3) so he ran most of those miles on his own.
My new strategy, since I’d decided against run/walk, was to just stop and take a break any time I wanted, usually at the start/finish area where I could grab some food or drink from my bag or (in one case) a banana from the actual aid station.
That strategy served me very well, as I felt very comfortable up until the last 5 miles or so, and never had much worse that a slightly sore lower back. I think a large part of it was that I consciously made an effort to smile and say something positive at every person that I passed in the other direction or lapped, and it’s hard not to enjoy yourself when you spend so much time with a big grin on your face.
The course itself was pretty flat. There was a small rise near the ferry, but I actually enjoyed that hill because there was a good breeze coming through and a lot of shade from a big tree.
The hill at the far end of the island wasn’t quite as steep but was a bit longer, and while I didn’t notice it the first 5 or 6 loops it definitely seemed to get larger on the last 2 or 3.
I feel that I managed the heat really well. I was glad that I decided against going shirtless, as there were a lot of sprinklers and hoses along the course and the ocean breeze did a great job cooling me off as I travelled from hose to hose. I stopped after about 2 hours of running to reapply my sunscreen, although I was sweaty enough that I don’t think that it did much good. I did get a little color on the back of my arms and on my shoulders where my singlet rubbed the sunscreen off but nothing painful, thankfully.
I could tell it was hot, but I never got uncomfortable. I think that the high temperatures and humidity for my runs and races the last few weeks did a good job acclimatizing me, and unlike most of my runs recently there were no deer flies to bite me as I ran on the island.
About halfway through the race, I saw that there was a very real possibility that Chuck was going to lap me, and even though I knew that today wasn’t a day for me to beat him I’m too competitive to take that sort of thing sitting down. I let him know around lap 5 that it wasn’t going to happen, and I spent my second to last lap using my finishing kick to make sure it didn’t.
I needn’t have worried too much, though, as the heat and the extra 5 miles finally got to Chuck and his last couple of lap splits weren’t too far off from mine. I had enough time at the end of loop 7 to visit the firehouse rest room again and to return from the ferry side of the course to meet Chuck coming into the finish a quarter or half mile out for him.
At that point, I knew that I had second place pretty much set and slowed way down.
Throughout the race I’d slowed down to run with folks that I was lapping and get to know them a little better than just from encouraging each other as you pass in opposite directions, and I did a bit more of that in the final 2 to 3 miles.
I never did do any run/walk (except when eating a banana) but I did stop and stretch at the last turn around and chat with a local that was walking up the road there.
On the final stretch back to the finish line, I saw that Amanda Labelle was having a great race and had taken a commanding lead for third place. In fact, if I didn’t watch myself, there was a chance she might have caught me. In the end, I only beat her by less than a 3/4 of a mile. (Her last loop was at 7:37.5 pace and she was only 5:38 behind me.)
At the finish line, I got my finisher’s medal from Chuck and shortly thereafter got the great and totally unexpected surprise.
There Is Nothing Cooler
When I met my wife, she was just starting to train for the Maine Marathon. She got injured right before the race and couldn’t run, and had worked up to a long run of 22 miles. This was about 6 years ago.
Since then, she started running half marathons again a few years ago and even ran a 25k trail race this year, her longest race to date and close to if not the longest training run she’s done since 2004.
Her plan this weekend was to come out and get in a long training run of about 16 to 20 miles (4 or 5 loops) and to crew for me. She took photos at the start of the race, and actually started a few minutes behind everybody else.
In her second loop, she grabbed the camera again and took some in-race photos of the scenery and we even got a nice picture of the two of us as we crossed in opposite directions (Thanks again, Jose!)
I didn’t realize she’d been running the entire time at that point, and a few laps later I even had her run down to the tents to grab something that we’d forgot to put in our backpack near the aid station. The entire time she was running, everybody kept asking how she was feeling and how far she planned on going.
After I finished, she came running by. “I’ve run the 5k loop at the start and 5 laps of the 4 mile loop, I think I’ll do one more,” she said to me. She wasn’t looking too comfortable, and she wanted some of the watermelon and blueberries we had down at the tents, so I got to start crewing for her.
I was wondering if she hadn’t done the math in her head and whether she realized that running an extra loop was going to get her further than a marathon, which she has never run.
Well, she knew. She came back up from the ferry side of the loop looking much better, especially after getting some watermelon, and she said that she was going to finish the race.
I caught up with Gary while she was out finishing loop 7, and we found another advantage that these small races have over larger and less personal races. Gary just wanted to know a few things:
- Did she start with everybody?
- Does she have a watch going?
- Did she do the first 5k loop?
- Does she know how many loops are left?
After hearing yes to all of the above, he post-registered her for the race and let the timers know to give her an official finishing time after she finished 2 more laps, and he would make sure she got a finisher’s medal and a lobster. (We paid at the lobster bake after the race.)
When Erin finished loop 7, she was very excited to hear that she was now officially a part of the race, and that she could now actually make use of the food table (not that there was a ton left or that she wanted anything other than the blueberries from our own cooler.)
She was hurting, and she did a lot more walking in that last loop, but she finished her first ultramarathon.
You never know what you are capable of, and most of our limits are ones that we put on ourselves. Had the race not started with a 5k out and back, Erin may never have tested herself to the point where it made no sense not to finish.
Erin may have been the only person to finish the entire distance that hadn’t started the day planning on running 50k, but she was hardly alone in finishing her first ultramarathon. She wasn’t even the only person to finish her first ultramarathon before finishing a marathon.
There were a lot of great performances, and I’m glad that we got to be a part of it.
He figured that a gallon of beer per mile was about right.
There was also a fireman’s supper going on, but we had plenty of food between what the runner’s brought and the corn and lobsters that Gary was cooking that I never got around to going inside to get anything else.
Some people were silly enough to leave after the race and catch a ferry back to the mainland, but I was having too much fun hanging around getting to know all the people that I’d seen over and over again all day (runners, volunteers, and spectators) that I can’t imagine why you’d want to take off.
The awards were round granite stones, beaten down over the past 20 million years by the ocean right off the island, and labeled appropriately.
Around 10pm, it was pretty dark out and Gary got everybody’s attention: It was time to “make ourselves invisible” and clean up the start/finish area. So, we all headed up to the road and spent 15 or 20 minutes in the dark picking up the aid station tables, cleaning up the trash, and taking down the archway over the road.
It was actually a bit of fun, and there were enough hands that it was pretty quick and easy. After we were done we went back behind the church to continue partying, although Erin and I retired pretty shortly after that as we were both pretty tired.
Leaving the Island
Sunday morning I was up at 6:00, but not too many people were moving around. Erin said that the tent city really started to get up around 6:20 or so, but by then I had already taken off on my hike.
My original plan was to head out a mile or so to where my name tag was hanging off a telephone pole to take it home with me, but I noticed a few hundred yards down the road that there were some cups on the ground so I turned around and rooted around in the fire house until I found a (mostly empty) trash bag that I could carry with me.
I wound up hiking the upper part of the course. There wasn’t much trash from the runners, only 3 gel packets, 1 can of an energy drink that had been served, and some cups that had been carried away from the aid station. Most of the trash I found was cigarette butts and beer cans. In other words, about what you’d normally expect on a trash run.
Whoever had cleaned up the aid stations the night before had done a pretty good job cleaning up the trash and cups, especially by the unmanned station which was very clean all around.
I got back to the camp around 7:30, and everybody was moving around starting their day. Erin had picked up all our belongings from the tent, so I just needed to break the tent down and fit everything back into my duffle bag.
We were able to get to the ferry dock for the 8:20 trip back to Southwest Harbor. We wound up having breakfast back on MDI with Helen Bradler and John Tallarico, who had run the race in 4:52:49 and been annointed the sexiest couple on the course by Chuck.
Unfortunately, the place we ate at only had turkey bacon and no real bacon, so I went with pork sausage instead.
I feel pretty good after the race. My lower back ached towards the end, but it felt better within an hour or two of when I stopped running and nothing else ever bothered me during or after. Erin was pretty sore, but not as sore as we’d both expected that she’d be.
That’s the advantage of properly managing your fluids and nutrition during a race like that, I guess.
If you’ve ever thought of running a marathon, I highly recommend heading out to Great Cranberry Island. Crow Athletics puts on a great event, and it should go on everybody’s list as a must-visit race. If you would rather crew or just go for a training run, that’s encouraged, but you just might not get a lobster afterwards.
This was the largest margin (that I’m aware of) that Chuck has ever beaten me by in a race, and I’d like to see how the race progresses when I’m actually in the kind of shape I like to be in when running an ultra. (Namely, I’d like to have at least a few long runs under my belt…)
Hopefully we can get a good competitive race next year, if Adam, Ty and Amanda all come back and we can convince some other speedy folks to come out and race with us. In better conditions, I could see a few people going under Chuck’s new course record, and could even see a sub-3 50k out there.