By: ARYA ROERIG
It’s October. I can’t deny that fall is here and with it comes the loss of all the cool things we get to do outside when it’s hot. My last hurrah for the season started this past Friday when we packed up the car for the 4+ hour drive to Ashland, WI, and the 15th Annual CenturyLink WhistleStop Marathon. Apart from being one of the smallest races in the state, with less than 600 runners for the full marathon and around 2000 runners for the half, the WhistleStop is also one of the latest runs of the season giving it some unique benefits and challenges to participants and organizers.
From Iron River, WI, to Ashland, WI, the course follows an old rail-trail paved with limestone gravel along the south shore of Lake Superior. The course features ten re-decked railroad tresses, wetlands, trout streams, Chequamegon National forest woodlands and dairy farms. The day started with a 47% chance of rain, down from an 80% forecast the day before, but mostly just made for a spooky kind of mist for most of the morning. Temperatures topped out around 55 degrees for the day with almost no wind. I admit, I did panic a little the week before and had to go buy new cold weather gear. But mixed with the woodsy fall colors, fewer people and the smell of burning leaves (one of my favorite smells-someone please make a perfume) the atmosphere couldn’t have been better for an October race. Seeing one guy running in a full beard and Carhartt overalls pretty much summed up the experience.
The course is flat and the trail surface makes it easy on the knees. The rougher trail terrain does mean you have to keep a closer eye on your feet and by the time I got to some parts of the course, after a 5k, 10k, half marathon and quite a bit of the participants of the full marathon, things were a bit choppy, but not overwhelmingly so. Having never run a long trail race before I assume this is to be expected. Ashland is a port on Lake Superior, near the head of Chequamegon Bay. Being on the water in a remote and cold area of the country, the city has a lot of character. Between the small town atmosphere and the weather the WhistleStop has a strong sense of community to it. The encouragement and courtesy from the organizers, volunteers and fellow racers was amazing. They even have a “Little Engine That Could” Toddler Run for the marathoners of the future.
After crossing the finish, I immediately had to go back to the house and pass out for an hour or so, but the WhistleStop Blues & Brews Fest was just getting under way. The event takes place after all runners cross the finish line with live local blues music and scores of micro brews. (One of the best parts of races in Northern Wisconsin is that there is almost always something involving micro-brews afterwards.) It was cool to see everyone from the day dancing around, looking tired and wearing their finisher medals.
While I can’t say I set a personal best these 26.3 miles (I don’t regret having the mushroom/swiss burger the night before, but it definitely was not the best idea I’ve ever had- stick to pasta) the experience has definitely renewed my love of running. After a summer of thinking of almost nothing but running- splits and shoes and gels and hydration it’s easy to get a little burnt out. And watching summer slip away is always a bummer. But getting back out on the trail, out in the woods in Autumn, just running with people excited to be there, even in the wet and cold, has really lifted my spirits. Just because Mother Nature’s not always on our side doesn’t mean we have to forget about the things that make us really happy. The WhistleStop definitely renewed my faith in the great outdoors and maybe even encouraged me to stay outside just a bit longer.