I kicked off 2023 with COVID-19, a broken treadmill and a Christmas kitten that landed me in the ER after he attempted to blind me by scratching my eyeball. It was around this time my friend Alisa suggested we run the Madeline Island Half-Marathon in May.
For those unfamiliar, Madeline Island is the only inhabited Apostle Island located in the heart of Lake Superior off the shores of northern Wisconsin. Temps in May range anywhere from snow to 80-degrees and a wind off the Big Lake is almost guaranteed. The Island is just 14-miles long and 3-miles wide. Average population of the island – just over 300. The race itself, a half or full marathon, hugs much of the Island’s shoreline contrasted by majestic pines, crystal blue water, and pristine beachfront.
Perhaps it was the COVID meds, the post-pandemic need to know I am still a badass albeit slow runner, or a weekend Island escape that had me shout yes without hesitation. Little did I know what would come next.
Training was a roller coaster of highs and lows. Thanks to James Clear and some healthier habits I was crushing times on my new treadmill, only to be served up a series of weather related setbacks. Snow. Snow. Snow and Cold. More snow. So much snow. The pinnacle coming with the City of Duluth scheduling a press conference to announce the 2022-2023 Winter being the snowiest on record… only to have the mayor cancel the presser due to… snow. Leading up to race day, Gordon Lightfoot died – the man who so lovingly reminds any Lake Superior lover that the “lake never gives up her dead.” I can’t make this shit up.
When your late April run moves inside due to snow, snow, and more snow.
By May, I, the fair-weathered runner, had only run outside 3 times. My first major long scheduled run moved indoors due to yet another blizzard. Mind you, this was my first Half-Marathon scheduled since the pandemic started in 2020. I was in the height of perimenopause and was still working off the pandemic pounds. But, it turns out consistency matters. What I lacked for in long, outdoor tempo runs, I made up for in continuing to show up.
On Race Eve, I was far from ready but knew I would finish. Alisa and I packed our bags and caught the ferry across the Lake. Armed with everything from umbrellas and raincoats, to windbreakers and down jackets we never could have anticipated what came next. (Unless of course I trusted weather.com which I stopped doing many moons ago).
Blue skies and sunshine. Heat. Even a few bugs, the keyword being few. I found myself trading my newly scored running tights for a pair of compression shorts I had stuffed in my bag “just in case.” My fears of windburn and northern chills quickly replaced with how to combat potential dehydration and uanticipated chafing. What a unique blessing.
Alisa and I hit the racecourse together Saturday morning with approximately 345 other marathon and half-marathoners. Crowds were limited but in high spirits – the music loud – and the course spectacular. For the first five miles, I crushed old PRs and was feeling good. Then, things got real. The endless snowstorms, insane spring schedule, and struggles to get ahead health wise left me struggling. My place as a back of the packer was quickly reinstated as I rediscovered the realities of being a plus-sized runner. In the past, I would have berated and beat myself up for my shortcomings. This time, perhaps due to basking in the beauty of the Island and the greatest of the great lakes, I embraced the moment. I embraced where I’m at in my never-ending health journey, still convinced that a slow race is better than no race at all.
My friend, while capable of going much faster, never left my side. I encouraged her to abandon me more than once – at which point she said – why? I’ve got nowhere better to be on this beautiful day. And so together we ran the Island, finding as cliche as it sounds, joy in the journey.
Everyone has running goals. When the first place marathoner passed me, I still had miles to go. He crossed the finish line at 2:36 securely scoring himself a spot in next year’s Boston Marathon, if that’s his dream. I, on the other hand, finished 272/280 in the 2023 Madeline Island Half. What I lacked in running, I gained within myself and was reminded that you don’t have to finish first to finish strong.
I chafed, burned in the sun and ended the race slightly dehydrated (I’m sure the post race beer didn’t help). I experienced my first real leg cramp in over a dozen half-marathons at mile 12.6. I laughed. I teared up. I remembered how much stronger and healthier I am than 10 years ago. And that health and the scale don’t always go hand-in-hand. When they draped a handmade medal made with a Lake Superior rock around my neck, I knew I earned it. Moments later, I walked into one of the world’s largest freshwater lakes to enjoy a spectacular ice-bath while jamming to local tunes. Next up, free Bent Paddle beer cut from the same water and the world’s greatest brat.
A finish line with beer and toes in the sand.
Afterwards, chilling on the beach and then slowly making my way back to the mainland, I couldn’t help but reflect on the crazy decade plus running journey I’ve been on. I’ll chalk it up to dehydration – but on a race day this spectacular and this in alignment with how I want to experience the running community – I could almost say I enjoyed it… almost. Enough so, that I signed up for another race this Fall. And the cycle continues…