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Home » Endurance » Running » Marathons » Whistle Stop Marathon

Whistle Stop Marathon — October 9, 2010

Day Before

Historical locomotive near the finish line

Historical locomotive near the finish line

A long but scenic drive through Wisconsin’s fall colors eventually led to Ashland, home of the Whistle Stop Marathon. Why not choose one of the many closer Midwest marathons in which my friends race and instead run this remote one alone? Well, it had good reviews and more importantly was close to the islands. Besides, by pure coincidence, while erecting my tent in Ashland’s Prentice Park I reunited with a couple runners I previously met at Triple D.

I headed into town for packet pickup, expo, and pasta dinner. The organizers put on a great gig, with food, clothing, and concessions taking up an entire ice rink. I was especially impressed since the weekend’s races only had around 1,000 participants combined.

Race Morning

The Whistle Stop Marathon finish line

My goal for this race, as it had been for the past four years of marathoning, was to break three hours. My times hung tantalizingly close to that mark, but never under: 3:00:06 at Chicago in 2006; 3:00:03 at Boston in 2008— where I had to tie my shoe; 3:03:26 at Lake Wobegon this spring. Would this be my day?

I slept in for a marathon (6:00 am) since nor’easters, snow, and cold are common for this race, and the extra hours of a late start help alleviate some of the morning sting. Today though, conditions were near perfect with only a slight fall chill embracing the early darkness, but balmy by local standards. I enjoyed one of a small race’s greatest benefits by parking for free a block from the finish, where runners loaded onto school buses for a ride to the start of the point to point course at Tri-Lake Timbers Resort near Iron River.

I milled around this nice campground with the several hundred other runners. Mid forties greeted the racers, which meant everyone did not have to cram inside the lodge to remain thawed. Being free to stay outside without worrying about retaining body heat was a relaxing way to pass the time.

Despite frantically searching my hometown for GUs before leaving, I forgot them in my car that morning so the replenishing gels were near the finish line, of no benefit to me. Not a great turn of events before the event even started; maybe the aid stations would have something.

The Start

Myself running on the picturesque trail

The gun pealed punctually at nine and the heard followed a beautiful road lined with fall-colored trees. After a mile of pavement everyone turned onto the Tri-County Corridor Trail, which comprised the remainder of the course. This path was a rails-to-trail project with a surface of crushed limestone. Some spots in the beginning were loose, but they were not excessive and could be avoided. The trail firmed as the race progressed as well.

I did not feel very fluid in the early miles. My legs were not sore, but they were not fresh as they should at the start of a marathon. Only a couple miles into this endeavor I was already imagining a very long and difficult race. These thoughts can become self-fulfilling prophesies that destroy a runner so I pushed them aside and kept plowing forward, keeping on track.

It happened that my pace put me next to the lead woman, and we ran together from about miles two to fifteen. Several other guys were in this group, and we paced and encouraged each other. Runners needed to depend on one another or themselves as the course’s geography allowed spectator access only where the trail crossed a road. As a result the runners were alone for most of the time with just their thoughts, the trail, and trees. Although loud cheering is helpful, I found this calm a nice change, allowing me to enjoy the beautiful course and my mind to go free. Anyway, when we did encounter spectators they more than made up for the dearth with their loud and enthusiastic cheering — even more so when I was with the lead woman, who received some extra rooting which rubbed off on me.

For once in my racing career my fortunes changed for the better with my condition improving after a poor start. My legs loosened as they clicked off low 6:40 miles with relative ease. The group I ran with actually sped up slightly in the middle and held steady in the 6:30s. I worried about going too fast, but kept myself cool and under control.

The course was absolutely beautiful. Although the trees had already dropped more of their foliage than normal the exquisite colors along the path painted a wonderful backdrop. The route through the forest was calm and peaceful (no snowmobiles this time of year), allowing us to enjoy nature (at least until bonking near the end). I loved the footing of crushed limestone that provided a soft surface for the pounding endeavor. My racing flats worked fine even with the race literature recommending against wearing such footwear.


Myself about to cross the finish line in town

My race progressed extremely well, crossing halfway in 1:28 flat. My miles were staying consistent as I also continually passed people. Seeing someone up ahead, watching him grow bigger, and eventually disappear behind me was a very uplifting event. In fact, if someone counting places near mile two was accurate, I passed around twenty people after the turbulent opening miles with only one or two getting me. Keeping even splits and overtaking runners created a feeling of empowerment — I was in control of the race and not the other way around. Even as the miles piled on I continued to pick off people and did not slow. I knew things could change quickly in a marathon though, so I did not become too excited.

Forgetting my GUs did not seem to hurt my race. Spoiler Alert: Although I did die with about 5K remaining, that is the same spot I hit in wall during races I sucked down GUs. Some energy gels even were available on the course, but my stomach was not in the mood for them by the time I reached those aid stations. Power-Aid and water somehow sustained me throughout.

Eventually the marathon’s challenge caught me. By mile twenty-two or twenty-three I hurt pretty bad with my miles slowing to over seven. Would this be an almost exact repeat of Lake Wobegon, with my three hour enemy unconquered? I kept on though, not coming all this way to quit when things became hard.


The last mile of the race covered a paved path through town. Although the surface was firmer, without the woods obstructing its flow the headwind was freer to hamper the weary runners. By now my legs had used almost all their reserves, and I begged for the finish line to arrive; the trail never seemed to end. My watch told me even if I could just keep jogging though, sub-three would be mine. A few final turns eventually brought me to the arch, and with my last bit of strength I gave a fist pump crossing the line. My official time was 2:58:03, and I finally accomplished the goal of making the first digit of my marathon time not being a three (or six for that matter)!

I could barely function afterwards but still wore a ****-eating grin with my new PR and vanquishing my three hour nemesis. Of course it took me four years to drop two minutes, but I will still take it. Ironman training is a good excuse for the long journey. I placed fourteenth overall and second in my age group, winning a train whistle as my prize. No bragging here though as I still would not even have placed in the masters division.

Finally!Awesome enormous display showing finish times

Awesome enormous display showing finish times

It took a while for my motor functions to return as I hung around the finish line cheering on runners. There I met an alumnus of the infamous Barkley, who shared some interesting stories of his experience with that beast.

Even though I did everything wrong for the race — haphazard training instead of religiously following a plan, low mileage weeks, forgot GUs, bad start to the race, no heart rate monitor — I somehow PRed. And on top of that I recovered the quickest ever following this marathon. Usually I endure a couple days of waddling but by that evening I hopped down stairs like nothing ever happened. Why did things turn out so well? Perhaps I often have an unhealthy dose of overtraining through the year, and I need to give my body a little rest.

After the race I strolled along the lakeshore enjoying the great weather and nice waterfront. I also situated my gear and kayak for my little trip to the Apostle Islands that started the next day. Later that evening I attended the Jazz Fest, but since I am not much of a beer connoisseur I just enjoyed the company of other runners and the great live music.

GPS map of the course

GPS map of the course

My mile splits

My mile splits