I have skied the American Birkebeiner or the Birkie five times, I have skied the Great Bear Chase, and the Gatineau Loppet in Canada. One race that has eluded me until now is the Noquemanon Ski Marathon in Marquette, Michigan in the Upper Peninsula.
History of Upper Peninsula adventures
The Upper Peninsula is near and dear to my heart. My very first outdoor adventure took place in the Porcupine Mountains when I was nine years old. I have since hiked those trails three or four more times. The Upper Peninsula served as a springboard for exploring one of my favorite national parks – Isle Royal.
The city of Marquette is also special to me. I worked there as a summer intern for the Southwestern Company between my freshman and sophomore years in college. I sold educational books door-to-door while taking up residence in the community in 1990. It was a really tough job, but I loved the people and the community of Marquette. Since it is home to a cross-country ski Marathon, I felt I needed to return to a place that once felt like home when I worked here. Thanks to Travel Marquette and the Noquemanon Ski Marathon, I returned to Marquette to ski the Noque.
Heavy wet snow the night before the Noquemanon Ski Marathon
I picked up my bib on Friday at the Superior Dome while enjoying a 51K IPA beer from Black Rocks Brewery. The Noquemanon is a 50 kilometer race, so I guess it is one more kilometer to go until the bar at the end to get the 51K IPA. After picking up my bib, I enjoyed a chicken marsala on top of a bed of noodles at the Kildare Irish Pub in downtown Marquette before heading to Au Train, Michigan where I was staying. A heavy wet snow was falling as I drove out of Marquette.
The next morning there was six inches of new wet snow on the ground. This is about the worst conditions a race can have outside of not having snow at all. It is ironic that the condition needed for skiing can sometimes make the experience difficult and sometimes nearly impossible. The only good thing about the conditions was the weather was in the 30s, so it was not freezing cold. It took about 45 minutes for me to drive to Marquette. I pulled into the parking lot for the Superior Dome and a bus was waiting. Buses take skiers to Ipsheming where the race starts.
Wax on at the starting line
I spent most of the time when the bus dropped us off at the starting line applying kick wax. This was the question of the day. There is no real good wax on a day like this. In fact, many skiers were going with skin skis, which are non-waxed skis, which I am not too familiar with.
Soon, my wave was called, and I got my skis on and headed over to the starting corral. As soon as my skis hit the snow, I just about completely stopped and almost fell as the snow was super sticky. I was afraid this was going to be a long day, and I might not even be able to finish if I went at a slow as molasses rate.
Slow going through the Upper Peninsula wilderness
The great thing about skiing the Noquemanon, is the course goes through some private property, so this is the only time of the year these parts are open for Nordic skiing. Other parts of the trail are always open for recreation. It was a cool experience skiing through the Upper Peninsula wilderness. The scenery was outstanding. There was probably over three feet of snow on the ground and with the new batch the night before, all trees were covered with a thick coating of snow.
The trail conditions were for the most part, as good as can be expected. It was slow going at the start, especially on the uphills. Snow tends to stick more going uphill for some reason. It is then necessary to kick off the snow before heading downhill. A couple of times, I started downhill before getting all the sticky snow off my skis. This created a problem as I got up to a decent speed going downhill and then some of the remaining snow still on the skis would cause resistance, and I tumbled forward. It is really frustrating to crash when you feel like it is not your fault. Although, who else can you blame?
11K aid station
The first station with food and water was at the 11K mark. Volunteers braved the winter conditions to help skiers stay hydrated and full of energy. I asked if they had any 11K IPA, but was told I needed to wait until the 51K mark. I was a little disappointed. Black Rocks brewery would really rock if they had an IPA for each aid station.
Elite skate wave
For the first ten kilometers, I had the course to myself. Most of the people in my wave took off. I was not in peak condition, so I was using this race to get in shape for later races and to just enjoy the experience. I intentionally held back at the beginning. It was strange being alone for long periods of time on the course as this would never happen at the Birkie.
While going through a narrow section where the trail went through some rugged terrain, I all of a sudden got passed up by an elite group of skate racers. They seemed to come out of nowhere. I jumped out of the way and let the front skiers pass. I waited to the side while more passed. Skate skiers, especially fast ones, are so much faster than most classic skiers like myself, that I soon found myself alone in the woods again.
Rugged up and down terrain halfway through
After crossing a lake somewhere about halfway through, the course goes straight up to the highest point of the course. For some reason, the nature of the snow changed at this point too. I am not sure if this was because of the elevation change, so many skiers passing by, or the air temperature. Whatever the reason, the snow changed from slow and sticky to fast and slippery. I am not sure which is worse snow. I think I prefer the slippery snow as you can wax your skis to offset the slipperiness.
This change took place during the most difficult part of the course. It led to a couple of more crashes because the downhill sections were now slick and more difficult to snow plow on where they were slower and easier before. I had two pretty good crashes on downhills, which is rare for me.
Then there was a section with a short downhill to another lake crossing. The downhill was short but steep. Since so many skiers had already gone down, the path down was kind of irregular due to crashes and snowplowing. I ended up falling forward and landing on my head. I had a GoPro head strap on top of my head. That cushioned my fall, and I then flipped over onto my back and bounced down the hill. Fortunately, except for a bruise or two, I was fine.
A little worried about finishing the Noquemanon Ski Marathon
I sometimes go whole seasons of skiing without crashing, and I had crashed four or five times already today. I was a little worried about my well being, and if I could finish. At some point, they cut you off and will not let you finish. If you are not finished by 4:30, the course will pick you up. One part of me was thinking with all these crashes and slow going, getting picked up would not be that bad after all.
I quickly banished that thought out of my mind because I wanted to earn my 51K beer. After the violent crash on the short hill, I rallied and crashed no more during the second half of the race and finished just over seven hours. The last aid station provided delicious donut holes and a fiery shot of fireball, which carried me through the last few kilometers into town. I placed 160th out of 167 in the Classic 50K, but I was happy to finish and mark the Noquemanon Ski Marathon as another completed race.
I hobbled back to the Superior Dome for soup and my 51K IPA reward. I would say the Noquemanon has the best scenery of all the ski Marathons I have participated in. Thank you Ski the Noque and Travel Marquette for having me.
My entry in the Noquemanon Ski Marathon was complimentary thanks to Travel Marquette and the race itself. This post is a narrative of my experience and the fact I received complimentary entry did not impact this post. All thoughts, photos, bruises, and exhaustion are my own.
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