BY DENNIS CHASE
---- — TRAVERSE CITY — First a marathon, then an Ironman, now an ultra.
The challenges continue for Arianne and Jason Whittaker.
The Traverse City couple — who ran the Boston Marathon together in 2009, then did an Ironman (2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and a 26.2-mile run) together in 2010 — are planning on running back-to-back ultra trail races in the next month. There’s the inaugural Traverse City Trail Run Festival next Saturday — they’ll do the 50K (31.2 miles) — and the Ice Age Trail 50-mile run May 11 in Wisconsin.
“It’s fun to be able to share the experience, to go through the process and journey together,” Arianne said. “It’s another one of our adventures.”
The Whittakers will have company. Other area runners are joining in.
“There are seven or eight of us — we talked ourselves into it,” Jason Whittaker said.
The runners are using the 50K here as a training run for the Ice Age.
“It comes at a perfect time in our training,” Jason Whittaker said.
The Traverse City Trail Run Festival is the brainchild of former Trojan track standouts Joel Gaff and Eric Houghton, who operate Endurance Evolution, a company that also puts on the Traverse City Triathlon, the Glen Arbor Solstice Half Marathon and 5K, and the Sleeping Bear Marathon and Half Marathon.
“Eric and I were kicking this idea around for some time,” Gaff said. “We decided to make it happen this year.”
Gaff said about 150 runners are pre-registered, although that number should increase next week. A two-person 10K relay headlines Friday evening’s events. Individual 11K, 25K and 50K races are on Saturday’s docket. The races start at Timber Ridge Resort, with runners following single-track and two-track trails through the Pere Marquette Forest.
Runners could be in for a surprise. There’s still snow on the Vasa portion of the trail.
“That’s been groomed all winter, it’s been packed,” Gaff said. “Maybe it will be nice on the edges of the trail so we can run there. Fortunately, these trail runners are pretty rugged folks. No matter the conditions, they’ll make it happen.”
“At this point,” Jason Whittaker added, “our mental state is, ‘Whatever, bring it on.’ We don’t have a choice anyway.”
For Jason Whittaker, 35, this will be his first long distance running race since that Ironman in 2010.
“He kind of fell out of the whole running thing and is now much more into cycling,” Arianne said. “I asked him, ‘What would get you to do another run with me?’ He said an ultra was on his bucket list of things to do in life.”
So an ultra it was.
“Sure enough she found one,” Jason said.
Plus, a 50K training run to go with it. Both on trails.
“Typically, when you do an ultra, especially your first one, you’ll do a trail run because it’s easier on the body,” Arianne said.
The Whittakers sought the advice of Running Fit’s Jeff Gaft, who has done numerous ultras. He recommended the Ice Age for the 50-miler.
“He said it would be perfect for us,” Jason said. “Good atmosphere, not super technical.”
Empire’s Norm Plumstead will be doing the double, too. A marathon veteran, Plumstead has entered two 100-mile ultras in the past — one in 2010, the other last fall.
He completed his first 100-miler in just over 24 hours. He did not finish last September’s event in Pinckney.
Plumstead said he’s looking forward to next weekend’s race here.
“I’m excited for what Joel and Eric have put together,” he said. “As ultra running becomes more popular, and more people get into it, you’re going to see more and more demand for it. Traverse City is definitely ready for a 50K and beyond ultra race.”
Gaff also sees a movement to trail running.
“Half marathons have been one of the happening things the last three or four years, but trail running is becoming the next new thing,” he said. “It’s something different. Instead of just running down Front Street, or through your neighborhood on a slab of asphalt, it gets you out in the woods, it gets you out in different scenery. It’s a change of pace.”
And this one will offer something different, too. Snow.
“It’s funny, we put on this snowshoe race in February,” Gaff said. “Two years ago, we were praying for snow in February because we didn’t have any. This year we’re praying for no snow in April. It just goes to show that you can never tell with Mother Nature up here.
“Never have I looked more forward to rain than I am this weekend.”