Weather can't stop Michigan runners

A snowy course is just part of the fun for participants in the Groundhog Day Marathon. Rudy Malmquist

Why would close to 300 people get up early on a Sunday, wrap themselves in clothes better suited for shoveling driveways and run 13.1 to 26.2 miles over a snow-covered course in temperatures expected to be about 12 degrees?

"Well, the world is full of crazy people," says Don Kern. "And I happen to be one of them."

This Sunday will mark the third annual Groundhog Day Marathon in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Kern, an avid marathoner and race organizer, is the race director. He founded the event after making a long drive from Grand Rapids to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, with friends to take in the Groundhog Day festivities there.

By the time they got home from the road trip four years ago -- "There might have been a couple of microbreweries involved," he says -- they'd put together the concept for the event, which melds Groundhog Day the event with "Groundhog Day" the 1993 movie starring Bill Murray.

"The course is actually designed to be reminiscent of the movie, where you get to live the same day over and over again," says Kern, a big fan of the film. "It's six loops of exactly the same thing."

The route is about 4.4 miles on a relatively flat bike path of the Kent Trails system -- part of which follows the Grand River -- so it's three loops for the half marathon and six for the full distance. In the 2013 and 2014 races, runners have to high-step through a foot to a foot and a half of snow on the trail. Many looked frosted when they were done: ice-covered hair, beards and hats.

Matt Urbanski of Seattle was the overall winner of the first Groundhog Day Marathon, in 2013. It's one of the most memorable races he's ever done.

"It was almost funny for the guys up front," he recalls. "We were like, 'Really? I can't believe we're just, like, plowing through.' I really had to pick up my knees a lot more than I normally do in a race.

"I've never done anything like it before. It was unique in that it was kind of a novelty. I would say we were all smiling and laughing about it, like, 'I can't believe we're doing this.'"

The first two events, held on a Saturday and Sunday of Super Bowl weekend in 2013 and 2014, were on the actual Groundhog Day. This year's race is a day before. Some runners have worn groundhog (or a similar-looking animal) hats or T-shirts.

In the inaugural event, a group ran dressed as characters from the movie. Instead of Punxsutawney Phil, the groundhog who might or might not see his shadow, the marathon logo and mascot of this event is Grand Rapids Gus (or Augustus T. Groundhog), whom Kern says is a much cooler animal (he wears Oakleys, after all). The theme carries through to the winner's trophy, an 18-inch-high, chainsaw-carved, wooden groundhog.

"I've still got this goofy-looking, carved groundhog sitting in our apartment now from winning that race," says Urbanski. "Normally, they [races] do like a medal or something. I've got this big, wooden groundhog."

It also holds a place of honor for Jordan LaFreniere of Grand Rapids, who won the race last year. It's in his living room.

"It's an interesting conversation piece when people come over," he says.

"Fun and challenging"

About 400 runners participated in 2013, covering the half-marathon and marathon distances and the moonlight 1/6 Marathon that's held the night before, which is just one course lap. Last year, participation was down because of horrible conditions. Many who signed up didn't come out. Others took one lap and bailed.

"Hell froze over," says Kern. "It started snowing the first of December and never stopped."

The snow was layered and more solid. Snowmobiles were driven over the course before the race to try to pack it down and create a better surface, but it didn't work. Whereas the year before, the weather had been mild and the snow was deep but fresh and fluffy, the conditions in 2014 were rugged.

Frozen footprints created hazards. Instead of what Kern calls an "epic day" like they had in Year 1, he took plenty of abuse for the conditions in Year 2. That certainly was reflected in the times, too. Urbanski won the first race in 2:58:33. LaFreniere won the second in 4:09:59 -- about an hour and a half slower than what he might do on a regular road-course marathon and almost the same time as he'd posted in doing a snowy-trail 50K race in which the conditions weren't nearly as bad.

"It was pretty tough going because everyone wanted to run single-file because of the snow," says LaFreniere. Passing was difficult.

"You had to jump back into the really deep snow and try to pick up the pace while they were running on the packed stuff."

But LaFreniere had fun. He wasn't doing the race to set any personal record.

"Oh yeah," he says. "I knew it was going to be tough conditions. It was just something fun and challenging."

This year, some grooming

Kern is hoping the course is a bit friendlier on Sunday. He's having it prepped with a cross-country ski grooming machine. While many runners enjoyed the non-groomed conditions the first two years -- they were seeking a winter adventure -- others didn't.

"So this year I said, 'You know what, I'm never going to let the course be that bad again,'" says Kern.

The weather forecast for Sunday is decent, he says, and more than 400 runners are expected for the three races Saturday night and Sunday morning (the half and full marathons are run at the same time). While most of the runners who participate come from the Grand Rapids region, some come from distant states.

They come knowing they won't be running good times and it won't be pleasant weather. In fact, on the race website, Kern warns the conditions might be nasty: "THERE COULD BE A LOT OF SNOW ON THE COURSE."

So why do they come? Kern believes it's because it's a concept race. Some people think it's a great idea to run in the snow. The race also tries to provide a friendly atmosphere, with hot chili, hot drinks and cold beer for participants.

Also, says Kern, there are plenty of marathoners these days looking to check off races in all 50 states. Others want to run 50 or more races a year. So a marathon in the dead of winter in February -- on a weekend when there aren't many races wanting to go head-to-head with the Super Bowl -- is actually attractive.

To Urbanski, the race fit in with a trip he and his wife made to Ohio to visit family. While in the area, they ran a night marathon on trails in Indianapolis, then drove to Grand Rapids for the Groundhog.

"It just seemed like a fun way to get a marathon in. 'Let's go to Michigan and run one in the snow,'" he says, laughing.

A few runners in the first two races have worn snowshoes, though new rules this year will rule them out of any awards. Many wear Yaktrax, stabilizers that slip over their running shoes and help with footing in the snow. When Urbanski -- who isn't used to running in snow out in Seattle -- got to the starting line, he decided to just go with his standard running shoes.

He'd been given some "rubber things" to put over the shoes for better traction, but he looked around, saw nobody else wearing them and figured, "Maybe they know more than I do."

To finish in under three hours is something he's proud of. It's certainly a race he'll remember.

"I remember seeing guys with ice in their beards," he says. "It's the only time I've raced in pants and a jacket and a balaclava. There was ice around the outside of my balaclava. I just had my eyes and my nose out and there was ice all around it. I've never had a race like that."