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Getting fit in 2016: Why a 200-mile relay isn't beyond your reach

John Morrison, left, runs with  Kym Dantuma Matthews.

Organizers are now on the lookout for participants for "The Fred,"  a 200-mile relay conducted on the Fred Meijer White Pine Trail State Park that takes you through the gorgeous West Michigan land between Comstock Park and Cadillac.
We all hear it: It's the new year, and it's time to get in shape.

Luckily, in a region with hundreds of outdoor activities and thousands of miles of trails, almost anyone can stick to their new year's resolution to get out and get fit. Though spring and summer races may seem ages away, many event organizers have already begun fundraising and training for their events. One race in particular,
The Fred, a 200-mile relay conducted on the Fred Meijer White Pine Trail State Park, is looking for enthusiastic participants. Aided by the West Michigan Trails and Greenways Coalition's (WMTGC) efforts to form a special team, The Fred organizers look forward to an August race made up by a variety of runners, and guided by the trail that makes it great.

First attempted in 2009 by Harvest Health Foods Director of Operations Howard Atsma and his family members, the 200-mile round trip from Comstock Park to Cadillac on the White Pine trail is nothing to scoff at. Though the rail trail is indeed flat and smooth with minimal obstacles, the distance required 36 legs and a commitment to running through the night in order to finish in two days.

Winter training for the run.Atsma first discovered this ideal length of trail after running a 200-mile relay from Madison, WI to Chicago, IL. A Michigan native, Atsma thought, "We should be able to do this in Michigan." After consulting with a friend who worked on mapping Michigan's rail trails, Atsma discovered the 100-mile trail section. "That would be a perfect venue for a 200-mile relay," he thought, and soon made the round-trip with his wife Sylvia, Fred co-coordinator Doug Bostian and Doug's wife, Leslie. Discovering first-hand that a team could easily traverse the distance on the White Pine, Bostian noted, "We need to make this into an event."

Just one year later, in 2010, Atsma and Bostian held the first Fred relay. Beginning in Comstock Park with a team from six to 12 people running varying lengths of two to nine miles, The Fred commenced on a Friday morning and continued through the night until Saturday morning or afternoon (depending on the runner’s pace). After welcoming 24 teams to the trail that first year and maintaining that same relay structure over five years, Atsma and Bostian more than doubled their participation, with 50 teams running in 2015.

This year, Atsma hopes for at least 60 teams, but seeks to keep the race manageable, local and fun. "[We have] introduced the White Pine trail to people who have never used it before," says Atsma, noting that the goal is trail awareness (all of the proceeds of go to the Friends of the White Pine Trail, which supports the recreational space, fitness and team spirit. "We really enjoy seeing people come together," he says. Kym Matthews, four-time Fred runner and a trainer for this year's event, agrees. "One of the things I love most about The Fred is the camaraderie even among teams," she says.

Over the years, the relay has become even more accessible to all sorts of runners, with Atsma and Bostian adding "The Ed," a 100-mile option of the relay that begins in Cadillac and returns to Comstock Park. The Ed is made up of just 18 legs, and begins the Friday night of the race, instead of the morning, and ends Saturday afternoon.

In addition to teams bonding through the challenge of this overnight race, they also benefit from an ideal location that is set safely apart from traffic and traverses the great outdoors. "It's a really safe venue," says Atsma. "Training on trails is safer and more runner friendly," adds Matthews, who teaches for Ecotrek Fitness, an outdoor fitness company that solely uses the trail system for training. "The trail itself is just an awesome asset," adds Atsma, noting that the relay's interactions with small towns, such as Reed City, in which the staff camps out and provides refreshments like ice cream and watermelon, make it a community event.

Seeking to form his own team of 12 runners, John Morrison, director of the WMTGC and six-time Fred runner, delights in this well-crafted infrastructure of the race. "They'll be completely supported along the way," says Morrison. Specifically looking for runners of all shapes and sizes, this special team will have their entry fee paid for by the WMTGC and will receive complimentary training by Matthews. Getting into shape from February through July, Morrison is seeking participants of all ability levels, who share a passion for fitness and the trails.

"I'm really looking for people who are new or newer to running," he says. "I'm looking to help people improve, to get into shape. I'm not looking for seasoned runners for our team." Inspired by the trails while preparing for Team In Training, an Alaskan marathon that fundraises for Leukemia, Morrison has a special connection to running on West Michigan's trail system. "It was through training that I discovered the trails," he says, as part of his training schedule took place on the White Pine.

Though the White Pine Trail is currently covered in a fresh layer of snow, runners and trail enthusiasts can already look forward to a summer event that benefits the space. Though 200 miles may seem like an insurmountable distance, The Fred's organizers would remind its participants that they are not alone, and the best part of a relay is the friendship and support a runner receives from their teammates. If you're interested in joining WMTGC's special team, contact John Morrison at director@wmtrails.org.

This article is part of an ongoing series, Moments on the Trails, and was made possible by the West Michigan Trails & Greenways Coalition. For more information about the WMTGC, visit wmtrails.org.

Photography by Adam Bird
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