Run Bonfyre Race Report

Coach Carl Jarema with his son at the family-friendly Run Bonfyre race in Michigan. Read the Run Bonfyre Race Report to see if it's for you!

In this Run Bonfyre Race Report Coach Carl Jarema shares his tips and insights for how to run this awesome fall season Michigan race well. A campfire for roasting marshmallows at the finish sounds good too! Enjoy!

Race: Run Bonfyre Trail Fest: 5M, 10M and 18M options

Runner: Coach Carl Jarema

Race Date: 11/04/2023

Location: Waterloo Recreation Area – DTE Trails

Results: 9th Overall – 2:25:15

Strava Activity Link: https://www.strava.com/activities/10159944958

3 Bests – What aspects of the race did you like the most?

This is the 3rd year in a row I have run the Bonfyre 18 miler. Here are the 3 things that keep bringing me back.

  • The People – Run Bonfyre is the end of the year trail celebration and it brings many of the runners I have met earlier in the year, or over the years to be able to share some pre race jitters, trail miles, and post race banter around one of the many campfires burning around the finish area.
  • The Distances – Run Bonfyre offers race distances for 5 miles, 10 miles, and the appropriately named 18ish miles. This welcomes runners of all distances and trail experiences. The race cutoff times are generous enough that the 5 and 10 mile distances are hiker friendly. It may be a “race” but it is also very welcoming to people who enjoy the outdoors. This year I invited, convinced, my wife and two sons to come to the race with me. They hiked the 5 mile course while I ran the 18. My son was at the finish to run me across the finish line.
  • It really is a beautiful trail too! The DTE trails are built for mountain biking, but RF Events takes over the area for 1 day in November to allow those who prefer shoes over tires to explore the trails in relative safety. The trail system is very typical of what you find in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. Hard packed clay and a constant up and down. It is very much like riding a roller coaster. Though it may sound tough, those climbs are often rewarded with views overlooking one of the many lakes in the area. Awesome people, exploring the outdoors, and on great trails, this race is a win, win, win.

Not so much – Aspects of the race that didn’t do it for you

The difficult part of the race is the mass start, where runners line up based on self selecting their pace. Because the race is run on single track, it is easy to get shuffled behind runners that where either ambitious in their goals, or didn’t quite follow the instructions. For 18 mile runners, this might result in expending too much energy early in the race trying to work through the field, or losing contact with the lead group or pack. I was stuck in a pack until the 5 mile race turn off, and lost track of the lead pack. I was never able to catch back up.

Weird factor – What’s the weirdest thing about this race?

It’s called the 18ish mile for a reason! Every year I have run this race, I have finished with a different distance on my watch, and trust me, it is the same route! I have seen race distances as low as 15 miles and as high as 17.5, but never 18. The number of switchbacks, constant up and downs, and tree cover really challenge your GPS watch. I have started to learn some of the key milestones on the route, and I now look forward to the surprise distance on my watch at the end.

Highlights of your race – What did you do well and enjoy about your race in particular?

Run Bonfyre is not an A, B, or C race for me. I enjoy coming out and spending time with my friends and comparing my results to previous years. This years race was 6 weeks after my first 100 mile run, which is a whole other story, so my goal was just to see how strong I could feel in the second half of the race on the climbs and maybe squeak out a little better time than 2022. I accomplished both of those goals. I felt much stronger on the climbs this year, running every climb, I did not experience the leg cramps like I have in the past, and I managed to better my time by about 5 minutes from the year before. The highlight of the race was coming out of the woods for the final 100 yards to the finish. My son was waiting for me and ran with me across the finish line. The few 5ks we have done together, I am running him across the finish line. This time it was cool to have the roles swapped!

Lessons for others – Share your pro-tips on the race to help the next runner

There are a few tricks to improve your success and enjoyment at Run Bonfyre. To start, be aware of the weather. The last three years have not had rain or snow on race day, but the temperatures have had a big range. It can be in the upper 20s to low 30s at race start and warm to the mid 40s. One year it was over 50 at the start and climbed near 70 by the race end! Plan your layers accordingly and be prepared to be a little cold at the start, but you will warm up.

Another tip is to get there a little early, parking can be tricky. This race has grown in popularity over the years and parking fills up quickly. Save some pre race nerves and stress by arriving a bit early to get a parking spot.

The best tip might be geared toward the 18 mile distance is to respect the climbs. The climbs are short, but very punchy. In previous races I have seen runners running up the hills to maintain their pace and usually around mile 13 they begin to fade. Remember, many hills can be hiked at a similar pace to running, but you will expend less energy. Study the map and some key landmarks to gauge your distance in the race. This race is notorious for in accurate GPS distances. I was burned by this my first time to Run Bonfyre. Don’t get fooled by your watch saying you have 6 miles to go, when you only have 2! When you approach the last lake on the map, that is the time to start pushing to the finish, no matter how many miles left to go on your watch.

Lessons you learned that will help you next time around

A couple things I would like to work on during Bonfyre 2024 is to be more aggressive at the start by being more confident in my predicted pace and starting closer to the front, or being more aggressive and taking chances passing runners before the 5 mile turn out. The other lesson is to take my own advice. I did come in with a game plan to start pushing the pace at a couple given land marks on the course, but struggled to mentally overcome the thought of more hills to climb, or more mileage left than I thought. The race flattens out towards the end, and I am a better climber than flat speed runner. If I don’t increase my effort on the flatter sections, I will get caught by other runners.

Most important course specific knowledge to know about the race

Don’t trust your watch distance! I have said it a few times, but it is one of the things that gets runners new to the event every year. If you are running the 18 mile, you will cross a dirt road and run a loop of the trail system that the 5 and 10 mile races do not cover. You will complete that loop by crossing the same dirt road, in the same spot to join back with the 10 mile course. Here you have 5-6 miles left on the course. There will be a few more climbs over the next couple miles.

As you make your way back towards the finish line, you will approach the field that you parked and race HQ. Here you will pick up the 5 mile course, having 2-3 miles remaining. There will be a climb or two in this section, but it will flatten out. If you have energy left in the tank, now is the time to start increasing your effort. These are some of the key land marks I have been using to determine my distance to the finish and gage my relative effort at the time.

Aesthetics – Is it a pretty course?

The course is very pretty. You will overlook a number of lakes and ponds, often spotting birds and other wildlife. Some of the climbs loop back, allowing you to look across the small creeks and valleys. The race happens in late fall, and the forest is dominated by oak and maple trees. Most of the leaves have fallen, so you are able to see much deeper into the forest than in summer. There are a few stands of red / scotch pine and some cedar near the lakes. Those are some of my favorite parts on the course

Difficulty – Is it a tough course?

Like many courses in Michigan, you never see hundreds or thousands of feet on a single climb. Most are 20 or 30 feet, but they are steep, the leaves can be slippery on the climb and descents. The most difficult parts is the constant vertical change. In some places you may get 10 feet tops of flat before starting the next climb or decent. Your quads just don’t get a break, and you can’t really just zone out and cruise. I would put this as a solid 3 on 1 to 5 scale for difficulty. I have raced much harder races in the Upper Peninsula, but the constant grind of this course pushes it just past the midpoint to 3

Organized and well run – Did it feel like a well-oiled machine or were they flying by the seat of their pants?

RF Events is one of the organizations that you can always count on having a well organized event. The course is well marked, there are plenty of port-a-potties, and race check-in is a breeze. They also go above and beyond with the parking organization. They have been doing events for a while, and with the finish line celebration activities, it really shows!

Competition – Is there a strong field?

This year was the strongest field I have seen over the 3 years running. The Master’s runners really showed up too! I mentioned I ran 5 minutes faster than last year, and I finished 5 spots lower in the results! I did not even win an award in my age group. You will not see the who’s who of the national trail running scene, but you will see, as this year proved, a number of strong Michigan trail runners showing up.

I am confident that as this race continues to gain popularity, it will become more competitive. RF Events also has a season long trail series called the GOAT Series. This series awards points based on your 3 best results from the year for a given distance. Bonfyre is the last race to better your score, and it is where the season awards are given out. As the GOAT series grows, I also expect more competition in the future.

Logistics – Does it require a special handshake, registration a year in advance, hotels all booked? Give us the low down on the nuts and bolts of making the race happen.

The race is growing in popularity every year! I have seen significant increases in participation each of the 3 years I attended. You will want to get on the RF Events website and Facebook page to make sure you register before it sells out, which usually happens a couple weeks before the race. You can also pre-order additional swag and pre-purchase a food truck meal during registration. This is a local focused race and most participants arrive and leave the day of the race. If you were to travel in from out of town, there are a few towns within an hour or less with plenty of hotels. Many runners commute 2+ hours the morning of the race without much issue.

Aid Stations – Standard fare or anything special to know about the aid stations in terms of what’s available or when?

Aid Stations are available at all 3 race distances, the 5 mile has 1 aid station, the 10 mile has 2 stations, one of which is shared with the 5 mile, and the 18 has 3 aid stations. The 18 mile shares the 5 and 10 mile aid stations, hitting the 10 mile aid station twice.

As this is a shorter race, the aid stations are usually pretty simple, water, Gatorade, and some simple snacks at the 18 mile. Depending on how you typically pack / run, you may be able to complete any of the 3 distances without the need to stop, but they are there just in case.

Weather and typical race conditions

It is November in Michigan…. the weather can be a bit unpredictable, but the last few years it has been pleasant. Typically the morning is going to be cold with frost on the ground, slowly warming to above freezing. Layers are advised as well as spending extra time after registration in your vehicle to stay warm. There is a warming tent, but I find it more comfortable in my vehicle.

Gear – Did you need anything special or is there anything you’d recommend for the next runner?

The great thing about this race is that you don’t need a lot of gear. Depending on the time you expect to spend on course, a hand held water bottle is all that is required. For the 10 and 18 mile races, nutrition is recommended. I run this race with my Salomon vest and soft flasks, one with electrolyte mix and the other with plain water. I will also bring a few hundred calories with me to consume mid-race. I have considered going lighter in the future, but I am able to skip through the aid stations, saving time in the race. It also is a great distance to practice gear and nutrition for longer races. At 18 miles, it is long enough to see what works and doesn’t work, but not end up in a place so bad you want to DNF.

Spectators – Is this a friendly course for your friends?

For the adventurous spectator, you can view the runners during multiple locations on the course. The course does not have many trails or intersecting roads, which means you may need to hike the course in reverse, or trek into and through the woods to the trail. The 5 mile aid station and finish line are the best places to view the runners, with the finish line being the best. What is better than watching the runners finish with a live band and roasting marshmallows over a camp fire!?!

How’s the Swag?

Race swag is pretty solid. Finishers receive a really nice coffee mug and participants receive a knit hat. The hat is my son’s favorite. He wears it everyday! For purchase there is also a sweatshirt, which is very comfortable. I ordered the sweatshirt last year and usually wear it once or twice a week.

One of the new initiatives RF Events is starting in 2024 is optional swag. I really love this more sustainable approach. How many race shirts does a runner really need and this limits boxes of unused shirts after the race. I hope more race events begin similar practices.

The Overall Score – How many stars do you give this race and do you recommend that others run it?

This race scores an 8 out of 10! The amenities are fantastic, the atmosphere is truly what you expect from trail running, and you can bring the whole family by offering different distances with hiking encouraged.

The only things keeping it from a perfect score? I would like to see 1 additional distance, there is one more loop in the system that the race doesn’t use. An additional warming tent for the prerace and finding a way to sperate the race start waves by distance vs pace may help reduce the conga line for the first few miles. I would send the 18, then 10, then 5 mile races out, as those typically go from the least to most runners, giving faster runners more opportunity for open trail vs being stuck with those who may have self-selected in error, or as some admitted, on purpose.

Carl Jarema is a coach with Team RunRun. To work with him or to learn more about him, check out his coach profile.

Coach Carl Jarema shares his Run Bonfyre Race Report, providing loads of tips for this awesome local Michigan trail race!