Late winter in Northwest Michigan doesn’t exactly bring to mind sunny bike rides, dune climbs and kayak trips, but such images surely were what the hundreds of outdoor enthusiasts couldn’t stop thinking about as they eagerly signed on for the M-22 Challenge.
So popular had the “run, bike, paddle” race in Leelanau County become in just two years that it filled within six hours the morning of March 1.
"At the end of the day, we sat looking at each other and said, ‘What just happened?’" Matt Myers says of his and his brother Keegan’s reaction to the online registration frenzy.
What had begun in 2009 as a triathlon for fewer than 200 athletes had turned into a 550-capped, sold-out race this past June. Matt and Keegan Myers, organizers of the race with their dad Matt Myers Sr., had counted on more people signing up quicker--the 2010 event filled within a couple of months--but hadn’t a clue it would sell out in one day.
But perhaps the brothers behind the well-known M-22 brand shouldn’t have been all that amazed. After all, the ever-growing participation in their M-22 Challenge is just further evidence that the Traverse City kite boarders and business partners have successfully tapped into an immense love of northern Michigan’s scenic landscape--and state of mind.
The Myers brothers call their business the "M-22 experience." It’s not just a road, as they like to say, but a way of life.
"We live our lives outside, active and healthy," says Matt, 32.
For the uninitiated, M-22 is the state highway running along the shores of Lake Michigan and winding through picturesque towns in Leelanau County. Matt and Keegan Myers, who grew up in Traverse City and have a shared passion for kite boarding "epic waves" in Lake Michigan, started making M-22 T-shirts and stickers in 2003 for local kite boarders and surfers to wear.
In 2006, Matt and Keegan appeared on the cover of a local magazine wearing a shirt featuring the M-22 road sign. People started asking the brothers, who teach kite boarding through their business Broneah Kiteboarding, where they could find a shirt like that.
They got the M-22 logo trademarked and began making shirts. Eventually they opened a storefront.
The brothers worked with local attorney Enrico Schaefer on getting their M-22 brand trademarked.
"They’re the only ones who can use it as a brand," says Schaefer, founding partner of Traverse Legal. "Anyone can use M-22 to indicate geography or address or anything else like that. What they can’t do is sell it as a brand on a T-shirt or other apparel, or coffee or wine or some of the other uses they’ve trademarked."
Today, fans don T-shirts, hoodies and hats, and slap M-22 stickers on their vehicles, paddleboards, bikes, even laptops.
"It’s pretty neat to see people so proud of a region," says Keegan, 30. "It’s a place where for a lot of people it’s a dream place…it’s kind of like a picture on your desk where you always want to go back to."
"People were raised going up there; it’s a place in your heart," Matt says. "For people who live here, it’s why you’re here."
Schaefer says their success is nothing short of impressive.
"I always say the number one differentiator is perseverance, and that’s what Matt and Keegan brought to the table," he says. "When they came in and said, ‘Hey, we think M-22 could be more than a road, it could be a symbol, a brand, it could stand for something,’ I thought it was a very interesting idea but I never would have guessed they could have made it into the brand it is today. It’s remarkable. People all over the world recognize M-22 as a brand."
That they could pack the M-22 experience into one morning for those people–this year’s M-22 Challenge participants came from 15 different states–was gratifying, the brothers say. Participants race up the Sleeping Bear Dunes “Dune Climb,” ride 17 1/2 miles around Big and Little Glen lakes, and paddle 2 1/2 miles in Little Glen Lake.
"We’ve always been into the idea of a race that’s individual," Matt says.
And yet, they point out, it’s also for families and friends to enjoy together. The race website offers up stories of parents and kids training and racing together.
Holding a race within a national park isn’t necessarily the easiest task, but the Myers brothers pulled it off thanks to a good relationship with Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore officials.
"They knew we were going to do what we said we were going to do," Matt says.
On top of the popularity of the M-22 Challenge, Matt and Keegan recently opened a second store, in Glen Arbor. They also, this spring, introduced their “Love Michigan” logo –the ‘v’ in love being the lower peninsula of Michigan, twisted slightly to the side to resemble a heart. The simple statement was placed on stickers and clothing similar to the M-22 logo.
With a dismal unemployment rate, and residents struggling to make ends meet, Matt created the logo to highlight the positive parts of living and playing in the state.
"Michigan needs love," Matt says. "We’re making Michigan cool."
M-22 also is on five wine labels, featuring wine from local winemaker Lee Lutes.
The downtown M-22 store, originally located on Grandview Parkway, employs four people. Two sales reps work for the Myers brothers, with a few others helping out in various ways, including coaching kite boarding.
"We love our location downtown," Keegan says. "We really like the feel of being part of a community downtown. It’s a good place to be."
Giving the love back to the community is an integral part of their business plan. A percentage of sales from M-22 merchandise goes to the Leelanau Conservancy, while a percentage of sales from Love Michigan goes to The Fresh Five, a non-profit organization that is raising awareness of preserving the Great Lakes.
Taking things slow and steady, reminiscent of their laid-back outlook on life, is another aspect of how they operate M-22.
"We’ve never been huge fans of drowning yourself in debt," Keegan says. "You want to let things progress naturally."
"Organically," adds Matt.
Besides, for all their hard work building a successful brand, Matt and Keegan will always follow the credo that playing hard is equally as important. They’ll always be on the look-out for that perfect northern Michigan day: sunny, breezy, mid-summer to early fall. A day they’d maybe spend on their boards with their longtime girlfriends and friends.
"You cruise into the store in the morning, send out product … you hear the wind forecast cranking out of the south, so you head up to Frankfort and go to Point Betsie," Matt says of the ideal kite boarding adventure. "It’s such a good spot."
And when the sun sets?
"You end it with beers on the beach," Matt says. "That’s what M-22 is for me--I dream of that. That’s living M-22."
Heather Johnson Durocher is a freelance writer specializing in health and psychology, well-being, relationships, parenting and retail/business topics.
All photos and copyright by Brian Confer. You can view his website here.