Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Eugene Curnow Trail Marathon: An Insider's View?

Postscript: As part of my duties as DBD Adventure Club Chronicler, I was recently charged with the task of researching the social factors inherent within the long distance trail running sub-group that seems to be thriving here in the Northland. The Club’s leadership, lead mainly by the Mallory faction, has become concerned about a couple members who seem to have been inexplicably drawn to these people and their strange ways. Fundamentally my job was to determine whether our boyz were being drawn in to a counterproductive cult or that these people have adopted habits and traditions that may be advantageous to the pursuit of adventure and thus should garner a more detailed study. The following is an abridged version of my report as submitted to the DBD Honor Board during the summer of 2103.

Why do they run?

In an effort to understand that strange subcultural set comprised of long distance runners, two weekends past I covertly entered their realm.  My primary goal was to make an effort to understand these people and their unusual ways.  In other words, to initiate the groundwork to begin an unbiased anthropological study of the long distance trail runner. Now of course if you are an adventure cyclist, you are now asking yourself, “Why?” Below I shall try and convey to you my reasoning and then submit a justification.

To begin—Like you, Dear Reader, it is true that for the first forty-five years of my life I simply dismissed these people as neurotic and/or cautious skinny folk that ran out of sheer fright. Collectively, a subset of shy persons that discovered early on that if they were to survive in an often-nasty, “fight or flight”, aggressive world, they would have to learn to take flight effectively, efficiently, and to run far far distances. 

In my world, like yours, other than occasionally beating up a flock of cross country runners on my way to football practice or duct tapping a troop of them to a flagpole during summer camp, I never really took anytime to interact with them.  I vaguely remember that a covey of these stick-people were allowed onto our track team, but they were kept separate from the rest of us.  While we all hung out on the track next to our high school, lounging on the big puffy high jump and pole-vaulting pads or played Frisbee on the lush grass infield, they were forced off campus, relegated to actually running in the local neighborhood streets. There coach, an English Literature major, too, was skinny and exceedingly shy. They all seemed to run as perhaps a herd of terrified gazelles would run when exposed on the grasslands of the Serengeti.  That is, they ran as if lions were chasing them.  Back then…I thought of myself as a lion. Of course I was a fool back then…I am just now figuring that out. Such is the curse of wisdom.  Most people don’t obtain wisdom and if they do get a bit of wisdom, it comes when they are too old to apply it…

Essentially throughout my school dayz I came to view them as peculiar, but harmless, and so I left them pretty much alone.  Sure, standing in the lunch lines, I stole their desserts off their lunch trays like everyone else did in both high skool and college, but that doesn’t count as real interaction.  So apart from a few indirect contacts during my school dayz, my life’s path and that of the long distance runner was on completely parallel tracks. Now it is true that relatively recently I have been exposed to some impressive long distance “foot racers.” Especially when I first began competing in the Arrowhead 135 some years ago.  But these hardy men were often times former weapons dealers (from France), wrestlers, or rugby players or the like that had simply decided to essentially hike the Arrowhead because they couldn’t ski or they didn’t have the right kind of bike.  They really were not runners per se or at least I convinced myself of that…

All this changed last February when I encountered Dave Johnston of Alaska.  Here was a true long distance runner and yet he was nothing like the stereotype I had conjured in my limited brain.  Here was a Man’s Man that had beer bottles stashed in his drop bags, ate frozen bacon by the handfuls, and laughed a hearty laugh even in times of sheer exhaustion and desperation. He opened my eyes, forced me to look with renewed perspective at these people. He forced upon me the idea that perhaps I could learn something from these waif-like bipeds? Now in fairness, the good Dr. Buffington, along with Mr. Kershaw, have been extoling the virtues of long distance trail running in developing raw toughness for sometime, and my friends at Esko including Mr. Hexum and Mr. Smith were relatively honorable men and they ran long distances, but it took my eye witnessing of Johnston’s amazing effort along that 350 mile stretch of the Iditarod trail that forced me to seek a detailed and more studious accounting of the sociological forces influencing this subgroup of enduro-athletes.  Could it be that the DBD has been wrong about this group all along? The aforementioned are all tough Hard Men as are the likes of John Storkamp, Matt Long, and the Lonesome Luddite…Are we as an adventure society missing out on a whole group of potential candidates for membership?

Of course the only accurate way to begin to understand a novel species is to live amongst its population.  Therefore I resigned myself to partake of the Eugene Curnow Trail Marathon held two Saturdayz past.  It is important to note that apart from my scientific curiosity, I was fired up to partake in this specific event because in doing so I would to be a part of the honoring of Eugene Curnow (who has recently died), as I knew him to a fine generous man and I greatly respected him. 

Buffington and I met up ay my home at 4:15 a.m. and then drove in separate cars over to the finish line in Carlton, Minnesota (about twenty or so miles south of Duluth) with the idea that we would leave a car at the finish and drive the other to the start. Of course, there existed a flaw in our plan in that Jason would beat me to the finish by a couple hours even if I had a good effort. Such is the generosity of this amazing character.  But to our delight, a school bus was waiting and so together we jumped on a bus that would ferry us back to the start @ Spirit Mountain, the ski resort just south of Duluth.  This way, we both had cars waiting for us at the finish. It had rained all night and during the bus ride over we encountered torrential rains, but interestingly there was no talk of cancellation amongst the riders.  No whispers of closing the trail were discernable, no laments pertaining to mud or slippage.  No one seemed concerned about being fried by lightening. I happily took note of the fact that on one seemed to find the likelihood of sloppy, even grim conditions problematic. No one seemed dissuaded, and no one seemed worried.  In stark contrast, had it been a normal mountain bike race in today’s era of meticulously groomed and highly maintained courses (like golf courses really), the race would have been cancelled and moreover, it would be likely that the manicured course would be closed for a week or more until everything was just right again…Note: Just sayin' I wouldn't want to be a guy trying to sell mud tires into todayz world of mountain bike racing when even the threat of a downpour causes a race cancellation... 

The scene at the start was very unrushed and casual.  People waited in line to sign up.  There was but one category consisting of a 26-mile race, unlike the modern phenomena in many popular events where there can be a plethora of age (and even weight) categories, combined with different distances and course configurations; all designed to make as many people as possible feel like they are “champions.”

Highly fit, fluid, and sinewy athletic-types freely interacted with aging folks with misshaped joints and broken strides.  Although it was clear from my physical attributes that I would bring up the rear, John Storkamp, a top notch runner and 2nd place finisher later in the day, engaged the author in unrushed, pleasant discourse ranging from our shared experience in Alaska to the whereabouts of Pierre Ostor.   I saw many friends and acquaintances. People that I knew, but I never knew that they were runners.  I began to suspect that I had been wrong about these people.  I began to feel not unlike that of the Grinch at the point of his rebirth. In essence, young and old, fit and those in various stages of decline all seemed fired up and ready to tackle the same challenge.  I’d say there were some hundred and sixty at the start.  My heart grew three times in size as the gun went off to start the race…

Prior to the race, I had set a strict personal protocol to follow, which was based on two fundamental overarching rules: 1. Under no circumstances would I allow myself to get some kind of long lasting injury, like a torn calf, a twisted knee, or a blown Achilles Heel; 2. I would walk the steep downhills so as to not unduly stress my fragile, worn-out knees.  To bolster Rule #2, I used ski poles the whole distance and found that they worked well in cushioning the impact during steep descents and was actually an advantage on the steep clay and muddy ascents.   

I have found that if I start off walking for the initial twenty minutes of a trail running effort, my old joints tend to limber up some and I feel much better during and after.  Therefore as the throngs of people took off from the starting line, I was left alone to ponder my inadequacies and mortality.  This was a bit humbling for me, especially as a small group of well-wishers, perhaps half-a-mile from the start, cheered for me with accolades designed for a man in my tenuous position. They yelled, “You can do it!” and “All that matters is that you’re out here trying!”

After my warm-up period I began to do a bit of jogging.  As the terrain became more rugged I began to catch up to some of the ancients of the sport.  These were old old men and women.  Several had to be in their seventies and many were in their sixties.  One old codger’s legs were so bowed, gnarled, fused, and otherwise disjointed that they reminded me of the antiquated limbs of the famed Spirit Tree of Grand Portage.  I felt inspired…for if he could do the miles then so could I and moreover this man was out there doing it at an advanced age…his love of the long distance game was uncomplicated and pure. “Unconditional love for a particular sport or endeavor speaks favorably of the pursuit,” I noted in my research log.

As I progressed onward I came upon an overgrown boulder field that they call Jarrow’s Beach, which is named after a long time and noted local distance runner and athletic shoe storeowner.  While the true runners apparently dread this segment as it forces them to walk or risk a broken ankle, I liked it as it gave me time to relax and to converse with a young guy that was also using ski poles.  He had been born and raised in Gordon, Wisconsin and was using this race as a practice session to prepare for the Superior 100 Mile race that commences in early September.  Like me, he was quick to declare his non-allegiance to the running community, but also like me, he seemed captivated by the community’s zest for a good challenge.  He commented, “My plan is to see if I can do it.” I guess there is profound honesty in such a statement.  I often tell my students that one of the great enduring questions in life is: “How do you know what ya don’t know?” Motivation, thusly, can be defined as the futile effort to continuously and proactively attempt to uncover things that you did not know.  Can I go 100 miles on foot within thirty-eight hours?  The young man from Gordon will know the answer to that question come early September and good for him. Yes or No— Either way he will be a better person for trying. 

Upon leaving the boulder field, feeling good, I began to outpace the lad, so I bid him well and continued onward at about a thirteen-minute mile pace.  It went on like that for most of the race. I felt much better than I thought that I would and since I had started dead last, I had the benefit of the illusion that I was going somewhat fast because I was passing a fair number of runners as I progressed along the route. 

Now of course the fact of the matter was that the majority of the runners were ahead of me (I finished eightieth out of 150 or so finishers), and some were a couple hours ahead of me.  The winner finished in approximately four hours while it took me six hours and twenty minutes. Another interesting aspect of the race was the fact that women were very well represented and were also very competitive (two were in the top ten).  I think that it is an accurate statement to proclaim that women are much better represented in long distance trail running than in long distance cycling.  According to my calculations, women represented about one-third of the total participants in this particular event. 

I continued on and was impressed by the enthusiastic aid stations, where the runners were treated to a wide variety of foods, drinks, and good cheer.  Everyone that I encountered along the trail was in good spirits as well, even those shuffling along displaying the telltale stiff stride indicative of one suffering from the dreaded malady known as “chapping.” I was one such soul and as the march extended onward so did the flaming intensity of the rubbing away of my tender skin surrounding my most sensitive private areas.  Finally at the second-to-last aid station, I asked matter-of-factly if there was a first aid box available for my use.  No doubt sensing my discomfort, the volunteer, (a paternalistic, no nonsense looking woman), handed me a huge jar of Vaseline and pointed me to a large tarp-like structure that was stacked to the ground to form a shield.  The application brought immediate, if only temporary relief.  Yet, I knew I could make it to the finish, so I just resigned myself “to sleep in my bed.” The end was near when I did start to experience some serious leg cramps, but such issues are usual for me so I soldiered on walking with a broken gait the last couple miles.  At the finish Jake Boyce was there to welcome me.  Jake is a top-flight cyclist, skier, rower, and I now come to find, a darn good albeit secret runner as well.  The very next day, he rode in a local mountain bike race and did very well.  It was most impressive to me…

As implied at the onset, empathy, not sympathy, was my quest.  I am now confident to report that these are a robust people not afraid of challenge and that we could learn from them especially in their approach to completing long arduous travel over terrain, the like of which will not afford the use of a bicycle or ski.  Perhaps one measure of the quality of a trail race is the degree to which the route is essentially unrideable or skiable.  This particular course would have allowed one to ride substantial segments, but even so it would be a close match between a competent rider paired against a strong distance runner. 

Perhaps another one, may be a fifty miler, is in the cards for the writer.  All in the interest of preparing to ski the Arrowhead 135 come early February 2014. 


  1. That explains your unexpected presence at a foot race.

  2. Beware of the slippery slope. I started running in order to prepare for skiing too and now I worry that come September an errant breeze might lift my emaciated frame from Carlton Peak and send me drifting out over the big lake never to be seen again.

  3. Very proud of ya Charlie! yea some similar thoughts when I tried mtn biking a couple of 24 hr races
    David J

  4. All tribes are crazy in their own way, including yours.