Runners do zero to 50 in 7 hours
I waited on the cool bench, watching the stars fade into a crystal blue morning. I checked my watch … 5:15 a.m. … lovely. I cleared the sleep from my eyes and tried unsuccessfully to stifle the yawn building in my throat.
The quiet bench and I contrasted with the swarm of people surrounding us. While I watched in a sleepy haze, the mass of bustling runners in front of me seemed so … alive. Men and women dressed in neon shorts and running jackets crowded on the front lawn of the Carlton High School: talking, laughing, and waiting at the starting line of the 33rd Annual Voyageur Trail Ultramarathon.
An ultramarathon encompasses any race that’s longer than 26.2 miles — the standard length of a traditional marathon. The Voyageur Ultra is a 50-mile loop that weaves through the trails of Jay Cooke State Park from Carlton and turns around at the Lake Superior Zoo in Duluth.
The race includes some rugged terrain, including navigating through twisting paths along the St. Louis River, and ultimately climbing over a mile up Spirit Mountain’s Four Pipe ski hill.
The Voyageur Ultra’s unique trails and scenic vistas have attracted ultramarathoners from around the nation since its debut in 1981, making it one of the oldest trail ultras in the nation.
The Voyageur also marks the first chapters of running legends Dusty Olson and Scott Jurek.
Olson — a premier Nordic skier and ultramarathoner — won the Voyageur in 1993, when he was barely out of Duluth East High School. He’s now one of the top-ranked skiers in the nation, and has helped coach the Cloquet-Esko-Carlton Nordic Ski Team for the last two years.
In addition, Olson proved to be a gateway for friend and ultramarathoner Scott Jurek, a Proctor native. The two phenoms grew up running and skiing together, and because of Olson, Jurek ran the Voyageur — his first ultra — in 1994.
He finished in second place, and his journey into the ultra world began.
Jurek is now regarded as one of the best ultra runners in the world, and possibly the best in the U.S. He holds the American record for the farthest distance run in 24 hours (165.7 miles). He also holds numerous ultra titles, such as the Badwater 135 — a grueling 135-mile race through the heart of Death Valley, the Colorado Hard Rock Endurance Run, and he still holds the record for the Voyageur.
It’s a record that was almost broken this year.
Michael Borst, a 21-year-old ultramarathoner from Slinger, Wis., (pictured in the stars-and-stripes running shorts) won the Voyageur this year, and came within 15 minutes of Jurek’s record — a record that has stood for over 10 years.
Borst finished the Voyageur in 6:53:20, closing in on Jurek’s 6:41:16, despite the extreme heat.
St. Paul’s Christi Nowak, 26, led the women this year and won with a time of 8:36:20, a half-hour off of the female record set by Helen Lavin in 2009 (8:06:56).
Jurek once said, “Men and women who race at distances longer than marathons — also known as ultrarunners — are by reputation and reality a strange, obsessive, and somewhat socially awkward lot.”
But despite their suicidal wishes, ultra runners seem to bond into a tight-knit community during races. Not only is it admirable they can go through the intense pain and fatigue that comes from running 50-plus miles at once, but they can do it with friendly smiles on their faces.
Ultra runners seem to be the good kind of strange.
I'd like to congratulate all those who participated in the Voyageur Trail Ultra this year. What an experience.