Last Sunday a crowd of nearly 100 people came to Cloquet's Pine Valley for the last of a series of 10 trail races, complete with a social hour and potluck dinner afterward.
It was a unique racing experience for any newcomer, different from the more common 5-kilometer road races that have become increasingly popular as fundraisers and fitness events. At $1 a race, it's also cheaper than the average organized race.
"This is sort of half running, half community," said Duluth's Tom Albright, who ran every race in the Northern Minnesota Track Club's Fall Trail Series this year. Runners came from all over the Northland: Duluth, Brookston, Esko, Cloquet and more.
The series wrapped up its 30th season at Cloquet Sunday. At 5.5 kilometers, the race up and down the trails at Cloquet's Pine Valley rated as one of the easier races of the series, which includes 10 trail runs each autumn. Distances vary from 5 to 10.5 kilometers.
Organizer Kris Glesener said he got involved in the trail series for the same reason most other folks do it.
"It's a pure, fun, natural running experience," said Glesener, who was at the finish line Saturday recording times and names on his laptop computer. "There's hardly any fee ($1 to pay for supplies), nobody's trying to sell anybody anything, everyone is there just to run and have fun."
The laptop and the Northland Runner website he created are both relatively new additions to the race series. However, as the popularity of the races has grown, longtime organizer Jarrow Wahman said they've adapted.
"For many years, people would show up at each race, sign themselves in on a clipboard, put their dollar in the money bag, and write down their place when the race was over," Glesener said. "It was a very unpretentious, do-it-yourself, on-your-honor system."
In the beginning, Wahman said, there was one person at the finish line "and he knew everyone and would write down the times."
Now instead of 10 people running - the number that participated in the first trail race when Wahman was 20 years old - there were 86 people running on Sunday.
In addition to the potluck, Wahman recognized the top runners of the race and the series in the Pine Valley Chalet after the race finished. Rather than ribbons, each one got to pick out a prize, with the top runners going first.
Molly Pennings of Culver, Minn., won the women's race and the series on Sunday. Cloquet resident Eric Atkinson finished first in the race, with a time of 18 minutes and 58 seconds. He also came in first in the series with a rare "perfect score," Wahman said. A former UMD cross country and track runner-turned-substitute teacher, Atkinson won every race except one in his first year running the series, and because he ran every race he was allowed to throw out his worst effort.
"I love trail running way more than road races," Atkinson said. "It's more scenic than boring straight roads and more forgiving than pounding the pavement. And there are amazing views, especially around here," he added, citing Jay Cooke as one of his favorite places to run.
Glesener said the races tend to attract people who enjoy a challenge.
Atkinson and Brookston resident Wayne Graves are living proof of that. Both rated the Rough Rider race, off Duluth's Beck Road, as their favorite race of the series this year.
"It was raining, muddy and crazy," said Graves, describing how a person would have to grab onto roots sometimes to get up the steep, mud-slicked hills.
"I think I fell about 2,000 times," Atkinson said. "Everyone was just covered in mud."
Conquering the challenges of a trail race, with its unpredictable terrain and weather hazards, is not only satisfying for the competitor, Glesener said, it also builds that communal feeling.
"After you struggle up a gigantic hill with someone - lungs heaving, knees quaking, only to turn the corner and see an even bigger hill - you can't help but feel connected to the person that was right there with you, whether you know them or not," Glesener said. "Whenever you see him/her around town, you can always say, 'Remember that one race...?'"
Ten-year-old Justin Halling pointed out the other thing that most people enjoy about trail racing: being out in nature.
"It's in the woods," he said.
Glesener elaborated more on that idea.
"There is something enjoyable about running in a natural setting, through the trees and crossing rivers - it just feels very natural and satisfying," he said. "I like to think that trail running speaks to an ancient part of our souls."
Atkinson echoed that sentiment when he came up with his primary piece of advice for kids and older folks who want to get into trail running.
"If you can find a place where you really enjoy running, that helps a lot," he said. "Every time I go and run at my favorite place - where I grew up in Wisconsin - I just feel awesome."