The running man: Brent Smith goes to Boston

When one thinks of Brent Smith, one wonders why he is running so much. Is he running away from problems? Is he trying to impersonate Forrest Gump? Does he know what cars are? But those are false. He runs for pure enjoyment, and runs well for push...

Esko Brent Smith runs during this year’s Boston Marathon, where he placed second in the men’s 60-64 division. Smith has been a distance star in northeastern Minnesota since the 1980s and won the men’s 55-59 division in the 2015 Grandma’s Marathon in 2:48:17. Photo courtesy of Boston Marathon

When one thinks of Brent Smith, one wonders why he is running so much. Is he running away from problems? Is he trying to impersonate Forrest Gump? Does he know what cars are? But those are false. He runs for pure enjoyment, and runs well for pushing 100, um, 60. Although running is just one part of Smith’s life, like everything else, he embraces it with enthusiasm.

Smith has experience in all the CEC (Cloquet-Esko-Carlton) towns, but recently just returned from a B. Not Barnum, but Boston.

After recently turning 60, he not only qualified and ran the Boston Marathon, he ran it well.

Finishing second in his age group of 60 to 64, Smith ran the 120th Boston Marathon - from Hopkinton to downtown Boston - in 2 hours, 53 minutes and 40 seconds.

“I started my training on November 1, and at that time I’d been running 50 to 60 miles a week for maintenance miles,” Smith said. (By maintenance miles he means to prepare the body for the real training program … to hit the ground running.)


Starting Nov. 1, he mixed in plenty of long runs, speed work, hill training, and even some indoor time at the University of Wisconsin-Superior track. From Nov. 1 to race day Smith logged some 1,700 miles - enough to traverse the United States ocean to ocean about five or six times.

Smith figured this was the year to best represent northern Minnesota being that he just turned 60, the youngest age in his division. So young, indeed, that he trains while listening to Canadian Railroad Trilogy by Gordon Lightfoot.

When asked what shoes he slams all the miles on, Smith said with a smile, “It’s a brand called Hokas. They are big, bulky, but lightweight at the same time.”

As if in a commercial, Smith claims these shoes are easier on his body versus the ever-growing popularity of the minimalist shoes. Additionally he rotates two to three pairs of shoes, with a switch every 400 to 500 miles.  

“Overall, I was happy with my effort, but not with my downhill strategy,” admitted Smith of his race in Boston. With his bib number 1202 (meaning he was the 1202nd fastest qualifying time), Smith believes he hit the downhills on the first six miles a little too hard.

“And I paid for it in the end,” Smith said while rubbing his forehead.

The morning of the race, Smith had to catch a bus at 6 a.m. It arrived at the starting line at 7:30 a.m., and the race started at 10 a.m. During his waiting time, Smith marveled at the busy atmosphere of this marathon.

“Going from a town with one blinking light to Boston is something else,” admitted the Esko resident and retired teacher.


“The police presence out at the race was quite impressive. I asked one officer how many were on duty, and all he said was ‘thousands.’ They also had all the manholes spray painted, rooftops lined with police force, and helicopters over the starting line,” said Smith.

This year’s race marked the third year since the Boston Marathon bombing.

At 10 a.m., activating his chip while crossing the starting line, Smith was off to the races. In his age group, Smith finished only behind masters star Dave Walters of Lisle, Ill. Walters, age 60 and a previous U.S. Olympian, had won the 60-64 division at both the Chicago Marathon and the New York City Marathon in 2015.

“The crowds along the marathon were unbelievable,” proclaimed Smith. He said the noise was deafening at some points. Apparently the whole course was lined with people shouting, cheering, laughing, and even giving kisses.

“A couple of blocks before you got to [Wellesley, an all girls college] you could hear how loud they were,” laughed Smith. “I guess if I would have known I was gonna get beaten as badly as I did, I probably would have spent a couple minutes there.”

With another grin Smith said his favorite sign on the course, a spot where all the runners laughed a bit, read “Run Fast or The Kenyans Are Drinking All The Beer.”

After finishing the race, Smith joined the rest of the runners at the post-race party inside Fenway Park. The park had all the concessions open, and the runners could walk around the outfield, sit in the dugouts, touch the green monster, share similar stories of struggle, listen to the live bands, and - most importantly - refuel.

“It was fun to get down on the field and be a baseball junkie, with as much history as there is out there,” said Smith.


When asked if he has plans to race the Boston Marathon again, Smith said he’s not ruling it out forever but has no plans at the moment to race again.

“My first love is still cross country skiing, and I had to give up a whole season to train for the Boston,” said Smith. “I think I only skied three times this winter. But I wanted to give my shot at the Boston as much preparation as I could.”


Smith, a born-and-raised Lumberjack, graduated from Cloquet High School in the class of 1974. During his high school career he ran cross country and competed in Nordic skiing, plus joining the golf team his senior year.

“My only interest in running at the time was to prepare for the Nordic ski season,” admitted Smith.

In the midst of high school and all that it entails, Smith said he’ll never give up those lifetime sports. On top of that, his coaches, Joe Nowak and Mike Marciniak, played pivotal roles in his advancement as an endurance athlete.

“My coaches definitely instilled an enjoyment for competition and endurance type activities,” said Smith, who is still good friends with Nowak.

And instilled they did, Smith has done numerous endurance races from roughly 35 marathons to the American Birkebeiner to counting out his vitamins in the morning.


“I don’t know if this is normal or not, but I don’t train with the anticipation of success. I train more with the fear of failure,” hypothesizes Smith. “In a race all you can control is your preparation. You can’t control who enters the race or the weather or whatnot.”

Then, after receiving his degree from the University of Minnesota-Duluth, Smith began teaching at Esko in 1979. It was at this job where Smith got his first taste of Grandma’s Marathon. Apparently the principal at the time was set to pick up an entry form, and Smith decided to lace up for the challenge.

“Without putting a whole lot of thought into it I said, ‘Grab me one,’ and then my goal was to break three hours,” said Smith. And break three hours he did. Along with that, each year his times kept dropping with his fastest time being in the low 2:30s.

“And now [the times] keep going the other way,” laughed Smith.

While teaching at Esko for 33 years, Smith was primarily a Nordic ski coach but also dabbled in other sports such as cross country running, girls basketball and baseball. He totalled 12 years as the Nordic coach, and in those 12 years brought four teams to state - ski races at that time were 10K skate for boys and 5K skate for girls. Additionally, two seasons ago he was named Volunteer of the Year with his winning slogan of “I’m not going to ride the school bus.”

Now, Smith is retired and lives in Esko with his wife, Delrae. They have three boys. Boyd, 23, drums in the hometown band “The Social Animals.” Niel, 27, owns and operates the family business, Smith Lawn Care. Ried, 31, is part of a pharmacist duo with his wife.

All in all, it’s hard to describe the elder Smith’s true essence and humor. For example, to express how many pushups he could do for a challenge he threw out to the Nordic ski team last year, he said, “I had to throw away all of my T-shirts and replace them with XL,” signing off with his classic “BS” signature.

Or, after giving email advice for how to store skis in the off season, he transitioned to the track team fundraiser: “In other disturbing news, I sat next to Robbie, Joey and the Easter Bunny at the track fundraiser last Saturday. Neither could finish their two pancakes and sausages without help from me. It was sad.”


He’s the type of person to run in heavy rain or to challenge teenagers, who are a quarter of his age, to fitness competitions.

“Being retired, I am on a fixed income and need the $5,” Smith wrote jokingly about the ski team fitness competitions.

Smith plans to return to his first love of skiing and maybe run a fall marathon. But whatever happens, he will continues to embrace the lifetime sports that he lives and breaths. He does have a car, but you’ll most likely see him running around the area with no particular place to go but the next competition.

Writer Joey Gotchnik was an intern with the Pine Journal last summer and a member of the CEC Nordic ski team … and occasionally the subject of Smith’s hilarious email stories. For his part, Gotchnik figures Smith didn’t ski much this year because he couldn’t keep up with Joey.

The Smith family includes (from left) Kristen Frances, Reid Smith, Graham Smith, Neil Smith, Theresa Weber, Boyd Smith, Delrae and Brent Smith, in this photo from an undated Christmas card. Contributed Photo

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