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From the Catbird Seat: Local teens bond over 204-mile relay race, take sixth

It’s 201.6 miles as the crow flies from Winona, Minn., to the Twin Cities campus of the University of Minnesota, and for one group of young local runners, it takes 24.5 hours to cover the distance.

A team of high school runners from Cloquet, Esko, Carlton, Duluth, Proctor and Superior made the trek once again this summer as part of the annual Ragnar Run, an overnight relay race across the state that has grown in popularity every year it has been run. The mixed team of boys and girls, which called themselves “The School of Jocks 2014,” took sixth place overall out of the 387 teams that finished.

This year’s race took place Friday and Saturday. CHS sophomore Anja Maijala was the captain of the 12-runner team this year, with her parents Yvette and Arne driving the team’s two support vans.

Teams ran 36 legs to complete the course, with distances varying from three to 11 miles. Each runner gets to run three legs and that means the support vehicles have work to do.

“We had two vans leapfrogging the groups, picking up runners and dropping off others,” Yvette Maijala said.

Anja Maijala, who took over captaining the team when McKenzie Carlson graduated and became too old to run in the junior race, pulled together a group of talented runners from all over the area to take part.

Isaac Boedigheimer, Conner Denman, John Walter, Nick Tomhave, Lucas Tomhave and Maijala took part from Cloquet, joined by Phoebe Koski from Duluth East, Erica Fox from Carlton, Zach Smith from Proctor, Kailee Kiminski and Erika Shady from Esko and Izzy Evavold from Superior.

And along the way, they raced against a team featuring two of the Cloquet coaches. Head track coach Tim Prosen and his wife, Sara, ran on a team with assistant Jeff Leno. They were the only three local runners on the team, which went by the moniker of Lumberjack Heroes.

“Coach Prosen ran his three legs in a plaid shirt and a wig,” Anja Maijala said. “I couldn’t believe it. I thought it was the funniest thing I had seen but it was so hot I don’t know how he did it.”

Teams started the race in a staggered format, with the faster teams starting last so everyone would cover the course and finish at roughly the same time. Prosen’s team started ahead of Maijala’s, but it took almost 30 of the 36 legs before the teams met on the course. Lumberjack Heroes finished 122 out of the 387 teams that finished.

“They asked if we were the Cloquet team and we said ‘yes,’” Maijala said. “They were mad. In a fun way, but mad. Still it was good to see our coaches active and out there.”

And as was the case last year, all the team members for the School of Jocks broke the finish line tape at the same time in a leg anchored by Maijala.

“I ran to the last 100 yards and then we all crossed the line together,” she said. “It was cool to finish the race together. We thought, ‘We just ran 204 miles!’”

Team members even donated a dollar apiece into a special pool to be won by the person who came closest to guessing the team’s finishing time. Anja Maijala said it was her mom’s idea, but when Fox won, the proceeds helped pay her portion of the team’s meal bill after the race.

“It’s a nice blend of kids who get to run,” Yvette Maijala said. “It’s a big social event, that’s for sure.”

The camaraderie which develops among track and cross country runners is developed even further by events like the Ragnar Run.

“It’s good to socialize,” Anja said. “It brought together local runners who know each other just by name and you see each other at meets, and now you’re friends. You have that bond because you live with these people for 24 hours and root for them.”

And along the way, the team took part in another Ragnar tradition, putting a mark on their support vans for every team they passed on the route.

“Last time I looked, our van had 186 marks on it,” Anja said. “We didn’t start passing people until our first rotation of 12 legs was done but once we caught up, we started passing people.”

And Anja found out how hard it is to organize a team.

“Everyone on our team said they wanted to run but no one took over when McKenzie graduated,” she said. “It was a lot of work. I made a pacing chart, got the legs figured out and our running order, collected money and got waivers and papers signed. We got Austin Jarrow to sponsor us and it was totally worth it.”

“It was the highlight of the summer for some us,” Anja added. “So maybe I made other people’s summers better, which makes me happy.”