It was 6 a.m. Saturday, July 16, and a large crowd of runners was gathered in the parking lot at Lake Superior Zoo, waiting for the start of a 26.2-mile trail marathon. Clouds of breath floated in the 55-degree air. The sun sprinkled through the trees as colorful shoes of spectators and racers trampled the dew-crested grass.
With no official starting line, a simple “ready, set, go” sent off the mass of hydration packs and smiles. Some 342 runners later, the lot was empty and the 25th annual Eugene Curnow Trail Marathon was in action, in record fashion.
“Last year we had about 250, and that was a record,” said race committee member Kris Glesener. Happy with the continued growth of the race, Glesener said the 15-member volunteer race committee definitely had to up its game.
Previously known as the Half-Voyageur, the Eugene Curnow was originally started in support of the Minnesota Voyageur 50-mile Trail Ultramarathon, which mostly runs along the same route, starting and finishing at Carlton High School. Many runners have traditionally used the Curnow as a tuneup and course preview for the Voyageur - the oldest 50-mile race in the country which will take place July 30 this year.
However, now the Curnow is becoming incredibly popular on its own.
It’s a unique race because anybody can participate; it has no time or age cutoff. The race attracts people from all over the U.S. and even abroad. Although most of the racers were from Minnesota and Wisconsin, people also came from Sweden, Hawaii, California, Arizona, Oregon, Illinois, Alabama and Maryland to race.
The Curnow and Voyageur races don't do any advertising, but people hear about them, mostly by word of mouth, Glesener said.
“The Curnow is friendly, fun and organized,” said race committee member Sam Carlson. “And it's during a nice time of year and it's on some of the most beautiful trails in the area.”
Part of the race committee’s goal has been to restore the course to its original pre-2012-flood route. This year the committee has almost reached that goal.
“The ropes course is the last fragment that is not pre-flood, so it is pretty much back to pre-flood, which is exciting,” said Carlson.
Cloquet High School alumnus Adam Doe was the 2016 overall champion, covering the course in 3:28:52 in pristine conditions Saturday.
"It beat any road marathon, but it might have been the hardest trail race I've ever done," said Doe, 28, who came in 80 seconds faster than second-place Zachary Sonoga of California. The first place woman was Dakotah Bullen of St. Francis, Minn., who finished in 4:01:56. Duluth’s Anna Lahti took second in 4:10:56.
The scenic course, trekking through mud, creek crossings, tackling the ropes course and rocky footing, makes for a memorable experience.
"I'm glad I did it!" added Doe.
Some 80-plus volunteers assisted the committee in managing the expansive wooded course, which covers a variety of terrain from Fairmont Park behind the zoo to Becks Road, Fond du Lac, Grand Portage, Forbay Lake, Jay Cooke and finishes at the Munger Trailhead in Carlton.
“We couldn’t do it without the volunteers,” said Glesener. “That's 80 people donating time so people can run this race.”
On race day volunteers pre-check the course before the race and set up and maintain the aid stations, but lots of work is done in the weeks leading up to the race as well.
“Two or three weeks before the race, we start trimming, weed whacking, and lopping,” Carlson said.
Esko High School senior Quinn Erkkila heard about the race and volunteered last year. Intrigued by the environment, he found himself running this year. It was Erkkila’s first marathon; he finished 135th in 5:28:34.
“My favorite part was running in this area, going place to place and just seeing how all the trails in Duluth, Esko and Carlton connect,” Erkkila said.
He said he wanted to start with a challenge. He got that wish.
“It was cool to be suffering that long,” Erkkila added. “I got to know quite a few people. When the trails got to be constant uphill, it was the people that got me through.”
Cloquet native and City Councilor Jeff Rock took on his second Curnow Saturday, one of many for him.
"Once you do one, it's kind of addicting," said Rock, who has run the Voyageur twice along with numerous other marathons and ultra marathons.
He praised the Curnow race, its views, the racers and volunteers.
“The [trail ultra/marathon] community is just awesome,” Rock said. “Everybody is out there trying to help each other out."
Eugene Curnow would've been glad that all 342 runners and 80 volunteers experienced the marathon. As a runner who loved the sport, he was all about motivating others, having fun, and giving back to the sport.
“He was a real good guy, everyone liked him,” Glesener said. “The Curnow is just a fun, low-key event to keep his spirit alive."
The Curnow and Voyager are sponsored by Coca Cola, Austin Jarrow, and the Northern Minnesota Track Club (NMTC). Any profit made goes to NMTC and towards the spring and fall trail running series. The voyageur is Saturday, July 30. To sign up for the 35th annual race you can check out www.voyageur50.com. You can find more information about the races at www.curnowmarathon.com.