The Marathon Mistake That Put Me On The Trail

Walker Marathon Runners

I entered the Walker North Country Marathon by accident and it was a mistake that changed running for me forever. I wanted to try something new, so I signed up for this race in Walker, Minnesota. Thinking this would be like most of the other marathons that I had done up to that point, I trained as usual on the straight, flat roads around my home in Cottage Grove, Wisconsin. 

Let me preface this story with a little background. When it came to running back then, I wasn’t always good with the planning part. I think it’s because everything else in my life required my full attention to details that it was nice for my hobby to be something where I could relax, enjoy and not sweat those details. So when I showed up in Walker, I expected a 26.2 mile race much like ones that I had done previously but with different scenery. I certainly got the new view and so much more.

The race started at the local high school track in Walker. The turnout was respectable but not huge - may 50 runners. After the starting gun sounded we made one lap around the track and headed out into the neighborhood streets. Those first few miles I was thinking; this is a nice little run in beautiful northern Minnesota. The weather was perfect, in the 50s, and everyone was in a great mood as we ran through the streets before turning on to a stretch of county highway. A few miles into the race, the pavement turned to dirt road, which I thought was a nice change. It was about this time that I witnessed my first barefoot runner ever in a race. I had not yet read “Born to Run” so I was unfamiliar with Barefoot Ted and the growing barefoot/minimalist craze that had hit the running scene. 

A few more miles had passed on the dirt road and I was on pace for beating my best marathon time. Feeling good, I picked up the pace a little and made a turn up a steep, sandy hill, which was no higher than 10 feet but would be the gateway into a wonderfully grueling experience that redefined why I love to run.  

After stumbling up that hill, I entered a wooded single track trail that moved through woods filled with colorful fall trees, along deep blue lakes and up and down countless hills and valleys – all coming together to create a marathon course unlike anything I have ever seen. I was enjoying the change in scenery and soon started noticing some familiar faces from earlier in the race. Many of the runners who I had pulled away from or passed during the road portion of the race were now passing me. It was about this time that I notice my pace had slowed considerably since entering the trails. While the rolling hills were relatively small there were many of them and they were starting to take their toll on my endurance. About 10 miles in, I started walking up the hills and barreling down the declines to gain momentum to get up the next hill as far as I could before walking again. 

I started feeling a fatigue I never felt before but the beauty of the trails gave back some of the energy lost as I continued to pound the dirt, rocks and roots. One turn and suddenly I was running along the lake shore. Then before I knew it I was back deep in the woods enjoying the fall colors, appreciating the cool shade and listening to small animals scurry and duck for cover as I made my way toward them on the trail.

One big difference between road and trail races is that your mind is constantly on duty navigating obstacles. Roads are mostly flat and with the exception of the occasional pothole to hop over or meandering auto to dodge out of the path of there is little you need to think about. With trails you have rocks, roots, low limbs, creek crossings and countless other obstacles your brain is always negotiating with your feet. You also have a higher probability of getting lost on the trail, and paying attention to the trail markers becomes so much more important in these races. Time and distance get lost on the trail as you take on a meditative “living in the moment” approach to running.

Aid stations are coveted and appreciated on the trail where you are often alone with your thoughts, so approaching these oases and seeing someone cheering for you, and bearing food and drink is a glorious sight. The Walker aid station volunteers were amazing with their encouraging words and upbeat attitudes. I found that my fellow runners carried a lot of those same positive vibes and willingness to help. Like I said I was moving slow relative to my normal pace, so every time someone would catch me on the trail it wasn’t a quick “on your left” as they passed. Most times they would run along with me as we chatted for a while. One guy I ran with for about a mile was using this race as a training run for a 100-mile race he was doing in a few weeks out west. My first question to him as he was telling me this was “100 what?” This was the first time I had ever heard of an ultramarathon, which is defined as any race exceeding marathon distance. I was amazed that anyone could run 100 miles and wished him good luck with his training as he started to pick up his pace, pull in front of me and pull out of site. Another runner I talked to was a Marine and had taken up running to raise money for charity. Many of the people I met had been running the race for years. This was a reunion for them, an opportunity to reconnect with old friends and to take in the beauty of the north country in all of its colorful fall splendor.

Somewhere around mile 20 is when things started to change again. This is where I exited the trails and found myself back on dirt road. I remember coming to an aid station somewhere around mile 18 and taking an extra minute or two…or three to catch my breath and chat it up with the volunteers. I told them that this was my first trail marathon and they laughed. “So what do you think so far?” one asked. I was quick to tell them that it was by far the toughest marathon I had ever run. They continued to laugh as I downed two more cups of water before thanking them and continuing down the road. 

The odd thing I noticed here was that my pace had quickened now that I was back on flat land. And some of those people who I met while they passed me on the trail I was passing back on the road. I made good time those last few miles and came into the finish line about 45 minutes slower than my average marathon time. 

The finish line was right back where we started at the track and there was plenty of food and drinks for runners. I was so happy to have completed the run and I stuck around to cheer on other runners coming in. I was inspired by their dedication to finish this amazing race. Not only for the guts and endurance it took for them to make it over the rolling and winding course but all the training that they had done to get to that point. And to think that there were other trail races out there, these ultras that went even farther and over steeper and more technical terrain. 

I walked back to my car cheering on runners as they ran up the street to the field and the finish line. This was it – I had accidentally stepped into the trail running community and it was by far the best mistake I have ever made. I still run those long, flat roads in Cottage Grove, but whenever I get the chance I make a detour to the trail where there are always a fresh view and new paths to take.