Slow build for Birkie Trail Run
Event to celebrate it's 10th year on Sept. 22
Jan Guenther has simple advice for those tackling the Birkie Trail Run & Trek: Drop the Garmin. Forget about time. Let your legs relax. Enjoy.
For Guenther, the strategy produced a course record 3:31:32 in the inaugural marathon run on the Birkebeiner Ski Trail. For most, it will be the key to surviving to the finish.
As veteran cross-country skiers well know, the hills between Hayward and Cable are unrelenting, and the marathon will test lungs, legs and patience, with an estimated 4,500 feet of elevation gain.
Dennis Arthur envisioned that challenge as the lure to bring people to the trail when he first proposed to the American Birkebeiner Foundation Board of Directors the idea of hosting a running race on the Birkie Trail.
"I had this idea that if you offer something to people that is special and unique to them, they will come," said Arthur, a retired school administrator from Hennepin County, Minnesota.
Many were skeptical, though, and the initial outing in 2003 started small with 15K and 5K races starting on the trail's south end.
Arthur remembers nervously waiting for registrants in the Sawmill Saloon on the eve of the first race, and being enthused to sign up more than 100 people for each distance.
Growth in the early years was slow - like the trudge up to the High Point north of Seeley - but the pace quickened considerably with the addition in 2008 of a trail marathon relay and a solo half marathon, and in 2010 the full solo marathon. The current collection of races, including a 5K and Nordic Trek, will likely draw more than 1,000 for the 10th edition of the Birkie Trail Run & Trek on September 22.
The challenge, a top-rate post-race barbecue and party at the Telemark Resort and the beauty of the Northwoods have helped Arthur's vision become an annual autumn reality.
"I am absolutely thrilled," Arthur said. "I probably wasn't the first person to think about doing it, but I was the first person to lay it on the line and make it happen. I feel this legacy feeling; very proud."
Beyond the challenge Arthur initially sought to offer, the Birkie Trail Run has produced another opportunity to celebrate the Birkebeiner Trail and camaraderie among those dedicated to silent pursuits. It fulfills the Birkebeiner Foundation's mission of expanding use of the trail through all four seasons, not just winter.
A revitalizing reunion
The relay in particular has been successful in drawing a wide range of runners, and creating some of the most poignant moments in the woods.
The Seeley 7 team formed around Gary Penman for the inaugural marathon relay in 2008, and has continued as a running memorial to the builder remembered as the "King of Seeley." Penman, stricken with cancer, drove the team van, then died within weeks of the race in 2008.
"We all pretty much came to know each other based on what he had developed for the community," said Jay Tapper, one of the founders of the Seeley 7. "He still is a connector point."
"It gives us a chance to memorialize Gary, rehash old stories and things like that," Tapper continued. "In society, when everybody is really busy, it turns into a little bit of a reunion for us; reflecting on different things, good and bad that happened, and the funny stories."
Tapper is a physical therapist who splits his time between Seeley and Duluth, Minnesota. On Friday mornings, he presents his Fitness in Five segment on WOJB-FM, the eclectic public radio station based in Reserve, Wisconsin.
His tip for running the Birkie Trail: "You have to train off-road and you have to train on hills. There's not a real easy stretch on the whole thing."
On race day, it's best to be patient, and soak up a whole different view of the Sawyer and Bayfield county forests.
"The trail is never, ever the same for me," said Arthur, who hikes, skis and runs on the grassy path year-round. "That's the wonderful thing about a trail that goes through the forest; in the summer and fall it closes in on you and it doesn't feel like it's so wide."
Guenther, a top finisher in more than two dozen Birkebeiner ski races, appreciates the psychological and aesthetic differences she finds in the trail run.
"It's an entirely new dimension for me because you have more time to look around; you can appreciate the trail in a whole new way," she said. "The hills are fun, in a sense. You can really run fast and let everything go on the downhills. You can muse about what it's like to ski in the opposite direction, and there's so much history that people have there."
Guenther said the event is also attractive because "it's very laidback, as are most trail events. It reduces the pressure to perform. After years of racing, it's fun to show up and ease into it. Everyone is out there enjoying themselves, instead of going for a personal best."
Tom Held, a freelance writer and blogger at TheActivePursuit.com, lives in Milwaukee and is training for the full 2012 Birkebeiner Trail Marathon. He ran the half marathon in 2011.
Birkie Trail training runs
Birkie Trail Run participants have an opportunity to access more of Jan Guenther's training and race wisdom through the training runs hosted by her shop, Gear West Cross Country Ski and Run, in Long Lake, Minnesota. Upcoming sessions will start at 7:30 a.m. on July 28, August 19 and September 8.