Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Sat, 28 Sep 2002 08:52:44 -0400

Getting Out of Town


This isn't New York City. It isn't like any other fall marathon with "city" in its name -- Twin Cities, Quad Cities or Fox Cities.

The Walker North Country Marathon in Minnesota is a different sort of race, and some runners like it that way. Some have run the city-wide races and now want something else. Others, like me, feel they're returning home.

When asked once to name my five favorite marathons, three were rural -- Avenue of the Giants, Big Sur and Napa Valley. They took me back to where I'd started running long distances -- not to the exact places, but to a time when cities didn't welcome runners in bunches and this was a backroads sport.

North Country preserves that tradition (as does another race in a different state, Michigan, with the same North Country name, run on the same first weekend of fall). Walker, population 1060, subtitles its event a "celebration of the life and land that is northern Minnesota."

The celebrating is best done outside of town, along the shore of Leech Lake and in the nearby countryside. Runners don't come here for a fast run on a flat, smooth surface, as much of the route uses the off-road Heartland and North Country Trails.

Area runner Paul Paine loves this race because it lets him escape the thoroughfares. "I've raced up and down highways so much that I should have 'Freightliner' tattooed on my forehead," he says.

Walker's course description reads: "a variety of surfaces -- grass, gravel, dirt and asphalt -- running first along a tree-lined highway showy in fall color, through remote forests, past placid lakes, along rolling farmland, and finally ending with a sprint [if you can 'sprint' up a half-mile final hill] on town streets."

While city races worry about route marking and traffic control, this one concerns itself with root painting and bear control. One year the runners had to stop and wait for a black bear to finish foraging on the path they shared.

This year a runner fell three times, breaking a finger on one of the tumbles, and still finished. Only the hardy run here -- such as Dick Beardsley, who started his marathon comeback on this course a decade ago after nearly losing a leg (and his life) in a farming accident.

Some runners like the uncrowded course as much as the rural setting, but not a lot of them. While Minnesota's two big marathons, Twin Cities and Grandma's, worry about growing too large and thereby limit their fields, Walker's concern is drawing enough runners to remain viable. Its field of marathoners barely reaches three figures (though the companion two-person marathon relay and 10K boost total entries to about 900).

Given this marathon's size and setting, its course records are impressive. Peter Miller holds the men's mark of 2:33:58, which remains faster than all but one relay team has run here (and Miller was also on that team). Janice Ettle, a qualifier for all five Olympic Marathon Trials run so far, owns the women's mark of 3:01:08.

Ettle didn't run in Walker this year, but came up from the Minneapolis suburbs anyway and walked the 10K. Getting out of the city, then out of town, is a fine way to spend a weekend even when you aren't running a race.

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