30 hours before the 2011 Afton Trail Run, the race venue closed due to the Minnesota state government shutdown. Veteran Afton Race Director John Storkamp moved the entire race – in one day.
Freelance writer Alex Kurt tells the story.
Fast on His Feet
By Alex Kurt
John Storkamp knows well the challenges that face any race director. The four-time director of Minnesota’s Afton Trail Run spends many months each year finalizing the course, overseeing vendor arrangements, and even designing the t-shirts and hand-crafting finisher’s medals, enlisting the help of many family members and volunteers along the way.
“Putting on a trail race, big or small, is a huge time commitment for the race director, and typically the race director’s significant other,” Storkamp said. “Throughout the year I am continually working on the race even though it culminates into just one day of racing.”
Afton includes a 25k and a 50k and is held annually outside the Twin Cities. The 25k serves as the USATF Minnesota Trail Championship.
But this year, as the July 2 race date drew near and the final logistics began piling up, Storkamp found himself faced with a challenge unique even among RDs: due to a budget impasse between Minnesota’s Governor and legislature, the state government was set to shut down July 1. Along with the Capitol doors, Minnesota’s state parks – including Afton State Park, where the Afton Trail Run had been held all 17 of its previous runnings – would be closed.
Storkamp said he first caught word of the budget dispute and potential shutdown six weeks ahead of time. “Even though I was holding out hope, about a month prior, I started brainstorming…and quickly came to the realization that moving 500 runners and 85 volunteers to a new venue would be a challenge,” he said. “In 2005 there was the threat of a state government shutdown as well, but it never happened and we never had to plan a backup.” This year, however, the signs were more ominous and the rhetoric was more heated. Storkamp began to prepare for the worst.
“I never considered canceling the event,” he emphasized. “Trail running and ultrarunning is not for quitters. We would have had it on a track, in a parking lot, or in my backyard if we had no other choice.”
It didn’t quite come to that. Storkamp contacted Jon Reents, a manager at Afton Alps ski area – located next to Afton State Park – and essentially began planning a second race at that venue. As the gridlock in St. Paul showed no signs of progressing, Storkamp balanced the likelihood that the race could be held at either location, meticulously plotting a new course in the weeks leading up to race day and keeping runners and volunteers up-to-date with current developments. In a series of e-mails and posts on the event’s facebook page, he assured everyone that they would know the location when he did, even if it wasn’t until the last minute.
As it happened, the last minute was precisely when word came in. “The race was Saturday, the state legislature’s deadline was midnight Friday, and we got the preliminary word midnight Thursday that the parks were ordered to close,” he said. “As a result we could not give Afton Alps a definite answer, even though they would have preferred one. I listened to the radio Friday morning and still no changes, so we showed up to Afton Alps with our crew and trailers on Friday at noon.”
Luckily for Storkamp, Reents and the staff of Afton Alps took it in stride.
“I saw Reents [on Friday] and said ‘John, by the way, we are going to hold our race here if you don’t mind,’” he continued. “He laughed and said ‘Great, glad to have you.’”
Yet the work was far from done. There was a race to be run, and the new course had its own set of challenges. As its name suggests, Afton Alps provided for plenty of hills; 50k runners covered over 8700 feet of elevation change. And the heat – which had relented since nearing 100 degrees while Storkamp was marking the course – still hit a humid 85 degrees during the race. Storkamp noted that many of this year’s times were slower than those on the original course, and that many accomplished runners dropped out of the race early on.
“The course was extremely tough,” Ben Kampf, who holds the 25k course record at the old site, said. “There was hardly any flat, a lot of up and down switch-back hills…and plenty of mountain bike trails to maneuver.”
That didn’t stop Kampf from charging to his third-straight Afton 25k title in 1:46:44. 50k overall winner Patrick Russell led the entire way, despite slowing considerably in the second half, to win in 4:30:18. Storkamp noted that the 97 50k finishers, compared to 164 entrants, was a higher finishing rate than normal. “It looks like a few people did not show up because of the change in course, most notably in the 50k” Storkamp said. “Out of those who chose to run, they were prepared.” Of 329 entered in the 25k, 235 finished.
The theme of the day for Storkamp and the runners who finished was perseverance. Kampf, for one, didn’t mind the switch. “I enjoyed the challenge of a much tougher course and tried to…stay positive knowing everyone else out there was running the same thing I was,” he said.
As for Storkamp, it was a reminder that though running is usually void of the division and sourness that accompany politics, we run in a world governed by political circumstance. Occasionally, sport and politics are inextricable, but he emphasized that running, by its better nature, prevailed.
“[The shutdown] did sour things for people…but overall, people made the best of it,” Storkamp said. “It made things a little inconvenient but we still ran and had fun. Trail running and ultrarunning is all about perseverance through difficult conditions, and that’s what we did.”
Moreover, Storkamp continued, the sport offered a solution in and of itself. “I think everyone is frustrated with the political situation here,” he said. “Running is typically an apolitical activity, and in times of great stress, we need it more than ever to stay sane and maintain balance in our lives.”
Though he defers credit, Storkamp himself is much of the reason the event was pulled off. Compliments from runners have since flooded the event’s facebook page.
“I was blown away at how great this event [was] set up,” Kampf said.
Next year, Storkamp said, he hopes to be back home at Afton State Park, for which the Afton Trail Run has raised nearly $30,000 in its 18 years. The lesson will stick, though. “If a situation like this ever arises in the future, we will roll with the punches and get through it,” he said.
Find Zach Pierce's photo gallery form the event HERE.
Alex Kurt is a freelance writer in the Twin Cities and a 2009 graduate of St. John's University in Collegeville, Minnesota.