The Voyageur 50 Mile ultramarathon, one of Minnesota’s most famed running events, kicks off Saturday morning. But, after the flooding in Duluth in June, it almost didn’t happen. Here’s DtB Ultra Contributor Alex Kurt's story of how race organizers made sure the event would go off as planned
Andy Holak remembers when the rain started falling in Duluth on the night of June 19.
“Of course we thought it would be a hard rain, and then it would taper off and end,” said Holak, who directs the Voyageur 50 Mile ultramarathon in Carlton. “However, it rained hard and never let up all night. I'm talking hard rain, the kind you think will end after a few minutes and then it will rain lightly or drizzle.”
“It just never let up,” he said.
The torrent of raindrops would coalesce into one of the worst floods in the state’s history. It would ultimately cause an estimated $100 million in damage to public infrastructure, and President Barack Obama would sign a Federal Emergency Declaration for 13 northeastern Minnesota counties. But beyond the numbers, residents of Duluth and the surrounding area were awash with indelible images of homes, livelihoods, and the makings of lifelong memories swept away. The internet filled with pictures of cars stuck in sinkholes, and seals – escaped from the local zoo – swimming down the street.
“By morning we knew we were in trouble,” Holak said. “Everything was flooding and it was still raining hard.”
But for him, the damage was also a serious impediment to the Voyageur race, which runs near the north shore and was scheduled for July 28.
“I didn't really think the Voyageur would be in trouble until I saw photos coming in over the internet and Facebook of the swinging bridge being washed away and huge sections of the paved Willard Munger Trail being washed out,” Holak said. “At that point we started thinking about ways to re-route the course.”
That wasn’t his first priority, though.
“It was clear that the course would be significantly affected by the afternoon of June 20,” he said. “However, the real concern was still for the safety of friends and neighbors. Towns were flooded, houses were severely damaged, livelihoods were lost. That was the real concern initially.”
Once the waters had settled, Holak was tasked with figuring out whether the race could be run as planned – and if so, how he and the race organizers were going to pull it off, given the extent of the damage on the course. It would be one more task in the already sleepless life of a race director. But Holak and his team were not willing to cancel if they didn’t have to – in addition to being famous as Proctor native and Western States 100 legend Scott Jurek’s first ultramarathon, it is the oldest ultramarathon in the state and is considered a marquee running event in Minnesota each year.
Remarkably, thanks to some around-the-clock work by the race team, the Voyageur will be run as scheduled this Saturday. We asked Holak about the effect the flood had on the race planning, the work of rerouting it, and what changes runners can expect to see.
How long did it take to get a full assessment of the damage to the race course?
The extent of the damage to the course wasn't known until co-race director Kris Glesener and a group of trail runners got out on the course. What they saw wasn't pretty. The trails on the west end of the route were severely impacted. Access roads were literally gone. Huge chasms appeared where roads used to be. The damage was worse than we thought it would be, especially to many access roads along the course. The other shocking thing were the extent of the mudslides along the course and all over the Duluth area. Whole hillsides sliding down into raging torrents that used to small trickles of a creek. The mudslides probably caused the most damage to the course.
All in all, what’s the damage to the course and elsewhere?
Conservatively, I would say about 25% of the course was severely impacted by the flooding with several sections completely destroyed. It's likely that there are trails we will never use again for the race. Beautiful sections like Gill Creek and Mission Creek were destroyed by mudslides, the iconic Swinging Bridge was washed away and many other section were obliterated by flood waters. Some of these sections are unrunnable, however, trail and ultrarunners essentially could and would run the sections most people would consider unrunnable, so to call them unrunnable wouldn't be entirely accurate. The sections of the trail in Jay Cooke State Park are unrunnable because the park is closed until October 31, 2012 due to the severe damage to roads and trails there.
Given the damage, was your initial reaction to re-route the course or to consider cancelling the race?
On the day of the flood, June 20, initial reports and photos led me to believe we could probably re-route the course and make it work. After seeing the damage a couple days later, my initial reaction was no way, we'll have to cancel. My biggest concerns were the access roads and whether emergency vehicles could get access to the course and we could get aid stations set up for runners. Runner safety was my main concern and it didn't look good. The damage to the trails from a runner standpoint didn't concern me as much. I knew trail runners would run over and through anything! It would simply add to the challenge, and they would love it. Runner safety though was our responsibility.
What was the process of finding a new route?
Co-race director Kris Glesener really has to be credited with finding the alternate route. Only a couple days after the flood, Kris was out there with a crew assessing the damage and starting to look for alternate routes. It was probably just a little over a week after the flood that Kris had an alternate route identified. We went out together and looked at some sections of trail to add to try to create some loops and I put some maps together shortly thereafter. Once we were confident we could get emergency vehicle access and sufficient aid stations in, we were good to go.
What will the new course look like?
The cool thing about the alternate route is that it does use some cool portions of the traditional Voyageur course - the powerlines, across Spirit Mtn., 7 Bridges Road, and the zoo, but it also adds some really cool trails that nobody that runs the race will probably know about. There are some cool new segments of singletrack added, a couple additional creek crossings, climbing straight up the ski hill, some beautiful pine and cedar stands.
Even though you were planning a re-route, the possibility that it might have to be cancelled was surely kept as a contingency. But at what point were you positive the race could go forward?
We were confident the race would go ahead as planned when we knew access was going to work and we could put together a race that felt like the Voyageur. It will still have the feel of the Voyageur I think, which is what I wanted if we were going to go ahead with the race. If we were going to call it the 31st Annual Minnesota Voyageur 50, it had to feel like the Voyageur and it still does. We wouldn't have gone ahead with the race if we weren't confident people would know they were running the Voyageur. Plus, it will showcase the amazing amount of hidden trails in Duluth and some of the unbelievable damage and power of Mother Nature.
The Voyageur has a special, historical place in Minnesota ultrarunning, dating even to before Scott Jurek made it famous. What does it mean to you that the spirit of the race has prevailed, so to speak, against outside elements?
I think it means a lot to people who have run the Voyageur before. It's one of the oldest trail ultramarathons in the country and people have appreciated the work that went into pulling the race off this year. We're following in the footsteps of some amazing people who put this race together, and we think it will live up to the Voyageur name. The probably would not have happened without the work of Kris Glesener. He has been instrumental in putting the course together, gathering volunteers, clearing the course and cutting and mowing. Without his efforts, this race would not have happened. A huge thank you goes out to all of the volunteers who have made this happen as well. It's truly a community effort.