Northern Wilds Magazine
The first inaugural Le Grand du Nord bike race will be held in Grand Marais on May 28. | JEREMY KERSHAW

Back Country Races

As spring melts into summer, athletes on the North Shore awaken like the bears, as they get ready to demonstrate their prowess in their respective sports. Preparation has taken place throughout the entirety of the winter months and enthusiasm for the camaraderie is high. The outdoor events calendar is filled with opportunities for competitors of all specialties to gather, socialize and vie for a spot on the podium.

Supporters cheer on racers at the Ham Lake Run. | Submitted
Supporters cheer on racers at the Ham Lake Run. | Submitted

Racers at the starting line of the Ham Run Half Marathon and 5k Fun Run will find themselves 43 miles up the Gunflint Trail from Grand Marais. The Superior National Forest surrounds the course, providing rolling hills and scenic gravel roads.

This is the third year the event has been managed by the Cook County Community YMCA in Grand Marais. The Ham Run is designated a green race, which means that strides are taken to conserve resources and leave no trace throughout the event.

“There are very few places on the earth as beautiful as the Gunflint Trail and there is no other race course like it in the world. It is a special place that must be treated with respect and protected for future generations to enjoy. We tread lightly, and in doing so, we make as little impact as possible,” said race director Jenny Schuler.

Racers participating in the 13.1-mile half marathon run a course that follows the route of the most destructive forest fire in Minnesota since 1918: the Ham Lake Fire of 2007. Holding the event on the first Saturday of May every year further serves to remember the fire that burned for more than a week. About 57 square miles of Superior National Forest were blackened in and near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, plus approximately 61 square miles across the Canadian border in Ontario.

The course begins with an uphill climb for just over one mile on gravel. Once runners reach the pavement of the Gunflint Trail, they encounter numerous hills as they run northwest. The race finishs at Trail’s End Campground and Way of the Wilderness Canoe Outfitters. The race’s shorter option, the 5k Fun Run, will begin at the Seagull Creek Fishing Camp and also end at the Way of the Wilderness Canoe Outfitters.

Relaxation and disconnectedness are also encouraged as part of the event, as the scenery would dictate. Cell phone service is few and far between and the occasional traffic jams are typically caused by wild animals meandering across the unpaved road.

“As the race director, there is nothing more rewarding than seeing everything and everyone come together the morning of the race. Whether you are there to run the Ham Run or volunteer, everyone is there to support a great cause,” said Schuler. “At the Cook County YMCA, we do not turn anyone away for the inability to pay and we can do this by putting on fundraisers such as the Ham Run. It is encouraging to know that we can support the community and have fun at the same time.”

Hopeful participants can register until May 6 at 8 p.m., with the event itself taking place on the morning of May 7. There will be an option for free transportation to and from Grand Marais for racers and spectators.

Heading north geographically and forward on the calendar brings runners to the starting line of a tradition that dates back over 100 years: the 10-mile Thunder Bay Road Race. In April of 1910, the Fort William Daily Times-Journal announced that it would sponsor an annual road race to promote “healthy and clean sport at the head of the lakes.” The race saw an evolution from that year to the present day that has mimicked the societal atmosphere.

A shift in priorities surrounding World War I forced the cancellation of the race in 1915. By 1920, it was reinstated and was attracting the top runners from Northwestern Ontario to participate. Though the Great Depression challenged morale and bank accounts in the 1930s, extra time resulted in greater race participation.

World War II further challenged the success of the race in 1939, resulting in the race being canceled indefinitely. Ten years later, it was revived only to have seven runners complete the 10 miles. The roller coaster ride continued when the television hit the market; race organizers assumed that interest had switched to more sedentary activities.

The 1960s saw the return of the race, a new course record, and the first female competitor. By the 1970s and 1980s the race was gaining prestige and became the National 10 Mile Championship. It continues to be one of the most significant sporting events in all of Northwestern Ontario. It also serves as a Victoria Day celebration, honoring the birthday of Queen Victoria. In recent years, just under 1,000 runners have signed up for the mostly flat course along Lake Superior. This year, the race is scheduled to be held on May 23 at 9 a.m.

The first inaugural Le Grand du Nord bike race will be held in Grand Marais on May 28. | JEREMY KERSHAW
The first inaugural Le Grand du Nord bike race will be held in Grand Marais on May 28. | Jeremy Kershaw

Five days later, athletes on two wheels will line up at the starting line of the Le Grand du Nord out of Grand Marais. The newest event under the Heck of the North Productions, LLC, the 100-mile and 50-mile gravel race/ride course was finalized in about a day by race organizer Jeremy Kershaw, with significant help from Lutsen resident Mike Larson.

“He had great ideas about a route and after touring some potential courses together, I finalized the 100-and 50-mile routes for 2016. I knew the North Shore had some spectacular gravel cycling so this was the encouragement that I needed to get rolling on a new event,” explained Kershaw.

The races begin in downtown Grand Marais, and within a few miles, begin to climb away from the shore. After 40 miles, riders will have a view of Canada from the ridgeline overlooking the Pigeon River Valley. From there, the racers will find themselves conquering rolling hills and gradually making their way back to the lake shore, with the Cook County YMCA as the finishing site.

“For this inaugural Le Grand du Nord, I want to promote the spectacular cycling potential of the Grand Marais area. Grand Marais has so much to offer; great site seeing in town, cool shops and excellent food. Whenever possible, I incorporate local businesses to be sponsors of my events. My events always include locally crafted beer (Voyaguer Brewing Company in Grand Marais for this event) and opportunities to share experience and stories before and after the actual rides” said Kershaw.

The ride, which includes almost 6,000 feet of climbing, is scheduled to take place on May 28.

For endurance race volunteer organizer Travis Birr, zero is the magic number. He volunteers for a non-profit based in Minneapolis called Operation 23 to Zero. This group is fighting to raise awareness of a very unfortunate and largely unknown statistic: every day, on average, 22 veterans and one active duty military member take his or her own life. The organization’s mission is to do everything in their power to combat that reality and provide necessary supports to veterans in need. Though they host many community events each month, this is the first time the group has ever hosted a race.

“We do a lot of ruck marches in the military. As part of our civilian outreach, we began doing ruck walks. We started thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to do something with our veterans to push themselves?’ Once they get out of the military, they typically don’t get physically challenged like they used to. We want them to think, ‘Hey, I remember doing stuff like that,’” explained Birr.

Other upcoming races include the Lutsen 99er on June 25. | Jeremy Kershaw
Other upcoming races include the Lutsen 99er on June 25. | Jeremy Kershaw

Birr’s background as an ultra-race runner himself helped prompt the group to get a different set of people involved in the cause. Though people are beginning to become alerted to veteran suicide numbers, much more work can be done to build the support network.

“Twenty-three people a day is more than 8,000 people a year. If the population of Grand Marais disappeared in the next year, people would notice. Frequently, I run into people that had no idea the number was that high,” Birr said.

The race itself is on the calendar for June 4 at 6 a.m. in Lutsen. The money from the race will help support veterans in their time of need, whatever that may mean to them. In the past, the organization has created college funds for children when a veteran parent has committed suicide and helped veterans pay the rent or mortgage on their house.

“This is the first time we have ever charged for an event. Because of the growth we have seen, we needed some way to bring in more donations, and a race seemed like the way to do it. We want to make sure that if someone is in trouble, they are able to reach out to us without any repercussions and that we are able to help,” said Birr.


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