It’s hard to imagine a time when the Tofte Trek 10K Run/Walk wasn’t part of the West End Fourth of July festivities. The muddy run/walk is something that has been enjoyed by several generations. But there was a time when there was no Tofte Trek—in fact, there was a year when there was no West End Fourth of July
Jan Horak, co-owner of Cobblestone Cabins in Tofte and founder of the Tofte Trek, explains the origins of the run/walk. He remembers that there has almost always been a West End Independence Day event. For many years it was hosted by the workers at the taconite plant in Schroeder. However, as the mining company scaled back and the little town of Taconite Harbor emptied, there weren’t the volunteers to mount a celebration.
Horak recalls that in 1979 community members turned out for an event that wasn’t. And Tofte’s Shirley Bierbaum decided she was not going to let that happen again. She called her friends and neighbors together to ensure that the 1980 Fourth of July was one to remember. Bierbaum and Dion Cicak took on the task of organizing a parade.
“And I said I’d put together a little race,” says Horak.
That little race has grown exponentially and this year marks its 40th running, with 200 participants. On top of that there are 30-40 youths that take part in the kids’ races, which is always a delight. Kids line up for sprints in the Birch Grove Community Center and dash across the parking lot to cheering parents and grandparents.
There is now a one-mile run as well, perfect for novice runners who are not ready for the 10K run. Not to worry, though, the mile course can be muddy as well. One young runner said she ended the race with a frog on her shoe.
But the Tofte Trek started out simply. That first race in 1980 had just 32 runners. John Mellang of Lutsen was the top finisher.
During the first few years it was actually a team race. Each team consisted of four men and one woman. Horak chuckles when he remembers those teams—Dick Swanson’s team called the Hovland Boys, the Caribou Mudders of Lutsen and the Tofte Trekkers. It was definitely all in fun—the prize for the fastest team was a traveling toilet seat trophy.
The race eventually changed into a competition for individuals and continued to grow under Horak’s encouraging oversight. But after 25 years of running the race, Horak let it be known he was ready to move on. Mike Larson’s Lutsen realty company took over the race for a few years. And then, in 2008, the Sugarbush Trail Association took over the race. Proceeds now go to the trail association, which maintains 65 kilometers of cross-country ski trails in the Tofte area.
Throughout all the years of the race, a highlight has been the Tofte Trek T-shirt. Scattered throughout the crowd at the West End July 4th celebration—enjoying the parade, the Lutsen Fire Department fish fry, the Bouncy House or shopping the craft booths—are folks in the T-shirt of the year.
For many years the T-shirt designs were by Horak’s daughter, Mila Horak, now an art teacher at Cook County School District 166. This year, the Sugarloaf Trail Association sought entries in a T-shirt design contest. Jayne Richards of Grand Marais created the winning design that will be sported on the trail this year.
Since taking over, members of the Sugarloaf Trail Association have taken turns at organizing the race. Larson, April Wahlstrom and Greg Fangel have all been past race directors. Liz Wagner is serving her second stint as race director this year.
Wagner isn’t just race director though, she has done the race herself several times.
“It’s a fun local race and very unique due to its terrain,” says Wagner. “And it’s a love-hate thing for me, because I hate when the uphill portion wears me down and love coming back because it’s downhill.”
Everyone seems to love the mud. Past director Fangel, who has hiked the course, says, “The race is a good challenge, especially the mud at the end!”
And although the Sugarbush Trail Association is now in charge, Horak is still involved. Tofte Trek fans still see him with his bullhorn, managing the kids’ races. And he’s the “sweep” for the race, giving the course a final pass, making sure there is no one left behind, stuck in the mud.
Which does happen, cautions Horak. He recalls one year rescuing a female walker who was thoroughly stuck in a huge mud hole on the trail.
To avoid that happening, Jan advises runners and walkers to not go right through the middle of mud holes. “Stay to the side,” he says.
Asked if he had any other advice for race participants, Horak says, “Tie your shoelaces really tight!”
That truly is excellent advice. In fact, many participants, runners especially, actually duct tape their shoes to their feet to make sure a shoe doesn’t get sucked off in a mud hole.
This reporter has completed the Tofte Trek six times as a walker. My advice? Make it a family affair. It’s fun to have someone to commiserate with on the hills. And it’s fun to wander the Independence Day festivities in your matching Trek T-shirts.
If you are going it alone and you want to listen to music, have a fully charged battery and download your playlist, so you don’t lose the signal for your tunes when you need them most.
Wear comfortable, but old sneakers. Apply insect repellent liberally at the start. And bring a change of clothes in case you make a splashdown in one of the many giant mud puddles.
I would also recommend having reasonable expectations. Every time I’ve done the Trek, my goal has been simple—to not be the last finisher. But even if you do end up last, it’s okay—it’s an accomplishment to complete the rocky, muddy, slippery, hilly event, no matter how long it takes.
As founder Horak says, “Just enjoy it.”
In fact, that’s Jan’s advice for anyone—running, walking, or just watching.
“Come for the race, to watch the kids’ races, and to see the muddy people coming in to the finish,” he says.