Going the distance on the North Shore
Christopher Owen, Cassidy Olson and Adam Matthys completed an ambitious feat last weekend: crossing Lake Superior in kayaks from Port Wing, Wis., to Two Harbors-- about 22 miles-- in 5 ½ hours.
The same day, a couple on a quest to bike around Lake Superior passed through Two Harbors. Molly and Rich Hoeg were on the home stretch of their 500-mile journey around the western half of Lake Superior.
Finally, last week, the News-Chronicle featured Daniel Alvarez who is at the beginning of a 4000-mile journey from Minnesota to Florida in a kayak.
What is it about these long-distance challenges that attract so many people?
"You see things that you don't see at 60 M.P.H.," Rich Hoeg said, referring to the difference between biking and driving.
The Hoegs said meeting people and sightseeing at a slower pace were the best parts of their journey. They completed the challenge to raise awareness of Lake Superior and its health, "but that was just the excuse we used," Molly said.
The three kayakers made their trip to raise money for the program that helped them heal from addiction, Minnesota Teen Challenge. They also did it as a spiritual metaphor--crossing the Big Lake and crossing into a new, healthy, substance-free life.
"Before, it never would have been a feasible task," Owen said.
Fundraising, spreading awareness and sightseeing--all things people can do without a long-distance exercise feat. There's got to be something more, right?
"As human beings, we're always trying to best our limits," said Jeff Brady, media director for the longest annual kayak/canoe race in the world.
Brady co-founded the Yukon River Quest, which follows the Yukon River in Canada for over 400 miles. He has participated three times. The midnight sun allows participants to paddle through the night and the fastest finishers completed the race in just 39 hours. Two days is the average, Brady said.
John Storkamp, director of the Superior Trail Races, blames primal instincts.
"It's kind of retreating back to a little bit more of what we're supposed to do. I'm not sure we were meant to sit at computers in offices," Storkamp said.
Minnesota is the perfect setting for an ultra-distance quest, Storkamp said.
"It's big, it's vast, there's a lot of great areas...that provide an opportunity for all of that," Storkamp said. He estimates that Minnesota has the highest per capita interest in ultra-distance sports in the nation.
The Superior Trail Races he directs take place Sept. 7-8 and participants run 26.2, 50 or 100 miles along the Superior Hiking Trail. There's been more demand than availability for the annual races, but these kinds of undertakings are not without risk.
Many professional long-distance cyclists have died from crash-related injuries and at least two kayakers have died in the last two years while attempting long paddles on Lake Superior.
In addition to being aware of environmental dangers, ultra-distance athletes have to listen to their bodies. Brady had one participant airlifted out of the Yukon race due to dehydration and another world-class paddler give up because of leg pain. An ultra-marathoner made news earlier this year after dying from heart-related issues during a training run.
"As long as people are adequately trained and knowing what they're doing, the real trick to it is staying fed and hydrated," said John Medinger, ultramarathoner and publisher of Ultra Running Magazine.
When running, kayaking or biking long distances, that means carrying enough calories and fresh water to sustain you or planning carefully for stops.
The Hoegs planned their trip months in advance to be sure they had places to sleep and access to food. The kayakers packed energy bars and bottles of water to get them through the trip.
Medinger explained ultra-distance sports as a natural next step for many long-distance athletes. He used to run marathons and after his finishing times plateaued, he looked for something new.
"You get to a point where you can't go faster, but you might be able to go further," Medinger said.
There's been a surge of interest in ultra-sports over the last decade or so. Medinger said ultra-marathon finishes in North America have tripled in that time and Brady said his Yukon event has grown steadily since its inception--the first year, 16 teams participated and this year there were almost 70.
Seasoned athletes fill out most of the entry forms, but some participants do it just for a one-time experience and bragging rights.
"If they get a finisher pin, that's a bucket list thing for them," Brady said.
While marathons were once seen as an undertaking only for professional athletes or more crazy recreational athletes, they've become mainstream in the past decade and attract athletes of all ages and abilities. Are ultra-distance sports becoming the new marathon?
Medinger doesn't think so. Ultramarathoning requires significantly more training than a traditional 26.2-mile marathon.
"It's hard for people to commit the amount of time it takes," he said.
The Hoegs and the Teen Challenge kayakers, however, are both hooked.
"We're definitely trying to think up what to do next," Molly Hoeg said.
You can see more pictures of their trip and read their blogs at superiorfootprints.org and crazyguyonabike.com/doc/TransSuperiorTour.
"It was amazing. I can't wait for next year," Owen said.
They're still accepting donations and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information on the ultra-distance people and events mentioned, go to yukonriverquest.com, ultrarunning.com and fall.superiortrailrace.com.
"Just when you think you've seen something insane, there's always someone who does something crazier," Storkamp said.