Jarrow Wahman was a cross-country runner at Duluth East High School some 40 years ago when teammate Sten Rudstrom took the squad to a hilly, forest-covered area outside of town called Hartley Field.
Rudstrom said the largely abandoned property — criss-crossed with unofficial trails — was a good place to run.
“I think there were dirt bike trails back then,” Wahman said. “He had discovered them, and he took us back there, and we were freaked out because we had never run off the road before.”
The team learned the haphazard trail network and quickly realized the magic generated by a run through the quiet, empty and endlessly challenging forest.
“It was a blast,” Wahman said. “When you’re running in the woods, the trails are relatively narrow, and you get a much better sense of speed — even if you’re going the same speed as you would on the road. The trees are on your left and right, and you’re going up and down hills … it’s a real satisfying type of running.”
Soon the Northern Minnesota Track Club was born, and the group held its first official trail race in 1981. There were 11 competitors.
Wahman helped organize the club and, when Rudstrom moved away, took over its leadership. The club continued to grow and has directed runners into what is now called Hartley Nature Center ever since. Today, Northern Minnesota Track Club trail running competitions — such as the Minnesota Voyageur Ultramarathon — enlists about 200 competitors and the organization holds informal weekly runs each spring and fall.
The last five years have seen a tremendous spike in trail running participation, said Wahman, who established the Duluth specialty running store Austin-Jarrow with Bill Austin in 1984.
“Most of those runners are in their 20s, so it must be the next generation that’s picking up on this. It’s a way to exercise and/or socialize,” he said. “I think it’s getting into nature and getting in a workout at the same time.”
Duluth-based runner Ben Cogger, 34, has competed in countless trail running events over the years and established course records in the Lutsen 50K and the Minnesota Voyageur Ultramarathon. None of the races are easy. The Voyageur, for example, follows an off-road course from Carlton through Jay Cooke State Park to the Lake Superior Zoo in Duluth and back. Roughly 50 miles of rocks, mud, trees, up and down and all over.
Cogger started trail running as a teenager growing up near the Chequamegon National Forest in Washburn. He said the practice has always been popular in rural areas, but numbers have grown as more organized competitions attract runners from all over.
“I think the big shift we’ve seen in trail running is in trail racing,” Cogger said. “There are a lot more trail-specific races available today than there were 20 years ago.”
Trails provide a more rounded and healthier workout than road running, he said, so people are actively seeking out more races. Marathon running, for example, works the same muscles over and over, some not at all. Trail running takes on the whole body.
“You’re hopping rocks, you’re dodging roots, you’re turning. Sometimes you’re walking because you’re climbing up a really steep hill,” Cogger said. “That aspect of trail running is really good for your body. I think a lot of people found that maybe they can’t go pound up marathon after marathon on the road but they can go run marathons on the trails and it really doesn’t treat your body as harshly as a road marathon.”
As a youth, Cogger discovered trail running benefits beyond physical fitness.
“I always enjoyed nature,” he said. “I could go run 15-20 miles without seeing a soul the entire time. It was nice. It was a good way to see some country, too. Oftentimes you're running in places you can’t drive a car to. It’s just a great way to get outdoors. You don’t really get the same experience running on the road.”
Cogger and his wife, Sara, have three children and live in the Observation Hill neighborhood of Duluth. He said the nearby Superior Hiking Trail and Duluth Traverse offer excellent access to Piedmont ski and bike trails, which are both challenging and beautiful.
Cogger recommends beginners use sturdy shoes designed for traction and water resistance. He also suggested regular attendance at the informal Northern Minnesota Track Club weekly trail runs.
“The majority of people there are not racing,” he said. “It’s a bunch of people that love trail running.”
The weekly runs explore Duluth trails, offer different lengths and draw runners with a variety of experience. Newcomers pick up tips and make friends quickly.
“A lot of this is community,” Cogger said. “A lot of the friends I have in Duluth are friends I’ve made through running and trail running. It’s a good social activity. Getting together with the guys and go out on a Saturday for a couple-hour run together. It’s just fun.”
Newcomers of all ages and skill levels are also finding the sport.
Eve Graves offers a class called No Excuses Adventures for trail running beginners. Graves taught a Tortoise and Hare Footwear Trails 101 program in West Duluth for years and recently established her own class aimed mostly at women ages 40 to 80.
“It’s only for slow people,” she said. “My big thing is: ‘Get off your butt and move. Don’t have any excuses.’ Your car broke? We’ll come and get you. You gotta babysit? We’ll take kids for free.”
Graves coached running at different levels for 30 years but now has a variety of physical issues which limit her activity. Still she finds a way to share her experience.
No Excuses Adventure classes are held two days a week July through October and introduce some 70 participants to biking, hiking, walking and trail running. The group meets at 40 different trails throughout the summer. People are divided into skill groups, learn trail safety and etiquette, and get tips on proper gear, healthy nutrition and good hydration habits.
“The goal is not to speed through the trails, it’s to learn where the trails are safely,” Graves said. “I teach them how to go up and down hills but then we stop and look at the roses and the creeks. You gotta stop before you look, that’s my biggest rule.”
Classes have included a blind student, a teen with autism, people with new hips and knees. In fact, some people have been told they are too fit for the class.
“I want people who have issues,” she said. “I want to work with the people who aren’t going to go outside.”
Graves, a Wisconsin native, played in the woods as a youth but discovered trail running only when she moved from the Twin Cities to Duluth in 2002. She immediately fell in love.
“It’s fun,” she said. “When you trail-run, you use a different muscle with every step. You get to see so many things. It’s cooler on the trails in the summer and warmer in the winter. There’s so many options. Oh my gosh, Duluth is like a big, huge playground here.”
For more information
The Northern Minnesota Track Club website at nmtc.run.