One foot after another: Ely man covers 200 miles for charity

ELY -- Hot dogs, lawn chairs, a mini camper -- take away the fireworks, and the checklist for an ultramarathon support team resembles one for a typical Minnesota Fourth of July weekend. For Peggy Weise, the list covered both.

Joe Weise walks the Trezona Trail in Ely during a 200-mile run-walk fundraiser last weekend for Ely Head Start. (Aloysia Power /

ELY - Hot dogs, lawn chairs, a mini camper - take away the fireworks, and the checklist for an ultramarathon support team resembles one for a typical Minnesota Fourth of July weekend. For Peggy Weise, the list covered both.

Parked next to the Trezona Trail near downtown Ely on the night of July 2, Peggy heated up pre-cooked hot dogs on her portable stove while she waited for her son Joe Weise to finish what would be his 12th lap around the nearly four-mile trail. He had started earlier that morning and was almost 44 miles along in a planned solo 200-mile run-walk fundraiser.

"I'm his support crew for every race," Peggy said from her Vikings lawn chair. "Someone's gotta make sure he has food."

Joe, 36, was completing the 200 miles to raise money for Ely Head Start, a free and federally-funded preschool for kids from low-income families.

"Long distances seem to inspire people," he said. "People need inspiration to give."


After finishing the 200-mile endeavor Tuesday night, Weise estimated he raised about $6,000, including online and other donations. The preschool will use the money to fund field trips and other experiential learning opportunities.

Weise is an outdoor educator with YMCA Camp Widjiwagan north of Ely, and said he sees firsthand how those types of learning experiences affect young, developing minds.

"When you're out of the classroom and doing something new, it triggers your brain in different ways, potentially giving you more curiosity," he said. "I've seen so many thousands of kids come through the woods and leave with a different perspective on the world."

Weise, who lives at the camp with his wife and two young boys, has been leading educational wilderness outings for youth for almost a decade.

"Seeing that sparkle in a kid's eyes when they learn something new - for me, that never gets old," he said.

The challenge

Weise began his 200-mile trek as the sun rose Saturday morning. The plan was to finish 60 hours and 55 laps later on the Fourth of July with little sleep in between.

"He'll do it until it's done," Peggy Weise said. "He's a determined person in just about everything."


To counteract the trail's pavement, Joe Weise wore extra-cushiony running shoes and used a pair of trekking poles. At the end of every four-mile lap around Miner's Lake, he'd check in with his mom, eat and rehydrate or continue on to the next lap.

To keep his energy up, he ate hardier foods such as hot dogs and hamburgers.

"I need real food," he said. "Sugar doesn't do anything for me."

After five minutes of re-energizing, he'd put his headphones back in and continue on.

This sort of event wasn't new to Weise. Since he started running six years ago, he has twice completed the 100-mile Superior Fall Trail Race - an all-day and all-night race along the North Shore of Lake Superior. He also has twice attempted the Arrowhead 135 ultramarathon - a 135-mile self-supported, self-propelled winter race on a snowmobile trail from International Falls to Tower - but has had to drop out both times.

"He never does things at 10 percent. It's always 100 percent," said Weise's wife, Emily. "I should have known that once he started running a little, that pretty soon running down the road wouldn't be enough."

Emily Weise said it all started when she went on a diet to lose weight after the birth of their first son. Joe, who at the time was pushing 300 pounds, decided to join her and was able to shed 50 pounds. Once he added exercise to the dieting, he dropped another 50 and started running.

"He needs to have a goal or something to work on," Emily said. "It keeps him happy and feeling good about himself."


For his next goal, Joe plans to complete the Arrowhead 135.

"That's my white whale," he said. "It's a gruesome, gruesome race."

The 200-mile challenge in Ely was not just a fundraiser, but also training for Weise's third attempt at the Arrowhead 135 this coming winter.

Why run all 200 miles on a relatively flat, four-mile loop? Monotony, he said.

"It's a huge part of the exercise," he said. "It gives you the ability to go into a zen state."

Weise described it as "endless hours of not bliss - but not pain - but just balance."

A dark place

It wasn't until Sunday afternoon that Weise took his first snooze in the mini camper. He had 30 hours and 100 miles under his belt and was feeling relatively good, he said.


But when he woke from his five-hour intermission, he said his body didn't want to move.

"That 100 to 150 miles is terrible," he said. "You're already broken and you have so much more to go ... It's hard to see the end of that tunnel."

Moving at an average of 2 miles per hour in the early morning hours of the Fourth of July, Weise knew he wasn't going to make his goal of finishing within 60 hours.

"60 hours - that was ridiculous. I don't know what I was thinking when I said that," he said. 

As he continued to walk, Weise said he had to fight back tears of exhaustion and desperation.

"Fourth of July was the worst day of my life. It was a dark place."

And there was no rest. If he had sat down, he said, he probably wouldn't have gotten back up. The only thing that kept him going was his commitment to the fundraiser.

"I couldn't have done it if I hadn't have made that promise," he said.


At sundown, Weise had to leave the Trezona Trail to make way for Ely's Independence Day fireworks display, which takes place there. So he walked his way back home and finished the last 50 miles pacing back-and-forth on a five-mile gravel road.

It took him nearly twice as long to finish the last 100 miles as it did the first - just over 50 hours of walking with about three hours of sleep. At 8:20 p.m. last Tuesday, he took the final step of his 200-mile effort at YMCA Camp du Nord, just down the road from his home. He and his wife met and got engaged there when they were in their early 20s, and Weise said it was the perfect place to end.

"I am really, really proud of myself," Weise said, "Not necessarily me, but my body. It was superhuman."

By the end, he had "giant" blood blisters on the bottom of each foot and severely swollen knees. In all, it took him 88½ hours over four days, seven hot dogs, three hamburgers and "a whole pile of other food."

"It was terrible, but also awesome - so awesome - and very rewarding," he said. "There was nothing artificial about what I did. You could not remake that experience."

For more information

Donations to Ely Head Start can be made online at Joe Weise's "200 Mile Run for Headstart" GoFundMe site,

Find more information about the fundraiser and Weise's running at .


Joe Weise takes a break during his 200-mile run-walk fundraiser in Ely last weekend as his mom Peggy Weise of Brandon, Minn., heats up some food. (Aloysia Power /

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