CARLTON - Entering Saturday's 36th annual Voyageur Trail Ultramarathon, the presumptive favorites were Michael Borst and Jake Hegge.
And for good reason.
The two fast friends from La Crosse, Wis., had won this demanding 50-miler every year since 2012. But defending champ Borst dropped out early and Hegge was second for a third time. The surprise winner was 37-year-old Neal Collick of Marquette, Mich., who didn't even crack race director Kris Glesener's list of top entrants last week.
Glesener told Collick as much at the Carlton High School finish line, moments after the Voyageur newbie came through in 6 hours, 56 minutes and 42 seconds.
"I wasn't on the radar, and I love it," Collick said.
Collick made a point of thanking his coach - which occurred when Hegge sat down next to him. Hegge and Borst have an online business called Trail Transformation in which they craft customized training plans for runners transitioning away from road racing. About 20 of their customers competed Saturday.
Collick has been a client since January 2016. He received on-course advice when he caught Hegge with about a dozen miles to go.
"He just told me the last 10 miles you have to hammer it," said Collick, who didn't know if he had it in him. "And then I ran scared to the finish."
Collick looked impossibly fresh coming in all alone. Not the case, he said. And it showed as he immediately hit the sidewalk upon winning, splayed out on his back, water bottles strapped into both hands. The heavily tattooed Collick had a white bandana wrapped around his head to keep sweat at bay. As is the norm with this event, heat played a part.
The race started at 6 a.m. at the high school and, about the time the leaders arrived at the Lake Superior Zoo turnaround, temperatures were climbing steadily. It was on the wrong side of 80 degrees when Collick completed his fourth 50-miler, besting a field that included a record 383 registrants.
37-year-olds don't win many endurance footraces - though the Voyageur featured a pair, with Ashley Nordell claiming the women's title. But Collick's legs don't have the kind of mileage you'd expect of someone his age. That's because he didn't start running until he was 31.
"I needed a change in lifestyle," said Collick, who works in maintenance at Northern Michigan University. "I wasn't headed down a good road, drinking and partying."
His first marathon took about 6 hours, but he was hooked on the sport. Collick since has knocked out three Boston Marathons. He considers himself more of a trail runner these days. He said Hegge and Borst "hammered the pace" at the start Saturday, and he just tried to hang on. He excels at the technical stuff, navigating wicked trail without slowing too much. Collick found muddy conditions and a tricky course at one of the nation's oldest ultras.
"He has come a long ways," Hegge, who ran a 7:08:45, said.
For the first time since 2011, Hegge wasn't leading at the halfway point. Instead, it was former Minnesota Duluth runner Nick Nygaard reaching the zoo first.
Hegge was victorious here in 2012 and 2015. Borst was first in 2013, 2014 and a year ago, when he produced the third-best time in race history, 6:47:23. Scott Jurek holds the record, 6:41:16.
Hegge will be the best man at Borst's wedding in September. They're unlikely to spend much time commiserating about the end of their Voyageur winning streak.
"It came to an end, but I'm glad it went to (Neal)," the 25-year-old Hegge said.
Another ex-UMD standout, Ben Cogger, toyed with the lead while debuting at 50 miles. He went out conservatively, easing into it, before finding his comfort zone. Cogger climbed to second place before giving way to Collick. He was surprised by the heat and tried to take as much water as he could, but dehydration eventually caught up to him.
"That's what you get for racing in July," said the 32-year-old 2007 UMD graduate, who was third in 7:11:41.
Women's champ Nordell wasn't prepared for the humidity Saturday. She hails from a small town near Bend, Ore., and does the bulk of her training at which she described as high desert. The mother of two is on vacation and visiting family in the Northland, which was the case when she ran her first Voyageur, about a decade ago.
"The humidity is hard - it's hard to breathe in it," said Nordell, whose time was 7:56:36. "The last five miles were pretty challenging. I think the heat was getting to me."
After taking the lead just before the midway mark, Nordell ran solo the rest of the way. She's training for a 100-mile race in Washington state next month.
Collick similarly is gearing up for the Superior 100-Mile Trail Race in September, which starts at Gooseberry Falls and concludes in Lutsen. The Superior course record-holder just happens to be Hegge.
Voyageur Trail Ultramarathon
1. Neal Collick, Marquette, Mich., 6:56:42; 2. Jake Hegge, La Crosse, Wis., 7:08:45; 3. Ben Cogger, Duluth, 7:11:41; 4. Matt Eidenschink, Duluth, 7:24:30; 5. Nick Nygaard, Duluth, 7:27:49.
1. Ashley Nordell, Sisters, Ore., 7:56:36; 2. Margaret Ho, Onalaska, Wis., 8:41:51; 3. Gretchen Metsa, Buhl, 9:03:05; 4. Emily Gordon, St. Paul, 9:09:31; 5. April Anselmo, Hudson, Wis., 9:16:17.