“Runner!” shouted a voice from the crowd upon spotting a racer near the finish line. The small crowd then joined in, cheering loudly over the music as a runner rounded the corner of the pool yard fence at the Lutsen Ski Resort.
After just under 100 miles of walking, night and day, through the rugged north shore hills of the Lake Superior Hiking Trail on Friday and Saturday, UMD junior, Ben Welch, sprinted into the finish with a time of 35 hours and 53 minutes. At the age of 22, he was the youngest to finish the ultra marathon and also, one of the only runners to end in a sprint.
“I had to sprint,” he said. “I don’t really feel satisfied if I finish by walking across and not getting tired.”
Just moments before the finish, Welch slipped and fell, full stride, on some wet grass and was bleeding as a result of it.
“I hit my head but I just like popped back up and then just tried to get across the finish line. There was no shut off to my body,” he said.
Family and friends waited near the finish line. Waiting eagerly as they sat around a campfire or on the side of the course as their Superior 100 Mile Trail, they watched racers complete the course along with the Superior 50 milers and Moose Mountain marathoners.
As finishers crossed, they were greeted with hugs, tears, and smiles by their loved ones.
An hour later, Welch was followed by the second youngest racer, UMD senior, 23-year-old Joel Braden, with a time of 36 hours and 58 minutes.
The male and female winners, John Horns and April Cole, won the race in 23 hours and 21 minutes and 26 hours and 3 minutes, respectively.
The race, which started at Gooseberry Falls State Park, traveled up and down hills and over streams with an elevation change of 4,200 feet, according to Welch.
Out of 205 starters, only 87 finished, creating a 42 percent finish rate, which is much lower than the average of 60 percent.
“Years with a lot of thunderstorms and rain, [the finish rate] will go down,” said race director John Storkamp. “And when it’s hot like this, it’ll go down.”
Friday, when the race began, temperatures reached the high 80s.
“The heat was insane and then all night, the heat kept up,” Welch said.
Along the course, ultra marathoners had 13 aid stations where they could replenish themselves with food and water, change shoes, or grab a sweater from their drop bags if needed.
Runners carried water bottles and snacks on-their-person for in between stations and were allowed to have pacers run along side them after mile 42.
For both Welch and Braden, the aid stations played major roles in keeping them going because they had family and friends there.
“I was ready to quit at mile 42,” Welch said. “And if I didn’t see my family – if I didn’t have my friends– if I didn’t know they were there, I would’ve quit at that aid station without a doubt. People just drive me.”
Welch said he gave up many times throughout the race because of exhaustion from walking and, also, from not sleeping the night before the start.
“There was only one five-mile section in the beginning that was easy,” he said. “Other than that, everything else was hard, every single second.”
Braden also struggled to the end and almost gave up twice because the knee injury he had been nursing before the race had flared up.
The first time his knee took a toll was at mile 23, just two miles before an aid station.
“I pretty much just gave up at that point because it’s like, ‘Well, I can hardly even walk. I’m barely just limping along here. There’s no way I’m going to make it. I’m not even a quarter of the way done,’” he said.
His plan was to make it to the aid station, call it quits and find a ride home.
As he kept walking, however, the pain slowly went away, and he decided to pursue the next aid station and then next, and the next, and all of the rest until he made it to the finish.
“I just figured I had trained so long and put in so many hours for this race that I might as well just go as long as I can until they pull me off; until I don’t make the time cutoff, basically. I just couldn’t bring myself to give up when I still had time.”
Welch didn’t have any major injuries, but put up with swollen feet after half way.
Although it was an extremely demanding and painful race, both students experienced moments of relief.
For Braden, it was when the sun rose on Saturday morning after hiking through the night without stopping to sleep. He and a pacer, friend Steven Coozennoy, a UMD senior, had just made it to aid station 62 when they could finally turn their headlamps off.
“All night long we were looking at this lighted spot on the ground from our headlamps,” Coosennoy said. “So when the sun finally rose, that was the best sunrise I’ll ever see.”
Welch found his release after the tenth aid station, where he picked up his pace and got out of a mid-race funk.
“A lady ran past me, and I was like, ‘Why are you running?’ And she said, “We’re not going to make the cut-off time to the next aid station!” So, I started running,” Welch said.
By the time he reached the last seven miles, his pace turned into a sprint.
Dalton Monn, a UMD sophomore and Welch’s last pacer, said he was surprised by Welch’s mental turn-around.
“On the final stretch he was on a role and he was smiley, happy, just energetic. And, that was actually, for me, the funnest time I’ve ever had running with him.”
Both Welch and Braden said they feel accomplished for just having finished and having been able to push through their injuries and mental exhaustion.
“Wow,” Braden said, thinking back to the finish. “I really came back from the dead. That is for sure.”
BY ALOYSIA POWER firstname.lastname@example.org