Runner of the Month
Runner of the Month is our way of shining the spotlight on a local runner. If you know of a runner that has an interesting story that deserves to be highlighted in an upcoming edition, let us know! It can be someone you admire for their speed, their attitude, their awesome running shorts or any other reason you think the world (or at least our corner of it) needs to hear more about this great person. We'll pick someone from the nominees, interview them, and post a writeup here. Send your nomination to ROTM@northlandrunner.com. If possible, include a phone number or e-mail address for your nominee.
November 30, 2009: Jen Houck
A Northland native, Jen grew up in Cromwell. She took up running after her sister, Diana, showed interest in it, joining track in seventh grade and cross-country in eighth grade. In track Jen specialized in mid-distance races, running a 2:31 800m and a 5:58 1600m. Jen also played team sports in high school, participating in volleyball and basketball.
After beginning her college career at Saint Cloud State, Jen transferred to the College of Saint Scholastica. At CSS Jen started training year-round and running longer races. Her college PRs are 17:35 for the 5k and 36:21 for the 10k. In 2007 Jen qualified for the Division III national meet in the 10k and finished twelfth.
Jen is having a superb 2009 race season. In October Jen completed the Twin Cities Marathon in 2:47:42. Not only was that a PR for her, it was only one minute off the qualifying time for the Olympic trials. In July Jen defended her Park Point 5-Miler title and set the course record with a time of 28:30. In May she won the Minnesota 5k Championship race – the Brian Kraft Memorial 5k. These performances have put Jen at the top of the leader board for the Minnesota Runner of the Year award. With just a month left in the 2009 season, Jen leads Jenna Boren of Saint Paul by two points.
Looking forward, Jen plans on running the Aramco Houston Half Marathon (Houston, TX) in January and the Gate River Run 15k (Jacksonville, FL) in March. Both races are USA Championship Races. Jen is also contemplating running either the Boston Marathon or London Marathon in the spring. Jen is coached by well-known trainer and athlete, Chad Salmela.
Jen graduated from CSS in 2008 with a doctorate in physical therapy. She currently works for SunDance Rehabilitation at Villa-Marina Health and Rehabilitation Center in Superior doing short-term rehabilitation. When patients successfully complete their rehabilitation, they get to move home, an accomplishment Jen finds very rewarding. She also appreciates her job’s scheduling flexibility, which makes it easier to get her training runs in.
Jen enjoys running because she likes being active and healthy. Over time, running has grown from a hobby to part of her lifestyle. She also enjoys the social aspect of running and all the friends she has met through the sport. When you see Jen, congratulate her on a successful year of running!
October 31, 2009: Greg Hexum
NR: Where did you grow up? How did you get into running? What were your early running experiences like?
GH: Like a lot of kids, I ran or rode my bike everywhere. That was just a regular part of my lifestyle growing up in Pike Lake just north of Duluth. My family was active and on the go all the time. My parents were supportive of any physical activity I wanted to try. I played every conceivable sport, participating in a number of youth sports (baseball, soccer, basketball, and especially hockey). What drew me to running (and what I think led to the success that existed with Proctor High School cross country) was that the late Dick Saarela, the Proctor High School XC coach, held a series of elementary cross country meets at the six elementary schools that existed in the school district. Kids who placed at the top of those races then competed at the district meet, which was coordinated by the varsity cross country team. While I didn't ever win any of those races, I was near the top, allowing me to feel successful. I clearly remember the positive feedback that I received from Coach Saarela and the members of the Proctor XC team. These races began in 4th grade, and I remember doing a little better each year (while also taking the races progressively more seriously). Another event that I thrived on was the Park Point 1 Mile race for kids (12 and under). This race was held in conjunction with the Park Point 5 Miler and was a pre-cursor to the Grandma's sponsored Wednesday Night at the Races events. When I was 12, I was able to win the mile race, and that probably sealed the deal for my decision to start cross country in 7th grade.
On a side note, it is probably a good thing that boys high school soccer didn't exist because I would have likely turned to that sport instead. I was pretty good at soccer, and I enjoyed team sports.
NR: What were your high school and college running careers like?
GH: Proctor High School cross country was very good before, during, and after the years I participated in the program. As a 7th grader, I had many older kids to look up to in our program. There were probably 40-70 boys out for cross country depending on the year, and as a younger kid in the program, it was just the norm to work hard in summer two-a-day practices and have tons of fun messing around between them. I held the older, varsity kids in high esteem and remember being motivated to join their ranks as soon as possible.
When I was in junior high, it was the norm for the varsity kids to win meets as a team, ultimately qualifying for the state meet at the end of the season. I mention this because I never even considered the possibility that I would be any less successful than the older kids. While the climate was very fun, the bar for success was established well before I ran at Proctor. Coach Saarela (a tough-as-nails Finn) would inspire us with constant stories about the hard workouts of Proctor runners of the past. We heard about the workouts that Garry Bjorklund ('76 Olympian from Twig) had done as a Proctor Rail, and the message was clear: "If you work hard, you will succeed." Simple as that. Mr. Saarela gave a number of awards each season. The one that was most valued was the Sisu Award. He convinced us that your "grit and perseverance" were your most important qualities. Additionally, as a former football player, he told us that cross country runners were way tougher than football players. His philosophy was: "Football players go into games and practice hoping not to get hurt. Cross country runners go to practices and races knowing that they will hurt. Who's tougher?" It was just what we needed to hear.
Starting in 9th grade all Proctor runners ran twice per day (except meet days) throughout the season until the week of the section meet. It is quite a thing to think that my working parents drove me to school every morning (until I could drive myself) for 6:30 a.m. practice, fifteen miles from our Pike Lake home, only to pick me up at 6:00 p.m. from afternoon practice. I think they were just happy it wasn't hockey season, which was even more involved. Although I had started to win some junior high meets in 8th grade, 9th grade is where I started to identify myself as a runner. I had expectations going into meets. My freshman year culminated with a spot on the varsity cross country team and a 4:36 mile at the section 7AA track meet in the spring.
Mr. Saarela told me that I could be very good if I put in summer miles. I trained some more in the summer and the next three years were positive. I was All-State a couple of times in cross country and track, and I was proud to be a part of some very good teams at Proctor that carried on the Rail tradition of success in distance running.
While I was doing well, winning most varsity meets in my last two years, I was inspired to do better by the really great Proctor runners of the past. Coach Saarela and Assistant Coach Dan Stein repeated the same tales each year of the workouts and races of Garry Bjorklund, Tim Oliver, Kim Barron, and many others. If you ask any Proctor runner from this era, I assure you they can do a Coach Saarela impression telling these tales.
Mr. Saarela was, as they say, "Old School." He cared about the boys who ran for Proctor and was encouraging and positive (and it didn't matter if you were any good), but "Saar" had high expectations for conduct and performance. If community members started calling about the "crazy runners stealing yard ornaments," Mr. Saarela's wrath was sure to follow. One of the great honors of my life was to serve, along with some of the other Proctor runners that I admired, as a pallbearer at Mr. Saarela's funeral.
In the background of my high school running life was hockey. Like any red-blooded northern Minnesota boy, I lived for it --- even more so than running. Even though most of my year was spent running, my life revolved around the four-month hockey season. I played on some pretty solid Proctor teams. In my senior season as a varsity defenseman for the Rails, we lost in the section semi-final to Hibbing. We had hopes of a trip to the one-class state tournament, but it just wasn't to be. Although I was fortunate to be named to the Lake Superior All-Conference hockey team, it was clear that my future was in running (I hadn't grown an inch or gained a pound since 8th grade).
Partway through my senior year, I signed a National Letter of Intent to attend the University of North Dakota and compete for the Fighting Sioux cross country and track and field teams. My field years at UND were an awesome but difficult learning experience. I did well in school, struggled through some significant injuries, made some lifetime friends, travelled around to a plethora of meets, and experienced some pretty good success. Things came together in my junior year at UND when I earned All-American status at the NCAA Cross Country meet. Later that year I was able to set some University of North Dakota track and field records while continually increasing my training to match my new goals.
Looking back at my college running time, I realize I was overly focused on running and that my training was well beyond what was healthy. A more moderate approach would have been better, but my self-control was crushed by my drive. As a result of this, it took me some time to really enjoy running again after college. Out of habit and compulsion, I continued to train and race competitively on the roads, but I wouldn't say that I enjoyed running or competing during my first five years out of college.
NR: I believe you run a lot of trails. What do you enjoy about trail running?
GH: What rekindled my joy for running was training and racing on trails. I enjoy the natural environment, unmarked miles, and freedom from the stopwatch. I like the varying terrain, the sense of adventure, and the moderate risk of falling down. I do 90% of my running and racing on trails now. I might road race once per year, and I train on the roads about once every two weeks. Road racing and road running just don't inspire me. For me, trail running gets me to the essence of why I run. I feel independent, relaxed, healthy, and purified after a trail run.
NR: What are one or two of your favorite routes?
GH: Living in Esko, MN gives me quick access to the Jay Cooke State Park trails. I love Gill Creek (which is a part of the Voyageur Ultramarathon), and I run on the section of the Lake Superior Hiking Trail between the Grand Portage Trail and Ely's Peak as much as possible.
NR: I know you've been national snowshoe champion a few times. Can you talk about that a little bit? Do you train year-round?
GH: It took me until age 35 to win a national championship, but it was better late than never. I won the USSSA National Snowshoe Championships in 2006 and 2007. Snowshoe racing gives me something to focus on through the potentially oppressive winters in Minnesota. The training allows me to be out on my beloved trails in the winter. Training for snowshoe running is just like training for any other kind of running, just slower and harder. It is very hard to put snowshoes on and do anything but a hard workout. The high-tech, lightweight Atlas Snowshoes (the best around) make the experience fun, but it ain't easy! Training for trail races and snowshoe races are a nice complement to each other. That's not to say that I really train. Mostly I just go run each day --- or as often as I can. I work hard sometimes because I like to; while other times I jog ---because I like that too.
NR: You've won quite a few races. What are some of your accomplishments?
GH: I mentioned some accomplishments previously, and I have a number of other fond race memories, but my greatest moments in running have been the laughs with Gregg Robertson or Brent Smith on long runs, the solo runs when I experience a half an hour of Zen-like calm, or the trips to far-away races with teammates. It doesn't take most competitive runners long to realize how good they are not. I vividly recall that as a sophomore in college, on my way to an indoor personal best 5000 meters, I was lapped by an international-elite Kenyan, Jonah Koech. Success in running is relative, and I try never to forget that.
NR: What are your future running/snowshoeing goals?
GH: I hope to run tomorrow and the next day and next year and as long as possible. At age almost-39, I am far from "old," but I am old enough to feel the progressive wear and tear on my body. I have made a concerted effort to streamline my training with the goal of running into my 60s. After that, I will take up sailing. My number one goal in sports is to encourage my 5-year-old daughter, Ingrid, to live an active lifestyle. My parents set a very high bar for the kind of support and encouragement that is "normal" for parents to provide. She has better sprint speed than me, but right now she is most interested in cheerleading.
NR: Can you talk a little about your family and what you do for a living?
GH: My supportive and devastatingly beautiful wife of eight years, Gretchen, and I live in Esko, MN. We have a 5-year-old, kindergarten daughter, Ingrid and an 8-year-old Austrailian Shepherd. I am proud to be the high school principal at Esko High School where every day is a great day to be an Eskomo.
NR: Any words of wisdom or advice for fellow runners?
GH: Since I have been absolutely terrible at taking anybody's advice during my time as a runner, I can't offer any wisdom with a clear conscience. What I can do is provide you with (shameless plugs for sponsors) a list of the best products that all runners should buy and use: Salomon Trail Running Shoes, Atlas Snowshoes, Rudy Project Sunglasses, KT tape, FRS Energy Drink and the delicious Justin's Organic Nut Butters --- especially the honey-almond available in squeeze packets.
September 29, 2009: Leslie Semler
The September Runner of the Month is Leslie Semler of Hermantown. A dominant runner in the Duluth running scene, Leslie has taken her training and racing to a new level in 2009. We first profiled Leslie in 2007 after winning the Steve Chadwick 5k in Duluth. That article is available here.
In 2009 Leslie focused on improving her fitness level from last year. Starting in January, Leslie followed a Pfitzinger training plan to prepare for Grandma's Marathon. Her dedication to the program paid off when she ran 3:06, a personal record. Other highlights from Leslie's season include: setting the course record at the Superior Trail 25k (2:12), achieving a half marathon personal record at the Lincoln Half Marathon (1:25), winning the Wildwoods 25k (1:50) and winning the Walker Marathon (3:24). In addition to these accomplishments, Leslie won the NMTC Spring Trail Series and is currently battling for top position in both the NMTC Fall Trail Series and the Minnesota Trail Series. Leslie and a team also competed in the Great River Ragnar Relay, winning their division.
Since Grandma's Marathon, Leslie has been crafting her own training program to help her achieve her race goals. Her program has consisted of base mileage, rest weeks, and speed work. Leslie's next goal is a venture into a new arena for her. She currently is training for her first Ultra - the Wild Duluth 50k on October 17th. If that goes well, she also plans on trying the Surf the Murph 50k on October 31st.
Besides hard work and quality training, Leslie credits a few additional factors for helping her reach her peak condition this year. Leslie cross-trains quite a bit, biking two or three days a week. Someday she would like to incorporate swimming into her training regimen and possibly complete a triathlon or two. Leslie also tries to eat healthfully and makes sure she includes a variety of foods in her diet. She tends her own garden and has experimented with making her own yogurt, bread, and pasta. She also credits plenty of sleep and yoga for keeping her body healthy.
Leslie's advice to other runners is to have fun training. Whatever type of training program you are involved in, you should enjoy it. If it hurts a lot, something is wrong!
When you bump into Leslie on the race circuit, congratulate her on a successful season and wish her luck in her first ultra race!
August 30, 2009: Andy Holak
The August Runner of the Month is Andy Holak of Duluth. Andy won the Minnesota Voyageur Trail Ultra last month, running a personal best time of 7:16:28 and setting the master’s course record. Andy is a well known runner on both the local and national ultramarathon circuit and is starting his own ultra on the Superior Hiking Trail this year.
Andy grew up in Poynette, Wisconsin, a small town north of Madison. While active in team sports – football and baseball in particular – he never participated in organized running in high school. Andy attended college at the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse, where he majored in recreational management. In La Crosse, Andy took up bike racing, an activity that led him to meet his future wife, Kim. In 1994, Andy completed a graduate degree in recreational management at the University of Montana in Missoula. During graduate school, Andy started running more and was soon hooked on Missoula’s scenic trails. At that time, there were few short trail races; most trail races were ultramarathons. Since Andy loved the outdoors and spent a great deal of time running trails, the transition from casual runner to ultramarathoner was an easy one. Since 1996, Andy has run at least one ultra every year.
Andy is currently a Recreation Specialist for Saint Louis County, a position he has held for ten years. He and Kim have three children: Abby (13), Bryce (11), and James (8). Kim is also well-known on the local and national ultramarathon scene, counting three Voyageur victories among her many accomplishments.
In order to rest and recover from injury last year, Andy abstained from his usual ultramarathon racing schedule and focused on shorter trail races. In doing so, Andy won the Minnesota Trail Series and the Upper Midwest Trail Runners Championship race. This year Andy has returned to running longer distances. Besides the Voyageur, Andy ran the Black Warrior 25k (Bankhead National Forest, AL) in February, the Chippewa Moraine 50k (New Auburn, WI) in April, the Superior Trail 50k (Lutsen, MN) in May, and the Bighorn Mountain 50-Miler (Dayton, WY) in June. He plans to participate in one of the Superior Trail races in Lutsen this September before heading out to the Bear 100 in Logan, Utah. The Bear 100 is the main race Andy is training for this year; his goal is to finish under twenty-four hours.
As passionate about ultra trail running as Andy and Kim are, it is no surprise that they have started their own business planning trail running trips. They formed the Adventure Running Company in 2008 and organize five-day trips to scenic locations across the country. Andy and Kim take turns driving a support vehicle and running with their clients – groups of eight to twelve runners. They have completed two trips so far, one on the Maah Daah Hey Trail in North Dakota and one on the Colorado Trail.
Andy has also taken the initiative to start two new trail runs in Duluth this year – the Wild Duluth 100k and 50k. They will take place on October 17th on the Superior Hiking Trail. If you are interested in volunteering in any way, Andy would love to have you. He is also hoping to extend the local trail racing circuit by starting a four-day stage race covering roughly a hundred miles of the Superior Hiking Trail in 2010.
Andy’s goals for the future are to stay healthy and keep running as he gets older. His body reacted positively to his easier racing schedule last year, and he plans to continue that practice every couple years. Besides running, Andy recognizes that there are other important things in life and hopes to continue to lead a balanced lifestyle in the future.
Written by: Kris Glesener
July 31, 2009: Shari Olson
Shari started running when she was 30 in order to get in shape after having children. Her dad and many of her siblings are runners, but Shari had never tried it before. During her first season of running, Shari ran a 5k almost every weekend with her father. While she didn’t feel particularly fast and often finished at the back of the field, she kept at it. Running through the winter and increasing her mileage, Shari completed Grandma’s Marathon the following year.
Since that first year of running, Shari hasn’t looked back. After finishing Grandma’s, she has gone on to complete the following marathons: Disney World, Las Vegas, Paavo Nurmi, Whistlestop, Twin Cities, Chicago, Moose Mountain, and Boston. She has also ran the Superior Trail 25k, 50k, and 50-mile races, The Huff 50k, the Trailmix 50k, and the Voyageur Trail Ultra. Shari achieved her best marathon time of 3:38 at Grandma’s Marathon in 2002.
You may wonder how Shari has been able to complete so many marathons, some of them more than once. Her secret? She simply keeps in marathon shape. "It’s just easier to keep in shape than to stop and start up again", says Shari. Shari runs year-round and anywhere from 25 to 40 miles a week, depending on the season. In a typical year, she completes a marathon or 50k race once a month from April to October.
Besides the fitness benefits, Shari loves the social aspects of running. She and her friends do a long run together once a week and have been doing so for the last decade. One of the highlights of their training program is the Pancake Run. A few times a year the group runs the 24-mile route from Maple to Superior and celebrates with pancakes at Perkins.
Shari is a librarian at Northwestern Middle School, having taught in the school district for twenty years. She is also mother to two wonderful boys and assistant coach for the cross-country team. You may recognize Shari’s name if you run races in her neck of the woods. Shari started the Brule River Lions Run and has directed it for ten years. This spring Shari organized the Pat Moreland 5k and track meet to help fund Northwestern’s new athletic facilities.
When asked for running advice, Shari says to "just keep plugging away". No matter what your speed is, you will improve if you keep at it. Every year you will get better, and you will get to spend time with many great people.
Written by: Kris Glesener