Moose Lake Star Gazette - Serving Carlton and Pine Counties Since 1895

By Bethany Helwig
Moose Lake Star-Gazette 

The Last Runner Standing

 

Bethany Helwig

Brandon Johnson leads the way out on the first loop of Last Runner Standing.

On the 8th of June, 105 runners gathered at the Grand Avenue chalet of Spirit Mountain to compete in the Last Runner Standing challenge. There is no set end time or length. This isn't your typical trail race, but the objective is simple. Out run every other participant until there is only one runner left.

This year, the crowning champion was Brandon Johnson, 35, of Blackhoof Township after completing 129.27 miles in 31 hours.

Last Saturday marked the second year of the race, which is composed of a 4.17 mile loop that goes up hiking trails and comes down the chalet hill. The trick? Do it within an hour or you're eliminated. Each hour-long loop thins out the crowd and the race continues until all but one has been eliminated or dropped out voluntarily. Every race starts on the hour, so racers needed to pace themselves just right in order to have a rest period before lining up at the starting line once again.

Racing roots

"We were inspired by a race in Tennessee called Big's Backyard Ultra," said race director Andy Holak. "The idea of running until only one runner remained really seemed like a cool way to find out who really is the toughest runner on the day or two for that event."

The race started at 10 am Saturday morning. It ended at 5 pm on Sunday. That's 31 hours.

Last year it began with 66 runners and the winner, Nicholas Whitbread of Thunder Bay, completed 91.74 miles. Brandon Johnson was the second runner up with 83.4 miles officially (his last loop was not counted towards the total because it was not completed within the time limit).

This year the number of participants increased to 105, and Johnson was determined to be the last one standing. After running the course loop 31 times, he did just that.

Despite the extreme distance he managed to achieve, Johnson has only been running for seven years.

His motivation to begin was "to get into shape for elk season," Johnson said, but he soon discovered he greatly enjoyed running. After taking on a 5K (3.1 miles) first, he moved on to the WhistleStop Half-marathon (13.1) miles in Ashland, Wisconsin.

Joining him on his first half-marathon was his father-in-law and long time marathon runner, Bill Helwig.

"The first Whistlestop, we ran together the whole way," Helwig said. "Then at the last mile I took off to get a good time. Then the next year, we ran together the whole time and then he took off. I've been chasing after him ever since."

Johnson took on challenges such as Grandma's Marathon (26.2 miles) in Duluth, but he was always reaching for more. Soon enough he became involved in trail races, such as the Wild Duluth 50K which is run almost exclusively on the Superior Hiking Trail. The challenge of a trail race is not only the distance but the elevation gain (incline) as well. Running up a hill is much more difficult than running on a flat stretch.

The loop of the Last Runner Standing race is roughly 700 feet in elevation gain. That's over two times the height of the Statue of Liberty. This past weekend Johnson did that loop 31 times, which is roughly fifteen times the height of the Empire State Building. That's a lot of elevation gain!

Training for Victory

Enduring 31 hours of running isn't something anyone is capable of doing without a lot of preparation. While many people may think of speed as the number one goal of a runner, endurance can be even more important.

"I trained faster earlier in the year for a marathon," Johnson said. "But then I quit speed training and worked on long runs. It's a different kind of hard."

Johnson's training plan involved putting in more mileage, even if that meant running late at night after his shift at work. In the weeks leading up to the race, his goal was doing 100 miles a week. Part of that training was running the very loop of the race to familiarize himself with the terrain and set the perfect pace.

Yet a race like this can't be done alone. Family members and friends act as pit crews to make sure each runner had food, drinks, and fresh shoes on hand. Johnson's father, Bruce, was there to help from start to finish. Bruce recalled going out to cut firewood at 3 am during last year's race to keep the fire going during the chilly hours while waiting for his son to finish loops.

Father-in-law Helwig also came out to complete 50K of the race and returned to act as pit crew as well.

Race Day

This year's race began with bright sunshine, wind, and a decent temperature in the upper 60s. The number of participants thinned through Saturday afternoon. The participants eventually donned headlamps to run through the night and into Sunday morning, until only five runners remained to hit the 100-mile mark.

Last year's winner Nicholas Whitbread was the third runner up and bowed out after the 26th loop.

"You're running on another level today," he told Johnson.

Whitbread remained to watch the end of the race and support the runners.

After 28 grueling hours, the wind turned to gusts and brought in pouring rain.

Muddy sections of the trail became dangerous as the rain turned them extremely slick. In some places, Johnson said he'd pick up a pound of mud on his shoes. The grass on the chalet hill was no better.

"It's like grease," Johnson said during a short rest between loops.

Despite the less than ideal conditions in the late stage of the race, Johnson and Brian Corgard completed two more loops. Corgard made it in on the 30th loop with a mad run down the chalet hill, crossing the finish line with roughly a minute and 30 seconds to spare before the next race began.

Part way through the 31st loop, Corgard returned after completing only part of the race to drop out. Corgard officially completed 125 miles. Johnson finished the loop and officially became the last runner standing.

There was a sense of camaraderie between the runners, especially the last five in the race. More than one made the comment that without Johnson's steadfast and precise pacing, they wouldn't have gotten as far as they did.

Pit crews and onlookers knew precisely when Johnson would appear at the top of the chalet hill to make the final descent to the finish line.

"Just like clockwork," was said by more than one person.

"He is a machine," Corgard said.

Race Director Andy Holak applauded the runners. "It's so fun and inspiring to watch that, while Kim (his wife) and I want to go home and get some sleep, we really did not want the race to end! We were sort of sad to see it end because it was such an epic and fun event to watch and manage. It was an amazing race!"

 

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