In January, a pack of seven women led a race called the Bandera, a 62-mile run through the hills of southern Texas. Bandera is one of the most competitive ultramarathons in the country, because the first two finishers get entries (coveted “golden tickets”) to the prestigious Western States Endurance Run on June 29-30 in northern California.

Around mile 25, two runners broke away: Ladia Albertson-Junkans, who grew up in Stillwater, and Brittany Peterson, from Carlton, Minn.

The Minnesotans ran together for the rest of the 30-mile loop, talking about the last race they both ran (which Albertson-Junkans won) and discovering mutual friends they had back home. They stayed together for most of the second loop as well, until some time after mile 50 when Peterson pulled ahead for the victory. Albertson-Junkans finished second. Both got their golden tickets to Western States, a 100-mile ultramarathon stacked with the best runners in the sport.

Ladia Albertson-Junkans

Recent race results:
Year Race Finish
2019 Bandera (100K) 2nd
2018 Lake Padden Trail Half-Marathon 1st
2018 Speedgoat (50K) 3rd
2018 Broken Arrow Skyrace (52K) 4th
2017 Chuckanut (50K) 1st

The Bandera results were not unusual, as more runners reared in Minnesota (and a few from Wisconsin) are dominating the ultra scene.

“Over the last couple years,” 2014 Western States champion Stephanie Howe Violett said, “I’ve started to see people I raced against in high school in the ultra scene. So it’s definitely a thing.”

Howe Violett, 35, grew up in Forest Lake and now resides in Bend, Ore.

“I have a friend where I live who says, ‘If I have kids someday, I’m going to go raise them in Minnesota because they seem to come up with some great athletes,’ ” said Peterson, 33.

Brittany Peterson

Recent race results:
Year Race Finish
2019 Bandera (100K) 1st
2018 World Skyrunner series 3rd overall*
2018 Pirin Ultra (66K) 1st
2018 Tromso Skyrace (32K) 3rd
2018 Glen Coe Skyrace (52K) 3rd
2017 North Face (50 miles) 5th
* in extra category

The number of Minnesota-bred runners on the ultra scene may have surged in recent years, but it’s not an entirely new phenomenon. The state has a long history of producing great distance runners, from seven-time Western States champion Scott Jurek, 45, to U.S. 48-hour race record-holder Sue Olsen, to ultra running power couple Barney Klecker and Janis Klecker, who still hold the American 50-mile and 50K records, respectively. Even at the shorter distances, Minnesota has produced top contenders like marathoners Dick Beardsley and Kara Goucher and track and cross-country powerhouse Garrett Heath.

Lately, though, their success at going longer has kicked into high gear. Last year, Hopkins-reared Courtney Dauwalter was voted ultrarunner of the year, winning Western States (with Wisconsonite Kaytlyn Gerbin finishing second) along with six other major races. Meanwhile, Dauwalter’s friend and high-school competitor Howe Violett set a course record at the Fourmidable 50K, and Albertson-Junkans won the Way Too Cool 50K. (The three runners all finished in the top 10 at the 2001 Minnesota state high school cross-country meet.) Elsewhere, Michael Bialick, 37, of Minnetonka ran the second-fastest trail 100-mile time in the country last year, at 12:58, behind the world-record 12:08 set at the same race by Wisconsin-native Zach Bitter.

Stephanie Howe Violett

Recent race results:
Year Race Finish
2018 Ultra Trail Cape Town (100K) 8th
2018 Western States (100 miles) 6
2018 FOURmidable (50K) 1st
2017 Bandera (100K) 1st
2017 UTMB (171K) 16th

The field looks set to grow this year. Goucher, 40, said she plans to run the Leadville Trail Marathon (no word on ultras yet, but everyone is watching), while metro speedster Justin Grunewald, who broke the Afton 50K course record last year, is also taking to the trails.

“When I meet people at races,” said rising ultra star Rachel Drake of White Bear Lake (now Portland), “they’re like, ‘I’m from Minnesota!’ ... There’s something in the water in the Midwest, I guess.”

Rachel Drake

Recent race results:
Year Race Finish
2018 Cortina Skyrace (20K) 1st
2018 Waldo (100K) 1st
2018 USA Trail marathon championships 1st
2019 USA 50K Trail championships* 2nd
2019 Trail du Ventoux (46K) 1st
*FOURmidable 50K

“Some of it could be coincidence,” said Kurt Decker, manager of Twin Cities Running Co. and also known as the Godfather of Trail in the community. “But what’s not coincidence is that if you take two people like Stephanie and Courtney, both of them were cross-country runners; both of them were excellent Nordic skiers; and they developed the skill of suffering for a long time.”

Everyone agrees that suffering through winter is almost certainly part of what’s at work here, because it makes you “less likely to complain about anything,” said Drake, 27.

“Living in the Midwest,” said Tim Tollefson, who grew up on a farm outside Northfield until age 11, “you learn to deal with uncomfortable situations. Winter is not easy, and ultrarunning is just a giant game of finding comfort in discomfort.”

Tollefeson, 34, finished third at Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB), which is the de facto trail/ultra world championship that begins in the French Alps.

But equally important is the state’s outdoor ethos.

Courtney Dauwalter

Recent race results:
Year Race Finish
2019 Behind the Rocks Ultra (50 miles) 1st
2019 Desert Solstice (24 hours) 12th
2018 Big Backyard Ultra 1st
2018 Continental Divide Trail Run (50K) 1st
2018 Western States (100 miles) 1st

“Getting out the door no matter what the weather was always really important,” said Dauwalter, 33, who now lives in Golden, Colo. “And probably that shaped a lot of my values now, where being active and enjoying the outdoors are still really important to me. And that naturally led me to trail and ultrarunning.”

“There’s just a really good running culture in Minnesota,” said Alex Nichols, who grew up in Minnetonka, and finished second at Western States in 2017. He’s also a coach at Colorado College. “And when you have kids who enjoy running in high school, they’re going to continue on and make it a lifetime pursuit.”

Alex Nichols

Recent race results:
Year Race Finish
2018 Collegiate Peaks (50 miles) 1st*
2018 Hong Kong (100 kilometers) 2nd
2017 Black Canyon (100K) 1st
2017 Western States (100 miles) 2nd
2015 Mont Blanc (80K) 1st
2016 and 2015 Pikes Peak Marathon 1st
* Course record / Source: UltraSignup

This year, Nichols, 33, plans to compete at the 106-mile UTMB in France, as do Howe Violett and Tollefson. They may be joined by Drake and Dauwalter in the shorter UTMB races (the CCC and TDS). Peterson and Albertson-Junkans will run Western States. And while lot can happen over 100 miles, there’s one thing that’s certain: The Minnesotans won’t be complaining.

“Ultrarunning is about finding joy in things that might otherwise be seen as miserable,” said Albertson-Junkans, 33, who moved to Snoqualmie, Wash., near Seattle a few years ago. “You’re going to experience all sorts of conditions, many of which will be unpleasant. Toughness is part of it. But more important than that, you have to enjoy it.”

 

Frank Bures is a freelance writer from Minneapolis.