Grit. Conditioning. Weather. Terrain. Age.
In Michael Koppy’s steely mind, one of those words will be a nonfactor Friday morning when he sets foot on the north end of the Superior Hiking Trail at the Canadian border.
The ultramarathoner from Hermantown, Minn., is there to make a run at the trail speed record — a milestone known as the “fastest known time” or FKT. Koppy intends to cover 310 miles in fewer than four days, down to the southern terminus at the Wisconsin border near Jay Cooke State Park. The current men’s FKT, with support, was set in September by former Minnesotan Austin Nastrom. He did it in just 6 days, 8 hours and 37 minutes. Then in October, Alex Elizabeth of Minneapolis set the women’s mark in 6 days, 12 hours and 32 minutes.
That Koppy will turn 70 in August is of little relevance to him. His endurance running résumé is dotted with mammoth events covering multiple hours and mega-distances of 100 miles — and longer. “I don’t even think about the age. If I can do it, I am going to do it,” said the soft-spoken Koppy this week.
He isn’t in it only for the adventure. Koppy wants to raise $15,000 for the footpath’s caretaker based in Two Harbors, the Superior Hiking Trail Association, stung financially by the coronavirus pandemic.
FKT attempts have been made and tracked on trails in recent years around the world, a standard that has gained traction on the Superior trail. FKTs are distinguished by the amount of runner support — or lack of it. Rory Anderson of Lonsdale, Minn., set the new mark, unsupported, Sept. 28, relying on what supplies he could shoulder. He covered the trail in seven days, 13 hours and 25 minutes. There also is a FKT mark for self-supported attempts (runners pick up resupplies en route). Jeremy Platson of Hudson, Wis., claimed the Superior mark in 2016.
On Friday, Koppy will begin his second run at a supported FKT. He bailed because of a leg injury last June after 136 miles. A help crew will again carry gear and food, and shadow Koppy. Some will even help pace him over the ridges and valleys and wild areas that are part of the trail’s legend.
Byron Kuster of Moose Lake, Minn., is along again to assist — and said all involved are more prepared this year, with an exacting checklist that will keep better track of Koppy’s whereabouts and progress. Kuster acknowledged, amid the pandemic, the added challenge of keeping safe distance from Koppy and one another as they prepare food, hunker down at meeting spots, and are mindful of vehicle companions as they head south. “We all are taking it seriously,” he said.
Kuster and another longtime Koppy friend, runner, and crew member, Diane Laughlin of Duluth, said they have no concern about his drive and preparedness.
“Experience. Personality. It’s all in there,” Laughlin said.
Koppy conceded that 310 miles of climbs and descents, roots and rocks, and mud and water completed in his goal time — just minutes shy of four days — is aggressive. Still, he thinks coming in two days and about eight hours faster than the record is realistic. He said he trusts the intensity of a new training regimen this year, one that has been stripped of races and made a sole focus on a FKT that seems almost fated. He has also received coaching from another trail stalwart, Stephanie Howe Violett, who grew up in Forest Lake and won the prestigious Western States 100 in 2014.
“I’m going in with a lot more miles. I have more respect for the trail,” Koppy said. “And a lot more knowledge about how to do things a little differently.”
And don’t saddle him with questions about being 69.
Said Koppy: “I hope to inspire other people not to being thinking about [age]. ... Someday I’m sure I won’t be able to do this, but until I can’t I’m going to keep going after these things.”
Undeniable is a hometown love for the great trail straddling the Great Lake up the North Shore. Koppy is motivated to help the Superior Hiking Trail Association, too.
The pandemic has affected membership renewals, donations and fundraising plans — all things that funnel to a general fund for basic trail needs, said Jaron Cramer, SHTA development and communication director. Cancellation of the popular Superior trail races in spring was a loss, too, and the fall races are in limbo.
Cramer said a continuation of state grants through the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources also is shrouded in legislative uncertainty. Funding from a $450,000 grant for major trail projects such as the Gooseberry reroute was to arrive in July — part of the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund appropriations waiting on action. A special session in June is possible.
Koppy has pledged to match up to $7,500 in donations made to acknowledge his FKT, and the trail.
“He’s been great about making that present in his message,” Cramer said, “and authentically a part of everything he is doing.”
Said Koppy, “Things we love we have to support them with our pocketbook, and this a good opportunity.”
As his crewman Kuster said, Koppy has a lot of friends, which means a lot of people pulling for his success over the next several days.
Even the young gun, nearly 45 years his junior, who owns the FKT that Koppy will chase.
“I’m definitely pulling for him,” said Nastrom, 25. “I can’t say I envy him too much. I’m not too terribly excited about going back to try it again anytime soon, but it definitely is a one-of-kind adventure.”