Off-Road Runner

After tiring of the pavement pounding so many runners do, V1 contributor Caleb Gerdes got his mojo back in the woods, trails, and hills of Wisconsin

Caleb Gerdes, photos by Andrea Paulseth

The author at Lowe’s Creek County Park
The author at Lowe’s Creek County Park

Sometimes people ask if I am a runner. I want to tell them no, then I remember that I do, in fact, run typically one to three times a week. Now, I’m not religious about it, and I don’t have a specific training regimen or goal in mind. It could be that my lackadaisical approach to running is why I have a hard time identifying as a runner. Then I remember that over the past three summers I’ve run about six half marathons and I think, I must be a runner.

Now that I’ve been thinking this through for a few moments, I awkwardly respond in the affirmative to whoever had wanted to know. I think my confusion about my running identity is built around the fact that these days I don’t feel like I’m running while I’m running. For the majority of my life, though, running was going out and “pounding the pavement,” putting miles and miles on various roads, sidewalks, or bike paths. This was running, and it turns out I hated it.

Back at Augusta Middle School I joined the cross country team. I didn’t really like football and my older brother Jeremy, who’s a genius (seriously), decided to be a runner. I figured, if my genius older brother thought it was a good idea, I should join, too. Being the only eighth grader on the squad, I spent the season training with the varsity team and I ran four or five varsity races. We spent hours running on long stretches of country road with the occasional car flying by, dust and exhaust wafting across our path. It made an unenjoyable experience unbearable. There were two things that kept me running back then: I didn’t want to be that guy who quit, and I wanted to race.

“It was my first time running on single track. We ran about 11 miles that first day, and I loved it. I loved the whole run. I loved the difficulty of the trails, how technical it was, I loved the climbs, I loved the thrilling downhills, and I especially loved the woods. I still do.”

High school cross country races were either on golf courses or in the woods. A whole host of schools would show up, every runner in a uniform of short shorts, upper thigh-vertisements, and a matching tank top. We’d run through the woods, up and down hills, and across open fields, the whole time pushing ourselves to catch that next guy or do our best to keep the one behind you in their place.

After high school was done and I was invited to go running with friends at college, it seemed that all my love for running was built around the races. In an attempt to enjoy running I did a few 5K races and a half marathon and discovered that I didn’t like races. We ran through the city, on sidewalks or in the road, and I hated it. I stopped running, and I assumed that I had just lost my love for running.

I went a few years without running. I got married and it turns out my father-in-law, Audun Mikkelson, is a beast of an athlete. Without any flamboyance or arrogance, he confirmed that he’d competed in at least a dozen Iron Man races since before I was even born. They weren’t even called Iron Mans then; they were just really long triathlons. He gave me a shirt from the Iowa Triathlon, which he ran the day after I was born. He has also competed in 27 American Birkebeiners, and my friends will periodically tell me stories of running into Audun at the gym while he’s doing 100 pull-ups with a weight vest on.

I was a bit intimidated when he asked if I wanted to go for a run with him. He goes out every Saturday and runs the single track trails at Hickory Ridge. I reluctantly agreed, thinking that it would be an excellent opportunity to get to know my father-in-law and get back into running shape. I dreaded the tedium of it and hoped I wouldn’t embarrass myself.

It was my first time running on single track. We ran about 11 miles that first day, and I loved it. I loved the whole run. I loved the difficulty of the trails, how technical it was, I loved the climbs, I loved the thrilling downhills, and I especially loved the woods. I still do. I ran up Rib Mountain recently. I have never run at Rib Mountain before, but I loved it. I drove around neighborhoods until I found a wooded hiking trail, and I ran all the way up and all the way down. The round trip took about an hour. I don’t know how many miles I put on, but as it turns out, I didn’t need to know because I loved the run.

Trail running is a completely new world. It feels so removed from the pavement-pounding days of my formative running years that the two don’t even equate. I am very excited and pleased to see such a growth in the sport of running. It is a shock to see so many people committed to running the Eau Claire half and full marathons. It is wonderful to see such a large roster of 5K races available.

I don’t want anyone to think I am against road running or city races; they are awesome if you love (or even like) them. But if you are where I was, cringing at the sound of shoelaces being tied, then you need to get yourself a solid pair of trail shoes and let yourself race beneath the boughs of trees while skipping off rocks in the trails and plummeting down a steep embankment with total abandon.

Nowadays, Audun, my wife, Astri, and I will travel around the state to various trail races. We have run the Ice Age Trail up in Bloomer, hit the Birkie Trail run up in Hayward. We love the Terror in the Glen in Glen Hills Park of St. Croix County. We still run Hickory Hills when we get a chance. But most often I run the trail system in Chippewa Falls at 178 and Pump House (Thank you, CORBA, for putting 178 together). If you don’t know where to go, just check your local listings for mountain bike trails; every biker I’ve run into has been courteous and willing to share.