The Paddlers who “Portage” a Minnesota Marathon

Photo by Heidi Pinkerton - Root River Photography

By James Hancock

In canoe country, portaging comes with the territory. Seasoned paddlers just shrug and accept these overland jaunts as an unpleasant, necessary means to an end; some even seek them out to test their mettle or gain bragging rights at the local watering hole. In the Boundary Waters, many are as memorable as the lakes and routes they connect, and some are even named: The Bruin, Horse Portage, Angleworm, and of course, Grand Portage, the 8.5-mile voyageur route that has been bruising backs and tugging tumplines since the 1600s. But regardless of fame or infamy, portages have always remained secondary to paddling. Until now.

Enter the Ely Marathon. Not just a clever name, this is actually a regular marathon in the Boundary Waters-gateway city of Ely, Minn. It’s all land-based, starting and ending (26.2 miles later) on terra firma. But in 2016 the Ely Marathon became the BWCA’s newest and longest portage when an intrepid couple decided that running 26.2 miles might be more fun if they also carried a canoe on their shoulders.

For Abby Dare, 29, and Dan Drehmel, 31, paddling and portaging are part of the daily grind. Both work for Voyageur Outward Bound School, where Dare serves as Director of Staffing and Drehmel is a Course Director and Instructor. It makes sense that the couple would add “marathon portaging” to their combined list of leisure activities. These include everything from feng shui and wood carving to whitewater paddling and thru-hiking — off-the-clock pursuits all predicated on unique creativity or intense physicality. Distance canoe-running combines both, then adds a few zeros.

The race now features a Portage Division for its full marathon, relay and half-marathon, starting tomorrow at 7:30 a.m. — and yes, canoes rentals are available for runners. On the eve of this year’s “big portage,” I caught up with the two paddlers who proved that a portage can be anywhere you make it.

C&K: Why? For God’s sake, why portage a marathon?
Abby: I remember being at the 2015 Ely Marathon visiting Dan and his Outward Bound group who were volunteering at an aid station (We weren’t dating yet, but we were thinking about it…at least I was). I noticed that the T-shirts and all of the signage for the marathon said ‘Ely Marathon – The 8,390 Rod Portage!’ I remember joking with Dan about it and before I knew it we were signed up for the 2016 marathon. We called Wendy Lindsay, the woman who is in charge of this whole thing, asked permission to carry a boat [in the race] and got the go-ahead!

Dan: The challenge was the first thing. Once the idea was there I knew it had to happen. The 2016 marathon was also the day after Amy and Dave Freeman finished their year-long Boundary Waters trip to raise awareness about what was at stake. The debate surrounding proposed mining just outside the BWCA and down the shore from where we live and work was heating up as Twin Metals sought the renewal of their expired mineral leases. We wanted to be involved in that effort, too, so we got involved with Save the Boundary Waters and they let us carry “Sig,” one of three boats covered in signatures from BWCA supporters opposing the mine. Obviously, the potential for something like this is modest, but we were hoping to raise some eyebrows and show the transformative power of the Boundary Waters to build resilience and to bring the best out of people – that there’s something worth connecting to out there in that rugged, peaceful, living wilderness, that piece of Minnesota that people from all over the world love and cherish. [Sulfide mining] is a divisive and complex issue among folks here in Ely–we have a lot of understanding and compassion for folks on both sides, and we felt compelled to put our voice into the mix.

I’m curious about the logistics. How did it work? What kind of canoe did you carry? What did you eat? How did you, you know…? 
Abby: We carried a 40-pound Wenonah Kevlar canoe. It has hundreds and hundreds of signatures on it of individuals who support the Save the Boundary Waters Campaign. Our training consisted of both running and portaging. I remember a few 15-mile runs with Dan where I was incredibly grumpy. Anything Dan said or did got under my skin. It was then I realized that I needed to be eating and drinking more. We started dropping water and snacks for ourselves along our training routes and my attitude improved dramatically. Thanks for enduring that, Dan. One of my favorite parts of prep was taping a bunch of candy bars inside the boat. During the race, it was fun to read names and messages of the STBW supporters and stare at a Midnight Milky Way.

Dan: We had a pretty regimented training when we carried the boat—who carried it when, how long did we each run for, making sure we took regular walking breaks. We experimented with a couple different strategies and ultimately found one that worked for both of us. We had to adjust it a little late in the race when we were tired. We trained with a 65-lb. Grumman aluminum canoe, which made the Wenonah feel much lighter. The longest training run we did with a boat was about 15 miles, so we were just relying on grit to get us through the end of the run, when we knew we’d be hurting.

Were there any special considerations for portaging a canoe that far?
Abby: When we were training we were splitting time evenly. Nine minute jog, one minute walk, switch. It didn’t take me too long to realize that I couldn’t keep up with that pace. It took some checking of my ego to work with Dan on switching things up. Once I got over myself we found a rotation that worked really well for us. I think we ended up with Abby Carry: six minute jog, one minute walk, Dan Carry: nine minutes, one minute walk. This rotation was way more sustainable for our team.

Dan: We just had to find the routine that worked for us and then stick to it. We wanted to run how we trained. Taping food to the inside of the boat allowed us to get some extra calories!

Had either of you run a regular old, plain marathon before? I mean, without carrying any watercraft? 
Abby: No. Not even close.

Dan: I had run that distance once unofficially before without any training, and it was miserable. Other than that I’d never ‘ran’ more than four or five miles at once before we started training for this. But I had hiked the Continental Divide Trail in 2013, so I wasn’t a stranger to long days of hiking. I think my longest during that was 56.5 miles in a day.

Did you get pushback from the race organizers or other runners? 
Abby: No, we were encouraged! We also want to shout out LynnAnne Vesper who independently had the same idea and portaged the half marathon by herself!

Dan: Wendy and the other race organizers are all such encouraging and nice people. I think the Ely Marathon is a unique, beautiful, challenging course with lots of elevation change and wilderness character. I actually went through a long process with the Twin Cities marathon hoping we could run that one two weeks later to get the word out about the Boundary Waters in a larger market with more visibility, but they had safety concerns and didn’t want to get political, so they ultimately said ‘no’.

What was the most difficult aspect of the race? 
Abby: We were up on a hill on the Echo Trail and were getting blasted by some big wind gusts. It was difficult to stabilize the boat and keep moving forward as it was being pushed around by the wind. Another difficult moment for me was turning into a 7-mile loop of the course. We were just finishing mile 13 and feeling good. Other runners were ending the loop and were running towards us (I did not know how long the loop would be at this point). I looked behind me at the mileage sign that the oncoming runners were passing (mile 20) and was intimidated by the 7 mile loop that so many runners had already completed. The final two miles of the race are on the main streets of Ely winding back and forth. I remember seeing the finish line well before we were going to be there and feeling a little tempted to cut through the route and end this thing!

Were there times when either of you thought you might not finish? If so, how’d you get through it?
Abby: I remember a dark period between mile 17 and 24. Running 17 miles is a long way! And having to run nine more did not sound fun or possible at some moments. During that dark period we saw a few friends that had huge smiles and funny things to say. Dan and I also shortened our carry times to give ourselves a break and to mix it up a little bit.

Dan: Around Mile 23 I started getting cramps in my hamstrings and was having trouble even walking with the weight of the boat. I didn’t want Abby to have to carry it the rest of the way, so we just took it slow for a bit, I did some stretching while she was carrying the boat, and really we just gritted our teeth and kept moving forward those last few miles. One amazing thing about the Ely Marathon are the people working at water stations cheering you on along the way. It’s not like a big-city marathon where 20,000 people are lining the whole route—you get a lot of quiet time alone running this race, and that makes the moments you do encounter people who are cheering you on that much more special.

How did you feel at the end of the race? Any injuries, illnesses? 
Abby: There was an awesome group of our friends waiting for us at the finish line. We also happened to end during the awards ceremony – they interrupted the awards to cheer us in. I couldn’t stop smiling. Whether all of those people intended to be there to cheer us in or not – it was an epic way to finish. In terms of injuries? Nothing too bad. I remember my shoulders being a little sore and having to nurse my left ankle back to normal (an old injury).
Dan: Nothing some chocolate whole milk couldn’t fix.

Dan and Abby finishing the 2016 Ely Marathon. Photo John Comunale

You are both seasoned expedition paddlers (and presumably portages). What was the longest single portage either of you had done before this? How did this one stack up to other actual portages, as far as difficulty level? 
Abby: Previous to this marathon I had spent several non-winter seasons paddling and portaging in the Boundary Waters on extended expeditions with Outward Bound students. When you are out for 22 days, portaging becomes a sport and is an easy way to measure increasing strength, endurance, and mental stamina. I can portage a canoe about a mile without too much complaining. My max was probably a mile and a half. This portage was different (lighter boat, no gear, dry shoes, a fun friend, candy bars).

Dan: I have done a two-mile portage a couple times carrying an aluminum boat, and a bunch of one –- one and a half-milers. I enjoy trying to finish long portages as quickly as I can. Portages in the Boundary Waters tend to be more difficult in terms of the terrain, but the sheer volume of the marathon made this one much harder physically.

The next year, in 2017, the race organizers actually offered a portage division. Did you enter the portage division in 2017?
Dan: I ran the half-marathon with a Bell solo canoe borrowed from a friend in 2 hours, 21 mins, 2 seconds. There were three of us in the portage division. I was motivated to finish quickly so I could make it to the memorial service for our dear friend, Jack Willis, who passed away last summer. And that was more important–I would have left the course early if I didn’t think I could make it. As it was I ran through the finish line straight to my car, strapped on the boat, drove home, and made it to the memorial with a couple minutes to spare.

Abby: I stayed at the Outward Bound basecamp and participated in my own version of a marathon by preparing for 200 people to arrive in honor of Jack.

They’re really promoting their portage division now, offering a full, half, and relay options. Can we give you two credit for inspiring that?
Abby: I do believe that Dan, LynnAnne, and I helped make the portaging divisions real. We helped people realize that portaging a half or full marathon is challenging, absolutely, and also very possible! I am proud of that!

Dan: [We] all had this crazy idea and people thought it was fun. Really it’s a credit to the vision of Wendy and the race organizers to recognize that and create a division for it.

Any plans for the 2018 race?
Abby: Dan is actually running with a boat as I type this preparing to portage the full marathon alone on Saturday. I am excited to run the half-marathon without a boat – hoping to push myself in a different way.

Dan: I’m going to portage the full marathon with a solo boat this year.

What advice do you have for aspiring canoe-portaging-marathoners? 
Abby: Physically, I’d recommend portage training runs and just running training runs. Carrying a boat for so long can be tough on the joints. I would highly encourage anyone doing this to cross train as much as possible. It is critical for your entire body to be springy and strong rather than squashed and run-down. Mentally, I’d recommend as many jokes and funny ideas as possible. Portaging a marathon is a crazy idea! But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad one.

Dan: Start small with your training, don’t overdo the portaging during your training runs, and don’t take yourself too seriously. It’s a completely ridiculous thing to do! I would encourage anyone who would even consider doing this to give it a try—you might be capable of more than you think!

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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