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Traveling to the north woods has been my summer tradition for more than 3 decades. For the 20th time, the destination was Hurley, Wisconsin. This border town nestled by Ironwood, Michigan, Hurley plays host to Wisconsins oldest marathon, The Paavo Nurmi Marathon.
In its heyday, the race, a stand-alone marathon event, hosted more than a thousand runners. Heck, there were not that many marathons to choose from, so as the running boom surged, runners traveled long distances to participate.
Not exactly a Boston- or Disney-type destination marathon, Paavo Nurmi is nevertheless a true destination. As with other destination marathons, there is historic significance not only for the race, but also for the city itself.
In the days of mining, the city was a boomtown complete with a bustling saloon trade, dance hall girls and trouble. It is said that Al Capone, the Chicago gangster and bootlegger, frequented the area to lay low and enjoy his time away from the big city.
Silver Street was where the action was, both sides with wall-to-wall bars and restaurants. Today, not every building is a saloon or restaurant, but there are quite a few. On the second Saturday of August, for more than 44 years, it has been the final straightaway of The Paavo, as it is affectionately known by locals and veterans of the race.
Taking its name for the The Flying Finn known for his world records and Olympic feats, many of which are unmatched even to this day, the Finnish community felt it was only appropriate to name the event in his honor.
My first Paavo was back in 1988 and by 1999 I had run my 10th, so its apparent that its a regular on my summer circuit. Returning to a race year after year proves there is a good reason to pack up for the weekend and drive nearly five hours to run 26.2 miles in a footrace.
The race has a reputation for its tough hills, heat and humidity. This year was a pleasant surprise with temperatures in the low 40s at the start and only reaching 71 for the post race party in Ricelli Park.
One of the traditions I was fond of partaking in was the finish line celebration. A sprinkler fed from an army tanker truck and now attached to a fire hydrant, helped me cool down quickly if needed. A tent filled with massage therapists was also a bonus.
The post race food is unusual. Like Boston did in the past, The Paavo serves something warm, even on hot days. The traditional Finnish mojakka soup contained fish. The Paavo version is made with beef, unlike the kind taken down the shafts by the miners as a source of replenishment. It also includes potatoes and lots of other vegetables.
Each year that I finished the race I added another cup of the miners treat to my tally. Following my 10th finish, I swore off the stuff after forcing down my 10 cups! Not until my 20th finish did I allow myself to partake in this special treat with just one cup. It probably will be my 30th when I once again consume the post-race soup, as I typically avoid beef and products from it.
I look back at the times I ran back in the 80s and early 90s with fondness. I ran between 2:46 to 2:48 through the mid-90s and am now trying to get back to the sub 3:30 range. This year, my goal alluded me again as I continued to have issues with my ankle, sprained two-weeks earlier during the 100-mile trail national championships.
The downhill sections that I normally hammer, I ran more conservatively, holding back to avoid pain. The last 5-miles on US Highway 51 are normally a death march for the average runner, but I love to push this section and pass people, especially on the final climb at 25 miles. This final uphill is known as cemetery hill because theres a cemetery on the opposite side of the road. Ironically, at this point, runners can truly relate to the saying I died, referring to legs that no longer want to work.
My goal was to run sub 3:35, but I hoped to at least break 3:45 and gain an advantage on the entry process for the Boston Marathon. Hampered by headwinds, I fell short with a 3:48:29. I knew when I crested the hill and looked to my left at the war memorial honoring Vietnam vets, with its helicopter flying above, that Id have to run another marathon to achieve my goal time.
I also knew I would be returning to this location, Wigwam socks on my feet, ready to add another H, that of being part of Paavo history in this small- town marathon, half marathon and relay, which has captured many runners hearts.
See you in a few miles.roy