For two years, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down a race that was becoming a signal of spring in central Minnesota.
But this year, the marathon in the Brainerd Lakes area is returning for a full race weekend with support from the local community. The volunteers at the Brainerd Jaycees non-profit who operate the race weekend are bringing back the in-person races for the first time since 2019.
“People are very excited to be back racing in person,” said the Jaycees race director for this year, Lizzie Aydt. “They’ve been training, and they are ready to do this.”
The 13th Run for the Lakes marathon is set to run April 30, and race organizers hope that many return to the scenic double-loop route in Nisswa. While the storied Get In Gear 10K welcomes thousands of runners the same weekend in the Twin Cities, this smaller 26.2-mile race usually draws 100 to 150 people. However, around 1,500 runners typically compete during the two-day race weekend: some in the half marathon, some in the marathon relay, some in the 5K, or 10K, or the kid-friendly 1 kilometer dash.
“The race is a great way to bring people to the Brainerd Lakes area,” Aydt said, noting most runners come from within the state. “It’s a great way for local businesses to get support, especially from the people who come up from the Metro area.”
The race’s location in the region and on the calendar promises many runners cooler temps. But it is also susceptible to the late-season snowstorm. Runners in the inaugural race of 2008 (won by George Bienusa and Amber Bowman) were hit with gusty winds and a foot of fresh-fallen snow.
This year though, runners might need good rain gear. Temps are projected to hover in the 40s during a rainfall with 15 mile-per-hour winds.
The 5K and kid’s race happen on Friday. The marathon and half marathon start together at the Nisswa Community Center at 8 a.m. The 10K racers start 30 minutes later.
The marathon course travels twice around a large loop, passing through white pine and red pine groves as it circles Clark Lake, Lake Hubert, and smaller Bass Lake. Runners cover about three miles on the flat, paved Paul Bunyan State Trail. The rest of the course is on the shoulder of lightly traveled roads. The route is not closed to traffic and has a total elevation gain of about 550 feet (according to Strava, which is never completely accurate).
“You’re running around the lakes area, which is beautiful in general,” said Aydt.
Along with putting on the marathon (and the massive Ice Fishing Extravaganza), the non-profit Brainerd Jaycees seeks to promote leadership for young professionals in the area. Each year, the Jaycees create a committee to put on the marathon, and they elect one member to be the new race director.
Aydt graduated from Brainerd High School in 2017 and then studied public relations at Minnesota State, Moorhead. When not planning the big race weekend, she is with her family or working full-time as a marketing assistant for a local learning center. She said the other members of the committee help pass the race director baton from one year to the next.
The committee “is the backbone of the event,” she said. “We all have different roles, and we all bring great skills to all of those roles.”
More than 100 volunteers work to put the race weekend together. Aydt said the marathon committee ensures the entrance fees and sponsorship funds covers the bills incurred—and that all the extra gets donated to a worthy cause.
This year the cause is Pohl Children’s Scholarship Foundation, which is developing a hospice and palliative care center for children in the central Minnesota region.
The biggest sponsors in the race are Essential Health and C & L Distributing.
“I think that the race weekend adds to the community,” said Aydt. “A lot of these organizations look forward to volunteering in this event; they look forward to getting their name out and telling people what they are all about.”
Depending on how the weather develops, it may be challenging to break the course record, set by St. Paul’s Patrick Russell in 2012 when he ran a 2:35:45.
Russell’s win broke a streak of wins by a local resident who has become the best-known runner of the race. Baxter resident Casey Miller had won three straight from 2009 to 2011, and he returned again to win in 2013, 2014 and 2017.
Brock Tesdahl is another repeat winner. The Crosby-Ironton high school graduate and former Bemidji State basketball player took first place in 2016, 2018 and 2019. His last win came in the second-fastest time ever recorded on the course: 2:36:26.
In the women’s race, 2019 was a record-breaking year. Sonya Lucatero of Reno, Nevada, came to Minnesota on her quest to run a marathon in all 50 states. She won and set a course record of 3:05:12.
Years before, Melissa Jansen of St. Cloud was a three-time winner (2012, 2013 and 2015) and placed second in 2008 and 2014, where she ran her personal best time on the course (3:11:58), six minutes behind that year’s winner, East Gull Lake resident Michelle Andres.
Jill Kroc of Mankato also took home more than one title, winning in 2010 and 2011 (at ages 38 and 39) and placing third in 2012.
The record book couldn’t record any official finishes for the past two years. Back in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down society as we knew it. On March 21, 2020, following the lead of NCAA and professional sports, the Brainerd Jaycees announced the cancellation of all the races taking place over the marathon weekend.
By the next year, vaccines were available, but the Minnesota Department of Health continued to issue warnings about large gatherings. Once again, the race was canceled (a decision announced Jan. 26, 2021, on the Run for the Lakes Facebook page).
“We had a lot of community support behind going virtual,” Aydt said of the previous race director’s decision to cut the race and ask people to register and run the distance on their own. Seventeen submitted times for the marathon (on the honor system).
Aydt said the planning of this year’s in-person race has been a marathon in itself. But after two years of cancellations, she’s just excited to see the runners hit the road once again.
“We’ve done great through the years,” Aydt said. “It can only go up from here.”