Stride into the Ice Age

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Wisconsin’s 12,000-year-old trail challenges modern-day trail runners


Dave Dehart and pacer at the Kettle Moraine 100 Endurance Run, Ice Age Trail, Wisconsin. Photo by Bob Bergstrom.

Kettles, drumlins, moraines, erratics and eskers are not in all trail runners’ vernacular, but they are familiar terms to upper Midwesterners. Over 12,000 years ago, the area that is now called Wisconsin was covered in a vast sheet of glacial ice, and the unique geologic features left behind have created a fantastic trail-running environment. And the state’s showpiece is the 1000-mile Ice Age Trail.

Conceived by Milwaukeean Ray Zillmer, the non-profit Ice Age Trail Alliance was formed in 1958 to create the trail, and now features 21 local chapters. Says Eric Sherman of the Ice Age Trail Alliance, “The trail is almost exclusively built and maintained by volunteers. In 2009, we had more than 58,000 volunteer hours.”


Trail Heads Multiplied

Over the 1000-mile-long Ice Age Trail, runners encounter a variety of environments, including rolling pine and deciduous forests, open grasslands, marshes and hilly kettle moraines. Trail surfaces range from wide, flat sections used for cross-country skiing in winter to the most rugged singletrack imaginable.

To date, 154 people have hiked or run the entire length of the trail section by section. Seventeen of those have covered it in a continuous adventure. On a map, the roughly U-shaped Ice Age Trail comes close to a few cities, including Milwaukee, Madison and Eau Claire.

Jason Dorgan, 45, of Madison, Wisconsin, is an ultramarathoner who has finished Death Valley’s Badwater 135-miler and lives less than two miles from an Ice Age Trail intersection. In 2007, to raise awareness and funds for the Ice Age Trail, Dorgan ran it in a record 22 days 6 hours. He is also race director of the Kettle Moraine 100 Endurance Runs in central Wisconsin, three hours northwest of Milwaukee. His favorite sections of the trail pass through pine forests. “They are smooth and covered with pine needles,” he says, “which make a soft running surface. And the trees also offer cool shade between the open grass meadows.”

Many sections of the Ice Age, though, are narrow singletrack riddled by potentially ankle-twisting roots. Northern sections of the trail can be remote and see far fewer visitors than the southern sections, and remote camping options offer a wilderness experience.


Runners enjoy autumn colors during the Glacial Trail 50. Photo by Bob Bergstrom.

Racing on the Ice Age

Aside from Dorgan’s Kettle Moraine Endurance Runs, the Ice Age trail hosts the well-established Ice Age Trail 50 and Glacial Trail 50. And near Madison, The North Face Endurance Challenge holds its Midwest Regional event on a segment of the trail.

Part of the Trail Runner Trophy Series and held each May, the Ice Age Trail 50 is a rite of spring for many Midwestern trail runners. Says race director, Jeff Mallach, of the 29-year-old event, “We have 124 runners who have completed at least 10 events. Six of those have run the race 20 times, and a few who have gone beyond 25. Tradition is certainly part of it.”

The Ice Age Trail 50 traverses the southern portion of the Kettle Moraine State Forest, located about an hour north of Milwaukee in northeastern Wisconsin. “There are no mountains in this corner of Wisconsin but there are plenty of hills,” says Mallach. “People may imagine Wisconsin as farm fields or a pasture. The trails we run on are nothing like that.”

Jim Blanchard, who has finished 22 Ice Age Trail 50s as well as California’s famed Western States 100, says, “The Ice Age Trail 50 is a roller coaster. Taken individually, none of the hills are intimidating. But the trail is constantly rolling, constantly changing in steepness. Sometimes the hills are runable, sometimes not. I’ve never seen anything like it anywhere else.”

Adds Blanchard, “People who train here are used to the rhythm of it, and know that certain hills need to be walked.”

Dorgan describes similar challenges at the Kettle Moraine races that he directs: “The trail is continually going up and down,” he says. “It may only go up for a 100 to 200 feet and back down for 100 feet. It’s nothing like a four-mile climb or descent at Western States.”

At times, that lack of sustained mountain climbs fools runners from other parts of the country. Says Robert Wehner, race director of the 24-year-old Glacial Trail 50, “The back-to-back hills of some sections of the Ice Age Trail catch them by surprise.” Held in the northern unit of the Wisconsin Kettle Moraine State Forest, an hour north of Milwaukee, the Glacial Trail 50-mile course includes 11,000 feet of elevation gain and loss. “[Before the race], people will ask, ‘How can that be?’ Afterward, they believe it. It’s easy for people to get carried away with running a lot of the hills, which catches up with them.”

Lou Dzierzak is a freelance writer, marathoner and triathlete. After running thousands of miles on asphalt paths circling Minneapolis’s urban lakes, trail running has rekindled his passion for running.


This article originally appeared in our June 2010 issue.

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