When hundreds of runners line up for a half-marathon in Ely, Minn., on Saturday morning, they will be balancing nerves with excitement.
And at least six of them will be balancing something more — canoes.
In an age of new, extreme running events, perhaps none is more Minnesotan than the new "portaging division" of the 13.1-mile race in Ely, honoring the custom of paddlers carrying canoes on their shoulders from one lake to the next in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
The idea got legs after a few participants last year keyed in on the race's marketing pitch for the full marathon as an "8,390-rod portage," a reference to the number of rods in 26.2 miles. Portages in the wilderness are measured in rods.
"We actually had a few people who did it last year and we didn't have an official division," event organizer Wendy Lindsay said. "Since then, we've had quite a few people who have expressed interest in doing it."
Six people have registered for Saturday's event, and more are welcome to sign up during registration on Friday.
First-, second- and third-place winners in the division — where runners must navigate the entire course with a canoe on their shoulders — will get smooth, shiny wood medallions from XY Co., maker of handcrafted canoe paddles.
Out of her comfort zone
LynnAnne Vesper ran the half-marathon last year while portaging a Wenonah Kevlar tandem canoe weighing in at more than 40 pounds.
In her work as a Boundary Waters guide, she said she's constantly pushing people out of their comfort zones, so she decided she should practice what she preaches.
"I couldn't run as fast as I normally would run a half-marathon," she said. "The canoe was too bouncy."
So with a more restrained, smooth glide, she finished in 3 hours, 12 minutes.
Though Vesper's shoulders were accustomed to logging miles carrying a canoe, training is somewhat of a puzzle for other people, organizers said.
"That is one concern we've heard — 'How do I prepare?' " Lindsay said. "If I'm in Minneapolis, people are going to think I'm really strange for portaging a canoe."
Aiming for 'a brisk pace'
Kyle Lowe, an avid canoer, kayaker and runner from Davenport, Iowa, will be portaging on Saturday but hasn't trained specifically for it.
After learning about the race on social media, he said, "I thought 'That sounds like a stupid idea, so I would do it.' "
No surprise, none of his friends chose to join him.
"I'm going to try and jog at a brisk pace," said Lowe, 32.
"I like to spend a lot of time in boats and I like to run, so it's just a way to combine them."
During the race, volunteers at aid stations will stand ready to briefly hold canoes while competitors take breaks to relieve their sore shoulders, get a drink or answer any other of nature's calls.
If a volunteer isn't available, Vesper offers this pro tip: "I did find that a Porta Potty makes an excellent portage rest."
Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102