MCLEOD, N.D.-Runners must be ready for snow, ice, slush or mud, and probably some wind, as they trek along the North Country Trail in one of North Dakota's most challenging foot races.
The Extreme North Dakota Sandhills Ultra Run Experience, or END-SURE, covers open prairie, forests and rolling sandhills in the Sheyenne National Grassland near McLeod, about a 45-minute drive southwest of Fargo.
The event held Saturday, March 24, offers unpredictable spring weather conditions for "ultra-marathon runners" from across the region and Canada.
The shortest race segment is 25K; the longest is 100 miles.
Only a handful are runners will do the more extreme option, which has them starting out the night before.
Runners carry most of their gear, from jackets to gloves, socks and footwear. Their haul could even include snow shoes, depending on conditions that day.
Race director Tim Bauer said it becomes more of a psychological event than a physical one for the runners.
"They're not satisfied with a 5- or 10K. They want to come and do 100 miles or 100k and push themselves through it," Bauer said.
The race is capped at 120 athletes and all of the spots are spoken for; the first time that's happened since the event's inception in 2013.
Rachel Utecht, 30, of Fargo, is training for the 100K, or 62-mile distance.
She said people tell her all the time that it's crazy to want to go that far, in those conditions.
"It's not normal, I know that," Utecht said, laughing, "but that's OK."
Utecht "blames" her husband Jeremiah for sparking her interest in the ultra side of sports.
She started entering triathlons, which involve swimming, cycling and running, but discovered she was really partial to running; long distances and outdoors, in particular.
"You can run a lot farther when you're distracted by how pretty it is where you're at," Utecht said.
She picked the END-SURE's 100K distance because it means she'll be at it into the late evening, her favorite time to run.
"I get to see every type of lighting in the woods or prairie grasslands, so it's really beautiful," she said.
Utecht is not aiming to finish the race in a particular time, necessarily. She'll walk some of the time and stop to take pictures.
For people who think they could never do what she's doing, it's not impossible, she said.
When she first started running 12 years ago, she couldn't go a mile.
"People always say 'I can't do that.' It's not that you can't, it's that you won't," she said.
Wet conditions expected
The base of the END-SURE race will be set up at the northeast trailhead, next to Jorgen's Hollow Campground.
As a member of the North Country Trail Association, race director Bauer knows this portion of the trail well.
A few years back, he tacked reflective stickers to the many wooden posts marking it.
Bauer spent part of the day on Friday, March 16, trying to groom the trail with help from Fargo Moorhead Trailbuilders, a group that promotes natural trails in the F-M area.
He said there's quite a bit more snow than the last few years, which can make it more difficult for runners to stay on course.
Some of that snow will melt in slightly warming temperatures later in the week.
With the conditions as wet as they are, Bauer stresses that runners take special care in planning their footwear.
"If you don't take care of your feet, your event ends pretty quickly," he said.