Feature: Focke Running For The Environment In Patagonia

Feature: Focke Running For The Environment In Patagonia

Mark Remme
Wolves Editor/Writer

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There’s a certain serenity in running. Wolves Radio Network studio host John Focke feels it every time he runs a race—wherever the course might be. When he’s out there, the rest of the world and its responsibilities seem to melt away. The only thing between himself and the finish line is the trail ahead.

“It’s the most simplistic mindset and simple job that you have to do,” Focke said. “I think it’s unbelievably [liberating]. That’s the love of it for me—it’s that you mindset that you’re forced to slow down and you’re forced to be in the moment.”

It’s something Focke’s gained more and more appreciation for over time. While he always played sports growing up, endurance sports were not something he focused on until seven years ago. Since then, he’s completed eight marathons and eight more ultra-marathons—which are races that are longer than 26.2 miles. His first was the 2007 Grandma’s Marathon alongside his brother, Alex.

This week, Focke will attempt another major milestone. He’s currently in Chile, where he will take part in the 2013 Patagonian International Marathon. He’ll compete in the 63-kilometer (or 39.1-mile) ultra-marathon race through Torres del Paine National Park, running a trail through the mountainside while also taking in beautiful sights of the open water nearby.

The mountains, according to the race’s official website, rise more than 2,500 meters above the race route. It’s an experience unlike any Focke has taken in before. He’ll be participating in a race more than 6,800 miles from home, and then he’ll return to Minnesota where he’ll participate in the 2013 Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon on Oct. 6. In the span of two weeks, he’ll participate in marathons on two different continents stretching latitudes 41 degrees South to 44 degrees North.

Patagonia will be the first leg of his fall race itinerary, and it’s a commitment that includes more than just running a race.

Running For The Environment

The training necessary to complete a 63K race coupled with the time needed to prepare for a trip to another continent is daunting enough in itself. But this particular race comes with another purpose. Focke is one of 12 ambassadors worldwide for this race. The purpose for the ambassador program is to try and help promote and fund conservation around the Chilean Patagonia region. Each ambassador comes from different areas of the world—ranging from the United States, Chile, Spain and Argentina—and helps the area raise awareness toward habitat preservation in the region.

Patagonia’s Torres del Paine lost a plant life to a fire late in 2011 that devastated the area. Through the Patagonian International Marathon, each runner raises and donates money to repopulate the forested area with trees. It costs $4.00 USD per planted tree, and each tree is geo-tagged so its location can be viewed by the donor. Focke said through friends and family he’s raised enough money to plan 40-50 trees.

“It’s kind of cool, because they send you a certificate,” Focke said. “You planted this tree. You can pick out where you want the actual location to be and everything.”

Another interesting piece of this race’s quest to serve and preserve the environment is that it is a cup-less race. In local marathons or races, stations are spaced out throughout the course so racers can grab a cup or two of fluid as they run. At this Patagonia race, Focke and other runners will need to carry a bottle with them to refill as they go. This philosophy cuts down on accumulated waste at races through cups.

Imagine a 26.2-mile marathon with stations set up ever two miles. If the average runner grabs two cups at each stop, that’s 26 cups per runner that will be swept away by the volunteer staff. If there are 1,000 runners at the marathon (at last year’s Twin Cities Marathon had 8,783 finishers), that’s 26,000 paper cups swept up after the runners pass by.

Focke said it’s something you rarely think about as a byproduct of a race day, but the cup-less event is another way the race tries to ease the impact on the environment.

“It will be interesting to see how this works—I’ve never done a cup-less race before,” Focke said. “When you do ultras, you always carry your own water because it could be eight miles between stations. On a flat surface, that takes an hour. When you’re scrambling through woods and mud, it could take three hours. You’ve always got to carry that stuff just in case something happens. But to not have [cups] at all, I think it’s going to be interesting.”

Race Day

Focke came across this Patagonian race on Twitter thanks to a fellow trail runner he follows. That individual was already an ambassador for the race, and it piqued Focke’s interest to check into it. He’s always been curious about Chile, Patagonia, Easter Island and the neighboring areas, so he clicked on the link and started reading up on how it helped benefit the environment, was a cup-less race, and how they take care of lining up his travel arrangements.

All that turned into a trip of a lifetime for Focke. Not only will this trip be his first outside of North America, but he’ll be able to do something he loves in the process.

The race begins at the South edge of Lago Gray and weaves its way to the Northwest side of Lago Toro. It then angels through a chain of lakes and streams which, on the map, looks somewhat similar to the Lake Minnetonka area in the western suburbs. It then heads East for about 20 kilometers before angling Northwest for the final 10 kilometers. They end at the Hotel Las Torres.

He doesn’t like setting goals—each trail race presents different obstacles, and it’s impossible to know what type of muddy terrain or rocky, vertical hillside he might need to tackle. He’s done 50K races as fast as 4:45 and as slow as 7:36.

This 63K race? Seven or eight hours would be nice, he said.

“My biggest thing in doing all this stuff, whether it’s ultra-marathons, whatever, it is No. 1 finishing and being able to run the next day and feel good the next day,” Focke said. “Especially on this one. I’ll be going down five days early, try to do some kayaking, some hiking, the Tierra del Fuego is right there, which is glaciers and penguins and all sorts of stuff. So I’m going to try do to that stuff beforehand, and the day after—because I’m staying in the mountains—they have a hike and bike ride. They’ll climb the mountains, and they have a full day of activities planned. So I want to finish this race, and I want to have a great time doing it, but the next day I want to keep going. So definitely going to avoid blow up, and if I go slower, I go slower. I mean, I hope for eight hours. But if I don’t get eight hours, it’s faster, it’s slower, it doesn’t matter to me.

“That’s the difference in the mindset, you know, between racing marathons and ultras. You get to step away and it’s like, all you have to do is run from one point to the other. That’s it.”

Everything about this particular event makes it unique. The dedication toward helping the environment, the geographic location and planning it takes to get there, the sight-seeing opportunities along the way and the sheer length and challenge of the course itself add to the allure.

But at its core, this race still all boils down to what Focke enjoys most about his pastime. It’s a way for him to get away, to enjoy the simple task at hand. When he’s on the trail, he’s alone in nature. He feels like he’s doing exactly what he’s meant to be doing at that very moment.

He’s on his own time.

“To know that all you have to do is go from Point 1 to Point 2 in your own power—it’s all you have to do today,” Focke said. “That’s pretty awesome.”

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