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A newbie trail runner wins Cayuga 50-mile championship

Drew Holmen grew up in Grand Marais, Minn., roughly halfway between Hayward Field and the Boston Marathon finish line. But that didn’t mean that running was popular in his hometown.

Running was a way that Holmen could get in shape for hockey season.

“My experience with running started the day before the first day of football practice in the seventh grade when I turned in my pads and made the painful decision to join the cross-country team,” he admits. “Running was still FAR from cool where I grew up. While I was certain the decision would squash any hopes of social popularity, I hoped that it would force me into shape for the season that really mattered: winter. As a teenage boy growing up in northern Minnesota, hockey was a year-round obsession and full-time identity.”

Holmen recently won the U.S. 50-mile championship at the Cayuga Trails race in upstate New York. It’s been quite a journey for Holmen, from uninspired training to elite competitor.

“In hindsight, it's interesting for to see the complete flip that running has had in my life, transforming from something I dreaded to a passion where I find lightness, friendship and, dare I say, fun.”

Hammer time with Paddy

About four years ago, Holmen ran casually around the Bay Area. After meeting Paddy O’Leary, things changed quickly.

“My passion for running competitively aligns almost directly with the day that I met Paddy,” says Holmen, who had been living in the Bay Area for about a year at that time. ”Without fail, our runs around San Francisco and the Marin Headlands would turn into joyous hammer sessions. It was the first time in my life that I felt excited about the idea of training as a runner and opened myself up to the idea of racing.”

Holmen soon discovered ultras and joined weekend runs at San Francisco Running Company (SFRC) where he met runners like Fernando De Samaniego Steta.

“His legendary stoke for the sport of ultra running is nothing short of infectious. If you’ve ever had the opportunity to watch him lead a pack of 40-plus runners from SFRC on a Saturday morning, tap the door of the fire tower on Mt. Tam, or ride a life raft like a horse at Mile 78 of Western States (while pacing Magda Boulet), it’s easy to understand why people fall in love with this community.”

‘A comedy of errors’

Holmen admits he was pretty clueless when it came to his first ultra, the McKenzie River 50K in Oregon in September 2016. “I had never run farther than 15 miles prior to the race.”

His inexperienced showed almost immediately. Around Mile 6, he realized that he was running 10-minute miles. “Far too slow in my oh-so-wise and experienced opinion,” Holmen says. “I took off, only to realize a few miles later that — with so many behemoth trees — my watch wasn’t working in the slightest.”

Nutrition also posed a challenge.

“Thanks to some pre-race wisdom from Paddy and Chris Mocko, I had enough intel to know to eat a Gu every 25 minutes, but not so much to consider drinking water,” Holmen says. “If anyone is curious, it turns out that stepping over downed Douglas firs is an excellent way to induce cramping.”

“While it was truly a comedy of errors, I finished knowing that I was hooked.”

‘Part coach, part cheerleader, part therapist’

Holmen is coached by David Roche, who he connected with after his girlfriend, Sasha Teninty, started working with Roche in 2016. Holmen and Roche met at the Oakland Hills 35K in 2017 but the runner finally reached out last summer, wanting something more advanced than his “wing-it” training plan.

“While he wears the title of ‘Coach,’ David’s approach is about as far as one could get from the tough-love, scream-in-your-face methodology I became accustomed to as a teen playing hockey in northern Minnesota,” Holmen says. “David has been such a positive force in my world — his constant support throughout this rodeo of the past year has been unwavering — allowing me to try new things and trust the process. I’m so grateful for his belief in me as a runner, and more importantly, as a human being.”

In addition to the unwavering support, Roche has helped Holmen understand the sport of ultras. “He really is part coach, part cheerleader, part therapist!”

Roche works with Holmen to craft a training schedule that takes the runner’s busy work commitment and relative inexperience into account.

“We have had to get creative to capitalize on the time that I do have,” Holmen says. “We’ve also been very cognizant of the fact that I don’t have many miles in my legs from years of serious high school and collegiate running.”

For example, before 2017, Holmen never ran over 30 miles in a week. “We’ve been very intentional about building up slowly and acknowledging that we are working on a 5- to 10-year plan. While I would love the Strava glory of 100-plus mile weeks, I think I’d be frequenting the elliptical or stress-fracture boot in a few short weeks.”

A cold brew, a loud stomach

Roche’s coaching and Holmen’s athleticism all came together at the Cayuga Trails 50-miler, his first at the distance.

“I went into Cayuga with guarded optimism and the understanding that literally anything could happen,” he says. “Since my first race at McKenzie River, it’s always been my goal to shake things up and be competitive with the field, so my main focus was to set myself up to make a move late in the race.”

The Cayuga competition included Scott Trummer, Tyler Wolfe and Cole Crosby. “I knew it was going to be quick from the start and competitive throughout, so I focused on being patient and hoping that they would come back to me later in the race,” Holmen says, never forgetting those who help out runners from the elites to the back-of-the-packers. “From there, it’s always my goal to make sure that volunteers know that they are appreciated and nothing short of heroes!”

Perhaps showing his race inexperience, Holmen tried something new on race day.

“Full disclosure, I made the mistake of trying new things on race day with the addition of a Stumptown Cold Brew to my pre-race munchies,” he says, adding, “Don’t worry, Stumptown, I still love you.”

The cold brew created an extremely unhappy and loud stomach for the majority of the race, he recalls. Still, he persevered, starting out conservatively, taking the lead around mile 30 and finishing it off.

“In the past, I’ve been lucky that my stomach responded positively to a constant flow of fuel, so struggling to get myself to eat was a new challenge. That said, I was able to execute a race that I felt very happy with.”

For the love of the community

Holmen is weighing his options for the rest of 2019. Maybe Pikes Peak. Possibly The North Face 50-miler in San Francisco. Further down the trail, he’s interested in races like UTMB, The Rut, Zegama, Mount Marathon, UTMF and Leadville.

His stretch goals “are all centered around having calves like Tim Tollefson and a beard like Rob Krar, but I think I’m fighting an uphill battle against genetics.”

Seriously, Holmen loves the process of training and the trail-running community.

“While I would be lying if I told you I wasn’t a competitive person or didn’t thrive off of the energy of racing, my ‘why’ for running long races is all about the time between the finish line and the taper for the next race,” he explains. “It’s during these times, where the process forces me to be more present and provides the canvas for the development of some of the closest friendships that I have.”

Like many runners, Holmen has learned to embrace the suck. Especially when that suck is a relentless alarm clock.

I never thought that a 4:45 a.m. alarm on a rainy February morning is something that I, or anyone, would ever choose to opt into,” he says. “Yet, there I’ll be, shivering on top of Mt. Tam with three feet of visibility, as two of my closest friends howl at a sunrise we can’t even see.”

The Minnesota native has come a long way from his days as a running-for-hockey-season teenager.

“This sport, and this community, appeals to a certain type of person,” he says. “A fiercely inclusive, trucker hat-wearing, snot rocket-loving person that I can’t get enough of.”

Speed drill

Name: Drew Holmen

Hometown: Grand Marais, Minn.

Number of years running: I’ve considered myself a runner for the last eight years, but I’ve been using running to chase baseballs and cross-train for over 20.

How many miles a week do you typically run: 55 to 75

Point of pride: Amount of tahini consumed in 2018. (He says he’s actively looking for a tahini and tortilla chop sponsor. “Kidding, not kidding.”)

Favorite race distance: Jury is still out on this one.

Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Picky Oats. Baguette. Pesto. Peanut Butter.

Favorite piece of gear: All of my best gear comes as a hand-me-down from my girlfriend, Sasha.

Favorite or inspirational song to run to: My life is far too occupied with screen time and media, so my runs are when I really enjoy disconnecting. That said, if I was a music-while-running guy, it would be a hard toss-up between anything Lizzo creates and Soy Yo by Bomba Estéreo.

Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: I like to remind myself that...This is supposed to hurt...It’s going to hurt...Everyone else is hurting...It’s going to get better.

Where can other runners connect or follow you:

  • Instagram: @drew_holmen

  • Strava:

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