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Record set in 50-mile Voyageur race

Top finisher clocks in at 6 hours and 38 minutes

When someone sets the record for the Minnesota Voyageur Trail Ultra, there isn't a ton of drama. That's because there's only a handful of people at the finish line.

Justin Stewart finished the 50-mile race in 6 hours, 38 minutes, and 34 seconds Saturday, more than 45 minutes ahead of the second-place finisher. He was greeted by race director Sam Frey - who accompanied Stewart's finish with a cowbell while other volunteers cheered. Frey then presented the Springfield, Illinois runner with his awards: a handmade pottery bowl for winning first place and a matching cup for finishing the race.

Stewart was so early, in fact, that there was only water to drink.

"Wait, are you the new record holder? Have an RC Cola," said Jarrow Wahman, pulling the old- school soda out of his gym bag to share.

"You actually beat my expectations," added Jarrow, a legendary local runner and Voyageur veteran. "I guessed 6:39."

The 35-year-old Stewart was in good shape when he finished the race - it was his first Voyageur, but he's been trail running for seven or eight years - and said race conditions were good.

"You couldn't have asked for better weather and the course was mostly shaded," he said. "I was surprised by how much gravel there was. It was nice, smooth, runnable terrain."

The toughest part of the race was probably the last 2 miles, he said, a single track trail from Jay Cooke dotted with embedded rocks that runners call "the potato field."

The new champion beat the former race record holder - Benjamin Cogger in 2018 - by exactly 2 minutes. Stewart said he ran with a couple other runners for the first 5 or 6 miles, then didn't see anyone else until he turned around at the Duluth Zoo and started running back to Carlton High School.

"That was really, really cool. It really helped with morale, keeping the spirits high," he said, before heading inside Carlton High School for a wrap and other snacks, provided by Carlton's Magnolia Café.

Duluth runner John Vallez, 35, placed second Saturday in 7:24:07, while 25-year-old Evan Wetzel of Madison, Wisconsin, placed third in 7:25:35. Then it was another 29 minutes until the fourth-place finisher arrived.

Voyageur veteran Jill Wojta, 41, of Onalaska, Wisconsin, finished first for the women in 8:14:40 and ninth overall on Saturday. Wojta is now listed in second (2023) and fifth (2019) place out of the top 10 historical finishes for women.

Runners came from near and far for the 41st annual race - one of the oldest ultramarathons in the U.S. - including California, Rhode Island, Colorado and Florida. There were nearly 20 runners from Duluth alone, five from Hermantown and three from Superior.

Carlton County's top finisher - Esko grad Nate Rengo - took 21st place in 8:56:07, but listed his address as Gunnison, Colorado. Carlton had two runners: Bill Helwig, 66, placed 166th overall, and Michael Swanson, 46, placed 172nd overall. Cloquet had one entrant, 29-year-old Adam Dugas, who placed 152 overall, 124th among men.

Race director Frey, another Voyageur veteran, said 235 people started the race, only 199 finished. Some dropped out, others missed the cutoff times at the various rest stations along the way. Those times are based on safety because they don't want people running the trails in the dark.

Frey said the weather really was perfect on Saturday.

"The temperatures, the breezes ... it's been over 100 on sections of the course," she said. "The smoke is gone, so the air quality is good."

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