Rock Steady

Alex Kurt June 1st, 2015

John Storkamp has battled addiction, finished some of the toughest races on the planet and received accolades as a race director. But he really excels at making those around him better.

alt
After struggling with drug addiction as a teen, Minnesota’s John Storkamp has found meaning through trail running and race directing. Photo by T.C. Worley

John Storkamp is nothing special. According to him, anyway.

“It’s easy to make this shit sound cute,” he says.

It’s a tacit warning: don’t make this yet another story about an addict who finds salvation through ultrarunning. There are too many of those. They don’t paint the whole picture.

When Storkamp started running in the mid-1990s, he noticed a lot of addicts and alcoholics gravitated toward marathons; when he started training for ultras in 2003, he noticed that trend even more. Hardly anyone talked about it, though.

“Now, it seems like everyone is talking about this dark undercurrent these days, with depression, alcoholism, etc., and ultrarunning,” he says. “Rob Krar, Tim Olson and so on. I think it is great, but it is easy to get into sound bites: ‘I’m an addict and now I run and I’m a better person and on and on.’”

Storkamp is a Minnesota trail and ultrarunning institution. He directs arguably the most popular events in the state, at distances ranging from 5K to 100 miles, between the Zumbro, Afton and Superior (spring and fall) races and his Endless Summer Trail Series. He has notched wins and top-five finishes at classic trail races like the Voyageur 50 Mile, as well as at winter races so remote and brutal even many ultrarunners can’t conceive finishing them. John knows everyone; everyone knows John. How he got to this point, from a youth fraught with addiction and mental illness, is on the one hand a classic story of beating the odds. But as Storkamp warns, it’s not always that straightforward.

“If ultrarunning is all you’ve got keeping the fabric of your mental health and sobriety, those are pretty thin threads because some day your knee is going to be sore and you can’t run,” he says. “There’s a deeper piece. It’s just running. There’s a lot more to being a man.”

 

alt
Photo by T.C. Worley

The Long Slog

Storkamp speaks gently, with the slightest northwoods accent (the kind featured exaggeratedly in the movie Fargo). It grows thicker when he starts goofing around or making fun of himself, which is often. His demeanor is small-town, laid-back, don’t-take-yourself-too-seriously. The muscles in his back and arms reflect years of physical toil. His far-reaching eyes are that of a hardened survivor, while his garish ear gauges and always-present Buff land him squarely in the trail-running tribe.

In the 20 years since he got sober and started running, Storkamp’s race resume grew quickly, eventually boasting PRs of 2:49 in the marathon and 6:05 over 50 miles. Many a lithe runner with a crisp team uniform and five-ounce racing flats has been surprised to see the tree-trunk-solid Storkamp, tattooed and shirtless, trucking past at Minnesota road-circuit races en route to a 1:31 25K or a 1:19 half-marathon.

But he doesn’t really shine until you take away the crowds and the other runners. Replace the road with a trail. Make the race longer. In trail ultras up to (and over) 100 miles in and around Minnesota, Storkamp rarely misses the podium.

“He’s tough as hell, but there’s also a hopefulness and an optimism about him with all his races and running goals,” says Kurt Decker, 44, of Minneapolis, who manages a local running store and has known Storkamp through the local trail-racing scene for almost a decade. “It’s all so straightforward with him, to just grind forward. Those races where your mind really becomes your enemy, those are the ones where John excels, because that’s never an issue for him.”

Now cover the trail in snow. Make the course longer and slower, so it takes almost two days to finish—if you’re one of the fast ones. That’s where the mind becomes your enemy if you’re not John Storkamp. Three wins at the Arrowhead 135, a snowbound slog through northern Minnesota in January that is even colder than it sounds, say all you need to know about his propensity to look past that otherworldly realm of suffering and simply move forward.

“I like winter races because you don’t go fast,” Storkamp says, leaning back in his chair at a diner in the tiny southeast Minnesota city of Afton, near his hometown of Hastings.

“You just go forward,” he continues. “But it’s still tough as hell.”

Long winter races, he says, strip you down to the bare essentials. You can’t start too fast and fake your way to a decent time. There is no show, no glitz. You are often alone. They are about moving forward. Surviving. Thriving only if you’re lucky, and even then not for long.

 

alt
Storkamp with his wife, Cheri, in 2011. Photo by Nancy Griffith

 

Falling In

Storkamp was five years old the first time he drank. His parents divorced when he was two, and three years later his mom remarried. During the wedding reception at their house in Hastings, his older brother and two older step brothers took empty soda cans and filled them with beer from the keg so they could imbibe without being detected.

“Naturally, I wanted to be like my older brothers,” he says, “and I followed suit.”

He didn’t partake again for a few years, but by age nine he had made a hobby of crimes like theft and vandalism—not because he had a criminal inclination or a destructive streak, but because his friends did it, he says. At this time, his friends also drank, so he followed. It was easy to steal beer from his mom and step-dad’s refrigerator, or the neighbors’ garage in Hastings.

“Wherever I could find it,” he says, he was downing booze. He didn’t always get drunk at first, but by age 11, it was a regular thing. With the drinking came drugs—and not just the innocuous stuff, like pot.

“I was taking LSD and eventually moved on to harder drugs,” he says. “I never eased into it. It was all or nothing from the word go. That has always been my personality.”

Pre-teen Storkamp wasn’t a skilled criminal; he spent those years breaking the law frequently and, almost as frequently, getting caught. He earned felonies for breaking and entering and drug possession. He was in and out of juvenile hall, rehab, halfway houses and, when his mom and stepdad decided they wouldn’t take him back, foster care.

He wanted to quit. He knew it was dangerous. But it wasn’t that simple. Addiction is nuanced, the result of a symbiotic pull between deep voids and quick earthly solutions that make those voids deeper and wider. And Storkamp’s relationship with drugs and alcohol was even more complex—through several psychiatric evaluations, he was diagnosed as manic-depressive and borderline schizophrenic. He says he may have found life unbearable without the crutch of a chemically fueled euphoria.

“At that time, [drugs and alcohol] likely saved my life,” he says.

“It was like they were a life preserver in an ocean that I did not know how to swim in,” he continues. As he developed a tolerance, the figurative life preserver provided him less and less buoyancy, eventually running out of air and sinking under the waves.

“I didn’t know how to swim, so I just clung to the motherfucker until my head was underwater and I was drowning.”

 

Learning to Swim

In 1993, at age 14, Storkamp, on probation for felony breaking and entering and drug possession, took a bus to visit a friend in New York City. He discovered crank—known today as meth—and found himself in no hurry to book a return trip. For a brief period he was homeless on the streets of both New York and Hartford, Connecticut, snorting crank. Eventually, he tired of it. He didn’t see home as a better option, but he didn’t know where else to go. “Homeless, broke and strung out, I took a bus back to Minnesota with no real intention of getting clean,” he says.

Having violated his probation by running away to the East Coast, he was quickly arrested when he arrived back in his home state. Too young to go to jail proper—and still unwelcome at his mom and step-dad’s house—he was sent to a psych ward and, eventually, a halfway house in Stillwater, Minnesota.

That was when his uncle, Richard “Dick” Gruber, paid him a visit.

“I didn’t see anything wrong with John other than his being a teenager who was just having more trouble with it than most,” Gruber says. “He was going to become a ward of the state, so I appealed to the courts to let him come live with me, and they consented.”

Storkamp moved in with Gruber and his wife on their five-and-a-half-acre property outside Stillwater. Gruber enrolled him in the local high school. Storkamp had been clean since he got off the bus and was attending AA meetings, but Gruber had no intention of coddling him. Booze was out there in the real world, and his nephew would have to learn to live alongside it.

“I told him, ‘Here’s my liquor cabinet,’” Gruber says. “‘I’m not gonna lock it, but you and I have an agreement [that you’ll not drink or take drugs] and you don’t want to violate it, because you’re going to land back in a place you don’t want to be.’”

For Storkamp, it was excruciating. He couldn’t simply flip a switch and stop craving drugs and alcohol. Something else had to change. Luckily for him, his uncle put him to work.

“The first day, he made me move boulders around all day,” Storkamp says. “For dinner we had a raw-onion-and-mustard sandwich, and the next day we split wood all day.”

It was so simple that it made him feel good: completing tasks, making discernible progress on the things that sustained life at the cabin.

“I remember the turning point for John,” Gruber says. “We were cutting big trees, and I thought, ‘Well, he’s gotta learn how to use the chainsaw.’

“Well, he took that chainsaw, and when the tree came down, it was like he was a new person,” Gruber continues. “I can’t tell you why exactly, but I think it was because, for the first time, he saw that he was in control and that he made something happen.”

But there was only so much wood to split, only so many boulders to move or trees to fell. As Storkamp’s energy outgrew the small compound of his uncle’s property, Gruber suggested he start running. Joining his new school’s team didn’t appeal to him—his one attempt at joining a team, in sixth grade, had ended quickly when he was busted for drug possession and kicked off the squad—so Gruber had another idea.

“I’d set a route with my car and say, ‘See how fast you can run it,’” Gruber says. They went two or three times a week at first. Storkamp grew faster. He started running more. He started going farther.

Meanwhile, he made progress with AA, attending meetings every day and getting a sponsor. The void once filled by drugs and alcohol he filled by running, by daily chores, by taking control of his life. His head was above the surface and he was successfully treading water.

 

alt
Storkamp with his daughter, Emma. Photo by Kevin Langton

 

Taking Control

Storkamp left his uncle’s cabin clean and sober, taking odd jobs to make ends meet and satiate the need for control Gruber had identified that day in the woods. He worked in a cabinet shop, in coffee shops, in furniture repair and even as a flight attendant before he landed in commercial construction, working outside, with his hands, just as he had at the cabin.

When he was 19, Storkamp became involved with a woman, and, in 1999, his daughter Emma was born. He and Emma’s mother did not stay together but they remain present in each other’s lives.

“Emma means everything to me and she is my number-one priority,” he says. “That being said, she is very self-sufficient, autonomous and only seems to need subtle guidance from me … being a good father is especially important to me as I did not have much contact with my own father when I was young.”

In May 2002, Storkamp met Cheri Brabec, a friend of his brother’s wife. As is his tendency, John hit the accelerator. They were married by June 2003. It was a good life—John would transition to an office role with the construction company, and Cheri was the general manager of a restaurant. With Emma, they had a family, and John reconciled with his mother and stepdad; he and Cheri would later move into his parents’ Hastings home when the restaurant where Cheri worked went out of business.

Still pursuing a sub-2:50 marathon (he would run 2:49 at Grandma’s Marathon in 2014) and feeling his way into the trail and ultra scene, John was making a swath of new friends in the running community.

 

alt
Storkamp and fellow Minnesota race director Larry Pederson. Photo by Zach Pierce

One of them was Larry Pederson, a famously white-bearded trail guru of the northwoods who in 2005 took the reins as race director for the Superior Trail Races. Superior was a classic race, known for its rugged course on the jagged, technical ridges of Lake Superior’s north shore; one of the original “dozen or so” 100-mile trail races in the United States by Storkamp’s estimation, it had nearly fizzled in the early 2000s and Pederson was charged with revitalizing it.

He needed all the help he could get, so he turned to his friends, including Storkamp.

“I told Larry that I’ll help for five years, but on the sixth year I’m going to actually run the 100,” he says. But by the fifth year, in 2010, the Superior trail race was alive and well, and as popular as ever. So Larry decided to turn over the reins right then and there.

“He came to me and asked me to take it over,” Storkamp says. “So of course, I said, ‘Yeah.’”

He had no idea what was in store.
The Growth of Rocksteady
Fast forward to a muggy summer morning in early July 2014, when a crowd gathers in a field next to a parking lot at Minnesota’s Afton State Park. Two trails leading out of the open space are the only real clues that this will serve as the start and finish area for one of Minnesota’s biggest trail races, the Afton 50K and 25K, with a total field of 600 runners annually.

At the start—there is no marked line—sits a stepladder. Storkamp climbs to the top and the crowd goes quiet.

Sporting a utility belt and work gloves, he looks more the part of mechanic than race director. He gives out instructions and describes the course markings. As always, he tells an intentionally bad pre-race joke.

“Two cannibals are eating a clown,” he says, the Fargo accent growing thicker. “One cannibal turns to the other and says, ‘Hey, does this taste funny to you?’”

He thanks everyone who make his races work. He thanks Cheri.

“She’s the most patient woman in the world,” he says, mopily. “I mean, c’mon. Look at me.”

In 2013, Storkamp had taken the leap, quitting his construction job of over 10 years and establishing Rocksteady Running (RSR) to put his full attention into directing and growing the races.

Afton is one of eight races—four multi-event ultras and a series of shorter summer trail races—Storkamp now directs. His events are at once well polished and rough around the edges, eschewing flash for an old-school aesthetic but retaining a few crucial modern amenities.

“When I see big fancy finish lines, all this presentation, I cringe a little,” Storkamp says.

But don’t mistake that attitude for a lackadaisical attention to details. The aid stations are well stocked and smoothly run by veteran volunteers. Professional chip-timing equipment records official results, and the social media channels of each race feature real-time updates with photos and results. The courses are impeccably marked.

“My favorite flavor of running is a John Storkamp race,” says Charlie Murray, 34, of Minneapolis. “There’s no pushy crowds or start line. John simply gathers a reasonable amount of runners, points to a crack in the pavement or drags his toe in the dirt, reminds you the flags are on the right and yells, ‘Go!’”

 

alt
Storkamp during the Iditarod Trail Invitational in Alaska. Photo by Matt Long

 

The Yetna River

If there is a race with even less flair than a Storkamp production, it might be the Arrowhead 135; starting in January in International Falls, Minnesota, near the Canadian border, it’s too cold to stand around. It’s too cold for spectators.

In 2014, it was even too cold for John Storkamp. He was entered in the race, alright, and planning to run it. More than that, Storkamp, then 34, was the man to beat. He had finished the brutally cold slogfest five times since 2006, winning it three of those years, and now he was relatively fresh off a 10th-place finish at Alaska’s 350-mile Iditarod Trail Invitational (ITI) the previous March.

But as the competition left International Falls and started pulling their sleds down the snowmobile trail that comprises most of the course, Storkamp was sitting in a nearby McDonald’s, eating an Egg McMuffin.

“I was just hanging out, staying warm,” he says. “Then everyone left so I figured I should get out there.”

He left the McDonald’s, grabbed his sled and trudged in pursuit of the pack. By mile 30, he had towed his sled into second place, where he would eventually finish, in 46 hours 30 minutes.

“A few years ago, when I was new to this, I wouldn’t have let that relaxed start happen,” he says. “I would have been much more anxious, toeing the start line before the gun goes off. I’m a lot more patient now.”

Years of trial and error had finally taught John to ease off the accelerator. Ten months prior to that edition of Arrowhead, that newfound patience was being tested as he slowly postholed through waist-deep snow down the wrong side of the Yetna River in Alaska. Only 16 miles into the ITI, he and another competitor had missed a course marking; now they were slogging along a body of water wider than the mammoth section of the Mississippi next to Storkamp’s hometown of Hastings, wondering if they would need to cross it to get to the first aid station.

“Each step we took, it was like, ‘Well, we’re really committed now,’” he says. “But that was just our situation. We didn’t give it too much thought.”

Eventually the river narrowed and they crossed.

“We made it to that first aid station, and it was a completely different dynamic after that,” Storkamp says. “I had never teamed up with someone before, but from then on, if one of us was down, the other one would go slower, and vice-versa.”

The pressure of racing relieved—replaced by that simple yet mortally necessary task of moving forward, putting one foot in front of the other—Storkamp finished the course in 7 days 5 hours 15 minutes.

 

A Place For Everyone

So what has Storkamp been moving toward all this time?

For him, accomplishment was never going to take the form of making a lot of money, nor would he want that; he and Cheri are still living with his mother and stepfather, and race directing is hardly a for-profit business. And despite some fast PRs, his running will never take him to the Olympics, or to the top 10 at Western States.

But Storkamp is hardly an average person. Ask anyone who knows him. There’s something else. For one thing, he is relatable, no matter your background.

In late 2013, Storkamp was a featured speaker at the Upper Midwest Trail Runners’ annual banquet in Stillwater, Minnesota, where he spoke about his experience at that year’s ITI. It caught the attention of then-44-year-old Julio C. Salazar, of South St. Paul, a new trail runner sitting in the audience. He introduced himself afterward and heard more of Storkamp’s story.

“The thing I remember the most is John talking about being kicked out of school and not having a second chance with the running team,” says Salazar. “[It was] that one thing that could have given him another opportunity at getting better.”

It resonated because Salazar had previously struggled with depression, drinking and eating disorders, and was on the verge of creating the Break the Stigma Project (BSP), a campaign aimed at raising awareness of mental health issues that includes a plan by Salazar to traverse Minnesota on foot in May 2015.

“Once I explained to John what my idea was, he could not wait to offer to help,” says Salazar, who notes all of BSP’s logos and graphics were subsequently designed by Storkamp. Salazar has also become one of the most familiar entrants and volunteers at RSR events.

“Storkamp and his races offer a very family oriented feeling to it,” he says. “His races are a sanctuary for me.”

Another of Rocksteady Running’s most familiar faces is that of Bob Marsh, 51, of Burnsville, Minnesota. In 2012 (before he was a volunteer at nearly every event of Storkamp’s), Marsh ran a small summer RSR race and met Storkamp.

“I told him my history of injuries and that I wanted to try ultramarathons, and he gave me so much great advice,” Marsh says. “From someone who I have never met, I thought it was remarkable.”

Marsh has also battled depression much of his life. “Running is not the solution for depression or a mental illness,” he says. “Having the right support system in place and taking your medication is what is important. Running is just an added blessing.”

When that support system is in place long enough, and you go long enough without drinking a drop or taking a drug, Storkamp says life gets better, and relapsing looks less and less tempting.

“Maybe once every few years things get tough, I get in a bad place and for a fraction of a second it presents itself as an option, then as quick as it comes it’s gone,” he says. “I have tools now to combat that sort of thing.”

For the runners and innumerable others he and RSR have reached, Storkamp provides more than an uplifting story of triumph over struggle. Indeed, Storkamp’s races enable people from Marsh to Murray, lawyers to electricians, people with demons to people blissfully without, to challenge themselves in ways they’d never conceived, together.

At its head is Storkamp, whose darkest days never offered a shortcut out, or a way to fake it; his only option was to put one foot in front of the other, and so he did. At the start of each race he stands atop his stepladder, ready to send another batch of runners—veterans and rookies alike—on their own passage. And there is no better high for Storkamp.

“I have found a better way [than alcohol and drugs],” he says. “There just wouldn’t be any reason to go back. Life is too good.”

 

Alex Kurt once managed a wrong turn at the Superior 50 Mile despite Storkamp’s excellent course markings. He lives in Minneapolis. This article originally appeared in our June 2015 issue.

1
Leave A Comment

avatar
1 Comment threads
0 Thread replies
0 Followers
 
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
1 Comment authors
Pat Chambers Recent comment authors
newest oldest most voted
Pat Chambers
Guest
Pat Chambers

John,
I am Colleen Jay’s Mom, Pat Chambers. And I am the MIL to Rob VanHouten. I was hoping to use your art work for a quilt that I would make and then donate to your next 100 mile race. Please let me know what you think about this.