Kurt Decker stood shivering in the shade of a park building, cooking pancakes on a camp-stove griddle. He was the lone volunteer manning the lone aid station as runners completed a series of five-mile trail loops past him.
“Isn’t this cool?” he said, marveling at a series of new mountain-bike trails in Theodore Wirth Park, a preserve nestled in the middle of northeast Minneapolis. “You can be on a trail here, completely unaware that downtown is, like, five minutes away.”
“Or, heck, maybe that’s the best part,” he continued. “In some spots, you can be on this awesome singletrack in the woods and actually see how close you are to the hustle and bustle of the city.”
Decker, 47, stands with an unimposing build but a sizeable black beard that has started showing streaks of grey. He wasn’t racing that day in mid-October, but he might have been having more fun than anyone who was.
It was the inaugural running of this race, a 12-hour timed affair called the “Loopet Loppet,” which involved lapping the five-mile trail. Decker was stationed at its start/finish spot, a newly-minted Nordic ski chalet.
Like the park, the race was understated, even subdued: no-frills ultrarunning at its finest. After gale-force winds had lifted and damaged the race’s two canopy tents beyond repair early that morning, the finish line and aid station stood unadorned by logos or shelter. If Decker’s patience was fraying, waiting for the sun to peek around the corner of the chalet, he didn’t show it when two runners stopped by to fill their water bottles and grab some gummy bears.
“Thanks for being out here,” one said.
“We appreciate it,” said the other.
“Dude,” Decker exclaimed in a gravelly, high-pitched voice that accompanies his frequent bouts of child-like excitement. “There’s nowhere I’d rather be!”
A True Trail PersonDecker is more than the general manager of a local running store. He is a reliable installment at either the start line or an aid station of every race within driving distance. He is a man living and breathing passion for the sport he has made his life’s work. And he is the steward of a trail-centered community that—like him—makes the most of what they have.
“[Decker] is a real ambassador of ultra and trail running,” says Paul Holovnia, who, since he met Decker in 2002, has been his friend and frequent training partner. “He deeply loves the sport and the people … he works tirelessly [and] he’s a real resource for the community.”
No wonder they call him “The Godfather.”
“There is a phrase we have coined in this area: ‘trail person,’” says John Storkamp, well-known race director and frequent collaborator of Decker’s. “It describes trail and ultrarunners who are more than just runners, who mentor others, volunteer at races, work on the trails and give back. Kurt is a trail person.”
Ian Corless, a globetrotting, ultrarunning photographer and journalist from the UK who hosts the podcast Talk Ultra, has witnessed race atmospheres the world over, yet was so taken with the vibrancy of Minnesota’s trail-running community the first time he covered the area’s rugged Superior 100 that he has returned twice.
“Kurt knows everyone, and everyone knows Kurt,” says Corless of Decker, who has hosted Corless both at his Minneapolis home and at his store’s sponsored aid station at the Superior 100. “He is respected and, let’s face it, the dude is so passionate about the running scene.”
It became clear that, here is a guy who doesn’t just love running, but he loves what a running shop can be to people who love running or are just starting out.
An Unmatched PassionIf there is a race at the opposite end of the pomp-and-fanfare spectrum from Theo Wirth Park, it is the Place du Triangle de l’Amitie in Chamonix, France, in the moments before and after the start of the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, perhaps the world’s largest and most competitive 100-miler.
In 2018, just after the runners set off on the iconic Alps race, the crowd bounded about in a frenetic swarm toward their next spectating spot, as the waning tunes of Vangelis’ “Conquest of Paradise” rang at full volume on the PA system. Randomly, I bumped full speed into Decker.
Thanks to his recurring role on Corless’s podcast, he had secured press credentials and was jogging toward a media bus, which would take him along the course for the next 20-plus hours. Decker and I, both still in motion, half-executed a grab of each other’s shoulders and shouted indiscriminate exclamations, before continuing in opposite directions.
I met Decker in 2011, when I wandered into Twin Cities Running Company (TCRC) on a tip that it was the place to go for trail-shoe recommendations. I had just signed up for my first trail ultra—a 50K in Wyoming—and as the general manager of TCRC, Decker had designed the store’s SKU selection to reflect his love of trail running.
Even at the height of Born to Run’s popularity, stores with a dedicated trail-shoe wall were pretty rare, and TCRC was one of them.
After he affixed me with my first pair of trail shoes, I made a lot of subsequent visits to TCRC, and wound up working there for two years.
All the while, Decker and I grew close and he became a mentor, sharing and stoking my newfound enthusiasm for trail and ultrarunning, and introducing me to Minnesota’s myriad trail systems and a Friday morning training group that used the store as its home base.
Mostly, though, he demonstrated what it meant to truly love your job, and to bring passion to your work. Through hours-long conversations during slow night shifts, I found Decker probably loved running more—and knew more about it—than anyone I had ever met.
So when I learned TCRC owner, Adam Lindahl, had gifted Decker a plane ticket to Chamonix—where I would be able to see him thanks to my own, new job with a shoe brand—I was excited. But I knew I wasn’t as excited as he was.
“He’d wanted to go to that race forever. He was like a kid waiting for Santa, just giddy and obsessed,” says Lindahl. “Beyond just wanting to help a buddy realize a dream, I thought it would be good from a business standpoint if our trail guru had been to the biggest trail race in the world.”
Decker’s unbridled joy at witnessing UTMB—regarded by some as ultrarunning’s “Super Bowl”—was apparent to Outside Magazine correspondent Fritz Huber, who had only just met him, but heard him expounding on the crowd’s enthusiasm as they spectated at an early aid station.
“The rain made it hard to tell,” Huber wrote in his column that month, “but I think [Decker] was crying.”
Finding His Path“Yeah, it’s true I was fighting tears numerous times during that race,” Decker later told me, sitting on the bench outside TCRC’s flagship store in the Minneapolis suburbs.
“I don’t know what to tell you. It was out of sheer love for this sport.”
A lifelong Minnesotan, Decker first found the sport when he was a “disgruntled” soccer player and a junior at Armstrong High School. A friend went out for cross country and convinced Decker to do the same. He took to it quickly.
“Running seemed more objective, where I could make my own success by working hard and your times and placings speak for themselves,” he says, contrasting cross-country’s dynamics with the politics of team sports.
He trained regularly in the off season and had a successful high-school career on a team that consistently competed at the state level. Where Decker separated himself even from a lot of serious high-school runners, though, was that he continued training on his own, racing all-comer indoor track meets during the winter.
“I loved it so much I just dove in head first,” he says.
After graduating high school in 1990, Decker took classes at a community college and ran on his own. But he found himself missing the team and social aspects he had in high school, and at points stopped running entirely.
He turned to another passion—music. He worked at a record store, attending live shows, by his estimate, “probably 345 days a year.” Banging heads at Minneapolis’ First Avenue—the club made famous in “Purple Rain”—he rubbed elbows with idols like Kurt Cobain and Dave Grohl. (Decker still publishes an annual “Top 10” albums of the year list on his blog, and his music commentary rivals his running commentary for its depth and insight.) He also partied—a lot.
“I was staying up till 4 a.m., drinking a lot of beer and eating crappy food,” he says. “I put on a few pounds. It definitely wasn’t conducive to running.”
Even when he wasn’t training or participating, Decker followed running judiciously. Seeing fellow Minnesotan Bob Kempainan qualify for the 1992 Olympic Marathon spurred him to train for the Twin Cities Marathon in 1994. In 1996, he set his PR of 2:40 at Twin Cities, after two days of working on his feet at the expo.
Shortly after that, Decker had a daughter, Summer, now 21.
“Her mom and I were married that next summer, but for, like, a heartbeat,” Decker recounts. “It was literally months. I spent more time in custody hearings.”
Because he wanted to take no chances on being able to see his daughter grow up, Decker retained the services of a high-quality lawyer, and moved back in with his parents to cover the legal fees.
“I was so committed to be the dad I wanted to be that I was willing to give up other things,” he explains. “So for two years, the majority of my income went to a lawyer.”
It paid off—he was awarded joint custody—but the battle took a psychological toll.
“It definitely fueled my running at the time,” he says. “I trained like a maniac, because running was how I could try to heal."
Taking to the TrailsEven when he was training for road races, Decker frequently employed the Twin Cities’ metro trail systems. He often logged 10 miles at Bloomington’s Hyland Regional Park after he coached a local high-school team and waited for rush-hour traffic to die down. In the spring of 2001, he ran his first trail 50K on the Hyland trails where he trained. Two weeks later, he ran the Ice Age 50 Mile in Wisconsin, and ran his first 100 in the summer of 2002. He gained regional sponsorship on the Montrail/Patagonia ultrarunning team—the same one whose headliners at the time included Scott Jurek and Hal Koerner.
In June 2003, he finished the Western States 100 in just over 24 hours, a performance he says he regretted since it didn’t reflect his fitness level.
“It was really eye-opening, the difference between short and steep hills like we have in Minnesota and the endless grind-up-a-mountain style out West.”
He passed on the lessons gleaned from races like Western to customers and friends. If someone was training for a mountainous race, he would direct them to a half-mile service road loop on Hyland’s adjacent ski hill, which he believes more accurately mimics the longer climbing grades out West than the short, Midwest singletrack chutes.
“I was training for my first 50-miler when I started working with Kurt,” says Kate Klug, who began working alongside Decker at TCRC in 2014. “He helped me set up my training and gave me a lot of advice for pacing and nutrition. I was always learning something from him.”
Twin Cities Running CompanyDecker had been in and out of a few running stores in the early 2000s when, in 2008, he got a call from Lindahl, a former standout prep runner and NCAA Division II All-American in cross country, who a year earlier had opened Twin Cities Running Company and wanted Decker on board as General Manager.
“I brought him in, and we sat on tiny blue plastic chairs in the kids’ play section at the shop, and chatted,” Lindahl says. “It became clear that, here is a guy who doesn’t just love running, but he loves what a running shop can be to people who love running or are just starting out.”
While Lindahl owns the store, Decker quickly became its lifeblood, helping run day-to-day operations. He engineered a SKU count full of lesser-known trail-shoe brands alongside the best-selling mainstays, helped build a trail-focused race team that regularly dominated local races and founded an ultramarathon-training clinic. Customers and employees alike came to view TCRC as part-store, part-education center, always gleaning tips on gear, nutrition and anything else for the next race from Decker.
“[Decker] is a walking encyclopedia of runners, race results and records,” says Holovnia. “He’s such a resource for the community.”
One year after her 50-mile debut, Klug, still working at the store, was set to run her first 100. Three months out, she partially ruptured her Achilles tendon, and was confined to the pool in the crucial months leading to the race. Decker was a lone encouraging voice, she says, telling her she could still get the training in and finish the race.
Klug made it to the start line, and asked Decker to be her pacer. “He ran a 17-mile loop with me right when the sun went down,” she recounts. “He was so encouraging, almost too encouraging, but it was exactly what I needed.
“Also, he saved me by bringing an extra headlamp,” she continues. “I accidentally threw mine in the garbage at an aid station.” She finished her first 100 well under the cutoff.
In 2012, the store helped found the Endless Summer Trail Run Series in various parks around the Twin Cities, with Decker emceeing and keeping the crowd entertained. Shirts emblazoned with his likeness and the phrase, “The Godfather of Trail” were sold from the shop and can now be spotted on runners at races in Minnesota and Chamonix alike. Although he hasn’t raced as much the last few years due to the pull of work, family and injuries, he is always supporting his wife, Sonya, who dominates her age group on the road circuit and trail scene. The two have a son, Evan, now 12.
“The thing about [Decker] is, he’s just as encouraging in the middle of an ultra as he is at the beer relays,” says Klug, referring to an annual beer mile Kurt and Sonya host in their backyard with store employees, race-team members and others from the running community.
In 2015, for his birthday, some of those same people took Decker to the Grand Canyon to complete the fabled Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim, a 42-mile double-crossing of the canyon with around 11,000 feet of climbing.
Decker had trained, but not intensely. “He had been having a back issue and wasn’t in particularly good shape, but was all in,” Holovnia says. “Despite falling apart a bit on the way back, he was like a kid in a candy store for the whole trip.”
As the long Arizona day crept into 13 hours and the last climb up the Canyon’s south rim wore on him, most of the group slogged together to the finish, where Decker collapsed onto a bench, his face in his hands. As always, he was exuberant. But for once, he was too spent to show it.
Working With What He HasIn two days, Decker would be back on the trails of Theo Wirth Park. For him, every day running is the best, whether it’s a local park or the Grand Canyon or the Alps.
“Big mountains are great,” he says, “but people can get way too hung up on what they don’t have.”
Minnesota certainly isn’t the only state that capitalizes on what it has. Minnesotans aren’t the only people that do so proudly. And Decker might not have taught everyone else in Minnesota that attitude. But there is perhaps no one who better embodies it.
“People come to Minnesota and run a trail or ultra race, and they can’t quite put their finger on what they are experiencing—they say it’s beyond, like, magic,” says Storkamp, who directs the Superior races. “That magic is created by our leaders, like Decker.”
When I saw Decker at the Loopet Loppet, next to Theo Wirth’s shiny new chalet, it had just been announced that the park would host a 2020 World Cup Nordic ski race. That’s a big deal for a relatively tiny spot of green wedged between a highway and several residential neighborhoods, in a part of the world often regarded as flyover country for international sports, and—as Decker had pointed out—a few minutes’ drive from where the Twins and Timberwolves play their home games.
When I brought it up, Decker’s gaze didn’t break from the griddle. “It’s no surprise, man,” he said. “This is as good a place as any.”
Alex Kurt was once called “The Godson of Trail,” a nickname that did not stick. Partnered with Decker’s wife, he won three consecutive Beer Relay titles before finishing third in 2016. He now lives in Santa Barbara, California.