ORR- Prep cross country runners are a unique group of athletes, running individually but scoring collectively for their schools in races run on finely manicured golf courses and meandering trails …
ORR- Prep cross country runners are a unique group of athletes, running individually but scoring collectively for their schools in races run on finely manicured golf courses and meandering trails through meadows and woodlands. The bonds formed among teammates and with competitors are respectful and tight, but a trio of North Woods runners from Orr’s Pelican Lake share an even deeper connection. They’re family.
And the Burckhardt siblings – ninth-graders and twins Alex and Addison and sixth-grader Zoey – have already put the region’s teams on notice that they’re a collective force to be reckoned with.
North Woods doesn’t officially have a cross country team, so the Burckhardts practice locally under the supervision of Coach Dan Squires but run competitively with the South Ridge Panthers, and Tuesday’s Polar League meet at Grand Marais was a prime example of why running fans should take notice of the Burckhardts’ efforts.
It’s clear from conversations with the trio that there’s no sibling competition, only encouragement, but if Zoey wanted to claim bragging rights for the day, she could. Zoey claimed the junior high girls 2.5K championship with a time of 10:47, 12 seconds faster than teammate and runner-up Lacey Wojtysiak.
But Addi and Alex weren’t far behind in their 5K varsity races, each being the fastest Panther in their respective fields. Addi took second with a time of 21.03.2, finishing just ahead of friend, neighbor, and fellow North Woods runner Evelyn Brodeen, who placed fourth. Alex jumped up from last year’s 18th-place finish to claim sixth with a time of 18:06.6.
Three siblings, three races, three medals. Not a bad day’s work for a family of runners who’ve already established themselves in the upper echelon of cross country runners across the region.
Up until this season’s meet at Hibbing, Addi hadn’t finished lower than sixth in a regular season race since her fourth race as a sixth grader. During last year’s COVID-complicated season, she won three of the four regular season meets she ran and qualified for state as an eighth grader with a ninth-place finish at sectionals. The state meet was cancelled, however, due to COVID.
Alex is a relatively consistent top-15 finisher in regular season competition, notching third place finishes at Hibbing last year and Eveleth this year.
Zoey placed fourth in the two races she ran last year. In five events this year she’s collected two firsts, a second, and two thirds.
While many prep athletes are following in the footsteps of their parents’ sporting endeavors, that’s not the case with the Burckhardts. Neither their mom, Stephanie, or their dad, Eric, were competitive runners in school.
“The farthest I ever ran was three miles in my life,” laughed Eric.
But Stephanie jogs recreationally, and the twins started tagging along.
“They’ve been doing it with me since they were seven or eight,” Stephanie said. “They were speedy. They would pass me up and go farther than I would. They thought it was fun to beat Mom.”
Stephanie and Eric realized the kids weren’t only having fun running, but they were good at it. So they decided to participate in some area runs.
“I think they all ran their first 5K eight years ago,” Stephanie said. “Zoey was probably three and she was in a stroller, but the other two ran and walked it. They were about six.”
The kids became regular participants in the 3rd of July race in Orr, and also added the Timber Days race in Cook to their repertoire. And when sixth grade and the opportunity for competitive school sports rolled around, Addi chose cross country.
“I just enjoyed running,” she said. “I played volleyball, too, but I didn’t really like it as much as running, so I chose to stick with that.”
Alex initially went out for football, but a little sisterly nudge pushed him in a different direction.
“Addison did cross country and she wanted me to get into it, too,” Alex said. “So I ran a couple of meets and I ended up really liking it. It was really fun.”
And it didn’t take long for both of them to jump from junior high to varsity racing as seventh graders.
“I remember my first varsity race,” he said. “They just put me in one of the varsity races to see how I’d do. In the first one I had no idea what was going on and I just kind of ran with someone else from the team."
Minnesota prep sports rules allow a lot of flexibility in terms of what ages can compete at junior high and varsity levels, so sixth-grader Zoey is actually a veteran.
“I ran last year, too,” she said.
“We asked Dan, and he knew that (Alex and Addi) were good runners and that she could keep up, so he let her run last year as a fifth-grader,” Stephanie said.
South Ridge Head Coach Jeremy Polson prescribes the practice routines that Squires oversees at North Woods. Distance runners don’t typically progress on distance runs alone, so Polson’s workouts include a mix of warmups, speed interval training, and long runs. Distances and routines vary, geared so that athletes are ready to run their best on meet days. A 5K race is 3.1 miles long, but Alex said he typically puts in a minimum of five miles a day, five and sometimes six days a week.
At first, Alex and Addi would run together, but now that Alex is running faster, training is a solitary affair. Addi said that she enjoys running with Evelyn Brodeen, as the two are closely matched. Zoey’s performance last year as a fifth grader convinced a couple of other classmates to come out for cross country this year.
When Alex is racing, there’s only one person he wants to beat – himself.
“It does help to have other people in front of me because then I always have someone to try to catch up to, and it helps me to go faster, for sure,” he said. “But I’ve always run to beat myself, not so much other people.”
The South Ridge girls team has traditionally been better than the boys, Addi said, and that adds some extra incentive to her racing.
“They push me a lot because I’m expected to do good since our team is pretty good,” she said.
And unlike Alex, Addi has her sights set on overtaking a particular pair of runners.
“There are these two twins from MIB,” she said. “I want to beat them so bad.”
She’s within about 10 and 20 seconds of doing just that, Stephanie said.
Zoey also has a benchmark competitor, a runner from Ely, and she’s gaining ground.
“She’s pretty good,” Zoey said. “Two meets before, she was like 40 seconds ahead of me, and then the one that we just ran in Ely I was only 20 seconds behind her.”
But Zoey also confessed that there’s a thought in her mind when she’s on the race course that’s not particularly common.
“I’m like, ‘I just want this to be over,’” she laughed. “I don’t really know why.”
Eric and Stephanie try to make it to as many of the meets as possible, and one of the things they enjoy most about the sport outside of watching their kids run is the camaraderie among competitors and spectators who realize that whether a kid finishes first or last, they’re all out there giving their maximum effort.
“The cool thing about cross country is that it’s such a positive sport,” Eric said. “Even though you’re competing against those people, they respect each other because this is not an easy sport.”
Another difference among the three comes in the off-season. Addi and Zoey take some time off from running, but Alex is going year-round. That includes the winter.
“He’ll go out on the lake and make snowmobile tracks for miles and miles,” Stephanie said. “He would run along the shoreline and come home with pockets full of lures that he would find in the trees and along the shore of Pelican Lake.”
In the spring, all three will likely run track, although Alex split his time last spring between running and baseball. There may come a time when he has to choose one over the other, but for now the plan is to continue to do both.
However, all three were emphatic that they prefer running cross country, even Zoey, who hasn’t yet run for the track team.
“I’’ve never run track, but I’d pick cross country because I’d just get bored of running the same thing over and over,” she said.
And when it comes to courses, each Burkhardt has their own favorite circuit, for different reasons. Alex likes running through the woods at Grand Marais. Addi prefers the Eagle Ridge golf course layout at Coleraine. And Zoey? She couldn’t remember the name of the course (it was Eagle Ridge, too), and it wasn’t the course but the prize for the winning teams that made it her favorite.
“The one where they give you cake,” she said.
There’s no telling if there’s a future state championship waiting for one of the Burckhardt kids someday, and although it would be a great achievement, it seems like it really doesn’t matter. If there’s one thing the siblings have in common, being “the best” overall appears to be not as important as simply being the best they can be at a sport they all love.
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