Raised forty miles west of Chicago, in suburban Naperville, Kirk settled in Indiana after graduating from Ohio State University. Having grown up a wrestler, Kirk came to trail running through obstacle course racing and an appreciation for Billy Yang’s films, particularly Life in a Day. In 2022, Kirk turned his attention to race directing.
Here, Kirk shares what compels him to run, why he started Trailblazer Running Company, and a truly unique race idea that he calls “Trail Golf.”
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How did running become part of your life?
I wasn’t much of a runner growing up. In high school, wrestling was my main sport. But I went to college at Ohio State and on the day I was set to graduate, my brother convinced me to do a Spartan race with him. We didn’t have any idea how long it would take. The race was three and a half miles, and it ended up taking us a ridiculously long time. I was almost late for graduation. But we did it and I remember it being so hard. Fast forward a few years; I had moved to Indiana. The company I worked for offered free sponsorship entry into the Chicago Marathon. One of my co-workers suggested I sign up. He was an ultra-runner, and he’d tell me all his running stories. It sounded like something I wanted to do, so I signed up. Training for the marathon—getting out there every day, getting into a run—I fell in love with the process. I felt better on days when I ran. I felt like a better person. Trail running came about through watching Billy Yang and the Ginger Runner videos. I fell into a rabbit hole watching their films and became totally in love with the sport and culture. It spoke to me.
What's the story behind Trailblazer Running Company?
I’ve always liked organizing events. My father-in-law organizes big softball tournaments in the Midwest and I’ve worked with him a couple times, directing at different sites. When I was more into wrestling I aspired to put on tournaments. It never happened though. So it was only natural when I discovered trail running that I’d think to put on a race. It aligned what I was doing in my free time with what I gravitate towards in a professional sense. In early 2020, I came up with some ideas for trail races. I reached out to the park district hoping to organize an event, then Covid came. So I didn’t do anything with the race for a while; I just put it on the backburner. Eventually, the first race I put on was False Spring. It was last year, in March of 2022. There were seventy-five sign-ups. Sixty-some showed up on race day. It was forty degrees and drizzling, but they all had a great time. I learned a lot directing that race. So, the following August I put on Oakadoke. There were over a hundred sign-ups for that. Hopefully it’ll grow from there.
Are you signed up for any races this year?
The only thing on my calendar is a 100-miler: the No Business 100 in Tennessee, in October. It’s a big loop that traverses through northeast Tennessee and cuts into Kentucky for a bit. Looking at pictures of it, that’s a 100-miler I’m really excited to do. Not because it’s easy, but because it looks difficult and beautiful.
What compels you to run a race like No Business 100?
It’s a mixture of a few things. It’s the possibility that I might go through a rollercoaster of emotions by doing something difficult and come out the other side a changed person, an improved person. I want to be more humble and better able to deal with challenges in life, that’s why I go and do these races. I also love being out in nature, exploring and connecting with it. I was recently in Arizona. The runs I did weren’t necessarily training runs. I was going out there to explore and run mountains. I’d go up a mountain, see more trails, and run towards them. I was blown away by how beautiful it is out there. I love having those experiences. Another reason I do these runs is I want to be a superhero to my kids. Being able to show them all the hard things I’ve done, all the cool places I’ve been—that motivates me a lot when I’m feeling down in a race. I want to seem invincible to them, though I know that’s always not realistic.
What’s next for Trailblazer Running Company?
I’d really like to do something at the Indiana Dunes. I’ve been told that it’s hard to do because of all the permitting; however, I have reached out to someone who is in charge of permitting and pitched him the idea of doing a 50k. He did say it would be difficult to get all the permitting done, that it would be a long process, but he also said to come back to him with a plan and that we’d talk. He sounded kind of excited about it. So I am going to put a plan in place and we’ll see. I also have an idea for a race I call “Trail Golf.” I might turn it into a fun-run this year to prove out the concept. How it works is, at the start of each hour, everyone runs a three to four mile loop on a trail. Depending on the time window that you finish in, you get a stroke score. A birdie, a bogey, a double-bogey, and so on. It will be 9 loops—or holes—each one being a different route. The winner would be who had the lowest overall score. I was thinking about doing it where we run Oakadoke. I have a lot of the logistics figured out, I just have to put together the promotional stuff and confirm a day with the park district. I wanted to do it at the end of June or July. It’d be a no frills event. I just want to see what people think of it and how it goes. If someone’s looking to do an ultra for the first time, it might be a cool way to do it.
Photos provided by Kirk Cherep @kirkcherep @trailblazer.running