The Long Haul

A former linebacker switches sports and excels.

The violent sport of football and the peaceful, at times meditative, sport of distance running could be considered polar opposites on the athletic spectrum. Minnetonka resident Brett Busacker has experienced both extremes, first as a 220-pound college linebacker, and today as an elite distance runner who competes at a training weight of about 150 pounds.

Busacker was a Lake Conference football standout at Orono High School before going on in 2004 to play for Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash., and then at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. His first season at St. Thomas, and his football career, ended prematurely in 2005 after multiple concussions.

It took Busacker some time to come to terms with losing the sport he had played since grade school. Overweight and out of shape, he realized he needed a new physical challenge to replace football. In late 2005, he challenged his father, John, to a contest to see who could reach 185 pounds first. Busacker took up running and quickly whittled his weight down to 182 pounds (and won the contest). He’d watched his dad compete in the Twin Cities Marathon and Duluth’s famous Grandma’s Marathon, and decided to take on the challenge himself. Busacker ran the 2006 Grandma's Marathon in Duluth and achieved his goal of finishing in under four hours—his time was 3 hours and 56 minutes.

That set the stage for a string of impressive distance-running performances that have made Busacker an elite runner. Over the past decade, he’s lowered his personal record for a marathon to 2 hours, 45 minutes, at the 2014 Twin Cities Marathon.

To Busacker, marathons were becoming small potatoes—he wanted to go bigger. In 2015, Busacker placed fifth in the Sawtooth 100-mile trail race on the Superior Trail in Lutsen, Minn., finishing in 24 hours and 51 minutes. Trail racing has become Busacker’s primary interest.

Trail races don't offer the kind of financial rewards or media coverage afforded to elite marathon runners. But Busacker doesn't mind. He says he enjoys the constantly changing terrain and scenery, and relative solitude offered by trail running. “It’s just you and the trail,” he explains. “You might run 5 to 15 miles before you see any other people.” Unlike marathon courses, which typically have aid stations every 2 to 5 miles, “in trail running it could be an hour before you reach the next aid station. So you really have to pay attention to your own body, pace yourself and keep your mental alertness.”

It also takes less time to recover from a trail race than from a marathon, even though the distance is longer. Unlike marathon racing, “you're not ‘red-lining’ for as long as you can; it’s a slower pace, you're using different gears—sometimes fast, sometimes slow,” says Busacker. Also, trail-running terrain is more varied and often softer, meaning less strain on legs and joints, says Busacker, who shares his training and race experiences on a blog and also serves as a brand ambassador for several running-related products.

One of the coaches who helped Busacker become an elite distance runner is Derek Lindstrom, a distance runner himself and owner of Excelsior Running, a local sporting goods store.

Lindstrom calls Busacker’s record of high finishes “pretty amazing,” citing his 2:45 Twin Cities Marathon finish, just a few weeks after completing a 62-mile mountain race in Colorado. “When he told me he once weighed 230 pounds, I didn’t believe him until he showed me his driver’s license,” Lindstrom says with a laugh. Busacker’s competitive nature is a major reason for his success as an elite runner, Lindstrom says. “He’s been really aggressive in setting short- and long-term goals every year.”

Running is still a hobby for Busacker, who lives in Minnetonka with his wife Mallory and daughter Annabelle, 1. In his day job, he’s a business development representative for Brightpeak Financial in Minneapolis. Testing himself as a distance runner does have benefits that carry over to other areas of his life, he notes. “For me, it's all about reaching new levels in the sport, overcoming challenges you didn’t think were possible, being able to prove to yourself you can get beyond those really low, tough points in a race,” Busacker says. “The mental part of it is the most captivating aspect; whether you're running a short or long distance, it’s really a mental game.”