Meet Jay Arrowsmith-DeCoux, The ‘Trail Running Mayor’

Filed under: Running 

The 33-year-old mayor of an iconic northern Minnesota town runs, bikes, backpacks, hikes, and brings his love of the outdoors with him to city hall.

mayor Jay Arrowsmith DeCoux

Jay Arrowsmith-DeCoux lives near the tip of Minnesota’s Arrowhead, where thick forests and old mountains drop to an inland sea. There, on the edge of Lake Superior, the town of Grand Marais (population 1,351) serves as a hub to a remote region.

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area is nearby. Rivers drop precipitously from the hills, massive waterfalls that freeze to cathedrals of ice each fall before a lock-down winter sets in. It’s the kind of environment that can forge a person, change lives, and make a young man with a diverse background run for mayor.

DeCoux notes he’s been called a Renaissance Man by many people. “My experience is eclectic,” he wrote, hinting at a resume filled with a decade working roles ranging from IT technician to youth minister, from teaching charcuterie at the North House Folk School to completing NOLS coursework.

The View from Grand Marais, Minnesota. Photo by Andrew Smith
The view from Grand Marais, Minnesota; photo by Andrew Smith

Today, he’s raising a son and running a B&B with his wife in the town. Then there is the ultrarunning.

At the 2015 Superior 50K trail race in Minnesota’s north woods, more than a few spectators and volunteers did a double-take. DeCoux, then 32, finished in 5:17:32. This year, he again toed the line.

DeCoux started running in college and first took to trails one summer working in Grand Canyon National Park. After moving to northern Minnesota, he discovered the Superior Hiking Trail (SHT), a roughly 300-mile rugged traverse that runs along Lake Superior’s shore.

Decor finishing the Superior 50K in 2015
DeCoux finishing the Superior 50K Race; photo by Mike Wheeler

“The SHT was always in such good shape that it was an obvious option for trail running,” he said. “Great terrain, amazing challenge, pretty close to civilization, but far enough out that it won’t kill you.”

He has run almost every section of the Superior Hiking Trail over the course of a few years. This fall, DeCoux is looking at doing a fast through-hike of the entire trail.

Trail Mayor

After moving to Grand Marais seven years ago, DeCoux said he was encouraged to run for mayor by several locals.

It helped that hardly anyone else seemed to be throwing their name in the hat, he said. “And I felt that I had pretty good energy and ideas for the position.”

In January of 2015, at age 31, he was sworn in as mayor.

DeCoux has brought his ultrarunning chops – both in terms of his love of the outdoors and his penchant for planning – to the job. The tenacity it takes to pound out mile after mile in a race translates to mental endurance that stretches into all corners of life.

Beyond addressing issues like sexual abuse, food security, and low-income housing, DeCoux said he has put considerable energy into planning the city’s future development.

mayor-Jay-Arrowsmith-DeCoux
Jay Arrowsmith-DeCoux, pounding a road section during a recent race

“We are looking at getting to the root of some of the persistent problems that are happening in town. We’ve done a lot of planning with the [Department of Natural Resources] for improving the public boat launch [and] started the process of creating a regional park that will have 20+ miles of multi-use trails on the bluff above town.”

“Oh yeah, and we were elected the ‘Coolest Small Town’ in the country last year and almost won the ‘beach’ category in Outside Magazine’s Best Towns competition this year,” he added. (He didn’t mention the slate-blue Superior waters hover in the 30s and 40s, temp-wise, most of the year).

Local Connection To The Race

In addition to the personal challenge, DeCoux said he first ran the Superior 50K – a challenging and technical course that starts and ends in the nearby resort town of Lutsen – out of “partnership and appreciation.”

“Grand Marais relies on all of these races and activities, and now we need to reconnect and show our appreciation,” he said. “Not to mention I want people to see that it is a vibrant area up here, and that there are a lot of people who do cool stuff like this.”

He got a bit hooked, too. This year he finished the 50K race, in unseasonable heat, in 6:21:59.

DeCoux atop Carlton Peak, the midway point of the 2016 Superior 50K. Photo by Kevin Langton
DeCoux atop Carlton Peak, midway point of the Superior 50K; photo by Kevin Langton

DeCoux was signed up for last September’s Superior 50 Mile – a point-to-point race covering much of the same terrain – but a knee injury forced him to drop partway through. “Someday I will try that one again.”

Showcasing The Region

DeCoux noted the Superior trail races are an excellent representation of the region and how the people there take advantage of what nature offers.

“The area is intense,” he said. “There is more geographic variety on the North Shore than in most of the rest of the state. The race is intense and showcases this geography and the communities that have grown up in that influence.”

“We can’t separate one from the other and we don’t want to. Grand Marais is an incredible place to be from, as is Lutsen, or any other spot on the Shore,” he continues.

“There are challenges that come hand-in-hand with living up here, but just like the race, those things make for good stories and great experiences in the end.”

By
Alex Kurt is a Minnesota native, an avid runner, a novice climber, a begrudging cyclist, and an enthusiastic skier. A graduate of St. John's University and the University of Minnesota, he is most proud of his 6:48 PR in the beer mile.
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