With thousands of miles under their feet, Eric Houghton and Joel Gaff of Endurance Evolution are masters of Northern Michigan running, and the events they plan allow participants to flow seamlessly through the Northern Michigan outdoors that they love.  Whether on a bike, within the water or on two feet, these two men have pioneered what it means to run a Northern Michigan sport event.  The following story was first featured in the May 2014 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.

Get two guys in their 30’s talking about their impressive running accomplishments—setting high school records on the track and in cross-country, winning races on roads and trails, tackling Ironman competitions—and the conversation inevitably turns to the aging process. Specifically, what this getting-older business means for a competitive athlete who wants to remain not too terribly far from age-group winner slots within their sport, but who has come face-to-face with Father Time.

Do you keep working on speed or switch to longer, slower distances? Try different sports to keep the body strong, or stick with running while adjusting expectations of what the finish time-clock may read?

Northern Michigan Running: Endurance Evolution

Joel Gaff

For Traverse City natives Joel Gaff Jr., 34, and Eric Houghton, 35, both longtime athletes, considering (and trying) all of the above is part of embracing the passing years. The transition hasn’t come, however, without a bit of angst at times. Injuries crop up and linger longer than normal, and recovery after a race becomes more of a consideration. It can prove mildly irritating, sometimes agonizing. (“I’ve had an injury-riddled past nine months, so I’m going into my training with a little uncertainty,” Gaff shares about gearing up for next month’s Ironman Coeur d’Alene in Idaho).

Still, something positive also happens, the men say. Age reminds them to pause and be grateful for what they’re still able to do—especially in Northern Michigan where the landscape is a natural playground for the active life.

As high school friends turned business partners, Gaff and Houghton are just as grateful to be offering such experiences to other athletes—experienced runners, cyclists and swimmers as well as those newer to sport. Their race management and timing services business, Endurance Evolution, started by Gaff in 2009, is hosting a growing number of Northern Michigan events: the Traverse City Triathlon, Glen Arbor Solstice Half Marathon and 5K, Sleeping Bear Marathon and Half Marathon, Runaway Hen Snowshoe Scamper, and the Traverse City Trail Running Festival.

Eric Houghton

Eric Houghton

Each race takes place amid a scenic backdrop near and dear to the men’s hearts. (Take the Glen Arbor race, for example: they both love running around Big Glen Lake, even the route’s steep and satisfyingly tough Inspiration Point. It’s a loop that’s almost exactly a half-marathon, which led them to deem it perfect for a 13.1-mile race.)

All Endurance Evolution events make “the most of the location, landscape and time of year, too,” Houghton says.

“As you get older, you appreciate it more,” he says, as he talks about living an endurance lifestyle in Northern Michigan. “Being a part of it growing up pushed us in that direction. It’s really cool to be part of the scene as athletes. One week we’re putting on a race, seeing other racing directors do one of our races. And the next week, we’re racing with those same athletes.” 

Where some cities have races organized by outside companies, Endurance Evolution is part of an effort in the running community to keep races managed locally. “We know the community, the culture, the vibe of the town,” Gaff says.

Seated in a small, sun-filled conference room overlooking downtown Traverse City—Endurance Evolution is part of the Front Street co-working office known as Space—Gaff and Houghton acknowledge they’re each in a different phase when it comes to their athletic pursuits, and they’re thoroughly enjoying the ride.

For Gaff, a former Traverse City Central High School track standout, collegiate runner at Michigan State University and three-time Ironman finisher, triathlons and longer distances have filled his race calendar in recent years. He’s also adopted a plant-based vegan diet—no meat, dairy or eggs—and believes it’s aided his athletic performance.

“I lost a little bit of weight initially, but probably the biggest thing I’ve noticed since starting to eat this way is that my recovery time after a hard workout or race is very, very short,” he says.

Since going vegan in February 2012, Gaff has completed three ultra marathons (30-, 40- and 50-milers), a marathon (26.2 miles), and an Ironman (2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and 26.2-mile run).

“After each one, I had extremely little soreness,” he says. “I was able to go out for an easy jog the day after each of them, whereas before I would be so sore afterward that I would barely be able to walk for several days afterward.”

Houghton joined Gaff on a couple of ultra runs—a 50-mile trail run in Wisconsin last May and the overnight Solstice Run 40-miler, the latter was a collaboration between Endurance Evolution and Traverse City’s On The Ground to raise money and build awareness for education in Ethiopia. The run started in Leelanau County at midnight and ended at sunrise in Traverse City.

“The events probably did us both in,” Houghton half-jokes, citing subsequent injuries they each endured. “But it was a great time to share a few training runs and then to run the events.”

Tackling the longer distances is part of Houghton’s interest in seeing where else running may take him. The married father of two young girls has, after all, moved from running strictly road races to trying out trail runs in recent years. Skate skiing is another sport he is exploring.

“I want to try different things—what other adventures are out there?” says Houghton, a one-time Bayshore Marathon winner whose wife Jessie is a competitive triathlete and runner. “I’ve never participated in a bike race of any kind. I’ve been thinking about that more and more.”

And yet, Houghton isn’t turning his back entirely on chasing speed on foot—he simply acknowledges some personal records may be a thing of the past.

“I don’t know if I’ll ever hit my 5K PR or marathon PR,” he says. (2:28:52 for the marathon, in ’03, and 15:10 for the 5K back in ’01.) “Part of me would like to see how fast I could do a 50-miler.”

It’s certainly something within reach, it would seem. Last summer, he won—for the second time—the Grand Isle Trail Marathon near Munising.

For all of their athletic success at various times in their life, Houghton and Gaff are humble guys. They’re reluctant to say too much about their accomplishments.

They’d just as soon head out for one of their “run meetings,” where they brainstorm ideas to improve their races and business as the miles pass. And while Endurance Evolution isn’t yet their full-time day jobs—Houghton works full-time at North Bay Bioscience, and Gaff is an adjunct Spanish professor at Northwestern Michigan College—they’re dedicated to doing their part in helping others stay on a healthy path, too.

“We’re just two local kids—well, not kids anymore—two local runners who are …” Houghton says. “Trying to live the dream here,” Gaff finishes.

Runners like Dan Holmes are thankful for their commitment to the Northern Michigan race scene. “Some organizations put on races that are sort of afterthoughts, just a way to raise some money, which is nice, but they don’t put a lot of thought into [creating] a race that appeals to competitive racers and the casual runner,” says Holmes, who ran the 10K at the 2013 Trail Running Festival and plans to run the 25K this year. “Their events are professional, from the starting line to the scenic courses to the awards ceremony. No one understands what’s important to runners better than runners—that’s why an event put on by Joel and Eric is such a treat.”

Houghton and Gaff get to see first-hand how their races are impacting runners of all backgrounds. The mom of one of their high school teammates finished her first 5K last year. “She went through a lot of training to get to that finish line,” Gaff says.

One participant ran the 50K route at the Trail Running Festival after he’d recovered from bariatric surgery and had “lost some crazy amount of weight,” Houghton recalls. “He had gotten into running. He was very inspirational.”

Organizing races is in fact a job, Houghton concedes. “There is a lot of work, but what else would we want to be doing on the weekend but go to an event, watch people cross the finish line for the first time, have their friends and family there. Giving people that experience, it’s cool.”

With citizen races and race event tourism growing more popular by the year, Gaff and Houghton believe Endurance Evolution is in good position to rise with the tide. “You can do anything you want to do athletically,” Gaff says about the region. “There’s paddle boarding, there’s fat biking now … to be able to capture a little bit of that, as participants and as a company, that keeps us going.”

What Endurance Evolution Does 

Endurance Evolution hosts Northern Michigan athletic events, including trail runs and road races of varying distances as well as a swim-bike-run triathlon. They organize nearly every aspect of their races, from working with local jurisdictions on race day road closures and signage, to helping prep runners for events (holding race-course training runs and “race ready” spinning videos, for example), to coordinating post-race awards. Online event registration is by Leelanau County–based Byte Registration Service, which handles sign-ups for many area races. Recently Gaff and Houghton added event-timing services to their offerings, working with regional races, big and small, to provide official finish times for athletes. Basic timing—using a gun start and finish clock—as well as the more advanced automated “chip” timing are both available. Endurance Evolution also offers web-based results to athletes: EnduranceEvolution.com

May 2014 cover

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Photo(s) by Beth Price