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Runners can partake of an array of soups after the HUFF 50K Trail Run at Chain O’ Lakes State Park near Albion.

Soup troop feeds runners

Volunteers stir up more than 85 gallons for HUFF 50K Trail Run participants

It isn’t the biggest. It isn’t the toughest. And, though it takes place Saturday, it isn’t even the coldest.

But it just might be the tastiest ultramarathon in the world.

The HUFF 50K Trail Run, in its second year at Chain O’ Lakes State Park near Albion, could stake a claim for the title for its trademark amenity – a smorgasbord of hot soup at the finish line.

“This is an ultramarathon, and ultramarathoners, they work really hard and push themselves to the extreme. We like to think we do the same thing with soup,” says Dawn Wilson of Fort Wayne. She is the unofficial head of a culinary cadre that prepares the array of soup, more than 85 gallons of it for this year’s race.

The HUFF is actually three races – a slightly-more-than-10-miler, a three-person relay over 31.25 miles and an individual 31.25-mile run. Because of the nature of the event, people can finish as early as 9:30 or 10 a.m. or go as late as 4 to 5 p.m.

“After running that far, they really do need calories, and they do need something in their bellies,” Wilson says. “We want to make sure there is hot soup remaining for every runner whether they finish near the beginning or they finish at the very end.”

Making the soup for the event – three returning favorites and two to four newcomers annually – can be more than a marathon in itself.

Organizers say the secrets of the homemade soups are fresh ingredients and long, slow cooking. The eight to 12 volunteers who prepare the concoctions devote most of a day – and sometimes a good part of their house – to their chopping and simmering endeavor.

“To make 12 or 15 gallons can take all day,” Wilson says. “But it’s a fun event. A lot of times we get together and we make the soup and have lunch.”

“And finish up with a glass of wine and cheese and crackers,” adds Joni Wood Lehman of Fort Wayne, one of Wilson’s helpers.

Volunteer John Thistlethwaite of Fort Wayne generally commandeers his dining room on his soup-making day, setting out eight huge roasters to fill with his specialty, beef chili, which is offered every year.

Wilson, wife of Mitch Harper, race director and Fort Wayne City Council member, says he started the tradition in 1997, the HUFF’s first year, when he made a few gallons of a spicy corn chowder with heavy cream.

That soup is still on the race menu, although, he says, the job of making it has “devolved” to Wilson and her helpers, Lehman and Betsy Magner.

Linda Keuneke, former cross-country running coach at Bishop Luers High School who now lives in Lafayette, is responsible for the perennial chicken noodle, “with lots of fat noodles,” Wilson says.

But soupmakers say they aren’t satisfied with only favorites. Each year, they pore over recipes to find something new and, they hope, satisfying. They try not to duplicate from year to year.

“One soup each year is an experiment,” Harper says. “One year, I made an oxtail soup, and another year, a ‘Three-P soup’ – peanut butter, pumpkin and sweet potato. It was quite orange!”

On the list this year – “We’re still noodling over what we’re going to offer. I like that, ‘noodling,’ ” Wilson says with a laugh – are spicy carrot, tomato, chorizo and cilantro soup; kale soup with soy and lime; creamy pumpkin and red pepper soup; parsnip and apple soup; and lime and garlic soup.

Over the years, organizers estimate they’ve made more than 800 gallons of 27 different varieties.

Wilson says that along the way there have been a couple of soup-tacular catastrophes. One year, she recalls, she burned the corn chowder.

“From a cooking standpoint, it’s not the easiest soup to make because it has layered flavors,” she says. “Because it has so much cream in it, it’s so easy to burn it. And once you’ve burnt it, the taste is simply gone. I had to throw it away.”

The biggest problem, other than transporting scores of gallons of soup to the race location in the pre-dawn hours, is making sure the soup stays warm and lasts until the last appreciative runners finish.

“Runners often say that knowing there is a warm tent and hot soup at the end helped them finish.”