MOORHEAD, Minn. — A retired teacher, runner and cancer survivor from Moorhead has explored more small towns in the region on foot than most and has the photos, log books and memories to prove it.
Ralph Fiskness, 72, has a goal this year to run down the main streets of at least 500 towns in North Dakota, Minnesota and South Dakota, and he’s drawing close to that mark.
On Oct. 6, Fiskness ran a 3K through Fort Ransom, North Dakota, just south of Fort Ransom State Park and along the rolling, tree-lined hills of the Sheyenne River Valley National Scenic Byway.
It was stop number 453 for him.
“Some say I’ve lost my mind, including my spouse,” he said with a laugh.
Fiskness and his wife, Jewell, have been to Fort Ransom many times over the years to sell their carved wood signs at a popular craft show, but he’d never run through town.
Two school principals who were big influences during his early years of teaching are from Fort Ransom, which gave him another reason to visit and take a run.
“Maybe it’s a tribute to them,” he said.
The downtown running project, started in January, has given Fiskness a valuable way to spend his idle time during retirement.
He almost always wears a Fargo Marathon shirt, counting director Mark Knutson as one of his biggest motivators.
He runs distances ranging from 1K to 5K, depending on the town.
It helps him maintain his good health, allows him to meet new people and learn new things about communities in the region.
His initial goal was to hit 300 towns, but that number was quickly adjusted upward.
He’s figured a handful of runs in other states into his total, including Iowa, Nebraska and Arizona.
An important aspect of each run is the photos he takes with his cellphone of landmarks and interesting signs, which he’s using to make a photo book.
For particularly spectacular sights, he’ll go back with his 35 mm digital camera and snap more photos, which he sells to stock photo companies to help pay for his hobby.
“I don't golf, I don’t hunt, I don’t fish. So it’s my way of hunting, always looking for pictures,” he said.
Fiskness has been a runner for much of his life, taking part in track in high school and college. But in 2008, it looked like he might not run again.
Diagnosed with prostate cancer, he developed an infection following treatment, he said. As he lay in bed recovering, he realized he couldn’t move his legs.
“The nerves and muscles did not fire together,” he said.
He said a prayer that he’d be able to walk again. With intensive therapy and rehabilitation, he was able to take steps first with a walker, then crutches and a cane. A focus on getting back to running followed.
He began entering races: first a 5K, then a 10K, then a half marathon, and then his first and only marathon in Louisiana four years ago.
“When I go out and run, it’s a form of worship,” Fiskness said.
After turning 70 a few years ago, he signed up for as many races as possible, thinking he could finally start placing in his age bracket. But then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and every race he planned to run was canceled. Instead, he did 50 half marathons on his own in 2020, he said.
When the calendar turned to a new year and COVID-19 was still in the air, Fiskness thought there must be a new twist for him.
A book about being “wild” in retirement, given to him by his financial advisor, gave him the main street running idea.
His first, and coldest, run was in Moorhead, on a bitter, well below zero day, while his hottest run was in over 100 degree heat in Hutchinson, Minnesota.
North Dakota towns he’s visited range from Abercrombie and Argusville to Walhalla and Wild Rice; Minnesota towns include Ashby and Avon, Waseca and Wheaton.
He keeps a log of everywhere he’s been and takes notes about weather, distances he runs and people he meets.
Perhaps the biggest hazard he faces in towns with fewer than 100 people is that dogs tend not to be tied up and run free. He’s been chased and cornered by them, even bitten by one, but the dog only managed to grasp his running pants.
Now, when going to those towns, he drives through first to scope it out.
“If I see a dog that's loose, I just keep on going,” Fiskness said.
His most memorable visit thus far was earlier this month in Brownton, Minnesota, a town of around 700 people west of the Twin Cities.
Running down main street, he turned a corner and ran into a sea of blue shirts, he said.
Turns out, a well-known and respected community member had died of a rare disease recently, and people were gathering to honor her and raise funds. The event included a 5K race, so Fiskness signed up.
“Here’s where it got interesting,” he said.
During the race, Fiskness kept pace with a woman in front of him the whole way, but couldn’t seem to catch her.
At the finish, he congratulated her and asked how she was tied to the event held in the community member’s honor.
“She was my mother,” came the reply, which hit Fiskness hard, emotionally.
He was able to meet other family members and friends and learn more about the disease that claimed the woman’s life.
“It was just a thrill to be there,” Fiskness said.
During that weekend in west-central Minnesota, he said he covered 39 towns in two days.
What will he do when he hits town number 500?
Fiskness said he prefers to end on an odd number, so will likely do one more main street run after that.
That one is planned for Hickson, about 15 miles south of Fargo, he said.