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Racing earthworms is sport at a glacial pace

Malorie, left and Natalie Otto watch to see if their worm would win, place or show. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)1 / 2
Leroy Worm proves his identity. He was made master of ceremonies. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)2 / 2

Minnesotans have a peculiar penchant for oddball sports, critter racing in particular.

Take your wood tick races,,, please. Then there's your cockroach races, your pigs, turtles and frogs.

Enter the earthworm, or, more precisely, the night crawler.

Aug. 8 dozens of people gathered outside a rural Brainerd tavern to witness the first ever worm races.

As spectator sports go, watching paint dry was light speed compared to single-elimination heats of two worms dumped onto a bulls eye, racing for the outer rim of a 16-inch target applied to a bar table.

"How long are we going to be here?" queried one spectator.

Three-dozen entrants, kids, grannies, Green Lantern patrons and passersby who saw the sign on Highway 18 queued up to purchase a worm. No bringing your own, said organizer Kathy Haberle. She didn't want any juiced up worms skewing the results.

Big mistake.

A 'roid rage would probably have injected a bit of excitement into the event. To say the night crawlers inched their way to the finish line would be a gross exaggeration. The race kicked into high gear when contestant Leroy Worm, Honest Abe, unexpectedly pulled up in a vanload of seniors, whipped out his Minnesota driver's license to prove his identity, introduced his wife ("just call her Glow") and was promptly crowned master of ceremonies.

He received a complimentary worm.

The racers included "Slimy," "Wiggly," "Yucky," and "Long Strech," entered by a spelling-challenged bar customer.

"Five minutes to post! Winners get to go home; losers will go fishing!" announced Haberle.

Two tables only slightly sped up the event as simultaneous races vied for attention. As earth sports go, it probably was appropriate that the worms moved at a glacial pace.

"These are disgusting," Haberle said, bringing out a Tupperware container of worms that hopefully will never again hold raw hamburger patties.

A group of Twin Cities spectators parked lawn chairs along the raceway and settled in, beers in hand. "I've been telling everybody in Chaska to come out here," said race fan Kris Fasching.

Worm etiquette: Do you call the fans the peanut gallery?

"I should have brought my tent. We could have camped tonight," laughed Kevin Eklund, surveying the adjacent field.

Maybe next year.

Race organizers tinkered with several experimental measures to get the worms moving. They sprayed the tables ("careful, they drown easily!"), sprinkled a bit of dirt across the race field, then resorted to a full-sun press, moving the tables out into the bright daylight.

Mostly, two worms dropped into a small circle just got entangled, which called into question all of the results. Who could tell one worm from another? Worm adoptees had to disentangle the competitors and by then, nobody could tell who's worm - and which end - crossed the finish line.

"Hey you kids, chirp like a bird," suggested one spectator. Jonah Halper, 5, dutifully put his chin on one table and softly called "cheep cheep."

"Cut it in half," suggested another spectator. "You can double your chances."

The end results didn't matter and there were no sponsorships or endorsements for the winners. By day's end, since all the worms got dropped back into the dirt again after each heat, Slimy may have raced under his own name and several others.

The event raised money for the Brainerd food shelf; race aficionados all agreed the event, hatched one midnight after a few belts, an Internet search and a smattering of organization, was a gooey success.

Stay tuned for Worm Race, version 2.0, coming in 2010 to a parking lot near you.