Friday, June 15, 2007

One Dakota, Two Dakota (Deadwood Mickelson Trail Marathon)

It’s been a few days since I completed a marathon in my 24th state – the Fargo Marathon. It was a relatively good marathon, as far as 26.2 milers go, and I really enjoyed the weekend, but the truth is that I’m jonesing to get to 50% on the “states completed” tally. And since I don’t have any marathons on my calendar until the fall, it’s starting to feel like a long, long time before I will hit that magical point. And that’s just too far in the future for me to handle.

So I do a bit of research on, and find the Deadwood Mickelson Trail Marathon, conveniently scheduled for June 3rd. But before I can do anything with this new information, my friend Michele tells me that this is a race that fills up quickly, so I’m probably too late. That’s okay, I figure, because on this weekend, I really should be up in Aspen helping Mick put the finishing touches on his mayoral campaign before the runoff election on June 5. Plus, it’s a highly intense time at work, so if I don’t go to Aspen to help Mick, I should stay home and regroup from this last week at work and prepare for the next week or two. There are a million other things going on: symphony tickets, a need to ride my bike to prepare for Ride the Rockies, and a need to practice piano to get ready for a performance with my quartet next Wednesday. What am I doing even thinking about a marathon that weekend?

But then my friend Denise asks me what I’m running next, and I go through the “I’d like to do Deadwood, but it doesn’t make sense, blah blah” routine, and she raises her eyebrows. Dense is one of my oldest and best friends. I know that look she gives me like I know the back of my hand. And suddenly, it’s clear, absolutely no room for doubt. It’s gonna be a road trip!

Once that decision is made, everything else falls into place. The marathon is, indeed, still taking entries. Luckily, I’m able to book us into the last remaining non-smoking hotel room in Deadwood. Another friend offers to buy my symphony tickets so that they don’t go to waste, and Mick assures me that he has plenty of volunteers to campaign for him. Work can always wait. And with that, Denise and I take off on our road trip precisely at 5 p.m. on Friday.

Denise has always been the best provisioner around, and on this trip she doesn’t disappoint. She shows up at my place with a cooler full of Wild Oats food and more snack foods for the road. We drive out of Denver while getting our complaints about our jobs and life-in-general out of our systems, and then Denise breaks out the trail mix, and then the chips. Ah, it’s good to be on a road trip with the all the right food! Back in our college days, we would have had Ruffles and Miller Lite instead of the Mediterranean gourmet veggie chips and Fiji bottled water of 2007, but the spirit is still the same. And it’s all good.

It takes no time at all before we’re in Wyoming, and we start to spot the antelope. Soon we’re commenting that it seems there are far more antelope in Wyoming than there are people (or cars, for that matter). We make a pit stop in Wheatland, WY, just 169 miles from home; other than Chugwater, it doesn’t look like much else between here and South Dakota. As I wait for Denise in the convenience store attached to the gas station where we’ve stopped, I glance through the selection of books on display. And there’s the oddest thing: a book titled “Gotta Run: Life is a Marathon…so Double Tie Your Shoes” by Elaine Doll-Dunn. A week or two ago, I wouldn’t have recognized this name, but now I know it all too well; Elaine is the wife of Jerry Dunn, the Race Director of this weekend’s marathon.

Now, what’s a book by a marathoner about marathoning doing in a gas station off I-25 in the middle of Wyoming?

I’m a sucker for books about running, and I’m about ready to plunk down my $9.95 for the book, when Denise points out that all the copies of the thin paperback have dirt on the covers. I consider for a moment. If they have the book here (still almost 250 miles from Deadwood), certainly I’ll be able to pick up a copy at the expo and have the author autograph it? So I skip the purchase, and we hit the road again.

Denise takes over the wheel at this stop, so I get to admire the sweeping views of distant mountain ranges, and follow along in the atlas (one of my favorite things to do in this world) as we cross the North Platte. We watch a beautiful sunset in the west, and watch for the expected full moon in the east, but it never really appears: too many clouds. The clouds have made a glowing sunset, but they do not bode well for the rest of the drive. As we head into South Dakota, it starts to rain. And rain. And then rain some more. The roads are hilly and twisty and the lighting is terrible. It takes us 7+ hours to get to Deadwood, and it’s still raining as we check into the motel. But we have arrived with the cooler of food for a late, light dinner (thanks to Denise) and a bottle of wine to share (my solitary contribution), and we finally relax. No more work, no more worries, just a road trip between two old friends. I think that no matter what the race is like on Sunday morning, this is going to be a fabulous weekend.

Saturday is leisurely, relaxed, fun. We sleep in just a tad, and then find the one restaurant in town that is not more casino than restaurant for a late breakfast. We spend the afternoon on a pilgrimage to the Crazy Horse Monument, which is well worth the 55 mile trip (each way) to see. I’ve been to the Black Hills a couple of times before – once on a family vacation when I was about 14 years old, and then again when I was in college, on a camping trip with two of my brothers and a couple of our friends. The highlight of both of those previous visits was Crazy Horse, and it remains the same this trip. The monumental legacy to the Lakota chief that is being constructed on Thunderhead Mountain amazes me as much today as it did back in 19-uh-something-too-long-ago-to-confess-to. Denise has a strong affiliation with Native American cultures, and I think that this visit to Crazy Horse – her first – makes the entire weekend worthwhile to her.

Sunday morning finds me first on a trolley from the hotel to the rodeo grounds, and then on a shuttle bus to the race start in the tiny village of Rochford. This marathon is a point to point race (my favorite kind), and we will finish back in Deadwood, very near my hotel. I make a couple of friends on the bus ride to Rochford, and the hour-plus wait for the race start in the cool temps at an elevation of around 6000’ goes quickly as we compare notes about marathons we’ve run or plan to run. Before you know it, we’re lining up on the road outside the quaint, picturesque chapel (now why didn’t I bring my camera out here? Some races just beg you to carry a camera along the way.), and the race director is counting down the minutes and seconds for the race start. Ten, nine, eight….

This is a chip timed race, and we take off across the chipmat, down a fairly steep paved road. We run downhill through the rest of this tiny burg, where there are a few faithful fans out to cheer us on. The sun has emerged as we’ve started to run, and I feel overheated almost immediately. And I mean immediately! Although I’ve been shivering like crazy while waiting for the race start, I now take off my throwaway shirt and toss it off to the side of the road. I check my watch. Two and a half minutes have elapsed.

This is a great race start, especially if you like downhill running as much as I do. I know that we turn uphill soon, so I try to make the most of this downhill stretch. The road is nice and smooth, but soon turns to dirt; there’s mile marker #1. I hit my split button and smile: 8:25. Woohoo – what a start! And I thought this would be a slow marathon!

Soon I’m noticing a mountain bike riding towards us, and then some runners, and it finally hits me that we’re doing a short out and back, and these people are the race leaders. Very cool. Since this is a small race, I decide to count the women to see how many are in front of me, and I come up with a total of around thirty when I hit the cone that signifies the turnaround spot. Not bad, I think. I don’t really have any idea how many total runners – let along total women – there are in this race, but I file that number away for future reference.

We do a short return trip up the road, and then we head onto the Mickelson Trail, where we’ll spend almost all of the remainder of this race. The trail is a lovely crushed limestone and gravel trail, constructed out of an old railbed. It’s a Rails-to-Trails project, and it’s a beautiful concept: take an old railway right-of-way, and build a multi-use trail on it. This trail was created from the old Burlington Northern line that originally took passengers and freight 110 miles along the Black Hills, culminating at the gold mining cities of Deadwood and Lead. The railway abandoned the line in 1983, and some visionary South Dakotans worked hard to obtain funding to build this beautiful trail that was opened in 1998. Today, the line is a mixed-use trail with more than 100 old railway bridges and 4 hard-rock tunnels (we’ll only pass through one of the tunnels today). After we join the trail, almost the entire length of this marathon will be on the trail.

It’s a beautiful trail. The crushed limestone makes a nice, smooth surface for running, and it’s just wide enough to accommodate several people. Already by the time we reach the trail, the field is spreading out, so it’s never crowded. The sun is starting a game of peek-a-boo with the clouds that will continue for the rest of the day, and it’s a picture perfect day for a nice long run in a most spectacular setting.

These are my thoughts, anyway, as we start out along the trail. Because the trail is built on the old rail bed, it’s a very steady grade, but an uphill grade it is until just past the halfway point. If you haven’t been paying attention, let me spell it out: that means about 12.5 miles of relentless uphill. It’s never steep – probably around 2% to start out with, reaching a maximum grade of 4% - but it’s the relentlessness that grinds away at your momentum.

The other thing that grinds away at momentum is the relentless wind. Early in the day, I take stock of the differences between my two Dakota experiences. One race is flat as flat can be, the other nothing but straight uphill or downhill. One race is set in a very conservative, religious community, and the other finishes in a wild west town with a history steeped in the lore of folks like Wild Bill Hickok, and today filled with nothing but casinos. One is a loop race, the other a point to point. One is a traditional urban race with a relatively large number of fans spread across asphalt and concrete corridors, and the other a wilderness experience on an old rail bed. The contrast couldn’t be more stark.

But there is one thing that the two Dakota races have in common, and that thing is pure and simple and relentless as the day is long: the wind. As soon as we’re running on the trail, the wind is directly in our face. It is an in-your-face, stop-you-in-your-tracks kind of wind. Later I’ll look up the weather statistics for the day, and the Deadwood history will say that the wind averages just 10 mph on the morning of this marathon. To this I respond: weather reporters lie.

For the wind is the big topic for the next 10 or so miles. It is absolutely relentless. Everything else about this run is perfect. The setting could not be more beautiful. If you’ve ever watched western movies about the Old West, with picturesque scenes of steam trains making languorous sweeping arcs through the most beautiful mountainous wilderness imaginable, you can picture my day. That’s what the scenery is like today, all day long. The trail spreads out in front, in those long lovely arcs, and the colors of runners ‘clothing sweeps out in front of me like a train. The obligatory babbling brook next to the railway. The tall pines and the tender green of aspens and new grass. The picture perfect blue skies with huge billowy clouds. I cannot imagine a more perfect setting for a long run.

Except – for the wind. Early on, a big, tall guy and I change places multiple times, until I finally fall in step behind him. My mama didn’t raise a complete idiot, and although it takes me a few changes of place, I finally recognize that I can use this guy as my wind block. In turn, Big Guy #1 falls in line behind a couple of other pretty-good sized guys who act as wind screen to him. We’re actually starting to build a pretty good little train when one of the leading guys steps over to the side of the trail and turns around to snarl at my Big Guy #1: “Find someone else to draft off!”

Wow. I thought we were one big happy group here. Big Guy #1 ends up in the lead of our little group, and I hustle to catch up and run next to him for a few steps. “I’ve been drafting off you – do you mind?” Suddenly I’m afraid that Big Guy will relay the rudeness on down the line. But no, he’s a nice guy, very friendly, with an unexpected British accent. “Not at all – after all, I drafted off you back there.” (I hadn’t even noticed.) It turns out that we’ve built a nice little train, and we all start talking amongst ourselves, and the other big (tall, broad, or both) guys in our group of about 5-7 runners all say “sure, no problem, I’m happy to let you draft off me”. There’s another woman in our midst, but she’s a shrimp – probably 5’2” in heels – and she apologizes for not being able to provide a wind block herself. The guys are all cool with the arrangement, and it helps the early miles – from 2 to 10, roughly – go by quickly. It’s not like me to run in a group, but I enjoy this immensely.

Besides battling the wind together, we take pleasure in grumbling about the mile markers. The first mile marker seemed to be perfectly placed – I crossed it in 8:25 – but after that it’s been crazy. I started looking for the mile 2 marker around 8 minutes into my second mile; the marker appeared at exactly 15 minutes. I know we’re heading uphill now, but 15 minutes would mean I’m walking! After this, the markers are fairly steady, but I’m not trustful of them. For the first time in many marathons, I find myself wishing that I had worn my Garmin.

After ten miles or so, we lose the blocking guys, and Denise – the short, petite woman – and I continue on together. This Denise, from somewhere near Chicago, is chatty, and we keep a steady pace even though it feels like we’re slowing as we approach the summit. It’s a disappointment to lose our windblocks, but it also feels like the wind is losing power as the day wears on. Denise chats, I run, and together we approach the halfway point of this race.

Mile 12 is the slowest of the day – 10:59 by my watch. That, of course, doesn’t factor in the 15-minute second mile. Mile 13 makes up for Mile 2 – the mile marker comes up when my watch reads 4:58. While I would dearly love to believe that I’m capable of running a sub-5 minute mile, I just can’t bring myself to believe that I’ve done that while running uphill on a soft trail at around 6000+ feet of elevation halfway through a marathon. The all-too-pedestrian rationale is that the second and thirteenth mile markers were both screwed up. The good news it that maybe this means that we’re now back on track.

I take off at the halfway point, and try to pick up the pace. Chicago Denise quickly becomes a memory. I’m not consciously trying to ditch her, but I am consciously trying to pick up the pace now that I’m heading downhill. And what a thrill this turns out to be!

From about mile 13.8 or so to the finish, the course is nearly all downhill. On the uphill side, you knew that you were climbing because the babbling brook at your side was flowing in the other direction. On this last downhill section, there’s no doubt that you’re heading downhill: the new babbling brook is racing you down the hill.

This is a joy. Running downhill on smooth surfaces can’t be anything other than a joy. I start passing people, and I am having a grand old time. The views are still spectacular, a bit more wooded now, and still lots of tender springtime green. But I’m not much looking at scenery, I’m running all out.

I start to wonder when I’ll see my friend Denise. When we looked at our very inadequate map, we could only identify a few trailheads that seemed accessible by car, and they all fell in the second half of the race. The first half of the run has proved that the map we had was just not detailed enough; there have been a number of road crossings and relay exchange points that just weren’t noted on our plat. But that’s okay; I was nearly always running with others in the first half, and didn’t need the surge that you get from having a friend meet you on the course. As the miles wear away, I start to really hope to see Denise.

Finally, nearing an aid station around mile 17, I hear a sound that tells me that Denise is here. Last night, while we walked around the souvenir and gift shops in Deadwood, Denise bought a jingle bell thingy from the leather store, and often today I’ve imagined that I’ve heard those bells. But until now, it’s only been my imagination. At long last, I know I’m not imagining sounds any longer, as the bells jingle brightly. It takes me longer to find her in the small group that’s gathered at this trailhead to cheer us on – something about staring at a trail for so long makes it hard to pick out individual shapes on the sidelines – but there she is! We shout at each other, and Denise, ever the organizer, yells “Gloves?” to which I respond by throwing her my wadded up gloves. I have not needed them for a long time, so it’s nice to have a chance to complete this pre-arranged hand-off.

Seeing Denise jazzes me, and I’m having even more fun now. The course continues down and down, a gentle grade, but immensely fun to run. I start to realize that my quads are taking a pounding, and even though this is a trail marathon, I’ll probably be sore tomorrow. I figure I’ll worry about that tomorrow, and I look at my heart rate, and I pour it on.

People have told me that the entire second half of this run is downhill, and now I learn that people have lied. Somewhere between miles 18 and 19, the course flattens out. It feels like we’re going uphill again, but I’m really not sure about that. Flat is pretty cruel and deceptive after a nice sprint of 4 or 5 miles of pure downhill.

Other than making my legs feel dead, the real problem with the flat section is mud. A little mud at first – a water puddle here and there – and a bit more mud down the trail a bit. And then serious, long stretches of mud, where you finally have to give up the tip-toeing, pansy-assed approach of trying to stay dry by skirting the mud, and if you really want to continue racing, you just plow through the muck. It’s frustrating at first to hit the mud, but when I finally figure out that my lily-white shoes are no longer pristine and that I should quit acting like a priss, it becomes fun again. There are definitely two kinds of runners out here: the ones picking their way slowly around the mud, running and walking off on the side of the trail, and those of us whose lower quadrants are quickly covered in mud because we’re just plowing ahead.

Somewhere in that 19th or 20th mile, we leave the trail briefly, and plummet down a short but steep jeep road. It’s all wet and muddy, and I have a great time plowing through the middle of the muck as I pass a woman picking her way carefully down the side of the path. Cowabunga!

Finally, after this stretch, we reconnect with the trail, and return to the nice easy downhill grade. The trail dries out again, and soon we’re getting into high mileage. As we approach another aid station, I hear the unmistakeable jingle bells, and there’s Denise, cheering and jingling again. I holler out “only 6 left to go” and she just smiles and laughs at me.

It’s a blur from here to the finish. All downhill, all soft and – thankfully – smooth, dry trail, and a blur of people who are suffering in these last miles. In this second half, I’ve started to count the women I’m passing. Now I think I might be in the top 30, now in the top 25. I keep looking for women to pass, but as I near the finish, it gets harder and harder to catch up to people. In this stretch, we do catch up with the half marathon walkers; most of these folks are moving like snails. It’s getting warmer, but it’s still nice running weather, and I just keep trucking. The trail is flirting with civilization here, and we criss-cross the paved road multiple times. That means I also have one of those “I recognize that car” moments, just before I realize that it’s Denise driving down the road, waving and honking at me; from here to the finish, I’ll see her a number of times as she occasionally pulls off the road to cheer or take a photo.

Now we’re back in Deadwood, and there’s our hotel, and I know the finish is a short way ahead. What a glorious run! The finish line comes up out of nowhere, and I cross it triumphantly, in a time of 4:16:19. State #25 in the bag! Jerry Dunn, the RD, is there at the finish line, greeting each and every runner as we cross the line. When I throw my arms into the air for my Rocky pose, Jerry smiles at me and comes running up to give me a high five. It’s a grand moment in marathon finishes. Maybe not a fast one, but a grand one indeed.

Denise catches up to me in the finish area, where I’m downing liquids like crazy. Together, we get a chance to meet the RD’s wife, Elaine Doll-Dunn, and we tell her about spotting her book in Wyoming, but not in Deadwood. A very gracious lady, she promises to send us each copies. That’s almost as good as the age group award that I receive for my 2nd place finish in my AG: a railroad spike, painted with the race name and year, along with the age group and place. (Not only have I finished in the top 30 women, my ultimate place is 21st out of 108 women. For a relatively slow day, that seems like a pretty good outcome.) What a cool souvenir to take home.

When we leave the race finish area, we have just a few minutes to vacate the room before our late checkout time expires. I take the world’s fastest shower, and then we head back to the Hickok House for a perfect late breakfast. Then back on the road, and a quick six hour trip back to Denver. What a lovely day, and a lovely drive. Those hills that were too dark and rainy for us on Friday night turn out to be beautiful small mountains, and we Iowans-turned-Coloradoans feel right at home. We watch an eagle soar above us, following the road, and then we’re quickly back in Wyoming. Today, we question whether there are more antelope or coal cars in the state? No matter. It’s a glorious drive, perfect weather, easy cruising. One more road trip, and then back home again.

Fargo. You Betcha.

The first thing you notice when you exit the Fargo Airport is the flatness of the landscape. As far as the eye can see, not the slightest hint of elevation change. And so you take another step away from the terminal building, just to confirm this view, and the second thing you notice in Fargo almost knocks you over. It is, of course, the wind. Pure and unadulterated, the wind comes zinging across the great plains, nothing to slow it down from the continental divide in Montana, something like a thousand miles to the west.

What’s left – the thing that you don’t notice when exiting the airport – is the welcoming Midwestern spirit, and the habit of local folks to smile and greet you warmly into their city. But wait a minute – I’m getting ahead of myself. That’s the story of the entire weekend!

This is the 24th state in my quest to run a marathon in each of the 50 states. To tell the truth, I’ve kind of been dreading Fargo. I mean, get real. Taking vacation time and incurring the expense to spend a weekend in Fargo? My friends and family are going to places like Tortola and Tahiti and Ticino, Italy. I’m burning vacation to visit Fargo. Oh boy. What’s wrong with this picture?

But my friend Michele, also on the 50 state marathon hunt, decides to run Fargo this year, so it seems like the perfect opportunity to check off the state and spend a weekend with a friend. When we first start talking about this weekend, more folks from our running community express an interest in joining us. Oddly (?), they all back out before race weekend.

But it never turns out to be as simple as just two runners arriving in a distant city (strike that, it’s really just a big small town) to run a marathon. When I board the (small) plane in Denver, I immediately find it packed with other marathoners. There’s the guy in a seat in the row behind me, wearing a Boston Marathon t-shirt. And the guy and his wife across the aisle, both wearing 50 States Club gear. Before they’ve even closed the doors of the plane, I have many new friends. That’s the beauty of this sport and this crazy quest.

Other than the flatness and the wind, the other major thing that hits me when I walk out of the airport in Fargo is the heat and humidity. It’s 83 degrees, and only 1 p.m. Good Lord, I think to myself. This is going to be yet another heatfest and meltdown. I crank up the air conditioning in the rental car and pray for cooler weather.

Michele arrives a few hours later, and after getting all of our junk situated in our hotel room, we head over to the FargoDome, which is command central for all events this weekend. It’s really a nice venue, and it makes all things related to the race easy. Plenty of parking, easy access, and everything located in one central place. Today – Friday, May 18 – that means packet pickup, expo (smallish, but with a really impressive large Adidas-Sheels (the sponsors of the race) booth where you can find anything and everything you might need for running), pasta dinner, and pace group booth. The pace group booth is significant because Michele has agreed to pace the 4:15 group, and will work the booth after we slurp down our spaghetti. The pasta dinner is on the floor of the FargoDome, and features pretty decent pasta served with a side of lefsa (a first for me, and quite yummy), along with the speakers for the evening: Bart Yasso and Dick Beardsley. Wow. Two icons in the running world, and both here in Fargo.

After the speakers, Michele stays on at the expo to work the booth, and I head back to the hotel on my own. As I exit the FargoDome around 8 p.m., I’m surprised and disappointed to find that the temperature outside has not dropped at all. Still way too warm for this time of year. But there are crocodile tear sized raindrops just starting to hit the toasty tarmac, so I trot over to the rental car to avoid getting soaked. Maybe there’s some hope for this race, yet.

It starts to storm in earnest after I’m safely ensconced back in the hotel room. We’re staying at the Radisson in downtown Fargo – just a mile or two from the FargoDome – and several people have already informed us that it’s the tallest building in the Fargo area. Our room is on the 7th floor, with great picture windows looking out east across the Red River into Moorhead, Minnesota. I pull back the window coverings to watch the thunderstorm that’s developing outside. It’s quite spectacular. Then I turn on the TV, and the first thing across the screen is a “Tornado Warning” message. I’m fascinated by the electrical storm outside and can’t seem to move away from the window, no matter how foolish that seems. Tornado or no, this is a great show. I pray, once again, for cooler temps in the morning. Michele arrives back at the room a bit later, and we both fall asleep to a fantastic electrical storm going on all around us.

The hotel has advertised a shuttle to the FargoDome, but Michele and I decide to risk the drive over in the morning. We’re up early and consume our coffee and bagels. It’s no longer raining outside, and it looks gray and cloudy. Depressing weather on a normal day, but a good omen on race days. After packing up tons of warm gear to take with us to the start, we head out the door. Holy moses! Not only has the temperature dropped from yesterday’s 80-some degrees, it’s gotten downright cold.

And windy. The wind is howling like crazy, straight out of the north. Our drive to the race start is easy, and we park just a few steps away from the FargoDome entrance. What a Godsend – a warm indoor place to wait, with plenty of room – and indoor flush toilets! – for everyone. When we head outdoors for the start of the race, the wind is blowing as ferociously as ever. At the start line, they have one of the biggest U.S. flags that I’ve ever seen, suspended between two cherry-pickers. The flag is completely horizontal throughout the pre-race ceremonies. The only good thing about this wind is that the course – a loop that goes mostly south for 9 miles, then turns north until around 23 miles before finding its way back to the FargoDome – gives us a tailwind to start out with. I try to put thoughts of the headwind that awaits us out of my mind. Maybe the wind will die by then?

After a nice invocation by a local clergyman (not a norm at races, but it turns out that Fargo is a pretty religious community, if we can judge by the large number of well tended churches in town and the fact that the race is not just coincidentally on a Saturday rather than a Sunday), followed by renditions of both O Canada and the Star Spangled Banner, along with a flyover by a military chopper, the race starts pretty much on time at 8 a.m.. The race organization at the start, like pretty much everything else this weekend, is superb, and it seems that most people are lined up on the street in their appropriate pace group spots. I’ve lined up near the 3:50 group – mostly because I’ve gotten to chat a bit with the pace group leader, through the Michele connection – but they take off straight out of the chute quite a bit faster than me. I’m left to chug along this concrete stretch of roadway on my own.

But it turns out that in the Fargo Marathon, you are not truly ever on your own. That is the biggest surprise – and certainly the biggest delight – of this marathon in this big little town in the upper Midwest. The race itself draws something like 9000 runners – between the marathon, marathon relay, half marathon, and 5k. It’s a nice size for a race on these city streets. Not too big, not too little. Not too crowded at the start, but never lonely in the 26 miles before the finish. In fact, just right.

The race starter tells us, just before the gun goes off, that there will be something like 50 different groups entertaining us on the course today. This is another surprise, and it’s another one of the little delights of this first class event. Within the first few miles, we’ve passed a local rock band belting out a very decent rendition of “Mustang Sally” (“You been running all over town now…”), another band playing a nice “Brown-Eyed Girl”, and several more smaller garage bands. A few miles further on, there’s a brass trio – all silver-haired guys – playing a rousing “On Wisconsin”, and when we pass the Art Museum just outside of downtown Fargo, the local high school band is just finishing the final bars of the theme to “Rocky” – and they’re good!

In the stretches without live music, more people than imaginable have lugged out boomboxes and stereo speakers and are blasting out music. And more people than imaginable are standing or sitting at the foot of their driveways, wearing winter coats or wrapped up in blankets. These intrepid race fans are out with cowbells and noisemakers and handclappers and just about anything you can imagine. There are garbage can lid cymbals and bike fork triangles (outside a bike shop in the downtown area). Every one in town seems to have caught marathon fever.

The miles click on by. We run south from the FargoDome, but this race course turns and twists along the way. A block or two this way, a block or two that, always heading virtually south. Along a stretch of roadway just south of downtown designated as “the historic 8th avenue district”, we encounter the Midwest version of Wellesley College. The people are out in amazing numbers, and the music and applause is incredible. The local gymnastics club has a huge banner at the side of the road, with kids doing gymnastics on the lawn and on a trampoline as we pass by. I get goosebumps running through this part of the course.

My day is starting to feel pretty good. Since it’s cold – 48 degrees at the start, and with the wind and clouds, it will only warm up to 53 degrees at the finish – it takes me a while to hit my groove. But each mile feels better and better, and I’m feeling pretty confident about the day as I watch my average time per mile drop over the first 9 miles to just at or under 9 minutes per mile. Since I’m starting to feel warmed up, I start to have visions of picking up the pace in the second half and running a nice negative split to bring this race in around 3:53 or 3:54.

But then mile 10 comes, and it’s a big wakeup call for everyone. In mile 10, we turn around and start heading back up north. Straight into the wind. My split for mile 9 is 8:53; my split for mile 10 is 9:24. Ouch. 31 seconds slowdown, and pretty much all wind. Kiss that “good day” feeling goodbye, and start to understand that this will be a day to just hold on and not fall off the edge of the earth.

The race organization is superb, and the mile markers are well placed and visible, and the aid stations are well stocked and are exactly where they are advertised to be. This might seem like a no-brainer, but it’s amazing how many race directors can’t get this tiny little (but HUGE) detail right. The Fargo folks get it exactly right.

And now that we’re running in the middle, difficult, straight-into-the-wind miles, the race management helps out with a series of Burma shave-type trivia signs on the side of the road. What a delightful distraction. “Fish cough!” “Giraffes can lick their eyeballs.” “Turkeys run 20 mph.” “Pain is just weakness leaving your body.” And more. Some odd. Some funny. Some perfect for a marathoner. All of them perfect distractions.

And the city of Fargo does not disappoint during these tough middle miles. There’s a belly dancing troupe (although a couple of guys running near me say “I didn’t really need to see that”, and I understand why), and a square dancing group, and – how could it be a complete entertainment package without this – Elvis singing. There are shriners out with the requisite fezes and the new-to-me Miatas with shriner emblems on the doors. I guess the old golf carts had to give way to modern technology and prosperity sometime.

I pass through the halfway point in 1:58:50, slower than my first 9 miles indicated, but at this point, I’ve stopped thinking about overall time. I’m taking it one mile at a time, just trying to find ways to stay sheltered from the relentless but gusty wind. It’s impossible to make it a non-factor, but the reality is that we’re in town again and get some benefits from the surrounding buildings (when I’m not ducking behind big, tall guys for as long as I can). The course also zig-zags around enough to keep the wind from becoming completely demoralizing. The constant turns and jags on the course means that it’s not as fast as it might be, but it sure is a lifesaver in this wind.

Just after the halfway point, a relay runner falls onto my heel. Kris, as I learn her name, has run one full marathon and is training for her second. She decides to let me pace her through her 7-mile leg, and plants herself firmly on my tail, staying right there until just a hundred yards or so before her exchange point. She makes the hardest miles of the marathon evaporate. The benefits of having a running partner are tremendous. Kris remarks to me several times that I’m running a very steady pace, just a bit faster than she would run on her own, and do I mind her running in my shadow? Nope, not at all. It’s nice to have company on this part of the journey.

We cross the Red River, over into Moorhead, MN, and do a fun little loop through the pretty campus of Concordia College. Okay, some people think it’s fun, but it’s kind of a pain, since it twists back around itself tightly. Pretty campus, but not really a fast marathon route through it. The loop spits us out back onto the Troll Bridge (yes, there is really a troll on it!) after a few short miles, and we’re back onto the safe flat roads of Fargo. At the sounds of the relay exchange station at mile 20, Kris takes off in a mad sprint to her finish, telling me thanks, that’s the fastest 7 miles she’s ever run. No problem, Kris. Glad to have the company.

Now it’s just the 6.2 miles to the finish. On bad days, this is the part of the marathon that you dread. On good days, it’s the part that just can’t get here soon enough, because it’s so much fun. Today falls into a “pretty good day” class, and I’m looking forward to these miles. While it was nice to have Kris’s company for the last 7 miles, it’s really easier to run by myself – it’s easier to focus and to breathe and to push myself. So now, time to push.

We’re still going north, still battling that stupid wind, but the course is still flat, and now we’re passing through areas we ran through earlier today. I feel like I know this area, since these are streets that I’ve driven multiple times now, back and forth between the FargoDome and the hotel. My pace doesn’t pick up as much as I’d like, but there’s that wind. Will it never end? Will it ever be at our backs for a change?

Finally, we turn around and head south for a mile or two, and the wind is, blissfully, at our backs. We’re in a different, northern residential area, and there are still people out along the streets, cheering us, and more frequent aid stations, and still more and more locals out supporting the race. This is the thing that powers me on; this, and the knowledge that the finish is just up there, a few more miles.

I’m doing mental math, and I know that I can’t break 3:55 today, but I know I’ll be well under four hours. I keep hope for turning in a 3:55 even past the point of no return, but my splits – while the best of the entire day – just don’t have the extra oomph to cut off another minute. The race finish looms; it’s inside the FargoDome, and we have to run a half lap around the outside of the building before the course steers us onto the ramp that will take us down into the dome. There are loudspeakers outside, and as we approach the finish, you can hear the announcer calling out people’s names. It hasn’t been a stellar day for me, but a darn good one, and I’m looking forward to hearing my name as I approach the finish line. But I emerge into the Dome, and the announcer is prattling on about something else, and I cross the finish line. With a time of 3:56:49, it really is a pretty good day, all things told. But somehow the finish feels like a letdown.

The feeling of letdown lasts only a minute or two, and then the post-race activities take over. Volunteers hand me a medal and take the chip off my shoe, and I quickly find a cup of water and my checked bag with warm clothes. It stayed cool outside for the entire race – a Godsend of sorts – but it’s easy to get chilled once you stop running. It’s not long before Michele leads her 4:15 pace group across the finish line in a picture-perfect 4:15:02, and I’m there to greet them. Michele and I hustle over to the food tables where there’s a great post-race feed going on: spaghetti, bagels, yummy honey-wheat rolls, yogurt drinks, energy bars, and more. After gobbling down some spaghetti, we spy the true treats: hand-dipped ice cream (many flavors) and cookies! Wow!

We stand in line for the free massages, and they are well worth the wait – not to mention that we have a grand time chatting with all the other marathoners while on line. A check of online results before we leave the Dome gives the unexpected message that I’ve finished 3rd in my age group, so we hustle back to the hotel for quick showers so that we can get back to the Dome in time for the awards ceremony. It turns out to be for naught, as the awards only go to the overall winners, but somehow, that’s okay. We’re immersed in the culture of the day, sitting in chairs in the center of the FargoDome, watching as volunteers start to tear down the finish line area.

In a few short hours, the FargoDome will be back to normal, and there won’t be any signs that nearly 9000 runners finished their respective races here today. The signs are coming down around town, and the locals will all go home, with us “foreigners” following them on Sunday morning. We’ll take our cool running shirts and our cool Adidas race bags and our crinkled bibs home, ready for the laundry and the scrapbook. But mostly, we’ll take home a memory that we weren’t really prepared for, a memory of all the people in a big little town who came out to support a crazy race on a crazy blustery day in May. As I board the plane for Denver Sunday afternoon, I’ll think of a sign in a yard in the last mile or two of the race on Saturday: “Thank you runners for coming to run in our city”, and I’ll think, “No, thank you Fargo for inviting us.”