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 marathonguide.com, 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.