Wow, this one was a stunner as far as natural beauty. In fact, I can't say that I've ever seen a prettier course, with the exception of Pikes Peak, but they're really close. I've been in South Dakota for three days and cannot believe how amazing it is out here and how it is that I never knew that South Dakota was so awesome. I wish I could stay another week because I definitely would not run out of things to do here.
Anyway, this was State #26 for me. My mom and sister came out here for vacation and to be spectators, and Thomas and his girlfriend Andrea also came. I think it's State #27 for Thomas. I am going to tie him next month and then pass him in September, and then annihilate him next year. At least that is my plan. We rented a big, beautiful house right in Deadwood. I literally did not know a single thing about Deadwood before coming here. I thought it was just a small town, and had no idea it was a Wild West tourist town like Tombstone, but that's totally what it is. I really need to start researching these things before I arrive.
The day before the race, we were tourists and went to Mt. Rushmore (very cool but somehow not quite as awesome-looking in real life as it is in pictures) and Crazy Horse (a total rip-off to which I shall never return, ever). The Black Hills appeared to be a mountain runner's paradise: innumerable trailheads every couple miles, grand vistas in every direction, perfect mix of brutally steep hills and peaceful valleys. I have never heard anything about the Black Hills other than that Mt. Rushmore is there. Like, no one ever mentioned that they are some of the most beautiful mountains in the country, seriously. The only bad thing was the weather. There have been a lot of severe storms in this part of the country in the last week, one of them resulting in a road closure that added three hours to our drive from Denver on Friday, and there was yet another one on Saturday which also closed roads and caused a four-hour-long downpour along with enough hail to look like it had snowed. The forecast for race day was much better, thankfully, and we just got lucky that the downpour/lightning/hail happened on Saturday and not Sunday.
This is a point-to-point marathon, and race organizers strongly preferred that everyone take the shuttle from the finish line to the start to limit traffic in the tiny town of Rochford where the race started. Thomas and I could have gotten a ride from Mom but we decided to take the shuttle 1) so that they wouldn't have to get up so early, and 2) because we were concerned just in case some of the rain from yesterday had caused road closures we didn't know about. It turned out the roads were all fine.
You can't really even tell that Rochford is a town. The start line area was just a gravel parking lot outside a tiny wooden church with a few Porta-Potties (plenty for the small number of runners, though). It was chilly enough at the start, which is around 5300' elevation, I think, that I was glad I brought a long-sleeved shirt, but it wasn't really cold. Anyway, at a summer race you definitely want to be a little cold at the start or you will roast later. The forecast was for start temps in the 50's, end temps around 70, and a mix of sun and clouds, which was pretty much what we got.
The first two miles of the race were on the road that went through Rochford, and then we got on the Mickelson Trail and stayed there for the rest of the race. The Mickelson Trail is a 109-mile long rail-trail that starts in the southern part of South Dakota and ends in Deadwood. Running surface is crushed limestone and gravel, which was wonderful underfoot. The first 14 miles are described as "a grind" in most race reviews because there is an uphill grade around 3% most of the way. At first I was a little short of breath which I think was due to the altitude or the climb or the headwind (okay, "head breeze" is more accurate), but then I got used to it and did all right for quite a while. I would agree with the "grind" description. It was never intolerable, but it got more and more noticeable the longer it went on. Thank goodness for the beautiful views to distract me! Because of all the rain on Saturday, all the little brooks were running in the meadows, and most of the course had at least some shade from pine trees. I managed to run the entire uphill grade. (I ran with Thomas for maybe the first four miles, and then he started to feel bad and dropped back, and never really had a good time on the course, I don't think. There was puking involved. Glad I missed it.)
Once we got to Mile 14, the descent began. Miles 14-18 were glorious -- smooth surface, perfect grade for running freely, lots of shade, not too steep, just really nice recovery miles. After the Mile 18 relay exchange, though, I suddenly got tired. I had been doing pretty well considering the early climb; I was at 2:43 at Mile 18, but suddenly I started to feel hot and queasy. I slowed to a walk and ate some Tums and managed to run again after a while. I ran (slowly) to Mile 20 where my time was 3:02. I simultaneously knew I could be under 4 hours because I knew 100% of the remaining course was downhill, and knew I wouldn't be under 4 hours because of how I felt. I was really surprisingly nauseous, in a way I haven't been in a while. Who knows why. The humidity was 94% at the start line though it did not feel that bad at all. My skin was dry the whole time, not sweaty like it was in Vermont. I didn't feel like I was sweating but I must have been. I had taken my third GU at Mile 18 and knew I could not get another one down. I'd been drinking at every aid station, which I never do, but this time I had to because I felt parched, like the way I used to feel when I first moved to Arizona.
Every runner I talked to between 20 and 26 was complaining about being dehydrated even though all of us were drinking every time we had a chance. The downhills were steep enough that my knees started to hurt. Once I passed Mile 23 (at 3:32) I suddenly felt so sick I thought I was going to puke whether I wanted to or not. (I didn't want to. I have not puked since 1999. I have TRIED to puke during other marathons and been unsuccessful, but I don't try anymore because I no longer care that much about my time in marathons. I would always rather walk it in than suffer the indignity of puking on-course.) So I walked almost 2 whole miles. The scenery just got more grand, with towering cliffs and mountain slopes covered with fallen trees, but absolutely no shade on this section. I forgot to mention that there was a creek or river running alongside the trail almost the whole way. It was full of lovely, bubbling, fresh, clear water and the thought of jumping into it and immersing my whole overheated body became an obsession over the last few miles, so much so that I thought the desire might overwhelm my rational brain and I might just do it. (I didn't. But I did feel compelled to mention it to every runner who passed me or who I passed, all of whom were locked up in their own pain caves and unable to care too much about mine.)
I was able to run again after one more shot of Powerade around Mile 24, and managed to jog the rest of the easy downhill into town. I was feeling all right at the finish line, which surprised me considering how sick I had felt for the last six miles. I am so thankful for whoever discovered and popularized the idea of chocolate milk being the perfect recovery food. It is. I can always tolerate it no matter how I feel, at times when I absolutely could not tolerate any real food. I chugged my chocolate milk, then went back to the finish line to watch Thomas finish (and point out gleefully that he was chicked in the last 50 yards of the finish chute). Neither one of us got good times but I am satisfied with my time. This was a stunningly beautiful course, but definitely not an easy one.
I think I have five weeks until my next marathon, Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina, which by all accounts is a bitch of a marathon that will make this one look like a jog in the park. I can't wait.