The Monument Marathon in Gering, Nebraska, was State #35, Marathon #44 for me. Nebraska had never been a state I was excited about doing because I thought my only options were Lincoln and Omaha, and I wasn't excited about either one of those. Then someone told me about how awesome Monument was, and when I found out it took place in a part of the country famous for Oregon Trail history and bluffs that look like the Badlands of South Dakota, I was THERE. I love that landscape. Besides southern Arizona, I think it is the most beautiful scenery in the country. (As I pause for a moment of sadness at having to return to Michigan scenery, which is the dullest and least dramatic scenery anywhere except maybe Indiana and Ohio. Oh well.)
I flew into Denver and drove the three hours to Gering. It was a beautiful drive east across the plains of eastern Colorado and then north into the panhandle of Nebraska. I will never understand how anyone can not think the plains are beautiful. You can see forever. There are some trees, but not too many, just the right number. (Trees make me feel claustrophobic. One or two around a house are okay, and they are also okay lining riverbanks, but when they obscure the horizon and make it impossible to see the contours of the landscape, I don't like them, which is why I always feel relief every time I go anywhere in the western U.S. I feel like I can breathe again.)
Gering is a small town, and Scotts Bluff National Monument is just a couple miles from downtown. I picked up my packet at the tiny expo where everyone was so friendly it made me nervous. The T-shirt is just okay, but I don't really care about T-shirts. The goodie bag didn't have any food (except for a bag of beans). I didn't spend any time at all at the expo because there were hardly any runners there and all the vendors at the booths looked so hopeful that I would talk to them that I didn't want to disappoint them, so I just grabbed my bag and left again to drive the marathon course.
The course looked moderately challenging at most. It started with a 6-mile descent from the Wildcat Hills Visitor Center. This part was along the shoulder of a highway, but with beautiful views the whole way. At Mile 6 we turned off the highway for six miles of cornfields on county roads. Then we crossed back over the highway around Mile 12 and went into the Monument. It was a beautiful drive through the Monument, with the giant bluffs towering over the road and the life-size replicas of oxen-drawn covered wagons. (For history nerds: Scotts Bluff [or Scottsbluff; historically it was two words as often as it was one word] was the second-most referred-to landmark on the Oregon Trail, with the first being Chimney Rock, that's how significant it was to the pioneers.) There was also an epic thunderstorm brewing with dark clouds, lightning worthy of Tucson, and strong winds gusting. I was glad that the forecast for race day was for good weather, because as awesome as the storm was from the car, it was the kind of storm that gets races cancelled because of lightning danger.
The five or so miles in the Monument were rolling hills starting with a climb of about two miles. It wasn't steep, but it was noticeable even in the car and I was sure it would be more noticeable on foot. I just hoped that the scenery would make up for the climb.
After Mile 17 or so, the course left the Monument and turned almost immediately onto a dirt road paralleling the irrigation ditch. I couldn't drive on that road, so just headed back to town and the pasta feed for dinner. I wasn't really excited about the pasta feed, but it was better than McDonald's or any other local restaurant, which I was sure would be full of overly friendly people who felt bad because I was sitting alone and would try to talk to me. If I had to talk to people, I would rather talk to other runners. Luckily I didn't have to talk to many of those either since there was hardly anyone at the pasta feed. It's a really small race, only 300 runners total with over 200 of those doing the half or 5k.
Race morning was clear and cold, in the 40's. I was glad that I saved the throwaway windbreaker they gave us at the finish line of the Georgia Marathon, because it was perfect for a cool morning. I parked at the Five Rocks Amphitheater and took a shuttle to Wildcat Hills, about 8 miles from the Amphitheater. It was colder up there, but at least we got to wait inside a building. We were supposed to be able to wait inside the Visitors Center, but because it was under construction, we were in an outbuilding instead. They bussed us from the outbuilding up to the Visitors Center for the race start, a distance of MAYBE 1/10th of a mile at the most, and let us wait on the heated bus till right before the start, which is just one more way that this race was awesome and made a point of taking care of its runners. I totally understand how this race got the excellent reputation that it has!
Start was at 7:30. The 6-mile descent was beautiful. I was warm by Mile 2 and dumped my throwaway jacket at the first aid station. The question of the day, of course, was how would my plantar fasciitis foot hold up? I really didn't know, but the further I got into the race without pain, the more confident I felt that nothing disastrous would happen. (Like, say, a DNF and having to go home without my Nebraska medal. Ouch, that would've hurt.) I purposely went out easy. I could feel little twinges from the bad foot the whole way, but it twinges even while I'm doing nothing, and it hurt like hell during the drive from Denver to Gering for no particular reason, or possibly a psychological reason. Twinges I can live with.
At Mile 6 we turned into the cornfields. I was feeling no pain and was actually enjoying the run, which is something that hardly ever happens. I usually spend at least 75% of any workout desperately wishing I could stop. The first two or three miles of this stretch were fine and then it got slightly monotonous, but as soon as it started getting monotonous, we turned back towards town, and I could see the bluffs in the Monument getting closer and closer.
The road into the Monument was a climb, no surprise since I had seen it the day before in the car, and we also had a headwind, but, as I had hoped, the scenery made up for it. I ran the whole way and honestly barely noticed the climb; I was too busy looking up at those awesome bluffs and imagining what it would have been like to be riding in a wagon and following the ruts of a thousand other wagons.
This course has a fair amount of climbing but is also generous with its downhills. Every uphill has a downhill. (For all the hills, I am surprisingly not very sore at all today. Usually hilly course = sore.) We ran downhill out of the Monument and then turned onto the dirt road. We had been warned that it would be muddy because of last night's storm, and it was a little muddy but not bad. The next five miles or so were my favorite of the course. Some of it was gravel road, some was more like trail, though still almost as wide as a road. I wish I had more time to explore the trails. It was the kind of place where every bend in the trail gave you a different view of the bluffs, all of them magnificent. There was a lot of sun, but luckily it wasn't hot, only in the 60's. Still, I was sweating a lot and not drinking nearly enough, so I was covered with a salt crust. Better than being coated in slime like I have been in Michigan for the last month because it's been too humid for sweat to evaporate.
Around Mile 21 I looked at my watch for the first time on the whole course and saw that I had just hit three hours. My foot wasn't really sore and I felt okay, but I also didn't feel like pushing to get a BQ although I'm pretty sure I could have. One of my goals for this marathon was to see if two in a row was feasible if I took it easy on Day One. I could see by my time that I had not really been taking it easy even though it felt like I had. Also, I was, of course, a little tired. So I decided to relax for the rest of the run and enjoy myself, and run just fast enough to finish under four hours.
That's what I did. At Mile 23 we were back on town roads, mostly in the neighborhoods. There were a surprising number of climbs in those last few miles, though none of them were steep. The last mile went through a cemetery, then there was a little downhill followed by a turn to an uphill finish. The race was so small that there were no other finishers in sight, behind or in front of me, and every finisher got a personalized announcement.
I felt pretty good -- not sick, not sore, kind of hungry for the pizza they had for finishers. The medal was great, one of my favorites. As I was admiring my medal and heading for the food tent, this girl said to me, "You held on to second, huh?" I said, "Second what?" and she said, "Second woman." I had no idea at all. I had had a vague impression that I was mid-pack somewhere, but I was actually the twelfth finisher overall, first in my age group, and second-place woman. There were only 65 finishers and 19 women, so this was not really that big of an accomplishment, but I still stayed for the awards because I thought maybe I would get something cool. And I did -- $250! I was shocked when they called me up and handed me an envelope with "$250" written on it. I thought maybe it was a mistake and they meant "$25", which would still have been awesome, but no! It was really two $100 bills and a $50 bill. That was one of my best marathon moments ever, along with my first BQ and the time I qualified for Boston in Boston. (They also gave me a print of wildflowers in the Monument, which is a great souvenir of a really beautiful place.)
This was an absolutely great race experience all the way around. It was a few firsts for me -- the first time I really loved a small race, the first time I won money in a race (and no doubt the last), and the first time I finished a race with more Gu gels than I started with (started with three, finished with five because they offered five on the course and I took every one they offered). I am so glad I did this race and not Lincoln or Omaha, and I am going to take my winnings and spend them on registration fees for Kansas City and Des Moines next month!
I seriously cannot recommend this race highly enough for anyone who likes small town races and beautiful scenery. Here is a course video although it does not even come close to doing it justice: