Thursday, August 18, 2016

Race Report: Deadwood Mickelson Trail Half Marathon

It's been 24 years since the last time I stepped foot in South Dakota.  In 1992, I was eight years old, and my parents, two cousins, and I drove from Wichita, Kansas up to the Rapid City area to check out Mt. Rushmore and Crazy Horse.  I flew into town late Friday evening (with a stressful connection in Minneapolis, as we landed a mere 13 minutes before the boarding door to my connecting flight to Rapid City - THE last flight to RAP - would close) and arrived around 10:00pm, picked up my rental car and drove forty minutes northward to Sturgis, where I had my Airbnb accommodations.

The "start" of the Volksmarch
I woke up VERY early the following morning in order to start off the trip with the Crazy Horse Volksmarch.  The Volksmarch, in its 31st year, is one of only two times a year that the public is allowed to hike up the world’s largest mountain carving in progress. The route is roughly 6.2 miles round trip (but this changes depending on the "course" layout on hilly, rough terrain with some steep inclines.) From the valley at the Memorial’s visitor center, the rugged woodlands trail rises about 500 feet up to the mountain. At the top of the mountain, near where the figure's fingertip would be, volksmarchers get panoramic views of the Crazy Horse Memorial's 1,000-acre campus and close up views of the completed nine-story high face, not otherwise available to the public.

Crazy Horse in profile. From the parking lot.

True trail!
I got myself registered and then in line, anticipating our 8am start, but we actually got out onto the trails about 15 minutes early.  As people strolled down the path, I began my run, with maybe one or two others in front of me also running.  The trail was TOUGH - lots of roots, only a few neon yellow trail marking ribbons marking the trail.  Lots of steep sections too; a steady and somewhat slippery downhill over the first mile and then, just up up and up.  We had a couple stops where we could get water from hydration stations (which you had to pay for!) but was also a "check-in" area where we would have an attendant mark a card given to us at registration.  We even saw some wildlife; there was a deer running through the forest near where I was heading uphill.  It wasn't until maybe 1.5 miles in when we finally reached some real packed gravel trail that curves around the back of the mountain.  I proceeded up the steepest climb that went up to the face and onto the arm of the monument, reaching it about 50 minutes in.

Made it to the top!

My "punchcard" and medal :)
I stuck around for maybe two minutes and then headed back down the mountain, covering the steep downhill in a careful sub-9 minute pace, and was pretty much alone as I passed several people heading up to the mountain.  I took the route that bypassed the unmarked trail and continued along the dirt road all the way back to the parking lot, and passed quite a few marmots laying out in the sun. I ended up being the first person back from doing the Volksmarch - if it was an actual race, I would've finished first!

For the remainder of the day, I went around the grounds of the memorial, checking out the museum, which I hadn't been to since my last visit, and then headed to the Lodge at Deadwood to pick up my bib for the race and meet Emily Schulz-Wheeler, the race director. For singing the national anthem, she gifted me the very nice long sleeve half-zip shirt!  I ate a quick bison burger lunch at the Lodge before heading out again, checking out Spearfish Canyon (and one of its beautiful waterfalls) and the Black Hills National Forest.  I then decided to head out to Wyoming, a short one-hour drive to go check out Devil's Tower National Monument, a site I wasn't able to see the last time I was in this part of the country, and on the way driving through the sleepy town of Sundance, made famous from the 1969 movie "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid."

Devil's Tower, Wyoming
Once you get off U.S. Highway 14 and then take State Highway 24, before long, you'll see the unique  butte top of Devil's Tower.  When exiting off of the state highway, and then go past the trading post and past the entrance booth, cars go up the Devils Tower National Monument Road and pass by hundreds of prairie dogs, who make their home in the grasslands between the base of the monument and the Belle Fourche River.  I made my way up to the monument itself, and then took the 1.3 mile paved loop around the laccolith butte, which happened to have some climbers going up it.

State signs and the Center of the US
I headed back to South Dakota, but took a quick detour that took me to the extreme southeastern corner of Montana, only adding about 20 more minutes to my trip.  And a trip that saw a lot of deer just trotting unbothered by the roadside.  But that detour out to Alzada, Montana, gave me the ability to say I've been to all fifty states!  I crossed four state lines that afternoon - SD to WY; WY to MT; MT back into WY; and WY back into SD.  I stopped into the city of Belle Fourche, South Dakota, to go to the park next to the Tri-State Museum that has a proxy marker marking the "Geographic Center of the Nation," before heading down to Deadwood for dinner, and then much needed sleep before the Sunday morning race.

Getting ready for the anthem
I woke up super early Sunday morning to do the 30+ minute drive from Sturgis into Deadwood to get my car parked at the parking area in the rodeo grounds, then boarded a bus to head up into the forests to the start line 13.1 miles up the road to the Deadwood Mickelson Trail, near the town of Dumont.  I got there super early, one of the first shuttles (for fear of traffic coming into Deadwood to park), but bided my time meeting up with several friends who had flown in for the race, including Lynn, Dan and Paula, and Deb and Jake.  I met up with the sound guy at the start, to figure out logistics for the national anthem, and then waited it out a bit more, before I sung the anthem - about a half step higher than normal, but still effective.  South Dakota became state number 10 in my bid to sing the Star Spangled Banner in all 50 states!

With Deb and Jake from Nebraska


The Half Marathon start!
And then, on the narrow trail... we were off!  Now, this race would mark my first half marathon that could be considered mostly on trail - in this case, a loosely packed gravel.  The first mile or so was pretty crowded... lots of jostling to get on a good path and speed, and actually a slight uphill of 75 feet over the first half mile.  And then, the downhill started.  From 0.5 miles to mile 4, we descended about 535 feet.  Still a little crowded, we needed to pay attention to ensure we weren't gaining too much momentum on the downhill.  At mile 4, we emerged from the forest into an open area where we got some of our first spectators, just south of the town of Englewood.  This included a guy dressed in only a speedo, ambushing a runner friend of his only a few feet in front of me... LOL. The downhill continued til about mile 5.75... and then there was a dreaded short uphill section that lasted for the next mile, maxing out at about 90 feet of gain.  I slowed down considerably at this point, feeling woefully out of breath, but still maintaining that I could finish a half in one of my faster times in recent memory, thanks to the net downhill.

Within the first mile of slight uphill...

Hello shirtless runner, lol...
Slight downhill. LOVE this course!
A tree tunnel!
Crowd support along the trail!

And then there was this guy in a speedo, who ambushed
his friend (running the half) about 30 feet in front of me...
Why you putting clothes back on??? It's hot!

Just such unimaginable beauty
on this course!
Just before the mile 7 mark, we had an aid station, and then the steepest section of the race, a VERY steep area where I managed an average 8 1/2 minute pace.  From then on, it was downhill for the remainder of the race.  We crossed a few bridges, and I kept on with a steady pace that hovered right around 9 minutes per mile over the next few miles, coasting and doing strong... even toa  point where I ended up ingesting a flying bug (ewww... but I got some protein!), until we reached mile 10.

Running over a few wooden bridges
Mile 10 was around where the race reached the outskirts of the town of Lead, and where more spectators were around to line the course.  While it was still trail, we followed the steady downhill, having dipped below 5,000 feet of elevation, with even more to go (remember, our max was over 6,200, so we had definitely made our way down from considerable height!)  The trail crisscrossed Whitewood Creek and over Kirk Road, and we made our way to the last couple of miles paralleling State highway 385 and highway 85, both of which were undergoing some construction.  Somewhere along the way over our last mile or two, the gravel trail became paved concrete, and we made our way into Deadwood, finishing at the historic Engine House at the end of the line, the Deadwood Trailhead.  Meeting us as we crossed the finish line was the legendary Jerry Dunn, founder of this race, decked out in a snazzy tuxedo for the festivities.

With race director, Emily Schulz-Wheeler

With race founder Jerry Dunn.
Say hello to my new corgi friend!

Corgi #2

Despite the strugglebus section that I walked, I still managed a pretty fast time, posting a 2:05:07, my fifth fastest time ever. I stuck around at the finish line and grabbed photos with Jerry and Emily, who was close by.  I cheered on my friends Dan and Mike as the ran in, and managed to even find a couple corgis who were at the finish cheering on their owners! But my main reason to stick around was to help my friends Paula and Janice (respectively, Dan's wife and Mike's wife) as they made their way to the finish line.  I ran them in and loudly exclaimed their impressive feat of completing this race, another notch (#37/38 for Dan and Paula, #47 for Mike and Janice) on their belt of fifty states!  Paula and Dan (and myself, for a short quote) even got interviewed by the local paper, the Black Hills Pioneer, which you can find here!


A headstand for the ages!
So glad to spend some
time with Dan and Paula!
After milling about town, to try to get something to eat unsuccessfully, as well as completing my customary headstand photo, we headed back toward where my car was and where their hotel was, and vowed to meet up for lunch at The Knuckle Saloon and Brewery in Sturgis, close to my accommodations, but also en route for them on their long drive back to Kansas City.  After a delicious lunch, I headed back to my Airbnb tired out of my mind, and retired for the rest of the day in the comforts of sleep, which I absolutely needed after all of my adventures!

Mount Rushmore by helicopter!
I woke the next morning for my final day in South Dakota, with a schedule of heading out to Mount Rushmore and then driving out to the Badlands to hike the Notch Trail.  I had a very set schedule, so I needed to compact everything as best as I could into the hours I had.  After a necessary breakfast at Denny's, I made my way to Rushmore, only to decide last minute that I wanted to take a different approach to seeing it, since I had gone to the mountain itself when in 1992, and wanted to avoid crowds.  I got into the town of Keystone, gateway to Rushmore, and ended up deciding to see it by helicopter instead!

What an experience!
What a rush.  I had never been in a helicopter before, but for about ten minutes, we were able to fly over into the area surrounding the mountain (not directly over it, since there are restrictions to how close of airspace helicopters can fly near the monument).  It was an incredible feeling, being able to see the four faces of former presidents at such a unique angle.  After coming back down to earth, I decided to make my way out to Badlands National Park, and check out the Notch Trail, which I was told offered some pretty spectacular views of this unique national park.

Drove out to Badlands...
The 1 hour and 45 minute drive took me out to scenery seemingly out of a sci-fi movie, and to the beautiful pinnacles and spires that dot the horizon of this region.  I gave myself a specific amount of time in the area before I needed to head back, as the drive returning to Rapid City only gave me so much time before my flight back to NYC (via Minneapolis).  I took lots of photos, and then sped my way back to Rapid City, with a quick stop in Wall, SD, made famous by the hundreds of signs plastered along the I-90 roadside, sending visitors to the tourist trap of Wall Drug Store.  I literally ran in and stopped for maybe 10 minutes tops, before heading back on the road, to grab a root beer float (which was kindly purchased by another person in line in front of me, who saw my harriedness to try to get in and out as quickly as possible!)

Luckily I didn't see any!

Some minor acrobatics :)

Look at that scenery!

Quick stop at Wall Drug for a root beer float!

I definitely made the most out of my trip to South Dakota... and Wyoming and Montana!  Excited that I got to experience the beauty of this part of the country once again, albeit 24 years later!

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