Friday, April 12, 2019

Race Report: Run4Troops

A tank at the start of the race! A first...
Finding a race in Iowa was particularly tough for me - while there were a range of options, the most ideal, the Des Moines Marathon, wasn't going to work with my existing schedule.  By May, I finally decided to do Run4Troops, a race at the end of June, in eastern Iowa.  Run4Troops, a race whose proceeds supports our men and women in uniform is run entirely along the Heritage Trail, a 26-mile long multi-use rail trail connecting Dubuque and Dyersville, Iowa through the Little Maquoketa River valley. This portion of Iowa is part of a region that spans four states (Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota) along the Mississippi River that were never glaciated. This area of Iowa is in stark contrast with the rest of the state, with large limestone bluffs and dramatic scenery. The gently sloping route of the Heritage Trail was converted from a segment of the former Chicago Great Western railroad line, built in the 1880s. Many of the bridges and trestles along the route were deemed unsafe for railroad traffic, so the railroad line was abandoned in 1981. Now it is maintained by the Dubuque County Conservation Board, who acquired the railbed and created the compacted, crushed limestone trail in the mid-1980s, and many of the historic railroad bridges have since been replaced after flooding.  All along the trail path, stone mile markers have been restored by the conservation board, with markers that indicate mileage to Chicago (C), mileage to St. Paul, Minnesota (S), and whistle crossing (WX).

Home of "Field of Dreams"
I arrived late Friday night into Madison, Wisconsin, and picked up my rental car to drive to the home of my family friends Elin and Brady, who lived there and offered me free accommodation for the weekend. With Dubuque being roughly an hour and a half away from Madison, my plan was to wake up very early at 4:30am to do the drive over.  I quietly left their house and got on the road, driving west to the Iowa state line, and arriving while the sun was rising for the day. We were directed to park in Dubuque near the Hilton Garden Inn, where school buses would take us to the start in Dyersville.

Ready to get going...
Tired from not having much sleep, we arrived in Dyersville to the parking area near the trailhead, marked by a picnic pavilion built to commemorate the start of the trail.  A quiet city of just over 4,000 people, Dyersville is actually a thriving farming city with a long history. It is nicknamed "The Farm Toy Capital of the World" because it hosts a farm toy show the first weekend in June and the National Farm Toy Show the first weekend in November. But it is best known as being where the movie "Field of Dreams" was filmed, at a farm about 3.5 miles northeast of the trailhead. The race schedule in the morning would be as follows: relay teams would start at 7am, followed by the marathoners at 7:15, and then another set of relayers at 7:30.  Strange, but I guess that works out for them in spreading out the field all along the narrow trail.

At the start!
After watching the first group head out, we were up, and like clockwork at 7:15, we were off.  It was going to be a fairly warm day - the temperature was 63º, with incredibly high humidity, reaching 94%.  The first 0.8 mile of the race was actually an out-and-back along the asphalted Beltline Road and not on the trail.  I guess we were only running 25.4 miles on the actual Heritage Trail, hence this part of the race.  At the turnaround point, located alongside a lumber manufacturer property was a bagpiper. We made our way back to the starting area near the picnic pavilion with lots of cheers from spectators, before taking another u-turn onto the faintly marked grassy area running parallel to the asphalt road we just ran on.

Running along the Heritage Trail
Eventually, we would come off of the grass and get back onto the asphalt, but that was just a short section, because we would then get onto the crushed limestone and gravel terrain of the actual Heritage Trail - essentially a dirt road - which we would be running on, save for a few road crossings for the remainder of the race.  The course was pretty quiet, and without many landmarks or elements to take note of, unlike many of my other race reports, I'll only be able to write so much from the notes I jotted down and could remember immediately after the race.

Jun found me!
We ran by several plots of farmland, so the early miles, such as near the mile 3 mark smelled like cow manure. Over the next few miles, we would be running fully exposed to the bright and shining sun, with no shade whatsoever. While open farmland for miles was to our left, only a few hundred feet to our right, we could see the highway - US Route 20, a major four-lane divided highway that cuts clear across the state.  The heat and humidity was starting to become a factor for me already, so I eased back on my speed and kept my pace nice and easy with sub-11 minute miles.  My friend Jun from Minnesota would end up catching up to me around this area, and through already building up sweat, we would run together for a short period of time. Little did I know we were trending uphill over these next few miles, eventually reaching the highest point of the race at 1,089 feet above sea level, some 134 feet above the elevation we had started at, just before the 6 mile mark.

Fully exposed only 4 miles into the race.  It's so hot!
Passing by the first relay exchange
From mile 6 on, the course would trend downhill to flat, with a few rollers, but first, we would run through a section of the trail north of the small 1,500 person city of Farley. The first relay exchange point was at the 6.6 mile mark, just before we run through a short culvert under Holy Cross Road.  Of course, I end up getting through my first issue of the race (other than the heat and humidity) as I accidentally inhale a flying bug. I'd have to stop and walk, because it feels like the bug went down my windpipe and was getting caught in my throat.  At one point I stop, and with my hands on my knees, feel like I’m going to throw up; thankfully, I’m able to spit out whatever nastiness from the bug, but it’s still feeling pretty gross. It shows, as my mile 7 split is the slowest so far of the race - an 11:34 mile. A volunteer near a road crossing is able to offer me a swig of water to try to clear my throat. It works, as I’m finally able to run again.

Some shade trees along the trail...
At about the 7.5 mile mark, I find a portapotty to use on the side of the trail. Unfortunately, with the rains that came through in the days before the race, it now sat in about two inches of standing water, and without realizing it, I end up soaking my left foot as I make my way to it. After using it, I gingerly make my way out of the puddle, trying to avoid the deeper spots, but know that the next few miles may be a little uncomfortable, with a somewhat soaked sock and shoe. I make up some time, as it's actually a very gentle downhill from this point on, so I'm able to climb back into three strong mile splits at the 9, 10, and 11 mile marks, hovering close to 10 minutes per mile (yet still keeping to my 9 minute, 1 minute run/walk interval.)

The course meanders by a nearby stream known as Hogan's Branch, and somewhere near mile 10, I hear really loud cow mooing its face off, but nowhere to be seen.  Perhaps it sees us, or senses our presence as we run by.  At mile 11, we cross Gun Club Road, and I run my fastest mile since the first mile of the race, just as we pass just north of another similarly small city - Epworth, Iowa. At the 12 mile mark, the trail starts to run roughly parallel, but sometimes crossing, over the Little Maquoketa River, which Hogan's Branch had flowed into. The river, a direct tributary of the upper Mississippi River, is considered one of the best smallmouth bass and trout fisheries in Iowa, and is never located too far from the trail during the remainder of the race.  In fact, the river offers some of the prettiest views throughout the race.

The Little Maquoketa River
Soon, we come to the halfway point of the race, and I pass it by in about 2:20:57.  Not terribly fast, considering the flatness of the road, but just about right when I take the heat and humidity into account. My body is tired and hot, so my mile pace begins to slow, and save for a 10:53 mile at the 13 mile mark, it never returns to a sub-11 minute mile.  Having enjoyed a bit of shade from the surrounding trees, when we reach the 15 mile mark near the barely discernible town of Graf, the path becomes pretty exposed again over the next couple of miles.

Some limestone bluffs near the trail
The later the day becomes, the tougher the race is because of the heat, and I end up hovering near the 12 minute mark per mile. We run by sheer limestone bluffs near the 18 and 19 mile marks, just before passing the last relay exchange at Budd Road.  Near the 21 mile mark, an official-looking sign was planted along the trail that said "Look Right" - through the trees and in the woods high up on the side of a small limestone cliff was an American flag.  Apparently the land owner put the sign there, which was a nice gesture, considering the Run4Troops race's cause! Just before the town of Durango at mile 22, we passed by a house situated along the trail; on their land, they had organized some small vegetable gardens and an orchard - but they used wooden posts in the orchard that resembled crosses, and skeptically, I wondered, "WHY IS THERE A CEMETERY ALONG THE TRAIL?!" Apparently, I would not be the only one who thought that, as runners I'd pass nearby made the same comment.
The 1872 Bridge along the trail
From the town of Durango, the trail runs parallel to the road (Iowa Route 3/US Route 52) for about 2.5 miles, so periodically, we would sometimes hear the cars rush by just on the other side of the shield of trees.  While still just outside of the Dubuque city limits, we were inching ever so close as the miles ticked by.  Just after the mile 24 mark, we ran by a span of a truss bridge on display alongside the trail.  Upon later research, I found that this was one of four spans of an original 1872 bridge that was once part of a bridge that went over the Mississippi River from Dubuque, but was relocated in 1992 to its current location alongside the Heritage Trail to serve as a "rest stop" for hikers along the path.

My traditional mile 25 photo!
With a mile left in the race, I passed by the mile 25 mark. The last four miles were pretty slow, averaging 13:39 per mile, and with my watch showing 4:50 tick by, I knew I would be just over 5 hours for this race.  Suddenly, I run into a cloud of flies, and unsurprisingly, I spot a deer just grazing near the trees right next to the trail.  It gets spooked at my sudden appearance and runs away. Eventually, we come out of the trail at Deere Street, and run into a parking lot next to Heritage Pond into the town of Sageville, where the finish line is in sight.  While the trail, now in paved form continues another 3.3 miles into Dubuque itself, I cross the line in 5:07:48.  Finally, I'm done, overheated, and ready for a cold towel, which is immediately handed to me as I seek shade.

Victory Headstand along the trail!

Elin and I at Memorial Union Terrace
I waited for Jun to finish, only some 13 minutes behind me, and have him take my headstand photo for me near the limestone Heritage Trail sign we passed in the last few hundred meters of the race. I got a shuttle to back to the Hilton Garden Inn to my car, and then drove the 1.5 hours back to Madison for a well deserved shower. I proceeded to have an eventful rest of the weekend with my family friend Elin.  Saturday was fairly low-key, just exhausted from the morning - so with Elin and her family, we just stayed at home and watched some TV.  The following day, I switched a 6:30am flight that I was scheduled to be on to later on in the day, so I could be a tourist -- we parked near the University of Wisconsin, and enjoyed a beverage on this relaxing summer Sunday at the Memorial Union Terrace, then drove around Madison to check out some Frank Lloyd Wright buildings, such as his First Unitarian Meeting House, built in 1951, and is recognized as one of the most innovative examples of church architecture in the world.

I got back to the Madison Airport for my evening flight, which would end up being delayed for an hour, as we sat on the tarmac waiting for air traffic control to let us finally go.  Thunderstorms over LaGuardia would delay us even more, putting us in a holding pattern over western Pennsylvania for about 40 minutes before we were finally cleared to land.  Because of delays, I'd end up sitting on an airplane for over five hours, half of that actually in the air.  But I had Iowa done, and that was the most important part for me!

(For those running this race in 2019, Run4Troops has changed the course and also added a half marathon distance.  The new route is now an out-and-back course that begins and ends in Sageville.  It includes a small two mile section that runs along the paved part into Dubuque that was not included in the 2018 and earlier route.  The only part of the route that was ran in 2018 and in earlier years that is being run in the new route is from Graf to Sageville - from roughly mile 15 to the finish of this race report.)

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