Running Times – October 2004
June 6 – Deadwood Mickelson Trail Marathon
0ne of the best aspects of running is that it doesn’t require a special location or terrain. Unlike sports like skiing, climbing, surfing or diving we don’t have to wait to participate until we have vacation time and sufficient funds to travel to an appropriate location. Nevertheless, some places do make for better running – so much better they would be worth making a special trip.
Imagine designing the perfect running a venue: It would be a trail closed to motor vehicles, of course with a surface soft enough to be forgiving on joints, but smooth and wide enough to be able to glide along comfortably, looking up at the scenery, not down at every next step. For that scenery, what if we provided dense forests of ponderosa pines interspersed with rolling mountain meadows to provide long views, a few aspen groves with bright white trunks and rustling leaves, and trail side beds of blue and yellow wildflowers? The trail could run alongside a rocky stream occasionally crossing it on narrow wooden bridges descend into deep, shaded canyons, and end on the edge of a historic tourist town.
If we were designing the perfect running venue one version would certainly look a bet like the George S. Mickelson Trail in the Black Hills of South Dakota. A rails-to-trails conversion, the crushed limestone path winds 114 miles from Edgemont to Deadwood, passing through miles of national forest land and over rolling hills. And what better way to see a large portion of the trail than to run a marathon on its last 25 miles, finishing on the cobbled main street of Deadwood?
After the completion of the Mickelson Trail in 1998, local runners began saying “we ought to have a marathon here.” Terry Smith, a local ultra runner and director of the Centennial Trail 100, took up the idea in early 2002 but before the first one came off, handed it to Jerry Dunn, who has run with it long and hard, as is his style. Dunn is known as “America’s Marathon Man,” for his “marathon of marathons” when he ran Boston on 26 consecutive days, culminating in the 100th Boston, and his record of running 200 certified marathons in 2000. The race has grown from 77 finishers in 2002 to 1,053 from 48 states and provinces in 2004.
The course profile – climbing gradually for 13 miles then descending for the rest of the run – makes it look fast, but “It’s not a PR race by any means,” warns 2004 winner Scott Walschlager from Sioux Falls, SD. The Black Hills may not get as much respect as their towering cousins just to the west, but the mile-high altitude (topping 6,200 feet) makes running fast considerably more difficult.
You don’t, however, do a trail marathon for a PR, and despite the smooth surface, this is a trail marathon. “I think the silence and serenity of the trail offers something that we don’t get at the bigger races,” says Walschlager “and besides, [in] how many marathons will a deer run right in front of you and jump a fence?”
Braley also of Sioux Falls, has run the race each of its three years, winning the first one. “It is the most scenic one I have ever run,” he says. He and his family camp each time they come west. “It’s great camping out here,” he reports. “No bugs, cool nights.”
In the 2004 edition, we added 90-plus degree heat to the difficulty – the highest temps for this time of year since 1952, reports Dunn. In contrast, there was snow at the higher elevations in 2003. For some, like Jim Bitgood of Laurel, MD, the beauty was so distracting, he reports, “I didn’t realize it was so hot until I got into town… running in the woods is just cooler. Or just ‘cool'”
For others, like 2003 winner Robert Ellerbruch, the heat was debilitating: he was reduced to a walk, and finished 25 minutes slower than last year.
As for me, I too suffered. Yet, thinking of the race, the most powerful memories that come to mind are of the quiet beauty of running alone through woods. Jonathan Beverly