I learned one simple fact this morning. When the race directors of the Mt. Rushmore Marathon dubbed it "A Monumental Challenge" they weren't just blowing smoke up everyone's rear end. Last year's race had people dropping like flies and the course was changed (actually divided into two marathons: Mt. Rushmore and Crazy Horse) this year to make it a little more runner friendly, but it was still the toughest course I've encountered so far.
I just ran the Montana Marathon three weeks ago and this is the closest I've ever run two marathons. I raced Montana and narrowly missed a PR. For Mt. Rushmore the plan was to treat it as a long run and I didn't really have a goal in mind. Sub-4 was my general goal, somewhere around 3:45 is what I was expecting. I drove the first half of the course Saturday afternoon after visiting Mt. Rushmore with the family (my 2.5 year old son loves that place). So, I knew there were hills involved, but you don't really get a good feel for just how long the uphills are when you're in a car. We spent the night in Hill City, where all four races (Mt. Rushmore, Crazy Horse and a half for each) finished. For some inexplicable reason, the race directors themselves hadn't set up buses from Hill City to the start but I did get hooked up with a tour company that was offering one van shuttle to the start. So, me and 10 others who had stayed in Hill City got on the van at 5 am and were dropped off at Mt. Rushmore at 5:30, with a full 90 minutes to stand around in the parking garage (unheated parking garage, I might add) in sub-30 degree temps. I chatted with a couple of the guys I had rode up with and it helped to pass the time and forget about how cold I was.
Just before 7 we were herded out of the garage to the start line. We stood there for a couple of minutes and then, suddenly, without any "Ready, Get Set, Go" or anything a siren went off. Everyone kind of hesitated for a couple of seconds and then realized that we were supposed to start running. So off we went.The first ten miles dropped from Mt. Rushmore down to the valley a few miles south of Hill City. I say dropped because overall there was an elevation decline, but there were at least five decent hills in between, including three real doozies. I felt okay for the first few miles. My feet were numb by the time the race started and it took awhile to get warmed up. By mile 6 I was starting to fall into a groove and was running as consistently as I could with the constant ups and downs. At about mile 10 we hit the valley where we switched from running on the highway to the Mickelson Trail, which is an old railroad that was converted to a hiking/biking trail in the 90s and travels about 110 miles north-south through the Black Hills. From the 10 mile mark into Hill City was all downhill on a nice dirt trail, so it was good running. We also joined up with the Crazy Horse runners at that point, so there were more people to follow (and pass).
The half-marathons ended in downtown Hill City, while the full marathoners cruelly had to run right past the finish line and complete a 6.5 mile out and back north of town. Running through Hill City I felt great and apparently I was looking strong too because several spectators said things like "Good job 105, you're almost done!!", thinking that I was a half-marathoner only blocks from the finish. Little did they know...
After Hill City is where things got rough. We ran along Deerfield Rd. for the first 6 miles or so which was virtually ALL uphill. Sure, there were some short flats and downhills, but you could ALWAYS see an uphill ahead and seemingly every time you were about to reach the top of one you discovered it was longer. At about the 19 mile mark we FINALLY got off the road and took a short jaunt through the woods to meet up again with the Mickelson Trail to begin the trek back to Hill City. It was here that I had to dive into a port a potty to take care of some business as my third Gu was wreaking havoc with my digestive system.Getting back on the Mickelson was like pure heaven after the 6 miles we'd just endured. Except for the fact that the first bathroom break hadn't fully done the job, I was feeling good. About a mile and a half past the port a john I had to jump off the trail, scale a barbed-wire fence and find some bushes to hide behind to take care of more business. No one passed me while I was doing it (the field was VERY spread out by this time) so that made me feel a little better about it. I had played it very safe during the uphill section (I walked all of the water stations and walked a little on the last long uphill too) and it paid off because I was still feeling strong when we got on the Mickelson. For each of the past three marathons I've run, the last six miles were pure hell. That wasn't the case today though. I cruised along at a comfortable pace and started passing people who weren't feeling so good (which felt pretty good ). With two miles left, I picked it up a little and passed about four people. The last mile I picked it up more but there wasn't anyone else within reach. We came off the Mickelson Trail about a half mile from the finish and looped around downtown to finish coming from the south, just as the half-marathoners did. I put in a good kick for the last 100 yards or so (hopefully that will look good on my finishing photo ), waved to my wife and kids as I ran past and finished in 3:47:41, 28th overall (I'm 28 years old and this was the 28th year of the marathon....weird, totally meaningless coincidences) and 4th in my age group (and this was my 4th marathon).My time was actually a new personal worst, the previous being my first marathon in Seattle which I ran in 3:46:14. But, this course was significantly tougher than any other race course I've run, so I'm not disappointed in the least. I'm actually surprised that I felt as strong as I did at the end. Sure, that probably means that I could have pushed it harder earlier, but then I would have felt like hell for the last six and I didn't want to relive Montana, where I don't even remember the last 4 miles because I was so spent.
I won't bother to post my full splits because after the 9 mile mark it seems like I missed more markers than I saw. The course was marked great up until then, but it was spotty at best until the last six miles, where the markers were painted on the trail. My first half split was 1:50:something, which would make the second half 1:57:something roughly, with the first 6 miles of that being much slower than the last 7.So, be forewarned if you plan on running Mt. Rushmore someday....it't a tough course at fairly high elevation (over 5000 ft.). Crazy Horse is probably easier overall (it's all downhill for the first 13.1) but it has an identical second half so you still have to deal with the 6 miles of uphill after Hill City.