So far this year I have found myself increasingly drawn to smaller races in beautiful mid-sized towns and metropolitan areas instead of huge races in big cities. Part of this is due to the great scenery that smaller venues have to offer but it is also because I am eager to try out new (to me at least) races. And since I’ve already done New York, Chicago, Boston, Marine Corps, Little Rock, New Orleans, Seattle, Portland, and most of the other major league marathons, it has been fun to seek out the not so popular but still very excellent races.
As a result, I found myself this past weekend in the lovely town of Sioux Falls, the largest city in South Dakota but still relatively small compared to New York, Dallas, Chicago, and Boston. The marathon is a recent addition to a popular half marathon that has been in existence for almost twenty years. The marathon, on the other hand, was begun in 2010 and usually has about 350-400 runners. I knew I was taking a chance with the 6 hour 15 minute time limit but since I was trying to get my second race in South Dakota (yes, I have decided to try for a second round of the states), it seemed like a good opportunity.
I left for Sioux Falls on Friday morning and 3 flights later arrived in the city around 4 pm. In the baggage claim area I met Jean and Jennifer, identical twins from Cincinnati who were also in town for the race. They were renting a car and since we were all staying at the host hotel, the Sheraton, they offered me a ride. The Sheraton does have a free shuttle to and from the airport but it was fun to share a ride and talk shop. I was able to check in and get a room on the Club floor which gave me access to the Club Lounge. This saved me quite a bit of money because I was able to eat light meals for breakfast and dinner plus snacks gratis. In fact, I probably earned a record for the least amount of money spent over a weekend on any of my trips – only $6 for a beer on Saturday afternoon!
Since it had been a long day of travel, I was glad to turn in early on Friday evening. On Saturday, I had a continental breakfast and took a walk around the area, checking out exactly how far it was to downtown. The hotel is located near the airport, about 2 miles from the city center, and I was thinking about taking a taxi there and back so I could visit some museums and shops. A taxi wasn’t really necessary, however, because there were sidewalks along the route and by following a simplified map distributed by the hotel I could figure out the way there and back. As it turned out, though, I didn’t even need to walk because I met Jennifer and Jean around 1 pm and we spent the rest of the day exploring downtown Sioux Falls.
But first I had to visit the Expo and packet pickup in the Arena, located right next to the Sheraton. Hours of the Expo were 11 am to 7 pm and I was one of the first to line up at the marathon counter. I received my bib with chip attached, safety pins, and a long-sleeved gray technical tee shirt plus a bright yellow backpack which doubled as a drop bag on race morning. Booths lined both sides of the large room and I spent some time chatting with the vendors. On the way back to my hotel room, I ran into the twins who were headed downtown. I readily accepted an invitation to join them. We managed to fit in a lot of sightseeing in a relatively short span of time. Some of the highpoints included the Old Courthouse Museum, the Pettigrew Home and Museum, the eponymous Falls (located in a beautiful park with an observation tower, café, and visitor’s center), and an arts festival and Germanfest.
I tried to turn in early on Saturday because the race began at 6:45 on Sunday morning and I wanted to have my coffee and bread at least two hours before. The start of the race was on the track at Howard Wood Field, just a short walk from the hotel. I was happy I could wait until almost the last minute before I had to leave the warmth of my hotel room for the 50 degree temperature outside. No rain was predicted (unlike the drenching I had last weekend in the Upper Peninsula) but the day remained fairly cool until the sun rose around 8 am. Someone sang the Star Spangled Banner, someone else gave a brief invocation, the one wheelchair participant took off, and at exactly 7:45 the rest of us followed.
The first third of the race follows streets and highways on the outskirts of the city and there is not too much to see – lots of industrial buildings, some homes, and lots of wide open spaces. By mile 9, we hit the first of several paved bike paths; this one was pleasant to walk on but there was no shade at all and the sun was beginning to make the day feel quite hot and humid. I kept leapfrogging with Henry Rueden who was finishing his 996th marathon! Most of the runners had taken off quickly and there were just a few people pushing my pace. Soon Henry took off and I didn’t see him again until almost 10 miles later, when I overtook him (though he managed to catch up with me around mile 25 and finished just ahead of me!). I was essentially alone for the next 5 miles but it was hard to get lost at this point – the bike path had few alternate paths and for the most confusing sections, volunteers pointed me in the right direction. I noticed the time as I crossed the 13.1 mile timing mat; it read 2:55 so I was on target for a 6 hour finish if I could maintain my pace.
Unfortunately, my legs began to tire and the irritating pain I had been experiencing in my left hamstring and gluteal muscles began to resurface. The next section of the race, around mile 15, led through downtown and that gave me some neat things to look at, including some of the buildings I had visited the day before. The course looped around the city, through Falls Park, where we crossed a bridge in front of the Falls, and then back through downtown. Here I could see some of the faster runners at the tail end of the loop. Then it was back on the trail system – only this time the trail, though paved, was not as smooth as the earlier one. I had to watch for cracks and undulations so I wouldn’t trip. This was another portion of the course where I was by myself for several miles. This section was followed by my least favorite part, a stretch on a frontage road of a major highway. It didn’t last long but it was not fun. By mile 22, it was back to residential neighborhoods and then another bike path, this time similar to the initial one but well-shaded.
By the time I reached mile 25, I had passed a few runners, including barefoot Eddie and his girlfriend, and I finally crossed the finish line in 6:08:37. I was pleased that I had made it under the 6:15 time limit and had even placed 3rd in my age group. There was still plenty of food at the finish line, including chocolate milk, bagels, cookies, fruit, and some incredible ice cream sandwiches. Because the finish line is at the Family Wellness Center on Oxbow Avenue, racers need to take a shuttle bus back to the start and the hotels. Fortunately there were several buses waiting for us back-of-the-packers and we made the trip back in about 15 minutes. The course will be changed next year so that the start and finish will be in the same place. That should be a positive development.
This marathon was challenging and not a race I would recommend for the casual power walker. It is relatively flat so elevation and hills are not an issue, but the tight time limit and the lack of spectators can be discouraging. Next year, the race director is considering an early start for slower marathoners. If that is the case, I would definitely recommend the race for walkers.