I ran the slowest half marathon of my life yesterday, and I’m fairly pleased with the result. Here’s why. The race was part of the Vacation Race National Park Series – the inaugural Mt. Rushmore Half Marathon, so even if I ran slow I was still able to spend a few days touring a part of the country I may never have visited if not for the race. And anyway the course – described by the promoters as “challenging” – features a total elevation gain just shy of 1500 feet, including a climb of about 1000 feet over the first 5.5 miles. Not to mention air that’s a lot thinner than I’m accustomed to. So slow is understandable.
I’ve been looking for good races to plan trips around this year so when I ran across the Vacation Race series in my search the Mt. Rushmore Half Marathon jumped out. I mean, who wouldn’t want to see Mt Rushmore in person? But would I really ever go there? That’s what I love about “race-cations”!
I used to travel to Boulder quite a bit on business and it always took me a couple of days to acclimate to the altitude so I made sure to come out to Keystone SD, where the race is headquartered, a few days early. I wanted to get a few runs in before the race. The first day was rough – I felt like I was gasping for air the whole 3 miles, but after that I got into the swing of it.
Of course we also planned to see some sights before the race. The first day we went up to see Deadwood, the old gold rush town of Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane fame. Went to the historic Adams House, had dinner at the Deadwood Social Club, walked around. It was kind of rainy so we didn’t explore as much as we might have. But it was certainly interesting to see and to learn more about this time in history.
Along the way to Deadwood we were drawn to the Wonderland Cave by numerous signs proclaiming its amazements and teasing its proximity. “Just one more mile this way”. Then “2 more miles that way” – by the time we were miles past the middle of nowhere we finally arrived at the cave and went on an $18 tour. As it turns out caves are cold and wet and tight in spots. Overall I would say it was amazing enough, but not recommended for the claustrophobic
On day 2 we went to Devils Tower, about a 2 hour drive from Keystone, and that was truly amazing. We walked the paved trail around the base that’s 1.6 miles and offers spectacular views of the tower and the surrounding countryside. We were there on a Friday after the season but it was still pretty crowded with tour busses and school trips and the RV set so I can only imagine what it is like during the summer. Extra points for this side trip if you’re a fan of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which I am.
After Devils Tower we headed to the Ghost Canyon Dude Ranch where the expo for the race was being held. The ranch is miles down a dirt road and, like many things in South Dakota, surrounded by a whole lot of nothing. When we got there the parking situation was a bit of a circus. Cars were parking on the side of the road as others were trying to get in or out of the already overcrowded grass parking lot area. According to the race guide, which was one of the most comprehensive and helpful I’ve seen, there were supposed to be 2 parking lots in use for the event. On race day there were, but not for the expo so we had to endure some unnecessary stress to pick up my packet.
Along with your number runners received a tech shirt of hideous bright green hue. Now I recognize that some people probably love that color but I already have a collection of bright green tech shirts – many from St Patrick’s Day runs – that I will never wear. Truth be told I’d rather have a nice soft t shirt than a tech shirt anyway and I wonder why more races don’t go that route. Folks that run a lot of races already have more tech shirts than they can use, and everyone can use another nice t shirt. Just not bright green.
Race morning was well organized with plenty of port-a- potties, coffee, hot chocolate and bananas, and Vaseline for the chafers among us. The start line was within walking distance of pretty much all the hotels in Keystone so we were able to head out for the 6:30 start around 6 which was nice because it was pretty cold at that time of the morning and I didn’t want to stand around for a long time. There was a bag check where you could drop off some outer layers for delivery to the finish line.
The Mt. Rushmore Half Marathon route was incredibly scenic and featured views of the monument along the way. But the course was relentless in throwing harder and harder hills at me and by mile 3 or so I was already in the “who gives a **** about President shaped rocks or beautiful vistas” zone. I was just concentrating on pushing up that hill at 9-11 minute miles. Young folks and some older folks were passing me like one of those blue haired old ladies on Florida’s highways. But I also saw more than a few of them walking up portions of the more onerous stretches, something I was determined to resist. I ran the first 6 miles @10:05 per according to Map My Run. It sure didn’t even feel that “fast”, but at least I ran the whole way.
Somewhere during mile 6 the rules all changed. I suddenly found myself absolutely flying downhill. Miles 7 and 8 were @7:27, like the airplane, and I felt like one. I passed all kinds of people who had left me for dead on the uphill run as they tried to modulate their speed coming down. I have a huge hill in my neighborhood that I go up and more importantly down a few times a week and over time I’ve learned how to descend it pretty much in full stride. That practice served me well on this part of the course and I nearly forgot all about those uphills. That is until we hit a few more. By mile 9 I was back in the 8:30-9:50 range. I finished the last 7 miles @8:29, which is basically normal for me.
The last 3 miles of the race were back on Ghost Canyon Road, the dirt road with the parking fiasco the day before. It was surprisingly smooth for a dirt road and although there was a lot of gravel on it there were not many divots or bumps so navigating it was easier than I had anticipated. There were a few uphill surprises left before the end and a fellow runner turned to me and said “they lied, this is not downhill”. I offered that I too liked the downhills a lot more.
At the end of the race if I have anything left in the tank I usually like to turn it up a notch as I approach the finish line. Unfortunately the setup here had us awkwardly running from the road into a grassy field and there was a pretty good dip that was a serious tripping hazard. I had to slow down as I approached the strips, which might have cost me a second or 2 but left all my bones and joints intact. Hopefully they’ll find a way to solve that for next time.
After the race we got one of the better goodie boxes I’ve seen. They also had a beer tent and a pancake breakfast for $5 that was pretty good and very appropriate since for me running races was originally an excuse to go get pancakes afterwards.
I’ve run 22 half marathons over the past 4 years and as I said at 2 hours and 3 minutes this was my slowest ever. In fact the only half marathons I completed over 2 hours were my first – Grete’s Great Gallop in Central Park in 2014 (2 hours 1 minute) – and one 2 hour and 3 second race at Little River Canyon where I deliberately ran slow in training for the NYC Marathon in 2016. Based on my time I wasn’t too optimistic about where I finished rank-wise but lo and behold I actually finished 4th in my old man group and 164th out of the 1498 finishers. I guess I wasn’t the only one who doesn’t prefer to run uphill for 5 miles.
After the race and the pancakes and hot shower I went out to see Mt. Rushmore in a more receptive frame of mind. Seeing it in person is kind of breathtaking even when your heart rate isn’t at 180. We walked the trails and got pictures from several different perspectives while listening to the winds whistle through the pines. We learned that part of the legacy that Thomas Jefferson left the nation was a recipe for vanilla ice cream that was being served at the snack bar, and that there is a lighting ceremony every night into October. We decided to combine that knowledge and returned to Mt Rushmore after dinner to experience both. The ice cream was fine, would love to see what Ben Franklin’s ice cream recipe was like to compare. The lighting ceremony was super patriotic, but there was a medical emergency in the crowd prior to the show which cast a bit of a pall over the festivities.
Overall I really enjoyed the trip and would definitely recommend Vacation Race’s Mt. Rushmore Half Marathon. Expect the race to be challenging and make plans to arrive a few days early to take in some of the amazing experiences the region
Well well it turns out that the Mt. Rushmore Half Marathon awarded medals to the top 5 finishers in each age group not the typical 3. That means I have a medal coming my way. Wished I realized this on race day- I’d have hung around a little longer to collect in person and save the $10 shipping fee