Quick Summary: Does it seem odd to drive 1,865 miles in four days by yourself through lonely spaces in order to run 26.2 miles virtually alone? And even more odd to find it all exhilarating? I understand...and that's what happened on June 2, 2018 when I ran The Sandhills Marathon. Lots of photos and videos here and few words, which is much like the Sandhills themselves. Come along with me.
The Gory Details:
Both long-term readers of this blog know I grew up on a cattle farm in Auburn, Nebraska. Just being a native Cornhusker is very unusual...most people have never met anyone from Nebraska. Even though I have lived in Indiana for over 40 years, I still have a deep, visceral connection to my home state. I'm sure it's closely linked to the land and the fact my ancestors homesteaded in 1867 on our home farm.
Since I started running marathons again in 2006, I've always wondered about doing one in Nebraska. About six years ago, I learned of the Sandhills Marathon and it immediately hit a responsive chord. For a number of reasons, schedules didn't work until this year and I signed up on New Year's Day when registration opened, not wanting to miss it.
But what exactly are The Sandhills?? Here's an accurate description (source):
The Nebraska Sandhills, despite their immeasurable natural and economic importance, their rare beauty, and their place in the conservation of migratory waterfowl and other birds, remain surprisingly unknown territory, even to the rest of Nebraska. The Nebraska Sandhills are the largest area of sand dunes in the western hemisphere. Over 50,000 square kilometers, or close to 20,000 square miles in extent (not counting some outliers), the Sandhills are fragile grasslands that are wild, sparsely settled, desolate, and beautiful in unexpected ways. The Sandhills are cattle country, not farm country. Sand-trap back roads and extremes of weather can be unforgiving even to knowing inhabitants.
Yep. The Sandhills are every bit this and that's what I wanted to see again. I had been there once when I was in high school to play a baseball tournament but the summer of 1970 is a long, long time ago. I really wanted to go back.
The Sandhills are remote, to say the least. It's an 850 mile one-way drive from my home in West Lafayette, Indiana to Valentine, Nebraska, the only town of any size in the Sandhills. I took two days off from work and left early on Thursday morning for the Saturday race.
As it turned out, our three sons, their wives and kids were also meeting up on that same Thursday evening for a weekend together in Des Moines. Pure coincidence, but I spent the night there and went out to dinner with my entire family. I really missed having Gretchen with us, but here's our entire family, with four and a half grandkids.
It was wonderful to see the cousins interacting.
I left Des Moines at 7am Friday and kept driving west. Once I got to the Missouri River, it was 250 miles of two lane roads to Valentine. And I loved the drive...great roads, unencumbered, a close-up look at every farm along the way. I could write an entire blog post just on the drive, but I won't. I got to Valentine around 3pm, checked into my motel and was first through the packet pick up at an appropriate-to-the-Sandhills location to get the bib and t shirt.
With some time, I drove the 40 miles south of Valentine to scout out the finish line and parking of the marathon in the daylight. That helped me orient to the area and drink in, even more, the beauty of the Sandhills. On the drive back to Valentine, I saw an awesome thunderstorm build and rain to the east of town. It was spectacular.
The race hosted a pasta feed at a local microbrewery where I enjoyed talking with Dan, a marathoner from Boston (do they run there??) and Steve from Omaha. Great fun. I then walked around Valentine a while...with 2,800 residents, it's even smaller than my hometown and it felt like I was home, in many respects. I came upon an ice cream shop and got a cone and then had a nice surprise, watching a Car Show parade scheduled for that Friday evening.
I slept somewhat normally for the night before a marathon, meaning "not too great" and up and down quite a bit. I had dreams of police shouting commands over their squad car speakers and thought nothing of it. I was up at 3:30am, knowing I had to be at the finish line by 5:00am. As I walked out of the hotel at 4:00am, I realized my dreams were not bogus...a restaurant kitty corner from my hotel was going up in flames, with a hook and ladder truck pouring water onto the roof. Yikes! I looped out the back exit of the hotel and headed south, concerned, knowing what a problem a big fire can be in a small town.
Through the dark, I could see a handful of cars along the lonely US83 in the pre-dawn hours; I was pretty sure we were all getting set to run. Indeed, all of us turned right onto Brownlee Road and parked. It was a small group and, as planned, the entire marathon field (only 29 finished the race and I don't think anyone dropped out) boarded a small school bus precisely at 5:00am for the 26 mile ride to the start line for the 6:00am point to point race start.
I was fortunate to sit behind Lisa from Lincoln, who had run the race five times before. As we rumbled through the darkness, she gave several of us a tour of the course, which proved of exceptional value during the race. What to expect, what to look for...it was wonderful. She offered to take a photo of me with the not-quite-up sun in the east.
While not intentional, it was ironic I wore my shirt from the 2016 Chicago Marathon, the quintessential "big city marathon", with over 40,000 finishers running through the concrete jungle. The Sandhills Marathon is the complete opposite of Chicago...all the starters fit on a small (not even full size) school bus...try THAT in Grant Park!! I took a short jog to loosen the legs before we started and took a photo of the starting grid from 100m or so away. Yep, that's all of us, plus the school bus. Later, I discovered the start line was technically a few miles into the Mountain Time Zone, so far west we were.
How do you start a marathon in the Sandhills?? With a shotgun, of course!! A perfect touch.
Exactly at 6:00am, we got started, with the sun not yet quite up. I can't tell you what a thrill it was for me to finally get this race going. It was all I had hoped for and, as it turned out, the event only continued to exceed all my expectations.
The day's weather was a big help...the overnight thunderstorms had cleared out the heat and humidity of the prior day and we enjoyed a breeze from the northwest giving us a tailwind all day on our generally southeastern trek on Brownlee Road. (It also turned out the northwest wind may have saved an apartment building in the fire referenced above...a far more important result of this meteorological factor). The temperature was about 54F at the start...I wore toe-less tube socks as arm warmers through mile 9 or so. The temps never got over the mid 60s...it was a perfect day to run. Here I am early on:
Massive thanks to the organizers and Gary Doughtery for professional photos, free, from the day...check out all of them here.
I fell in early with three other folks and we did the usual "how far did you drive to get here?" chat which was normal at Sandhills. When Andy discovered I was from Indiana, he lit up...when he found out I was a Purdue engineer, he sneered through his smile. He grew up in Indiana and, more importantly, attended our arch-rival Indiana University. Go figure...here we are in the middle of nowhere and I still end up next to an IU grad who will hassle me about going to Purdue. We joked all day as we flip-flopped positions.
The scenery was breathtaking. I decided early that taking some photos and videos along the way would trump any speed concerns. As we made the first climb of the day, I shot this video of the day's main spectators:
It was so empty and so magnificent. Unlike the crowded streets of the Chicago Marathon, where people lined up to watch us, we were the interlopers here and the "locals" looked on with, at best, mild amusement.
The visual highlight of the entire marathon route occurred between mile 9 and 11. Lisa pointed this out to us emphatically on the trip out and I was not disappointed. This long climb over a sand dune was over a mile long and it was another mile down the other side on our narrow strip of asphalt only one pickup wide. The scene got better and better as we made the steep climb.
I shot two videos from the top, the first looking back, to the west and the second looking forward. I'm sorry for the wind noise but it captures a very real part of the setting.
Looking to the east...
Down the hill we went.
We then settled into a flatter part of the course from mile 12 to mile 22, roughly following the South Loup River. Here are some of the few trees along the entire trip with me plodding along in my yellow shirt.
Yet, the scenery was no less striking and amazing to me...it was so big, so huge, so empty of people yet so full of life.
I knew the race was special when I reached the half-marathon marker in 2 hours, 15 minutes, even and my emotions sunk. I was sad. This fabulous race was already half-over. I wanted it to last.
Here's a video from the mid point of the race.
The perceptive, experienced runner who has endured reading to this point is likely wondering how basic race functions happen with a small field of runners spread out over a long, remote course.
Well, RD Andy Pollack was brilliant on many of these things. For example, here's how they handled portable toilets.
Yep, you see correctly...this is one of two pickups, each pulling a low trailer with two portables. One truck hung out with the leaders, the other with us slow folks. As the pack moved ahead, so did they. And, if someone needed to "go", they just signaled the driver to "stop" and it all worked. When the race ended around noon, both trucks were at the finish line and nothing remained behind.
Water stops were also simple...at every third mile marker was a cooler full of ice and 8 oz bottles of water and Gatorade. I was glad I brought my water belt, as I could easily refill my bottles and leave the empty in the cooler, so as not to litter the beautiful hills.
In addition, two guys on bicycles circulated all day amongst us, back and forth, back and forth.
This is Greg and it was fun to chat with him multiple times during the 4+ hours on the course. The two guys kept a watchful eye on all the runners and were equipped to get help had any of us needed it. From asking the port-a-john truck to stop to getting a bail-out ride, they were the eyes of the race on the ground. Overall, the race had brilliant organization.
What do you think about while running in such an empty place? I could only think about people. Who are these hardy souls making a go in such a spot??
At the finish line on US83, this sign is the "index" of the ranches spread out over the miles and miles along the marathon route. Look closely at the distances here...miles along the road and, several, many more miles OFF the road. And, mind you, this sign itself is 40 miles from Valentine, Nebraska and 20 miles from the village of Thedford, Nebraska. You can't zip down to the corner grocery to get a half-gallon of milk when you live in the Sandhills.
Along the road, signs and mailboxes marked the lane to each ranch. Yet, in many cases, I could see no sign of a home...only a lane disappearing over another hill.
It's a tough breed of folks who can survive and thrive in this setting. A love of cattle, an ability to manage the vagaries of weather and markets, a self-sufficiency to live remotely...all of this and more is vital.
All of this reminded me of my ancestors who landed in southeast Nebraska, perhaps around the same time some of these families landed in the Sandhills. It made me grateful, mindful we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us.
All these cattle? All the windmills? The miles and miles of barbed wire fence? The cattle sorting pens? The huge pastures? It brought back rich, deep memories of my Dad and Mom, his siblings, my grandparents, my great-grandparents. I particularly missed my Dad during this entire trip...I can't fathom how wonderful it would have been to drive through these hills with him, talking about cattle and life.
And it gave a new, visual sense to me of the words of the ancient Psalm regarding the provision of the "cattle on a thousand hills."
Such was the depth of the reflection of this introverted runner on a wonderful run alone. Around mile 24, I saw a young rancher parked in his pickup along the side of the road. I paused to thank him for letting us invade his space for a day. Dale smiled and said "Shoot, it's pretty lonely out here, we're glad to have some visitors!" I shook his hand and, in some sort of way, tried to thank him on behalf of all the ranchers I ran by.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, er, race...Oh, yeah, this was a race, right? Like actually running 26.2 miles? Not an outdoor book club?? Indeed.
I ran this marathon as I've run many before. I kept a 3/1 run walk ratio, running three minutes and walking one minute. The ratio worked well and I actually tried to run at about a 9:15/mile pace during each three minutes of running. And it worked great. Just past mile 19, we made the one turn on the entire course, as we did a one mile out and back to the south through the hamlet of Brownlee in order to get the total mileage right. Someone there has a good sense of humor.
I just kept doing the 3/1 and I never hit The Wall, never felt badly, had no blisters or other pain and enjoyed chatting with marathoners and half-marathoners whom I caught up with in the final 9 miles or so. Perfect marathon days don't happen often, folks. I was grateful for the weather, the setting and everything about the event.
We came to the final mile, a long straight, flat section and it was a thrill to wrap up a marathon in my home state that went as well as I could have ever imagined.
My official finish time was 4:35:44. I had secretly hoped to be under 4:40; I was thrilled to beat that soundly. It also meant the second half only took 6 minutes longer than the first half, very encouraging, especially given the time I took to shoot video, take photos and talk to bikers and Dale, the rancher. I wouldn't change a thing.
And what else would you give race finishers at such a locale? A generic race medal??? No way...a silver stirrup, properly engraved. This is a keeper.
Back at the lot where we had left our cars way before dark, the vibe was fun as marathoners and half marathoners all basked in the beautiful day. I reconnected with my newly-found Indiana buddy, Andy...it turned out we had actually parked right next to each other.
We had a fun chat over the amazing coincidence. And, man, I'd like to get a "Run Nebraska" shirt like his.
So, there you have it. This was my 81st completed marathon/ultra. And the Sandhills Marathon is clearly in the top five for me. To be clear, the perfect running weather and good rains this spring produced a pleasant setting in lush hills; thus I could ponder my roots rather than manage dehydration. It's not a marathon for everyone...it takes a lot of work to even get to the starting line and the successful runner has to have a bit of the self-sufficiency about him/her which reflects the same grit of Sandhills residents. Extroverted runners would be horribly frustrated, as the conversation skills of the steers watching us were lacking. There were zero fans. But for me and my temperament, the trip, the run, the setting, the event was about as perfect as it could be.
Thanks for reading. And persevere, with or without an audience.