Thursday, June 09, 2005

The American Wild West - Running the Deadwood-Mickelson Trail Marathon

[If you're looking for the article on Kristin Armstrong, click here]

Last weekend, Christi and I took four days to travel to Deadwood, SD, for some sightseeing and the Deadwood-Mickelson Trail Marathon. We’re big fans of the Deadwood HBO Series, so when the DMT Marathon was added to the Trail Runner Trophy Series, we signed up right away. The trip turned out to be more fun, mysterious, and magical than we ever could have imagined….and that’s before the race even started.

I know we’re cheesy because a show on HBO helps us choose a race, but hey, that show rocks! If anything we had to go just to see if everyone really used the word “cocks@#$cker“ 100 times a day (thank god, they don’t), visit the historic Gem Theater, and gather any historical facts that might give a hint to the future plot line for the show (one hint - “eegads, Deadwood is burning! Again!”). But it wasn’t JUST the TV show that attracted us - we also knew the Badlands, Black Hills, and Spearfish Canyon would create an inspirational canvas for Christi’s digital camera. And that, my friends, did not disappoint.

The Badlands

Nothing could have prepared us for the supernatural world of the Badlands. As soon as we entered the Badlands National Park, the rental car screeched to a halt as we dropped our jaws and stared like zombies as the sun set over these painted, barren hills. The colors and texture seemed of another planet, both peaceful and frightening, stirring the soul at some deep, unknown level. So, of course, I strapped on my running shoes. ;oP

(Photo by Christi Dunlap, All Rights Reserved)

The Badlands were named so by the Lakota, who called it “mako sica”, meaning “land that is difficult to cross”. You certainly find out why as soon as you stray from the trails or road. I was surprised to find out that none of the park is off limits (just don’t mess with the animals or fossils) – you can even run right up the moonrock mountain tops. If you can get there, that is.

I found the trails and roads to suffice just nicely. Running in the Badlands is amazing. The skies are still, the horizon seems limitless, and the colors shift every second as you run through prairies filled with wildflowers to infinite stretches of jagged red peaks. It is a land of extremes. As the sun set, we knew we would be back again before the trip was done, if only to suck up its mystery for a few more hours.

(Photo by Christi Dunlap, All Rights Reserved)

The Other Touristy Stuff

Nobody loves touristy stuff like Christi (you should see our coozie collection), so we hit it all. We checked out Mt. Rushmore, which was cool. It was bit disturbing to see the faces of four white guys carved into the Black Hills, one of the most sacred Native American lands around. You feel a bit better when you go 30 more miles to the Crazy Horse Memorial, which dwarfs Mt. Rushmore in scale, ambition, and impact. It’s amazing to hear about the dedication of the Ziolkowski family that will spend many generations finishing this, started by a man who knew he would never see it to completion. We later found bison in Custer State Park, eagles in the Spearfish Canyon, ghost stories and graves of the American West, and anything you could ever want at Wall Drug, the craziest drug store (and billboard marketing strategy) I’ve ever seen. We would recommend all of it.

Deadwood is a thriving little town these days, thanks to a 1989 law that made low-stakes gambling legal again to help raise funds to rebuild the town (a recurring theme in the history of Deadwood). Our favorite spots were the Bullock Hotel, Saloon #10 (get a pint of Moosedrool – good stuff), the Deadwood Social Club Restaurant (best choice for non-meat eaters or cheesecake lovers), and Jake’s at the Midnight Star (Kevin Costner’s “Me Wall” has three stories). And if $2.99 giant chicken fried steak is your game, you will have your choice of fare up and down Main Street.

The Deadwood Mickelson Trail Marathon

The weather worked out perfectly for the 1,600 participants in the DMT, with the canyon walls providing plenty of shade along the sunny course. The Mickelson Trail is a “rails-to-trails” location, meaning it’s a former railroad covered with hard pack dirt to make a multi-purpose trail similar to Bizz-Johnson. This also means the course is fast, and very “road runner friendly” for a trail run. It also means the super-speedy road racers would be out in force.

On the bus ride out, I spoke with Robin and Katie Harbage, a crazy running couple from Chagrin Falls, OH. Both were working on their “50 marathons in 50 states”, throwing in a few hundred milers like Western States and Leadville along the way just for fun. Their eagerness and sense of adventure captured the spirit of most of the runners that morning, who were excited to get started. We talked about the course a bit – 13 miles of up, followed by 13 miles of down in a point-to-point section of the Mickelson Trail – and that the scenery was set to be epic.

I had seen Michael Robbert the day before, giving congratulations for his win at the Wyoming Marathon the Saturday previous. He looked ready-to-roll, very recovered from the previous week. We saw each other at the starting line, along with Brian Bergt, Scott Walschlager, and Michael Streff – three fast road runners who we would soon find out were in a league all of their own.

As the gun went off, we ran abou ½ mile down the road to find the Mickelson Trail. I found a comfortable pace around 7:15/mile, which put me around 8th place. The three front runners disappeared by the second mile, clocking well under a 6:40 mile up the hill. I chugged steadily, hoping my long recovery from Big Basin had given me some staying power. By the 14-mile point, I couldn’t see anyone in front or in back of me, so I cranked up the tunes (Janes Addiction – Strays) and leaned forward to let gravity help out as much as it could. The volunteers kept telling me I was in fourth place, so I had clearly been distracted by the gorgeous views and cheering spectators. But given the amount of space in front and behind me, there was a pretty good chance this was going to be my finish place if I could hold it together.

It turns out it wasn’t “all downhill” on the second half, and a few uphill and flat segments reminded me that although downhills seem easy, they do take their toll too. But before too long, the mountain bike escorts picked me up around mile 25 and guided me into downtown Deadwood for a 3:06 finish good enough for 4th place. Lucky for me the pack of front runners were all 40 or older (and still kicking my ass), so I got the age group win. Michael Robbert wasn’t too far behind me, and picked up a top 10 finish and age-group win as well, finishing in 3:15.

(Photo by Christi Dunlap, All Rights Reserved)

As much as I wanted to hang around and cheer on the other finishers, we had to dash out to catch a flight back home (note to self for booking next year…the race is on SUNDAY, not Saturday). We were all smiles on the way back, recounting all of the activities we packed into a four-day trip. My thanks to Jerry Dunn and all the great volunteers at the DMT, and the gracious people of South Dakota. I would highly recommend this destination race to everyone.

- SD


  1. Those pictures are AMAZING!!!! They do take a bit to load, but are worth it. They should have a Badlands 50k, no? Nice photo work, Christi.


  2. Do you have more pictures? -Larry

  3. My brother and I walked/ran the half marathon. It was wonderful! Probably helped that it was all downhill. We remember when you passed us. You were singing out loud! It made us laugh.

  4. I'll cast my vote for more pictures too. Where's the Mickelson trail?!?

  5. Scott -

    I've noticed that you like to travel to places to race. Could you comment a bit on the best ways to save money when doing so? And do you touch base with local running clubs or anything? Do you run the course beforehand?


  6. MDD -

    We do like to use races as an excuse to travel to new locations. Christi and I don't "rough it" like many do, and prefer to stay in hotels and go out to eat. If you wanted to save, drive-and-camp would probably be your cheapest option. I've also heard many runners succeed in using the bulletin boards of races to find locals willing to take in a runner or two.

    If you are looking for cheap destination and want to stay in hotels, I would say that the Deadwood Mickelson Trail Marathon was one of the cheapest trips we have ever done. Most rooms are $50-80/night, flights were cheap, rental cars are $20/day(just be sure to ask for 150 miles/day free mileage) and Jake's is the only restaurant in town that charges over $20/meal. All in, we spent five days here for ~$700 even with the fine dining. That's probably a third the cost of the Boston Marathon.


  7. Scott, great description of your trip to the Mickeslon trail marathon, next year you will need to run with us up front, great site as well!

    Scott Walschlager

  8. Iloved yoru photos and put one of you as my screen saver. Now I see u smiling every time I goto work instead of my grey cube. Why dont you shave your legs? It shows more muscle. Manly Muscle!!!
    Donna (from Mountain View - we met)


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