Small Town Marathon: An Exercise in Life

Running Sunset

On August 25th 2007 in Ashton Idaho, I realized that the sport of running is more than just racing. It didn’t start out this way, I always wanted to beat my best time, but somehow, it didn’t seem to matter in this race. From the very beginning, this race was something special and seemed to create its own Nirvana.

I planned way ahead and entered this race well before the deadline. The website made the race sound quite interesting and it was so close to Yellowstone, we could make this into a vacation. A small town race with great scenery was the appeal. Months in advance, I plopped down my money and began to make plans. I was sure to do better than my first attempt in Louisville; this course was touted as a largely downhill race, it’s got to get me a better time. The summer before the race left me plenty of time to prepare and I watched the website closely for any news or updates.

The hot days of July and August in Kansas were beginning to make my training extremely difficult. Suddenly, I longed for the winter cold that I used to fear, but summer had taken a firm grip and wasn’t letting go. The long runs were now becoming almost impossible and 18 miles left my body feeling drained of all fluids and energy. I did what I could and reminded myself that this marathon was just for fun and I could walk as much as needed. In the back of my mind though, I knew I was kidding myself, I really wanted to beat the time of my last race. There’s always this competitive nature of sports and running was no different.

The Journey

After a long summer, the first day of vacation arrives, right in the middle of the ‘dog days of August’. I remind myself that it will be cooler where we are headed, but for now, the heat is still on. It’s still a week before race day, so training isn’t over yet. I head out to the Plaza area in Kansas City for a nice 8-mile run before we leave. This is KC’s upscale district, which undoubtedly would be a featured part of any local marathon.  After the run, we’ll hit the road. The journey to a destination is always half the fun to me. We always talk of taking the back roads when we travel, but this time, it’s more than talk. We’ve got all week to get there. Along the way, I find ways to get a little running in each morning until Wednesday, then its rest, rest, rest. Sunday morning finds me on a school track in a little town in western Kansas while my wife attends mass at the church next door. Monday, I explore the downtown area of Ft. Collins, Colorado and even run by the New Belgium Brewing Company. I’ll be heading back there for a taste tour shortly! Finally, on Tuesday I get in the last few miles, in the town of Lander, Wyoming, a quaint little town on the edge of an outdoor paradise. I’m feeling good and I’m ready for the race.

Potato Country

It’s Friday and we finally arrive in the town of Ashton. At first glance, it looks like any other rural farming town in the country. We’re surrounded by fields of barley, potatoes and sagebrush. The billboards say it’s the #1 area in the country for seed potatoes. What the heck is a seed potato? I’m not quite sure, but they tell me the potatoes grown here likely will end up in a bag of Ore Ida’s. As we approach the main street in town, you can’t help but notice the giant mug of root beer on the roadside that coaxes one into the nostalgic drive-in. Memories quickly revert to the days of A&W and my first muscle car, but this ain’t no chain, it is The Frostop. After a quick lunch and a cup of coffee, we head down Main Street. There are no McDonalds, people here don’t live in McMansions; there are just railroad tracks, grain silos and some mom and pop businesses, like City Drug, where tomorrow, each of the runners will get their own huckleberry milkshake. I can’t help but wonder what it would be like to live here. It’s almost as if the town is telling us to slow down and enjoy life.

After a quick tour of town, we head off to find our host family. One of the unique things about this race is the guest runner program that they instituted this year for the first time. The race organizers matched up out of town runners with a local family that offers a place to spend the night. If you’re going to run a small town marathon, why not immerse yourself totally in the local culture. Still, I’m somewhat apprehensive about spending the night in a total stranger’s home; what if they’re really strange, worse yet, what if they’re aliens? OK, my mind wanders too much and relax, she sounded very nice on the phone. We arrive at their home, which is a few miles off the main highway. It feels like the middle of nowhere, but the house looks quite modern. Off in the eastern horizon, you can just make out the peaks of the Grand Tetons.  It didn’t take long before I felt comfortable with our hosts, Robin & Melissa Jenkins. Shortly after arriving, Robin offered me a beer; he must have been reading my mind. Our stay here was much like being at a Bed and Breakfast Inn with a 5-star chef.

Later that evening, we all attend the pasta feed at the local elementary school. This is the first time I’ve attended the meal sponsored by the race, but I want to be able to meet other runners and feel every aspect of this race. Well that, and there isn’t exactly an Italian restaurant down the road in Ashton! We sat down in those long, folding row tables, reminiscent of my own elementary school. I thought for sure somewhere there’d be a crate full of milk cartons selling for 2 cents. The food, which of course included a baked Idaho potato, was just fine. Local volunteers also provided home baked goods for dessert. After dinner, we headed to the edge of town for the standard form of entertainment in small town America; the high school football game. The boys in the purple jerseys treated us to a blow out victory. It’s getting late now, so time to head home and get a good night sleep.

Race Day

Sometimes sleeping in a strange bed isn’t easy, but I felt quite comfortable and fell asleep quickly. I’m always paranoid about oversleeping, so I set two different alarms. Not surprisingly though, I awake before either alarm. It’s 3:45 in the morning and I want to be ready to leave by 4:30. Everything I need for the race was meticulously laid out the night before, so I’m ready in no time. As I venture outside in the cool air, I see the sky glistening in bright white stars. I stop and stare in amazement at Mother Nature’s handiwork. If only I was a little taller, I’m sure I could have reached up and grabbed one!

Right on time, I arrive back at the elementary school for breakfast. What? - A race that also provides breakfast for the runners? You bet! Bagels, fruit, donuts and coffee, anything a runner could want before the big race. I settle for my traditional banana and a bagel and take a seat in the 6th grade section. Moments later, I meet up with a new acquaintance I had made last night. I had heard that there was going to be a camera crew at the race, filming some sort of documentary about running marathons and I had met the crew the previous night at the football game. We chatted some at the game and sure enough, he was back with his camera to interview me before the race. Wow, this was cool; I may be famous! Well, at least maybe I’ll be in the video.

After breakfast, we begin to load the busses that will give the runners a 45-minute ride through the pitch-black countryside as we head toward the starting line. I pass the time by conversing with the lady sitting next to me. Her total marathon count was now approaching 30, which really inspires me. Eventually I discover that she too is staying with a local family, the mayor of Ashton. It wasn’t long before we arrived at the starting point. There’s still 20 minutes or so before the start, so I stay in the bus to keep warm. The sun is just beginning to poke its head above the horizon and the cool crisp air registers about 40, maybe lower.

At long last, we’re lined up and ready to go. 6:30 arrives and all of a sudden we’re running. I don’t hear any gun go off; maybe somebody just yelled ‘GO!’ It’s cold to start and I wish I had my gloves. Eventually I figure out that I can pull the long sleeves of my throw away shirt over my hands. This helps me cope with the mountain air some 6100 feet above sea level. By the time I hit the 4-mile mark, my body has warmed sufficiently and I toss the extra shirt at the aid station. The early stretches of this race are on gravel roads that meander through the Targhee National Forest. It’s very quiet and serene, with only the faint sounds of a chain saw or maybe a four-wheeler in the distance. The area reminds me so much of Northern Michigan and I imagine myself snowmobiling through this wilderness. All these pleasant memories pass the time quickly and before I know it, I’m approaching mile 10. A quick check of my watch indicates that I’m running 10 minute miles and ahead of my desired pace. At this point, I’m feeling good and still have visions of beating the time of my previous marathon, but deep down I know that the toughest part of the race has yet to come.

Mile 11 takes me to the Mesa Falls Scenic Look-out, where my wife, Sue, had planned the first of many spots to shoot pictures. Maybe I surprised her with my early arrival, as I catch her running to get in position for the picture. Wow, look at her go, maybe she should take up running! I’ve arrived 10 minutes earlier than I told her, so I probably had that look of confidence on my face. The falls here aren’t really visible from the course but the view is still quite spectacular. It’s a short walk down to the lookout point and luckily we were able to see the races namesake yesterday while charting out the course.

After a few more miles, I arrive at the halfway point. Soon, the course takes a turn onto the old abandoned railroad bed that follows along the Warm River. The river is still quite a way down, but slowly we work our way further down into the majestic canyon. Suddenly, this section of the race instinctly causes me to slow down. It’s not because the terrain is more difficult, it’s not because I’m feeling tired – but all at once I feel in-tuned with nature and the natural beauty of the setting convinces me to take all the time I need to enjoy. I watch in awe as the river gently cascades through the wilderness. As the trail descends to the edge of the riverbed, I spot a couple fly fishermen wading in the knee-deep waters. One might be tempted to stop and take a cast or two, but reluctantly my mind shifts back into ‘race mode’ and I leave this beautiful stretch behind.

Back on the highway again, I come to an aid station around mile 16 and my wife is there to take more pictures. A little boy who couldn’t be more than 2 or 3 years old is there to hand out water and Gatorade cups. It’s a cute sight and my wife signals for me to go back and take the cup of Gatorade again from the boy as she snaps a picture. I circle around and hand the cup back to the young lad so we can get the picture. Obviously confused, the boy instinctively takes the cup and raises it toward his mouth as if to drink. He must have thought, “If someone gives me a cup of brightly colored liquid, I’m supposed drink it!” Quickly, his apparent big sister steps in and scolds him. “You can’t drink that”, she says while laughing! I can’t help but laugh too, and it helps distract me from the fatigue that is beginning to invade my body. Further up the road, I spot Nelson, the runner in the film crew that I had met earlier. He asks me how I’m doing and I remember saying that I was OK now, but I think there’s trouble coming soon. He laughs and I pass by as he walks, waiting for his cameraman to catch up. Trouble is coming, by way of a 3-mile long incline starting around mile 17.

Sure enough, mile 17 is here and I get my first glimpse of the challenge. I’ve gone over and over in my head how to handle this part of the race. Part of me thought it would be just fine to walk the entire uphill stretch. That other side of the brain continues to push me though and the argument in my head results in a run/walk strategy. After the first half of the climb, I’m hanging tough, but running has turning into barely jogging as I continue to take smaller steps. I try to keep motivated by picking out something in the near distance, a road sign, maybe a curve in the road, and tell myself if I can run to that spot, then I’ll allow myself to walk. I reach a turn in the road and a volunteer tells me that the top of the hill is just ahead. Miraculously, I look out in the distance and can see the grain silos in Ashton. After a quick moment of rejoicing, I realize that there’s still 6 more miles to go and my body is just about spent.

The last portion of the race seems to be simpler. The elevation is gradually getting lower, but there are still plenty of gentle rolling hills as we pass through fields of gold. Perhaps this is where Sting once came to write the song. “We'll forget the sun in his jealous sky as we lie in fields of gold.” I’m sure he meant to say, “Run through fields of gold” instead. Regardless, these short little hills aren’t much easier as the run/walk ratio begins to lean more toward walk/walk/run. Soon, I come upon a nice old lady that has set up her own aid station in front of her house. I had heard she apparently does this every year for the runners. Her table includes fruit and cups full of every color Gatorade imaginable. I guess she’s read some of those race reviews where ungrateful runners actually complain about the flavor chosen by the race directors. I grab a piece of banana and a cup, give a heartfelt thank-you and move on. As I continue to try and run, my legs begin to scream in protest. It seems I can’t run more than 100 yards and my calf’s start to cramp. I’m not sure what has gone wrong, I thought I ate well before the race and took enough fluids during the race. Walking will now have to play an even bigger role in the last 4 miles. Around this time, I come to the realization that I’m not going to beat my previous time and I continue on, feeling a bit defeated. As if someone sensed my need for a pick-me-up, along come my new friend Nelson and his cameraman. Nelson asks if I’m OK to jog for a bit while his partner films. I don’t even remember what kind of questions he asked while we ran, but I do remember thinking of wittier, more humorous answers after the camera was gone. I continue to enjoy his company for a little longer, but the cramps show up again, so I’m back to walking.

The Finish

Finally, I’m back in town and there is less than a mile to go. The cramping has never totally gone away and the periods of walking are becoming longer. At this point in my suffering, I swear that I’ll never do another full marathon. Fast-forward 24-hours for just a second and I’m already planning which marathon I want to run next. But for now, I just want to finish and get this one over with. I turn the final corner and see the finish line just a block away. As if I get some kind of bonus points for running at the end, I lift my legs just enough to be technically considered running, and I cross the official 26.2-mile mark. There at the end, just like every race, is my wife and biggest supporter, snapping pictures of this weary old man.

I can’t say that all of my goals this day were accomplished, but more importantly, I’ve finished my second marathon and somehow, I feel more satisfied than ever. It didn’t matter anymore that more than 5 hours had elapsed since the start of the race, I felt fortunate to have spent so much time our there enjoying the day. In fact, I was sad that the race was over, but this ‘over-the-hill’ guy still has many more hills to climb. Thank you Ashton, Idaho for spoiling me, treating me as one of your own and leaving me with memories I will cherish for a long time.