Well 2020 has been an interesting year, hasn’t it? After running in Arkansas, the COVID-19 pandemic escalated quickly causing everything to be flipped upside down. Large events, such as races, weren’t able to go on and I slowly saw my race schedule dwindle down to nothing. Some races just cancelled right away. Others postponed to the fall, but inevitably ended up having to cancel as well due to health and safety concerns.
Race: Monument Marathon
Location: Scottsbluff, NE
Date: September 26, 2020
After the Boston Marathon was cancelled, Pete, a buddy of mine, told me that the Monument Marathon was still on schedule to happen as they had gotten approval based on their safety plan. He had told me last year that it was one of his favorite races he has done and that it should be my plan to do it for Nebraska. Well, after he let me know that the race was still happening, I blocked off my schedule, registered for the race and booked the flights. We were going to Scottsbluff, Nebraska!
Even though there is a regional airport in Scottsbluff, our best (read cheapest) option was to fly into Denver and drive up. It was about a 3 hour drive from Denver and we just decided to make it a sightseeing opportunity in a part of the country neither of us had been before. All masked up, we took an afternoon flight from Columbus and landed in Denver at 6:20pm mountain time. The flight was actually quite comfortable as Southwest was still having all the middle seats open, so Kaela and I got the entire row to ourselves! We made our way to Alamo and found the car they had available for us had some “instructions” written on the back window.
“Do not move driver’s seat.”
It seems our compact SUV option had some problems and well, that wasn’t going to happen. Luckily the customer service agent was kind enough and said we could upgrade to a mid size SUV and there would be no additional cost. So we ended up pulling away in a new Dodge Durango. We were barely to the check out location when we received notifications of an oil change being due and the left turn signal was out. At this point I was annoyed and decided to deal with it when we dropped it back off as we still had a 3 hour drive ahead of us and had yet to eat dinner.
We made a quick stop at Target for some pre-race food items so we didn’t have to go out first thing in the morning before finding some dinner. Our first stop was Old Chicago, a semi-chain pizza place (according to their website) but the wait was a bit too long so we ended up at the always convenient Subway. With our bellies full, we started our trek through rural Colorado to Scottsbluff. It was an easy drive even with it being completely in the dark. 75mph speed limits on the highway and 65mph on the backroads allowed for some pretty quick travel. We arrived at our place just after 11pm, cleaned up and called it a night.
Our AirBNB was a cute little place just a few blocks from downtown Scottsbluff. It was a small two bedroom with all the space the two of us would need for a weekend. I got a full 7 hours of sleep after being exhausted from the flight and drive the day before. I went out for a quick 2 mile shakeout run, making my way to the historic downtown area and back. The temperatures were brisk but the air felt so clean I didn’t mind at all. After my run we made our way to Shari’s Cafe for breakfast. Since I hadn’t raced in a while my body hadn’t had the typical pre-race breakfast, so I decided not to overload my body this time and keep it relatively normal to my everyday breakfast. I went with a veggie omelet that was loaded with frozen spinach that I had to scrape off, but other than that it was pretty delicious. The provided marionberry jam to go with my toast hit the spot.
After breakfast we made our way to the highlight of the marathon course, Scotts Bluff National Monument. You could see it from almost everyone in town: it’s a towering rock formation on the west side of Scottsbluff and Gering. The area is known as one of the major landmarks used in the Oregon Trail. There was a hiking trail that took you to a few lookout points, but we chose the road option rather than hiking in the direct sun. The view was something else as we peered down at the towns below us. Kaela and I joked about how little we knew about the Oregon Trail. Other than knowing you always need some extra wagon wheels, that you always forge the river and if asked if you should stop and allow the sick family members to rest, you keep moving forward as they probably weren’t going to make it anyway (okay maybe a little grim).
At the bottom of the monument area, there is a path with some replica wagons and then a journey on the actual Oregon Trail. It was pretty cool thinking about what it would have been like having you, your family and all your belongings in the wagon heading west with no real idea what would happen next.
On the way to lunch we made a quick stop to the packet pickup to get my bib and some information about the race. The race director was on site helping answer any questions folks had about the race. We inquired about spectator areas and she gave us a run down of the road closures to give Kaela a good idea of where she would be able to set up. The race was really small so she expected not to have too many issues getting around, but the discussion definitely helped in the planning. We stopped at The Tangled Tumbleweed for lunch and were not disappointed. They were a self described tapas restaurant with a lot of great looking dishes. Between my vegetarian diet and wanting to get in carbs it reduced the selection but still it was not lacking. We went with the Greek pita, cheese curds with a raspberry jalapeno jam and a Brussels sprout and goat cheese flatbread. Yeah, it was way too much!
The only thing left on our agenda was to visit a local winery and cidery just outside of town. Papa Moon Winery was the only vineyard in Western Nebraska so we had to make our way to check it out. We turned off a county road to a dirt road that seemed to go on for miles. Kaela asked me twice while we were on it if I knew where we were going because it did not look like a place for a winery. We turned into their long driveway and after parking in their rock parking lot, we noticed the cute little tasting room and outside area to relax and enjoy the quiet. Kaela did a flight of all of their available wines and ciders while I sipped on my cranberry juice. Just in case you were wondering, she enjoyed the ciders but the wines were a little sweet for her liking.
At this point it was too early for dinner but I wanted to get off my feet as I was feeling a little discomfort in my heel. We made our way back to our place to relax but the couch was covered in dog hair so we had to use the second bedroom as our place to relax. We laid in the bed as I went over the course details and weather. After dozing in and out of sleep, I realized that a few hours had gone by and it was time for dinner already. With one Italian place in town I had a feeling it may be a little busy and hoped to get there before the rush. That didn’t quite work out in our favor. All the tables were full, but they did allow bar seating so I was happy to get off my feet. Our food took a while to arrive but it was pretty good so I gave them a little more grace.
We were back home by 8pm and I did my final preps for the race while Kaela cleaned up for bed. I laid out my water bottles and nutrition for the next day. Since Kaela was going to be able to see me at multiple spots I made a bag for her with everything that I may need so she would have easy access to it all. After some last minute stretching and foam rolling it was time to lay down and get some rest
I don’t think I’ll ever get used to alarms before 5am. I had woken up shortly before my alarm but tried my best to get back to sleep but it never really took. I must have had forgotten to lower my volume on my phone before bed because the alarm was so obnoxiously loud it may have woken up the dogs next door to us. I prepped my typical bagel with jelly and Honey Stinger waffle pre-race breakfast as I listened to my recently updated playlist (Side note, I also made it a public playlist if interested here). I went over the course yet again to be as familiar as I could with the turns. If I’m being honest I was a little nervous. It felt like my first race all over again. That feeling of not being ready, uncertain of how my body would perform. I used the music to help relax me and keep me focused on the positive instead of my doubts.
We left around 6:30am to head to the start at the Wildcat Hills State Recreation Area. On the drive I got my first glimpse of the long downhill start that would be upon me soon enough.
“I forgot my salt tablets in my bag.”
“Should we turn around and go get them?”
“Nope, I’m just going to have to deal with my mistake.”
(This will come back to bite me)
There wasn’t much of a spot for spectators at the start so Kaela took my starting photo and then went down to the first spectator area that we were told was at mile 1. I went through my normal motions of quick warm up and emptying any additional fluid or weight I was storing (get it? lol). I realized I had gotten to the start way too early as I spent some time just wandering around. It wasn’t all wasted though as I was able to take in the beauty of the surroundings based on the elevation of the start at least 600 feet above everything around it.
A few of the safety measures were apparent quickly. We were required to wear a face covering unless we were warming up, which wasn’t all that bad considering there was a slight breeze so it kept my neck and face warm. The second thing was the wave start. There were 6 waves, each starting 2 minutes apart from each other to allow for some space running on the course and when arriving at aid stations. I carried my phone with me to let Kaela know when I was starting and also to take some pictures while running in areas Kaela wasn’t able to make it to.
Before lining up in my corral, I found a quiet spot on the side of the nature center just to collect my thoughts and say a quick prayer. The last 7 months have been crazy and even though I had tons of emotions rolling through my body, I was able to find peace and joy in knowing I was back on the road doing something that I love to do!
Now it was time to put in the work. GO!!!
The race started with a strong steep downhill out from the nature center and onto the main road. The downhill would actually continue for the first 8 miles or so but this first part was the steepest. Most of my wave flew down the hill and for those of us that held back we laughed about how they shot out as if from a cannon. I focused on how my feet were landing and keeping my cadence in check, trying to not let gravity do what it does best. Kaela was set up at the first spectator spot, which ended up being at mile 1.8, and had set up a frame for a great photo.
After the photo she ran to catch back up to me to hand off some 2Toms glide as a good bit of it was wiped away when…well, you know when. The road was pretty quiet with light traffic and with only approximately 25 runners in each wave, I didn’t have many people around me. I was perfectly okay with it as the scenery was so peaceful. Seeing the Scott Bluff National Monument in the distance as a guide, similarly to those long ago when they made their journey west, helped push each step along the way. Kaela was able to see me at mile 4 and mile 6 as I was just cruising along.
I hadn’t told Kaela but my goal for the race was a PR. I knew it would be tough not having raced in a while, with some elevation that I wasn’t accustomed to and some weather that may not be kind, but I needed to have a goal in my head in order to push myself. Through 6 miles I was well on that pace and my body felt great. At mile 6 we turned off the main road for a wrap around an overpass that headed into town. I handed off my handheld to Kaela as she drove beside me for her to fill back up with Powerade as she handed off a bottle of water. In just a few miles we would hit a turn and we would swap back. I started to get the urge of needing to pee, but after reading all these warnings of rattlesnakes I didn’t want to have an unwanted surprise by ducking behind some stalks in a corn field. Kaela used the car as a shield as I approached a dirt road so I could take care of business.
My legs started to feel a little tight but I kept the cadence up and pretty much just ignored the feeling. It had been a while since I really worked them at this pace so I think they were just whining and needed to be told “shut up!” At mile 10 we turned left heading back towards Gering and that’s when I started to feel the wind right in my face. It wasn’t terribly strong, but with no additional runners around me, I was taking it all. There was a guy on a corner dressed in complete USA flags and colors. I meant from hat, to jacket, to shirt, to pants, this guy had it all. I told him how this wind was a little strong and he said, “it could be worse as the 40mph gusts will be coming this afternoon.” I replied, “Well I guess I should get to running faster then, huh?” Kaela was at the mile 11 spectator section and I grabbed some more water from her. The aid stations for the race were about 3 miles from each other and I started to feel the dehydration starting because of that space. I told her how that wind and slight incline was putting my pace in check.
We made a right turn to put the wind on our side for about half a mile but then at mile 12.5 we made the turn towards Scotts Bluff National Monument and everything changed. My pace dropped from a 9:30 to an 11:30 min/mi with no reduction in my effort of running. The wind was so strong there were times I was sure I was actually just running in place. Add to it that the next 2 miles were the main climb on the course, things definitely went sideways. I pushed with all I could to the halfway mark of the race before doing some evaluating of what the second half would hold.
I ran the first half in right at 2 hours which meant that if a PR was going to happen I would have to run a negative split. Up hill. In the wind. I’ve learned that sometimes you have to just let it go and enjoy the moment you are in. I got the goal out of my head, laughed at the wind and decided that I wasn’t going to let the wind make me miserable but I was going to enjoy everything I could from the race.
Kaela was at the monument entrance and I told her that this second half was going to be a little bit slower. She had previously put Jolly Ranchers in my handheld so I used those to get a little more sugar flowing to keep me alert and moving forward. The climb past the monument was tough. Add to it the 40-50mph gusts that the USA guy said would come later had made an early entrance, it was actually quite humorous in a twisted kind of way. I was playing slinky with a few runners and each time we would pass each other we would provide some words of encouragement. “Keep it up.” “Great work.” “How stupid is this wind?”
We cruised down the other side of the hill and ended up with some “flat” road that curved to put the wind at our side again which made it a little easier to run. With fields on both sides of us the wind gusts would pick up dirt and violently blow across the road hitting our legs as we tried to run quickly through it. At mile 18 we finally got a somewhat break from the wind as we started to make our way back into town towards the finish. Kaela handed off some more candy for me to store in my handheld and said that she was going to see me at the finish. I knew there was one more spot that she might have been able to see me at but she was worried about the time so was just going to head to the finish.
We turned off the paved road onto a dirt road when I saw a sign that made me feel even better about my decision to enjoy myself. “Find joy in the journey.” That became the motto for the last 8 miles of the race. When my legs felt like they were going to completely stop working due to cramping, I just found joy in the journey and kept going one step at a time. The long downhill start really did a number on my quads that I was just starting to pay for. I would be able to run for about a half a mile, before having to walk to prevent a complete lock up.
The dirt trail was a nice scenic route with views of the backside of the monument, but the barren land caused my dehydration to start to really mess with me physically. There was one aid station on the trail but even the two cups of water I slammed weren’t going to make a dent in the deficit I was working with. Around mile 22 we rounded the corner of the trail and were back in civilization near the Monument Shadows golf course. At the end of the sidewalk I saw Kaela cheering me as I stumbled down the path. She laughed and smiled and said “Well you better at least smile if you are going to be walking” (or something along those lines I was a little out of it) and captured one of my favorite photos from the entire race.
She asked what I needed and before she could finish her statement I just said “water!” I downed most of the 20oz water bottle with no regard to how much was missing my mouth and just getting all over me. She gave me some words of encouragement and I got back to it, moving with purpose. We had a climb up and through a few streets around the golf course before making our way to a bike path that hugged the edge of the monument property. Shortly after getting on the path we hit mile 23 and I was very happy to see that I had just a 5k left in the course. I did the quick math in my head and realized that I needed to keep moving forward with a little bit of purpose as I did not want to finish at over 5 hours, especially since the original goal was under 4 hours!
But it wasn’t easy to keep moving. My legs seemed to keep tightening up right when I felt like I was getting back into a groove. I walked with a little umph and when I felt like I could run, I did. Kaela showed up again at mile 24 to provide a last bit of aid and support to get me to the finish. As I approached she asked what I needed to which I humorously replied “salt tabs.” It was a fun laugh as she said “well you forgot them so that can’t happen.” She could see the hurt in my face and told me that I was going to get this done and to push myself. That extra kick helped me get over my little hump. We turned into a neighborhood and there were similar words of encouragement written in chalk on the road. My favorite of all was “Belive in Yourself!” For that last 1.5 miles, I was definitely going to belive in myself! (The misspelling kept a smile on my face)
We joined back up on the windy road that we hit around mile 13 before turning down a cemetery road. The mile 25 marker appeared and I had to dig deep as I knew the time was getting close. We hit a gravel road that slowed down my steps but I kept moving. Turning a corner there was a steep downhill and climb (because why not), but when I reached the top a volunteer let me know there was just a third of a mile to the finish and it was mostly downhill. I took a deep breath and picked up the pace using whatever energy I had left as I ran down the dirt road with the finish on the horizon. Just because they had to add one more hill in, we turned off the dirt road into the gravel parking lot of the Five Rocks Amphitheatre and climbed to the finish. A guy that had been going back and forth with me the last few miles just picked up the pace and usually I am up for a race to the finish but today it was not going to happen. Kaela was on the side smiling and cheering me in as I made it through the finish.
After I crossed, I was handed a medal and directed to a table of water. A volunteer had asked me if I was okay and I relayed the issues I was having with quad cramps. He offered a seat which I gladly accepted. Little did I know that seat was the “I need some possible medical attention” seat. Someone came over and talked to me asking if I was going to need a physical therapist to take a look at me or if any additional assistance would be needed. I laughed and said no just tight legs from running a marathon. He replied, “That’ll happen.”
I grabbed a few slices of pizza, some fruit and chocolate milk before making my way to sit down on the side of a hill with Kaela. I talked through some of the issues I had towards the end of the race and she told me some stories that she had encountered throughout the day. On our way out there was an older gentleman that finished the half marathon and that was local to the area that we started talking with. He thanked us for coming out and staying in Scottsbluff for the race. I told him how beautiful the course was and how it was a great day of racing. He gave me a puzzled look and told me I was allowed to say it was a crappy day with the warm weather and the wind. I let him know that the course was tough and the weather wasn’t ideal, but the scenery and environment made up for all of it. Then I said, “If it was easy, it wouldn’t be worth doing.”
After cleaning up at the house, we made it to Flyover Brewing Company for my free beer and a delicious post-race lunch. We walked around downtown and visited a few shops before ending the afternoon with a cheesecake from The Tangled Tumbleweed. It was nice not having to get back on the road or catch a flight right after a race and just enjoy the town and let my legs get some much needed rest.
As I sit here and try to write a wrap up for this race there are so many things coming to mind. Even though it wasn’t the race result I had hoped for, I keep going back to the sign I saw at mile 18. “Find the joy in the journey.” That sums up this entire adventure for me and I am so thankful that I have been able to run as much as I have so far and I am looking forward to what is in store. The race was well put on and organized with some great volunteers and spectators that were outside of their homes cheering us by. If I had to be particular about one downside, it would be the lack of aid on the course. The dry, warm conditions were a little much for water every 3 miles, at least for me. It could have been the hills or the elevation or the fact I hadn’t raced in a while and forgot what to do that caused some of the hiccups. All in all it was a great experience in western Nebraska and I highly recommend this race!