A couple of miles from the finish of the Deadwood Mickelson Trail Marathon
The Deadwood Mickelson Trail Marathon in South Dakota was the most beautiful marathon I’ve run yet, and one of my very favorites overall (a very close second to Hatfield McCoy).
I flew into Rapid City on Friday afternoon, made a quick stop at Walmart for water and snacks, then drove up to Deadwood (on Hwy 14/90 to 85) which took me past the the host hotel (The Lodge at Deadwood). Since the expo was there I decided to stop and get my materials so I didn’t have to worry about picking them up on Saturday before Sunday’s race. The expo was a little larger than I expected, with a couple areas featuring items for sale and a couple other local stands advertising races and massages and whatnot.
I had chicken fingers for dinner there at the bar and grill (not bad) before driving down the hill and through town to my hotel, the Deadwood Gulch Resort. Both the Lodge and the Gulch were full-blown casinos, but the Gulch was particularly depressing, kinda old, and not very nice. The staff was friendly but the rooms smelled musty, which I thought was smoke but could have been just a weird carpet cleaner. I even tried switching rooms but the other room smelled just as bad so I stayed put and ran my window A/C unit on “fan” mode the entire weekend, which helped a lot. At least the room was quiet and faced a little stream, although since it was an old hotel and the room was on the first floor it sounded like the ceiling was cracking down every time the person above me walked around (which luckily was not often). I would definitely not stay there again, even with the direct race shuttles – I’d rather spend the extra time to use the trolley to a race shuttle and enjoy a nicer hotel (even the Holiday Inn looked nicer!).
The rooms weren’t completely terrible, just kinda old and musty.
On Saturday I started the morning with a horseback ride with Blacktail Horseback Tours. While I didn’t ride the actual “Bachelor” horse, I got to meet him, which I suspect was more exciting and more interesting than meeting the Bachelor who rode him. The owner was a delight and her horses were well-trained, and she takes you up some steep sections for some great views. If you’re a fan of horses or if you’d like to try them out, I’d recommend this short (1-2 hour, $40) ride. If you’re a fan of The Bachelor, you can gossip about the contestants, too.
This is the famous Bachelor Horse, the biggest celebrity in Deadwood.
The ranch owner also had several great suggestions for the rest of the day. First she suggested I go to Cheyenne Crossing for an “Indian Taco,” made with Indian Fry Bread smothered with ground beef, beans, cheese, lettuce, tomato and sour cream. (Delicious, as was the carrot cake I had afterwards!) Then she thought I should do a short (2 mile roundtrip) hike to Roughlock Falls (on Hwy 14a between Cheyenne Crossing and Spearfish) before continuing the scenic drive along the highway. (It was a nice, easy hike that surely negated the taco and cake.) She also suggested a hike to Roosevelt Tower, which is the only thing I didn’t do because I ran out of time and energy.
The Indian Taco at Cheyenne Crossing
One tiny section of the Deadwood Model Train
Instead of that second hike, I strolled down the main street of Deadwood and pretended I was on a reality TV show. The best thing I saw in Deadwood was the Deadwood Model Train. It gets a high rating on Trip Advisor and I’d agree with those ratings – it’s meticulous, funny, and free. Plus you’ll be reminded of it whenever you see the opening sequence to Wayward Pines on FOX. Note that you can’t walk inside the train room (everything is walled off with protective glass) but you’re still afforded good views and there’s plenty to see.
Downtown Deadwood or model train set? Hard to tell…
Two things I wanted to mention about the area – one, it’s full of bikers and cowboys (so many!), and two, what the area considers to be a close neighbor is a lot farther than what East Coast states or even West Coast states consider “nearby” – for example, if you ask someone if they’re from there, they might say “yes, Nebraska.” The “local” news coverage also seems a lot broader than normal, with coverage spanning from Colorado to Minnesota. But now it makes even more sense that the Bachelor from Iowa visited South Dakota, because it really was like his backyard. Finally, South Dakota has two time zones (Central and Mountain). Deadwood is in Mountain, same as Denver.
I found the bar where the Bachelor made the girls sing before “stealing” Britt off to another “concert,” but since I didn’t see my husband in the room I kept walking. Downtown Deadwood is an endless strip of tourist gift shops, bars, casinos, and ice cream shops, so it’s easy to indulge any number of vices there.
It’s the bar!
You totally recognize this bar.
I limited my vices to my favorite (candy) with a trip to The Best Restaurant In Deadwood, Chubby Chipmunk, for some expensive but delicious truffles (and as the many reviews said, even if you don’t normally like truffles you’ll probably like these). Fortified with fancy chocolates plus a treasure trove of junk food I bought earlier (popcorn, trail mix, and 3 (!!!) flavors of Pop Tarts), I tried to get some rest despite some wicked race nerves.
Hanging out at the start.
I was nervous because I really didn’t know what to expect with regards to the trail itself. I knew it wasn’t a “technical” trail where I’d have to jump over branches or streams, but beyond that I was clueless. Turns out it’s an abandoned railroad line, so it’s a really wide, very finely crushed stone path that’s smoother than the Bridle Path in Central Park (although not quite as wide as that), with a grade so gradual you barely notice you’re going uphill except for the fact that you’re breathing really hard and life seems more difficult.
Typical scenery for miles along the Mickelson Trail Marathon.
But it was beautiful. We lucked out on the weather and had mostly sunny skies for the entire race, with highs reaching about 70 (two days later it was in the 90s, so we not only dodged the rain bullet but also the heat bullet). The aid stations along the course (about every two miles) were really well-stocked with water, Poweraid, bananas, and pretzels at every single one, and occasionally M&Ms. Since I didn’t like the Poweraid I ate my weight in bananas.
Pretty as a picture! Also maybe I was hallucinating at this point!
I almost stepped on this sucker.
As you know from my expectations and from the course description, the first mile is paved, then the next 13 miles or so are a gradual uphill climb from about 5,500 feet to 6,200 feet, and then the second half is mostly downhill or flat. You really notice the change from the uphill peak to that first downhill mile, despite both being such a gradual grade. The “super steep downhill” section around mile 19 wasn’t nearly as steep as I expected (I was envisioning having to use my hands to pick my way down – it wasn’t anything like that), but I did walk it as my legs were pretty trashed by that point.
Nearing the peak of the course – I’m not actually dead, I’m just not wearing the heart rate monitor.
I was really enjoying the race until I hit the wall at mile 22 and bonked harder than I’ve ever bonked in a race. I can’t remember being so tired in a race; even walking was a monumental effort. I was both starving and nauseated, a really fun combo. I finally ate some M&Ms (and another caffeinated Gu) at mile 25, which is maybe why I got a bit of a second wind and was able to trot the last .2 miles into the finish. It took me about 6 hours, which is a really long time, but was 45 minutes faster than I actually thought it would take me, and only about 15 minutes slower than the flat, sea-level Wisconsin Marathon a month ago. So, I was happy to finish, and within few minutes I started feeling much better and wanted to do another marathon (although not that day).
Around mile 25 I ran right past my hotel room & rental car (seen in white). The temptation to stop has never been greater.
At the finish you get your medal and a bottle of water – and not much else. Other runners described the medal as “ugly” and they’re not entirely wrong. With all the possible themes for this medal (Old West! Bikers! Cowboys! Guns! Gambling! The old railroad!), and the incredible natural beauty of the course itself, I don’t know why they chose such a boring, garish design.
At least it’s really clear about the distance…
I’m glad I didn’t wear my gaiters, although I did get several tiny rocks in my shoes. I was also nervous I didn’t put on enough bug spray, but that wasn’t an issue since most of the trail was exposed and sunny – very little was through any sort of “forest” so there weren’t a lot of bugs to deal with. My hydration vest ended up being ok, gradually getting less annoying as I drank some of the water. I’m glad I wore it, though, as it was a psychological boost to know I had water available at any moment. It also made using my camera phone incredibly convenient. I didn’t even have to put my phone in a plastic baggie, so it made taking pictures 100 times easier than normal.
All the finishing food that awaits you at the Deadwood Mickelson Marathon! (Pack your own snacks.)
There were 358 full marathon finishers, with times ranging from 2:47 (men’s winner, women’s was 3:20) to 7:37 (the official cut-off time was 7 hours, so it’s nice to see they kept the finish line open well past that).
Thinking of Running Deadwood?
Race shirt & checked bag (shirt has some logos in white on the back).
All categories on a scale of 1-10, 10 being the best. Note that this review is based on running as a “back of the packer,” with a finish time of 6 hours. Your experience may vary.
- Getting There (Transportation & Walkability) – 5/10 – The closest airport is Rapid City (RAP) (ticket was $440 from NYC, with one stop), which is a little over an hour drive from Deadwood. Technically it’s possible to do this race without driving (you can get a shuttle from the airport to Deadwood for $105 each way, and once in Deadwood you can ride their trolleys, walk, and use the race shuttles), but it’s cheaper and easier to rent a car (my rental was $112 for 3 days plus another $18 in gas). The race runs shuttles to the start in Rochford and from the finish (in downtown Deadwood). I was worried I’d miss the finish line shuttles since the website said they stop the shuttles 6.5 hours after the start (vs the 7 hour cutoff), but one of the race directors said someone would drive the later finishers to their hotels if they needed it. It’s a small race!
- Staying There – 5/10 – I didn’t have the greatest experience in my hotel, but the host hotel was already full when I registered back in January! I should have tried harder to stay at the host hotel, or just found another hotel anywhere in town, really. The shuttles seemed to work well so I should have trusted those and found the best hotel without regard to direct shuttle access. However, I’m not sure if any hotel is all that nice in the area – I think they’re all casinos and all a bit old/dingy.
- Cost & Registration – 8/10 – I paid $97 for registration which seems a little spendy but at least it was easy (and might not have sold out, but they did increase the price as the date approached), but again the host hotel was already booked in January. For the registration price you get the race with excellent on-course support (so many bananas!), race shuttles, a short-sleeved tech shirt (that feels like cotton), and a sorta tacky medal. Finishing food was almost nonexistent.
- Organization – 8/10 – Plenty of communication from the race directors before the race, but I wish they had more photos of the trail itself and warnings about the possible extreme weather conditions than they do. Packet pickup was very easy, shuttles worked well, and even the truck that took the bags from the start to the finish was super easy and low-key (just one simple pickup truck for everyone’s bags!). Each aid station was set up differently, but they were all well-stocked, except at the finish line, which I had expected from previous reviews so I packed a bunch of snacks in my checked baggage.
- Course – 10+/10 – Beautiful! Yes, the elevation might leave you breathless, and yes you climb about 1,000 feet, but it’s not exactly “hilly” in the traditional way. Not much shade and weather can vary from 20 degrees to 90 degrees, from bright sun to thunderstorms, so be prepared for anything.
- Crowd – 4/10 – As expected, very few spectators, but those who were there were fun and friendly, and as always, the volunteers were great.
- Other Factors – 8/10 – If you’ve never been to that area of South Dakota, it’s a worthwhile trip. I wished I had stayed a few extra days to do more sightseeing. Plus you can ride a horse and pretend to be on The Bachelor. Win win!
- Overall Rating – 9.5/10 – The amazing beauty of the course, the friendly runners, and the easy and manageable size make this an excellent race.
17 down, 33 to go! I don’t have another full marathon until October, so hopefully I’ll train smart over the summer, lose some weight, and ditch the injures. Or I’ll get busy and keep slogging through 6 hour marathons. Either way, I have some shorter races coming up, including a 10K tomorrow in the muggy NYC heat. Fun times!
Have you ever run South Dakota? Have you ever run a trail race? Are you here for the right reasons? Share in the comments!