Regardless if winter weather wants to stick around too long, the calendar and the recent Daylight Savings Time change tell us that spring is on its way and summer is not far behind. For serious runners (my definition of serious being runners that are willing to pay money to enter races), race season is on the horizon. The race season in the Black Hills is bookended by a pair of marathon events held on the Mickelson Trail.
The Deadwood Mickelson Trail Marathon (June 4th) and Run Crazy Horse events (October 8th) offer a variety of race options to train for throughout the spring and summer months while giving locals and out of town visitors spectacular views of the Black Hills on race day. Both races are put on by Wheeler Event Management (Emily Wheeler), and are organized and staffed by runners and volunteers from the Black Hills. Emily and her crew have come close to perfecting the art of putting on a mid-size race in a rural/wilderness setting and you can be assured that these are community events, not races put on by a for-profit corporation from a thousand miles away.
Before describing what makes them unique, let’s talk about what these races share in common, because they are very similar! Both events are predominately run on the Mickelson Trail, a 109-mile crushed gravel trail that follows an old railway bed from Edgemont to Deadwood. Neither event is a “trail race” in the vain of rocky and muddy singletrack with impossibly steep climbs and descents. There are long hills involved, but they are gradual and at times so faint that you do not even notice a change in elevation.
Both events feature a marathon, half-marathon, and marathon relays on the Sunday race day as well as a 5K event the day before. Both of the half-marathons are predominantly downhill while the full marathons feature first-half climbs with long downhill finishing stretches. Both events will also feature occasional trailhead crowds of cheering spectators but also many miles of solitude with just you and your feet on the crushed gravel – and any other runners who happen to be in your immediate surroundings.
Deadwood is a great option for a “late springtime” setting – think moss covered rocks, babbling creeks full of fresh cold water, while Crazy Horse will feature beautiful fall colors and the contrast between the ponderosa pine and willow and aspen trees along the route. The Deadwood events carry the promise of a racing season to come while Crazy Horse has the atmosphere of one last serious event before the winter months set in.
As with any time of year in the Black Hills, weather can certainly be the wildcard factor. I have spent mornings awaiting the Deadwood start shivering in huddled masses amidst the fog of an early morning at elevation only to be racing under a hot and dry sun-filled and cloudless sky by the later miles. Crazy Horse has featured almost perfect cool running weather the past few years, with the exception of course of the 2013 event which was forced to be cancelled after Winter Storm Atlas dumped several feet of snow on the region just days before the race.
And speaking of elevation, yes both races will feature many miles at several thousand feet (mostly between 4,500-5,500 feet) but it does not seem to have much effect on the out of town visitors from lower elevations. Anyways, if you are looking for a pancake flat course to set a PR, then these probably are not you best bets. Even the net downhill half-marathons are not super conductive to ultra-fast times due to the hard-packed gravel surface of the Mickelson Trail. That being said, I did set my marathon PR of 3:05 at Crazy Horse last year so it doesn’t mean you have to plan on running slow – but if speed is your utmost concern you’d be better off sticking to a flatter course at a lower elevation.
In summary, if you need huge crowds and an urban setting to feel at home, then these two events perhaps are not for you. However, if you want to spend some time racing in some of the most beautiful wilderness in the entire United States, where the nature can draw you in so powerfully that miles of your race literally fly by, and you appreciate a top-notch race experience where the race director pays close attention to detail and takes previous race feedback seriously, then either the Deadwood Mickelson Trail Marathon or Run Crazy Horse events are absolutely worth a closer look. Hope to see you at a race or run in the Black Hills area very soon!
*Keep watching for future “West River” blog posts about running and racing in Spearfish Canyon as well as details of the Black Hills Runners Club Trail Racing Series
Chris Riley is a teacher, cross country coach and lifelong runner in Belle Fourche, South Dakota. Watch for periodic guest blog posts from Chris and the west river running experience on Blog 605.