For example, if you're driving to Iowa and you imagine that you're going to level out onto a flat drab pancake of an unending cornfield when you cross the state line from Illinois, you're in for a shock. What you're actually going to see is some of the most picture-perfect rolling hills patchworked with fields that are interspersed with trees and rivers and tidy farms. It can be very startling.
Startling because I (back to first person...) really didn't pay a lot of attention to the elevation chart on the Des Moines Marathon website. I DID go back after the race to see if it was misleading in any way, and to my expletive-spouting dismay, it wasn't. Dismay is such a strong word, so I'll retract that. Dismay at a lack of proper focus, but not dismay at the hills. Because the hills, which just kept on coming without any reprieve until the last few miles, made this marathon a challenge of Himalayan proportions for the unprepared. I like challenges. I like interesting marathon courses. So I loved Des Moines.
Make no mistake, I trained hard and well for this. Maybe not quite enough hills in the prep work, but lots of long runs and short runs, gym work and dietary care.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. The Expo came first, of course. This expo was very well done, like all of the other details of the race. Excellent prices on Gu, and a nice representation of other marathons, cool clothes and such. And Bart Yasso. Bart's little chat was, as always, fun, intense, and irreverent by turns. He sums things up well, as in his answer to a Gel-during-the-race question: 'It's a race, not a picnic.' And his description of the Comrades Race in South Africa was intense.
Fast forward to the actual race. Psychedelic national anthem at the start a la Jimi Hendrix. The bands that were liberally scattered throughout the course were excellent, by the way; one or two were rockin' a little slow, but they were talented and they were into it. I started out fast, strong, confident. As the hills refused to flatten through the first few miles, I found myself keeping pace with a dude from South Dakota named Troy, and we decided to pace each other for as long as it took. Troy was a trooper, confident and strong, and we alternately encouraged each other when things got tough.
My first suspicion that my under-4-hour pace would face a serious challenge was when I saw the beer at Mile 14. Ok, Iowa wrestlers and farmboys, we know you're full of piss and vinegar, but we mollycoddled Easterners need our beer closer to Mile 23. This clearly threw me off.
One unique aspect of the race was circling the track at Drake University around the halfway mark of the race. That was a very cool twist, a change of pace without having to change pace.
I faithfully gagged on my Gu at appropriate intervals, and that was probably what drove me over the finish line eventually. Because by Mile 22 I was tagging along behind Troy on legs that were cramped and collapsing, staggering in the most video-unfriendly manner. But by god I made it in 4:23. And new buddy Troy, god love him, refused to abandon me in the final couple of miles despite my repeated urging. His PR was 4:22, and if he waited on my sorry ass he wasn't going to beat it. He waited on my sorry ass and missed it by a minute. I owe ya one, buddy.
The fine folks who spectated along the route were animated and informed. "Look up! The ground is not your friend!" one guy repeated to all passing runners around Mile 20. "Run Like Diarrhia!" one sign urged. The water stations were manned by alert, energetic folks who really helped to make the miles melt away.
And the route was drop dead gorgeous. One of the city parks we passed through is considered one of the top six city parks in America, for obvious reasons if you see it. The city is uncluttered, small-town unhurried and friendly, and perfect for a marathon. A bit of out-and-back, but nothing too crazy.
The medal was extremely cool. The food at the end was ridiculously plentiful and varied: pulled pork sandwiches, pizza, bananas, etc., etc. I was a staggering mess and managed merely some chocolate ice cream and an apple. (That's Troy in the picture above, by the way.)
So later we went to the Machine Shed Restaurant and ate way too much. That restaurant is so authentic you expect to be called out to raise a barn or something while they prepare your order. Great food, though. Then we went to the Amana Colonies (yes, home of the ranges) which was pretty interesting and strange.