State 26: South Dakota (2012 Run Crazy Horse Marathon)

When I first decided to take on the 50-states challenge, there was one question that kept popping up, both in my head and from the skeptics.

“You do realize that means you’ll have to do states like Nebraska, Delaware and South Dakota, right?”

At first, I would definitely groan in resignation, completely aware that while I could knock out fun states like California and Florida, I would also have to spend a weekend in less glamorous states with nondescript cities.  You inspire very little jealousy in others when you say you have a flight to catch to Rapid City, South Dakota, but eventually I would have to go there.  Around the same time, I started discovering very unique marathons.  There’s one that runs through the monuments in DC?  There’s one that ends in Niagara Falls?  There’s one that runs through the redwoods?  With all these fun races, there had to be at least one race in every state that was worth the trip and lactic buildup.  Inevitably, I would spit out a query to the interwebs, asking if there was one around Mount Rushmore.  Surely South Dakota would have already organized a long-distance race around one of the most famous and iconic sculptures in the world, right?

They had, but not since 2008.  Either that or my internet sleuthing was rusty.  But the results page did show that there was another race nearby that was themed around a horse with dementia.  Or a mentally unhinged, equine sociopath.  Regardless, I had never heard of it, but I clicked anyway and what I found was nothing short of awe-inspiring.

Crazy Horse Memorial, in progress — the white lines represent the outline of the horse’s head

In 1939, a sculptor from Boston named Korczak Ziolkowski was approached by Henry Standing Bear, a Native American of the Olgala Lakota tribe, who asked him to create a monument honoring his people and their heritage.  Standing Bear chose Crazy Horse to represent them, as he is known to have said “My lands are where my dead lie buried” after the United States government took back the Black Hills they had promised would forever belong to the Native American under the treaty of 1868.  At the time, Ziolkowski was working on Mount Rushmore, which was an artistic tribute to, for lack of a better term, the whiter pages of American history.  Standing Bear wanted a symbol of recognition for his people, to show the rest of the country and the world that “the red man has great heroes, too.”  Rather than add a fifth head to Mount Rushmore (an idea that I believe was suggested and soon rejected), Ziolkowski promised to make a new monument on an even grander scale.

A twenty-minute drive away from the four presidents is the site of his magnum opus, still in-progress and very, very far from completion.  Carved out of a mountain with explosives, drills and supersonic torches, when completed, the sculpture of a Native American on horseback will be the largest in the world.  To put things in perspective, Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln would all fit inside Crazy Horse’s head, and the “tiny” tunnel excavated from the middle involved moving more rock than all of Rushmore’s excavation.

I had never heard of this, not even in passing.  And here it was, being created bit by bit, the project moving at what appears to be a snail’s pace.  Being a huge proponent of the free market, Ziolkowski vowed that the entire project would be funded by public interest, meaning that private donations, admissions and gift shop sales are the lifeblood of this project.  Obviously, I had to not only run this race but also visit the monument and take a snapshot of history.  As someone who occasionally dips his toes in the arts, I can’t begin to comprehend how much patience it has taken the Ziolkowski family to stay dedicated to this effort.  Ziolkowski died in 1982, with his sculpture looking like a series of stepped plateaus, bearing only a geometric resemblance to the final product.  Upon his death, his family took over the operation and continues working on it to this day.

A 1/34 scale model of the work, the actual mountain in the background

A little over a year ago, I was in Barcelona, where I visited la Sagrada Familia and felt a similar sense of wonder upon beholding a massive work in progress.  At the same time, I couldn’t avoid a sense of frustration, a feeling that would revisit me as I stared upwards at the stone warrior from the Black Hills.  It’s a very real possibility that neither of these astounding feats of art and engineering will be finished in my lifetime.  A very selfish part of me demands that I see this finished work.  How is it possible that news can travel across the world in a microsecond and there’s currently a manmade robot on Mars, but this sculpture will still take decades to finish?  There is hope though.  Upon finishing the face in 1998, donations increased significantly.  The marathon is only in its third year and if it grows in popularity it will also contribute towards the acceleration of this project so that I may return one day to see the Olgala Lakota warrior in all his majestic glory.

The ultimate goal of the project is to provide a university for Native Americans. This model shows several planned structures, including a football stadium and a lake around the completed sculpture.

After touring the visitors’ center, watching the movie and taking the bus tour, I stopped briefly at Mount Rushmore to behold the famous monument on my way back to Rapid City, where I would stay for the night, preparing for the next day’s race.  On the way, I drove through Hill City and Keystone, which appear to be old mining towns, revamped into havens for bikers (not cyclists, mind you, but bikers) with leather goods stores and Harley Davidson retailers lining the one main road.  The quaintness aside, it was a beautiful drive, vindicating the endless sprawl of brown I saw when I flew into the state.

I returned to Crazy Horse the next morning at around 6:45 AM.  In the next hour, I would do my own pre-race rituals while watching a few unique ceremonies unseen at any other race.  Instead of playing the national anthem, runners were treated to Native American chantings, and organizers had replaced the usual megaphone with a rawhide drum.  It was a fun detail that kept the theme and spirit of Crazy Horse alive.  The first three miles ran a loop around the complex and took runners to the base of the monument.  After that, we were ushered into the Mickelson trail, which for the next ten miles would run parallel to the highway, all downhill, back towards Hill City.

The Mickelson trail was gorgeous.  On both sides of the path were trees dressed in autumn colors, from green to a bright yellow.  Several sections of the crushed limestone and gravel path were obscured by wispy layers of fallen leaves.  On more than one occasion, the path would change to a bridge, guiding us over brooks and on one occasion, the highway.  With the soft surface beneath me and a delightful downhill grade, I couldn’t help but cruise through the first 13.1 miles at under 8 minutes per mile.  I knew that the second half, whose uphill climb was very well advertised in the race’s promotional materials, would do its best to break me, but there was no way I was slowing down, not as long as we were heading downhill.

At the halfway mark runners left the soft, packed dirt of the Mickelson trail and entered downtown Hill City, where the highway had now turned into the town’s main street.  I could see the finishing banner and many runners eagerly sprinting their way to get their hands on a handmade clay medal.  But I had to wait.  It was the first time in any race that I physically run past the finish line and keep going.  In all other marathons that include a shorter option, the split happens somewhere in the middle.  But this time, I’ll be honest, it wasn’t easy knowing I was only halfway done, especially with the second half being much tougher.

The next six miles were a constant uphill.  There were maybe only two times where it went downhill and they were both short lived.  I locked my pace with a guy who had a red shirt with “See Ya!” written in the back, as if to try and defy him.  I kept up with him successfully until around mile 17, where I had to slow down.  Up until this point, the air at 5,000+ feet wasn’t hurting me too badly.  The cool temperatures and low humidity had made it so my shirt was already dry with a few strokes of salt added for detail.  But the combination of uphill running and relative altitude caught up with me.  I was thrilled to reach the turnaround at mile 19.5 because it meant, finally, I could start running fast again.  My 10-minute miles would now return to their original speed and I would leave a trail of fire in my wake.


Clay medal!  Leather strap!  Sixth and seventh iterations of the Crazy Horse Memorial in this post!

At first, yes, it was extremely easy to run again.  In fact, for the next two miles I was back in the mid 8s, every step through the fall foliage adding to my confidence.  But then something happened around mile 23.  In most races, I reach a point where breathing gets a little difficult.  Lucky for me, I’ve found the solution.  If I inhale through just my nose for about ten seconds, that does the trick.  Sure, I look like a zombie that just smelled the world’s worst fart, but it keeps me going.  This time, it didn’t work.  My throat felt like it was closing up and if I tried breathing at faster intervals, I got very lightheaded.  It was the first time during a race where everything adopted that shimmering glow that you get if you stand up too quickly.  I had to stop and walk.

And this is how those last 2 miles were run.  I would pick it up a bit only to have the air catch up to me and force me back to a walk.  The only cramp I got happened with a mile to go – at the top of a short climb, I felt like someone had stabbed two ice picks into my quads, slowing me again to a walk.  With this run/walk pattern, I made it back to Hill City, this time actually going under the finishing arch to end my ninth marathon and twenty-sixth state in just under 3:55.

News flash: locally raised buffalo burgers taste just like beef. My mistake for assuming it would also come with buffalo sauce.

Though I was ecstatic to finish my first marathon above 5,000 feet, it took me much longer than usual to collect myself.  I had a slight headache, I felt nauseous and didn’t want to eat or drink anything.  Ironically, it was like being hungover.  After the world’s best shower back in Rapid City and a delightful, but stiff nap, I went to a local pub called Thirsty’s for a brew and a burger.  My flight wasn’t until super early the next morning, so I decided to stay in for the night and watch a few sci-fi movies.

And so, with this first successful run, marathon season has begun.  A state that I had first thought would be a chore to complete turned out to provide a very remarkable weekend.  I can only hope that the rest of those so-called “boring” states will follow suit and deliver thrilling experiences (though if anyone can give me a road map to excitement in Delaware, I’m all ears).  In the meantime, I have five dates with the 26.2-mile monster in between now and mid-January, each one with its own twist on the distance.  I’ve learned over the last two years that I’m not invincible, so I’m moving forward cautiously.  Here’s to a speedy recovery!

Post-Race Update: It turns out I won 3rd in my age group!  While this may seem awesome on the surface, you have to look at the numbers.  There were only about 140 marathon finishers, 9 of which were males 25-29.  I’m guessing a lot of the younger runners opted for the half marathon instead.  Anyway, that means I won an age group award in a marathon!  I can’t say I ever had that as a goal, but lo and behold, I can cross that off my bucket list.  And I did it with an unorthodox training schedule due to a big life event.  Fancy that.

About Dan
Running a marathon in all 50 states because there's no better way to explore the world around you than on your own two feet, for as long as you can, until you hate yourself and everything around you. Then you stop, get a medal, and start over.

18 Responses to State 26: South Dakota (2012 Run Crazy Horse Marathon)

  1. Pingback: Race Schedule & Results « Dan's Marathon

  2. hoofinitforhorses says:

    To knock out some “boring” states Iowa and Nebraska, I would suggest the Des Moines marathon (usually in the fall) and the Lincoln Marathon (usually first weekend in May). I have run Lincoln twice and it’s fast and flat, great crowd at least for the first half. Des Moines is pretty flat for the first and it winds around some nice areas. It may not be Crazy Horse scenery, but it’s better than a lot of races in the area!

    • Dan says:

      Funny you should say that, because Des Moines is the next race on my calendar. You’ll be hearing about that one in just under three weeks. Thanks for reading!

  3. glenn says:

    Nicely done, Dan. My guess is that you’re going to find a ton of enjoyment in some of the more “boring” states. And for readers like me, it’s fun living vicariously through your adventures in the flyover areas.

  4. Way to get ‘er done! Sounds like a pretty tough course and you still got it done under 4. Great job, Dan!

  5. trexrunner says:

    I’ve been to that monument! All your pictures looked so familiar. It is such a beautiful part of the state (and I would have been much smarter to do my South Dakota marathon there, but alas, I had a double). Some of the states that I have expected to be the most “boring” have actually surprised me with some of the best races. Congratulations on your sub 4! And bison burgers are amazing.

    The Delaware Marathon/Half-Marathon in May this past year was pretty good. It’s in May and is a good small race with nice swag. They give you a free pint glass, so I was happy.

    • Dan says:

      Thanks for the recommendation (and for reading) — I had narrowed Delaware down to that one and Rehoboth. We’ll see which one I manage to do. It seems like there’s lots of options for doubling-up in New England around May, so I might 1/2 and 1/2 it up again. Can’t wait to read about your epic weekend.

  6. Run50states says:

    This looks like a great experience! I’m also running a half marathon in every state and am not too excited about those boring states but reading this makes me feel alittle better about south dakota. 🙂 Love the medal too! Congrats!

  7. Pingback: Race Medals « Dan's Marathon

  8. David says:

    I was able to tour the Crazy Horse museum last year. It is magnificent and frustrating, just as you say. Congrats on knocking out another marathon!

  9. I’m still pretty upset that I didn’t know you were going to be there. But i’ll get over it. That’s awesome you did the full! I think the full course looked difficult! lol. But I’m not at full marathon status yet! Look at your map! It’s getting so colorful!! Also, the beginning of your post made me laugh, I thought the same thing when I decided to embark on my 50 states goal….my mom dreaded states are Kansas (which I did) and wyoming…and maybe texas..i don’t like texas. lol

    • Dan says:

      Kansas has Garmin and Wyoming has Jackson Hole, so I’m actually looking forward to those. And Texas has Austin, which is a pretty fun race. Too bad we couldn’t link up at the start — alas, but for we 50-states hopefuls, there would be other opportunities.

  10. Laura says:

    I would have liked an explanation of how getting MARRIED fit into your training plan 🙂 In Vic Falls I had to run past the finish line around mile 20, which I thought would be motivational but was no fun at all. And re: Delaware, I grew up going to the beach there, and my first internship was for one of its US senators. At another internship, I spent almost the entire summer researching DE for a conference briefing binder. FYI, it has a grand total of 3 counties (the fewest of any state), is one of the richest states, and has a loooot of chicken farms. Also, Biden! What more could you ask for?

    • Dan says:

      Is it awful of me that I was planning on inserting some pictures of the wedding and then, mid-writing session, just forgot? But your reminder (coupled with an unexpected bit of good news) inspired me into writing a little post-race update. Check it out should you get a second.

      And thanks for the Leslie Knope report on Delaware. I’m excited already 🙂

  11. Pingback: Reflections on the Chicago Marathon (2006 – 2012) « Dan's Marathon

  12. Mike says:

    I ran Crazy Horse last year, and our race experiences are eerily similar… from dragging through those last few miles (it was in the 80s last year), to finishing in 3:55 (actually 3:55:22), to also winning (to my surprise) 3rd in my age group. And like you, by the time I crossed the finish line I was thrashed. My most vivid memory from the second half of the race was seeing the leader (and eventual winner), who was heading back the other way at that point, resting with his hands on his knees. Not encouraging for those of us who hadn’t reached the turnaround point yet.

    That said, it was an awesome race, though admittedly a bit diminished by the sad realization that the sculpture won’t be done ANY time soon. But those first 13 downhill miles really did make me feel like I could run all day. And wasn’t that a quaint little expo? The Black Hills are beautiful this time of year, and Crazy Horse and Mount Rushmore are both must-see monuments, so I decided “what the heck”. I didn’t even consider the possibility of elevation until we got there.

    Thanks for the excellent recap and for bringing back some memories… Crazy Horse feels like it will always be one of the quirkier races in my catalog. But I think it’s also one I’ll remember the longest.

  13. Pingback: End of Year Recap (2012) « Dan's Marathon

  14. Pingback: Wisconsin (2013 Ice Age Trail Run 50k) | Dan's Marathon

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