The Swan Lake marathon was day tow of our Upper Midwest marathon double weekend and we were running it mostly because the GeekGrl still needed South Dakota in her 50-state quest and because it takes place the day after the Marathon to Marathon in Iowa. The marathon begins and ends at a Christian camp that sits on the banks of Swan Lake just outside Viborg South Dakota. This is a stunningly small part of the country and it is pockmarked with small farming villages that nobody except the immediate residents have ever heard of. In fact, there are several small towns that even locals have never heard of. However, the GeekGrl and I were familiar with the pace because 1) it is very near my birth place of Vermillion, SD, 2) it is very near the places I visited my relatives as a kid and 3) it is the same part of the country where, quite miraculously, the GeekGrl and I met.
I have no connection with Swan Lake but the GeekGrl actually spent a summer there escaping the world after a particularly difficult divorce so for her it was not just about picking up South Dakota, it was also a redemption run.
I suppose like any good story of redemption, the GeekGrl, in quite an improbable way, returned to an awful place in her history to face it down and triumph over the badness it held in her life. Swan Lake fought back but in the end she overcame and I was glad to be a part of it. Her return was improbable because the last time she was there she had been a life-long non-athlete who prided herself on sloth and now she was returning as a runner with a combination of over 40 marathons, ultramarathons and ironman triathlons under her belt. I suppose there are some things in life that require that much training to overcome. The other reason it was an improbable return is the fact that it’s Viborg South Dakota. I mean, really, what are the chances any non-native will end up in Viborg South Dakota once in a lifetime much less twice.
In any case, the marathon starts and ends at the Christian Camp and makes a full lap around Swan Lake. The rest of the distance, the majority of the distance, is made of two huge rectangles that are comprised of a mix of dirt farm roads and paced rural routes. One rectangle heads south of the lake and the other north.
I say that Swan Lake fought back because when race morning dawned there was, and had been, a soaking rain that turned off and on throughout the race. That rain was also accompanied by high winds and lots and lots of mud. The GeekGrl decided to take the early start along with maybe six other runners. They headed off into the dark and driving rain without fanfare an hour before the rest of the runners took the course. I remained behind in the muddy field waiting for my own race to start.
By the time the official starting time rolled around there was a brief reprieve from the rain and the sun was just beginning to make its presence known in a gunmetal grey sky. As with the Marathon to Marathon, this little race saw an over-representation of Marathon Maniacs looking to pick up another state. With a modicum more fanfare the official race began as we all lurched forward onto the muddy road.
My legs felt pretty beat up from the day before and while I was running slowly I felt like I was running well. The course was flat and muddy until we hit the pavement for the first time then it was just flat and wet. The rain started back up and I began wondering how the GeekGrl was faring. Maybe 8 miles into the race I saw a couple of the early starters but neither of them looked like the GeekGrl. The course ran through the small town of Viborg but still no sign of the GeekGrl. We turned back onto a mud road and began heading north toward the place where the half-marathoners split off and finish.
I found the GeekGrl standing at the intersection of the full and half marathon looking wet, muddy and discouraged. I jogged up to her and she said she had had enough of this shit and just wanted to be done. This was her battle so I didn’t want to resist but in all honest I was pretty ready to be done myself. We began to head off in the direction of the half marathon finish and told a race volunteer we were calling it a day. The GeekGrl told me how she didn’t really want to have to come back to South Dakota to do another marathon and started telling me about her race so far. I told her that I thought she was doing ok overall and that I had seen a few of her fellow early starters miles back. This caught her attention.
In the dark and rain and mud the GeekGrl had been struggling to keep up with her fellow early starters but it was so dark and there were so few that she hadn’t realized that she had actually gone head of several of them while trying to chase after the couple that was in front of her. When the sun finally began to rise she was basically alone on the course and it never occurred to her that maybe there were people behind her. When I informed her that she was not in dead last place her attitude changed from resignation to determination and we decided to turn around and get back on course with the rest of the marathoners.
Our decision to continue on was heartening at first. We ran together and chatted, talked about the early days of our relationship when we had first met and about how far we have come together but that reminiscence was ended in pretty short order by an increasingly fierce wind and yet more miles of muddy road.
The remainder of the race was pretty grim. It seemed like the majority of it was directly into a screaming headwind and I did my best to shelter the Geekrl from the brunt of its force but it’s pretty much impossible to escape the wind out on the open plains of South Dakota. Towards the end of the race we even saw one woman cut the course by maybe a mile and a half. There is a little out and back section in a residential area on the north side of the lake and there is an aid station and a row of port-o-potties. During the race there are two occasions when you run that out and back and the final few miles is one of those times. This woman headed away from the out and back and straight for the port-o-potties. The race volunteers stationed there told her she was going the wrong way but she assured them that she knew and was just going to use the restroom so they left her alone and the GeekGrl and I proceeded on to the out and back section.
We kept expecting to see her on the out and back but never did. We began to think that maybe she was really ill and had spent a long time in the can but when we got there she was still nowhere in sight. It seemed unbelievable that someone would spend the money, make the travel and then slog through 23 miles only to then skip what was at most a mile and a half of a full marathon but that’s exactly what she did. As the GeekGrl and I ran the final half-mile of dirt road to the finish line the port-o-potty woman was driving up the road toward us and off to who knows where. Amazing. However, I can also empathize with what it’s like to just be desperate to have some misery over with so I can’t completely say I blame her. I once read an account of a guy who attempted to run a 100 mile race that took place in a residential neighborhood around a single block. He said he made it 97 miles and then could not bear the thought of even one more lap and so he quit.
However, the GeekGrl and I, though we came close, did not quit and we spent the final mile or so taking about her victory, her redemption. It felt good; it felt like victory, it felt like we now fully owned our memories of South Dakota and any of the nasty intruders had once and for all been put to rest.