I’m aware that the famous Clint Eastwood film is called The Good, The Bad and The Ugly but that’s not the way I encountered things when the GeekGrl and I flew off to the Midwest to run the Marathon to Marathon – Swan Lake Marathon weekend double. I’ve wanted to run the Marathon to Marathon in Iowa ever since I came across it maybe five years ago. I just thought it was a cool name, something with a little added interest because let’s face it, there isn’t a lot that Iowa has to offer in terms of marathon experiences beyond its ability to put on small, rural marathons run by subdued but friendly people who remind me of my long lost relatives. Yes, I am born of the upper Midwest and have loads of relatives there but our family moved away long ago causing an insurmountable cultural gulf between me and them.
The GeekGrl and I flew into Omaha, Nebraska and got a rental car and headed for Storm Lake Iowa, home of the Marathon to Marathon. When we arrived we went to packet pickup at the local high school and discovered it wasn’t open yet so we went to check into our hotel room. Since we were only staying one night, checking out before the start of the marathon and then leaving town immediately after the race, I went for a less expensive room option. I never do this in a city or in any part of the country where I suspect the town is essentially dying or trying not to die because the cheap motels in those areas are always bad news. However, in some small, rural towns I have gotten into something that may not have all the modern luxuries but is clean and kitschy and locally owned. Those kinds of places are pretty cool but you still have to be careful.
Anyway, thinking I had a better handle on the upper Midwest than I actually do I felt pretty sure that I was booking us into a quaint motel run by a retired farming couple. Maybe each room would have some kind of farm theme like the corn room and the hay barn room. Don’t laugh, the GeekGrl and I once stayed in a really kitschy motel in rural Colorado and each of the rooms had an animal theme of the animals that were hunted in the area. As I remember we either stayed in the Elk room or the White Tail Deer room.
In Storm Lake we had rooms at the Budget…I’ll not name the actual hotel but suffice it to say that there are two budget something hotels in Storm Lake with slightly different names and they are about a block from each other. One appears worse than the other but both look pretty bad. When I saw the first Budget hotel my stomach turned but then I almost immediately saw the other one and in a fit of hope I drove past the first to arrive at the second. Like I said, it wasn’t a lot better but the outward appearance at least suggested that it wasn’t about to collapse on top of all the $5 prostitutes, crack heads and cockroaches dwelling inside. When I attempted to check into Budget the latter I was informed that I had no reservations. I begged them to double and triple check, check different phone numbers, email accounts even different names hoping beyond hope that for some bizarre reason long forgotten I reserved a room under a pseudonym. No luck.
With my heart in my shoes I shuffled back to the car with the powerless gait of a man being lead to the death chamber to tell the GeekGrl that the hotel I had so recently enthusiastically thanked the gods was not ours, was, in fact, ours. She cheerfully chirped “maybe it’s not as bad as it looks” and I gave her the stink eye as my stomach began to boil and a clammy heat spread over my face. I drove over to our Budget the former and entered the office. It was immediately worse than I had imagined. It was small and dingy. The walls were covered with a riot of free paper calendars and advertisements from local, low end businesses, and given their random placement I suspect their primary purpose was to cover holes and pealing wallpaper.
The space was heated to a stiflingly humid 98 degrees and there was a large portrait of a red robed Guru staring indifferently back at me from behind the counter. Nobody was present and my first thought was “Thank god, nobody’s here. I can run back to the car and tell the GeekGrl ‘It was the weirdest thing, the place is abandoned.’” But my plan was wreaked by the appearance of a plump but haggard looking East Indian man wearing rumpled pants and a grubby undershirt. The only thing more powerful that the shabby appearance he conveyed was the smell of sweat and curry draining from the room he had so recently inhabited. I had the strong suspicion that this entire scenario would only be found in the ghettos of Mumbai India and, quite surprisingly, Storm Lake Iowa.
Much to my dismay I did indeed have reservations here under my name, using my phone number and my e-mail address. Despite my almost uncontrollable urge to flee I signed in, got my room key and went to see what fresh hell awaited me in room number 8. I went back to the car and told the GeekGrl, “I don’t think I can do this, I really don’t think I can do this” and she tried her best to sooth me but I just told her “You don’t understand, you haven’t seen the things I’ve seen.”
I drove around the side and parked outside room number 8 and stared hard at the door willing the room inside to be far better than I expected. I finally mustered the courage to go investigate and as I opened the door to room number 8 an iron fist of stink slammed into my face knocking me back into the parking lot. Reflexively I looked at my hands and arms and clothes to see if I was coated in some foul substance but as far as I could tell I was unsullied. I stood in the parking lot now glowering my defiance at the open door to room number 8 as it hung mockingly on its corroded hinges. I screwed up my courage and thought to myself “I’m going in.”
I breached the portal and entered a dizzying wonderland of vile smelling mystery. Because so much stink had drained from the room upon the initial unsealing of the cavity the smell was faint at first but as I stood in the middle of the room it gathered strength like a coming storm. I initially detected the smell of mold and mildew infused with that of stale cigarettes, perfume, and beer. It was horrible but it was not over. I explored a bit further and the stink continued toward a crescendo, now came the overtones of impersonal sex, followed by the sweat and feces of a hard day’s work on a pig farm, lightly dabbed with urine and suicide. Completing the horror of the experience was the unmistakable antiseptic smell of a Lysol cover-up, the smell of a denial so deep that there is no possibility of a return to civilized lands.
I threw the key on the bed and bolted from the room like a terrified rabbit seeking the sunlight as its warren collapses under the weight of an oncoming bulldozer. Now in the parking lot next to the car I pulled out my iPad and Googled “Storm Lake Hotels.” One room was available at a local resort hotel and it was going for a stunning $500 per night. I seriously considered paying the price but then thought, “Maybe the room wasn’t as bad as it seemed. Maybe I was just exaggerating because I had gotten myself all wound up about the place’s appearance. I went back in for another look and was immediately repelled by the forces within.
I went back to the car and once again pulled out my iPad and Googled “Storm Lake Hotels” and got the same result so started looking farther afield. I found rooms available at a Best Western in Cherokee Iowa, which is about 20 minutes from Storm Lake. I went ahead and made reservations and the GeekGrl and I departed the Budget hotel of misery without another word, without any attempt to get our money, without looking back.
Our next stop was packet pickup back at the local high school and from there it was on to get our pre-race dinner. The Marathon to Marathon has its own pre-race dinner that can be purchased and when we got there it looked like a pretty standard pre-race pasta feed with sheet cake for dessert all prepared by the local high school cafeteria lady. The GeekGrl and I usually opt out of such things in favor of some local flavor and that’s what we did this time. We had settled on a place called Honey Kissed Pizza, which boasts being “Storm Lake’s #2 tourist attraction.” We drove to the establishment and discovered that it didn’t open until 6:00 or 6:30 in the evening, which was still about an hour away. We were tired and hungry and had two marathons to run this weekend. We just wanted to eat and get to our hotel and sleep so we found something else that seemed local.
What we found was a local “Chinese” restaurant. You may think Chinese is a bad choice the night before a marathon but we’ve done it before and just like anything else you just don’t stuff yourself. The place was in a circa 1972 Pizza Hut building that had not seen any upgrade in its interior decorating since, well, probably since 1972. Our impulse was to bolt from the place but we were immediately greeted by a friendly waitress and it just seemed rude to turn around and walk out on her so we stayed and ate their buffet. The options at the buffet were limited and the only thing that was remarkable about it was that every sauce, no matter what it was called, looked exactly the same and tasted precisely line Aunt Jemima pancake syrup.
Lord, I had forgotten just how uninspired the food of the upper Midwest could be. It’s not to say that tasty things can’t be found there but for the most part it just seems like most things are on a continuum from low-quality bland to slightly less low-quality bland and it isn’t at all unusual to find foods like the Aunt Jemima sauce. I once ate at a “Mexican” restaurant in South Dakota that used those creepy , cardboard box blocks of Velveeta cheese like substance.
At the Chinese restaurant I probably ate too much but I got hung up on trying to find one dish that wasn’t slathered in Aunt Jemima pancake syrup. I could not find a single dish and neither could the GeekGrl. As we left the restaurant for our hotel I couldn’t help but fell a certain amount of trepidation given our inauspicious introduction to Storm Lake Iowa.
Fortunately the gods smiled upon us for keeping our good humor in the face of such tragedy and when we arrived at the Best Western in Cherokee it was neat and clean and smelled of flowers. The proprietor of this establishment was also East Indian but he was wearing a neatly pressed suit and was sporting a cleanly shaved face and carefully coiffed hair. We got our key, went to our room and immediately hit the sack.
Race morning came early and the GeekGrl and I rolled out of bed, had our race morning breakfast and drove the 20 minutes back to Storm Lake to start the Marathon to Marathon. As we had figured the starting line was packed with Marathon Maniacs looking to knock Iowa off their 50-state quest. It was a small starting line in front of the high school and there was a local talent there to sing the Star Spangled Banner. She began to sing and everyone took off their hats and placed hand on heart. However, one woman in the crowd, who was also running in the race, refused to be outdone and sang along loudly from the beginning of the song to the end.
It was a stunning scene to watch. Everyone in the cowed was staring at this woman, all the runners were staring at her, even the woman whose role it was to actually be singing was staring at her but the rebellious anonymous singer stared fixedly ahead and continued to sing loudly easily matching in volume the amplified voice of the intended singer of songs.
When the race finally got underway I headed out slow and easy knowing I had a second marathon to run the next day and not having any particular time goal in mind. My legs gradually warmed up and my pace increased. Somewhere around a very conservative 9:30 minute mile my intestines began to strangle my stomach and I knew there was about a half-gallon of Aunt Jemima pancake syrup in my gut fighting to get out. I slowed the pace just a hair hoping that in time things would settle and I could pick it back up but every time I thought that time had come and I tried to pick it up it felt like a badger was desperately trying to escape from inside me using any orifice it could find as a means of egress.
This particular hell lasted until about mile 9.5 when badger finally found his opening and went for broke. I was still about a half mile from a port-o-potty and clenched so hard that a second and more intense non-running sweat broke out on top of my standard “I’m running a marathon” sweat. When I spied the port-o-potty in the distance I could see there was another runner hopping up and down in front of it. There were also about 20 other runners on the course between me and the port-o-potty so I began to pray.
Thankfully it turns out that God does indeed reside in the corn fields of Iowa and by the time I reached the destination the formerly leaping waiter was exiting the port-o-potty and I was able to make an immediate entrance. About five minutes later I was back on the road and feeling fine. As I re-entered the race I found I could run at whatever speed I chose, at least any speed that was in my rage of possibility. I soon fell in with a young woman who turned out to be a female Army Drill Sergeant and ran with her for a while. We had a nice chat up to about mile 13 when she advised that I go on ahead because she was going to back off the pace a bit. I took note of my condition and decided that thanks to the slow start I had plenty left in the tank to pick up the pace.
I ran about 20 seconds per mile faster and started passing people. By the time I hit mile 20 I decided I had more so I dropped the pace another 20 seconds per mile faster and started to real in people who had been much farther ahead. It felt good to be able to accelerate that much towards the end of a marathon because nobody else around me could do the same so when I passed someone it was at a strong pace and they stayed passed. With about two miles left to go I spied some guys ahead of me that I decided I wanted to beat so I stepped on the accelerator as hard as I thought I could without completely imploding before the end of the race and was able to bring my pace down to just below an 8 minute mile.
Marathon Iowa is a tiny little farming village tucked away in the midst of a sea of corn and sorghum fields with little to offer but the finishing line of the Marathon to Marathon and a nice little community center ready to serve up a hot breakfast (or lunch) to the runners. I finished in just under four hours, not fast but I was happy considering the way things had been going. I went and grabbed a shower and some breakfast in the community center as I waited for the GeekGrl to finish her race. Once she had finished, showered and ate we hopped on the bus back to Storm Lake and took off for Viborg, South Dakota to run the Swan Lake Marathon in the morning.
All in all we had a good experience at the Marathon to Marathon, it’s a low key, small town race with good support and friendly people. While there’s nothing about it to make me want to come run it again, were I to still need Iowa to complete my 50 states and knowing what I know now I would most definitely choose the Marathon to Marathon again. It’s a small town American classic.