I had read and heard many unflattering comments about Okoboji; very little aid, safety concerns running along busy highways, course markings were off, the medal is a piece of crap and so on. Some of that was very accurate, but sometimes it’s good to experience and form your own opinion. Here is mine.
The University of Okoboji Marathon takes place in the far northwest corner of Iowa. One might be a bit surprised when visiting this part of the country. Okoboji and the surrounding communities are a recreational oasis in the middle of farm country. Here, the logo of Sea Ray on 40 foot speed boats out-numbers the famous green of John Deere tractors. If you’re a water sports enthusiast, you’re going to love Okoboji.
If you’re looking for the university’s campus, look no further than the ‘Great Lakes of Iowa’. “What,” you say? OK, let me explain. The curriculum for this university includes swimming, water-skiing, boating, diving, shopping, partying and so on. Here, you don’t really graduate, you celebrate. The university is mythical except in the minds of the student body. You get my drift, right?
Sue and I made the drive from KC and set up camp (yes, I mean camp literally) at Gull Point State Park. The campground is scattered with majestic oak trees and the beach is only a short walk away. Since I chose a site with electric, our tent was tucked neatly between two RV’s. That’s the price you pay for being a runner and needing electricity for important things, like having a fully charged iPod! With a fully inflated air mattress, I slip off to dreamland early, as the race begins at 6am.
Early the next day, we make our way to Pikes Point State Park on the opposite side of the lake, where the marathon and triathlon start. The marathon consists of about 100 runners, so there is little congestion and no problem at all with parking at the start. A full moon and the rising sun work in harmony to provide plenty of light on a beautiful 65 degree morning. Right on time, the gun goes off.
The early parts of the course wind through the residential areas of the eastern shore of West Lake Okoboji. The area reminds me of my old stomping ground, Houghton Lake, Michigan, where Trunk lifters out-number permanent residents by a substantial amount. The weekenders are affectionately known as ‘Trunk lifters’ (or not so affectionately by some) since we all make the trek up from the big city, open our trunks and unpack Friday night, then open the trunk again Sunday and prepare for the trip back home. The lake homes vary from cute little cottages, to huge mansions with spectacular views. I would be perfectly content in owning any one of them!
By the 5th mile, we swing into the town of Arnold Park and run for awhile along the main highway through town. It’s mostly a 2 lane road lined with restaurants, gift shops and resorts. I spot a night club advertising Karaoke tonight; if I finish the race OK, I’ll be back there later! As we turn across the southern end of the lake, I spot a water-skier slicing through the calm waters. I was a pretty decent water-skier myself when I was younger. The numerous flashbacks keep my mind occupied and the first 10 miles breeze by effortlessly.
Around the 10th mile, we begin to see the bikers from the triathlon pass us. This section of the race is along a major 2-lane state road, so it is a bit unsettling to have a bike whiz by at 20 some MPH as they are crammed between the big SUV on their left and the runner on the right. OK, safety is a bit of a concern through this section, but it’s only a few miles. The gravel shoulder is groomed quite well and provides a more comforting zone in which to run. It’s not a horribly busy road, and I’ll bet the majority of the traffic was vehicles dropping off runners at the half-marathon start, which is just up the road. Surely those drivers understand how to be cautious?
As we turn off the main road and back toward the western shoreline, a quick look to the western skies reveal very ominous dark clouds. It’s beginning to rain now, but it looks like heavy stuff isn’t far behind. I’ve met up with another runner, Joshua, a young pre-med student from Iowa State who is running his first marathon. We seem to be going the same pace and will end up running the rest of the race together. He seems to be thriving off the ‘old man’s experience’ and I am using his youthful enthusiasm to help me. As we run by the entrance to the state park where we’re camping, I spot my wife waiting with gels and Gatorade. I take a minute to pull off my iPod and give it to her, as there is nowhere to hide it once the rains come. This turns out to be a good decision; the downpour arrives shortly after.
As we pass the halfway point, I’m right on my desired split time of 2:10. By now, we’re soaking wet as the rain continues at a steady, moderate pace. Other than having heavier shoes from the moisture, the rain actually feels good and it doesn’t really bother either of us. The miles through the teens alternate between a paved trail following the highway, with some turn-offs into the western shore residential area. Luckily, the bikes stay out on the main highway, so we won’t have to contend with them any longer.
As with my last race, the miles between 18 and 22 seem to be the toughest. I haven’t checked my pace in awhile and am disappointed to see that I’ve fallen 5 minutes or so behind my goal. I never felt like I slowed down, and I don’t own a Garmin to confirm. As it is, I probably won’t be coming in with a PR today, but it’s still a pretty respectable time for me. We pass the start line again and the last 5-6 miles are the same course again, so we know the terrain and what to expect. Unfortunately, this is probably the hilliest part of the course and we have to run it a second time. Now, don’t be fooled, there may be a few hills in this section, but they are generally short and not too steep.
Finally, I can see the tracks of the roller coaster at Arnolds Park Amusement Park, which means the finish line is close. Joshua and I have stuck together since we met up around mile 10 and now we both kick it into high gear for the final stretch. Simultaneously, we cross the mats for a time of 4:27:53. A look at the website’s official times show that Joshua was one second behind me; surely he held up just slightly as we crossed, respectfully allowing his elder to beat him. I’m sure he could have blown me away if he wanted – what a fine young gentleman.
After the race, I could be found sitting around the campsite with a Leinenkugel Creamy Dark in one hand and an Arturo Fuentes Hemingway cigar in the other. I have a deeply satisfied feeling after the race and even though my time was a bit more than my goal, I think I enjoyed the entire experience of this race more than any other.
Wherever You Will Go – The Calling
Down in the Boondocks – Billy Joe Royal
Semi-Charmed Life – Third Eye Blind
I Think I Love you – The Partridge Family
Mustang Sally – Buddy Guy
A perfect ending to a perfect weekend
Now, let’s look at the race itself and hear my thoughts on the issues I’ve read about.
* Very little aid – There were aid stations at least every 2 miles (except the first one which was about 3 miles) with both water and Powerade at most. No GU, no fruit or other foods, but I found it to be adequate. It would be smart to run with a running belt if you don’t have any of your own personal support on the course.
* Safety concerns on course – Yes, this is somewhat true through the highway 86 section, but I really didn’t feel in danger at all. I eventually moved to the gravel shoulder allowing a larger buffer zone. The entire course is open to traffic, but the majority is run on uncrowded residential streets.
* Course markings are off – I found the course to be marked very well, all directions are painted on the road, so you need to pay attention. The directions are not at all confusing. It seemed that the mile markers were accurate, at least through the first half where I was watching my time. I did not watch as closely the last 10 miles. There are no clocks on the course at all.
* The medal is a piece of crap – Quite true, by far. Most of my 5K medals are nicer! Oh well, who runs a race for the medal anyway?