by Shelia Maddock
Many of the events or activities that become an integral part of our lives result from careful thought and long-term planning; others…. happen almost unexpectedly.
As I lined up to run the inaugural Des Moines Half Marathon, little did I realize that not only was this the start of a 13.1-mile trek through the streets of Des Moines on October 6, 2002, but that it was also the start of what would become a personal autumn ritual – for 19 years and counting. Little did I realize that in 2021 I would be training to run in my 20th consecutive IMT Des Moines Half Marathon. There was definitely no plan for that!
That initial run was not a ‘first-ever race’ experience that turned me from couch potato to aspiring athlete. It was not my first half marathon, and I had been running long enough that being a runner was something I considered part of my identity. I did indeed think that it was a unique opportunity to be running in a brand new race – but the concept of any racing ‘streak’ was never in my mind. Every October, the third weekend is automatically blocked off in my calendar for the IMT Des Moines Marathon.
So how did that happen? As an oft-injured runner, I probably never imagined that I could find myself healthy on race weekends for so many consecutive years. Equally, in 2002 there was no guarantee of the longevity of the race. For every well-established local race that I had participated in, there had been many more that had only lasted for a few years.
The first potential obstacle to any streak was indeed the survival of the race itself. Helene Neville had provided the spark that brought the race to life in 2002, but after 3 years, she was ready to move on to other goals (including running solo across all 50 states to raise money for cancer research). By March 2005, it had even been announced by the previous owner that the race was to be canceled. Fortunately, Chris Burch and IMT Insurance stepped in to save it. Since then, the IMT Des Moines Marathon Weekend has grown, evolved, and thrived, drawing runners from across the country – and was recently rated as one of The Top 20 Marathons of the Decade by bibrave.com.
I raced a lot at that time, so I would sign up when registration opened each year. However, it was not until 2007 that I first suspected that maybe I was getting caught up in some streak. That year I was due to run a full marathon in Grand Rapids, just one week after Des Moines. That was not an ideal interval for the best marathon performance! However, it struck me that there WAS something special about participating in a race for every year of its existence, so I decided to run them both anyway. And that kept the streak alive!
The following year fully cemented my commitment. In 2008 I had to deal with many unexpected and major family health issues, and although running provided much-needed relief, the stress also led to injuries. Race Weekend found me ill-prepared to run a half marathon, either mentally and physically. As I headed to packet pick-up, I wasn’t even sure that I wanted to participate that year. However, once at the expo, I found that something was comforting about the familiarity of Race Weekend – and I knew that I needed to be a part of it, even if my own race would not be pretty.
Since then, there has never been a question about my participation. (Is this a habit, a commitment, or an obsession???) I know that someday something will derail my plans – or maybe I will decide that enough is enough. For now, however, even if injured, I would probably find some way to hobble around the course. Although I am no longer running at the 7 min pace of the first decade when I was chasing PR’s, I can still run with an equivalent effort and enjoy the satisfaction of crossing the finish line. It just takes me a bit longer!
All that being said, I doubt I would have kept coming back had the race not been one that I WANTED to run – and one that I wanted to support others in their running. Marathon Weekend is a well-organized and well-supported event that we are fortunate to have in our community. It serves local runners and attracts many elsewhere, providing an economical and PR benefit to the metro area. So, in addition to being a participant, I first became a volunteer and then six years ago an official Ambassador for the event. In that role, I really enjoy sharing tips and suggestions with other runners and helping those from out of town leave with the best possible impression of the Des Moines area.
In many ways, the growth of Race Weekend has paralleled the growth in popularity of running over the past 2 decades and the growth and development within Des Moines. I consider Des Moines to be something of a ‘Goldilocks’ city when hosting a high-quality marathon. It is big enough to provide the necessary amenities and community support to create an interesting course in geography. Yet, it is small enough that the event can be a major focus of local attention that weekend, not just one of many things going on. It also allows for relatively simple race day logistics, which runners always appreciate. Community involvement is a key element, too: not just the spectators who come out to support the runners (either as friends and relatives of runners or as neighbors who live along the course); but also the large number of non-runners who willingly volunteer in a wide range of capacities.
The range of distances now offered (5k, 5mile, half, and full marathon + marathon relay) surely provides something to suit everyone. Although the courses did change somewhat in the early years, as Grays Lake Park opened and MLK Parkway became a major thoroughfare, each race now has a fairly well-established route (with the occasional tweaks due to construction). The full marathon course provides a nice tour of the city and several residential neighborhoods, including a fun swing through Drake Stadium, before heading ‘home’ through Greenwood, Water Works, and Grays Lake parks, where the trees are usually at the peak of their autumn glory. (The climb up Grand Avenue and subsequent dip into the South of Grand neighborhood provides a nice lesson to out-of-staters that not all of Iowa is flat – but the hills come between miles 3 and 8, which is surely the ideal location in a marathon!)
As I look forward to running in 2021, I also think back to past races and the many memories along the way. There is much I can vividly recall about that first year in 2002. The anticipation at the start…. in the dark, since we set off at 7 am. Moments along the course…. especially the climb up Grand Ave, to be rewarded by the descent into Greenwood Park. The thrill and relief of the finish…. on a street that no longer exists, having been converted many years ago to a bike trail adjacent to the river. Cheering on the marathon runners as they finished their races…. two years before I would complete that distance in a race myself. ‘2002 me’ certainly could not have anticipated what would lie ahead over the years to come (especially not the need to run a virtual race in 2020 due to a pandemic), but would undoubtedly be pleasantly surprised that ‘2021 me’ was still in the running – and ready to add to the collection of memories again this October.
This year’s race will certainly be special since we will be marking the 20th anniversary of the event and returning to in-person racing. There will be much to celebrate! Whether you are contemplating your first, second, fifth, twentieth – or however many – Des Marathon Weekend race, may you have a memorable experience! And who knows? You might find it becomes an October habit for you, too.