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The Sandhills Marathon

Updated: 6 days ago

Contributor: Nerd Senior



Scott Schwartz tried to keep it simple as he stood next to the start line. "I'll say, 'Runners to your mark, go."


At least one of fifteen marathoners wasn't listening. He asked loudly, "What are you going to say?"


Schwartz shook his head. "You'll know when to go because I'll say 'go.'"


A few seconds later the 18th Sandhills Marathon began.


There was no gun, no cheers and absolutely no hassle.


*****


Everyone has a different reason for running a marathon. I thought my marathon days were over in 2020 after I lost a chunk of cartilage from the underside of my knee cap. However, a surprisingly fast Turkey Trot 5k last November got me thinking that I still had something left in the tank, and the Sandhills Marathon held 45 miles south of Valentine, Nebraska, met my two requirements: (a) it was after track season and (b) it was somewhere I had never been.


If you haven't been to the Sandhills, add it to your bucket list. Cherry County is the largest county in the US, topping 3.1 million acres, larger than the state of Connecticut or the combined size of Rhode Island and Delaware. You'll be blown away by the the Niobrara River valley, the cows and buffalos, the greens and plains, and the thousands of grass-covered half spheres that look like 40-foot golf balls embedded on fairways.


In addition to these sights, you might also see a snake. The pre-race instructions included the following warning: "Watch for snakes on the road. They may be sunning themselves at that hour of the morning. Do not pick up a snake to see if it is a rattler or a bull snake!" With start-temps in the low 50's, there were no snakes to be seen and -- to my relief -- in the previous 17 marathons no one had ever picked up a snake mid-race. However, just to be safe, the porta-potty truck driver Mo was packing a pistol.


You heard that right. There are a total of two porta-potties for the entire race, and they sat atop a trailer that was driven around the course during the race. Need to go to the bathroom? Just flag down Mo.


*****


The Sandhills Marathon began in 2007 when two frequent visitors from Lincoln decided that other runners needed to see this part of the state. The marathon website - which hasn't been updated for about five years - shares the background of how the race started at https://sandhillsmarathon.net/about/. The marathon is now organized more or less by four men from Lincoln and Omaha who arrive in Valentine two days before the race.


On the day before the race, my wife and I detoured around a bridge near Long Pine that had been washed out a few days prior. We made it to packet pickup at Young's Western Wear with just a few minutes to spare, and I'm not going to lie: I was seriously tempted to buy my first cowboy hat.


It's a good thing I didn't, because Anthony Schutz of Lincoln had brought his. After spending the night before the race sleeping in a do-it-yourself camper near the start line, Anthony wore a cowboy hot and Teva sandals (without socks) while cruising (effortlessly, it seemed) to a 3:43 victory on the out-and-back course. Joni Williamson of Lincoln picked up her 7th women's title in 4:04 while Tom Volk continued his 18-year Sandhills streak with a 3:59:43. The timer, a good friend of Tom's, announced a finishing time of 4:02:43, evoking a quick string of good-natured profanities from Tom who wasn't about to lose a sub-4:00 effort.


Sandhills was my 10th marathon but my first in almost a decade. I've run the Chicago Marathon twice; Sandhills is the antithesis of big-city marathons.


The race starts and finishes in the village of Brownlee which, at upon our arrival at 4:45 a.m., appeared to be little more than a collection of ten or so houses. The race organizers arrived at around 5:10 for the 6:00 start. At 5:30, Scott Schwartz dragged his foot across the dirt and gravel parking lot that served as race headquarters. A start/finish line was spray painted on the path he cleared.


At 5:55, I walked twenty yards from my car to the start line. Scott gave a few instructions. Watch for snakes. Let trucks pass. Be careful crossing the cattle grates. If you take a bottle of water or Gatorade from a cooler, throw it near the trash bag at the next cooler two miles later.


With barely more fanfare than the start of my daily run, fifteen of us headed down Seneca Road.


******


Three of the fifteen marathoners traveled from Maryland in their quest to join the 50-state marathon club. With Nebraska checked off his list after Saturday, Donald Chung has three states left: Kansas, North Dakota and Alaska. While race co-organizer Tom Macy opted for the Sandhills half-marathon this year, he's not far behind Donald with 43 states completed. In the last few years the marathon has also had groups of 50-state runners from Virginia and New Jersey.


About four miles into the marathon, I trailed Donald by fifty meters when a few bandits crashed the race. In a field on the right side of the road, a herd of 20 cows ran parallel to Donald for 100 meters. A barb-wire fence ended their jaunt.


As advertised, the four cattle grates on the 'out' portion of the course were a bit slippery due to overnight rain. However, in the middle of the race a local rancher/runner dropped pieces of wood on the grates to make them runner-friendly.


At 7:45 two vans from a local rafting outfitter drove by us with the half-marathon participants. Nineteen runners joined us on the course. Despite the extra bodies, I still ran at least 25 miles by myself. As a previous participant had noted on his Strava entry, the Sandhills are a good place to clear your head.


*****


From what I could tell, all 34 marathon and half-marathon starters finished the race. Of course, why quit a race - even in the remote chance you could hitch a ride back to the start line - when the scenery is this spectacular? It's a race that begs for a photographer like Prep Running Nerd, but many runners resorted to carrying a cell phone to snap a few blurry pictures. The race course is held on a single-lane road so the organizers strongly discourage spectators from driving on the course. (However, if you asked nicely, I'm guessing you could catch a ride with the porta-potty driver.)


As runners finished, many grabbed a chair or a bucket and set up camp a few feet beyond the finish line. The beer flowed, the laughter rang out, and the applause got a bit louder for each finisher. Four hours after I finished, my wife and I jumped into a van with nine new running friends to enjoy a quick float down the Niobrara River.


*****


Donald Chung and his Maryland friends are unlikely to return for a future Sandhills marathon, but they may be in the minority. It appeared that at least half of the field had run the race before and most of those runners planned to return next year.


Will there be a next year? A few of the organizers are confident it will make it to at least 20 years in 2026, but organizing a Sandhills marathon from Lincoln and Omaha for less than 50 runners isn't the easiest task. The website needs to be updated. Horseshoes have to be ordered for the half marathon finishers and spurs are needed for the marathoners. Scoring a listing on marathonguide.com would bring more 50-staters. Attracting sponsors would be a big help. Of course, all of that seems like a hassle, and the Sandhills Marathon is decidedly anti-hassle.


It's also a slice of heaven. If you're free on the 1st or 2nd Saturday in June next year, put a note on your calendar to register after January 1st at https://runsignup.com/race/ne/valentine/sandhillsmarathon. I can almost guarantee that Andy, Scott, Tom, Tom, Joe, Jenn and the regular crowd will be there. There's a good chance I'll be there too.


******


First published at www.preprunningnerd.com by Jay Slagle on June 5, 2024. If you find an error, shoot us an e-mail at jayslagle@hotmail.com and we'll get it fixed.


Do you like to follow cross country and track & field? There's more of this at www.preprunningnerd.com. Check out the Blog tab for our frequent stories and and the Results tab for every Nebraska high school race we can find. If you want to see meet photos or just need to kill a few hours on social media, follow us on Twitter and Instagram @PrepRunningNerd or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/preprunningnerd.


Finally, if you think runners, jumpers and throwers are the best things on earth, you'll enjoy our two most popular articles. In 2018 we published "The Runner with the Broken Heart" about a high school boy who finished last in nearly every race he ran. In 2022 we published, "The Fall and Rise of Emmett Hassenstab," a story about a high school triple jumper who became a quadrapalegic after a swimming accident.



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