When I’m looking for a race on a particular weekend, I usually use the Marathon Maniacs race calendar. Aside from being arranged by date, it includes both marathons and ultras. It also sometimes includes smaller races that aren’t on other race calendars. Any official race with a website can be included, if a member requests that it be added to the calendar. Sometimes, I discover races that I had never heard of before. One such race was the Elroy Apple Dumpling Day Marathon, which I ran on September 6.
Elroy is a small town in southwestern Wisconsin. On the first Saturday after Labor Day, they celebrate Apple Dumpling Day, a town festival organized by the Elroy Lions Club. It’s similar to a county fair, with booths for local crafts. There are also sporting events, including the Apple Dumpling Day races. The oldest races are the 5K and kids run, which have been held in 2007. In 2008 they added a half marathon. Last year, they added a marathon.
Elroy is a three hour drive for me, so it allowed me to stay close to home for another low-cost marathon trip. I also loved the idea of an Apple Dumpling Day race. It had small town charm written all over it.
I usually stick to familiar hotel brands, but there weren’t many lodging options in Elroy. I stayed at the Valley Inn, which was to be the only motel within the city limits. The room rate was a very affordable $59 per night. It wasn’t fancy, but it met my needs. In particular, it had A/C and Wi-Fi. After checking in and looking around town a little, I asked where Schultz Park was. That’s where the races start and finish. As it turns out, it was right next to Valley Inn.
Packet pickup was in the morning from 5:30 – 6:30. I got up at 5:00, and by 6:00, I was ready to pick up my number. I was planning to walk over to packet pickup and then walk back to my room, to stay warm until I needed to return for the 7:00 start.
When I went outside, it was so foggy I could barely see. I discovered there was a fence between Valley Inn and the park that extended all the way out to the road. Instead of walking, I gathered everything I needed for the race and drove there. I’m glad I knew where it was. Finding it in the fog was difficult even when I already knew where I was going.
When the race started, it was 48 degrees and the fog was burning off. I expected it to get up to 60 by the time I finished. I would be a little warm in the late miles, but overall it was pretty good running weather.
The course was out-and-back. Most of it was on trails that followed old railroad lines. Some sections were packed dirt, but most of it was paved. We also ran on city streets here and there until we got out of Elroy.
My time goal was to break 3:30. Since there were only about 50 runners in the marathon, I assumed I would also have a good chance of placing in my age group. There were three awards for each 10 year ago group.
When we started, two runners went out much faster than everyone else. I held back a bit, but I was still in third place as we left the park. We crossed a highway and turned onto the 400 Trail.
There was an aid station in the first mile. I looked at my watch and saw that I had only been running for five minutes. I decided to skip that one. I reached the one mile mark in 7:53. That was about right. As we went through the downtown area, we passed this trail shop, which used to be a railroad depot. This is where the 400 Trail ended and the Elroy-Sparta State Trail began.
After a short distance on the Elroy-Sparta State Trail, we ran a few blocks on city streets, which led us to this covered bridge.
After the bridge, a brief section of cow path led us onto another street. We reached another aid station. They had water and Gatorade in large plastic cups. Unlike paper cups, plastic ones break if you try to squeeze them. I can drink on the run using paper cups, but I had to stop briefly to drink from these ones.
A few blocks later we reached the Omaha Trail. We would follow this trail all the way to the turnaround.
Shortly after turning onto the Omaha Trail, I reached the two mile mark. That mile was too fast, so I eased up a little, and another runner moved past me.
The next time I reached an aid station, I tried to drink on the run. I ended up spilling Gatorade all over my shirt and legs. There’s nothing like knowing that you’re going to be sticky for the next 23 miles. I also didn’t get to drink. Fortunately, they had aid stations every mile, so I didn’t have to wait too long for another chance to drink. After that, I always stopped for a few seconds.
We were started to get spread out now. The runner who passed me was gradually pulling away, but I could still see him. I picked up my pace slightly, so I could keep him in sight. I was now averaging about 7:40 per mile. I wasn’t sure if that pace was sustainable, but the cool weather made it feel easy.
After seven miles, we reached a tunnel. You could see the other end, but it was dark enough to be light in the middle. As soon as I was inside, I saw several small lights lining the sides of the trail. They were lanterns set up by the race volunteers.
After the tunnel, I found it easier to keep up with the runner in front of me, even though we were still going the same pace. I didn’t realize it, but the next few miles were slightly downhill.
After about nine miles, the runner ahead of me caught up to one of the leaders. He was already struggling. Before long, I passed him too. After the race, I learned that he was a high school athlete who was running the marathon despite having played a football game Friday night.
Now I was in third place, and I was still keeping the second place runner in sight. The last time I did a small town race on a rails-to-trails course, I came in second. I was beginning to wonder if I could do it again. I wasn’t convinced that the pace wouldn’t break me, but I was no longer just racing the clock.
As I got closer to the turnaround, I saw the leader coming back. He had a 10 minute lead and looked relaxed. Nobody was going to catch him. I reached the turnaround in 1:41:43. I realized by now that I would slow a little in the second half, but I still wanted to keep the second place runner in sight.
In the next few miles, I was working hard, but barely managing eight minute miles. The runner ahead of me wasn’t pulling away. I focused on staying with him to keep from slowing down. He stopped briefly at a couple of the water stops, and I pulled closer. Before long, I was only a few seconds behind him.
The miles felt more tiring in this direction, and it looked like it might be slightly uphill. In fact, it was, but I didn’t know that. I wondered if it just seemed like it was uphill because I was getting fatigued.
At about 18 miles, I caught up to the runner in front of me. He said, “We’re climbing.” I was happy to hear it wasn’t just me. He noticed the grade in the first half. He said it would be uphill to the tunnel, but after that it would be mostly downhill or flat. That was a relief. Then he said, “Please tell me you’re under 50.” I had to give him bad news. We were in the same age group. At this point, I was no longer worried about competing for an age group award. We were competing for second place. I didn’t realize it, but we were competing for both. This race allows overall winners to “double dip” and receive age group awards as well.
I sped up slightly going through the tunnel. Just before the end of the tunnel, I saw the 19 mile mark. I had forgotten to check my watch at 18 miles. The last two miles were slow. I dug deep and forced myself to get back to my previous pace. It helped that the uphill section was ending.
For the next three miles, I maintained a good pace. Then I started to run out of gas. Mile 23 was 8:15. I had built up a cushion of three and a half minutes. With 3.2 miles to go, I could afford to slow down to nine minute miles and still beat 3:30. I didn’t want to ease up, though, because I wanted to hold onto second place.
As I got back into town, I had more landmarks to give me a feel for where I was. I held roughly the same pace the rest of the way, finishing in 3:27:31.
The finisher medal had an apple slice shape. In my race packet, I had received a coupon for an apple dumpling, so walked to my car to retrieve it. This was one of the best post-race snacks I’ve had.
As I was eating, I watched the awards ceremony for the half marathon. When they got to marathon awards, I received one for second place overall and another for first in my age group. The awards were medals, giving me a total of three. Each one was engraved on the back.
It was a sunny day, and it was now warm enough that I wasn’t in any hurry to leave. I browsed the craft booths.
Finally, it occurred to me that it was lunch time, and I would need more than an apple dumpling to tide me over until dinner. I made a quick trip to the motel to get some cash and returned to the food pavilion to have a sandwich and another apple dumpling. By the time I finished eating, I saw some runners I know who had just finished. As we talked, I kept seeing more runners I knew. I didn’t get back to the motel until about three hours after I finished. I didn’t need to be in any hurry, though, because I didn’t drive home until Sunday.
The American Legion hosted a pancake breakfast Sunday morning. I went to breakfast wearing my marathon shirt, which said, “I came, I ran, I ate apple dumplings.” One of the legionnaires had been an aid station volunteer, and he asked me what I thought of the race. I told him I thought it was a good race, and I would recommend it to my friends. He also asked me if there was anything they could do better. I suggested using paper cups instead of plastic at the aid stations. Other than that, I wouldn’t change a thing.