This is part of a series of posts from my quest to run a half marathon in all 50 states. Iowa was my 49th state.
Before COVID and the pandemic, I was supposed to run a half marathon in Cedar Rapids, Iowa in September 2020. At that point I would have already run a half marathon in New Mexico in April of that year, followed by Minnesota in June, and the race in Cedar Rapids would have been my 50th state. All three of those races got shifted or cancelled completely so now in 2021, I still have not run a half marathon in New Mexico but I ran Circle of Life Half Marathon, Lake City, Minnesota for my 48th state in June of this year. Confused? Blame it on COVID.
When I saw the IMT Des Moines Half Marathon was scheduled for an in-person race October 17, 2021 and the race director promised regular communication leading up to the race plus he would do everything in his power to make sure the race took place in person, I signed up immediately. True to his word, the race director sent out weekly emails with information about the race. Unfortunately since the race was in October, that meant my teenage daughter would not be running with me since she didn’t want to miss school. No one else would be going with me either, which means this was my first real solo vacation and first time traveling to a race by myself (no sherpa but that was OK; there was a gear check).
Packet pickup was at the Iowa Events Center both Friday and Saturday and included something I hadn’t seen in a while, an actual in-person expo with several vendors and booths set up. You could buy shirts, shoes, gels and other running-related supplies or talk to people about products and local running events. There were also speakers like Jeff Galloway, the famous Olympian who has since coached millions on the run/walk method. I picked up my goodie bag and race bib and was surprised to see a long-sleeve quarter-zip shirt personalized with the race name on the front and 13.1 on the back included in the bag.
A cold front had moved into Des Moines bringing with it a frigid wind in the days preceding the race. I went on a 30 minute shakeout run on Friday morning and it was 50 degrees, which was fine to run in what I had brought for the race (short-sleeve top and running skirt). However, the temperature was supposed to drop to 40 degrees at night starting Friday and by 8 am on Sunday, race morning, it was only supposed to be 41 degrees. On top of that, it was supposed to increase by 10 degrees in just a couple of hours. I was not happy with the weather prediction for race morning. Welcome to the Midwest, right?
After obsessively checking the weather like a crazy person and also obsessing about what I was going to wear for the race, I decided to stick with my original plan of my short-sleeve shirt, running skirt, knee-high compression socks, beanie, Buff on my neck, and my beloved Turtle mittens. I wore a fleece jacket to the start then threw it in the gear check bag and made my way to the start. It turns out it was a few degrees warmer than they had predicted the night before so at 8 am at race start it was 44 degrees and sunny.
There were around 5000 people running the marathon and half marathon, which both started together and we were crammed-in together tightly (and no one was wearing a mask). It would not have been a good scene for anyone worried about COVID, but that’s not me since I’m vaccinated and don’t have any health complications so it didn’t bother me. My plan was to run around 8:45 minute miles which would mean my finish time would be around 1:54.
The race start was right in the heart of downtown Des Moines and the half marathoners split off from the marathoners around mile 3. The course went by Water Works Park and Grays Lake Park, past the Pappajohn Sculpture Park and ran along the Des Moines River for the last part. It was scenic and pancake flat with the exception of one very minor hill around mile 11. There were bands, first aid stations, and Gatorade/water at multiple points along the course. At one point there were even volunteers holding out tissue boxes with tissues for runners. I’ve never seen that before but thought it was a great idea because it’s common to get a runny nose from cold air when running. Spectators were also out in full force, many with funny posters; one of my favorites was: “On a scale of 1-10, you’re a 13.1.”
I felt so good right from the beginning that I ended up going faster than I expected. My split times were 8:26, 8:24, 8:21, 8:18, 8:28, 8:21, 8:17, 8:20, 8:23, 8:24, 8:28, 8:33, 8:29, and 8:20 for the final 0.25 miles. Strava had me at 13.25 miles with a finish of 1:50 at 13.1 miles but my official time was 1:51:20, which was a PR for me! I’m still astounded that I PR’d for my 51st half marathon! I finished 12th in my age group out of 110 women. This is a FAST course!
At the finish, we got our medals along with snack boxes filled with pretzels, peanuts, sunflower seeds, an oatmeal bar, fruit snacks, and animal crackers; there was also water and Gatorade plus a chocolate Gatorade protein recovery drink that tasted like chocolate milk. AND there were BBQ sandwiches, oranges, bananas, cookies, and Truly hard seltzer. There was an area set up in a big field with really talented bands playing and cornhole boards and bleachers to sit on. Finally, there were big posters with the race logo for photo ops.
I truly loved this race. Who would have thought my race in Des Moines, Iowa, state number 49 would be so outstanding? The race director and the volunteers did an excellent job putting on this race and I highly recommend it for anyone looking for a well-organized, flat (unless you’re running the marathon; believe it or not, Iowa actually has some hills and the marathon is hilly, I’ve been told), and most of all FUN race.
Have any of you run this race or know anyone who has? Anyone interested in taking a trip to Iowa to check it out?
When I poked my head out of my sleeping bag the morning of day four, I looked beside me to see that my daughter, ever the early-riser, had already packed up her sleeping bag and pad and was finishing up filling her backpack. Bella and Savannah were working on making breakfast and coffee or tea for everyone.
The local bear had not visited our campsite that night, much to my relief. Several girls were saying they had wished they could have seen the bear, albeit from a distance. Having seen bears multiple times at Great Smoky Mountains National Park the previous summer, I personally had my fill of bears and was glad we hadn’t seen any at Yosemite, at least so far.
We were all highly encouraged to make an effort to poop in the woods that morning before we headed out because the trail we were going to be on had little to no places to privately use the bathroom. Some of the girls resisted but ultimately we all shared the experience of pooping in the woods for the first time, or at least doing it properly the first time (see my previous post for the details on that).
As we were packing up, we noticed a large male deer with a good-sized rack curiously watching us. One of the girls named him Prince Cornelius, which seemed fitting because he was prince-like in his appearance and demeanor. Prince Cornelius was smart enough to keep a healthy distance from us, yet he was clearly watching us as much as we were all watching him. We joked that we were his morning entertainment. He ended up circling all around us in the expanse of maybe half an hour, watching us, taking a bite of greenery, moving over a bit, then, watching us again.
Unfortunately for me, I felt a migraine come on as I was packing up my things. I have a history of them and since I had been experiencing them regularly in the weeks prior, I pretty much expected one to happen at one point or another on this trip. Still, the thought of carrying a heavy backpack down a trail in the sun while dealing with a migraine was about the last thing in the world I wanted. Still, I couldn’t exactly crawl back in my sleeping bag and sleep away the pain. I popped my medicine for migraines, which only really semi-helps, and packed up with the help of my daughter.
Bella was busy checking everyone’s feet for blisters, of which there were many. She was an expert at this and worked quickly and efficiently. After we all were bandaged and wrapped we finished packing everything up and set out for the trail. Although the trail wasn’t going to be quite as long as the day before, it was downhill and exposed to the sun. I’ve always preferred hiking up rather than down even though I get much more out of breath when going up but I find it harder on my knees and feet to hike downhill. With that on top of my migraine and the impending pounding headache, I wasn’t looking forward to the hours ahead.
We only had one goal for the day, to get to Backpacker’s Camp, where we had spent the first night. Bella and Savannah told us we could take as much time as we needed as long as we reached the camp before it got dark, which seemed perfectly reasonable given the distance we needed to hike.
As is the case when you hike from a higher elevation to a lower one, the temperature that day creeped up higher the further we hiked down. The sun also shone brightly and there was little shade along the trail. After hardly seeing any other hikers for days it was a bit strange seeing other hikers on the trail.
We stopped for water and to take breaks several times. As we had done before on other trails, we ended up splitting up into two unofficial groups, one with the faster hikers and the other with the slower hikers; Bella and Savannah would take turns taking the lead while the other was the last person behind our group.
I felt like the person in the back had the hardest job since they had to offer encouragement and support to those struggling. I later found out Savannah had even carried the pack of one of our girls during part of the trail on a previous day, with the girl’s pack on her front and her even heavier pack on her back. I can’t even imagine the strength that required.
Our short-term goal was to reach the point of the trail where it leveled off and was shaded by lunch time but two of our girls struggled even more on this day than the others. One even broke down in tears, saying how hard it was and how hot it was. She had reached her breaking point. Bella managed to give her a pep talk and get her going again after a rest and encouragement to drink water with electrolytes.
We finally reached the bottom of the trail where it leveled off and was near a forested area. Out of the sun and off the somewhat narrow trail with some room to spread out and enjoy our lunch, we all relished in our accomplishments. I noticed a sign for May Lake that said it was 10.1 miles away. Although we hadn’t hiked that distance in one day, we had still hiked it, carrying everything we needed to survive for a few days on our backs.
I started thinking back to all of the backpackers I had seen on trails when I had been hiking all over the world. I had never fully understood what it meant to be a backpacker but now I had a glimpse into that world. By no means did I feel like an expert backpacker but at least now I could call myself a backpacker. Carrying everything you need for days on your back is an empowering thing.
I hoped the girls from our troop would remember this experience in a positive light and not just focus on the negatives, like how hard it was at times. I’ve always felt like embracing the pain is what makes you resilient. There are people that get scared and run away when things get difficult and others that face the difficulties full-on; those that can do the latter are the ones that become resilient and strong, while the former group just bumbles along in life, never truly growing and developing as a person.
We finally reached Backpacker’s Camp, a bit later than expected, but we made it nonetheless and set up our sleeping areas as we had the first time we were here. After changing out of our hiking shoes we walked over to the Merced River and watched as the dirt flowed off our bodies. I took in the views, with a stone bridge and mountains on one side and mountains on the other. Some people were floating down the river on inner tubes and others were splashing and wading in the river further upstream and downstream of us. It was another beautiful sunny day in paradise a.k.a. Yosemite National Park.
After a delicious and filling dinner of dehydrated noodles and vegetables we went around the table taking turns playing the game Rose, Bud, and Thorn. If you’re not familiar with the game, you first say something that was a highlight (rose), then something that was negative or challenging (thorn), and finally something you’re looking forward to (bud). My bud was having a shower when we got back to the hotel in Fresno since I hadn’t showered since the morning we arrived in Yosemite.
We also went around and took turns saying something we admired about each person during this trip. I couldn’t have said enough good things about Bella and Savannah. If I could have somehow conjured up the perfect backpacking guides for our troop on this backpacking adventure, I would have made them exactly like these two amazing women. I don’t think there’s anything these ladies couldn’t do and if there was something they couldn’t do, I feel sure they could figure out how to do it.
After playing another fun and engaging game as a group, we all got ready for bed and our last night sleeping under the stars in Yosemite. It was noticeably warmer and I immediately regretted putting on my long-sleeve wool shirt that I had been sleeping in every other night as I was sliding into my sleeping bag, but I was too tired to go back to the bathroom to change. At least I hadn’t also put on the wool pants. Figuring it would cool off soon enough, I just unzipped my sleeping bag a bit and watched the stars as I drifted asleep.
As I mentioned before, I had been nervous about not sleeping in the comfort of a tent but decided it wasn’t worth carrying the extra weight of it. After debating it with the other adult going with me, I had told told the people organizing our trip before we flew out that she and I had decided if the girls could sleep without tents, so could we! If I hadn’t mentioned before, Lasting Adventures has all of the kids on their youth overnight trips sleep without tents, and tents are optional for adults on those trips. It had been a good choice and I can now say I’ve truly slept under the stars.
On our fifth and final day, we were told we would be hiking without our backpacks- hurray! After we unpacked the backpacks we had borrowed from Lasting Adventures and re-packed our suitcases (our luggage had been left in Bella’s car while we were backpacking), we took off for some highlights we had missed before in Yosemite. I felt so light without my pack and when I saw a person with a heavy backpack on, I had a sort of newfound admiration for them, knowing what it takes to lug a heavy pack around.
Bella and Savannah listed off the names of birds and plants we came across, as they had been doing all along, and as we strolled past Tuolumne Meadows, they pointed out some of the flowers and plants there. We saw houses where some lucky few park employees get to live within Yosemite; many other park employees drive an hour or more to get to work every day because of the lack of affordable housing nearby.
We walked past the currently dried-up Mirror Lake, normally a popular tourist attraction in Yosemite but given the drought you’d never even know there was once water there. Then we came to what appeared to be an ordinary-looking granite boulder. Upon closer look, we could see indentations in the top of the rock where we were told the native people used to grind acorns into flour. Some indentations were bigger than others, meaning they had been used for probably hundreds of years. It was hard to imagine what the land was once like before it became a national park.
After we all climbed onto the top of the boulder and had taken some photos and admired the view, we were divided into two groups for a debate. One side was to talk about the pros of social media on the outdoors, not just Yosemite but outdoor space in general and the other side was to talk about the cons. After a couple of minutes of discussions among the groups, we presented our ideas to the group as a whole.
Both sides had some well-founded thoughts, and we all agreed that social media can be used in a positive way if the person presents their posts in a thoughtful way. We also agreed it’s best to keep a Geotag or location tag as vague as possible, such as Yosemite National Park rather than Mirror Lake for example, to help keep crowds down in one specific area. Ultimately, nature is for all of us to enjoy and by encouraging others to get outside, we can all benefit as long as we do it in a responsible way so that an area doesn’t get flooded with tourists (by using a permit system for example) or with proper trash disposal.
Next, we had a brief tour of The Ahwahnee, https://www.travelyosemite.com/lodging/the-ahwahnee/, a very expensive hotel with views of Half Dome, Glacier Point and Yosemite Falls and less than 2 miles from Yosemite Village. The hotel was referenced in Stanley Kubrick’s thriller “The Shining” and was also featured in “The Caine Mutiny” and “Color of a Brisk and Leaping Day.” It is a uniquely-beautiful hotel and I loved all of the Native American art work and pieces incorporated throughout. When we were there, there just happened to be a display showcasing women who helped make history at Yosemite, from park rangers to explorers and many others. As a group of Girl Scouts, this was exciting to see, as we’re always encouraging our girls to be leaders and make history, which is exactly what these women in the display did over the years.
After lunch in Yosemite Village, we said our goodbyes to Bella and Savannah and I tried to express my gratitude (once again) to these incredibly strong women who I admired deeply. With a couple of hours to kill before our YARTS shuttle back to Fresno was due to arrive, we checked out the gift shop and Ansel Adams Gallery. I’ve always been a huge fan of Ansel Adams who is known for his black and white photographs of not only Yosemite National Park but nature in general so while this wasn’t my first time seeing his art, it’s always a pleasure to view his photographs.
When we reached our hotel rooms in Fresno and I was able to take my first shower in days, it felt every bit as refreshing as I had thought it would. It’s funny how going for days without things like soap, shampoo, deodorant, and even clean clothes hadn’t mattered one bit when I was backpacking but I think that’s because I knew they would be waiting for me when we reached our hotel room again. Feeling revitalized and clean once again, I slept well that night and woke up ready for the long flight back home.
Sure, I would miss Yosemite and the beauty of the area but I had some special memories of my once-in-a-lifetime backpacking experience with Bella, Savannah, and the rest of our troop. I hope to go backpacking again someday but just as this backpacking trek was nothing like the one I had in Peru, I’m sure nothing will ever compare to this trek.
Have you ever gone backpacking, whether in Yosemite or elsewhere? If so, tell me all about it! If you’ve never been backpacking but you’re curious and perhaps even a bit nervous about it, feel free to reach out to me with your questions. I’d love to share more about my experience with anyone who is interested.
On our second day at Yosemite, after a filling breakfast of oatmeal with added nuts, chia seeds, and dried apples, we all packed up our backpacks and rode in a van provided by Lasting Adventures about one and a half hours to get to May Lake. I had never heard of May Lake before but found it to be absolutely stunning with trees and mountains surrounding the crystal-clear water.
We only had a short one mile hike to our campsite from the trail head where the van dropped us off. This was a good opportunity for everyone to get more of a feel for hiking with our backpacks. We were told to periodically tighten or loosen straps and see what felt better. As we all found out, it takes some getting used to carrying 35+ pounds on your back (I never got a firm estimate from Bella or Savannah on how much weight we were carrying but it felt like at least 35 pounds to me if not a solid 40 pounds).
As soon as we reached our campsite, the first thing I did was take off my backpack. Then we all set up our sleeping areas, meaning we laid out the Tyvek sheet first then placed the sleeping mat on top, and our sleeping bag on top. We were told everything should be “tidy and neat.”
After a simple lunch of salami and bagels with a view of May Lake, a few of us went with Bella to hike up Mt. Hoffmann and the rest of our troop stayed back with Savannah at the campsite. We were told the hike to the top of Mt. Hoffmann is 6 miles round-trip and the view from the top was great. What I wasn’t aware of at the time is that the elevation of May Lake is 9270 feet and there’s a 2000 feet elevation gain to the peak of Mt. Hoffmann. Oh, and did I mention some of the steepest parts of the trail are covered in decomposed granite, which is notoriously slippery?
The trail definitely had some incredible views of May Lake and the surrounding area and I was doing pretty well trudging along, trying to keep up with Bella and our fast and fearless girls until we reached the very last part to the summit of Mt. Hoffmann, where I looked down and saw a sheer drop on one side. My fear of heights got the best of me and I announced that I was good where I was; I didn’t want to continue any further up.
Bella found a safe spot for me and our troop’s other chaperone, who said she was happy where we were as well and she would stay with me. I wasn’t sure if she was just saying that to make me feel better but I welcomed the company either way. We watched as the brave girls from our troop continued up the vertigo-inducing steepest part of the trail to the peak with its views of Clouds Rest and Half Dome and took in the views until they joined us shortly later.
When we got back to our campsite, we all changed out of our hiking shoes and enjoyed the refreshingly cold water of May Lake. After the intense hike to Mt. Hoffmann, the water felt great on my tired legs and feet. I could see the girls enjoying the views of the lake and mountains all around us and one kept saying, “I can’t believe I’m actually here. It’s so beautiful.” Indeed, I thought.
After a dinner of ramen noodles fortified with mixed dried vegetables we all collected wood for a fire (May Lake was one of the few places in Yosemite where a campfire was allowed because of recent wild fires and extreme drought in California). Bella really had the fire going and it was just what I needed to take the chill off the air. Because we were so high in elevation, it was considerably cooler here than where we started in Yosemite Valley. We were treated with mugs of hot cider and played a rousing game of Balderdash before turning in for the night.
Day 3 was slated for our longest hike yet, at just around 7 miles. There was a lot of downhill hiking but also plenty of uphill to round things out. With the heavy backpack it was intense and we were all glad when we made it to the campsite. Bella and Savannah told us we would have incredible views of Half Dome from here. They even joked (or perhaps they were serious) that since there was no toilet at this campsite, unlike the previous ones, we could have the best view around when squatting to do our business.
One little note on that subject. I had peed in the wild many times when hiking or camping but I had never been without a toilet when I had to poop, not even on my epic multi-day trek to Machu Picchu in Peru. Believe it or not, the group we were with in Peru even had portable toilets for us spoiled Americans. There would be no portable toilets here. Bella and Savannah briefed all of us on the proper way to poop in the wild, which I’ll share here.
First you need to gather your supplies: a trowel with a blade that’s six inches long, toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and a Ziplock bag to put your used toilet paper in. That’s it. The significance of the six inches for the trowel is that’s the Goldilocks spot for burying human excrement; too shallow and animals can and will dig it up, too deep and it’s not at the ideal depth in the soil for getting properly broken down and decomposed.
OK, so to poop in the wild, first find a spot approximately 200 feet from water sources and trails. Next, you dig a hole six inches deep with your trowel. Then you do your business, put the used toilet paper in your Ziplock bag, and use the hand sanitizer before covering the hole back with dirt using the trowel. The trowel should never touch anything but soil so it won’t need to be sanitized. That’s it! You just pooped in the wild!
Now back to day 3. As soon as we reached our campsite and set up camp, we went to a nearby creek where some of us just stuck our feet and legs in and others fully immersed themselves. As before, the water was quite chilly but refreshing especially after a challenging hike with a pack.
We had a delicious dinner of rice, soy curls and soy sauce. I had never had soy curls before but thought they were good enough to make a note to myself to look for them at the stores when I got back home. Also, if you haven’t caught on by now, almost everything we ate was dehydrated to save on space and weight. I learned on this trip that dehydrated food has come a long way since I had it many years ago, both in the taste and variety available now.
Bella and Savannah cooked our dinner at what they referred to as the “bluff,” with amazing views of Half Dome directly in front of us. We were hoping to see a bright pink sunset against the granite but it was too cloudy for that so we got a muted pink sky instead, still beautiful. Later, we were rewarded with a night sky full of stars and some shooting stars were thrown in for our added pleasure. Our entertaining guides captivated us with folklore stories about the constellations while we all sipped our hot cocoa.
This was one of the chilliest nights we had experienced, with temperatures in the 40’s, but our sleeping bags kept us warm, and we slipped off to sleep to the sound of utter silence. A few of us were lucky enough to witness the Perseid meteor shower late that night.
To set the scene, this campsite was really deep in the wilds of Yosemite, with no other humans in sight. If I had been hiking in that area by myself without our guides I never would have even known it’s a designated campsite. Also, there was a bear in this area known to swipe bear cans and throw them over the cliff, knowing they would break open when they hit the bottom, spilling out their contents and providing dinner for the bear.
Fall has just barely started and already there are less daylight hours. We haven’t even turned the clocks back yet, either! It won’t be long when it will be dark both in the morning and early in the evening so there will be no escaping running in the dark unless you’re lucky enough to be able to run in the middle of the day.
With today’s technology there are many things you can do to stay safe on the road when it’s dark. Here are some of my top tips and specific products for running safely in the dark.
Wear reflective gear and lights. There are at least dozens of different kinds of lights alone that you can wear. Some of my favorites include NoxGear and this vest I got from Amazon:
Although I don’t own any myself, I’ve been told Oiselle has some super-reflective running gear. It’s best to place lights and reflective gear on both your front and back and focus on your head, arms, and ankles since these areas move the most when you’re running and are more likely to alert drivers. Blinking lights are also great for helping get the attention of drivers who may be drowsy if it’s early in the morning or if they’re distracted by their phone. Don’t forget to wear a light that not only lights your body up but also one that illuminates your path so you can see where you’re running.
2. Let others know where you’ll be running if you can’t run with someone else. There are many good apps for letting a family member or close friend track you by GPS when you’re running. Strava recently made Beacon, their version of this free; it was previously only available for those on the premium plan. Some Garmin watches also have this feature that allows others to follow your running route in real time. You can also always just go old-school and tell someone where and when you’ll be running and what time you expect to be home.
3. Choose your route wisely. If there are no street lamps where you run it will be considerably darker, even with car lights going by. The safest place to run is on the sidewalk but if you have to run in the road make sure you’re running facing traffic, never with your back to oncoming cars. I cringe every time I see someone running or walking in the road with their back to oncoming cars.
4. Be aware of your surroundings. If your wear headphones that go over or in your ear, leave one ear open so you can still hear around you. I love AfterShokz, which are bone-conducting headphones, which means I can hear both my music or podcast and my surroundings at the same time. They were truly life-changing for me as a female runner who is hyper-alert to my surroundings but still likes to listen to podcasts and music when I’m running.
Also, don’t assume a driver sees you, especially if they’re making a right-hand turn. I’ve seen so many drivers not even turn to look my way on their left when they were making this turn. It’s scary to think about how many people have been hit by drivers this way. I always assume the other person doesn’t see me and will go out of my way to avoid getting in their direct path.
5. Be prepared to protect yourself if necessary. This tip isn’t just for running in the dark but any time. There are multiple ways to protect yourself in the event someone approaches you and you need a form of self defense. Pepper spray is readily available at many running and outdoor supply stores, as are small alarm devices. You can also look up self defense classes in your area. It’s always a good idea to learn some prevention techniques, how to spot dangers, and gain self confidence.
That’s about all I have on safety tips. What about you- do you have a tip I missed?