- 26.2 miles/Marathon
- Trail Race
I ran this race (my first marathon) as a last-minute replacement for the 2012 NYC Marathon that was cancelled due to Superstorm Sandy. I chose it for a number of reasons -- some personal, some logistical. First, it is run on the same day as the NYC marathon (first Sunday in November) so my training was put to use. Second, it is a few miles south of the small Wisconsin town where my family settled after coming over from Ireland (Tomah), so I was able to combine the race trip with some ancestral stopovers.
The course is an out-and-back on an old railroad bed so it is mostly finely crushed gravel. According to this elevation map (http://www.mapmyrun.com/us/tomah-wi/rails-to-trails-marathon-course-route-126790435), it starts out with a short uphill, then drops until about the halfway point, then reverses. That second half can be trouble if you haven't paced yourself properly (I didn't).
Before I get to the good and bad of the race itself, I'll start with the "event" experience. This race is in the small town (pop. 640) of Norwalk, which is about 2 hours northwest of Madison and one hour east of Lacrosse. Virtually the entire town comes out to support the race - it's very sweet.
There is really no lodging in Norwalk, so you're best off staying nearby (20 minutes or so) in Tomah and driving to the race in the morning. There is no expo to speak of but they do have a pre-race spaghetti dinner at the town community center, which is also where the race bib pick-up occurs. No frills, just a decent bowl of spaghetti and meatballs in a foam bowl while seated at long rollaway tables under upturned basketball hoops. All of the ladies handing out race bibs and serving up pasta call you "dear." A far cry from Manhattan but very homey and sweet at the same time.
- Boston-qualifying course.
- Nice, knee-saving race surface. The crushed rock and dirt are very cushioning.
- The trail is only about 12-feet wide but, with only about 300 runners, it is wide enough.
- The course is beautiful - towering trees on either side for pretty much the entire race. Nice and shady.
- Total small-town vibe makes it easy to stay chill up to the gun.
- The race's big landmark is the 3/4-mile long tunnel that you run through at around mile 6 and then again around mile 19. The running surface changes (more on that below) and it's lit by kerosene lamps placed every 20 meters (or headlamp if you're wearing one). Great way to break up the monotony.
- Post-race picnic with free food and local craft beer
- The elevation changes make it a more technical run. Might not be ideal for a beginner.
- Only two clocks on the course - at the start/finish line and at the turnaround point. A Garmin is critical - however, it does lose it's signal in the tunnel
- Only five or six aid stations on the course in each direction - fortunately I had my wife driving like a maniac along the course and meeting me with some rations in various dead zones
- While the entire town supports the race, that is still not a lot of people. Most of this race is run in silence - a good and bad thing
- The tunnel is very cool (both literally and figuratively) but the surface is old stone pavers which, when damp, makes the footing a little slippery. This combined with the relative darkness makes for a 1.5-mile challenge. I personally loved it because it was just such a unique thing but I could see some people having a problem with that "obstacle" in the middle of their race.
- They run a half-marathon on the same course with a slightly later start so you run into the stragglers from that race at around the 23-mile mark. This can make the path a bit congested.
Overall, it's a very cool race to do if you're tired of the big-city thing. It's really a breath of fresh air in more ways than one.