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No, It’s Iowa

An ode to racing in America’s Heartland


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When I was somewhere around Mile 10 of the Mines of Spain 100K last October, a friend from my adopted hometown in Montana texted, asking if I’d like to get together. I didn’t see the message until that night, in the kitchen of an Airbnb in Dubuque, still wearing my running clothes. I replied that I wasn’t in town—I was in Iowa.

Friend: Iowa! Did you lose a bet??

Me: I grew up here.

 

In my experience, nobody knows where Iowa is located, unless they happen to be from, or live in, the Midwest. If I sit next to someone on a plane and mention I’m from Iowa, I’m pretty sure there’s at least a 75% chance that person’s brain is registering “Iowa” as either Ohio or Idaho. In the Sporcle.com US States Quiz, which has been played more than 25 million times, Iowa is the 10th most forgotten state—more than 80% of people can’t find it on a map. If you need a refresher to where it actually is: 

 

Getty Images (Map)

 

Every four years, the Iowa Caucus happens, and the Iowa State University and the University of Iowa football teams often make it to bowl games, but besides that, Iowa isn’t in the national consciousness much. I moved away at 23, heading west to the mountains, figuring I’d never look back. 

 

The 2021 Mines of Spain 100 started at Louis Murphy Park, a city park on the south end of Dubuque, about 200 feet above the Mississippi River, at 8 a.m. on a cool and cloudy October morning, 166 runners split between the 100K and 100-miler races, run simultaneously. The park is the home base for the race Friday through Sunday, as volunteers take over the picnic shelters to create the Start/Finish area. The course is a 20.3-mile loop, which 100K finishers complete three times, and 100-mile finishers complete five times. 

I stood next to my friend Dave at the start, listening to race director Joshua Sun give the pre-race briefing as the seconds until 8:00 a.m. ticked away. Dave talked me into coming back to Iowa in 2019 for my first Mines of Spain 100K. He lives in Dubuque, and he kept talking about the trail running community and the Mines of Spain ultra. He didn’t run in 2019, but paced my friend Forest and me on our final lap. 

This year, Dave was running, and if he finished, it would be his first 100K. We decided to start together and see how it went. I kind of wanted to beat my 2019 time, for no real reason, but was a little conflicted, since Dave and I have a history going back to 1998, when he hired me as a bartender at the Applebee’s in Cedar Falls, Iowa, during my sophomore year of college. He was technically my boss, as an assistant manager, but as is typical in the foodservice industry, we became drinking buddies. You might think it would be awkward when he later had to fire me for sleeping through an evening shift, my third strike, but we stayed friends. A couple years later, Dave put his car title on the line to bail me out of jail one morning after I got arrested, an event that began a 20-year sobriety streak that continues to this day. 

(Photo: Rick Mayo)

Dave and I started the race near the back of the pack. I had the first two miles of the loop pretty much memorized: Head south, cross the street, descend the wide asphalt bike path winding under the powerlines, dropping 200 vertical feet in about a half-mile. Jog along Julien Dubuque Drive, past the wastewater treatment plant, which mildly smells like, OK, shit, because it is. If you run the 100K, you run past it six times, and if you’re a 100-miler, ten times. By the final lap, you might actually welcome the odor, sort of “smelling the barn,” except it’s, well, you know.  

If you live somewhere with lots of outdoor recreation space, you might wonder why a trail race would utilize a paved road past a wastewater treatment plant. I would explain to you that stringing together 20 miles of pure trail anywhere in Iowa is extremely difficult, let alone 62 or 100 miles, so the Mines of Spain course is actually pretty impressive. Iowa is 49th in the United States in public land ownership—exactly 1.04 percent of Iowa’s land is state- or federally-owned. Compared to my adopted home in the West, Dubuque has hardly any trails. But compared to my hometown in Iowa two and a half hours away, Dubuque is paradise: 14.1 miles of trail at the Mines of Spain, with actual hills, and potential for cumulative thousands of feet of elevation gain on a long run. 

RELATED: Gear of the Year: Pizza

I grew up in New Hampton, a town of 3,000 people just outside the southeast edge of the Driftless Area, the region at the intersection of Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois— including Dubuque—that was left out of the last continental glaciation, and which is filled with rugged topography. My hometown, however, was pancake-flat, and completely surrounded by crop land. There was no publicly available wildland, or trails, besides the one-mile path around Mikkelsen Park, which I rarely ran because I was more concerned with trying to play football and figure out girls (both unsuccessfully), trying to obtain beer while underage, and discussing Pearl Jam and Nirvana lyrics in the dish pit in the kitchen of the Pinicon Restaurant. 

By the 1-mile mark at the Mines of Spain, we were past the wastewater treatment plant. At the end of the road, we hit singletrack, switchbacking up the off-kilter trail in a conga line of runners, all bunched up now, waiting for the course and our paces to spread us out. At the top, we ran past the monument to Julien Dubuque, the French Canadian man who established the lead mines here in the late 1700s, and later had the city named after him. 

From there, the course winds in and out of valleys and creek drainages, over hills, on wide trails, some that are mowed swaths through prairie grass, some rugged stretches paved with rocks and tree roots. No single climb is more than 250 vertical feet, but they add up in that “death by a thousand papercuts” sort of way. My last race before the Mines of Spain was The Rut 50K in Montana, six weeks prior, where every climb felt steep (and long) enough to justify walking. On the Mines of Spain course, it’s harder for me to make rules to help pace myself. 

Most of the races I’ve done look like this:

The Mines of Spain is like this:

I had three goals for the day: 

  1. Finish the race
  2. Beat my time from 2019: 13:50:58
  3. Finish in time to order a pizza from Casey’s General Store, which closed at 10:00 p.m. 

I have eaten pizza in 42 U.S. states, and when I visit Iowa, I could not be happier to order a pizza from a gas station, which is what Casey’s is: convenience store chain that started in Boone, Iowa, in 1968 and now has 2,100-plus locations in 17 states, and is now the fifth-largest pizza retailer in the country. It was only in exploring the pizza of the world, and then coming back older and theoretically wiser, that I was able to appreciate Casey’s pizza—every pie uniformly browned on top, what tastes like a 1:1 cheese:crust ratio, sliced into narrow pieces. If friends happen to visit Iowa with me, I cannot wait to see their reaction when I announce that we’re ordering a pizza from a gas station. 

Growing up in a small town before the internet was widespread, I always thought I wanted to live somewhere with culture, and only later did I realize everywhere has culture—some places are maybe just a little less highbrow. Casey’s, by the way, invented breakfast pizza in 2001. Beto O’Rourke, visiting Iowa during his 2020 presidential run, tweeted about “eating breakfast pizza,” only to be corrected by Iowans who politely informed him that sure, he was eating pizza for breakfast, but it was not actually quote-unquote breakfast pizza (which uses sausage gravy or cheese sauce instead of red sauce, and is topped with eggs and/or bacon and/or sausage).

Dave seemed to know everyone, greeting every fourth or fifth runner by name as we chugged along in the light rain, chatting about work, life, and running. At 8 miles, the point on the loop farthest away from the starting line, we ran around a short lollipop, where two paper punches hung from a tree. We paused to punch holes in our bibs to mark our first of three laps, and headed back through the rolling hills alternating through forest and waist-high prairie grass. At the 10-mile aid station, Dave ducked into a port-a-potty, and I stood around and waited for about 30 seconds, and decided to take off so we could each run our own races. The light rain kept up, and I tried to run all but the steepest sections of the course. I knew the 2,800 vertical feet of climbing per lap would grind me down by the end of the race, but if I was feeling good, I might as well push it. 

(Photo: Rick Mayo)

As I started the last mile along Julien Dubuque Drive, with the climb up the bike path back to the Start/Finish area, I decided to try running all the way up the hill. It went fine, and I checked in, then walked over to a picnic table where my parents waited with a backpack full of clothes and food, and a jug of water. I explained that Dave would be along later, if they didn’t mind “crewing” for both of us? They did not mind. I tried to keep my transition time under 10 minutes, and then jogged off, to do the exact same thing I’d just done, again. 

The Mines of Spain 100 is the creation of Joshua Sun, a Dubuque native who didn’t run when he lived here—he did, however, organize huge Halo tournaments during his career at Loras College. After he moved to Davenport, Iowa, 75 minutes south of Dubuque, he discovered running, and then trail running, and shortly after his first few trail races, started dreaming up an event with his friend Rob Williams. They organized a half-marathon/10K/5K at the Mines of Spain in 2013. In 2014, Josh started a 10K and 5K race in Davenport, the Sunderbruch B&B, and the Schuetzen NEIN! Hour Endurance Run in 2015—which is, Josh says, nine hours instead of 12, because Schuetzen was founded by German-American settlers, and if it’s nine hours, you can yell “Nein!” a lot. Also, with his friend Ryan Ames, he created a race called 100Ks of Convenience, a race of 20-mile loops on the streets of Davenport, in which convenience stores serve as aid stations/checkpoints. 

In talking to Josh, I’ve realized that a big reason I like the Mines of Spain is because I like Josh: A guy who, unless I’m totally wrong about him, genuinely likes to facilitate people having a good time—while they self-flagellate wearing running shoes, I guess.  He started the Mines of Spain 100 in 2018, and it sells out every year, almost immediately. It’s environmentally conscious, minimizes trash, is Trail Sisters approved, and aid stations are staffed by local running groups. Josh is there the entire time, aside from the occasional trip to Hy-Vee to buy supplies. 

“I see every single person cross the finish line,” he says. “So that means I basically don’t sleep. The first year, I slept for 45 minutes and I missed three or four 100K runners in the middle of the night, and I will never forgive myself. So I have not missed a single finisher in the last three years.” 

Some people hate races that are repeating loop courses. I get that. In a non-loop race, you might have opportunities to quit partway through, but oftentimes the place you can quit is not exactly easy to access. So maybe if you have the choice between wrapping yourself in a sleeping bag and waiting at an aid station for several hours for someone to drive you to the finish line, or just gutting it out, you talk yourself out of dropping. 

But on a loop, like at the Mines of Spain, every 20.3 miles, you have a much more appealing opportunity to quit. The food at the start/finish area is great. They have chairs. Your car, or your friend’s car, is parked right there, and you could just hop in and be on your way to a couch or a bed in minutes. And it’s Iowa, so everyone is so goddamn nice that it’s really tempting to just pull up a camp chair and hang out for a while, maybe have a sandwich, maybe just decide not to run the rest of the race because it’s hard and your feet hurt, and maybe just stop running altogether because what’s the point anyway, you could take up golf or gambling or macrame, probably a lot less chafing than ultrarunning. But, since it’s Iowa, someone would probably find a way to passive-aggressively kick you out and get you running again, and they’d be so nice about it that you’d think it was actually your idea. 

Just as I started running my second lap, Dave was finishing his first lap, looking good, and we chatted quickly, high-fived, and parted ways. I ran down the hill, feeling less fresh than I had four hours earlier starting my first lap. I went up the hill to the Julien Dubuque Monument, crossed the parking lot, and headed down the singletrack contouring through the trees, realizing this was my favorite part of each loop. On the way out, it’s all downhill, pretty buff, and fast. Going up it, on the way back, I had time to stare into the trees, which, during my last race here, I happened to come through in peak fall colors, and at the golden hour before sunset, and was able to appreciate an Iowa forest—something I’d only started doing in the past couple years. My mom wants me to move to Dubuque, to be closer, and in that section of the course, I think about it. 

(Photo: Kristi Mayo)

By the time I did my second paper punch, it was clear that I was not feeling at the top of my game. I had driven almost 23 hours over three days to get here, 20 of those by myself, and that wasn’t nothing. I kept pushing myself to run the uphills as much as possible, skipping aid stations unless I needed water, and I ran with a couple different people for a few minutes, chatting a little bit. I ran the last uphill to the Start/Finish area again, and finished my second lap about 15 minutes slower than my first. I remarked to my parents how nice it was that the course wasn’t flooded like it had been in 2019, so I wasn’t having to change my socks each lap. I saw Dave a couple times, and he was still moving well, maybe struggling a little bit on that second lap, but seemed fine. 

I glanced at the race clock at the start of my last lap, and did some quick math in my head: as long as I didn’t snap my ankle on a tree root, or stop to shit, like, 25 times in 20.3 miles, I should hit my goal. As I reached the flat road section, I felt my legs getting heavier, my strides shortening, and every time I glanced down at my watch, my pace seemed slower. 

About a half-mile before my final paper punch at Mile 48, a runner started catching me, playing music on a bluetooth speaker. I try to live and let live as much as I can, but external speakers on the trail spur me to immediately create as much distance as possible between me and the person carrying them, because they’re like unsolicited dick pics, but for your ears. People get inspiration from different places, I guess. 

I fled through the night from the tinny stereo, finding solace and relative silence for minutes at a time, only to be crept upon with the faint strains of the guttural lamentations of the lead singer of whatever band that was, growing closer, and louder, as I hyperventilated and tried to not trip on rocks, wishing I’d brought a brighter headlamp. It was like a scene from a Friday the 13th movie, where the young terrified victim frantically runs from Jason Voorhees, who, while walking with a limp, somehow closes in on them with every camera cut. 

RELATED: There are No Hacks

Finally, I left the last aid station with just under five miles to go, and the music disappeared. I plodded on through the forest, walking a little bit more than I had all day, but still pushing it. Every time I hit a familiar section of trail, I reminded myself that it was my last time doing it this year: Last time going up these never-ending steps on the bluff above Catfish Creek. Last time up this metal staircase that’s too narrow for two people. Last time wobbling down the off-kilter singletrack down to the road. 

With two miles to go, I did the math, and not only was I going to beat my previous Mines of Spain time, I was within reach of running a sub-13-hour race. But it would be tight. There was no reason to, and it would be a completely contrived goal that I made up literally on the spur of the moment, and maybe a good way to get injured in a very stupid way. But you know, the whole idea of running 100 kilometers is contrived. 

(Photo: Kristi Mayo)

I sprinted up the road past the sewage treatment plant, hoping for the best, and if I didn’t blow up, maybe I could still run up the bike path, and then stagger into the finish. I was wheezing, grunting audibly, a maniac alone on a dark street, in a dead sprint, that was, OK, actually about a 10-minute mile. I turned onto the bike path and kept pumping, bracing for a catastrophic cardiac event at the top of the hill, and I hit the street for the final few hundred feet to the finish, refusing to look at my watch. I cranked through the park entrance, down the road, hard right to the finish area, and the clock still said 12:50:SOMETHING so I’d made it. As soon as I stopped running, a wave of nausea and discomfort rolled over me, and I struggled to stand up straight as the race photographers positioned me for photos with my parents and Josh, who said, “Brendan, you old bastard, you got second place in the Masters,” which is the first time I’ve ever won anything in a running event. 

I didn’t die, and I also didn’t get a Casey’s pizza, because I realized that only an asshole would leave before Dave finished. I bundled up in all the layers I had, sat for a few minutes in my dad’s truck with the heater running full-blast, and then walked down the road to wait for Dave. Just under the 14-hour mark, he came running up the bike path, and I ran the final few hundred feet with him, peeling off before he finished his first 100K.