2014 Spring Race Reports (Part 2): The Sandhills Half Marathon a/k/a the BEST race of 2014

3 12 2014

Yes, here it is December and I’m just now writing about a race I did in June.  Hey, at least it’s the same year.  Anyway, the BEST RACE OF 2014 and one I highly recommend to any marathoner (if you wake up early enough on registration day because it always sells out) is the Sandhills Marathon and half in Valentine, Nebraska.


Being a 50-state racer I’ve made a hobby out of traveling to “destination races” all over the country, and each year I try to pick a unique smaller race as a counterpoint to the huge Rock-n-Roll type affairs that I often do as well.  I don’t remember exactly how I found this one but I’m really glad I did.

The races are held in the summer in a sparsely populated corner of Nebraska where it is said  —  and I believe  —  that cows outnumber human spectators on the sidelines.  It is a small but surprisingly well-appointed race featuring probably less than 200 runners that winds through the sandhills, “a region of mixed-grass prairie on grass-stabilized sand dunes in north central Nebraska covering just over one quarter of the state” (per Wikipedia).  The area is desolate and beautiful, and excellent for running.  I read about in online somewhere in 2013 and immediately became intrigued so I made sure I was awake the moment registration opened (New Year’s Eve possibly?) and I signed up.  The race sold out within 24 hours.  I will always consider myself lucky for having run it.

I flew into Omaha and drove across the state for maybe 5 hours until I reached the small town of Valentine,  where packet pickup was held in a western wear store.

photo 2 (4)

It was raining that day and the weather was cool but the forecast for race day was for dry skies and wind.photo 1 (4)

I wandered around town for a little while looking for a place to eat because I had missed the pre race pasta dinner and then settled on eating at the restaurant bar of the Motel Raine where I’d booked a room, which turned out to be an excellent choice because they had an awesome brisket sandwich.  I took a pass on the Mountain Oysters which were also on the menu.  🙂

After dinner, going through my packet, I raised my eyebrows more than once at a few of the cautions like “don’t pick up a snake if you find one on the ground.”  The trip was getting more interesting by the minute, I mused.

photo 5 (2)

Soon enough night fell and eventually the sun rose to find me already on my way down a highway to the corner of Brownlee Road and Highway 97 where runners were to converge for the start of the race.  We pulled off the road into a cow pasture where we parked and boarded buses that took us to the starting point of the race.VictoriaDietzSchoolBus

We milled around near the start for a while jumping up and down and trying to warm ourselves on what was an uncharacteristically chilly morning of maybe 47 degrees or so, until the guy with the shotgun showed up and fired it into the air to signal the beginning of the festivities.


And then off we went.

Down along the road past hills and grassy pastures the runners galloped, a human herd in stampede, for their own amusement as well as that of their equine and bovine spectators.VictoriaDietzGroupRunning

Slow as I am, eventually the crowd thinned out and I found myself at the back of it with only my own footfalls and the beautiful vista to behold.  I’m not someone who thrives on crowd support or cheering hordes urging me on.  I’m just happy to be free to step along in a place I might not have gone before.  And I love those moments in a race when I’m not worried about where I am in the pack or what my finishing time might be but am merely enjoying a chance to run alone amidst nature’s beauty.  This race had a lot of that!  I think that’s why I loved it so much.  And, despite what the name may imply, it was not overly hilly or sandy or especially difficult in any way.  And I didn’t see any snakes.  It was simply quiet and beautiful as the following pictures demonstrate:


A solitary runner on a long road……sandhills spectators

As horses without a care in the world ignore us as we pass by…..

While a lone cow on a hill goes about its daily routine.VictoriaDietzCow

That was the beauty and charm of the day.  It made the wind and cold weather seem less of a bother because it was such a treat to be a part of this majestic scene for a morning.

Now I can hear people saying already “ok that’s nice but where are the amenities out here so far from the beaten path?”  Well there were tables, some manned and some not, every several miles and they were stocked with bottles of water, sports drink and snacks.  There was also the most unique and interesting bathroom idea I’ve ever seen:  the travelling porta potty.  A very nice man hitched up 2 portajohns to a truck and drove them the length of the race, stopping here and there for as long as people needed him.  MichaelMuehlingPortaPottyYou could flag him down if you saw him but regardless he would eventually show up at a water stop and stay for a while before he moved on.  You never felt like you were without relief in the form of a beverage or a bathroom.

As you can see from the course map, the full marathon wound along down this blacktop road through some towns in pretty much a linear northwest to southeast direction.  The half- marathoners were bussed to the midway point and had their own startline, so everyone finished around the same time and place.sandhills

By the time we got to the end there was a full swing party and barbecue going with music and beer and a whole lot of merriment.  They were grilling big old hamburgers and offered those along with the usual bananas, bagels and other carby post race fare.  Everyone was friendly and congratulatory, and I felt like it had been almost a visit with friends of friends rather than a day spent with strangers.

As I crossed the finish line they handed me a horseshoe in lieu of a medal (for completing the half; you get a spur for the full) and directed me toward the party.  I ate and drank and celebrated with all the runners then headed for my car to drive back towards Omaha and a flight the next morning back to home.

I really enjoyed the Sandhills Half Marathon even though the day was chilly and the wind bit a little more than I’d like.  I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a small unique race amidst nature’s peaceful scenery and with a lot of nice people.

The swag was nice too:  an orange cotton shirt and the horseshoe I’ve since hung on a ribbon.  Along with a treasure trove of memories to cherish.

photo 1The Sandhills Half Marathon sure did leave me smiling a whole bunch that day and I smile again every time I remember it.  I don’t say that about every race but I will always say it about this one.

photo 2


Brooke Kaczor, Andy Pollock, Jody Green, Victoria Dietz, Michael Muehling



Next up:

An unexpected race.
The one I knew I’d finish last.






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