84 days. That’s how long of a break that I had between marathons #4 and 5. It was a nice break after running 4 marathons in 4 months but when it came time for my family and I to pack up to head to South Dakota for the Leading Ladies Marathon, I was ready to go!
This marathon is situated in the Black Hills of South Dakota. It winds into Spearfish Gorge from Lead, SD into Spearfish, SD. The race is all female and (almost) all downhill! The race provides spectacular views and for many lucky ladies a Boston Qualifying time. During my time off I trained in anticipation of a PR, or personal record, for pushing an assisted athlete in a marathon. I was excited for the challenge that an all downhill race would provide and couldn’t wait to fly down the hills!
I had the pleasure of speaking to THE leading lady, Race Director, Elaine Doll-Dunn and after discussing a few potential safety concerns, the 50 Gifts of Freedom Project was welcome with open arms. I loved Elaine before I even had the chance to meet her in person. If I had to describe her in one word it would be “sparkly”. She is so enthusiastic and her passion for this race and the runners running is evident in our conversations and even through her emails.
South Dakota is one of the twenty-four states that do not yet have an Ainsley’s Angels ambassadorship. It has been difficult in any state without an Ainsley’s Angels team to locate a rider for the big day. So for this race we used contacts on social media and our different Ainsley’s Angels and running groups to see if anyone on my friends list had a connection out west. I quickly got a response and the #TogetherWeShall spirit that would encompass this race became evident.
Terri, I do believe, is the honorary “helper of all Ainsley’s Angels that will be running in South Dakota”. She was able to assist the Power to Push team of Sean and Shamus as they ran through the Black Hills the summer before and was hugely instrumental in a great deal of the logistics for this race. Terri and her son Daniel welcomed my family into her home, she found some supplies for me before we got there just to make things run smoother, and she was absolutely the best cheerleader on race day!
Marlys is a special needs coordinator and calls herself the “matchmaker”. She introduced us to the Juelfs family and my teammate, Emma. On race day she made a special trip to the starting line just to see us off!
It amazes me each and every time that I have been matched with my teammate that it seems “meant to be”, it doesn’t seem to be random, but perfectly planned, and this was no exception. Each member of this team in South Dakota was the perfect person and had the perfect gifts to help bring this race together for a special little girl and her Ainsley’s Angels teammate.
I found out information about my rider athlete several weeks before I was set to travel up to SD. Emma is a sweet, funny, and energetic 9 year old little girl from Belle Fourche, South Dakota (which she often had to correct my pronunciation “its Belle FOO-che!”) She rocks an extra chromosome (has Downs Syndrome) but doesn’t let anyone slow her down! She is active in Special Olympics with basketball, swimming, track and field, and bowling, and has an older sister who is a runner! She and my daughter, Lorelei, became quick friends when we got together to meet Emma the day before the race. It turns out that Emma has a very competitive spirit and was convinced that she was going to come in first place and win the race.
Race day morning, we met at the top of a mountain! Well, almost the top, we started off with a slight uphill climb to the summit and from there it was all downhill. With the cool august morning and the advantage of a downhill race, that PR that I was looking for seemed within reach! We took off with the rest of the pack and quickly settled into a good pace. Emma was thrilled at the beginning, hi-fiving and waving to the other runners. She was thrilled to hear them all cheering her name. We made it out to the main scenic byway where we would spend the rest of the day running to the finish line and Emma looked up to me and asked, “When am I going to run? Emma, having no physical disabilities holding her back didn’t understand why she wasn’t running. However, running along a curvy mountain road was not the safest place for her to get out and take off. She was not totally happy with the idea of staying in that chair and she let me know it! She and I quickly came up with a game, she had to keep a lookout for water stops which were situated on wider pull off areas and were much safer for her to get out and run, away from the traffic. There, we would unload, have our own race to the water, walk around to stretch our legs, and then Emma would get back into her chariot to ride along for a little while longer.
That PR I had originally thought I was going to get was slipping away, but with each mile and each water stop, Emma and I formed a relationship and grew to understand each other’s needs in this race. This, after all, was Emma’s race, not mine. My PR did not matter when it came down to it, I am there to be the feet for Emma and make sure that she has the best race possible. Terri was our check point throughout race day, surprising us along the race course, patiently waiting for us to make it from one stop to the next, checking on us and providing updates to Emma’s family. My family and constant cheer squad was also there to with snacks and hugs that were much needed throughout the day. Lorelei gave Emma a stuffed animal to hold onto and both girls looked forward to seeing each other.
Finally, Emma spotted the park which was where we would be finishing and was ready to finish on her own two feet. She ran along the trail, searching for the finish line and for her family. We entered the park to wild cheers from the crowd, Emma was truly the star of the moment, and everyone let her feel it. We crossed the finish line, not with a PR, which didn’t even matter anymore, but full of love and joy and that was the best feeling ever. Elaine then came up to Emma with the best gift she could have given her, her award for winning her age group. Emma did get first place after all.
I have a few takeaways from my time in South Dakota.
First of all, if you can get there to visit, go. We were able to visit the Black Hills, see Mount Rushmore and Devil’s Tower, ride through beautiful towns and great prairies, it is gorgeous and may make you feel how small we are in this great big country.
If you are a lady, I highly recommend running the Leading Ladies marathon or half marathon. It is beautiful, well supported, and will make you feel like a star. The race director Elaine is spectacular and caring. She made us feel so special. How many races have you run where the race director remembers your name and makes sure that all of the participants have homemade cookies at the finish line?
This marathon truly embraced Ainsley’s Angels “Together We Shall” motivation. I left South Dakota with such love for my new friends, who all played such a big part in the success of this Fifty Gifts of Freedom Project race. I don’t even think that I could find the right words to show them the Thanks that I owe them. Hopefully, the passion and excitement that surrounded this race is contagious in the South Dakota running and special needs communities. Maybe we will be hearing, in the future, about the great things happening with a South Dakota ambassadorship. That, as in all things, will happen at the perfect moment and with the perfect team to take the lead on that project. Together, We Shall make big things happen, one race at a time, one mile at a time, one small step at a time.