Marathon runners from across the globe will invade the sleepy unincorporated northeast Wyoming town of Colony as part of a five-state, five-day, five-marathon quest in the West this September.
The town is so small and rural, Crook County officials and the U.S. Census Bureau don’t keep track of its population. More than 100 runners are expected to overrun the town on the third day of the extravaganza.
Tim Stearns grew up eight miles south of Colony and helped to draw the 26.2-mile trail for the race. His parents were hands at the historic Jensen Ranch. He was reared in a one-room, stone schoolhouse that sat a few miles from a bentonite mining operation in town.
Stearns, a pilot who now lives 20 miles away from Colony in Belle Fourche, S.D., has yet to run his first marathon. But the running bug bit him in the past year. When he was trawling the Internet for races, he saw there would be three marathons out of Belle Fourche in three days.
He was shocked. Then he signed up.
He found out that all of the races wouldn’t be in one town. He saw that one would be in Colony and four others in four different states as part of the Center of the Nation Marathon Series. Because of Colony’s off-the-radar location, Stearns offered his advice to marathon coordinator Clint Burleson on the best locations available for the Colony leg.
The two scouted locations in the area. They chose the roads on an old bentonite operation.
The mine closed 10 years ago and hasn’t seen much traffic since. But on Sept. 18, the pack of runners will take on 26.2 miles of the old rocky roads that were once used to haul bentonite from Colony to Belle Fourche.
Home base will be Belle Fourche for three of the races. It’s known as the geographic center of the United States, giving the marathon series its namesake. It will be the center of the runners’ worlds during the marathons as well. The runners will sleep at hotels in the town when they’re not tackling terrain in the Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota portions of the endeavor. Runners will stay in other locations for the Nebraska and South Dakota legs.
The Belle Fourche Chamber of Commerce is planning dinners and other social events for the runners. The chamber wants to take the participants to the Black Hills, Devils Tower and other areas to showcase what are often thought of as flyover places.
“There’s always myths about the Plains states,” said Teresa Schanzenbach, executive director of the Belle Fourche Chamber of Commerce. “Some don’t even think we have electricity.”
The chamber wants to make the race an annual event in Belle Fourche. Schanzenbach and Burleson’s goal is to have runners from all 50 states attend this year.
It’s early in the registration period, but runners from 38 states, England, Canada and Japan have signed up as of early last week, Burleson said.
“And I have a week’s worth of mail to go through,” he said.
Burleson has to wade through his mail because he just finished coordinating another five-day, five-state marathon series in the Southwest. He’s a retired computer science professor from Las Cruces, N.M., and uses his logistical acumen to manage dozens of runners through five states and 131 miles of road in 120 hours.
He loads his car with supplies for the runners. A favorite mid-marathon snack for runners is chips and chocolate milk.
“There’s a marathon smorgasbord,” he said. “We like to pamper them a bit.”
Some of the runners are older. A bucket list item for many over-the-hill athletes is running a marathon in every state.
“For the marathon maniacs, when you give them five races, five days in a row, they go crazy for it,” Burleson said.
In the last five-day event no one was injured, and runners from around the globe kindled relationships and made plans to do the Center of the Nation marathon. It is a face-to-face, race-to-race way of social networking, Burleson said.
The long distances in the small amount of time seems like a gargantuan task, but there’s a one trick that keeps runners out of trouble.
“You got to keep it slow,” Burleson said. “Some start too fast and suffer for it.”