The remaking of the Brookings Marathon

© 2017-Brookings Register

Editor’s note: This is the third in a four-part series leading up to the Brookings Marathon. Prairie Striders Running Club will conduct four races May 12-13 – the Scotty Roberts 5K and kids’ run May 12, and the marathon, half marathon and relay May 13. For more information, go to BrookingsMarathon.com or PrairieStriders.net.

 

When the Brookings Marathon debuted June 21, 1970, the event took runners around town on a course not known for its visual appeal or protection from the elements and passing motorists.

The race headed out from South Dakota State University along Medary Avenue to U.S. Highway 14, down to the edge of Volga, and then south to the Lake Campbell road before heading east to Highway 77. From there, the route jogged north into Brookings and around the airport, north again to U.S. 14, and then back to campus.

By 1990, the late Dr. Scotty Roberts ushered in a two-loop course, one loop for the half marathon and two for the full that essentially kept runners on U.S. 14, the 14 Bypass, and Sixth Street. This evolution was no more appealing or protected than the original, but the switch to a mid-April date meant SDSU students were in town to help hand out water and direct traffic.

That was how the event ran until 2004.

Every year, a dwindling field of hardy souls braved mid-April wind, cold, rain and, one year, an ice storm, with little scenery to break up the suffering other than roadside spring cleanup piles and loaded down pickup trucks heading to the dump.

“It wasn’t fun,” concedes local doctor and longtime runner Rick Holm, who has been rounding up water station volunteers since he arrived in Brookings around 1982.

In an unlikely partnership, Holm and Andy Stockholm, a 3M engineer formerly based in Brookings, set out in 2003 to chart a new route and breathe life into the event.

Holm’s idea, at least for the first half of the 26.2-mile route, was to showcase the city, both community and campus – essentially, all of the places Holm explores and delights in during his runs. Stockholm took on the back half, which capitalizes on the city’s bike path, athletic fields, and growing neighborhoods. The race committee also pushed the date back to the second weekend of May in hopes of ensuring more favorable weather conditions.

“He had this whole experiential idea of running in Brookings,” Stockholm recalls of Holm’s vision, “and that is kind of where we started. I had always been sort of a run-straight-miles and wear-my-watch kind of runner. I was very methodical. Rick is just the opposite.”

So, with Stockholm on his bike, measuring every step to certify the course, and Holm on his mission to share his favorite sights, the duo stitched together an event that today typically draws a full field and boasts a support team of more than 300 volunteers. The half marathon registration always closes well before race day, capped at 400 runners. The marathon relay, with a limit of 50 teams, also fills up. The marathon, which drew 170 runners in 2016, maxes out at 300.

Born in Minneapolis and raised in De Smet, Holm started running sometime around 1977-78 to ease the stress of his junior residency in Atlanta, on his way to becoming a doctor. About four decades later, Holm, an internist, continues to run, barely slowing down this year as he undergoes treatment for pancreatic cancer.

He says he drew inspiration for the new route from his running habits: “I kind of like pretty places and I like my runs varied. I was trying to get us past every church, every park, the pretty streets and homes. We fiddled and fussed with it to get it just right.”

Joanie Holm, a nurse, who often runs with her husband, provided input, sharing ideas and testing what worked or what didn’t. Throughout the process, Rick devoted his runs to experiencing the various segments and never tired of the scenery, almost as if he was seeing it for the first time – every time. Typically, mid-step, he would throw his arms wide open, gesturing to the unfolding sights, let out a joyful laugh, and ask those running with him, “Isn’t this wonderful?”

The end result, Rick says, is nothing short of amazing.

“The thing is,” he says, tracing every step in his mind and still marveling at the outcome, “you start in a park, in a glorious area. You run past downtown, past the County Courthouse, two churches, and a beautiful avenue of older homes. You come out to Western Avenue and another park, and run over the river and through the woods to campus and McCrory Gardens. Then, you go back downtown, turn left at the post office and go through the neighborhood area, and you’re so protected by trees that even in inclement weather, it’s so much nicer.”

 

The best of Brookings

Dr. Matt Bien, former president of Prairie Striders and currently marathon race director, says, “Rick loves running, loves Brookings, and had the vision of highlighting everything that Brookings has to offer. Andy was the perfect race director to make Rick’s vision a reality. His engineering background and attention to detail plotted a great course that truly features the entire community.”

Still, Bien admits, “When I first saw the rough layout, I was doubtful that we could do all of that with a common start and finish line for both the half and full marathon.”

Stockholm says Rick took him through the different areas and shared what a race through Brookings could be like. The task fell to Stockholm to make the pieces fit. That both races begin and end at Pioneer Park – and all of the runners cover the same course for about the first 11 miles – is an uncommon feat, but one that adds to the experience, with runners and their families and friends gathered together, welcoming the finishers, and basking in the end-of-race glow.

The half marathoners split off at Sixth Avenue and head back to the park for their finish while the marathoners and marathon relay runners head south under the viaduct and wrap around Edgebrook Golf Course, the softball fields and soccer complex, onto the bike path, and through Indian Hills, before turning down South Main and back toward the park.

By design, the course gets the initial surge of runners through city streets before traffic picks up for the day. The field starts to string out around the SDSU campus, and that eases the burden as people make their way south of town. Many community and neighborhood groups volunteer to help carry out the event and residents line the streets to cheer on runners.

The Holms faithfully organize the historic district water stations and street crossings regardless of whether they are in town and running the half marathon or away for the weekend. For a local runner like Joanie, the event offers the chance to show off Brookings to visitors.

“What I remember so distinctly is one year, having the same pace as this girl from Minneapolis,” she says. “I started talking to her and some other runners, and was selling Brookings the whole time. Then, the marathoners turned off and I never saw them again. But, they thought I was mayor of Brookings – I knew every volunteer.”

As health professionals, the Holms also embrace the marathon weekend as a celebration of health.

Says Rick, “There is nothing more beautiful in a human being than being able to see the vibrant health as a result of exercise, of being alive and physically able to do things. Running also prevents depression and sadness, and helps people cope with the trials and tribulations of living. Running is one of the best things that I’ve done in my life.”

Joanie adds, “We do it for ourselves, for the health of it. But, we do the volunteer part of it because of the community, to give back what the community has given to us.”

 

Be the change

When Rick Holm set out to design a new course for the Brookings Marathon, he wanted to share the beauty of Brookings that often goes unnoticed unless you spend four decades exploring new places to run in the same small community.

He wanted to give back to the city where he and Joanie raised their four children, treated patients at the Brookings clinic, sang in the Methodist Church choir, lined the sidewalk with candlelit votives every Christmas Eve, and played host to many gatherings of family and friends. And, he sought to imbue others with his fervent belief in the goodness of moving the body and getting the heart rate up.

But, what he could not have imagined is that in doing all of this, he not only changed the storied marathon event, but also how people run in this small southeastern South Dakota city.

Stockholm, who now lives outside of Minneapolis, reflects, “Looking back on it, but not knowing it at the time, I think I could say that the experience of putting the course together with Rick changed my view. The great thing about Rick is that he didn’t run by the section line. I was a section line runner. But Rick knew every little nook and cranny.

“All the miles I logged in Brookings, I never thought about cutting through McCrory Gardens. Because, how do you measure that?”

In time, though, Stockholm says, after his work with Holm, he began to run less with his watch and more with an eye to the unbeaten path, where if he saw something interesting off to the side he would take that left turn. These days, now that his knees keep him from running, Stockholm says he brings the same approach to hiking and biking.

“It’s a pretty neat influence to have on someone, but that’s the kind of person Rick is,” Stockholm says.

Marathon committee member Mary Bjerke echoes the sentiment, saying Holm’s energy and enthusiasm are contagious: “In addition to his expertise in helping create the perfect route, we can always count on him to assemble volunteer stations near his home.”

This year, you won’t find Holm whooping and hollering among the half and full marathoners as they make their way through the city streets. If all goes as hoped, he will undergo surgery at the Mayo Clinic on May 10. Of course, Holm’s historic district volunteers will be out in full force, manning the water tables and directing traffic at street crossings.

“My heart is with the runners that day and I’ll be out there when I can next time,” he says. “I have no regrets, and I’m not sad or bummed. It just is what it is. I’ve been a doctor long enough to know. And, if I can keep on running, I’m going to. My hope is to run next year.”

 

(Postscript: The writer is a longtime friend of Rick and Joanie Holm, and considers herself blessed to have run many miles with them, including the sections of the marathon route as it was pieced together.)

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