By CHUCK OFFENBURGER
JEFFERSON, Iowa, May 11, 2017 -- Nearly perfect weather is expected this Saturday, May 13, for the fifth annual "Market to Market Relay Iowa," a 75-mile relay race with most of its course on the "south loop" of the Raccoon River Valley Trail here in west central Iowa. The competitors can expect sunny clear conditions, a high temperature of 80 and a 14-mph southwest wind that will be a tailwind the second half of the race, which stretches from the courthouse square in Jefferson to the Court Avenue bridge in downtown Des Moines.
That's in marked contrast to conditions a year ago, when a thick smelly haze settled over central Iowa, blown south from wildfires in southern Canada and northern Minnesota. And halfway through race morning in 2016, a thunderstorm with lightning in the Panora-Redfield area forced a 45-minute suspension of the event.
More than 2,500 runners are registered on 350 teams -- each of which can have from six to eight runners -- and they are coming from 23 states. Ben Cohoon, the "M2M Relay" co-founder and co-race director, said the runners coming from the greatest distances hail from California, Arizona and Delaware.
Part of the attraction, veteran runners always say, is the Iowa relay's route, particularly the portion of it on the paved Raccoon River Valley Trail. Being a former railroad right-of-way in its earlier life, the trail has very gentle grades, as well as a good canopy of trees over much of it providing a windbreak and shade.
"This route in Iowa is one of the best race courses anywhere," said Addie Hohman, a top runner from Seward, Neb. "It is breathtakingly gorgeous."
The start of the Market to Market Relay Iowa in Jefferson in 2015.
Spectators are encouraged all along the route for the relay, and here is some essential information for them:
--The starting line is on the south side of the Greene County Courthouse square in Jefferson, right next to the iconic Mahanay Memorial Carillon Tower. The teams' first runners start in waves of 20 to 30. What time your team starts in the morning is based on qualifying times that are pre-registered, with the slower teams starting earlier and the faster teams later. The first wave is scheduled to start at 5:45 a.m. and the last at 9:15 a.m. The official starter is Cohoon's partner in "M2M Relay" Jason Bakewell, who will be wearing a pink gorilla costume and launching each wave with a blast on his old trombone. (If you've seen this relay event before, you know we are not making this up.)
--There are 17 exchange zones, where runners hand off a timing chip to a teammate. The "legs" of the relay vary from three miles to five miles, so each team does all kinds of strategizing on what teammate should be running which leg of the race to maximize their team performance. The teams move between exchange zones in vans or other large vehicles, and they are directed where to park at each zone. Spectators should park in other places, separate from the team parking areas. You can get interactive maps of the exchange zones, online, right here.
--The starting line, exchange zones and finish lines are staffed by teams of 10 volunteers each, coming from non-profit organizations in the area which are paid for their time by the "M2M Relay" organization. In addition, the organization makes significant contributions to its two "charities of choice" -- the Raccoon River Valley Trail Association and Dr. Richard Deming's Above + Beyond Cancer program.
--If you want to see the finish by the fastest teams, arrive at the Court Avenue bridge in downtown Des Moines by 3 p.m. at the latest. The top teams should be nearing the finish line about 3:30 p.m., with a steady stream of other teams line after that. There are lots of high feelings there, as most teams gather all their teammates to run the relay's last stretch over the Des Moines River on that bridge. Then they all reassemble a couple blocks east at The Iowa Taproom in the East Village, where the "Post-Race Shindig" will be held outdoors and inside.
--Official results of the relay will be announced online a few hours after the race right here.
Market to Market Relay Iowa is one of several high-regarded running events owned and directed by Cohoon and Bakewell, both 35 years old, who grew up together in Lincoln, Neb. Their company is named Pink Gorilla Events (after that costume they found years ago and still use in their races).
Their first and oldest event is "Market to Market Relay Nebraska," which is a 75-mile race that initially started in the Old Market District of downtown Omaha and stretched to Haymarket Square in Lincoln (thus, “Market to Market”). The 10th annual Nebraska relay will be held Sept. 30 this year and is limited to 600 teams.
Besides the Iowa relay, now being held for the fifth year, they also have “Market to Market Relay Ohio, which is limited to 200 teams. Their fourth annual Ohio relay is set for Sept. 9 this year.
All the relay events are sell-outs for Pink Gorilla. They also sponsor some half-marathons, “Leprechaun Chases” around St. Patrick’s Day in Des Moines and Omaha, and two “10-K” races in Nebraska.
“We’re pleased that all the relay events see to have all-time high popularity,” Cohoon said. “We’re very conscious of continuously working to improve events, and people seem to respond.
“Running itself still seems to be an activity that a whole lot of people enjoy doing. Then our relay events add the ‘team’ element, and that’s a really cool part of all this. We’ve got teams made up of families – some of them generations of families – and we’ve got other teams that are groups of co-workers for the same company or groups of old friends and teammates. The relay events are fun ways for them to get together.”
Pink Gorilla as a company is still headquartered in Lincoln. It has now grown to seven full-time, year ’round employees, and about 10 more are added for the racing seasons.
“I will say that we work really hard,” Cohoon said. “Some people probably think it’s not real work putting on races, but we’ve found it’s a whole lot of work to put on these events and have them be of the quality that we want them to be.”
Adding to the fun, there are contests during the relays for “best team costumes” and “best decorated team vans.” You’ll see costumes that range from hilarious to outrageous.
Plus, there are some outstanding runners – of all ages – who will be competing on Saturday. They tend to be wearing more conventional track uniforms, and are more serious about the race itself. Many have been top performers in college track or other college sports.
Cohoon said that, based on runners’ times that are pre-registered, he suggest fans watch for the following.
Runners south of Cooper in Market to Market Relay Iowa in 2015
TOP-RATED MEN’S TEAM. “There’s a team out of South Dakota that – based on the times they submitted – should win the overall championship,” Cohoon said. “They’re mostly young guys, and I think they’re former track teammates.”
They are “Six Pack And a Pound Fest,” all former distance runners on the track team at the University of South Dakota. They’re competing in the Iowa relay for the first time.
Captain Brant Haase, now a pharmacy student in graduate school, said “the ‘Pound Fest’ part of our name comes from an expression we always used in track. If we were having a good day, running fast and strong, we’d call that a ‘Pound Fest.’ I don’t know how we came up with the ‘Six Pack’ part of it.”
Well, let’s attribute it to the fact that there are six runners on the team.
“Five of us range in age from 23 to 27 and we all ran together at USD,” Haase continued. “The sixth member, Matt Hoyt, is 37, and he was a volunteer assistant coach of our track team.”
When Hoyt was running himself at USD, he was part of a national championship cross country team and was named an All-American when the school competed in NCAA Division II. The other five were part of the USD team that had moved up to NCAA Division I. Most of the five ran track races of 800 meters up to 10,000 kilometers. One was a national qualifier in steeplechase.
“We’ve all had some success,” Haase said. “We’ve all won multiple track titles, conference championships and set a few school records. We’re running for fun now, but we’ll get after it.”
Besides Hoyt and Haase, the team includes Jeff Mettler, Taylor Chapman, Isaac Allen and Andrew Duba.
How can spectators pick them out Saturday?
“We’re gathering up our USD shirts and shorts,” Haase said. “So look for a lot of Coyotes’ red and white.”
TOP-RATED WOMEN’S TEAM. Team “Women Run Nebraska” returns to Iowa as the three-time defending champions in the women’s division. And team captain Addie Hohman also ran on a different team that won the first Iowa relay in 2013, the year before “Women Run Nebraska” organized. They range in age from 22 to 38 and about half the eight members of the team were college athletes.
“All of us work, have families, are mothers and are pretty busy people,” said Hohman, who lies in Seward, is married, mother of three and a special education teacher. “But we do like to race and are serious about training.”
When they created the team in 2014, they set eye-catching “standards” for women to qualify as team members. In the previous two years, applicants must have run a mile of 5.55 minutes or faster, a five-mile time better than 34 minutes and 20 seconds, a half marathon better than 1 hour and 35 minutes, a full marathon of better than 3 hours and 35 minutes, and there are a couple others.
Besides running, they make membership fun and educational, too.
“We have social events a couple times a year,” Hohman said. “And we have one-day ‘running retreats,’ as we call them, and those are open to others, we charge an admission fee and that’s how we support our racing activities.”
Speakers and trainers have addressed such topics as using running to help cancer survivors cope with treatment, yoga training, “boot camp” training, self-defense and more. Last year’s retreat attracted 60 women.
Team members besides Hohman include Amy Barry, Jess Wright, Lindsey Brezenski, Catherine Cloetta, Sarah Madsen, Allison Nielsen and Kylie Cheetsos.
You can read more about the team on their website womenrunnebraska.com.
Former Iowa Hawkeye sprinter and hurdler D'Juan Richardson, whose college competition years were 2009-2012, was among the runners who came through downtown Adel during Market to Market Relay Iowa in 2016.
MOST COMPETITIVE RACE. Cohoon says the tightest race of the day may well be in the master’s division, where all team members must be over 40.
The “H & B All Stars,” based in Des Moines, are three-time defending master’s champions in the Iowa relay, but as team member Lance Bergeson says, “we haven’t been challenged in the past like we’re going to be now.”
That’s because the “Lincoln Running Company,” from the Nebraska capital city, will be competing in Iowa for the first time. This team has never lost in the master’s division of Market to Market Relay Nebraska.
Both teams will be starting in the final wave of runners leaving Jefferson at 9:15 a.m.
“On paper, you’d expect these two teams to cross the finish line within about 20 seconds of each other,” said Cohoon. “So, depending how it goes, it could come down to a last sprint.”
Iowa runners will recognize Bergeson’s name for both running and writing. A native of Webster City and a track athlete at Buena Vista College from 1988-’91, he covers running events for the Des Moines Register.
The other team members with the H & B All Stars are Todd Stevens, Tom Styrbicki, Christopher Wolfe, Scott Jones, Todd Haugen and Julius Rotich, the latter a native of Kenya. They range in age from Rotich at 42 to Haugen at 54.
“Most of us ran college track, and three or four of our guys ran for South Dakota State University, so this is kind of a reunion for them,” Bergeson said. “We call Julius our ‘ace in the hole.’ He was the 2003 champion of the Dam to Dam race in Des Moines.”
Bergeson says the team “will be running seven of us, while optimal is eight, so this is kind of uncharted territory for us.” He said it’ll make for “an interesting team meeting” Friday night, when the runners determine who’s running how many legs of the relay.
The Lincoln Running Company is planning an ambitious season. They’re planning on not only competing in the master’s division in the Iowa and Nebraska relays, but they also intend to race in the Ohio relay, too.
With their ages ranging from 41 to 58, “we’ve got a good mix on this team,” said captain Ryan Regnier. “Several of us were runners in college, and about half our team were professional racing bicyclists here in Nebraska – both on-road and off-road. So we all like to compete.”
They’ve dominated the master’s division in the Nebraska relay. “Last fall, we weren’t pushed in the master’s race, and we were also running neck-and-neck for much of the team that finally won the overall championship. We pushed them until about the last quarter-mile, and then they used their younger legs to pull away from us.”
Regnier, the youngest of the eight team members coming here, is having quite a year himself. He finished ninth overall in the Des Moines Marathon last fall, and finished second in the “Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon” in Nashville in April.
The oldest member of the Lincoln team is well-known in wider sports circles. He is Kerry McDermott, who just completed his 36th season as head varsity men’s tennis coach at the University of Nebraska. He is the longest tenured coach in any sport at the university. He also has a personal record in marathons of 2 hours and 40 minutes.
Other team members are Scott Wieskamp, Brett Daugherty, Travis Green, Kevin Burke, Darin Schlake and Jeff Hansen.
BEST TEAM COSTUMES. There's been a consistent winner here over the years -- the Urbandale-based team captained by Dean Luttrell, who is a chef instructor in culinary arts at Des Moines Area Community College. They've won the costumes award as the "Speedo Heroes" (going bare-chested in the tiniest of swimming trunks), the "Jail Break People" (chained prisoners in orange jumpsuits and a uniformed guard with a fake M16), and "Team POTUS" (the president of the United States with a team of suited-up Secret Service agents).
The good news is that they will be back to defend their costumes title on Saturday.
What can we expect?
"We are 'The WWF' this year!" Luttrell tells us. "Hulk Hogan, Macho Man Randy Savage, Rowdy Roddy Piper, Ultimate Warrior, Goldberg, Ricky The Dragon Steamboat, and Iron Sheik."
Team members in those roles will be Luttrell, Dustin Derflinger, Shane Leach, Adam Bjornson, Bill Netchow, Dan York, and Hijinio Carreon.
Runners south of Jefferson on the Raccoon River Valley Trail. The relay uses the full length of the "south loop" of the RRVT, then connects into the Des Moines metro trails system for the last few miles into downtown Des Moines.