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North Dakota

FARGO HALF MARATHON

Fargo, ND


North of Normal

Thursday, May 30, 2024


I had the distinction this year of visiting Fargo — "The City of Far More" — which has far more fun facts associated with it than you were prepared to read, spanning from the last ice age to present day. North Dakota’s Fargo is the most populous Fargo in the U.S., ahead of at least 10 other cities named Fargo nationwide, with a population of over 131,444 as of 2022. Not only is it the largest Fargo in the land, but it is also the global leader in pancake feeding. In 2008, Fargo’s Kiwanis Club members cooked 34,818 pancakes at the Fargo Civic Center for their fundraising event, beating the previous record of Lubbock, Texas, for the Guinness World Record for the largest pancake feed. Fargo's flapjack record is significant, because only 9,300 years ago, following the last ice age, Fargo and Moorhead, Minnesota, were completely underwater – resting below Lake Agassiz.


When the water finally receded thousands of years later, Fargo became known as the Divorce Capital of the West in the 1880s, when the Legislature for the Dakota Territory passed a divorce law that made it relatively simple to get a divorce. At the time, North Dakota’s divorce laws were the most lenient out of anywhere else in North America. This resulted in a tourism and hospitality industry boom and an increase in Fargo residents. Hotels and restaurants were springing up everywhere, prepared to entertain unhappily married people who traveled from all over the country to Fargo while they waited for their divorces to be finalized. Divorce, pancakes, and the ice age are probably not the first things that come to mind when you think of Fargo today.


When you think of Fargo, or tell people you're going to visit Fargo, many people immediately come up with references to the 1996 film Fargo. When I decided to visit the real Fargo, I had a missed photo opportunity with the actual woodchipper that was used in the movie during one of the most infamous murder scenes in the history of Hollywood. If you're planning a visit, and want to get a photo with it, the woodchipper is located inside the Visitors Center off I-94. Due to the limited amount of time I had, I didn't make it there, but my time in Fargo was still worthwhile. Fargo, with an official tagline of "North of Normal," is an artistic community of foodies who are hospitable, friendly, and resilient. The residents of Fargo are used to harsh winters, and used to a lot of tourists.



All over town, there are historic landmarks, painted bison, murals, and sculptures. The painted bison can be turned into a scavenger hunt, since there are many different ones you can track down and take photos with if you have the time to explore. Being so close to the Minnesota border, I observed Fargo also takes pride in being Minnesota Nice, which was proudly emblazoned on merchandise in almost every souvenir shop I visited. They are also totally my kind of people when it comes to loud noises: downtown, between the hours of 10:00 P.M. to 6:00 A.M., there is to be no loud music, shouting, or excessive honking of horns. The older I get, the greater appreciation I have for ordinances like these.


Every Midwestern town has a "Historic Main Street," and for Fargo, it's Broadway, which I spent a lot of time exploring during my trip. Most of Fargo's downtown and surrounding neighborhoods reminded me of Decatur, Indiana, and Fargo was not much different from Moorehead, Minnesota, which is situated right across the Red River. So the conclusion I have come to is North Dakota is Indiana, but Minnesota.


I had three distinct culinary experiences my first night in Fargo: Wurst Bier Hall, Tea & Crepe Fargo, and Mezzaluna. Wurst serves German-style fare, and I got the Polish Reuben with a basket of pretzel sticks and beer cheese. The cheese especially was a great decision. After lunch at Wurst, I walked down a few blocks to Tea & Crepe Fargo, and treated myself to a cup of rolled ice cream with Oreos and gummy bears. Thankfully I was there late enough in the afternoon that there was plenty of seating, but locals will tell you it's a popular place for dessert and usually packed with very limited seating.



Mezzaluna was an exceptional experience not only because of the food, but because the staff went out of their way to make me feel like their favorite guest, especially being from out of town. My main entree was their special for that evening, which was an exquisitely presented vegan dish (no I'm not vegan, but if you have been following me for some time now, you already know I love sampling vegan and vegetarian dishes at restaurants). The real star of the show was the lavender citrus crème brûlée I ordered for dessert — which I considered to be the best one I've ever had out of all the crème brûlée I have tried around the world thus far.


My waitress shared with me how central food is to Fargo's culture, and they are very much a foodie community especially when it gets cold, and everyone retreats indoors for the fall and winter where it's warm and cozy. I told her I was in town for the race, and she put together a list of recommendations for me. I visited two of the restaurants she suggested, though I did not make it to Brewhalla due to my limited amount of time in town. That's one more excuse for me to come back.



The Shack on Broadway came highly recommended by Google for breakfast, so the next morning, I headed over there. Thankfully I beat the morning rush, because not even 15 minutes after I arrived, the restaurant started to fill up and the waitlist began. It had a very small town feel, and the eggs, bacon, and strawberry French toast I ordered tasted like they came straight out of a home kitchen, as advertised on their sign. The Shack lived up to all the hype of its Google, TripAdvisor, and Yelp reviews. If you plan to take an Uber or Lyft to The Shack, just know it doesn't map correctly on either app, and your driver will end up in the parking lot of the apartment complex across the street. While in Fargo, I found Lyft to be cheaper and faster than Uber for most of my rides, with some exceptions during surge times.


Before lunch, I visited the Fargo Air Museum, which was conveniently right across the street from my hotel. I have always been somewhat of an aviation enthusiast, so of course I was curious. The Fargo Air Museum is relatively tiny, but the smaller-sized hangar was packed with quite a bit to see, with plenty of exhibits explaining the significance and history of each aircraft or vehicle. The museum is small enough that you really can get through the entire thing in less than 45 minutes.


A few favorite exhibits that I photographed included the Taylorcraft L-2 Grasshopper, a P-51D Mustang, the Wright Flyer, the North American Aviation T-6 Texan, the Fairchild PT-19 and the WWII Harley Davidson motorcycle. I wanted to see the Bell UH-1H Huey helicopter cockpit section, since I previously worked on the UH-1N and UH-1Y as an avionics technician while I was on active duty, but it wasn't inside the hangar during my visit. It may have been outside, but doing the self-guided tour, I tried to stay in the main building to be respectful of others who were doing the guided tour. Inside the hangar, next to the check in counter, was a gift shop with aviation-themed merchandise.



After the Fargo Air Museum, I crossed the street to go check out the Fargodome, where in previous years, the Fargo Marathon races started and finished inside. This year would be different, as the start and finish lines would be outside instead. I wasn't sure I'd have another opportunity in the future to see the inside, so it was now or never. What I didn't know was that afternoon, there were graduation rehearsals taking place for Fargo High School, and when I went inside the building, there were hundreds of future graduates milling about and taking the escalator downstairs to their rehearsal. I quickly hurried out of the building, feeling out of place as the only vintage Millennial adult old enough to be a parent of these kids, aside from their teachers and coaches.


Graduation ceremonies would be a logical explanation for the change to the Fargo Marathon races starting and finishing outside the building. Later that night, I had the unfortunate experience of being subjected to fireworks going off around 10 P.M. right outside my hotel (presumably kicking off graduation festivities), which set off the herd of dogs in the room next door to mine. They barked for a good half an hour before their owner had enough and shouted at them to be quiet. Don't get me wrong... I love fireworks, but just not when I'm trying to sleep before a race.


Back to Friday afternoon: lunch was my next stop after the Fargodome, and then the race expo. I went to BernBaum's, a restaurant and bagel shop that draws inspiration from the Jewish and Scandinavian heritage of the restaurant's founders. It was definitely my kind of place — bagels, bagel sandwiches, pastries, and matzo ball soup. This was a super popular spot (I was going back and forth on whether I should write "souper," but it's such a cheesy pun... oh well, there it is), and the line was nearly out the door when I got there. Thankfully it moved pretty quickly. BernBaum's had mid-century modern decor, and an eclectic charm that I absolutely loved — for example, they used plastic toy animals as table markers to keep track of which table to bring food out to, and after placing our orders, we were handed a plastic animal. On top of the pastry counter, there was also a dinosaur with a dreidel!



When I finished my meal, which was amazing, I went back up to the counter to order a bagel and cream cheese to go. This would be my race breakfast the next morning. While waiting for my Lyft, I went next door to Stabo Scandinavian Imports, a gift shop specializing in souvenirs and specialty items from Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland. There were plenty of "Minnesota Nice" items, and "Uff Da" merchandise.


I suppose here would be an appropriate place to explain "Uff Da," which is also the catch phrase for the Fargo Marathon races. According to several sources, the expression is Norwegian in origin, and it's really an all-around exclamation used to express surprise, annoyance, or even exhaustion, sort of like "oy vey" in Yiddish. According to this example, Minnesotans use "uff da" when they lift something that's heavier than expected, or when they go outside and realize the temperature is colder than expected.


Packet pick-up and the race expo were held in Minnesota, at the Concordia College Memorial Auditorium. What I was not expecting was the insane line outside the building for packet pick-up, just to enter the building. Other runners in line with me were just as surprised, and thankfully, we did not have to stand out in the heat for too long. I met some other 50 Staters while we waited. The expo was actually huge, and I was impressed. I picked up a long sleeve shirt and a pair of Goodr sunglasses from the Beyond Running booth. Our race packets consisted of a nice zip-up jacket commemorative of the 20th anniversary of the race, which was a nice deviation from the typical race T-shirt I've gotten for nearly every other race.


Later that evening, I checked out Blackbird Woodfire Pizza, which was so amazing I went back a second time for dinner the next day after the race. On my first visit, I ordered their special for that day, which was called the "Hot Chica." It consisted of pepperoni, mozzarella, fresh basil, and hot honey. This fulfilled my race tradition of ordering pizza in every state I race in the night before the race. I was blown away with how good this pizza was!! North Dakota, 10/10 for pizza. My waitress also completely sold me on trying the vanilla orange cheesecake (let's be honest, it wasn't a hard sell). On my second visit, I tried the sausage and apple pizza, which consisted of exactly what it sounds like. It was just as good as the first, although the Hot Chica was my favorite of the two.



Miles for Mark: Essentia Health Fargo Half Marathon Recap

Race Day: Saturday, June 1, 2024



North Dakota was State #17 on my quest to run a half marathon in all 50 states. It's important to set the stage of this recap with a history lesson to understand the full context of some of the things we as race participants believed were challenges with this race. That being said, these challenges and frustrations did not negate the absolutely wonderful experiences of the event, which I place more weight on when considering a race's enjoyability and potential repeatability factor. The most important thing is the Essentia Health Fargo Marathon was celebrating its 20th anniversary, and it was the first year of the event without the community's beloved race director of 19 years, Mark Knutson, who tragically lost his life in a devastating accident the previous year.


The second thing that played a significant role in how events transpired on race day is The Flooding Problem. Fargo is situated alongside the only river in the world to flow northward, the Red River of the North, which creates challenges with spring flooding due to melting snow and ice from ice dams, combined with consistent runoff from tributaries. The Red River flows 550 miles from Breckenridge, Minnesota to Lake Winnipeg in Canada, and borders Minnesota and North Dakota. In 1997, a record was set when the Red River rose to 39.5 feet in Fargo during a 500-year flood event, with the river cresting at 54 feet, displacing over 50,000 people who were forced to evacuate. Then in 2009, the Fargo-Moorhead area experienced severe flooding again with the river reaching 43 feet and cresting at 40.82 feet. Fortunately, the residents were prepared this time, and stacked sandbags up to 41 feet high to prevent the rising water from destroying their community again to the extent it had been destroyed in 1997.


The year 2009 was also the 5th anniversary of the Fargo Marathon, when the most drastic route change in the race's history occurred due to the flooding. Race Director Mark Knutson and his team had adjusted the race route by forming a double loop course away from the river and all the damage it had caused. This year, while Fargo was still grieving the loss of Mark, Race Director Chip Hazewski was hoping to manage the series of Fargo Marathon events with as few issues as possible while honoring Mark. The Red River, a familiar adversary of the Fargo Marathon, had other plans.


On Saturday, May 25, 2024, I received an email from Chip Hazewski's company, Ventures Endurance. "Dear Runner," it began, "Due to heavy rains causing Red River flooding, we are adjusting the marathon and half marathon course routes. This important decision was made to provide higher ground and improved flood protection to give you the best race experience possible. The new course will still be USATF certified, so don't panic!" I immediately started looking up news articles about the flooding with growing anxiety about my travel plans. It had been raining consistently for a week in the Fargo-Moorhead area, and the river had encroached on the race route at several points.


Originally, runners were supposed to run down Elm Street by El Zagal Golf Course, then zag onto the bike trail at Trefoil Park, which runs between Jack Williams Stadium and the river toward Oak Grove High School. After that, runners were supposed to head onto the pedestrian bridge over the river to Moorhead and take the Moorhead trail that runs by the Hjemkomst Center. That entire chunk of the course ended up having to be rerouted. Having never run this race before, I would not have known the difference; however, it became glaringly obvious during the race that the course had been changed at the last minute when we were met with a lack of clear course markings in some spots, sometimes non-existent traffic control at intersections in residential areas, and mislabeled mile markers.


The 20th Essentia Health Fargo Marathon and Half Marathon kicked off just outside the Fargodome at 33 17th Avenue North, less than a block's walk from my hotel. I had learned from the race website and experiences of other runners (to include an entry from the amazing blog of RaceRaves founder Mike Sohaskey) that in previous years, the race had begun and ended inside the Fargodome. Although disappointing that we did not get to experience this, my guess is the Fargodome could not be reserved for the race festivities due to the graduation ceremonies happening simultaneously that weekend. At the start, the temp was 55° F with 7 mph wind, perfect conditions for a good race. Later that morning as the race progressed, it warmed up to about 66° F, and the wind picked up to 15 mph.



While we anxiously waited to start, announcer Fitz Koehler paid tribute in honor of her friend Mark, with a brief account of the tremendous impact he had on Fargo, Moorhead, and the running community. “As we kick off this 20th anniversary race without him,” she said, “know that Mark created all of this for you. He wanted you to enjoy running. He wanted you to be healthy. He wanted you to live a life of adventure, and he wanted you to feel all the love inside that he had for you. The Fargo Marathon race week and each of you are his legacy. So, we can say Def Leppard is blasting in the heavens today…" here, Fitz had to briefly pause because she started to cry, "and each step you take, know that you will be carried on the wings of an angel. Long live Mark Knutson."


One mile of the course had been dedicated to Mark, which was named "Mark's Mile," where spectators, friends, and loved ones were encouraged to line this portion of the race — while Mark's favorite ‘80s rock music blared — to celebrate and remember him.


I did not know Mark, but I could feel the immense love for him in the powerful silence of the crowd of thousands while we listened as Ms. Koehler spoke about him. I looked around at the solemn faces, and saw a few tears escaping from behind colorful sport sunglasses and under brims of baseball caps. After Mark's tribute, the Canadian Anthem was sung, welcoming our Canadian neighbors, followed by the National Anthem. The excitement was turned up again with the official race start, as the elites bolted across the timing mat and disappeared into the distance to the collective cheers of, “Uff Da! Uff Da!”


With the adjustments made to the course, the half marathoners had been scheduled to begin the race at 7:00 AM., 30 minutes before the full marathoners. I gathered the full marathoners did not appreciate this later due to the crowding on the course, and the increasing temperatures for the latter half of their race. The course was very flat, with only 180 net elevation gain according to my watch, and at least one fairly unmemorable hill that went under a bridge. I felt pretty good the first few miles, appreciating the nonstop crowd support. The crowd support continued throughout the entire race, with residents cheering for us in their pajamas from their lawns, and some were sporting costumes and quirky signs. It was wonderful to have so many volunteers rooting for us as well, in addition to the enthusiastic Fargo residents.


Some of my favorite signs were, "May the course be with you" — an enduring classic seen at most races — and "Run like the wind... in Fargo its strong and fast," and of course, the punchy "You're late for brunch!" There was also "You run better than the government," which never stops being funny. Some of the streets became quite narrow for the volume of runners jockeying for a position around miles 4 and 5, and we half marathoners knew around 45 minutes to an hour into our race we had been joined by the marathoners.


Things got confusing when on one street, runners were directed to go in three different directions, with some side streets not closed off to traffic in the residential neighborhoods. This became a problem for me — I was almost hit by a car while crossing an intersection, when a brazen SUV driver decided he was sick of waiting for runners to cross. His front bumper came within an inch of me and two others as we passed, and runners around me sharply inhaled in surprise and there was a chorus of disbelieving "wows," and polite North Dakotan "oh nos."


Eventually came Mark's Mile, the most emotional mile of the race, which ran through a stretch of neighborhoods along Seventh and Eighth streets in south Fargo. Colorful flashing lighted pillars with graffiti-style writing on them on either side of the road let us know we were running this mile in honor of Mark. Suddenly I noticed the excited chatter of runners collectively became hushed tones, as we realized the significance. This portion of the course was lined with hundreds of encouraging spectators cheering, dancing, and crying, and DJs and a live two-man band kept everyone energized while Fargo residents handed out candy or orange slices to runners.



When I reached Mile 5, I noticed the mile marker was not on the course, presumably because it had been picked up by the wind and blown into someone's yard. I noticed it resting in the grass a few yards from where it should have been. Mile markers for 6 and 7 were not on the course at all, and it was at Mile 8 when things began to go awry. The Mile 8 marker suddenly popped up after I completed Mile 9. I became quickly frustrated seeing my watch registering 9 miles as I was passing the Mile 8 marker, and I kept my fingers crossed we wouldn't end up running 14.1 miles. I felt sorrier for the marathoners, who if faced with running 27.2 miles instead of 26.2, would end up running what would then be classified officially as an ultramarathon.


A photographer captured this gem of a photo in my exact moment of confusion about the mile markers and deep contemplation about the possibility of the Fargo Ultramarathon. In the end, my watch registered the course was actually about a quarter of a mile long in total (13.38 miles). I wonder what my actual chip time would have been with the original course, had the Red River not interfered. While I understand GPS is not always accurate when it comes to race course distances, even when the course is USATF certified, other runners concurred at the finish line that their watches registered the course as at least a quarter of a mile long as well. It was better that the course be long rather than short, otherwise my race would not count for the half marathon distance according to official 50 States Half Marathon Club rules, and I'd have to run North Dakota again. Uff da.


Somewhere around Mile 8, I'd made the comment to a runner beside me that I'd rather the course be long than short, and she disagreed, preferring to run a shorter distance. Clearly she had different goals and was not an official club member! At some point — I'm not sure when — we crossed state lines into Minnesota, and then back into North Dakota. The mile markers continued to be off by one mile all the way until Mile 11. The elite finishers for the full marathon suddenly galloped past us, to include Digger Lauter from Oakland, California, the marathon winner for the men. They were led by police escorts and volunteers on bicycles shouting, "Make a hole! Runners coming through! Make way for the men's marathon champion!" I felt a surge of excitement watching them, in awe of their sheer athletic power and effort as always.


Those of us who were the world's okayest runners parted like the Red Sea to let them through... or in this case, we parted like the Red River. At Mile 12 (the real Mile 12, not the phantom Mile 12), the Grim Reaper dutifully reminded us that The End Is Near. I could see the finish line when I was about a quarter of a mile out from it, and as I entered the finish chute, the announcer announced my name and added, "And now, the full marathon champion for the women is preparing to cross the finish! If you are not the full marathon champion, please do not break the tape!"


Two smiling volunteers held up the finish tape just as I cautiously crossed to the left of it, careful to leave it available for the women's marathon champion, who was a few seconds behind me. The crowd erupted in cheers as Amy Will from Warren, Minnesota broke the tape with speed and elegance, and I got to clap and cheer for her from the other side of the timing mat before she joined me in the finish corral. Volunteers bestowed us with our medals, and I grabbed a bottled water and frantically looked around for any sign of food. There was no post-race food that I could see or find, and thinking maybe I just missed it, I continued walking past the Fargodome with other runners headed in the same direction.


On the way to... somewhere, I asked a gentleman walking next to me where the beer garden and food were. He sighed in annoyance and said the beer garden and afterparty were across the street at Buffalo Wild Wings, which was kind of confusing since there was no clear signage directing us that way. "Just like everything with this race," he added sarcastically, referring to the lack of signage and direction. I later read in a race review from another runner that the reason the afterparty was across the street instead of in the finish area was that NDSU is a dry campus, so the race organizers could not serve alcohol in the parking lot.


In talking with some of the other runners around me on my way to Buffalo Wild Wings, many of them did not feel it worth the effort to cross 19th Avenue, a four-lane roadway, to get one free beer. I decided to do it for the experience, especially because my hotel was only up the street, but would have loved to have some wings to go with my beer. I then decided instead of paying for wings, I'd just grab my free beer and I'd wait to eat at 701 Eateries' Prairie Kitchen after I showered, which had been my original plan ever since I saw the spectator sign about being late for brunch.



At 701 Eateries, a rustic and inviting restaurant where they thoughtfully place your receipt in an old recipe book, I helped myself to a giant plate of lemon ricotta pancakes, which were covered in raspberry puree. As I ate, I listened passively to the conversation of a table of ten near me, and figured out they had all just finished the race too. A couple of them had run the full marathon, but most of the runners at the table were half finishers, and a few family members who'd come to support them. Most of them, like me, had come in from out of town. The conversation was mostly gripes about the unclear markings of the course, the course being long, and the desire for more clear communication.


I quietly continued eating my pancakes and felt my frustrations from earlier melt away, and those feelings were replaced by compassion. No one could replace Mark. This race wasn't the same without Mark at the helm — I felt that through the community. But it will get better. What was evident most of all, though, was the resilience of the community and the love the people of Fargo have for the runners who have been coming through their neighborhoods every year, for the past 20 years. And year after year, Fargo shows up.



LODGING RECOMMENDATION:

Candlewood Suites Fargo-N. Dakota State Univ.

1831 NDSU Research Park Dr N

Fargo, ND 58102



Happy running and safe travels,

Stefanie


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