Des Moines Marathon: 'Worst Parade Ever'


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The mob came trotting by. The perfect excuse to close down some 30 streets on a Sunday morning, the IMT Des Moines Marathon (shorthand for an event featuring a full and half marathon, 5K, and kids’ run) brought around 10,000 athletes — most registered for the races, a few rogue “bandits” running without appropriate registration — to shiver, sweat, and shiver again in downtown Des Moines. There were runners from 47 different states, Kenya, Australia, Ethiopia, Russia, Honduras, Canada, and Nepal.

Iowa holds 638 races each year, 37 of which in Iowa City and 59 in our state’s capital. On Sunday, traffic was veering for the Iowa City Road Races Run for the Schools, and it will again for the Haunted Hustle for Hearing on Saturday. Yes, these events showcase human endurance and important charities, but they also facilitate weird outfits, clever business strategies, and witty signs — “Chuck Norris Never Ran a Marathon” — creating a culture I had yet to explore.

Standing in front of some artsy looking multicolor glass structure at the intersection of Court Avenue and Water Street in Des Moines, I saw a Spider-Man costume, a Batman costume, a Superman costume, and someone wearing a Bob Ross shirt. And, in the crowd on the other side of wave of athleticism, I spotted Herky, more than 100 miles away from home.

We had driven from Iowa City the previous day, two runners, a girlfriend, and a dork with a notebook, cruising on Interstate 80. We merged onto I-235 with only 45 minutes left to secure race credentials at Hy-Vee Hall before the 6 p.m. cutoff.

A ploy to entice people into buying crap, packet pickup at the Iowa Events Center was surrounded by a Scheels Sports & Fitness Expo, and it seemed to be working. I’ll never understand the fetish of wannabe high-octane athletes surrounding energy gels, nutritional goos, nourishing pastes, and fashionable medical tapes, but people everywhere in the hall, giddy before the big day, were spending money left and right, enticed by the promise of greatness, FDA approval nowhere in sight.

The next day was the big day, and Herky was right there in the felt. When the slower-paced runners started to come through, I made my move and darted into the street in a panic, dodging athletes whose ways I wasn’t really getting into. I introduced myself as a Daily Iowan reporter. He furiously nodded and thumbs-upped with approval. I then asked: “Herky, why are you here?”

He slapped the top of his head and held his hand there for a few seconds. He seemed to be thoroughly contemplating my question. Then he ran in place for a few steps.

“You’re running in the race?”

He shook his gigantic noggin and started pounding, almost wailing, on his heart.

“You’re passionate about running?”

He nodded and gave me several hundred more thumbs-ups. Satisfied with interviewing a university mascot, I walked away down an aisle of Porta Potties.

I was hoping to see a bunch of funny marathon signs, like those I found online relating such wisdom as “Never trust a fart” and “Run like you stole something.” This hope fell flat almost immediately when I realized that, without running the race, it’d be hard to see very many signs.

Still, the energy and can-do attitude of the crowd (and such a large crowd at that) was astounding. I suppose that, deep down, there’s some kind of complex joy in watching people overcome difficulty right before our very eyes as they jog past. It’s the same reason we waste our money at the movies: Underdogs turn us on. At such an event, there’s the opportunity to be silly, athletic, and supportive.

Also (as I found out long after the race was over), it supports Shoes That Fit. It’s no wonder that running, of all things we could possibly do on this world, can draw such active participation, even in a state the size of Iowa.

When our runners were done and well-fed on Domino’s, Noodles & Co., Jimmy Johns, McDonald’s, Hy-Vee fruit, and Michelob Ultra (all genuinely humbled to be there, I’m sure), we started back for the parking garage.

On a corner, buried several miles into the race, sat a middle-aged woman on a small portion of bleachers, grinning and holding a sign that read:

“Worst Parade Ever.”

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