I came into Badlands National Park a bit down. I was tired from the run at Theodore Roosevelt National Park and did not have many long conversations with people while I was there. I think I needed some more extensive interpersonal engagement to boost me back up.
My impression of Badlands National Park is that it is not natural; not fake necessarily, just not natural. From the peaks to the canyons the landscape is very angular. It is not like the smooth sloping hills I am used to out east. The land seems to scratch you as you look at it. You walk away with claw marks.
Badlands was designated a National Park in 1978 and incorporates 244,000 acres. They get about one million visitors each year. The southern unit of the Park is co-managed with the Oglala Lakota Nation, the eight largest American Indian Reservation. All employees including rangers in the southern unit are members of the Oglala Lakota Nation.
The park is completely open to exploration with only a few established hiking trails. You better be an experienced navigator by compass and topographical map for any off trail diversion into the badlands or prairie. There is almost no water and that which may remained pooled from the last rain will likely be unfit to drink.
The dramatic rock formations were formed by erosion. That erosion didn’t start until around 500,000 years ago making the Badlands a fairly recent occurrence in geologic terms. The buttes erode one-third inch per year but that can be much faster depending on the how the formation is sloped, material and amount of rainfall. In addition, the entire park is an active paleontological dig with new fossils being found daily by both researchers and visitors to the park. In the summer it is very hot with temperatures regularly near 100 degrees.
I spoke to a few people at the campground and attended the excellent evening ranger programs the first two days. I did a little scouting of the course and checked out the views on the park loop road. I did have a boost in spirits when I got to do a trail run with a new friend Nick Cross. We connected on Instagram and it happened that he and his family were going to be staying at the same campground. He wasn’t going to be there for the marathon but I wanted to get out and run with him anyway. We got up early and did a self-guided off-road run around the buttes, spires and canyons near the visitor center. He said that he wouldn’t have gone on the run if I wasn’t there but he was very happy he did. We saw a lot of amazing scenery up close and enjoyed the morning before the heat set in. This is what the National Parks Marathon Project is about –making new friends and getting out to run in some amazing places.
What I was really looking forward to at Badlands was a visit from an NBC News reporter and videographer. I will be included in their coverage of the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary. I had someone to talk to for a full two days which really helped me jump out of the funk. I won’t spoil the surprise by talking about the story but will share it when it is done.
About a week before arriving at Badlands I got connected with Jerry Dunn via Twitter. He reached out to say he would like to run some of the marathon with me both at Badlands and Wind Cave National Park. I come to find out he is an ultra-endurance athlete extraordinaire and was coined “America’s Marathon Man”. Among other feats he has run across the country in 104 days for Habitat for Humanity, he set a world record by running 104 marathons in a single year, and in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Boston Marathon he ran marathon course 25 consecutive times before running the 26th time in the actual race. He has most recently been the director of very successful marathon and ultramarathon races in South Dakota. Now at 70 years old he is looking to “come out of retirement” as he puts it.
I created a course that combined seven and a half miles on the Badlands Loop Road and five and a half miles on the Castle Trail which would be run twice. This worked out well for a number of reasons. First, the reporter had easy access to shoot me while running on the road and at the trailheads. Second, Jerry could run the first seven mile road segment and the second five mile trail segment. And third, we passed by the cars so we could refill water. We started at 4:30am to avoid the oppressive heat. It was still quite warm at that time and the forecast was to be in the mid-90s by midmorning. There is no shade.
The marathon run was spectacular. The views on the loop road as the sun came up were amazing. The trail highlighted the diversity of the land with flat prairie on the left and the craggy canyons, cliffs and formations on the right. Having people to run with and talk to raised my spirits so much so that it was the second fastest National Park marathon I’ve run to date. As I continually state, there is no time goal for the marathons but I just felt good that morning.
I learned from Badlands that I need to balance my desire to explore, learn and document with my human need for interaction and engagement. I learned that when my body says rest I need to rest. I learned to take the attitude that I am in this project for the long haul and balance is important.
About the Badlands two different cultures came to the same conclusion. The Lakota were the first to call the Badlands "mako sica" or "land bad”. In the early 1900's, French-Canadian trappers called it "les mauvais terres pour traverse”, or "bad lands to travel through.” For me though, the Badlands were good. I enjoyed the place, the people and my own personal growth.
Make an effort to visit Badlands National Park and do some running or hiking. That is the only way truly experience this bad land in all of its glory.