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Mystic Mountain Run

Jul 20, 2012

Nathan Schock and Mystic Mountain Run founder Jim Brown at the post-race picnic.

The year that I was born, 1974, construction was completed on my grandparents’ vacation home in Mystic Valley, which is nestled in the heart of the Black Hills, about 20 miles west of Rapid City. My grandparents have since passed away and the home has been passed on to my father and his siblings. Still, family vacations have taken me there at least once a year, first as a child and now as a father. 

Three years before that home was built, Jim Brown started a road race just a mile up the valley. So in 1971, 21 runners competed in the first Mystic Mountain Run, which makes it the longest running race in western South Dakota. Brown placed sixth.

I first heard of the race as a young boy vacationing in the Black Hills. Our vacations always included a lot of hiking — at least one long one per day. If soccer season in my hometown of Sioux Falls was approaching, we added “soccer climbs” which were comprised of climbing 220 feet over a quarter of a mile as fast as we could. Still, I had never run the race. Until this year.

About a year and a half ago, I was part of a national trend of people getting back into running. A three-sport athlete in high school and a varsity college soccer player, I finally came to terms with the fact that my body could no longer handle the physical beating that came with those sports. But I needed a way to stay in shape and an outlet for my competitive drive. Running was the one thing left I could do, so I started with a 5k. Halfway through 2012, I have already competed in a 5k and two 10ks. Now, I’m training to run in the Sioux Falls Half Marathon.

But it just happened that this year’s family vacation to the Black Hills ended on the same day as the Mystic Mountain Run. I had finally run out of excuses. It was time to run.

So on July 8, I joined 125 other runners for the 42nd annual installment of the race. Pre-race course directions came from the founder, Jim Brown. “It’s all right turns,” he said of the race course, which is a giant loop. I was half paying attention while I loosened up for the race and finished my Gatorade, but he caught my attention with, “You cross the creek twice. If you cross it more than twice, you’re lost.”

The race itself is as brutal as it is beautiful. It’s officially listed as an 8 mile course, but Runners’ Shop of Rapid City owner Dennis Lunsford said it’s closer to 7.5 miles. “We’ve never done a formal measurement,” said Lunsford, who has been helping with the race since he first ran it in 1979. “We never felt we needed to. Mystic is just Mystic.”

Runners are lulled into complacency by starting with a two mile run on Mystic Road that slopes gently down to the valley. But any sense of comfort is quickly shattered when you cross the Mickelson Trail and start climbing the mountain. And keep climbing. And climbing. In fact, the entire third mile of the race is uphill, as runners (“walkers” would be a more accurate description for me at this point) climb more than 750 feet. My treadmill doesn’t have a setting that duplicates that incline.

As I hurtled down that final descent, my quadriceps were about ready to mutiny and find some other, more sane body to inhabit.

The one benefit of slowing down for the climb was the spectacular view of Mystic Valley off to my left. Castle Creek was visible, winding between the Mickelson Trail and the service road that dead-ends at my family’s vacation home. The one drawback (besides the obvious) is that I was one of a handful of runners who got stung by a bee. As if the climb wasn’t difficult enough.

What awaits you at the top of that climb is an old logging road which guides your descent to a valley that is home to Slate Creek. After fording the creek twice (and only twice), we had one more mountain to climb. At the peak of that second mountain, runners have now climbed more than 1,000 feet and are rewarded with a bone-crunching 1.5 mile plunge to the finish line. As I hurtled down that final descent, my quadriceps were about ready to mutiny and find some other, more sane body to inhabit.

I ended up placing 11th out of the 126 runners that finished the race, which was good enough for third place in my age division of 30-39 year old males. My time of 58:48 was just a little more than ten minutes off the winning pace set by 22-year-old South Dakota State University runner Mike Krsnak, who has now won all three of the Mystic Mountain Runs in which he has participated. 

A picnic for the runners and their families was held for runners and their families once the last person finished just over two hours after the 9 a.m. start. I had a chance to chat with the race's founder, Jim Brown, who said he has only missed one of the 42 races.

Brown handed the majority of the responsibilities to Lunsford and the Runner's Shop. Lunsford got involved purely out of the enjoyment of the race. “I just loved the atmosphere of it,” Lunsford said. “I love its rustic atmosphere. I helped for so long, that Jim thought I would be the person to turn it over to.” 

Among the runners, there was also a family atmosphere. As we walked up to the starting line, the organizers asked for a show of hands on how many people had run it before. More than half the hands went up and many stayed up as they asked who had run in more than two races...five...ten. Even at 20 races, a few hands stayed in the air. During the picnic, it was obvious that this was a community of runners and this was their annual get-together.

As for me? I’m already looking at the second Sunday in July for my next family vacation to the Black Hills. It’s the most unique race I’ve ever run and unquestionably the hardest. Next year, I want to be one of those runners with a hand in the air, saying I’ve done this before.

If you want to join, check out The Runner's Shop's site for next year’s date.


About the author: Nathan Schock is a fourth-generation South Dakotan who resides in Sioux Falls with his wife Barb and their three daughters. Nathan is currently employed by Locals Love Us and in the past has worked in politics, higher education and renewable energy. 


07:02 am - Mon, July 23 2012
Heidi said:
Wow, great job Nathan!
12:10 pm - Mon, July 23 2012
Charon Geigle said:
I look forward to reading about more of your South Dakota running adventures.
10:53 am - Tue, April 23 2013
Lee Schoenbeck said:
Great story Nathan. I ran that race in 1982. I don't know if they still give those runner caps, but I have kept mine all this years. A most memorable event. Lee
10:03 pm - Mon, June 17 2013
Miri said:
Thank you for posting this story. I am just getting into running, and still pretty out-of-shape at this point, My sister runs a lot. We are doing the Spearfish Canyon run this year (she is doing the half marathon, the rest of us are doing the 5k), but the Mystic Mountain run sounds beautiful. Maybe I could work my way up to it in a couple years :)
12:29 pm - Sun, July 9 2017
R Gourley said:
Great article. We look forward to seeing the race course someday soon
11:49 am - Thu, June 6 2019
Larry said:
Does anyone know if the Mystic Run is still held? I ran it in 1976 & 1977. After all these years, it is still the most memorable race I ever ran.

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