The best places to stay, run and race
by Doug Rennie

Quality of life and quality of running score high in Greater Des Moines, a hospitable heartland haven of 500,000 plus.
     Founded in 1843 as a military outpost on a triangle of land at the fork of the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers, Iowa's political, economic, and cultural capital has evolved into a sophisticated city and is the corporate headquarters for a dozen big-time businesses, including the Wall Street Journal. The city is also the world's third-largest insurance center, after London and Hartford, Conn.
     Moreover, Des Moines is the home of Drake University and the fabled Drake Relays, one of track-and-field's oldest and most storied events. The running community here is large and friendly, the race calendar full, and the city blessed with more miles of scenic, accessible trails than you could run in a month.
     For a copy of Intro: Greater Des Moines and assorted other tourist goodies, contact the Convention and Visitors Bureau, (800) 451-2625; www.desmoinesia.com.

Racing Around Des Moines
For more information about these and other central Iowa races, contact Fitness Sports, (515) 277-4785 or (800) 529-7684

Drake Relays road races (April). Started out as the Drake Relays Marathon in 1969, converted to an 8-K/half-marathon in '93. Holds claim as Iowa's oldest major road event, though a mere fledgling compared to Drake's track races, which date back to 1910.

Dam to Dam 20-K (June). Long-standing (since 1980) Iowa distance classic had 8,500 finishers in '10, making it America's largest 20-K. Fast point-to-point course starts north of the city at Saylorville Dam, courses through the countryside, and finishes near downtown's Center Street Dam.

Midnight Madness (July). Dead of night, midsummer 5- and 10-K lunacy in Ames (33 miles north of Des Moines), followed by one righteous party.

Capital Pursuit 10-Mile (September). Loop course with a 3-mile downhill at the end-which explains the 48:00 course record.

Living History Farms Races (November). USA T&F On the Roads called this the "Largest Cross Country race in North America." This 7-mile cross-country farm tour finishes on an 1890s main street and pulled in 8,000 runners last year. "Be prepared," says Steve Bobenhouse, "to climb fences, wade through creeks, avoid cows and pigs, and claw your way to the top of gullies with a couple of thousand runners of questionable judgment. Don't wear anything you might want to keep." Great source of war stories.

Rooms for Runners
Downtown Des Moines is compact and bracketed by bike trails, so you can stay pretty much anywhere and be a quick hop to a good run. I can already hear you paraphrasing Abraham Lincoln: "Anywhere might be fine for you, but I need Somewhere." So here are your hotel choices, all a warmup jog from two running gateways, Water Works Park and the Des Moines River Trail (see "Trails-R-Us").
     Best Sweat Bet. Four treadmills, two stairclimbers, two bikes, and separate weight rooms for men and women, fill the fitness center at the elegant and historic Savery Hotel and Spa, 401 Locust St., (515) 244-2151; www.savery.com. It is adjacent to both the Polk County Convention Complex and Civic Center, and connected to more than 5 miles of climate-controlled skywalks. Just two blocks from the Des Moines River trails, the Savery also has a 20-lap-to-the-mile indoor jogging track, a good warmup choice in bad weather. Hotel general manager/runner Randy Haynes can map out or perhaps join you on a nice little run around the capital. Afterward, be sure to scour out your sinus cavities in the hotel's eucalyptus room. All 224 of Savery's newly furnished rooms have executive work desks with data ports. There's also an in-house 24-hour business center.
     Historic Heartland. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the nicely restored, really cool 240-room Hotel Fort Des Moines, 10th and Walnut streets, (515) 243-1161, features a 60-foot-long pool and a top-floor picture-window-enclosed workout room, complete with bike, stairclimber, and treadmill. The hotel offers a business center, and deluxe rooms and suites are equipped with data ports, work desks, and swivel chairs.
     Des Moines Prime. The city's only AAA four-diamond digs, the Des Moines Marriott is at the heart of downtown's business district at 700 Grand Avenue, (515) 245-5500; www.marriott.com/marriott/dsmia/. Rooms in the 415-unit high-rise have data ports, voice mail, and work desk, and there's an around-the-clock business center. The fitness room has bikes, treadmills, a rower, and multistation weight machine.
     Roomin' on the River. Perched on the east bank of the Des Moines River and smack beside the Saylorville-Des Moines River Trail (see "Trails-R-Us") is the Embassy Suites on the River, 101 E. Locust St., (515) 244-1700; www.jqhhotels.com. The Embassy serves up 234 spacious two-room suites that have such comforts of home as microwaves and coffeemakers. Many look out over a lushly tropical eight-story atrium. Two TVs, two phones, and a good-size dining/work table complete an attractive package. The hotel offers a complimentary full breakfast, happy hour every afternoon, and a fitness room with a stairclimber, treadmill, bike, and weight machines.

Trails-R-Us
From the fringes of 12-block-square downtown Des Moines, trails-long, long trails-spin off in all directions and snake their way through suburban parks, wooded corridors, farmlands, wildlife-laden enclaves, and small towns.
     The Saylorville-Des Moines River Trail, 23.7 flat miles of asphalt, follows the river northward past prairies, ponds, and forests from Birdland Park on the east edge of downtown to Big Creek State Park beach at the far end of Saylorville Lake. Water and rest rooms are found at Birdland, 1.5 miles farther at McHenry Park, and at the Bob Shetler Recreation Area at 6.2 miles. Another option is to run from the downtown YMCA at 717 Grand Avenue to the S-DMR Trail and up to Birdland Park, about 5 miles out and back.
     In the heart of downtown, not far from the start of the S-DMR Trail, is the 1.5-mile Bill Riley Bike Trail. It takes you to Water Works Park, which features about 4 miles of paths and roads, and hooks up with the newly paved Great Western Trail. The GW Trail follows an historic rail bed for 17 flat miles-what else?-south to the town of Martendale, population 438. For a 10-miler, run from the GW Trail trailhead to the town of Orilla and back. Take water if you do.
     Seven miles northwest of Des Moines is the popular Clive Greenbelt Trail, 10 miles (and growing) of scenic, thickly wooded miles. "It was our first suburban bike and running trail and is still the best," says the Capital Striders' Cal Murdock. By the time you read this, the Clive Greenbelt should connect with the Raccoon River Valley Trail. This route passes farms, timbered areas, and a bunch of small towns for 34 miles to tiny Yale, Iowa, two counties northwest of Des Moines.
     The closest spot to hit the Clive Greenbelt from Des Moines is the east trailhead near the Wal-Mart parking lot at 73rd Street, just south of University Avenue. The next trailhead, at the 1400 block of 86th Street, has water and rest rooms, and again at the Campbell Recreation Area, about 3.8 miles out. Each May the Clive Running Festival's fast 5- and 10-K races are held mostly on the Greenbelt. Call (515) 226-0860 for information.
     Five miles northeast of downtown Des Moines puts you on the paved 20-mile Chichaqua Valley Trail. This rail-trail crosses several stone bridges as it follows the 1885-vintage Wisconsin, Iowa, and Nebraska train route, including a span with a scenic view across the Skunk River at 5 miles. The trailhead is between 88th Street and 78th Avenue off of I-65.

Insider Tips
For a nifty, no-brainer, 4.5-mile out-and-back run, start at the Hotel Fort Des Moines, go south along Fleur Drive, head west for a loop of Gray's Lake, and back the same way. Or add a few miles by heading west into adjacent Water Works Park and running along the Raccoon River. Start from either the Marriott or Savery and figure about 5 miles for the basic route to the Raccoon and back.
     "One special place to run in Des Moines is on mile-long, sycamore-lined Polk Boulevard," says city runner Michael Franke. Polk, which forms a "T" with 1.7-mile-long Kingman Boulevard, is known for its stately pre-Depression era homes and summertime shade. Franke recommends a 5.4-mile out-and-back run that covers both Polk and Kingman. Park at the Des Moines Art Center, 4700 Grand Avenue, at the south end of Polk.
     You can also head south a half mile or so from the Art Center along 45th Street into Greenwood and Ashworth parks. From these parks it's another 1.8 miles to a wooden bridge across the Raccoon River into trail-filled Water Works Park.
     Visitors in need of hill repeats can scoot up and down an almost perfect incline for maintaining a more-or-less regular stride. The hill runs along lovely and low-traffic Waterbury Avenue from 56th Street up to Polk Boulevard.
     The shady 2.5-mile loop around Glendale Cemetery, 3 miles west of downtown off University Avenue, is a good run for a hot day. Add miles along paths that run through the grounds. Both water and rest rooms are nearby.
     The Waveland Park & Golf Course is at 49th and University, not far from the cemetery. It features both rollers and quad-burners and offers the city's best cross-country running-though access is sometimes restricted when the golfers are out in big numbers.

Drop In and Say Hi
It's not just a flashy running specialty store boasting a multitiered Web site full of running info. It's also a clubhouse, hangout, and a place to plan races and get applications, for all of central Iowa and beyond. If it has anything to do with running in Des Moines-or, for that matter, the state-Steve Bobenhouse's Fitness Sports, 7230 University Avenue, (515) 277-4785; www.FitnessSports.com, is likely in the middle of it.
     The store is the ad hoc home base for the city's largest running club, the Capital Striders, which you can contact at www.capitalstriders.org. The store and club join forces each year to sponsor a spring marathon training program that runs from January through April as well as numerous of the area's most popular races..
     Each Sunday groups of Striders run up to 10 miles, starting from the 86th Street entrance of the Clive Greenbelt Trail. These outings serve as a worthwhile excuse for the postrun chow down at Bruegger's bagel shop. Tuesdays are all-levels interval sessions at the Roosevelt High School track,. Thursdays find the Striders legging it across a 6-mile hilly course and feeding afterwards at Zimm's, 3200 Ingersoll Avenue. Visitors are welcome.


Copyright June, 2001 RODALE PRESS, INC. All rights reserved. The information contained in the preceding story may not be published, broadcast or otherwise distributed without the prior written authority of Rodale, Inc., Emmaus, PA 18098; (610) 967-8809.