As much as I hate to say it, this was for me, That Perfect Race.
Why the hesitation? Because I have only been running ultras for two and a half years and I know that there can be only so many great races – so I really don’t want this to be as good as it gets...
I don’t ask for much do I?
I hadn’t planned on running this race at the start of the year. I thought Voyageur would be my last race before the 100 miler. But then Lean Horse was chosen as the championship race for the UMTR series and I knew that a lot of folks from around here would be going out there so I started to look into it. I figured a potentially hot weather race would probably be a good idea in the event we get some unusual conditions at Angeles Crest and since I had no other travel plans for August I was up for a mini-vacation. As it turned out I’ve taken plenty of vacation days for training and racing this summer so I ended up deciding to fly rather than drive out there. So, despite initially giving Eric a hard time for flying (11hrs in a car, run 50M, 11hrs back – no problem!), I went ahead and booked the same flights to Rapid City. We landed around 11am Friday and took the scenic route to Hot Springs via Crazy Horse Memorial. I’d visited the spot in 2005 while on a road trip to Yellowstone with my sisters. I can’t say it’s changed much since then but then again 4 years work on a project that will likely take more than a hundred years is probably not all that visible to the untrained eye!
We also decided to drive Argyle Road which come Saturday I was thankful for. The relentless hills were a bit daunting even in the car but it was good knowing that they went on and on so there was no point hoping for a change in scenery until mile 16.6! And it helped me to stick to my plan of going out easy.
We got to Hot Springs soon after 2pm. Checked into the hotel and went next door to the Mueller Center to get our numbers. I was pretty wrecked after a busy week at work and not as much sleep as I’d hoped for so I got a 2hr nap and then later we went back with drop bags. Met up with Nancy, Tom, Julie and Alicia who’d travelled out a few days early. Steve Q also joined us and Matt & Dawn Long. It was good fun catching up with everyone. Tom, Matt and Dawn had all previously ran here so it good to get some more insights. Weather was not looking any better than expected – it was just a matter of how early the serious heat would kick in.
We decided to head over to the Flatiron Restaurant for dinner where I enjoyed a tasty Buffalo burger outside in the lovely patio area - accompanied by some pretty painful country music. And if we thought singer no.1 was bad we were in for a real treat when no. 2 took the mic. Got back to the hotel and got my stuff organized. I slept okay – woke a few times but managed to fall asleep again quickly. I’d been thinking a lot about the race – one of my goals was to run a negative split so I decided 4hrs for the way out, hoping to finish in under 8hrs. But after everything I’d heard about the race, and even after seeing the road section, and knowing it would be hot, I couldn’t help but think I could do faster than 8hrs – so before falling asleep I’d decided on 3:45 at the turnaround instead!
Woke up at 5am, got dressed, had a banana and a granola bar and went down to the breakfast room to get a coffee. Back to the room to check off a few final items – sunscreen, cap, iPod... one of the reasons I hadn’t gotten as much sleep as planned Thurs night was trying to get a decent playlist together – it was worth it! It was so convenient being right next door to the race start. Got over there around 5:40 and got checked in, chatted to a few people. Realized I hadn’t seen Eric yet so I called back over to the hotel and he was just ready to leave.
A few minutes before 6AM we were all out back of the Mueller Center ready for off. A few words from RD Jerry Dunn and it was time to run... very slowly at first given the narrow bike path start! It was great actually – I totally settled into a nice easy pace that I intended to maintain for a few hours. We meandered around back streets and paths and odd trails to end up on the other side of town and heading out into the countryside towards Coldbrook AS at mile 4. I met a few familiar faces along the way including John Taylor and Zach Pierce. We hit the first hill at around mile 2.5 and many people were walking. While driving Argyle Rd the evening before Eric has asked if I intended to run all the hills. Without thinking about it I said yes. I wasn’t really sure it was a great plan given that sometimes you’re better off walking hills and using different muscle groups but I figured I’d see how I felt as I went along. We hit the dirt road at the top of the hill and then down the other side and mostly downhill to the aid station. A very quick stop here to fill the water bottle and off again – I was carrying one hand-held on the way out with a second in my drop bag at Pringle AS at mile 24.
I caught up with Matt Long in the meadow section – he was laughing that I was indeed sticking to my plan – for now at least! I wondered if there would be anything technical to deal with at all today given that there was even gravel in the meadow section. The answer would be no. We emerged onto Argyle Rd just before the 5 mile mark. Matt was telling me about the return journey on the 100 miler last year when he missed this turn - luckily someone in a car just along the road told him. There is a very big climb up further towards the main road which would have been just miserable to do in error at mile 95!
As soon as we turned left onto the road the first of the climbs kicked in and I wondered if it really was necessary to try to run them all... but of course the stubborn streak within had already decided it was. The next hour or so was spent at a very steady pace rolling up and down the endless hills – it was funny as I would continue to run up each hill and pass many walkers and then they would pass me on the way down the other side. This cycle repeated itself over and over again. I was pretty much running the same pace up and down the hills and would consciously slow down a little as someone came by on the downhill or flat - so that the opposite wouldn’t happen! I switched on the iPod somewhere along here which also helped keep me in my own little world. Upon seeing the mile 10 mark at around 1:39 on the clock I was expecting to see the AS around the next corner but it was probably at least a half mile later. Quick refill of the water bottle, a few grapes, and I was off again. More hills, mostly downhill for a mile or so and then some longer less steep ups and downs past several farmhouses. It really was a scenic course with open vistas in all directions – very different to the trail races through woods. And given the non-technical terrain one could actually look around and enjoy it! Though it wasn’t a level road surface by any means. I had made the comment Friday night after driving it that the road didn’t seem to slope off to the side very much. Yeah right – that would be the difference between driving and running the road - it was horrendous around some of the turns as it sloped several feet down to the edge with deep tracts of loose gravel! I was hoping my IT band would hold up and thankfully it did - no knee pain whatsoever.
The field had spread out quite a bit by now and I ran mostly by myself from around mile 12 through the end of Argyle Rd. Up ahead I could see one of the guys who I’d been over and back with earlier on - turned out to be Doug Smith from Des Moines who ended up finishing second. There were several long stretches here where you could see half a mile or more ahead so I could see he was catching two other runners. Of course, without seeing a race number (different colors) I didn’t know what race anyone was running so that actually helped to not think to much about ‘places’ this early in the race. I was really enjoying the race – it was still quite cool and the pace felt very comfortable. I was enjoying listening to music and was just generally having a good ole time out there by myself.
Another mile or so and the course hit a hard left with a lovely series of hills ahead. I figured the AS couldn’t be too far beyond so that helped to keep the spirits up as I continued at the same pace up the hills. Met a few bikers along here who offered great encouragement... upon seeing all of the cars at the top of the hill I expected to see the AS right there but we had to cross a grassy trail onto the Mickelson Trail and there it was. Jen Pierce was there to greet me which was very cool. Nothing like seeing a friendly face at that point! The folks here were extremely helpful as the guy took my water bottle to fill and I continued on to find my drop bag and grab a few gels and more electrolytes. I was planning to survey the AS table for some food as I thought we were headed back left of the AS but of course we were headed north so I downed a can of red bull from my drop bag and continued along. Quick pit stop at the bottom of the hill as I ducked behind a garbage bin to pee. There wasn’t much point going further off the trail as there was no cover anywhere! A half mile further there was a road crossing and Tom and Nancy were there – it was lovely to have such great support. There were a few people who’d left the AS around the same time as me up ahead and I figured I would try to keep Doug in my sights – though at this point I didn’t even know if he was a 50 or 100 mile runner. I had picked up the pace upon hitting the Mickelson Trail but wasn’t too concerned as I knew there were no significant climbs along here. I tried to keep it steady as we passed under route 89 on a slight downhill grade and then along a lovely flat stretch through a ranch. Before long we were coming down towards Lime Kiln Rd. AS at mile 20. I passed Doug just before the AS, stopped briefly to refill, a few grapes and pretzels and off again. 3:08 on the clock. I was very happy with that. I knew I’d raised the heart rate a little on the last section but I felt good and wanted to continue along at the same pace while on this trail. However, looking at my splits (I was wearing a simple enough Timex and hitting the split after every AS) I sped up some more along this section towards the turn around. It was after 9AM and getting quite a bit warmer with the sun beaming down but it wasn’t bothering me and I had plenty of water between the aid stations at this stage.
I met the lead 50K runner about ten minutes later (they started at 8AM running from their drop point just beyond the mile 70 AS to the finish) – I thought initially it was a 50M runner until I met a few more and realized they were all wearing orange numbers. I’d been expecting Wynn to be leading the 50M and sure enough he came along soon looking strong. 3:33 on my watch and probably just over 27 miles for him. I passed a few others along here and was meeting more 50K runners so it was a busy section of trail! Mostly flat terrain as the trail came close to the road and soon I’d arrived at Pringle AS at mile 24. I had a drop bag here but just refilled my water bottle and a drink of coke before heading off to the turnaround a mile up the trail. The people at the AS were very nice and friendly but I had to hide my impatience when I asked the guy for a second cup of coke as I was drinking the first and he waited until I’d finished to refill my cup – I guess he was being environmentally conscious while I was being time conscious! These folks are giving up their days and nights for us and I am very grateful for that but I will admit to inwardly rolling my eyes at the time...
I was fully expecting to see someone sitting at the mile 25 mark taking down numbers but no – they were using the honor system which I am sure worked just fine. And it wouldn’t have been a very nice job sitting in the open under a now very hot sun. 3:49 at the turnaround. Perfect. Heading back towards the AS it was fun seeing who was a 50M or 100M runner looking at the different numbers. I met Doug and then Matt Long as well as several 100 milers that I’d been running with earlier. And then back at Pringle again. Went straight to my drop bag to get my second water bottle, a few gels, drank my can of red bull and off I went. The water in the bottle was pretty warm but I decided not to waste the time refilling it. I’d been taking a gel and a few electrolytes every 5 miles or so and was putting a nuun tab in my water bottle. I decided to stick with just water in the second bottle. Almost immediately I was finding the two water bottles awkward. I guess it's been a long time since I’ve carried two in a race. I was contemplating dropping one at Lime Kiln until I reached it and realized I’d finished them both – and that was just a 4 mile section! It seemed to take no length to get back here and indeed from my splits I was averaging 7:26 pace. It didn’t feel like I was running that fast I was just enjoying myself meeting so many familiar races and happy to be on the way home. I was very impressed by the energy of the 100 milers who knew they had many hours of intense heat ahead of them. Julie Berg was full of beans when I met her about a mile from the AS and then Pierre and somewhere along here Steve Quick also. Steve was slightly less full of beans.
30 miles down. 20 to go. Boy did it feel good. But I knew the next 10 were probably going to be the hardest. Refilled both water bottles at Lime Kiln AS, drank lots of coke, took some grapes and off I went. Tom was there also, waiting for Alicia whom I met a few minutes up the trail. I continued to meet runners probably all the way to Argyle AS and came across several 50K runners also – many of them out there for the first time. I slowed down a bit on this section noticing the uphill grade that had seemed flat on the outward journey. Although a few minutes of this section were dedicated to a longer than desired bio break… overall my stomach was doing ok but it sure felt better after that. Up the hill and I was back at Argyle Rd AS. I declined the offer of a seat in the shade – things to do, races to finish – and instead grabbed a few more gels, a pack of clif bloks, downed another red bull – got my water bottles refilled - and off I went to face the hills for round number 2. Knowing they wouldn’t be any kinder in the opposite direction I settled into a nice pace and tried to keep things loose. 5:07 on the clock. 16.6 miles to go. This was not going to be easy but I was more determined than ever to run each and every hill! I had left two 50K runners at the AS and came across a few others over the next few miles. Most were taking it pretty easy given that it was now well in the 80’s and there wasn’t much of a break from the hills. There was a slight breeze in places which felt good but given how open the entire course is there was no escaping the sun. The course flattened out a bit after the mile 15 sign as it meandered back through farmland. The road was quiet with only a random car passing by and thankfully most of them were pretty good and slowed to a crawl so that the dust wouldn’t be so bad. My iPod continued to shuffle through a random mix of stuff – The White Stripes, Black Eyed Peas, Moby, Nirvana, U2 and much more – Christina Aguilera actually was one of the artists I wasn't sure about putting on there but her music ended up being great for a few of the hills! Moby's "Honey" comes to mind as one of my fav songs for running - the only problem with the shuffle is that you can't select the songs you want to listen to so I was thinking I'll have to load some songs several times so that the shuffle will find them over again... I suppose it's impossible to know if it really makes a difference in terms of pace but it certainly kept me entertained. The other entertainment on the course came from the grasshoppers – man they were everywhere! It was like a circus watching them come alive and hop out of the way every step you took.
Around a turn a few miles from Morph AS and I saw a runner stopped to stretch – I assumed it was a 50K runner until I was right beside him and realized it was Wynn. I was sort of gone by him before I even thought to ask if he was ok. I felt bad about that but I knew he wasn’t injured just likely cramping from the heat. He was not able to get fluids into his system and ended up dropping at the next AS. I was pretty sure there was another 50M runner ahead of me as I knew I had met another guy before the turnaround but at Morph AS they told me I was in first place. I wasn’t totally convinced but figured I wasn’t going to worry about it. I was more concerned with trying to keep up this pace and continue to feel strong towards the end.
Took a few more grapes here and ice and water in both bottles. Dropped a nuun tab in one and off I went. There’d been some tough uphill to get to the AS but now some sweet downhill around a few turns and past the 10 mile mark. 6:05. At this stage the reality of going well under 8 was starting to crystallize in my mind. 10 miles – even if I slowed down some I could do that in 90 minutes. Just keep it up. One step at a time, one mile at a time. One 50K runner at a time. Yes, it was definitely an incentive seeing people ahead. I like this race format! More hills, some short with a downhill immediately afterwards, some long, winding around corners and continuing to climb. Without any real landmarks it was impossible to remember much from the way out that morning but I knew that the few miles coming up to the meadow section at 5 miles to go were downhill so I figured I was getting close to the end of the hills. Passed two girls along here – I felt a little bad running up the hill past them but I chatted to them at the finish and had fun with them - one wanted my training plan and the other just wanted my legs. That’s about as good a compliment as I can get I reckon! Before long it was time to finally say goodbye to the hills as we descended the last of them along Argyle Rd. I was keeping a pretty steady pace knowing there was still over 5 miles to go and not wanting to completely trash my legs on the downhill. Mile 95 – ahh it felt good even if it was just a mere 45 for me - I can’t imagine how good it must have been several hours later for the 100 milers!
Turned into the meadow – a zillion butterflies dancing in the wind as the trail twisted around, up a short hill, past another 50K runner and before long I was back at Coldbrook AS with around 6:55 on the clock. As they were filling my water bottles I heard one of the ladies on the radio say Wynn’s name so I asked if he was ok – which was when I heard he had dropped at Morph. I asked if there was anyone ahead of me in the 50 miler – got a few quizzical looks as they looked my number again and then they said there were 2 guys ahead and one for sure was a 50K runner. Off I went with a few grapes in my hand. Shortly after I managed to take one more gel. I didn’t feel one bit like it but figured I had at least 35 mins to go and it may just help with a final kick. This section had taken me close to 40 mins coming out so I was figuring it was possibly a bit longer than 4 miles but I knew once I got over the big hill on the gravel road it would be all downhill or flat. I saw one of the runners ahead of me towards the top of that hill and passed him just at the crest. The course marking was just fine along here as we got to the edge of town but several times I thought I had gone wrong as it didn’t seem at all familiar from the morning. I had to laugh when as I was crossing a concrete bridge in the residential area this elderly couple pulled up beside me to ask if I was one of the runners that had left town that morning – I said yes and kept moving – probably at a 7:30 pace or so along here – they were about to ask something else so I hope they didn’t think I was rude for not stopping! I remembered this intersection now turning right and then the road veered left and around by “Evan’s Plunge” – it was kind of odd running along the footpaths here, onto the trail by the river and across the parking lot where some stalls were set up – one of the guys cheered which was cool as I am sure most people were wondering what on earth I was doing. Then under the bridge – it has taken 11 minutes to get here on the way out – I really had been taking it easy! It was 7:20 on the clock and I knew I had to be close. The school bus was coming along behind me and I figured it was from the race as the 50K runners had taken a bus to the start that morning – I didn’t realize it was actually Jerry driving it! I really wanted to be done at this stage – I was so hoping to get under 7:30 but didn’t think I could be that close... realized I was listening to Dreams by Gabrielle's - “You know you gotta be strong... Dreams can come true..." - seriously! 7:24 something on the clock... and then the Dairy Queen sign up ahead!!! Think the Citgo sign at Boston times one billion. Across the road, onto the bike path behind the hotel, up the final short hill and down to the finish line!! Boy was I happy to be done. Great cheering from the ladies seated at the finish line table checking numbers and recording times. It took a few moments for them to realize I was a 50M finisher not a 50K – and then more cheering!!
I was so thrilled to have finished in that time. Of course it was sweet to hear for sure that the guy in front was a 50K runner but mostly I was just really pleased that my race had gone exactly to plan. I will write another post soon on hot yoga but let me just say I know it was the difference for me out there in terms of dealing with the heat. I’ve been taking two or three 90 minute classes a week for the past 2 months (since Grandma’s not-fun-run in the sun). I knew it was getting hotter and the sun sure felt warm but honestly I can’t say it affected me at all. I did run out of water between Argyle and Morph and was very thirsty for the rest of the day but not dehydrated at all. Having said that I know that I didn’t have to deal with the hottest part of the day – from a look at the weather report for the day the temperature was just hitting the 90’s for the last hour I was out there and it continued to climb to 95F in the late afternoon.
There was a fun group of ladies handling the finish line including Jerry’s wife Elaine. After I caught my breath I chatted for a bit and heard an accent that seemed more like mine than a South Dakotan – it turns out the lady was from Aberdeen in Scotland and her boyfriend was running the 100 miler! They’d travelled over for the race and a vacation. Tom Rowe’s wife (Mary? – I know I should remember) was also helping out and asked if I was ranked like Nikki Kimball etc? I laughed as I said noooooo... She was telling me later how they had moved from Montana to Minnesota a few years ago and it occurs to me now that Nikki K lives in Bozeman so I wonder if they know her. I bet that girl could smoke the Lean Horse course in under 6:30 never mind 7:30.
The 50M race at this event is not super competitive. Not to take anything away from the competition and certainly the times are reflective of the tough conditions. But I think it is fair to say that looking at the 100M times on this course, there is certainly the potential for much faster 50M times. Just need to convince some more runners to turn around at the 25M mark!
Overall I really enjoyed this race. It was well organized and the race start/finish area was very well set up even if it meant a few miles on pavement. It is certainly a departure from most trail races in terms of terrain but the combination of rolling hills and heat make it a tough one. At the same time it is extremely runnable so it’s hard not to rank it easier than most. For the most part the AS were very good - helpful, friendly volunteers and plenty of food/drink – though I did hear about one place running out of ice or water. Also, I was a bit surprised to hear there were no s-caps available - just raw salt. I suppose there is the cost to consider but given the conditions I think they probably should be available. Not that as runners we shouldn’t always be self-sufficient but it’s easy to forget to pick something up from a drop bag where you’re out there several hours. I was also thinking that another AS along Argyle Rd would be a good idea. It’s so accessible that it would be pretty easy to do. Even an unmanned water station would be helpful as I am sure many runners were out of water by the time they got to mile 40/90.
After sitting around chatting to the ladies at the finish line and watching a few 50K finishers come in – and after getting some help taking my shoes off as my hip flexors were cramping every time I reached down! - I headed down to the river to soak for a bit. It wasn’t exactly an ice bath but felt good all the same. Then back over to the hotel to shower. Back to the finish line where I helped out for a bit recording finishing times. It was fun chatting to the 50M runners that I’d been on the course with earlier. One of the guys who I remembered running alongside for several miles asked if I’d ran every hill. “I figured as much” was the response when I confirmed his suspicions! I had no appetite for about two hours after finishing but it later came back with a vengeance as I enjoyed several turkey sandwiches and more than a few chocolate walnut brownies while sitting in the shade chatting with Jen Pierce - and later Kel who made a great attempt at her first 50M on a tough day - as we watched the finishers come in. Zach finished with a few others beside him and then Eric a little later. They both suffered a bit from the heat but ran smart to make it through and are well ready for the 100 at Sawtooth.
Hours later we headed back out to see Julie and Alicia. On the drive out we went very slowly along Argyle Rd - stopped to give one 50 miler a spare headlamp I had in the car as it was after 9PM and he had a few miles to go yet. Checked on 2 other 50M runners who were stopped to get their headlamps out of their backpacks - they had just heard a rattlesnake! We reversed the car a few meters to give them a chance to go by and could hear the friendly rattle in the ditch along the roadside... boy, I would not want to be out there alone and hearing that even if they tend to mind their own business. Soon after we met the lead 100M - Akos Konya - he was running downhill at the time with probably 6 miles to go. Amazing runner.
We got to the mile 70 AS but had missed Julie and learned from Lynn Saari who was crewing for Daryl that Alicia had called it a day at mile 60. John Taylor came in as we were there – happy out as usual! We came back to Pringle at mile 76 and waited for Julie there. We made ourselves useful grabbing drop bags for runners as they came in and I ended up making turkey sandwiches as well! Julie came along full of energy still and took a few minutes to put some vaseline on her feet and grab a few gels. She had just left when Tom, Nancy and Alicia came along. We all headed up the road to Lime Kiln AS at mile 80 to wait for her there. The folks at this AS were very well organized – French press coffee no less! I got food for a few runners as they came in and then along came Julie. Quick stop for her and she headed off with 20 miles to go. We calculated that she would probably finish around 23 hours so when we got back to the hotel decided to set the alarms for 4:30AM. And we missed her finish!! Super star that she is came in at 22:36 on the clock – way to PR Julie! Back to bed for a few hours and up at 7:30AM to get ready to leave. We had an early flight back so unfortunately couldn’t stay around to watch everyone finish and for the awards. But Jerry had given me a very nice plaque Saturday afternoon.
Congrats to all who raced and a heartfelt thank you to Jerry, Elaine and all of the volunteers and supporters for a wonderful weekend in Hot Springs, South Dakota!
A few stats for anyone interested -
First half 3:49:49 0:09:12
Last half 3:36:57 0:08:41
Overall Pace: 0:08:56