Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Black Hills 100K

I ran this race several weeks ago (June 26) and started the report almost immediately - but got a little side-tracked since. Which means there are a few more race reports to follow!

Black Hills 100K was a tough race for me. There's a simple enough reason for that - my training wasn't what it should be to really race the way I know I am capable of. But, now that some time has passed since the race and I've (sort of) accepted that training is down the list of priorities this year, you will be saved from the worst of my whining.

The Black Hills and Badlands areas of South Dakota are among my favourite places. I first visited this area in 2006 with my sisters who were on holidays from Ireland. It was May so while we got nice weather it was quiet and we had many of the tourist attractions to ourselves. That was fine until we hit Wyoming and realized that Yellowstone was mostly still under snow! Duh. I was back in the area in 2009 for the Leanhorse 50M race. The temperatures were about 50 degrees hotter for that trip. While I had a blast at Leanhorse, I was thrilled to hear of this new ultra run almost entirely on the Centennial Trail. So with my sister and family visiting from Australia, we decided to make the long drive out there breaking up the journey with Thursday night in Mitchell. I love the Corn Palace! What a crazy unique piece of work. My niece Ella who is almost 8 was pretty excited too. It made up for the fact that so far South Dakota was "boringer" than Minnesota. Then Friday morning we hit the Badlands National Park. This is the type of place I could never see enough of. The landscape makes me feel alive and energized in the same way that mountains and oceans do. Nature at it's very best, reminding us who is in charge.

We arrived in Sturgis around 4pm Friday afternoon, in time for the close of the pre-race meeting. In time for the Q&A session. In time to wonder if we'd heard the guy right when he asked, after hearing of the several creek crossings along the way, would it be okay to leave your wet running shoes along the trail if you needed to change them. Who knew people carried dry shows in their hydration packs? The really scary thing - Adam and Bill reported seeing a pair of running shoes hanging from a tree. I appreciated the race directors doing their part to address every query (without a trace of cynicism) but I really wanted to raise a hand when Jerry indicated the sweeps would be coming through and would pick up race trash along the way including any discarded running shoes. NO! Do NOT encourage runners to think its okay to leave trash on the trail. Never mind running shoes.

It was great to see the large contingent of Minnesota runners in attendance. Adam Schwartz-Lowe, Paul Holovnia and Daryl Saari running the 100M, Brian Peterson, John Horns and Shelly Groenke running the 100K along with myself and Chris, and Wendy Neupauer and Kevin Johnson running the 50 mile race. During the race I met several other Minnesotans who were running their first 100 mile race in aid of Admission Possible
. We picked up our race numbers and gear bags. Each runner got a black drawstring bag with a few goodies, a white non-technical t-shirt and a black technical long sleeve finisher’s shirt with the race logo on the front and race distance on the sleeve. We headed to the hotel, got checked in and organized our drop bags which needed to be left back to the community center by 7pm. Once that was all sorted we enjoyed the pre-race dinner of pasta, salad, and a beer. Perfect! Until the thunderstorm sent us all running inside... a pretty typical occurrence this time of year and we knew the forecast was similar for race day. Hot and sunny with likely thunderstorms in the evening. The one Friday night had downed powerlines so that half of Sturgis was blacked out. Luckily we didn't need any last minute supplies as most of the stores had to close.

After a decent sleep of around 6 hours, we were awake at 4:30am and ready for action. Had breakfast and headed down to the race start at Woodle Field about a mile from the hotel. The race had a shuttle from the hotel but we decided to drive so the car would there at the finish. Fiona and Ella also came down to watch the start. Ella was most impressed with the dude in a pink tutu. Chatted with the MN gang and got ready to run. We started on the track - so about 30 seconds in we could see Brian racing down the straight on the other side. The first few miles of the race went by easily. After a short jaunt on the bike path we were soon on the Centennial Trail. There were some lovely views of open farmland and interesting looking hills to the west. I ran mostly with Chris and we chatted to runners around us. Soon after I caught up with Paul and we ran together for a few miles, quickly grabbing a cup of water at the first aid station at mile 5 (Alkali Creek). Before long we were in the woods and for the next several hours spent most of our time among the trees occasionally popping out on a ridge with some beautiful views of the canyons to the east and the Hills to the west. Lots of switchbacks here and every so often I could see Adam a few minutes ahead. We continued the long haul up the “Bulldog” and eventually topped out and started a steeper descent into the water-only stop at around mile 10. Despite it being hot right from the start of the race I decided to just take a drink of water and not fill my pack. Probably okay this early in the race as I’d started out well hydrated but I did run out of water later in the day and really should have taken in more than 1 liter for the first 17 miles.

The trail was pretty rocky but the NB 101's held up just fine. I soon realized I was running behind the AP guys from MN and chatted to them for the next few miles. We rolled into Elk Creek aid station (mile 17) at 9:15. I wasn't wearing a watch so was a little disappointed as I'd hoped to be here by 9am. But I was delighted to see my sister and family there before they headed off for some sightseeing in the Black Hills. Chatted to them, got some water and fruit, and off I went. Before long we reached the first of 5 knee-deep rushing-water crossings within a one mile stretch. Thankfully all crossings were roped. The cool water felt awesome. And the light shoes dried quickly. In fact, my only complaint about the shoes all day long was that they seemed to collect quite a lot of mud. This got to be frustrating after a while as it didn't easily fall off by kicking them off the side of a rock. The next section was appropriately titled The Jungle in the course description - thick lush forest and a mostly soft trail. And then the climbing started again as we headed up on not very steep but somewhat technical singletrack. Passed by the Crooked Tree (see race logo) and a few miles later another water-only stop at mile 22 where both Chris and Ryan (race directors) were hanging out. I was feeling pretty good though I had thought this was mile 23 so upon hearing 7 miles to Dalton Lake I was again a little disappointed. But I didn’t ask the time. A comment on the aid stations - for the 50 mile and 100k race the distances between aid were fine but I think for any 100 milers without a pacer the return journey would have been made easier with supported aid stations (as opposed to unmanned water-only) at mile 78 and 90.

Off I went climbing some more and then a mix of up and down as I got closer to Dalton Lake. I knew there was a steep climb immediately after the AS to the 100k turnaround point so I figured I’d be walking that and tried to let loose on these downhills. I had no idea where I was in relation to other runners but was expecting to see the front runners coming back soon. Earlier I’d met maybe 5 or 6 of the 50 mile runners after they had turned around. The terrain along here was very forgiving despite the climbs, lots of nice soft pine needle trail. Anyone know of a 50 mile or 100k race that is 100% on soft pine needle trail? I want to run it! I arrived in sunny Dalton Lake AS at mile 29 and passed through fairly quickly knowing I’d be back before long. This was a busy spot and it was thrilling to hear all the cheering after spending the past few hours alone on the trail. Paul’s family were here and also Bill who was crewing for Adam. As I was leaving the AS I realized John Horns was going through in the other direction, leading the 100k – awesome (and not surprising) to see him having a great race! Within a minute of heading out on the trail I was back in the woods and soon met Brian – he didn’t seem to be having a great day. It was deceivingly hot and humid out there. At least for me, I didn’t realize I wasn’t drinking enough or taking enough salt until it was too late. But more on that later…

The first part of the climb to the turnaround was lovely, winding up through tall trees. I knew I would enjoy this coming back down. But the mile on the jeep trail, with huge muddy floods, meeting ATVs… well, that was less than fun! I was happy to see the sign and glad to see that the 100 mile course turned off into the woods at this point. I turned around and headed for home. I met Paul a few minutes later who looked pretty happy at that point but ended up calling it a day at the 50 mile mark. When I got back to Dalton Lake Chris was there having arrived a little while earlier and being attended to by Lynn (angel) Saari. It was great to see them both! I wasn’t too happy though to hear that it was 12:45pm (6am start). Darn, there goes my 12 hour goal. Hah, 12 hours. Boy did I underestimate this course and overestimate my fitness. I chatted for a minute, refilled my water, grabbed a few gels, and off I went. Just before arriving back into that AS I’d met Shelly Groenke who as it turned out would be the only other female finished in the 100k. I was meeting runners for the next few hours. Even a few 50 milers after getting past the 25 miles to go mark. Those poor souls were having a tough day.

The next part of the return journey was relatively uneventful. Quite a bit of climbing for the first few miles and then more rolling. I met Daryl along here. I think this was the most scenic part of the course and was actually prettier on the way back as you could get better views of the canyons through the trees. I felt like I was doing okay but knew that I was walking more hills that I should have been. There was a kid at the water stop at 22 miles to go who told me it was 2:20pm. Darn. 13 hours was my goal at this point but that was beginning to slip away too. I passed by the Crooked Tree a few miles later – this was a landmark the race booklet had pointed out – I was surprised that I had managed to notice it in both directions. Around this time things were getting progressively worse. And soon it was a case of run a little, want to throw up, walk, get frustrated, wonder what I am doing here, run a little more, feel nauseous, drink water, try to eat a gel, ick, get more frustrated. Yes, it was THAT much fun! Still, it was beautiful. I was doing what I love. I knew that at some point I’d be glad for this day even if not right now. I think back and try to determine which came first – the mental frustration that I was behind my goal pace or the physical tiredness in my legs? Of course, as I sit here writing this report weeks after the race it’s hard to feel that tiredness. Despite all the races I do, it’s hard to imagine that feeling in your legs when you’re rested and relaxed. The mental frustration though, I can recall that easily! In the end I guess it was a bit of both and ultimately it was my stomach that slowed me down the most. Which is so unusual for me, I can’t recall the last time I had an upset stomach during a race. Probably Afton 2007 when myself, Kami and Pam ran together and ate all around us at every opportunity.

After the water-crossings, where I had a nice soak for a few minutes, I made it back to Elk Creek AS at 3:45pm. 17 miles to go. The girls here were friendly and helpful and tried to be encouraging despite my complaints! There was plenty of food but nothing really appealed to me. I filled up water knowing I should be drinking more and off I went. Met a few mountain bikers along the next section but other than that the trail was pretty quiet. I was walking quite a bit and swinging between happiness to have this solitude and time to think and feeling about as pissed off as I ever have during a race. Ah, the highs and lows of ultrarunning. There was no way I was getting home in the same or close to what it had taken me to get to mile 17 (3:15), so 14 hours was now my goal! I could have made it 13:30 but I didn’t think it was worth the hassle of having to re-calibrate again at the next aid station. There was some downhill towards the last water-only stop at 10 miles to go so I tried to get myself running more again but my stomach wasn’t having any of it. But it was a pretty nice section of the course and tried to use that to stay positive – a little bit of jungle here too along with some rocky terrain, surrounded by dense forest.

I stopped to refill water and carried on towards the last aid station. About a mile before the water stop I’d passed a guy and asked him the time. 5:15pm. It wasn’t getting any better was it? Still, I was getting closer with every step. The next section was pretty uneventful. Had to climb back up the steep side of Bulldog and then wind down through the trees on the other side. I was starting to feel like running again here and could definitely smell the finish line. I was also starting to feel bad about how long my sister and family were going to be waiting around the finish line! It was probably 6pm now and they’d be expecting me any minute… Oh well, I just needed to keep putting one foot in front of the other. After emerging from the trees into the open meadows I could hear I-90 in the distance. Ah, the sweet sound of t r a f f i c ! I was sooooo looking forward to the last aid station. I managed to keep running for what felt like a whole mile along here and soon enough was crossing the creek and going through the underpass. I hadn’t eaten much for hours but when I saw the potatoes I knew they would do the trick! I’d been calculating in my head that if I arrived here before 7pm I could make myself finish in an hour. I asked the time and was thrilled to hear 6:45pm! I also asked how the guys ahead were doing and the lady wasn’t there long so she’d only seen Brian whom she didn’t think looked great. I felt bad for him but I’ll admit it did help hearing that a strong a runner as Brian was also having a tough race here. After a handful of potatoes and some coke I headed off feeling pretty good about the next five miles. Of course, I knew there was a tough climb within the first mile so I was a bit concerned that would eat into my ‘buffer’ but all I could do was try at this point. My God did those spuds help – I was power-hiking like you wouldn’t believe. The climb was steep and there was another tough one about a mile later but I was running what I could in between. I passed a 50 miler and he told me it was 7:20pm. I figured about 3 miles to go, maybe a little more. I was smiling now. The next few miles felt pretty good. I was so happy to be running again and made a mental note to make sure my crew had potatoes for me at Leadville! About 20 minutes later I met a lady who had walked out from the finish to meet a runner and she told me I would be out of the woods soon so I knew the paved section wasn’t far after that. I got a little lost for a few minutes as I hit the paved section. The light was fading a little and it looked like storms were on their way. I found the ribbons again and I was soon on the bike path chasing down that finish line. There were a few other 50 mile runners along here and soon the track was in view. My sister and family were there cheering for me which was awesome. My niece Ella even ran on the track with me. Well, okay, behind me. I was pretty determined to finish in under 14 hours and couldn’t see the clock so I left poor Ella in the dust. I really must remember not to do that again – it doesn’t make for good finish line photos :)

Co-RD Chris was at the finish line - all I could manage was “you should have told us it was going to be that tough!” – yeah, I sounded like a wimp. I was very happy to be done. John Horns ran an awesome race in 11:18 to win the 100K and Brian finished in 12:37. Several hours later, Adam would win the 100M race in a stellar time of 23:01 and is now the proud owner of a buffalo skull. Meanwhile, the sky was getting darker and it was clear that storms were on the way. Myself and Ella headed back out to the Alkali Creek AS with a headlamp for Chris and luckily his Gortex shell was also in the Jeep. The storm hit the AS just after we got there... severe thunder and lightening with heavy rain and hail. Poor Ella didn’t know what to think. All I could think about was that wide open field I had crossed earlier to get to the AS. Chris and Gregg from Wyoming arrived a little while later. AS it turned out the storm wasn't the scariest part of his journey (check out Chris' race report for all the details!). Myself and Ella headed back for town and as soon as we got on the highway had to pull over, the hail was so heavy. Scary stuff. I thought the windshield was going to crack. Think how painful it was for all the runners caught in it! Chris and Gregg pressed on and we watched them finish together on the track just before midnight. The other 100k runners would follow over the next few hours and then the 100M finishers - way to tough it out! 17 finishers in the 100K and 32 in the 100M - I think around a 50% finish rate for both races. Indeed, this race was not to be taken for granted.

Overall, despite not being all that happy with my own race, it was a great event and I've no doubt it will be even better next year. If you like running in the woods on semi-technical trail with lots of climbing, in a beautiful part of the country, then this race may just be for you. The race directors did a great job planning the course and as the race grows I can see the finish area being a perfect place for a large post-race party. I found most of the aid stations to be well-stocked with friendly volunteers. The Dalton Lake AS in particular had a really great atmosphere. The course was very well marked. And let’s be honest, there is nothing better than an easily accessible long trail race that is run almost entirely on trail!

Below are some photos from the trip and the race. There are many more excellent photos taken by Random Photography on the Action Sports Images website.