Black Hills 100
100 miles is no joke, and much, much further both mentally and physically than my previous 50 mile and 100k ultra distances. I was leaving the turn-around point around midnight at Silver City after just vomiting, and staring down a dark night on the Centennial Trail and very likely more hours ahead of me than I’ve ever put in on a trail despite having already run 50 miles today. Holy shit. What?! Okay...Just keep moving forward...Let’s do this!...somehow...?!
"Ultra running is a brutal sport; I’ve never seen so much determination and so many smiles in spite of extreme fatigue, aches, pain, vomit and other struggles most people would avoid at all costs. These athletes are willing to face these challenges, plus more, and push through, just to know they can. It is inspiring to say the least.” -Kelly Dahl (crew chief, wife, and kid-wrangler)
2018 would be my year to run my first 100 mile race. I'm in my early 40s now, and I’ve been running for four years and running ultras for three years, always with the desire to run 100s. I missed out on both the Superior 100 lottery and the Georgia Death Race lottery, so I was scrambling to anchor my 2018 race calendar. We found Black Hills 100 in SD that was right after school got out and decided to book it and make a family vacation out of it. I’d heard Black Hills was an old school, low key ultra with relentless hills either going up or down 18,000+ feet of climbing over the course of 100 miles.
I planned to start my training for Black Hills at the beginning, but missed my favorite local New Years race (Yankee Springs Winter Challenge 50 mile) because of what felt like a possible stress fracture brewing in my left foot. I decided to defer the race and start the year healthy instead of racing and making things worse. The winter was cold, but I was able to keep up my mileage throughout the winter months and pretty happy with my training until April.
Out of nowhere I had sudden electric pain deep in my right butt with every step. Long story short, I had a flair up of Piriformis Syndrome, and instead of starting to peak my miles 12 weeks out from the race, I was in PT over 3 weeks of zero miles just hoping I could tow the line in SD. Pulling out of the race wasn’t an option, we had already booked a family vacation around it that was going to happen regardless.
When I started running again in the beginning of May with only 8 weeks left, I was immediately discouraged trying to rebuild fitness and endurance in what was now a hot, humid spring. The heat drained me, and aching piriformis kept me from being able to run anything hard for fear it would knot up again. However after a couple weeks of consistent running again things started to turn around and I started feeling good again.
Three weeks out from Black Hills I had a local trail double marathon at Yankee Springs, which went really well. I used it as a final long training run and took things pretty easy. I felt strong all day and finished feeling great, which gave me a lot of confidence going into the final days before Black Hills.
I’d never been to South Dakota before and It was fun to drive across country and watch the landscape change as we moved west. Like I said, we made a family trip out of it and Kelly and the kids would be crewing me during the day and then heading to bed after the turnaround. We rented a mountain top cabin outside of Lead, SD just outside of the Start/Finish in Sturgis. The day before the race we went to packet pickup and dropped off my three drop bags. We then drove the course so Kelly and the kids would be know where they were going and so we could see more of the surrounding area. The course is pretty easy to crew. There is a road that pretty much parallels the course for crews to follow. There are aid stations between the start and turnaround, two of which are remote and inaccessible to crew plus the additional aid station at the turnaround in Silver City.
With a 10AM race start time, I was able to get a full night sleep, which was a bit of a luxury compared to a lot of early morning start times. We arrived about 45 minutes before the start, got checked in and got my final things ready to go. A few minutes before 10AM, the RD’s said a few casual words and before I knew it, without much fanfare we were off.
The first couple miles are on a paved path working our way out of town until we cross the road and hit the trails.
The first 7 miles were nice and easy. The terrain was mild and the conversations were flowing. I struggled a little with pace at the start. I was solidly in the mid-pack over the miles out of town, but when we hit the first hills I wanted to be power-hiking instead of leisurely walking up the hills. When we had the opportunity, a few of us made some passes and moved into the open space. I find it difficult to “run your own race” when everything narrows to a conga line, but tried to remember that we were only 3 miles into a 100 mile race and there would be plenty of time to find my own space in the hours to come. There would be times when I would long for other people’s company after upcoming hours of solitude. I latched onto a group of runners and listened to their stories of previous races as we passed the miles to the first aid station.
The first aid station (Alkali Creek) was a bit hectic and cramped, I expected it to be by the parking lot, but it was right on the trail and there wasn’t much room for the line of runners coming in. I tried to find Kelly and the kids and see what I could grab from the table. I didn’t stay long, because I wanted to take some space and not get caught in the ongoing conga line of runners.
I saw Kelly and the kids briefly, and I wouldn’t see them again for another 15 miles or so, because the next aid station (Bulldog) was remote and not crew accessible.
The next several miles were uneventful. The rain started coming down and I hooked up with another group of runners after a few miles. The skies never opened up, but there was a steady rain coming down most of the way from Alkali through Bulldog to Elk Creek where I would see my crew again.
I was finding my little DIY laminated elevation chart invaluable as an estimation gauge of what type of terrain I had to cover between aid stations. I hindsight, I wish I had added mile estimations between aid stations.
When we arrived at Elk Creek, I was supposed to have a drop bag waiting for me. The aid station was about 3/4 of a mile up the trail from where the crew access point was. I wasn’t sure where Kelly would be, but figured they stayed down by the car at the crew access point because of the ongoing rain. I looked around and didn’t see any drop bags. I pulled out my elevation chart to check where we were, then asked someone, “Are we at Elk Creek right now?” “Yes” came the reply. “Where are the drop bags?” I asked. “They aren’t here yet. Sorry” was the disheartening response.
Okay, time to recalibrate. The aid station was a little confusion. I heard someone else ask, “Which of these trucks is okay to eat out of?” as the aid station consisted of some food in the back of a couple of SUVs. It was unclear if this was the official aid station or someone’s personal crew vehicles. I decided to move on. I didn’t have anything vital in this drop bag, just extra nutrition, which I was hoping to get from Kelly at the crew access point just up the trail.
I ran down to the road crossing trying to shake off the missing dropbags and looking forward to seeing Kelly and the kids and resupplying my nutrition from the extra they had. The plan was to rely solely on the dropbags and let Kelly and the kids spectate (instead of crewing), but it look like the unexpected happen. Surprise, surprise. ;)
When I burst off the trail onto the road crossing, it was a bit of a mess. We had been here the day before and knew it would be rough. There was no parking at the trailhead and with all the rain, the already rutted road was a mess and literally a stream. I scanned the crowd of cars and people...and...nothing. No Kelly. No kids. No Subaru. Nothing. Shit! Do I go back the 3/4 miles to the aid station? No, I can't do that right now. Do I wait? No. I started running up the road past the road crossing to check the parked cars, maybe they are parked around the bend and I still in the car because of the rain. I knew I was a little early coming into the aid station and they might not be expecting me yet. I reached the top of the hill and peered around the bend. No more parked cars. No Subaru. No crew. I started back down to the trailhead and started up the other direction. About halfway up the hill, I flagged down a passing car to ask if they had passed a Subaru with woman and two kids in it. Just as they were slowing down and rolling down their window, I saw Kelly coming around the bend ahead. I waived the car on and headed up towards my family.
I was a little frantic, but Kelly calmed me down and wouldn't let me leave without nutrition. She ran back up to the car to get what I needed, while I headed back down to the trail head to clean some junk out of my shoes before hitting the trail again. I loaded up on nutrition, said goodbye and headed down the trail for the 5 river crossings on the next section. I wouldn't see my family/crew again until Dalton Lake around mile 30.
I ran the next two sections to Crooked Tree and Dalton Lake mostly by myself. Each section between aid stations is basically a major climb and descent. I rolled into Dalton Lake with a handful of other runners. The rain was letting up by now, but it was unclear what the rest of the day would hold.
At Dalton Lake I was feeling pretty good. I changed socks after the river crossings, but my shoes (Altra Superior 3.5) were feeling good and I didn't want to change them. Not knowing exactly when I would be coming through, I picked up my headlamp hear even though sunset is still several hours away.
Update from Kelly
Leaving Dalton Lake is a big climb up to where the Centennial Trail switches from single track to two-track jeep road. I had been warned by the RD that this section would likely be a mudfest after the rain and he wasn't kidding. The mud was thick and sticky and there was barely any level ground because of the climb and the rutted out two-track. If your foot wasn't flat when you put your weight on it, it would slide right out from under you. I learned this lesson early and only once. My foot was off-camber in one of the wheel ruts and it slipped out from under me. I went down. My handheld bottle was now covered in thick sticky mud. I was a little more careful with my foot placement from here on out.
It was slow going, but fun in a sick sort of way. I was trying to move as efficiently through the mud as possible without burning myself out. Once you are near the top there is a cool boulder section that you go through before the summit.
Going down the other side was just as muddy and not much easier than going up, but at least you could move a little more quickly. As I neared the road, I was excited to see Kelly and the kids at Nemo aid station.
Earlier in the day before we arrived at Nemo, they had hail, which explained all the piles of hail along the trail around Nemo.
I headed out of Nemo chomping on some potatoes, not looking forward to another section of muddy jeep road. To my pleasant surprise this section of two-track looked better maintained and a relatively recent addition of some gravel seemed to help it drain better and hold up to the rain.
The climb wasn't bad, but I was trying to take it easy, realizing I was only 50k into a 100 mile race. Towards the top of the climb is where things started to get interesting. The light was starting to get long as the sun was getting lowing in the western sky. Over the course of the climb I heard an increasing number of animal vocalizations, not knowing exactly what they were. One of my biggest (albeit relatively irrational) fears was having some sort of wildlife encounter that went badly, think bear or mountain lion. I'll tell you this now, although Kelly didn't tell me until after the race for which I was thankful. While they were waiting for me in Nemo (the aid station I just came through) they were chatting with an old local drinking a beer who said he recently came across two mountain lions in the area, a juvenile and adult, the juvenile weighing at least 140 lbs. I'm so glad I didn't have this information during the race.
Anyway, I rounded a bend towards the top and came across the unexpected, a herd of cows coming at me on the trail. There was a bit of a clearing to the right side of the trail that it looked like they were working themselves towards. Some of them were grazing and some were staring right at me. As silly as it sounds now, I didn't feel comfortable going right up to them and pushing them out of my way. I stopped in my tracks and waited for a bit to see where they went. Then I ran back down the trail a bit hoping someone else would come up behind me and we could get past them together. No such luck. After a few minutes, I decided to inch my way forward and see if I could get past them without spooking any of them. After a few tense moments, I was past the herd of trail cows and moving towards Pilot's Knob. I knew I was getting close when I started seeing kids playing on the trail. They were playing in the mud and gloriously happy. They told me it wasn't far and I should try the quesadillas.
I rolled into Pilot's Knob as the sun was going down, and I should have listened to those kids about the quesadillas. I wouldn't make this mistake on the way back. Kelly and the kids were there waiting for me. I started getting cold and shaking as I was refilling nutrition, getting my headlamp on and putting on arm sleeves. After all the wardrobe changes and refilling happened, Kelly got me out of the aid station and moving forward.
By the time I left Pilot Knob aid station, my headlamp was on and darkness was coming on fast. 43 miles in and a new chapter was starting, let's call it Darkness is Coming. It was 7 miles to the turn around, where I would say goodnight to Kelly and the kids and go it alone over night. About a mile in there was a road crossing and car slowed down and waved me on. Perfect timing, Kelly and the kids yelled out the window and gave me a motivational honk as I entered the darkness again on my way to Silver City.
Things weren't looking great when I rolled into the turn around at Silver City. Luckily, the aid station is inside a small building, I think it's a community center, but it looks like a traditional one room schoolhouse.
Things get a little hazy here. I wasn't feeling great. My stomach had turned and I think I was falling behind on my calories. I sat down and wanted to refuel and change my socks. I don't know if I changed shirts here or back at Pilot Knob. I was trying to eat some soup and get my strength back up. I stumbled out back with the help of Kelly to use the porta-potty. As I came back in, I tied my shoes and tried to choke down some Ucan mix and a gel, which immediately triggered a gag reflex. I ran across the room to a trashcan and proceeded to vomit, and vomit some more. Then I crumpled on the floor and shivered through a series of cold sweats. Lying on the ground, I just wanted to give in and let go. I wanted to lie there forever, but I knew I couldn't. I knew I needed to get back up and get moving.
After a couple of minutes, I slowly got back to my feet, got some ginger ale and ginger chews to help settle my stomach. After a few more minutes, I was out the door, saying goodnight to my wife, and heading back out on the trail back to Sturgis.
The kids were already asleep in the car and Kelly was headed back to the cabin to get some sleep over night, which meant I was on my own and without a crew overnight, which was the plan all along. I also wouldn't have a pacer now or later in the race. I was planning to run this one on my own without a pacer.
I was slow going through the night. I made it back to Pilot Knob still fighting an upset stomach. I wasn't taking in calories that I so desperately needed. When I made it to the aid station I sat down in a chair to re-assess and gather myself. One of the aid volunteers offered me a blanket for which I was extremely grateful. I watched a few other runners come through and listened to some of the pacers waiting for their runners to arrive. I was finally able to get down three sections of quesadilla and some more ginger ale. As the calories started working their way through my system I started to feel a little better. After about 20 minutes I was able to get back out on the trail.
The trail back to Nemo was slow, and I was hoping to not have any more cow encounters. I had already encountered a second set of cow in the dark on the last section and was hoping not to make it a third.
It was quiet over night, and I was moving mostly on my own. It was probably on these overnight sections that I started doing (or trying to do) math in my head. To calculate how much further I had to go and how whether I would be chasing cutoffs. I knew I was several hours ahead of the turnaround cutoff, but I was still getting worried. I should have known it was a bad idea when I kept getting different results every time I did the math. Just keep moving forward I tried to tell myself, the math will work itself out.
As I was coming down the hill into Nemo, the sun was coming up and a new day was dawning. The morning aid station in Nemo was beautifully quiet. Just a couple of runners and a volunteer at the aid station. We are all riding the tide of rising spirits as the sun was coming up even if we were in different stages of being partially broken in our own unique ways. It was almost comical, because we all knew what was lying ahead: 7 miles of mudfest between Nemo and Dalton Lake.
As we retraced our steps back to Sturgis everything was slightly familiar, like I had seen it all once before in a dreamworld, but not quite real enough to have actually been there the day before.
The trail to Dalton Lake was just as muddy and slippery as the day before, but I was able to pass a few runners going up and over the mud mountain. At the top I was pleasantly surprised to come across a flock of wild turkeys, maybe 10 in total crossing the trail right in front of me. After hours on the trail, it little delights like seeing wild turkeys that lift your spirits and get you excited.
The muddy two-track seemed to last forever, but I finally made it to the single track trail that led down to the aid station. I was finally able to run again and made my way down.
I arrived at Dalton Lake around 7am and was greeted by a large group of cheering 50K runners who were about to start their run from Dalton Lake to Sturgis. The energy was infectious, but the thought crossed my mind. I'm 70 miles in and I still have 30 miles to go. Alright, let's get moving!
The first 50K runners came flying by me before I made it to the remote Crooked Tree aid station, where I stopped to get a cheese sandwich and chat with another runner who was taking a break at the aid station before moving on.
Over the last section my stomach started feeling better, but my right calf started knotting up. I was afraid really push off for fear that it would completely knot up and I would have to hobble the rest of the way to the finish.
The section between Crooked Tree and Elk Creek had five river crossings, which I was looking forward to. I was hoping to cold water would relieve some of the pain in my calf. I also had the thought that Kelly and the kids might be at Elk Creek.
Sure enough, Kelly and the kids were waiting for me at Elk Creek trailhead and I was so excited to see them.
I was catching up with Kelly as I was refueling. Someone offered me a chair. The ultra community is always amazing and generous. Everyone on the trail is there to help each other. As I was telling Kelly about my calf, and unfortunately my calf sleeves were still in the car. I thought about putting my arm sleeves on my calf, but didn't think there would be enough compression to do anything. Someone overheard our conversation, and offered some sort of muscle rub. I agreed thinking it couldn't possibly make it worse and might actually help. Kelly started very lightly rubbing the cooling gel on my calf and I immediately yelped in pain. On of the onlookers doubled over laughing at my yelp, knowing she was barely touching me. To which we all started laughing at the absurdity of it.
Kelly hiked with me up the 3/4 of a mile up the the aid station to retrieve my drop bag which was hopefully there now before saying goodbye again. The sun was now out and beating down. Although I don't think the temperature was exceedingly hot, the direct sunlight was baking me and I could feel myself starting to overheat. I took some ice in my hat which helped for about a mile before it all melted. Over the course of the next 20 miles I would find myself taking a swig of water, spitting it into my hands and splashing it on my face in an attempt to cool my head down.
I ran/hiked from Elk Creek to Bulldog (remote aid station) by myself and hooked up with a couple other runners for the the second half of the section from Bulldog to Alkali Creek (the final aid station and crew access).
It was on these sections that I started hallucinating or at least seeing things. I would see what I thought was a person or a building up ahead on the trail, but when I got closer, it would turn out to just be some branches or a fallen log or something. It was more entertaining than it was concerning at the time, but it did cause a little bit of confusion as I was working my way down the trail.
We made it back to Alkali Creek and I was able to two compression sleeves on my right calf which helped immensely with the immediate pain and shock in my calf as I moved.
While I still had plenty of time, I wouldn't allow myself to relax and believe I could finish until I actually crossed the finish line. The sun was beating down, but everyone said we might get a little rain between here and the finish.
Near the top of the final climb the clouds opened up and the rain came pouring down. While it felt great at first, I was immediately chilled and had relinquished my rain jacket at Elk Creek not wanted to carry it anymore. I was regretting this decision, and started shaking a bit from the chills. Luckily the rain didn't last long, and before I knew it the sun was beating down again and I was longing for the cloud cover and the chill of the rain.
Four more miles...why is the trail going back to the south? Away from Stugis and the finish? I don't remember this section. Keep moving forward. Did I take a wrong turn now. No, there is a flag right there. Why is it turning south again? So close. Keep moving. Keep moving. Keep moving. I was walking in at this point, confident I would finish. Relaxing and enjoying the experience and taking it all in.
I finally made it out of the hills and hit the road crossing and the paved trail into town that we had run out on a mere 31 hours ago. There can't be more than 2 miles now.
There it was. I could see the park now. I was almost there. I saw my daughter at the corner who was scouting for me. She turned and ran back to get her brother and then they both ran out to meet me.
My body almost immediate relaxed as I crossed the finish line, and I nearly fell over as I lost my balance. All I wanted to do was sit down and not move, not worry about making any decisions, and turn off my brain.
We hung out at the finish line for a while, cheering on the other 100 mile, 50 mile, and 50k finishers as they came in. It's funny how the mind and body can carry you 100 miles through the mountains, but once you are finished and your body let's go, it becomes difficult to walk the 50 feet to the bathroom to change.
After hanging out at the finish for a while, we headed over the the Knuckle Brewing Company for some pizza and beer.
After we got back to the cabin, I laid down on the bedroom floor on my way to the bathroom. I just wanted to close my eyes for a few minutes, and Kelly found me several minutes later still lying there.
Later that evening, I took advantage of the hot tub at the cabin and it was nothing short of magical. I couldn't imagine a hot tub could feel so good.
I was determined to finish this 100 miler, no matter what. Despite weather, stomach issues and an inflamed calf it was a great adventure. My goal was to finish somewhere between 34-32 hours, and I did. Woohoo! I ended up 31st out of only 48 finishers. I think there was about a 50% drop rate this year. I was happy to get it done.
I learned alot, and I'm looking forward to my next 100 mile adventure at the Chattanooga 100 at the end of November!
I don't know if other people actually wear their race buckles, but I will wear it proudly until I hopefully replace it at Chattanooga! See you on the trails.