Getting to the Start Line
The race itself is a small venue - one of only 2 ultra-marathons held in the Black Hills of South Dakota (Lean Horse Productions does both). Nothing like the 35,000+ people participating in the PF Chang's Marathon. Only 165 show registered for the 100 mile, 100 km and 50 mile races. The oldest participant being 70 - and yes, he ran the 100-miles (think about that next time you want to skip a workout and sit your ass on the couch).
After an early wake-up call at 4 am, I drove up to Sturgis, SD to prepare for the 6 am start time. Once at the field, the scene was quite yet jovial - many runners huddling with their support crews - a majority of them preparing for the 100 mile run. There was a certain levity to the group - most of the runners seemed to accept the incredible journey they were about to embark upon and yet others were still in awe of the pure courage (or stupidity, depending on your point of view). While waiting, I managed to snap this photo of this brave soul (I just hope he's supporting cancer awareness or something noble)
Mile 0 to Mile 17
I honestly don't remember much about the first third of the run. After a short burst of energy while leaving the start line (pavement), you start climbing into some of the most scenic areas of the Black Hills I've ever seen. It was the perfect morning and I was completely caught up in the beauty, warmth and energy of the terrain and landscapes across western South Dakota. While the first aid station (mile 5) was abuzz with support crews and cheering sections, that slowly faded away as the herds of runners began to thin out as the climbs got to be more and more rigorous.
Miles 12-15 had us crossing the swollen Elk and Alkali Creeks multiple times. Creeks that are normally a foot deep were engorged with rains from the previous nights. Easily traversed, the water still covered my thighs. Though they were a welcome chill to what was becoming a warm day, it soaked my feet to the bone. I have never been more thankful to be wearing Injinji socks that I was this day. They saved my feet.
The miles seemed to melt away as we approached the first major aid station. Stocked with food and our drop bags, I had resolved to rest and eat anything of substance without making myself sick. Running nutrition is a tricky thing for me. I see these folks snarfing down sandwiches, bananas and baked potatoes but uggh....I don't even normally eat that stuff let alone while running. I guess fuel is fuel, right?
I remember leaving this aid station already tired and considering whether my mojo would hold out another 16 miles before I would see this station again on the way back home. There were many more miles to go.
Miles 17 to Mile 33
The Hills were unrelenting in their gains and terrain - which, oddly enough is what kept my mind off the duress and pain I was starting to get in my hips and gluts. As a short aside, I did my BS and MS of Geological Engineering at SDSM&T in Rapid City. Many of my formidable years were spent hiking and exploring these very same formations - it seemed fitting that my one distraction was trying to remember the names of the formations, their age and chemical properties. I mean, how can you not be inspired by views like this?
There was an unmanned aid station at mile 22 - the last before reaching the turn-around point and starting the return journey. Whether by natural selection or the pure masochistic nature of the race director, the turn-around point was an unrelenting uphill climb that felt like the longest 3 miles of my life. The good news was that the climb was only 2.5 miles...the bad news? The last 1/2 mile was downhill. Forget celebrating the awesomeness of reaching the half-way point. I was swearing to everything holy that I had to turn around and climb back up this hill immediately after reaching the 25-mile mark.
Those 8 miles back to the mile-33 aid station seemed to pass more slowly. I knew that I could make the marathon mileage a reality but everything past mile 31 would be an unknown (50K is my longest race). I was surprised to find out that despite time slowly passing, I was making pretty good time back to the aid station...a benefit of all that climbing was that eventually, gravity would be on my side and bring me back down the mountain(s).
It was about this time that pair #1 of Injinji trail socks (wool) were creating some hot spots that needed to be addressed. The increased downhill running had forced me to deal with the wet socks. I squatted for about 10 minutes to apply some Mole Skin and a fresh pair of Injinji socks. About this same time I came to the realization that I had not stocked my CamelBak appropriately with Roctane or other food stuff. So while I really wanted to avoid looking at my Garmin to see how slowly the mileage was going, I didn't have a choice if I was going to keep fueling appropriately.
Mile 33 to Mile 45
Back at the aid station (same as the one at mile 17), I tried mixing some Perpetuem but my belly wasn't having any of that. Having run short of fuel in those miles leading up to aid station, I focused on getting some protein, salt and calories that would sustain me for a while as just the sight and/or smell of Roctane and Powerbar's was starting to make me ill. As I sat there eating, there were several gentlemen who were figuratively 'waving their white flags' and looking for a ride back to the finish line. It was a harsh reality to hear that folks were bailing - route 89's first victims of the day.
Whether it was testosterone, adrenaline or the handful of M&M's I took on my way out of the aid station, I started to fly (relatively) at a sub-15 minute pace between miles 34 and 38. Despite it being mostly downhill - a nice gradual downhill - I was making good time. It actually felt better to run than to walk - so, I kept running.
I was trying my best to remember landmarks and project where I was. This proved to be a mental no-no because I kept getting let down when I wasn't at the mileage or landmark I expected. Ultimately, this made the last couple miles to mile 40 feel pretty darn long. I was fairly certain that the big aid station was at mile 40 but again, I was let down to find a small folding table with semi-cold water in it.
This was the stage of the race where I knew that I'd finish within the 16-hour window. I kept myself mentally busy the last several miles doing the math and figuring out that I had gone 40 miles in 10 hours. So long as I kept that pace (which I could do walking), I would need another 4 hours to go 10 miles. Turns out, my math is still pretty good :)
There is not much to say about this stage of the race except, "pain". While there is a certain pleasure one might get in running downhill, there is also an exponential amount of pain that hits your quads and knees from all that pounding.
Getting to the aid station at mile 45 was all about managing the hurt. The Injinji socks were holding up well but soggy feet, hot spots and uneven rocky terrain make for tough love on the feet when you're going downhill. These 5 miles were a combination of half-hearted
jogging... shuffling...walking just to get to the next aid station. I was force-feeding myself at this stage too. Taking a Roctane every 3 miles was not cutting it. I tried to choke down another PowerBar but it was so dry and nasty that I had to drink 3x the water just to wash it down...
Finally, I made it to the 45-mile aid station. I threw back a couple cups of Coke, watermelon, pretzels and chips but nothing really tasted good enough to keep eating. I refilled the CamelBak with ice water and shuffled on my way. I was still jogging/shuffling at this stage and was filled with the certain satisfaction of knowing that I was almost done. Clearly however, I had forgotten about the terrain I had passed over nearly 13 hours earlier. It was all uphill.
Mile 45 to Finish
The video says it all. One of the most grueling hills lay between mile 45 and the finish. I stopped multiple times on my way up because I thought I was going to toss my cookies. The good news is that I had some mojo in the tank to take me to the top...or what i thought was the top. Dammit, a false flat. When will this hill end?!
At some point, I came upon some girls hiking up the trail and I knew that I had to be close to the trail head that hits the road back to the finish line. It's that moment when I realized what I had done that day. 2 miles seemed insignificant considering what I'd spend 13 hours doing already.
I had hoped to run in to the finish line super-strong like Dean Karnazes or something but clearly, trying to do a 9-minute pace after being on your feet for 14 hours is not so easy. Eventually, I drew closer to the track where we started and ToddG was there calling my name in encouragement. We walked a bit - chit chatted as much as I could after trying to dash to the finish. I rounded the corner to see all my family, kids and friends standing at the finish line. My kids even came through the chute with me.
Unfortunately, I was not very social after crossing the finish line either. I felt bad knowing that all these folks had come out to support me and yet I couldn't stand still or I'd fall over. So I kept walking to try and find some soda or chocolate milk. I eventually found that chocolate milk and then proceeded to toss my cookies. After that, I felt (relatively) good and socialized a little bit more before getting changed and heading home.
My Garmin stats are here but I wouldn't trust anything after mile 45 - the auto-pause feature kept engaging because I was walking so slowly up the hills that it wouldn't stay on.
I have to say, I'm pretty proud of this one.
I left my soul in the Black Hills last weekend. I guess that's as good a place as any to achieve something many folks can only imagine.