Given my relative newness to ultra-running, I have not yet experienced many of the premier courses in the US. But if there is a bar to hold them to, it is the Centennial Trail (ole’ 89) of the Black Hills 100. I have never enjoyed a course more than I did this weekend while running the 100k up in Sturgis, SD.
The scenery varies from ponderosa pine and limestone outcrops to sprawling views of Bear Butte and the Badlands. One minute you’re running on pine needles the next you’re running through jungle (like) foliage. The elevation will sneak up on you as well…going up may not be so bad, but the down can be quad-busting inclines on sharp nasty fist-sized chunks of limestone.
Start to Elk Creek (Mile 17)
The early part of this course is very runnable. It’s a mix of pavement (1.2 miles) and single-track up into the Black Hills. As I made my gradual ascent you could already feel the heat beginning to bear down (says the guy from Arizona). Strategically, I started with one hand-held bottle knowing that the cooler temperatures would last at least until my first drop bag at Elk Creek. There were a couple times I questioned that choice but this actually worked out pretty well.
Through mile 17, the only problem I had was just picking up my damn feet. It’s like I forgot how to run! I stubbed my left foot about 10 times and very ungracefully saved myself from falling on my face more than once.
While at the Elk Creek aid station, I munched on some potatoes (with salt), pounded a couple shots of ice-cold Coke, grabbed some gels from my drop bag and mixed up some Vitargo for my second hand-held bottle.
Elevation profile for the Black Hills 100
Elk Creek to Dalton Lake (Mile 29)
The weather continued to get hotter as mid-day approached. Much of this mileage is under the cover of pine trees and not terribly exposed but the air was thick and the radiant heat felt like an early morning run back home in Arizona. Fortunately, I was taking full bottles of water and ice through the aid stations while keeping my belly happy.
Two odd things happened through mile 29 that I won’t easily forget – one, I ran into an old college friend who just happened to be running the trail at the same time. We chatted, said our hellos and went on our way. Second, a very big and determined military man (who was running the 50-mile) had hit the turn around and was repeating over and over, “Birthday cake and beer. Birthday cake and beer.” Evidently, it was his birthday and he wanted beer. Whatever keeps you going.
Me, I was personally looking forward to reaching Dalton Lake to pick up my Camelbak out of my drop bag. I’m glad this worked out because I don’t think I could have carried that extra weight for the first half of the race.
I was still doing well on caloric intake – I again mixed up some Vitargo, munched on potatoes, had a jelly sandwich and ice cold water in my Camelbak. Despite the 100k turn-around being just two miles past this aid stations, multiple folks commented that it felt like an eternity…runners were cramping left-and-right. I personally was doing well. Hydrated and feeling strong, I was still running more than I was walking as I made my way back through the Dalton aid station.
Dalton (through Elk Creek) to Bulldog (Mile 51)
By far, this was the most painful part of my journey as I navigated much of the previous elevation I had climbed early in the day. At this point, my feet were not fresh (I had not changed my socks all day), my gluts were tight and my quads were on fire. Yet, despite the pain, it hurt less to run…so I kept running.
It was also apparent that despite multiple attempts to lather up with sunblock that my shoulders and neck were charred from the sun. Combine that with the additional 7 pounds from a Camelbak full of ice and water, my neck and shoulders were aching quite a bit. I did drop one bottle at Elk Creek to help lighten things up.
Unfortunately, I had gotten ahead of myself mentally. I pictured myself coming out of the woods to the final aid station (Alkali). Needless to say, I was quite disappointed when that didn’t happen. Slightly dejected, I almost gave in to The Chair. I resisted that urge and stayed on my feet. I downed a turkey sandwich, more potatoes, salt, Endurolytes and stocked up on a few more Rice Krispy Treats (my new trail running super-food!). “Ten more miles”, they said. If the previous six had not felt like an eternity, I would have been a bit more enthusiastic about the remaining distance…
Leaving the Bulldog aid station, I was tentatively moving forward to ensure I didn’t do something stupid (like trip and fall on my face). The toughest mental challenge for me at this stage was being able to see and hear the highway prior to reaching the Alkali aid station. You know you’re close but getting past the highway seemed to take forever.
Alkali to Finish
By the time I reached this station, the head lamp was on and it felt like I was spending more time looking for the route markers and critters than the trail in front of me. This was my first time running trail at night and I was erring on the side of being overly-cautious. There was a part of the trail/road that descended into Sturgis that was nothing but sand – no surface reflection, no pebbles, no anything to get your depth perception dialed in. Shuffling would have worked fine if it didn’t kick up a cloud of dust in the process. The visual in my head (which made me chuckle) was “this is what Pig-Pen would look like if he were a trail runner”.
This stretch is also a tease given that you can see the street lights and hear the cars but the way the trail winds, you can’t see the sidewalk until you’re about a quarter mile from the trail head. I have never been so happy to see pavement.
I had made a mental deal with myself (having walked the last 4 miles) that once I hit the pavement I would run to the finish. I stayed true to that as I navigated the last mile or so along the bike path. It hurt like hell and I could feel every single tread on the bottom of my shoes but I kept running as I made my way to Woodle Field.
Crossing the line with all the kids
As I entered the track, it felt a little like that scene from Rocky (or Forrest Gump) where one-by-one, the kids and other folks start to run beside you – cheering and yelling for you in those final steps. It was great to cross the finish line with my arms raised high.