Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Black Hills 100K - June 23, 2012

I Will Not be a Casualty
South Dakota's Roadside
Death Memorials
I am frequently fond of relating a story from the night before D-Day.  The paratroopers are lined up on the tarmac in preparation to boarding the gliders that will take them to France.  An officer comes out to address the men.  At the end of his remarks he soberly tells the men that it will be a tough day ahead and that half of them likely will be casualties.  Each man looks at the soldier standing next to him and silently thinks, "Poor bastard."  Intellectually we know that some of us won't make it.  Emotionally, we know it won't be us.

The night before the Black Hills (SD) 100K, Jennifer W. and I visit Saloon #10 in Deadwood.  It is named after the saloon where Wild Bill Hitchcock was killed. A lit alcove over the door holds the chair he reputedly sat in when shot in the back of the head by Jack McCall.  The 15-minute drive back to the Holiday Inn in Sturgis is illuminated by wild lightning, rolling thunder and intermittent showers.

We pass several of South Dakota's official markers for roadside deaths. I suppose those people knew, when they left Deadwood for Sturgis or wherever they would bound that they would not be casualties the day or night they died either.

"Today is a Good Day to Die"
A Lakota song for the runners
This quote is usually attributed to the great Lakota warrior Crazy Horse, who was born in the area just north of the Black Hills perhaps near Belle Fourche, 25 miles to the northwest.  The Paha Sapa are sacred to the Lakota, and a tribal member offers a prayer and a song for the runners lined up for the start of the three races: 50 miles, 100 K and 100 miles.  We will all go out on the same course but turn around at different places.

I feel a sense of irony receiving a Lakota blessing before running into the Black Hills.  The are an area that the United States had affirmed belonged to the Lakota in an 1868 treaty and had agreed to keep whites from entering.  In 1874, an expedition under Lt. Colonel George Armstorng Custer entered the Black Hills and discovered gold. The resulting influx of gold seekers with the support of the United States Goverment took the Black Hills from the Lakota.  Yet here was a member of the tribe offering a blessing for those of us who would be entering what was once his people's land.

Starting Out
At the start
We start out at 8:03 a.m. along a paved bike path that takes us out of Sturgis and onto the trail.  It's already warm.  We climb a hill and descend the other side. We admire views of Bear Butte to the north as we head south.  At the first aid station at Alkalai Creek (mile 5.7) I check my pace card and excitedly tell Jennifer that we are "off the chart,"  meaning that we are ahead of the fastest column I put on the card.  "Let's not think of that," she warns.

There's Crazy and then there's CRAZY
For people who are not trail runners, the idea of running for hours and tens of miles through the woods and fields is crazy.  But for those of us who do it, it seems perfectly normal.  Even more than normal; it's something that we often think that those who think it is extreme could do too.  After all, for many of us, running a trail race usually means lots of walking, eating at aid stations and even changing shirts and shoes and sitting down at those aid stations.

But even for the normal trail runners, there are some people out there who really are crazy.  Excessive in their behavior. Extremely obsessive. And crazy.  Western races seem to have higher percentages that in the East, and Black Hills has the most I've ever seen.

The woman is wearing a Marathon Maniacs shirt and wearing a 100K bib.  I mention my Marathon Maniac friend Barry S. who recently reached the five-star Maniac level by running three marathons in three states in eight days.  She responds that she, too, is a five-star Maniac, having achieved it by running three marathons in three days.  She's planning on getting her sixth star by doing the Quadzilla - four marathons in four days.

I ask her whether she has run any other 100K races.  "No," she replies, "this is my first."  Pause.  "But I've run three 100 milers."

Another woman is discussing her efforts at the Western States 100, where she was pulled from the race at mile 75 because she had lost too much weight up to that point, principally due to dehydration.  "I knew I was going to have trouble making weight," she said, "so I tried putting rocks in my pockets and wet sponges in my bra.  But they know all the tricks and made me take them out."

She told another story of a time she was in Brazil pacing another runner in a 135 mile race.  "He was falling asleep while we were running and I was doing everything I could to keep him awake.  I was trying to keep him talking.  Finally I spotted a town in the distance," she related.  "Look! If we can make it to the town there will be an aid station there.  But when we got there the town was deserted except for wild dogs.  We had to go on."

The day before the race I spotted a man wearing a 2012 Bighorn Trail Run shirt from the previous week.  His name is Scott B., and he says that he did the 100 miler at Bighorn and is doing the 100 miler at Black Hills.  "This will be my 13th 100 miler of the year," he says.  "I'm trying to break Monica Scholz's record of thirty 100 milers in a year." (He finishes Black Hills in 30:55.)

Follow the Centennial Trail

Follow the bison skull and "89"
The course for the Black Hills 100 races is simple: basically follow the Centennial Trail until you come to the appropriate turn-around for your distance, turn around and retrace your footsteps.

We leave Alkali Creek, cross under I-90 on the dry creek bed and head up into the Black Hills.  We ascend 800 feet to an altitude of 4400 over about 4.2 miles, then descend a couple of hundred feet over about 1.4 miles, mostly through ponderosa pine forest.

The Bulldog Aid station (mile 10.4) is manned by volunteers from Ellsworth AFB, one of whom is dressed as a fairy princess.  "I'm the Spirit of the Forest," she proclaims.  "What is your wish?"

Leaving Bulldog leads to another series of climbs totally about 1000 feet of altitude, bringing us over 5100 feet. before we head down again.  This section of the course has much less shade than the previous section and not only are the temperatures increasing but the sun is bright and hot.  On the other hand, the open spaces provide opportunities for picture taking, and both Jennifer and I take advantage of that.

Jennifer snapping pics on the trail
While I'm wearing my Nathan backpack, Jennifer is carrying only a single hand-held water bottle.  I gradually hear less and less sloshing from her bottle and ask her if she has enough fluid to last to the next aid station.  At first she says she does, but following subsequent questioning says that she could use some and I supply it from my pack.  It's a hotter day than we had anticipated and we both arrive at the Elk Creek Aid station (mile 17) with no fluids left.

The dry Elk Creek
I have a drop bag at Elk Creek and change my shirt which is soaked with perspiration.  From the aid station we drop down into the Elk Creek drainage and cross the creek several times.  Actually we cross the rocky creek bed, as there is no water in sight.

Soon we are back to the familiar routine of long climbs again cresting 5000 feet.  This time we stay at that altitude as we come to the Crooked Tree aid station (mile 22.5). The heat is starting to take toll.  I put ice under my cap and on the advice of another female runner, Jennifer puts ice in the cleavage of her sports bra.

I'm surprised that the ice has little effect on my skull.  It doesn't seem cold even when I move it around to different places.  And it seems to take its time melting.

Although the turn-around for the 50 mile runners is only 2.5 miles beyond the Crooked Tree aid station, and we have been seeing 50-mile runners on the way back, it seems to take forever to get to the simple post stuck in the ground with a sign marking the turn-around.

More scenery on the Centennial Trail
This post is also an indicator of the ethos of the trail runner.  There is no official standing there to assure that runners have gone all the way to it before turning around.  Not shorting the course is left to the honor of each runner.

The views along this section of the course are excellent and we stop and take some.

We come across a runner whose hand is bleeding pretty badly.  He had just fallen and cut it on a rock.  He asks if we have any tissues or antibiotic wipes but we have nothing to offer. He thanks us, wipes off the blood as best he can and goes on.

Ken on the crest with view to the plains and the horizon
It is 7 miles from Crooked Tree to the next aid station at Dalton Lake. It is mostly downhill, dropping from above 5000 feet to about 4400 feet.  That should make it relatively easy, but the heat, sun, altitude and constant climbing and descending are taking a toll on me.  Even a long, gradual descent on a smooth dirt trail feels hard.  My head starts to feel odd, not in any particular way but I don't feel quite right. (Later, back in Washington, Jennifer will tell someone that I was slurring my speech and listing in my posture - things that I was not aware of at the time. She emails others, "I'd never seen him so out of sorts and it was a bit scary.")

When we arrive at Dalton Lake aid station (mile 29), Jennifer's friend from college Melisa, and Melisa's Aunt Debbie, niece Courtney and nephew Chris greet us at the aid station. Melissa, Debbie and Courtney had driven with Jennifer the nearly 400 miles from Sioux Falls to Sturgis simply to hang out and see what this trail running was all about.

I flop down in a chair while Jennifer gets her drop bag and rummages around in it.  A volunteer hands me a wet towel that I place over my head.  I try to regroup. It's tough.  I decide that I'll try to get to the turnaround less than two miles ahead.  Then back to Dalton Lake and I can decide if I can go on.

Casualties are Inevitable
Jennifer and I head out.  More accurately we head up, as it is a steep unrelenting climb headed about 5200 feet.  After ten minutes of so I sit down on a log and tell Jennifer that I'm finished.  I'm going back to the aid station and drop.

There is irony here as I was the one who talked Jennifer into entering a race at a distance she had never attempted.  She had told me that she would not abandon me.  Now it was me calling it quits.  I'd gone about 30 miles in something over eight hours. I'm not in pain, but I have nothing left.  She decides to go on while I trudge back

The volunteers are understanding.  They ask if I'd like to rest and then try to restart.  I decline their offer.  I'm not the only one who has dropped at the aid station.  Other runners come in and announce they are dropping.  By the end of the day, about 40 percent of the 100K entrants won't reach the finish line.  Of the about 100 persons who signed up for the 100 mile race, only 38 will finish.

Success Comes to the Tough
Jennifer gets to the turn-around are returns to the Dalton Lake aid station.  Melissa and family return from a walk around the lake.  Jennifer says that she cant' quit because she has told too many people that she was entering the race.  I tell her to use the lights and batteries in my drop bag at Elk Creek, as she will be running in the dark and has not put any light in her drop bag.  Melissa and I tell her we will support her as best we can.  She heads off and I get in the car with Melissa for the drive back to Sturgis.

Fortunately, cell phone reception in the Black Hills is excellent.  At 7:46 p.m. she texts, "At Crooked Tree. 22 miles to go. Brutal."  At 10:02, she texts, "Just left [Elk Creek aid station] [mile 45]." A minute later she adds, "please bring choc milk to [Alkali Creek aid station]." She repeats that a minute later, then adds, "Its a bitch."  

At 10:40 p.m., she sends a troubling message, "Hurt foot - walking - phone almost dead." I respond, "If you drop borrow phone and call me.  I'll pick you up if accessible aid station."  A half hour passes.  Then a defiant response, "Not dropping!" followed by "more batteries please."

The next message is from the Bulldog aid station, 52 miles down and with only 10 miles to go.

Melissa and I head to the Alkali Creek aid station.  The moon is just past new so there is not much light.  Finally in the distance we see a light bobbing toward the aid station.  It is Todd G. and he says that he thinks our friend is somewhere behind him, but he is vague as to particulars.  After a little while we see another light, following a slightly different course through the field, coming toward us.  Iris P. says that she saw Jennifer in the company of another runner and not too far behind.  Iris heads out for the last 5.7 miles to the finish and soon we see two lights, on yet a another slightly different course headed to the aid station.  Jennifer emerges from the darkness in the company of Blair A.

Jennifer later gives Blair credit for getting her to the finish when he found her stopped on the trail.  "I was a bawling, scared mess and planning to drop at [Alkali Creek] when another experienced ultra runner offered to finish the last 5 miles with me," she wrote later. She also reports that as it got dark she tripped and fell into a patch of poison ivy.

At the aid station Jennifer flops into a chair, dumps out the sports drink in her bottle and refills it with chocolate milk.  I change the batteries in her flashlight.  She removes her left shoe to reveal duct tape wrapped around it.  "Give me a paper towel," she commands.  She folds the towel into quarters, puts it on the bottom of her foot and wraps it in place with surgical tape I had brought along.  Melissa swaps her mobile phone with Jennifer's dead one.

Off the two runners go.  Melissa and I head for the finish line to meet them.

Jennifer and Blair cross the finish line
About 1:30 a.m. my phone rings.  Jennifer asks, "Do you remember crossing a gravel road this morning?"  I tell her I don't but that I could be mistaken.  "We just crossed one," she says "and I don't remember that on the way out."  Then she decides that they have taken a wrong turn and they backtrack to pick up the trail.

Just after 2:00 a.m. we see a pair of headlamps emerge from the darkness at the edge of the track.  Jennifer and Blair trot into the light.  They finish in 20 hours and 13 minutes.

An undeserved but greatly appreciated
decorated hotel door
When I get back to the hotel I find my door decorated by Courtney. There is a "Tougher than anyone I know" sign on it.  It is misplaced. It belongs not on my door, but on Jennifer's.

In more than 25 ultras, this is only the second one in which I DNF'd.  The first was my first due to an ITB injury that I entered the race with.  I went back and finished that race three times.  I've finished after suffering through nausea, vomiting, and knee pain.  I've run through mud, ice, snow and streams.  But  Black Hills was too tough for me that day.

There are two things missing from the swag below.  First the finishers' medal.  And second, the age group trophy I would have received had I finished.  The DNF and the two medals give me three reasons to go back.

Black Hills swag: shirt, backpack
and purchased CD and beer glass


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Great job telling a dramatic tale that gets better with the telling. I'm still not convinced this would ever be for me, though.