Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Black Hills 100K - June 28, 2014

"No DNF without a DOA."
- My email signature leading up to Black Hills 100K

Determined to Finish
Happy for a rain-free start
Jennifer looking happy at the start
Two years ago I dropped out of the Black Hills 100K without reaching the halfway point. It was only the second race I've DNF'd.  The first, the JFK 50 miler in 2006, was due to a lingering ITB injury that finished me about mile 28.  I subsequently returned to JFK to finish three times.  I was equally determined to return to BH and to finish.

While the 100K officially has a 20 hour cutoff, there are no intermediate cutoffs and so long as you finish ahead of the 100 miles and their 32 hour cutoff, the race officials allow you to go on.  My plan was to take as long as necessary and take rests at aid stations for whatever time was needed to recover my strength, even if it meant a two hour nap.  I was buoyed in this strategy with advice from legendary 100-miler Tom Green (the first person to ever complete the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning in 1986 and now trying again 28 years later) who told me his trick for getting through the night was taking a 90 minute nap.

I've enlisted friend Jennifer to run with me.  She is the toughest runner I know and I'm confident that she can get me to the finish in case I start to fall apart.  She completed the 100K two years ago when I dropped out.

What Year Will It Be?
The Black Hills in late June can offer radically different conditions from year to year.  On volunteer at packet pick-up sums it up nicely by noting that rather than referring to each race by the numeric year, they can be identified by conditions: 2011 was the Year of the Storms (severe thunderstorms at night had runners sheltering for up to an hour at aid stations and even in the culvert under I-90 - until the rising water in Alkali Creek forced them to go on); 2012 was the Year of the Heat (temperatures in the mid-90s left the course bone dry did me and many others in), and 2013 was the Perfect Year (dry and temps in the 70s).

2014 was shaping up to the Year of the Mud.  Frequent rains in the weeks prior to the race had greened up the Hills, but had also raised the creeks and left significant portions of the trail covered in mud.

We arrived in the Black Hills on Wednesday for the Saturday race and every afternoon or evening was marked with thunderstorms, some with hail or heavy rain, all assuring that the mud would be there to greet us at 6 a.m. on Saturday.

Jennifer descending Town Hill around mile 4 or so
Bear Butte in the distance north of Sturgis.
Up at 4:30 a.m. or so to have some breakfast and drive the 35 minutes to the start in Sturgis we are greeted outside with cool temperatures and a steady rain.  It rains all the way to the start at Woodle Field.  We have plastic trash bags with us to use as ad hoc rain gear but as park the rain begins to let up.  By ten minutes to 6:00 it has ended; a good omen for the day.

The race starts with 62 100-milers, 49 50-milers and only 24 100K runners.  We all know not everyone will finish.  But I'm determined that I won't be one of the casualties this year. No DNF without a DOA.

At the start we run into Blair.  Two years ago he saw Jennifer at the Bulldog Aid Station with about ten miles to go and stuck with her to the finish.  We both thank him for his willingness to help her when she arrived at the aid station, in her words, "a bawling wreck." He's back for his third BH100K.

The threat of rain and cool weather has both me and Jennifer starting with an extra layer but with the rain ended and the warm up from starting to run we both shed them early.

Mushroom by the side of the Centennial Trail.
As always a trail run is an opportunity to get to chat with new folks. Talking with Erin I discover she is from the Florida Keys.  I observe that it must be hard to train for the climbs running on the flat at sea level.  She gently disagrees and says that running at 4 a.m. in the morning with temperatures in the 80s and humidity in the 90 percent range is just as stressful as running hills.  She will prove her point by finishing the 100 miler in just under 31 hours and come in first in her age group.

The mud makes for tough going. Uphill the slick mud causes back sliding and downhill it makes for treacherous going.  On the steep downhill approaching Elk Creek a runner goes past us saying that he has invented a new sport: "mud skiing" as he slaloms down the slope.The mud builds up on the shoes and then picks up long pine needles which slap against the opposite leg with each step.

Obsessing with time I glance at my watch and then my pace card as we approach aid stations.  Jennifer has cautioned me not to tell her our progress, as two years ago I was chirping about how well we were doing before I crashed and burned after about 27 miles.  But I'm secretly happy that we are well under the fastest column on the card, a modest 19 hour finishing pace.  Two years ago the card had one or two faster columns, but since the goal this year is to finish and I know the trail, I've replaced them with more modest, and maybe more realistic 21- and 22-hour columns.

Elk Creek in 2012
The first of the Elk Creek crossings
(photo by Randy Ericksen)
At the Elk Creek aid station we go to our drop bags and I get rid of the extra shirt and replace my handheld water bottle with my Nathan backpack.

Leaving the aid station we go gently downhill and then steeper downhill to begin the five crossings of Elk Creek.  Unlike the bone dry crossings of 2012, Elk Creek is swiftly flowing and there are ropes for assistance at each crossing.  Jennifer revels in the cool swift water which scours the mud from our legs and shoes.  I worry more about losing my grip on the rope and getting swept away.

Jennifer crossing the fourth of the Elk Creek crossings
The final crossing leaves us in a bit of a puzzle. We cross the creek but the other side is nothing but a spit of land with water on two sides and a tangle of underbrush with no sign of the trail.  Then we see a 50-mile runner wading up the side channel of the creek headed in-bound and we see that there are more ropes that way.  Splashing down the knee deep but gently flowing channel brings us to the continuation of the trail.

The climb out of Elk Creek Canyon is long but rewarded with with nice views.  In a bit we come to the crooked tree for which the next aid station is named for, although the tree is about two miles from the aid station.  We pause for photos by the tree and go on.

Elk Creek Canyon
After the Crooked Tree aid station (at mile 22.5) we go up (almost every exit from an aid station in the Black Hills involves a climb) and start to see more and more 50-mile runners on the way back.  There is a simple reason for that - the turn-around sign for the 50- mile runners is 2.5 miles past the aid station.  Past the sign there will be fewer runners to be seen, as now the 50 milers are gone.

To the Turnaround
This is the stretch where things went bad for me two years ago.  But this year the weather is near perfect, with mostly cloudy skies to block the sun and lower temperatures.  And I'm engaged in a conscious effort to manage hydration and nutrition, with a Succeed and a gel every hour.

Crooked tree
It seems to be working well.  I feel  well as we run down the long descent and switchbacks to the Dalton Lake aid station (mile 29.2).  We take our time there, and I drop my Nathan and pick up a handheld water bottle for the 3.8 mile round trip to the turn around.

The climb out to the turnaround starts with an 800 foot ascent over the course of about a half mile.  This is where I called it off two years ago and the image of the log that I sat on when I told Jennifer that I could not go on has been burned into me memory since that day.

Two years ago I sat on this log and quit.
Not this year.
I'm on the lookout for it and when I see it I stop and take its picture.  No DNF without a DOA.

Finally the trail joins a multi-use trail often used by ATV'ers.  We don't see any either on our way to the turnaround sign or on the way back.

But we do see Blair who is already headed back and exchange greetings with him.  We figure he is about 40 minutes ahead of us.  After we reach the sign we turn around. I glance at my watch: 9:27 to get halfway.  We are headed back, and while there will climbs, we have the benefit of a net descent of 1700 feet from the turnaround to the finish.

After ten minutes we cross paths with another 100K runner on his way to the sign.  We don't see any more so we figure he is the last 100K runner.  Jennifer figures that we saw maybe 12-15 on the way back earlier.  With the 100 milers still headed outbound, the 50 milers turned around hours ago and the rest of the 100K runners ahead of us, it means that we will be pretty much assured of running alone on the way back.
The back of the 100K turn-around sign

Back at Dalton Lake aid station (now mile 33) we change socks, change shirts, switch back to the Nathan, restock on gels and Succeeds and continue our return journey.  We are in no hurry to rush out of the aid station and Jennifer chats with the aid station worker while I contemplate what to wear and what to bring.  It seems like everyone who if from South Dakota knows one another or has a friend in common and Jennifer and the aid station worker are no exceptions.

Role Reversal
It's a long climb back up the switchbacks headed north. As we have done all day we walk the uphills and run the flats and downhills, or at least those downhills that are too steep or muddy.  As the day has gone on the mud has gotten better, although there are still plenty of places with ample mud.

Jennifer tends to have me take the lead on the single track trails. She claims it is because she isn't good at pace setting but I suspect it has more to do with making sure that she doesn't inadvertently over-extend me.  After the climb the trail levels out a bit, I glance back to chat with her only to see that she is sobbing.

She tells me that she has started to have the symptoms that signal the onset of paroxysmal supraventricular tachycardia (PSVT), a condition that sometimes afflicts her.  It can lead to the heart going into tachycardia, racing at up to 250 beats a minute.  Years ago she had a severe episode of PSVT which required a cardioversion to bring it under control.

I immediately deeply regret having suggested - no, I asked her - to accompany me on this 100K.  I'm responsible for her being here because I wanted her to accompany and assist me on my attempt to run this race.  Now we are in the middle of the Centennial Trail, miles from anywhere, with no cell reception and her heart is sending her warning signs.  Because I wanted her to be here for me.

Wild Lilies.
Afterwards, when I tell her what I was thinking, she tells me that she "never looked at it like 'geez, I gotta go do this for Ken.'  It's a beautiful run."

I know that she will never quit - she has a bit of the dog who will run until it drops dead in her - so I don't even suggest that she drop out at the next aid station.

There are several maneuvers that she can do to bring PSVT under control if she has an incident.  More importantly since the symptoms she has felt have only first occurred more than 11 hours into the race while we have been running, we agree that if we dial back the stress of running we reduce the risk of symptoms.  She promises to let me know if she experiences more symptoms.

So we being walking much more.  We run briefly on a flat section to test things out.  She admits to a twinge. We drop the running.

We get to Crooked Tree aid station about 13 hours into the race, about 7 p.m.  I've been dreading having to recross Elk Creek again, and now both of us are thinking, although neither of us say it then, that we may have to do them in the dark with only our headlamps.

But before we get to Elk Creek, while we are still on the ridge leading to the descent to the canyon, the wind begins to pick up and we hear and see it in the pines, and the sky darkens.  Some blue sky is just to the west.  We are are the trailing edge of the storm cell.

We debate the direction of the storm: is it to the west and going to pass by without afflicting us, or is it going to the northwest and going to follow us?  A look at the clouds overhead provides no clue: they seem to be slowly boiling upward.

A few rain drops fall. Behind us (to the south) there is some lightning and a rumble of thunder.

Looking east with the sun behind us late in the day
We're on a mostly treed ridge but in some places it opens up with only a stray tree or two. What to do?  We dash across the open areas.  Jennifer get a twinge from her chest. But we cleared the area and the storm moves away without dropping rain or worse on us.

We descend into Elk Canyon and cross the creek with ample, if fading light much to the relief of both of us.  Another mile or so brings us to the Elk Creek aid station (mile 45.2) and our other drop bags.  I switch my wet shoes and socks for dry ones and as the aid station workers remind us that the night may be cool (it's about 8:30 p.m.; we have been at it for 14 and a half hours) I put a long sleeved shirt under my short sleeved one and done a pair of running gloves.  The gloves and short sleeve shirt are both neon yellow, making me easy to see.

Soon the light has faded and we turn on our lights.  It is pitch dark as the new moon was the night before. We are too far from Sturgis for any light pollution and there are no houses, or roads for car or street lights. It is profoundly dark and quiet.

Except for the round orange light on the ground on the trail through a grassy area ten feet ahead.  We come to a stop.  Finally a bird rises up, give a bit of a call and flies off.  Later in the woods we will see a green light, the reflection from the eye of a deer, a ghostly grey shade, moving silently parallel to the trail.

Soon afterward Jennifer says there is a light approaching from behind.  In fact, it is the two lights attached to forehead and belt of Ryan Burch, on his way to winning the 100 mile race. When he passes us he has gone about 86 miles to our 48.   He gives us a cheery, "Good job," and bounds onward as if he is on a short jaunt in the woods.

Outbound by the crooked tree.
St. Christopher of the Trails
Coming into the Bulldog Aid Station at mile 51.9 I turn out my light and give a cheery "Dr. Livingstone, I presume," to the man sitting in one of the chairs who I take to be a volunteer logging runners in. As I get closer I recognize that it is Blair, who by my figuring now should be an hour ahead of us.

I am concerned that he may not be feeling well or is injured so I ask. "I'm fine," he replies, "I'm helping Nina," he says, motioning to a runner sitting next to him.  By her bib I see she is running the 50 mile race. She had considered dropping out at an earlier aid station but when told that a truck was on its way to pick up dropped runners she went and hid so she could continue.  Blair volunteered to get her to the finish.

As we rest at the aid station another 100-miler, accompanied with a pacer comes in.  He doesn't seem to be in as good shape as Ryan, but his pacer gets him what he needs and off they go.

The four of us start out of the aid station together, but it is uphill as almost every exit from BH aid stations are, and as we are taking frequent breaks on the uphills, they soon disappear into the darkness.  I frequently ask Jennifer how she is doing and she responds positively. 

But as we head down the switchbacks on the other side of Bulldog we can see their headlamps ahead of us.  Down the hill, and across the field to the Alkali Creek culvert under I-90 we can see their lights but we never catch them.  On the other side of the culvert, where we did our best to keep our feet dry - not entirely successfully - I look at Jennifer and here eyes are hooded and half closed.  She admits to being tired. When we get to the Alkali Creek Aid Station (mile 56.5) Blair and Nina are there already sitting.

Jennifer drops to the ground and says she needs a ten to 15 minute rest.  An aid station worker covers her with a blanket.  I sit in a chair with a blanket.  In about 12 minutes Jennifer stirs awake.  An aid station worker asks if she would like to rest inside the camper and she accepts the offer, laying down on a bunk inside.

Blair asks if they should wait for Jennifer.  I tell him that I'm going to stay with her and there is no reason that they should delay.  As they depart I yell after Blair, "You are the St. Christopher of the Trails, always there to help those in need on their travels."  He gives a wave and they are gone.

Jennifer surprises me by being out of the camper in about five minutes. She's ready to go on and remarkably refreshed.  We head out (it's now about 1:45 a.m or 19:45 into the race) and up the 400 foot climb up Town Hill.  We walk up for 30 seconds and I stop.  We stand for a bit and repeat the process to the top of the hill.  There isn't going to be an PSVT event if we can avoid it.  And we do.

After descending the far side of the hill we stop and look above us.  The clouds have cleared and the moonless sky is full of stars from one side of the horizon to the other.  The Milky Way is clear.  It is a beautiful sight.  You need not run through the night to see the universe overhead, but if you do, it is a nice benefit.

This is the Black Hills so there are still a couple of low hills to go up and down.  As we cross between them I tell Jennifer to look to her right and tell me what she sees.  She looks and spits out an expletive.  The eastern sky is starting to lighten.

The third place finisher in the 100 miler, Jeremy Bradford, passes us with a couple of miles to go.  He is chatty and in good spirits.

Finally we are done with the hills and now all we have to do is go through the tunnel under the road to the paved path for the final mile to Woodle Field and the finish.  Only we can't find the tunnel that we ran through so many hours before.  We spot a drainage culvert under the road but even though we are both brain-tired we realize that cannot be it.  Finally we spot the flagging leading to it, get across and walk to the track.  We're beat but we still manage to run the last few yards and finish in 22:19.

No DNF. No DOA.  We finished.  Success.

I finish dead last among men 12 of 12 and 1 of 2 in my age group, behind Blair.  Jennifer is 3 of 3 among females and wins her age group.  For being the third place female she wins a nice hand painted work of Indian art.

Finisher results once again show why Black Hills is a tough race at any distance.  Twenty-nine people signed up for the 100K race; 24 started.  Twenty-three passed through the Elk Creek timing station outbound about mile 16.5. Only two of them were behind us.  By the time we returned to the timing station inbound about mile 45.7, only 16 runners remained and we were DFL (dead last).  One more runner dropped between Elk Creek and the finish, leaving only 15 finishers out of 24 starters, a completion rate of 63 percent. We were about 19 minutes behind Blair, but he was slowed down because of his charitable impulse to get Nina to the finish. He was first in my age group, deservedly so. And while Nina was DFL in the 50 mile, more than two hours behind the finisher immediately ahead of her, she was still third in her age group. Persistence has its rewards.

Completion rates were 52 percent for the 100 mile race (32 of 62) and 84 percent for the 50 mile race (84 percent).

The 35 minute drive back to our cabin is a nightmare.  I can barely stay awake.  Jennifer is talking at me non-stop to keep me focused.  The radio is on.  The window is open.  Nothing works well.  I drive slowly. I'm nodding off.  I stop at a crosswalk even though there is no one in it. Jennifer is hallucinating seeing people standing in the roadside ditches.  Maybe that helps me be careful not to drive off the road. Thankfully there are no real persons or cars on the road at 4:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning.

When Jennifer gets home she goes to the cardiologist.  He doesn't seem to think that she was in danger.

Swag: shirt, bib, cozy, coffee, sticker,
museum discount coupon, finisher mug and AG award

Age Group Award