Sunday, July 7, 2013

Black Hills 100

Material Goods

Black Hills 100 
23:19 / 12th

The Black Hills 100 is a fantastic trail race that threads its way through the Black Hills, from Sturgis to Silver City, SD.  It's organized by friends and fellow trail runners Chris Stores and Ryan Phillips of South Dakota, who have done an excellent job creating and executing the race.  Like any proud artist, they were excited to share their creation and experience with me and as many like-minded runners as possible.  I was very glad to get the chance to head up there this year and check it out, and had a fabulous experience.

As it was, I didn't win or place in the top 3, and I didn't blow up or barely miss the cutoffs or get attacked by a mountain lion or anything else that makes for a terribly interesting story.   So does the world need Yet Another Race Report?  I always feel tentative with these things because of the perception of external validation, when really the most enjoyable part of running for me is the internal satisfaction, and then attempting to share that joy of running (or anything) with others.  I really want to describe and evangelize the event itself -- and I shall! -- but I also want to record and share the thoughts I was having the entire race.  It's hard to characterize and describe my race exactly, but ultimately there's duality that's important to keep in mind even to begin describing the experience. 

On the one hand, I was prepared as I ever was to run as strong a race as possible, knowing that I was healthy, mentally prepared, and in the best shape of my life, after a solid training season.  I stopped drinking beer for the month of June!  (I'm adding that note in case impressionable youth or others are reading: it was a worthless sacrifice!  Don't change what you're used to).
I ran the first half of the race and felt as great as I ever have after 50 miles, and was already exceeding my expectations, among a field of competitive yet friendly runners that were making it fun and interesting, on a beautiful trail on a glorious day.  Furthermore, I wanted to do well not just to prove a solid trail 100-miler to myself, and that the training works, but also with note to some family that have been sick and in the hospital recently, not to mention making it worthwhile for my wife and mother-in-law who were crewing.

Then, again, in the second half, I got lost: physically (briefly) and metaphysically (for hours) and That's OK.

First Fifty

The first and second years were noted for tough weather (severe thunderstorms and high heat/humidity, respectively).  I was prepared for anything, and had been getting ready for the heat, but as it turns out, the weather ended up being very pleasant and clear (as it usually is in late June in the Black Hills) for the duration of the race.

An hour before the run start (5am vs. 6am), a concurrent bike race, the Tatanka 100, takes off from the same location.  The bike course uses some of the same trail, but is a loop course which returns via the flat Mickelson Trail instead, so the runners aren't expected to cross paths with the cyclists at all.

At the start, I stayed warm with a jacket and otherwise calm and relaxed, really enjoying the laid-back atmosphere at the track in Sturgis.  I found Colorado friends Bryan Williams and Mike Enger at the start, also catching up with Jeremiah from Denver, and enjoyed jogging along with them along the bike path in the cool morning (upper 50s).  Despite our Colorado contingent, I went with a Wisconsin singlet.  This ended up being an excellent choice, if I may say so.

The singlet was the perfect temperature for the race, so I didn't get to sunburned either, but also  wanted to give a nod to my family back home.  During the day, however, I received more than a few cheers and comments at aid stations, which makes sense when you consider that Wisconsin and Minnesota are within an easy drive of South Dakota, which stands at the gateway between the West and the Midwest, and is more relatable to many folks than Yet Another Runner from Colorado or California.

The course, dialed-in after the inaugural year, is a series of rolling hills that climb steadily upward as we proceed south the Silver City, before returning gradually back down to Sturgis.  There's a mile each-way on a pleasant bike path, and then the rest is on trails.  Most of it is on the Centennial Trail, the "89", named and numbered for it's completion in 1989 for South Dakota's state centennial, except for a delicious 4-mile section on trail "40", the Deerfield Trail, which cuts straight down to Silver City. With few turns, then, it's also very hard to get lost(!)

The official race maps and crew directions are great, but it's also worth noting that the entire course fits on one side of Trails Illustrated Map 751 (North Black Hills), which is in ample supply at the delightfully musty and cluttered Everybody's Bookstore in Rapid City.   As a bit of a map geek, it's utterly satisfying to run almost all the way across the face of a map.

I taped the elevation profile to my water bottle, and sure enough, the climbs exceed 1000 feet at times, and all told add up to 16,000 feet of gain -- more than Leadville and other races.  We hit some low spots before some more climbing just after some (5, in quick succession) creek crossings, which were a fun and manageable diversion.
The aid stations are spread out nicely and "naturally" -- that is, right before or after the climbs and at consistent intervals of 6.5M or so.  I never bothered to do anything with wet socks or shoes, as they were manageable.  Still, the climbs are deceptively spread out (compared to Steep and Obvious climbs on mountainous courses), so it's nice to know what's coming up.  Experience, or local knowledge, can help.

Luckily, I had Snowshoe Bob!

Mike, Snowshoe Bob, and B-Dubs follow 100k Winner

I met Bob Bolton in May at Quad Rock out here in Fort Collins.  Bob is a Silver City local, running his first 100-miler, but has previous experience (among other endeavors, as a Master's athlete) and a primary love as a National-class snowshoe runner.  He told me that perennial racer Bernie Boettcher is generally his main competition in such events.  More salient to our race, however, he was able to tell me about upcoming climbs, descents, and aid stations.  I enjoyed his company, and didn't have to worry about getting lost!  He certainly had the chops to be running a similar race, but I warned him that we were going out a little too fast.  I should have listened, too!

He also told me how he, Ryan, and Chris can train on these trails -- these utterly gorgeous trails -- and not see a single person in most (or all) of their outings.  Unbelievable!  Throw in low gas prices, lack of state income tax...I think I've already said too much.

The time went quickly in the company of Bob, and other stretches with Mike and Bryan.  Bob mistakenly hung with me thinking I knew what I was doing, pace-wise, as I reminded him we were going too fast.  (Unfortunately, he dropped at Silver City with knee issues, but the good news is he was close to home and saw the whole course).  My rough plan was to run mostly by feel, and based on my limited knowledge of the competition and wanting to run smartly, I hoped/anticipated to be somewhere in the top 10, but not in the top 5.  I recall hearing I was in 7th or 8th, and it seemed perfect.  My aid station stops with J and Deb, and Kieran lending a hand as well, were quick and efficient.  Kieran was wise in helping me with ice in the bandana, otherwise it was water and gel and a bit of soda.

I let Bryan go ahead a bit and then hung back with Bob, but eventually we parted ways at an aid station.  Along here, we had the stretch of trail between Dalton Lake and Nemo that's shared with ATV traffic.  This can be the "worst" part, as there are a bit more social trails and wrong way branches, and depressions in the dirt that can get muddy, but the conditions were great, the trail seemed obvious even to me, and traffic was generally light.  Also, having something "different" -- even if it's not nice singletrack -- mentally helps break the course into sections.

The ATV's I did encounter were courteous enough in passing, although nobody really pre-emptively and the minority gave me a returned wave or nod...It's just a funny observation because, in my experience elsewhere, there is a small minority of careless motorized users, but a majority of careful users that actually overcompensate by being extra friendly.  Here, everyone's just kind of out doing their thing, and I just think that motorized use in these sections is the overwhelming majority.

Anyway, I was running mostly alone and happy, but then occasionally crept up on someone ahead of me on climbs.  I met Dan R. this way, who had a slower (but obviously smarter) hike up the hills, and then Jake L.  Just after passing Jake, I had my eye on some ATV's and buggy's parked on the side, when I tripped on a root and felt to the ground. My calf siezed up and I thought it was going to rip from the bone for about 10 seconds, when I worried that my day was over as I laid there and hoped it would go way.  It did and I was no worse for the wear -- and Jake (who I previously only "knew" as an experienced and competitive runner from Albuquerque) was kind enough to offer me salt if I needed it.  I didn't and knew that the aid station was coming up, and that I should be hunting for salt there.

But another quick digression here:  Chris and Ryan, at the pre-race meeting, very specifically said something about "helping each other out" out there on the trail and "doing the right thing," mentioning how that sort of sportsmanship and looking out for each other was the most important thing.  My wife, mother-in-law, and I thought it was a fine point to think about, and again represented the ethos and character of the event.  Although most runners would do this in most circumstances anyway, as I've seen people not do that, or have pacers mule supplies for them, or yell at their pacers, or litter, etc. in bigger races, it was another refreshing contrast.

Now I was thinking a bit more consciously about salt, and chicken noodle soup (after the next aid station had some) and pickle juice (crew) was on the menu.  Never had any cramps after that.

Jake, and then Kaci L. from Nebraska, and I all ended up near each other before the turnaround.  We took turns leading a bit, and besides the camaraderie it was actually helpful as we wound our way through some logged areas where it was slightly confusing as the trail zigzagged across the logging roads.  It was always clearly just required a little thinking.

I fell back a bit but then caught and then passed them again on some climbs.  Although I felt great,  I later wonder if this means my uphills were too fast: it seems counter-intuitive though as ultimately it was my quads that hurt on the downhills.

We saw defending champ Jeremy Bradford, then, heading back, more than 20 minutes ahead, which means he was running strong and hard for the win and to lower his course record...but also well within a possibility (laughable to think about, now) of somehow faltering.

I held this position to the turnaround, which I hit just under 9 hours.  Whoa, right on my dream pace, and I felt great.  Somehow I was in 3rd place, with 2nd place just heading out.

Again, J, Deb, and Kieran were great.  I got a bit extra salt and asked for some chicken noodle.  "It's not ready yet, but I can quickly heat it up," said a kind-hearted volunteer, not used to these things.  "It's the perfect temperature already," I said, as they got me a cup.
She reminded me, as I headed out, that it was condensed.

Second 50

So I was still feeling great.   I turned around to head out from where I came, and briefly headed the wrong way.  Silly, but one thing I noticed throughout the day: I'd enter an aid station, get some supplies and good cheer and well-wishing, and then turn around and have no clue which way to go.  Invariably, I would ask and get a quick finger-point in the right direction -- just an observation.

The real time-suck of getting lost was soon to come.

As I mentioned, the course really only makes 2 turns: from the bike path to the "89" trail, and from the "89" trail to the "40."  And, it's an out-and-back.  So I was headed up by my lonesome on the "89", on what's one of the biggest climbs of the day back up to the "40", smiling and cheering on the oncomers.  I was thinking a little bit about how I had too much salt and wanted a little more water, but soon enough, in fact, when it felt like the climb was done, I was near the turn back onto the "89"...I had my head down and looked up, saw the "89" with a ribbon on it and went charging along.

The wrong way, of course.

The official course was marked this year with bright yellow, reflective 3M flagging.  Many (but not all) "Wrong Way" turns had a "W" demarking them as well.  Unfortunately, there's quite a scattering of pink, orange, and red ribbons as well, and in fact some pink flagging was used earlier on the bike path.  But, for the last 50+ miles, I should have been in tune with yellow flags, and questioned why I didn't see any.  Also, stubbornly, the trail there weaved it's way across logging roads, which sometimes have the "89" marker on what looks like the trail and other times next to the logging road, so I thought instead that I missed one of those turns instead, not the initial turn.  I did question it all, after about 15 minutes of not seeing flags OR other people OR footprints in the dirt, and getting back to the turn.  Looking at the turn itself, it's as obvious as a sunny sky.  Totally my fault, and I'm only putting it here so someone else reading it finds the one place to try to pay more attention.  (Did I also tell you that Chris warned me that this was one of the only real turns on the course?)

I was only annoyed at myself, though, but didn't let myself get too upset as I still saw a parade of outbound runners and wanted to keep cheering them on.  Clearly I lost some positions by now; I had to ration my water; and I thought how it would be even harder to "beat" someone of similar ability by 30-35 extra minutes.  I even wondered if sometimes, when things are going well, I might get looser with something that ends up sabotaging my efforts?  Yet I can't fathom purposely doing that, it just feels like I'm reluctant to go backwards and double-check something like that.

But, I still felt fine, and caught up on liquids and everything at the next aid station.  I guess I was in 7th now, but that was fine, they weren't too far ahead, and I was still feeling good, or so I thought.

And then, I'm not sure where, and it's anti-climactic, but somewhere between 100k-70 miles my quads and knees were just tight and sore, and I was getting slower and slower.


My stomach was fine, the weather was great, my head was fine (not bonking or anything) -- all great things, so it's a shame to lose my legs.  I had a miraculous recovery at Steamboat, though, so I kept plodding along, waiting for a miracle to happen.

It didn't.

Well, it didn't for me -- but it did for Bryan, who had an awesome rally after a long break and passed me running strong with Kieran.  I was happy for both of them: for Bryan to rally and feel great and have a great finish, and for Kieran to be able to pace and run strong with his runner.

I slipped out of the top 10, but was indifferent to this.  One thing that was new: I had no pacer this time.  J and Deb fished for me a bit and found some candidates, but most of them had to wait for other runners to check if they could pace, and then ultimately I realized I preferred running without a pacer.  I also didn't want to subject them to the exponential decay of my pace!

So, alone it was.  The goal slipped downward from 20 to 22 and then ultimately 24 hours, with a split of 9-out, 14-back: textbook bad race math!  The knees and quads that just couldn't handle the rocky downhills especially, and more than the race itself, I'm perplexed in not "getting" how the training and other race results don't line up with the 100 -- it bothers me more as a scientist and a prognosticator than an actual runner!  And, my heart and lungs sit there, unstressed and bored by slow-moving legs.  Meanwhile, I've done more vertical than ever before and was feeling good with it (I don't blog it all, but I do like 90-95% of what Nick does, but slower, and generally a solid mix of long/tempo/speedwork vertical).
An aside: interestingly, of the top 3 -- Jeremy loves to race, does a lot of trail racing and is exceptional at the 100-mile distance; Kaci was just minutes back, while running her first 100 in a remarkable debut (keep your eye on her) and trains by pounding the pavement to the tune of more than 5600 miles per year(!); Dan R. pounds almost all pavement but can still run trail downhills superbly -- there's no one "best" answer for training, it seems.
My stomach, nutrition, and mental focus (other than getting lost) are more solid than ever, in terms of being able to run and never having that crushing thought of "I ran 60-70 but how am I going to run 30-40 more miles?"   So I know I'll "get done" but not as fast as I think I should.   Did I go out too fast?  Maybe 20-30 minutes tops, but can/should that crush me that much later?  Should I have done a few 40/30 back-to-back days (I've done that in the past, but swapped for slower vertical in the ~30 mile range)?  There are squats, I s'pose, but I do some cycling and skiing that I don't even really count in my mileage, and my quads feel even stronger when I do more of those.  I did some hard, long downhills in the last 4-6 weeks.  Do I hike uphill too hard, early, and stress my legs? Do I run inefficiently downhill? Some suspicion of this, although I never opened it up and overstrode/bombed down any hills, but how to quantify and fix it?  Should I try clown shoes?  An intriguing possibility, but my God, surely a single shoe brand can't be the sole (pun) "fix."

Or, am I just better at racing shorter distances, and should I focus on that?  Those also have the benefit of being less resource-intensive, while giving me less time to overthink things which gets me into trouble.

Mostly, I think I need to run downhills better.  Maybe 50 miles (even Quad Rock) isn't long enough to beat them up fully, and I also run the downhills faster and brake less.  So how do people run "easy" downhills in longer runs?

The Rest of the Run
It's a puzzle I'd like to solve...but I wasn't obsessing over it, and in fact thinking many other things, or nothing at all...and it's important to remember the non-racing, almost spiritual aspects (but also absurdity) of it.  This is the duality.  I enjoyed hiking and jogging through the woods at night, occasionally scanning for mountain lions.  This woods on the edge of midwest and the west reminded me of the best things I've enjoyed in both halves of my life: childhood in the midwest, where running was the farthest thing from my mind (but deer hunting in November was my favourite weekend of the year); and then realizing how happy it makes me to make time to be out on the trail anywhere.  More perspective?  Not only were the folks ahead of me clearly genuine, dedicated and talented folks, but what about all the folks behind me working their butts off, as hard or harder than I was, to come along this same trail?  I can reach out and feel their pain and success and disappoint and joy as indistinct as my own, simply because I know it is out there.  And any time you stumble through the woods in pure darkness, crickets, and indeterminate scuttles in the brush, only to make a turn toward an incongruously-placed camper with music, lights, and cheering volunteers -- is enough to slap you again with the obviousness of how beautiful it can be when we choose to do something, whether it's volunteering or challenging ourselves or just cheering on a stranger.  It's so easy to smile and be pleasant and uplifting, theoretically.

Of course, I think about my Uncle, who taught me to play baseball and rode motorcycles with my Dad and my grandpa and I across Iowa when I was a kid who is now re-learning to walk after a stroke, but also asking about my race.  I think about my 1-year-old niece a little bit -- if only because I always think about her a little bit each day to make me smile -- and how her little body and nervous system are right on the cusp of figuring out the whole walking thing altogether, and what an amazing Rennaisance that is, with the height of evolution, along with language, crammed into mere months that we take for granted in favour of long, drawn-out middle ages where we bicker and fritter and try to walk as little as possible.  And I think about my little sister, who'd been having knee problems, but I tricked her just last year into walking well past her deer stand so that we could take a longer walk through the woods, and how that was almost our last good memory as she almost (but didn't!) died before Christmas a few weeks later -- so just as often as not the "almost's" work out in your favour.

I think of this existence and Sartre's keyhole, but it makes more sense instead if the stars are keyholes through the veil, and what's revealed is in what we choose to do outside: the play's the thing.
And being a clear night, I look at the stars, and I understand the connectedness of the original people of these sacred hills and the stars above. And I'm not kidding, as this is a surprise, although I frequently get practical ideas and inspiration on the run: I think about my research data, not the finer points, but abstractly what answers are still lying within, clustering together like the stars.  I think of my Dad and our campfire discussions, and his musings about what it all means, and my "arguments" with him about this and that, which are really just two bucks sparring, but no blood drawn, a necessary ritual for both of us, because even in the disagreement or formulation of my opinion, he is teaching me something.  I wonder these things only because of the interrupted slate I have, an indulgence of moving meditation, because I have the luxury of enough time to not think.

As I think of how little consequence this particular race has by itself, but as I've contended all along with these things, it's part of a larger story that can form who we are.  But, the sacrifice is big and of questionable surface value, and overwhelmingly I think of my wife.  I think of how I'm choosing to stumble through the woods on increasingly-damaged legs, when I could simply be lying in the comfortable hotel bed that we were paying for but not using that night, yet instead she and my mother-in-law are choosing to stay up all night for my foolhardiness.  And you have to understand the long history I have with both of them -- which is too long to explain 20 years worth, but when you have a few hours to think about it, you have plenty of time to flash through the accounting of many wonderful memories.

But mostly I think about the amazing patience of my wife, and when we're linked together so intimately for that long, more than half of our lives, the individual distinction is blurred.  Yet it is her most of all, during this ultramarathon, that I admire more for tenacity and grace when faced with challenge.

Photo: Randy Erickson

And I hope, if she's awake, that she'll be agreeable to hiking the last 6 miles or so with me. And she is.  

She's worried that I'll be too fast, but she's agreeable, and grabs a piece of fruit from the aid station as we head off at dawn.  Later, we'll both have to pee, unashamed.
And I know we'll finish the race in a day's work, together, but most importantly, it is just us, as unseen cattle are lowing while the sun reddens the prairie, the wind picks up slightly and rustles the tall grass, and deer silhouettes bound over the final ridge; and as we finish the race on the track, I am unsure of which half of the race was actually my favourite.