The weather for the weekend looked questionable as we sped west on I-90 toward the Black Hills 50 Mile ultramarathon.
The 100 Mile race begins a day earlier than the 50, so we spent Friday afternoon crewing and cheering at the Dalton Lake aid station. The morning delivered muggy blue thunderstorms, and another chance of rain was popping up for the evening. The entire week had been heavy summer storms, which is unusual for mid-June in South Dakota. The runners passing through deemed the Centennial Trail to be a slick-sided mudslide (along with one or two other choice words).
Every few minutes a bright shirt popped out of the woods and crossed the field, soaking wet. We stuck around to see all of our friends and all the gnarly bandits make it in. Between aiding runners, I organized my things for the morning, made parking lot stir fry, and hoped the trails would dry out. After everyone came through, we headed to camp.
I was startled awake in the middle of the night when my tent pressed against the side of my face, collapsing from the wind. Rain and thunder pounded down. They are still out there, all of them, I thought. I closed my eyes.
The sky was clearing by the time we headed to Silver City, which is a small unincorporated community nestled in the back of Nugget Gulch as well as the start of the 50 Mile race. It was still humid, but it would be a good day.
I felt a little anxious. I had decided to run this race hard. As hard as I could. I’ve been getting my mileage in, good miles too, and hitting the gym more often. My training is on point. For the first time ever stepping up to a starting line, I was here to compete. “Win or DNF,” my husband Brent smiled at me from the driver’s seat.
The road to Silver City did nothing to increase my confidence; it climbed and descended for miles and miles – and miles – over ridges. Not a single meter was flat. Interestingly, the total elevation gain for the 100 Mile surpasses that of Leadville (but at a lower elevation, of course).
Just as the sun began to peak out from behind an enormous Ponderosa hill, we shuffled to the start line. I stepped up to the front, just behind the skinny boys in shorty shorts, shivering. A minute from gun, I handed my sweatshirt to my husband and gave him the final nod. I felt a little brazen, a little bold, putting myself out there. I had goosebumps.
The gun went off before I had time to reconsider placing myself so far forward. We went out fast. I wasn’t sprinting, but I did not join the typical ultra shuffle. I was there to run my heart out, and that’s hard to do in a conga line.
The course opens with a short stint of road and a sharp turn onto single track through a field. There was not much time to sort ourselves out. I was lead female at the base of the first climb. I kept expecting adrenaline to pound in my eardrums, but instead my common sense pointed out that it was unrealistic to lead a race for 50 miles. In new territory. I settled into the lead group and thought of a plan.
I lovingly call the start of the race “The Devil’s Wedding Cake.” A steep three-tiered climb punishes your legs throughout the first 14 miles. It’s a burn-up-your-quads, question-your-training plan climb. In MN, we find the biggest hill we can and run it until our legs feel like falling off. I train on glacier scrapes, leftover masses from mining, and ancient lava flows. This sustained, demanding incline knocked humility into me immediately. The Black Hills are actually not hills at all; they are technically a mountain range.
I’d never led a race before this. In front, I felt like I was in a predator and prey situation. I certainly didn’t want to be a bug-eyed rabbit shooting every direction for the next ten hours. On the second pitch of the cake, I stepped aside and let two women and two men pass me. I had too far to go to pull the train behind me to the top.
I felt instant relief. I prefer the hunt. I kept both ladies in sight and ran a relaxed, steady pace. Ultramarathoning means playing the long game.
The Centennial Trail’s beauty will stop you in your tracks if you take a moment to admire the sea of Lodgepole Pine, the blossoming chokecherries, the occasional ruby mountain lily. It’s easy to obliviously run through courses without taking adequate time to appreciate the landscape, but not here. I wished I could memorize every vista. The Black Hills National Forest runs wild and unmanaged. Besides the trail, you will see miles upon miles of unmarked, unmanaged natural earth.
At Alkali aid station, I left before one of the women who had been in front of me. I assumed from the start that she may not be serious competition from a shallow judgement of her socks (they were cotton). As I crossed over the road back onto the trail, I saw the first female a hundred yards ahead. She had an excellent cadence, ran every inch of runnable section, and hiked the steepest ascents beautifully.
After 20+ miles, I felt comfortable to pass her. We reached a muddy section. It seemed like everyone complained about the mud, but I had no problem dealing with it. I’m from the land of mud. It was the 100 Milers who were stuck at night, in the rain and the real mud. By the time our race began the ground was already drying and hardening. There was one nasty section, a jeep road/ATV stretch that I believe is known as The Bulldog. I seized my advantage and pushed forward and hoped I wasn’t making my play too early with the race still young.
I still expected to feel a rush, alone in the woods, winning for the first time ever. Nothing. I laughed at myself and started to wonder if I had enough ego to rule the roost. Pushing to run fast felt good, but I also felt continual mild stress about a very clouded future. I tried to stop the worries and focus on the wilderness, the love of running, instead.
I came into the next couple of aid stations eleven minutes ahead of second place. I reminded myself to be efficient, strategic, and produce my best. After Dalton Lake, I was climbing. Climbing, climbing, climbing an enormous hill. The trail veered.
I kept climbing.
I was dumped out onto an unmarked gravel road. I looked both ways. I looked down behind me. Everything was blank. Shit.
Immediately my heart dropped to my shoes. I knew I had gone off course. I took a deep breath and looked again, more carefully. No markings in sight. I had passed a man named Ben not too long ago. “Ben! Ben!” I called out into the woods. Birds answered. Shitshitshit.
I turned around and flew down the hill, trying to calculate how far off course I’d gone. I checked my watch and wildly looked for the flag I had missed. Three quarters of a mile later, I found one. Just behind it, I saw the second female blazing through the woods. I was the bug-eyed rabbit.
The trail descends into the Boxelder Creek aid station for a long time, down switchbacks and sharp turns. I heard her pounding behind me. I knew she was gunning for the lead.
I knew she would get it. There was no point in sprinting now, so far from the end. I was slipping into a mental valley and she had summit fever.
I tried not to be discouraged about the mishap. Maybe this will turn out to be a great comeback story, I told myself. Ultimately I chalked it up to the risks of trail running and my own lousy sense of direction. I shook it off, but I no longer felt the same drive. In those moments, it seemed like a gargantuan amount of work to chase her down.
Something competitive should have ignited inside me to get in front again, but it didn’t. I felt like clapping her on the back, and if I’m not mistaken, I actually cheered, “Good work!” as she overtook me. Ultras are a different sport. I want every single runner to succeed, and she was clearly running smarter than me and just as hard, or harder, than I was. Plus, she wasn’t lost.
I was still having a blast and running my best, even with the distance starting to wear on me (mostly dehydration from an extremely sweaty day). It’s mentally and physically exhausting to run race pace – especially on a challenging course – for hours and hours. I still had 15 miles to go, and my legs felt a little heavier after each one of them. I did not slow down.
The course changed drastically after 35 miles. There are two short, rigorous climbs, but it is predominantly downhill. I discovered I was only two minutes behind first place, but I also knew that I wasn’t gaining any ground. I reconciled myself to second place and continued to press on. I still cherished a small hope of winning, but I resolved to finish strong and ask the hills for a stroke of luck.
Because of all the precipitation the previous week, there were seven creek crossings in the last ten miles. The water felt cool above my knees and I quickly splashed my arms and face. I was covered in a thick layer of salt, dust, and slime. With shoes squelching, but feeling refreshed, I hurried toward the final aid station, Pilot Knob.
“Only seven miles left!” my crew cheered. I was already over 45 miles in. I nodded. I took a sip of unexpectedly boiling ginger ale, promptly coughed, thanked the volunteers, and got after it again. Brent made no mention of the woman ahead, so I accepted that she must have secured a significant lead. The time to compete was over, and it was now time to finish what I started.
Bear Butte. The spectacular background after the final aid station. Gorgeous.
The final few miles stretch across open cordgrass prairie, over a sprawling grassy cattle hummock, and finally wind back to concrete civilization.
As I descended the hummock, I felt a huge sense of relief wash over me. I was out of the Hills. I wasn’t at the end, but the hard part had been completed and completed well. I turned off the Centennial trail and headed for town.
Trail 40 takes you through a tunnel beneath the interstate and spits you out on pavement. It’s a little bit of culture shock after a day in the wilderness. I followed the pavement as it wound toward the city, back to cars, back to noisiness, back to fences and parking lots.
A bit ambivalently, as ultras often are, I said goodbye to the trail. I also felt my anticipation grow. My watch showed 51 miles. 52 miles. This sidewalk was directing me toward friends, tacos, and the finish line that I thirsted for.
I didn’t win. I didn’t DNF. I did put it all on the trail. Like an archaeologist, I uncovered another little piece of knowing what I am, or might be, capable of. I saw the finish line and my heart was full, happy. Neither predator nor prey. I knew it before I started, but I experienced it again in those hills: ultrarunning is about the intrinsic win. Competing against self, your demons, your doubts. My best is another runner’s worst. That’s the secret to running without ego or adrenaline, the secret to being proud of your fellow runner. The most fierce competition is the internal one.