I’ve been running ultras for almost ten years, but this is my first race report. I never thought to write one earlier in part because…well, I never thought of it, but also because I trusted in my ability to remember things. I’ve realized, however, that I do not actually remember things that well, and this limits my ability not just to reminisce but also to learn from experience. So, better late than never. If I find the time, I may go back and write up some previous races before my memories fade entirely. But for now, this seems like a good place to start.
I first learned about the Black Hills 100M when I asked my friend Garret about his 2021 race schedule. The race hadn’t been on my radar, but it seemed like something I might want to do. It fit into my schedule, three weeks before the Vermont 100. I figured a low-pressure 100M would be good preparation for Vermont, although that turned out to be a moot point when Vermont was cancelled (again) due to Covid-19. I’d seen a bit of the area before–driving through the Badlands, Grasslands, and Black Hills–and it seemed worth exploring on foot. I was really into the HBO series Deadwood and thought it would be fun to stay there for the race. Unlike most 100-milers, which start at ungodly hours, Black Hills started at 10:00am, which would allow me to actually sleep the night before a sleepless night on the trails. All good reasons to sign up.
Black Hills would (optimistically) be my first completed 100M in almost four years. My history with 100-milers didn’t augur well. I ran my first–Rio Del Lago–in 2015. Although I trained well for that race, I pulled a hamstring only two weeks before, and that injury ultimately led me to drop out at mile 95. I completed RDL in 2016 and 2017, but I can’t say I felt great either time. In 2018, I trained my ass off for IMTUF (Idaho Mountain Trail Ultra Festival) and went into that race with high hopes. Unfortunately, I sprained my ankle badly only 12 miles in and had to drop at the next aid station. Six weeks later I attempted RDL–mostly to get a Western States qualifier–but found that my ankle was still not healed enough to run 100 miles, so another DNF. In 2020 I drove out to IMTUF again–a rare race opportunity in that pandemic year–but by race day, the wildfire smoke pouring in from Oregon and Washington was so thick (AQI around 300) that I couldn’t even see the nearby mountains. All-day races in toxic smoke are not my thing, so I packed up and drove home.
This is all to say that I have limited experience with 100-milers, and most of it has not been great. I’ve certainly questioned whether I’m built for this distance. My comparative advantage has always been in shorter, faster races, although I’ve gravitated to longer stuff as I’ve gotten older and slower. The experience of running 100M is, for me, qualitatively different from running, say, 100K. By the end of a 100K, I feel tired. By the end of a 100M, I feel damaged. It’s the difference between fatigue and actual pain. My legs just don’t deal well with those extra 40 miles, and I tend to run the last 20 in constant fear that a muscle or tendon is about to snap. I don’t know why this is. Maybe I haven’t trained well; maybe I’ve paced my races badly; maybe I’m just not built for this distance; maybe it’s because the only 100M I’ve finished (RDL) is relatively flat and runnable. (Paradoxically, flatter courses are harder on the legs because you don’t relieve the repetitive stress of running by hiking the steep, technical parts.) Maybe, as some have pointed out, running 100 miles is supposed to hurt. With more explanations than races, I can’t say why this distance is so hard for me. At the least, Black Hills would give me another data point.
My pre-race training was neither great nor bad. Like a lot of people, I slacked off during the pandemic because there weren’t any races to train for. I only started running seriously again a month before the Canyons 100K (in late April), when I realized I wasn’t prepared to run 100K. Canyons went fine, although my legs definitely felt the effects of my hiatus: they felt more beaten up than usual and took longer to recover. In the intervening two months, I didn’t have time to do the high mileage I would have liked, but I did get in a number of good long runs, including a 45-mile run around Point Reyes on June 8. That run felt good, which gave me a real confidence boost.
Then, two days later, things took a turn for the worse. I drove up to Davis (about an hour away), spent two hours in a dentist’s chair, then drove home and did a kettlebell workout. Maybe I was stiff–from driving, the dentist’s chair, the long runs, not warming up properly, or all of the above–but for whatever reason, my right hamstring started to hurt during the squats and lunges of that workout. I should say that that hamstring is a chronic concern: I pulled it in 2013, again in 2015 (right before RDL), and again in 2019. It’s always there, but I manage it by warming up well and not launching into hard efforts I haven’t trained for. Mostly, it’s fine. It had been fine for some time, but now it was sore only two weeks before Black Hills. It got worse over the next few days, as Megan and I went up to Truckee to do some last training runs in the mountains. After a few days of that, it really felt bad.
I should also say that I never know what to think of these pre-race pains. If you Google “taper crazies,” you’ll find all kinds of posts and podcasts about how your mind messes with you prior to a race. A common theme is that you should ignore the “phantom pains” that inevitably arise around this time. It makes sense: you’ve trained hard for a long time; you’re invested; you really don’t want anything to go wrong. So your mind fixates on every little ache and pain and probably gives them more credence than they deserve. I certainly experience this. I pulled my hamstring (for real) a month before the Castle Peak 100K in 2019, but although I fretted endlessly about the ache throughout that month, the hamstring held up fine during the race. A month later, I had some mild foot pain going into the Ben Nevis Ultra, which morphed into sharp, stabbing pain only a mile into that race. I actually thought about dropping out–I didn’t want to get stuck in the Scottish highlands with a bad foot–but I decided to keep running, and that pain soon went away, never to return. So, I’ve learned to regard pre-race “injuries” with some suspicion, although this never puts my mind wholly at ease. If you’re wondering why I’m recounting all this, it’s because Black Hills provided some valuable new data on this score.
Anyway, this is where I was going into the race. As for the adventure itself: Megan and I flew into Denver on Tuesday, grabbed our rental car, and drove to Cheyenne that evening. Our main observation about Cheyenne–which applies to South Dakota as well–was that we didn’t see a single mask the whole time we were there. Laramie County has one of the lowest vaccination rates, and one of the highest Covid-19 infection rates, in the country. Yet no one anywhere–supermarkets, restaurants, liquor stores, etc.–seemed inclined to mask up. (We visited a liquor store because Wyoming is apparently one of those states where you can’t buy beer in the supermarket.) Megan courageously wore her mask into most of these places, while I abandoned mine for fear of getting dirty looks. Another observation is that this is a pretty meaty part of the country, which is not great for a strict vegetarian and aspirational vegan like me. We ordered veggie burritos for dinner, but learned after getting back to our Airbnb that they were full of meat. After another order and another trip to the Mexican place, we eventually got to bed.
On Wednesday we drove to Deadwood via Devil’s Tower, where we’d planned to do a short run. Coincidentally, we happened to be passing Devil’s Tower at exactly the same time as my brother Ben and his family, who were enroute to Yellowstone. (Even that coincidence only worked out because they needed to stop for a few hours to get their brakes fixed.) We didn’t see them for very long–maybe half an hour before we all went our separate ways–but it was great to see them for the first time in a year. Megan and I then did our run, which was really nice and gave us great views of the Tower from all directions. I was happy to find that my legs felt good.
Later that day, we checked into our Airbnb in Deadwood. Deadwood is an incredibly cheesy and touristy little town, where all the menu items seem to be named after prominent characters (some historical and others less so), and you can see a faux shootout on Main Street every afternoon. Still, it’s a fun place for a short while. We went to dinner at the Nugget Saloon, got some good beer and a Trixie (the only vegetarian pizza on the menu), and heard our first live music in over a year. We then retired to our Airbnb, which was frankly awesome: the whole top floor of an old Victorian.
On Thursday we decided to take a scenic drive around the Badlands. On the way, of course, we passed innumerable billboards advertising Wall Drug. If you’re not familiar with Wall Drug…well, you don’t need to be. But it’s unavoidable. I’d resolved not to go there, as we didn’t have a lot of time and I’d been there before. But after passing the 100th or so billboard, we eventually decided to stop so Megan could align her expectations with reality. Also to get the prominently advertised free ice water. Upon parking, I said “Ok, it’s 10:50. We’re back here in ten minutes.” And we were. Just enough time to see some good kitsch and to find the legendary ice water.
Next stop: the Badlands. I’d been here before, but I’d forgotten how vast and spectacular they are. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.
On our way back from the Badlands, we picked up Garret at the Rapid City airport. We drove directly from there to the race check-in at the Sturgis RV Park, where Garret was also camping. It was raining intermittently by now, so Megan and I both volunteered our Airbnb’s sofa bed. Garret declined, and we didn’t push the matter, as we figured everyone has their pre-race rituals that they like to maintain–I certainly do. (That said, we later felt that maybe we should have pushed a little harder, when we got a text from Garret from inside his rainy tent.)
So, the race–this is a race blog, right? I slept unusually well–maybe six hours–the night before, thanks to the race’s late start. That was a huge plus, as it meant that I at least started the race feeling fresh. I was driving myself to the start in Sturgis and leaving Megan behind, so we reviewed our pacing plans. The plan was for Megan to start pacing me in Nemo, mile 67 of the race. The catch: how the hell do you get to Nemo? Megan couldn’t drive me to the start and take the car to Nemo, as we’d then be without car at the end of the race. If I dropped Megan off there before the race, she’d be sitting around in Nemo all day (and much of the night). Fortunately, Black Hills Grab-A-Cab was willing to take Megan there for a reasonable fee, so problem solved. We debated exactly when she should arrive there and settled on 9:30pm: that would leave plenty of cushion even if I somehow managed 11-minute miles. That seemed unlikely but not impossible, as Black Hills is a pretty runnable course with only 16,000 feet of elevation gain.
After arriving in Sturgis, I chatted with Garret for a bit, and then we were off. I had only one real strategy: make sure it never feels hard. If it does, back off. I always start races slowly these days, as my old legs need a lot of warmup. I’ll often pick up the pace after the first few miles, but I wasn’t worried about that. I just wanted it to feel easy, whatever that meant.
The first mile or so of the race was on a paved bike path, after which we joined the Centennial Trail. The race is an out-and-back: 52.5 miles to Silver City, then back to Sturgis, almost all on the Centennial Trail. So, it’s 105 miles rather than 100, but who’s counting? (As it turns out, me, especially later in the race.) I don’t have much to say about the early miles except that they felt easy. I stayed well back in the pack and sometimes felt a little frustrated when I got stuck behind people who were going too slow. However, I figured this was probably a good thing, as it forced me to save my legs for later.
The landscape opened up shortly before the first aid station at Alkali Creek, and we got some nice views of Bear Butte. I didn’t stop at this aid station, or the next, as I planned to keep running to my first drop bag at mile 17.5 (Elk Creek). I caught up with Garret around mile 14 and ran with him to Elk Creek, where I grabbed the smoothie flasks I had stashed in my bag. I didn’t see Garret leave, but he must have left before me, as I caught up with him and several other runners around mile 24. By this time the scenery had changed: the single-track trail resembled a green tunnel that reminded me of the Appalachian Trail. Lots of trees, lots of poison ivy, some nice wildflowers, not a lot of views. It was pleasant enough, and I enjoyed running through the rolling terrain. I felt like I was running well: the pace felt easy, and my legs felt light and relaxed. I recall saying to Garret that the pace felt good and that I hoped to maintain it for the whole race. That statement would prove hopelessly naive, but hey, you need some optimism to do these things in the first place. We climbed gently for a while, then emerged onto a ridgeline that offered some nice views.
Somewhere along this ridgeline I decided to speed up a little and left the group behind. This wasn’t a goal, but I wanted to run at a pace that felt natural, and I was inclined to go slightly faster on the downhills than the others. This was fun until the single-track trail became a wide ATV trail. Then it became less fun. The ATV section started maybe five miles before Nemo (mile 38) and continued until Pilot Knob (mile 45). Pretty much all of those miles sucked, especially the stretch between Nemo and Pilot Knob. The trail / fire road had been totally chewed up by ATV wheels, leaving ruts and muddy puddles everywhere to dodge. There were rocks all over the place, some of which were loose and some of which were firmly embedded in the ground–as I learned when I stubbed my toe on the latter several times. I hated this part of the course. The only relief from the ATV trail was a brief paved section in Nemo, where I texted Megan “Nemo 1!” Despite the exclamation point, I wasn’t feeling excited by now. I was starting to feel tired, only 38 miles in. The ATV track had left me feeling grouchy. I was a little behind 12-minute pace, which meant that, even if I maintained it, Megan would be waiting a while in Nemo. I doubted I could maintain it. If Megan had been driving herself, I would have told her to arrive in Nemo later–10:30 at the earliest, but probably later than that. However, we’d already made arrangements with the cab company, so I said nothing and just hoped for the best.
The seven miles from Nemo to Pilot Knob sucked. I guess I already said that, but they really did. So, I was glad to get to Pilot Knob, where I knew the single-track would resume. I wanted salt, so I grabbed a big handful of potato chips at the aid station and continued on my way.
What followed were 7.5 miles of pretty single-track. The change of scenery lifted my spirits almost immediately and lessened the fatigue I’d been feeling for miles. As any ultrarunner will tell you, these races have a large mental component, and it’s amazing how physically irrelevant factors–the scenery, the prospect of seeing your pacer, actually seeing your pacer, etc.–can turn your race around. I don’t know that my race turned around, but I was feeling better than I had for miles. It was getting late, but I still hoped to reach the turnaround before dark, so I pressed on at what seemed like a solid but sustainable pace.
The only thing that bothered me at this point was the person I came to know as “trekking pole guy.” I don’t use trekking poles myself, but I have nothing against people who do–except that sometimes those poles can get noisy. For several miles, I’d been hearing the clack-clack-clack of poles not far behind me, and it was getting on my nerves. This actually led me to run faster–maybe faster than I should have–just to escape the noise. I eventually did, but at a cost: I’d broken my Golden Rule of “run your own race.” This is one reason I mostly race alone: I find it hard to run with others without it subtly affecting my pace, whether it’s because I’m stuck behind someone on a downhill or feel pressured to run faster because someone is right on my heels.
The last few miles before the turnaround at Silver City included a long, steep downhill. While descending, I passed the leader coming in the other direction. I figured he was a good five or six miles ahead of me, which is fine, but it reminded me that I’d probably leave Megan waiting for quite a while. I continued down, stopping only to put on my headlamp, which I’d brought in case I failed to reach the turnaround before dark. (My primary light, a LightBelt, was in my drop bag in Silver City.)
About a mile before the turnaround, it started to rain. I’ve had some bad experiences with rain: for example, at the Never Summer 100K in 2019, it started to rain, but I chose not to don my jacket immediately in the hope that the rain would be brief. Big mistake: not only did the rain get harder, but it eventually turned into hail. By that time I was freezing, and because I was then wading slowly along what had become a muddy creek, I couldn’t get warm even with my jacket on. Better to avoid that, I thought, so this time I stopped and put my jacket on. It was the smart thing to do, but this time the rain stopped almost immediately, and my jacket began to feel very hot. So, another stop to take off the jacket and put it back in my pack.
Soon afterwards, I reached the turnaround at Silver City. There was a small hut there with the drop bags and aid station stuff. I was relieved to reach the halfway point, and to take a break while I retrieved my light belt and other gear. I chatted with the friendly aid station volunteer and ate some more chips. It was around now that I started to notice that the aid stations were not all I’d expected. The final pre-race email said that “Aid station fare will be the standard ultramarathon buffet of fruit, chips, candy, cookies, potatoes, meat, pb and j, bread, and some soup for the night hours.” To my mind, the most important items on that list are the potatoes and soup, which I would definitely want during the night. During the warmer daylight hours, I mostly consume sweet stuff: dates, clif bars, smoothies, etc. Later on, and especially as it gets dark, I need more starch and salt. Boiled potatoes are an aid-station staple, and they were mentioned in the email…but so far I hadn’t seen any. Hadn’t asked yet about the soup, but I would soon find out.
As I moved toward the door of the hut, trekking-pole guy asked if I was leaving. I said yes, wondering why he wanted to know. I hoped he wasn’t looking for a running buddy and hastened on my way.
Heading out again felt hard. I felt tired thinking about the big uphill ahead and retracing all of my previous steps. But, that was the only way back, so on I went. Only a mile or so from the turnaround, I passed Garret coming down the hill. He was moving well and seemed in good spirits, so I wondered if he’d overtake me at some point. I figured he was 30-40 minutes behind me, but that’s not much with over 50 miles still to go.
The hill actually wasn’t bad. It was long and steep, but this gave me a much-needed opportunity to hike for a while. Unfortunately, I once again heard trekking-pole guy close behind me, so I picked up my pace to escape the clack-clack-clack. I guess he was also tired, because I soon left the noise behind and never heard it again. I feel bad complaining about this–I’m sure he was a nice guy, and poles are perfectly legitimate trail gear–but my tolerance for many things declines pretty sharply in the second half of a 100M.
On my way up the hill, I decided it was time for self-medication. My left foot had started hurting around mile 50: an unfamiliar pain in the arch that I hadn’t felt before and couldn’t explain. A cramp? I don’t know. It was mild at first but had steadily worsened over the last five or six miles. It still wasn’t terrible, but I knew ibuprofen would take time to kick in, so I figured I should take one now. I also decided it was time for some caffeine. I ate a “coffee collection” Clif bar with 65mg of caffeine.
The next five miles to Pilot Knob were great. The caffeine kicked in; the ibuprofen alleviated my foot pain; the hiking had given my legs a break. I ran. I was probably only doing 11-minute miles, but it felt fast, and I was glad to be running again. The moon rose, beautiful and huge. I could probably have taken a good picture if I knew how to use my phone’s camera, but this is what I got:
I reached Pilot Knob feeling good. I asked if they had potatoes. No. Veggie broth? No, just beef ramen or something like that. The aid station volunteers were all very nice, so I hate to say this, but…WTF?? Veggie broth and boiled potatoes aren’t hard, and I was really craving both at that point. Fortunately, they did have some cheese quesadillas, so I grabbed one of those and ate it on my way. I almost immediately regretted not taking more, as that first one went down all too quickly.
The ATV trail to Nemo was as bad as I’d remembered, but worse the second time around. I kept looking at my watch and realized I’d be lucky to reach Nemo before 1:00am. Poor Megan! If she’d gotten there at 9:30 as planned, that would be a long wait. Nothing I could do, though, except keep going.
My foot started hurting badly despite the ibuprofen, so I took another, as well as a caffeinated Gu. The caffeine helped, but the ibuprofen did not. Or at least not as much as I’d hoped. It worried me that I was still 40 miles from the finish and experiencing foot pain that two ibuprofen couldn’t mask. What did that mean? What kind of damage might I be doing to that foot? This was starting to feel like my previous 100M experience: I felt damaged and concerned. Only this time, it was happening with 40 miles to go. I tried to focus on the thought that I’d see Megan soon, which I believed would somehow help.
Reaching the paved road to Nemo was a huge relief. At last, I’d see Megan and have someone to help me through my pain…or at least someone to hear me whine about it. I reached the aid station a little before 1:00am and saw her. It didn’t heal my foot, but it did help. I was glad I wouldn’t have to do the rest of this alone.
I still optimistically hoped that Pilot Knob was an anomaly, and that some aid stations would have potatoes and veggie broth. Sadly, Nemo did not. So I filled my reusable rubber cup with pretzels and snacked on those as I walked away with Megan. She had been there for hours and was cold despite her down jacket. This surprised me, as I was in a t-shirt and shorts and felt fine. But of course, I’d been running while she was sitting and waiting for me. I felt bad about that: I don’t think I could or should have run faster, but I probably should have known that I had no chance of arriving there anywhere close to 9:30. Chalk it up to inexperience, I guess.
The next five miles of ATV trail were predictably hard. I don’t remember what Megan and I talked about. I was too tired to talk much, and I imagine most of what I said was whining and swearing interspersed with the occasional guttural cry. Megan has paced me for both 100Ks and 100Ms, and while I think I’m a reasonably pleasant runner in the former*, I know I’m not much fun in the latter. Megan usually joins me in the final stretch, and by that time I’m in my own world of pain, making a lot of unpleasant noises and just trying to get by. I did the only thing I could, which was take another ibuprofen.
*With the exception of Castle Peak 2018–sorry, Dan!
It’s hard to overstate how relieved I was when we finished the ATV stretch and returned to single-track. It was uplifting to ascend once again to the ridgeline, where we got a nice view of the valley under the bright moon. My foot still hurt, but at least I wasn’t dealing with rocks and puddles any more. (Although even the single-track seemed a lot rockier than it had earlier. A lot of things look different at mile 70 than at mile 30.) Despite the foot pain, I’d maintained the ability to run downhill, so I tried to take the downhills as fast as I could. One long downhill stretch brought us to Dalton Lake (mile 74), where, predictably, they had no potatoes or veggie broth. One volunteer said “We have bacon!”
It started getting light really early, maybe 4:00am. By 4:30, it was light enough to turn off my light belt. I’d never run through the night before, except as a pacer: my only other 100M, Rio Del Lago, starts at 5:00am and is runnable enough that I can finish around midnight. I’ve heard a lot about how sunrise lifts your spirits and recharges your batteries. I did not experience this. But then, my problem was less general fatigue than localized foot pain, which the sun did little to dispel. Still, it was nice to see the world around me again.
Not much to say about the rest of the race except that it was hard. I still managed to run downhill but found myself walking more and more of the flats as well as the uphills. It got really sunny and warm, and the sight of Bear Butte under bright sunlight pulled me at least partway out of my pain cave. The last miles were really quite lovely, and somehow looked different than I’d remembered. Megan gave me an encouraging “good job” every time I managed a sustained run, which I appreciated. Once we’d passed the 100-mile mark, I did start to get a little resentful about those last five miles. Isn’t 100 miles enough? Why do I need another five? I know, I know: almost no 100M is actually “only” 100 miles long. But as I said, my tolerance for a lot of things goes down.
About two miles before the finish, Megan noted that I could break 25 hours if I tried. I’ll admit this had occurred to me as well: most ultrarunners know round numbers are meaningless but simultaneously care about them a great deal. I made a halfhearted effort to push the pace, but I also wasn’t sure it was worth it because we really didn’t know how far we still had to go. Megan urged me on, and when we finally reached the bike path, I managed a pretty decent pace for a little over a mile. I reached what we thought was the 105-mile mark in under 25 hours, but the finish was still not in sight. Then we finally saw it, maybe half a mile away. My response was immediate: I stopped running and walked. I knew Megan was disappointed, but that finishing push was exactly that: the effort one makes when the finish line is in sight. I’d been doing that for over a mile, and I was done. I did manage to jog in the last quarter-mile or so, mostly because there’s something ignominious about slowly walking to to the finish line. Despite my fatigue, I smiled a bit when I saw a large snake on the path to greet me.
I was glad to be done. Megan gave me a hug, and I choked back a few tears. I’m not typically emotional at the end of a race, but this one was really hard. Fatigue, pain and worry about my foot had been building up for hours. I don’t know exactly what I was feeling, but whatever it was wanted to come out as tears. Still, I wasn’t about to cry in South Dakota of all places–I mean, this ain’t California–so I pulled myself together. Megan and I drove back to Deadwood, showered, tried (and in my case, failed) to take a nap, then drove back to Sturgis and had dinner with Garret: Impossible burgers for all. Garret stayed at our place in Deadwood that night, so we were all able to have a post-race beer at a local brewery before calling it a day.
My time of 25:03 was…fine? Having run so few 100Ms, and only one race in the last year and a half, I didn’t know what to expect. It was harder than I’d expected: despite running as easily as I could early on, it still got hard. But maybe that’s just how 100Ms are. My splits didn’t seem bad–11.5 hours for the first half, 13.5 hours for the second–although I still feel like better pacing should permit even splits. Mostly, I felt grateful to be done, and glad to have another hundo under my belt. I suspect a lot of my difficulties simply reflect my lack of 100M experience. My hope is that every race will help my legs handle this distance: that’s what happened with 50Ms and 100Ks. I’m doing Ultra Trails Lake Tahoe in the fall, so we’ll see.
I took two things away from this race, both of which only became clear in the following days. First, I really should learn to disregard pre-race pains. My hamstring, which worried me so much over the previous two weeks, didn’t bother me at all during the race. Moreover, even the soreness I’d felt vanished completely once the race was done. I’m pretty sure running 105 miles didn’t magically heal that hamstring, so I’m left to conclude that most of that pre-race soreness was just mental bullshit. This is what I’d already been telling myself, but this race reinforced that belief. Second, I need to stop being so afraid of in-race pains. I was really worried about my foot: it genuinely hurt, and running 40 miles on a hurt foot while managing the pain with ibuprofen seems…unwise? Maybe it is. But it felt fine later that day and continues to feel fine. Some mild soreness persisted for a couple weeks, but nothing that justified my worst fears of torn muscles and tendons. So it seems that sometimes pain is just pain. Remembering this could make my races a lot easier, since the pain itself usually bothers me less than the fear of what it might portend.
Next stop: Bigfoot 73 in two weeks!
You don’t remember what we talked about?? *wink wink* 🙂