Friday, June 24 through Saturday, June 25, 2016 (Get comfy. It’s long.)
Our son Aaron, who has run two 100+ mile races, told me that you can’t really comprehend what it is like to run a hundred miles until you have done it. He also said a 100 does not feel like two 50-mile races back to back, but more like three. I thought I had some idea beforehand what it might be like, but I found it was a bigger adventure than I could have imagined. It is difficult to comprehend the distance until you have traveled it. The Black Hills course was steeper and more rugged than we anticipated, which added to the challenge, but the monumental difficulty to overcome in this year’s race was the heat.
On race morning, we arrived at Woodle Field in Sturgis at 8:40 a.m. for the 10:00 start. It was sunny and already getting warm. I drank most of a bottle of water with two scoops of Tailwind to get a head start on my fuel and hydration. The race folks were getting set up. I checked in . . . and waited. It helped having three of our grandchildren there to help pass the time—Marleigh, Kadan, and Kolton. We spent a few minutes chatting with a fellow Trail Nerd from back home was also running the 100—William Sprouse. As I waited, I had a surreal feeling, like it was all a dream. Was I really about to run a 100-mile race?
About thirty minutes before the start, I did my usual warm up—lunge matrix and leg swings. The countdown clock got down to five minutes, but no one seemed to be getting ready to start. When it zeroed out and beeped, instead of starting the race director made a few announcements. Then we counted down from ten and we were off!
The course starts out on a concrete bike path for the first 1.2 miles. I settled into a very easy jog. I had decided before the race that my main goal in the first 50 miles was to stay well into the aerobic zone. I planned to hike moderately up the hills, perhaps running a short stretch here and there where the climb wasn’t too steep.
The bike path went under Highway 34 and then up a mowed path across a field which was slightly uphill. I ended up at the tail of the pack with a guy who told me he hardly trained at all for this race. He said he had been out in the heat a lot with military training, but run very little. He was wearing a heart rate monitor and said this race was an experiment. He was going to keep his heart rate low and see what happened. (He DNFed, but so did many others who had trained.)
After the bike trail, we ran on a combination of double track and single track up and down several grassy hills. These hills would be classified as large back home, but were small compared to the ones to follow. We crossed a gravel road and then tackled the first big climb of the day— about 600 feet worth of elevation gain over the better part of a mile. At least there were some trees and shade on this uphill stretch. Sections of the trail were loose sand. After finally reaching the top, it was a scramble down the steep, rocky descent on the other side, which was mostly unrunnable for me.
The scenery was beautiful! There were amazing views from the top of the hills across the plains to the east and lovely wild flowers along the trail. It was a good thing I was not carrying a camera, or I might have used up a lot of time stopping for photos!
I began the race in my Inov8 Terra Claw 220 shoes, which I used for all my long runs in training. My legs felt sluggish starting out. I supposed it was from the huge cut in mileage during the last two taper weeks, as I tried to calm down the soreness in my right heel. It was hot from the beginning and quickly got hotter. I soon wished I had started out with ice in my bandana and bottles. (I used my Salomon S-lab 12 set pack, carrying two 20-oz bottles in front.) My fluids quickly reached the temperature of warm bath water and were not palatable. Many sections of trail were exposed prairie with no shade. I passed a few cattle water tanks with spigots and was so tempted to climb in one and turn on the water.
The first aid station was Alkali Creek at 5.7 miles. At least that was the mileage the chart said on the race website, but it seemed further. The mileage chart was based on 50 miles to Silver City, and the race directors said right up front that the course is 106 miles long. That means in some places the distance between aid stations had to be longer than the chart said. (This is NOT a moral-builder, especially late in the race!)
I rolled in right in my goal time zone at 11:35 a.m. and my crew was there to greet me—my husband Don, our son Aaron and his wife Sarah, and our daughter Elizabeth, plus my grandchildren cheering squad of Kadan, Kolton, and Marleigh. It was a boost to see my grandsons standing near the trail holding encouraging signs that my daughter-in-law Sarah had made. Our granddaughter Marleigh was waiting to greet me, too! I was hot, but feeling solid.
I was grateful to sit down under our shade canopy for a couple of minutes while my crew refilled my bottles with ice, water, and Tailwind. I had planned ahead of time to have a dash of unrefined salt added to each refill of my water bottle for a touch of electrolytes. I got ice in my hat and ice in my bandana. I ate half of a double Honey Stinger waffle and chocolate hazelnut butter “sandwich.” I picked up an extra bottle of ice water to carry in the side pocket of my hydration vest. Under these hot conditions, I want to take no chances on running out of water!
My goal was not to linger longer than necessary at any aid station. I was very aware of how easy it is to lose precious minutes. With fifteen aid stations, if I spent merely five minutes at each one it would add up to an hour and fifteen minutes! I was in and out of Alkali Creek in five minutes. The next aid station, Bulldog, was charted as 4.6 miles away. My crew had no access there, so I would not see them again until Elk Creek which was 10.6 miles away.
The runners who came into the aid station with me were gone; no one was in sight as I headed out. The trail rolled through some grassy areas and then through a tunnel under Interstate 90. Alkali Creek runs through this tunnel, but it was bone dry this year. After a bit more rolling grassy prairie, we started climbing into the Black Hills.
I don’t mind running alone, but as I continued on with no runners in sight, I felt like I was slowing down more than anyone else and that everyone else had left me behind. I could feel the temperature mounting, but the ice in my hat and bandana felt great and my fluids were ice cold. I just kept moving along steadily, running at an easy effort, hiking the hills, and repeating. This section of climb had more switchbacks which made it more runnable. After about ten minutes, I saw a runner ahead. She was doing a lot of walking and I was gaining on her. As I passed, I asked how she was doing. She said she was okay, so I went on. It gave me an immeasurable boost mentally to catch and pass another runner. I was not totally left behind!
I passed a second runner before I reached Bulldog aid station, and I was feeling more positive. After a section of steep downhill, there was the aid station! I did not sit down at Bulldog, but refilled everything with lots of ice (bottles, hat, bandana) and headed out.
After the Bulldog aid station, I crossed a few dry creek beds, pushed through some overgrown weeds and poison ivy, and then settled down for more uphill hiking. I continued to catch and pass other runners and this invigorated me. I hiked steadily up the climbs (and there were some big ones) and ran the more moderate downhills, walking some of the steep or very rocky parts.
The stretch between Bulldog and Elk Creek seemed long. From looking at my Garmin mileage, I kept thinking “I’ve got to be getting close,” but around each corner I saw no sign of the aid station. I was up to eleven on the count of passed runners. I was excited to see my family crew and show them I wasn’t at the tail end of the pack any more. The ice in my hat melted quickly, but the ice in my bandana lasted a surprisingly long time.
I had not realized just how much I was being cooled and aided by my ice bandana, until the last of the ice finally melted. I continued with the same effort level, but I was slowing down. A few runners passed me back. Then suddenly I was blind-sided by heavy dizziness and nausea. It seemed like one minute I felt okay and the next I felt horrible. I staggered on a few steps and then was forced to sit down on a rock with my head down.
A couple of ladies from Manitoba who I had passed earlier caught up to me and asked if I was all right. I think I told them no. I felt weird and not good at all. They stayed with me for a few minutes, bless their hearts, until I could get up and walk with them toward the aid station—one ahead of me and one behind me. I felt like they were angels of mercy.
Soon, I saw a flash of bright green up ahead. It was Kolton! I said, “Those are my kids! I have to go!” and broke out ahead of them running down the trail. I was so happy to see my family crew! They immediately began to take care of my needs. I looked for a place to lie down and decided that I didn’t care, simply collapsing in some matted down grass. (No chiggers here at least!) My crew put ice in my bandana and got it across the back of my neck. I knew I couldn’t stay on the ground long, but it felt heavenly to lie down. After a few minutes, I sat up, drank ice water, ate some ginger, and took an S-cap. My family crew told me that I looked better than many runners coming into that aid station. They told me quite a few were already dropping out from the heat.
I knew it was time to get moving. Time into Elk Creek aid station was 3:03 p.m. and time out was 3:20 p.m.. This is the longest I spent in any aid station during the race, but I needed to cool down. My goal to reach this aid station had been 2:30 to 3:30 p.m., so I was still on schedule, but slipping. It was 6.2+ miles to Crooked Tree aid station with no crew access and 12.9+ miles to Dalton Lake where I would see my crew again.
Through these early miles, I felt a bit of soreness on and off in my right heel, but it hadn’t bothered me much. This was an answer to prayer, since I had been having escalating problems with pain in this heel (plantar fasciitis) for the past three to four weeks before the race. I had cut my mileage to almost nothing the last two weeks pre-race as I tried to get my heel to heal up. Graston and adjustments to the joints in my ankle and foot by my amazing sports chiropractor Dr. Nathan Uhl had been helping—along with prayer, plus the stretching, mobilizations, soft tissue work I had been doing at home. Up until the day of the race, it had continued to be sore. I had been concerned that the pain would escalate to a difficult level during the long miles of my race, and was so thankful it turned out not to be a problem.
I thought I was cooled down when I headed out from Elk Creek, but of course I wasn’t completely. Not far from the aid station, I encountered a runner on the ground. He didn’t look well. I stopped and asked if I could help him in any way. He asked me to help him get his legs propped up on a nearby boulder, which I did. He said his wife was on her way up from the trail head. I guess he was having some bad cramping in his legs.
After heading on down the trail, I soon reached the trail head parking lot. There were quite a few folks hanging out there who cheered me on my way. One young man with a spray bottle misted me with water as I ran by. I told him thank you! Someone had outlined the runner’s path through the parking lot with pine cones!
Not far past Elk Creek aid station are the five crossings of (can you guess?) Elk Creek. In wet years, the water can be thigh-high—and probably higher on a shorter runner like me! I need not have worried, though, as all the crossings were dry this year without even a puddle of water left. As I picked my way across the bouldered creek beds, I thought about how challenging the footing would be underwater.
After winding through another overgrown section, again with an overabundance of poison ivy, the trail began to climb once more. Through this section, I ran with a very talkative older man (as in older than me). He ran behind me quite a while and passed when I walked because of nausea. During this stretch, I was battling a lot of nausea. Clouds moved in and the temperatures moderated slightly, but it was not enough to make me feel better. At the top of one uphill section, I caught up with the older man and with Jenny, one of the Manitoba “angels.” She was still struggling with nausea also. I sat down with them for a few minutes because I didn’t feel good, and as the man said, “Misery loves company.” Jenny offered me a hard ginger candy. I tried it, just in case it worked better for my system then the soft candied ginger I was carrying, but ended up spitting it out.
After a few minutes, I told them I was going to hike on. I didn’t feel a lot worse walking than sitting, and I couldn’t tolerate for very long to not be moving forward. Jenny came with me. We hiked and talked. It was great to have company. I told her how I started running and about our children. She told me about her three children. My nausea subsided, and I started feeling significantly better. I started running some stretches and Jenny tailed me. We were still together when we reached the Crooked Tree aid station. I iced up my hat, bandana, and bottles, sat in the chair for just a couple of minutes, and headed out. Jenny stayed with me a bit longer, but finally sat down on a big rock and told me to go on. She was still feeling very nauseous. I told her I didn’t want to leave her, but she insisted she would be okay and that I should go on. I was feeling okay and started cruising on down the trail toward Dalton Lake and my crew. It was such a strong pull to get there and see them.
I looked at the time and decided I had better start pushing harder. I thought I had gotten way behind my goal schedule. I was thinking I planned to be in Nemo by 7:30 p.m. Here it was getting close to that time and I wasn’t even at Dalton Lake yet. I was starting to feel a layer of fatigue in my legs, but it seemed an appropriate amount, since I had run close to a 50K by this point (especially since the mileage was actually longer than charted).
It was 7:25 p.m. when I ran into Dalton Lake. Once again, it was such a boost to see my family crew! Dalton Lake is charted at mile 29.2. My crew informed me that my time goal to reach this point had been 6:00 to 7:30 p.m., so I was still on target (barely). This is another spot where my stomach was doing okay, and I should have tried harder to eat solid fuel. I had no appetite. Nothing sounded good, and I was so afraid that trying to eat would make my stomach hurt again. I did eat a bite or two of Honey Stinger waffle with nut butter. Aaron assured me that my appetite would kick in as I cooled down and soon I would feel hungry.
I had my crew put my flashlight and glove-mount flashlight holder into the back compartment of my vest along with my jacket. They clipped my blinking red light on the back of my vest also. Time out of Dalton Lake was 7:35 p.m. I was glad that all the aid stations from here to the turn around had crew access! Nemo was 6.8 miles ahead.
Past Dalton Lake, the trail became multi-use—meaning ATVs use it, too. The multi-use sections from Dalton Lake to Nemo to Pilot Knob were my least favorite parts of the race. They were difficult to run and hard on the feet. The surface was rough rocks—kind of like running on a gravel road with super-sized gravel and huge pot holes with some big rocks scattered in. Even before the multi-use sections, the trail had been getting rockier the further I went, and my feet were starting to feel a bit beat up. I decided when I rolled into Nemo, I was going to change into my Topo RunVentures.
It started getting dusky and my unreasonable fear of mountain lions began to surface. My grandmother grew up on a sheep ranch in the mountains of Idaho, and as a little girl I listened to many stories about mountain lion attacks, which instilled in me a bigger than normal fear of them. I had read that you want to make sure the mountain lion does not think you are a deer. I figured a red blinking light on my back, a white headlamp and flashlight in front, and music blaring from my phone should convey that message. Only now I was alone in the dusk without my phone for music and it was too light to turn on my flashlight. Feeling a bit foolish, I resorted to clapping my hands loudly every minute or so.
It was cooling down slightly as night fell, but not nearly as much as I had expected. Soon I needed to get out flashlight and glove-mount flashlight holder from the back of my vest. My glove-mount flashlight holder is a handy item that my husband found for me. It is actually scuba equipment. It provides a way to use a flashlight hands-free by securing it on the back of your hand in a pocket-like tube secured with velcro straps across the palm of your hand and your wrist. The only downside is that when you walk, the flashlight tends to point at the ground unless you make effort to hold your hand up. (And I couldn’t clap my hands while wearing it.) I planned to use my Coast headlamp, too, but for some reason had decided to wait and pick it up at the next aid station.
My (Bright Eyes) flashlight alone lit the trail well, so I had no problems making my way along. I was disliking the multi-use trail immensely and trying to remember if it ended at Nemo or went on. (It went on.) Some parts were smoother than others. At least I didn’t have to deal with the mud pits and large puddles that I read are present on this stretch during wet years.
As I was getting close to Nemo, I saw a red blinking light ahead of me. I guess someone else had the same idea about mountain lions. It was nice to know another runner was in sight after being alone in the dark for a long stretch. I gradually gained on the red blinking light and passed that runner just before the trail dumped out onto the blacktop road leading into the little burg of Nemo. The aid station was at Nemo Guest Ranch, which is a campground. It was dark, so I didn’t see much of it.
I was encouraged that I had managed to get down all of my Tailwind and some ginger between Dalton and Nemo and that I felt okay. I still didn’t feel like eating anything, but my stomach was not nauseous. I rolled into Nemo at 9:46 p.m. and left at 9:57. As usual, I sat down for a few minutes while my crew refilled my fluids. I stayed long enough for my husband Don to wipe my feet with wet wipes and dry them off before I put on clean socks and my Topos. The Topos felt good. It definitely was nice to have a bit more shoe between my foot and the rocky trail. The downfall of the Topos was their mesh upper which let in a lot of the abundant fine dust and sand. My gaiters had been working well keeping the grit out of my Terra Claws (which have a denser upper material, too), but were not much use with my Topos since I forgotten to attach velcro on the backs to secure the gaiters.
I swapped Garmins here, since mine had a low battery. It read 37.23 miles at 18:56 average pace. The chart said Nemo was 36 miles. I put on Don’s Garmin and started all over from zero with the mileage numbers. I picked up my phone for music and my headlamp. I traded my hat for a light headband to wear under my headlamp.
I got chilled while sitting in the chair at Nemo and that caused me to make a mistake that I paid for dearly. I decided I did not need ice in my bandana. I turned on my music on my phone, stuck it in my vest pocket and headed up the road out of Nemo. It was 6.2+ miles to Pilot Knob. Our son Aaron ran out with me. He planned to escort me to the trail, but when we hit a half-mile and were still jogging down the road, he turned back. Soon I was back on the multi-use trail. It was more like a jeep road. The trail was uphill and I was hiking fairly well. I caught up with another runner, and we ended up hiking together most of the way between Nemo and Pilot Knob.
It seemed like the climb went up forever. Several times, it looked like we were nearing the top only to turn a corner and climb some more. (I think the climb was actually only a bit over a mile.) The air temperature hadn’t dropped like I expected after dark. In spite of feeling chilled while sitting in the aid station, I was soon feeling hot enough to wish I had ice in my bandana. Shortly after that the nausea returned. This was so discouraging! Aaron told me later that once you overheat, there is often residual damage to your digestive system that takes time to work its way out. I felt worse and worse. The trail grew rougher with bigger rocks and potholes. My stomach was churning. My attitude was crashing.
The other runner and I chatted a bit. He was not able to run much either. Several times, I noticed how brilliantly the stars were shining. It would have been a beautiful night to be on the trail if I had felt better. I knew I had to get in some calories to be able to go on, but my stomach was not cooperating. I kept sipping on my half strength Tailwind, but was not getting much down. I ate a bit of ginger. The other runner was talking like he was not going to finish, and I started feeling like there was no way I could finish either. In fact, during that long miserable hike, I resigned myself to a DNF.
The distance between aid stations seems so far when you are moving slowly. I started feeling like I was stuck in a nightmare of darkness, rocks, and nausea that would go on forever. My legs felt sore and tired, and I wasn’t even half way yet. I just knew it was totally impossible for me to continue like this until 8:00 the next evening.
It was on this stretch between Nemo and Pilot Knob that I got behind my time goals for the first time. My race was unraveling, and I seemed powerless to stop it. As I suffered, I promised myself that I would never run this race again. Remembering my trouble with nausea in my 50-mile and 100K races, promised myself I would never run another ultra over 50K again. A rational part of my brain knew this was hogwash, but somehow it made me feel better.
I was a mess emotionally by the time I reached Pilot Knob. Nearer the aid station, the trail was a bit smoother and I ran. I could not wait to see my crew. I needed them to prop me up. Don, Aaron, and Elizabeth met me at Pilot Knob. I sat down in my chair and started crying. I told them how miserable I felt and how I could not keep going without being able to eat. And I cried some more. It was definitely the low point of my race. Aaron gave me a cup of some chicken noodle soup broth and I tried to drink it, but it was cool and that wasn’t working for me.
My crew filled my bottles with ice, water, and Tailwind and gave me ice in my bandana. They gave me an entire baggie full of candied ginger. Aaron kept telling me that I was getting in more calories than I thought. They reminded me that I only had to make it to one more aid station until the turnaround where I could pick up Aaron as my pacer. Then they told me to get going and kicked me out of the aid station.
Aaron told me later that he felt horrible sending me on my way like that. He knew I would have benefited from a bit more time to regroup and try to get in some calories, but I didn’t have that luxury with time cutoffs looming. My crew, however, had done exactly what I knew they would do and exactly what I needed them to do. They had propped up my sagging attitude and told me I was capable of going on. My goal time to Pilot Knob had been 10:15 p.m. to midnight. My actual time in was 12:15 a.m., and my time out was 12:31.
Shortly out from Pilot Knob, I passed a group of guys on their return trip. “Cross the highway at the flag,” one of them yelled as they passed, and I thanked them for this advice. It was a confusing spot and I guess more than one runner got off course in this area. I crossed a gravel road or driveway and saw the flag. From there I crossed the blacktop highway and knew I was on the right track because of the stile with the Centennial 89 marker. (There were a lot of stiles on the course. Most were made with 2×4 lumber, but some on the multi-use trail were made with metal tubing. All of them required extra attention to food-placement to cross safely.)
I shined my flashlight both ways, but couldn’t see any reflective markers. I was uncertain whether the course went left or right. I decided right was the best choice, but after jogging about 100 yards without seeing a marker, I decided to turn around and try the other direction. This turned out to be correct and I was soon on some lovely flowing single-track through meadows with scattered trees—one of the most runnable sections of the course.
The ice on my neck seemed like the magic bullet for my nausea, and it settled down within fifteen to twenty minutes. I still wasn’t feeling great, but I was not having nausea, and for that I was immensely grateful. I set my sites on Silver City and moved along at a steady pace. After a few miles, the course turned onto Deerfield Trail (temporarily leaving Centennial Trail) and headed up a steep scramble with lots of loose rocks underfoot. After winding along the ridge for a short way, we began the colossal descent into Silver City—down, down, down.
I began to see more returning runners. This is one of the main reasons I like out-and-back courses. It was nice to see other human beings. I tried to look down and to the side of the trail so as not to blind them with my headlamp and told each one, “Good job.”
I was feeling quite a bit better. I ate a couple of pieces of ginger in this stretch and kept sipping half strength Tailwind. I noticed that all of the runners passing me were guys. Finally, I saw the first female runner. I started counting the ladies headed homeward. For a short time, I entertained a silly little fantasy that maybe so many had dropped out that if I could finish, I might be in the top three females. This little dream boosted me along for quite a while until ladies number 3, 4, and 5 passed me homeward bound. Well, maybe top ten. I stopped counting at about 11. (Actually, I found out later there were only 11 official female finishers.)
I thought the descent was already steep, but then it got steeper. I noticed that pretty much every runner coming back up this climb was using poles. Finally I reached the bottom and hit some lower rolling hills. Runners coming toward me started telling me that I was close to Silver City. Maybe a mile, then maybe a half-mile. I saw the lights up ahead and pushed along a narrow path through tall grass. I saw a figure standing along the trail with a headlamp. It was our daughter Elizabeth waiting to meet me and run me into the aid station.
The aid station at Silver City is actually inside a tiny building—the Silver City Community Hall. I had made it half way! This was a huge milestone and an enormous mental boost for me. From here on out, I would be headed home and I would have Aaron with me. A spark of hope that I might be able to finish ignited. I wasn’t feeling too badly. My stomach still did not want me to send down food, but it was not nauseous.
My comrade in misery came into the aid station and said he was dropping at this point. I urged him to continue, but his mind was made up. (And there are times when DNFing is the wisest thing to do.)
Since I don’t do caffeine (no coffee, no pop) and it has seemed to cause nausea when I have consumed it in previous races, I had bought some very dark premium chocolate bars as my nighttime boost. I nibbled on a few tiny pieces while I sat at Silver City. I was tired and had a few yawning spells during the night, especially when I was feeling nauseous, but I never felt extremely sleepy. I had heard stories of runners falling asleep on their feet and had been concerned with how I would feel with the lack of sleep, but thankfully I was okay in that area all the way through to the end of the race.
I decided I would keep ice in my bandana the rest of the race, no matter the temperatures, so I got a refill of ice, and of course, bottles refilled with water and Tailwind. Time into Silver City was 2:53. I thought the time cutoff for Silver City was 3:00 a.m. I asked the aid station worker if I needed to be out of the aid station before the cutoff and she said no, as long as I was not too far over it. It turns out the cutoff was at 3:30 so I was okay—for the time being. I had fallen far behind my time goal of 12:30 to 2:15 a.m. for Silver City, and the cutoff times for the aid stations on the way back were looking tight.
It was amazing to head out with Aaron and know he would be there to push me along the rest of the way. As we started up some of the smaller hills, I stepped on a large pine limb, which somehow got tangled up between my lower legs, and down I went. This was my only fall during the race. I took a pretty good blow to my calf and it was sore for a while, along with my knee, but I was able to walk it off and soon was moving along well again. (Later, I saw I had a small scrape and a pretty good bruise on the inside of my right knee.)
Up, up, up the climb we went. It was an incredibly steep and long scramble. At places the trail was narrow with a drop off on one side. Aaron got his first taste of just how rough this course really was. Finally, we reached the top and ran along the ridge for a short while. I told him the descents on the other side were too steep and rocky to run, and he agreed once he saw them. At some point, Aaron said, “This is a mountain race!” and I agreed with him.
Just before dawn, the predicted cold front finally moved in and the temperatures dropped dramatically. I got cold and had Aaron get my jacket out of the back of my pack. But I hadn’t had it on long when I felt like I was getting too hot and felt a wave of nausea. That scared me, so I took off my jacket and had him put it away. I basically played freeze-out the rest of the early morning hours. I was convinced that if I just stayed cold enough, the nausea would stay away. My arms got unbearably cold, so I had Aaron get my jacket out again. This time I just put it over my arms and let it dangle behind me. I was so afraid of getting nauseous again.
As we reached the more runnable flowing stretch of trail, the sky was beginning to lighten in the east. It was perhaps 4:00 a.m. Sunrise comes early in the Black Hills. The dawn was beautiful and encouraging, but returning nausea overrode my gladness to see the new day. Aaron said that he thought this time I was nauseous from my stomach being so very empty. I did feel hollow. He asked me what sounded good to eat, and I said nothing. He asked if I could eat some soup and I said I thought I could.
Time cutoff for Pilot Knob was 6:00 a.m. I came in at 5:34. Immediately, Aaron got me a cup of warm chicken noodle soup. I tried to ignore the fact that it was in a Styrofoam cup (I don’t do hot things in Styrofoam!) and drank it, eating the noodles at the bottom. It went down well, so Aaron got me a second one. It felt awesome to put something in my stomach. I put on my arm warmers, because my arms were like ice.
The skin between my left big toe and second toe felt irritated, like I had grit rubbing in between there. I knew I was developing a blister and wanted to stop and fix the problem, but it was low-grade and I didn’t feel like we could spare the time to take off my shoes.
Elizabeth filled my bottles. All day, both coolers at the aid stations had contained water, even though one said “Heed,” but for some reason at this aid station, the one labeled “Heed” really was Heed.
I left Pilot Knob at 5:43 a.m. It was 6.5+ miles to Nemo. Aaron and I moved out and were starting up the trail when I took a swig of my water bottle. It was Heed. I do not like Heed, and I needed plain water when my stomach was so touchy. Aaron grabbed my bottle and headed back to the aid station while I hiked on ahead. Before long, he caught back up to me and gave me a bottle full of what really was water. It still had a slight flavor of Heed, but it was tolerable.
Back onto the dreaded multi-use trail. Aaron took the lead for a while, and I played chase. I do think this helped me to move along faster than I would have otherwise. After a smoother, rolling section, we started up a big climb of rougher trail, which meant a lot of hiking. Once we got to the top, however, I was able to run quite a bit. The trail had a few moderate uphills and lots of downhill. The soup seemed to have helped and I was feeling okay. My Topos helped my feet feeling better on the rocks. My legs were hurting some, but not an extreme amount. After some of the long uphill climbs, my glutes and hips were achy. I nibbled on some ginger and a tiny bit of HS waffle as we went.
When we reached Nemo I wanted more chicken noodle soup, but all they had was broth. It didn’t taste good, but I drank it down anyway. I knew I needed to get moving. I was very tight on the time cutoffs. Cutoff at Nemo was 7:45 a.m. I came in at 7:44 and left at 7:51. It was 6.8+ miles to Dalton Lake, and it was the roughest section of the multi-use trail.
My stomach evidently wasn’t pleased that I drank broth and immediately began toiling up a steep, long climb. Soon I had some more spells of some pretty heavy nausea . . . again. Would it never end? Aaron took the lead again and tried his best to drag me along. He buffered a lot of negative emotions from me as I told him how bad I felt and said multiple times that it was impossible for me to finish. He did what a good pacer should do and told me to just keep putting one foot in front of the other and focusing on getting to the next aid station. At one point, just as a 50-mile runner came past us, I doubled over at the side of the trail, sure I was going to vomit, but I didn’t. (Sorry guy!) The 50-mile race began Saturday morning in Silver City and ran back to Sturgis.
The song that chose to played over and over in my head during the tough miles of this race was Move by Toby Mac. (It wasn’t even on the play list on my phone, but my older grandsons like his music.) The words were very appropriate:
I know you’re feeling like you got nothing left
Well, lift your head, it ain’t over yet, so
Move, keep walking, soldier keep moving on
Move, keep walking until the morning comes
Move, keep walking, soldier keep moving on
And lift your head, it ain’t over yet, ain’t over yet
Hold on, hold on; The Lord ain’t finished yet
Hold on, hold on; He’ll get you through this . . .
I talk with God often in my daily life, and He heard from me often during the long, hard hours in the Black Hills. I knew He was with me in the tough spots. I also knew that as important as this race was to me, it was not a matter of eternal value. Still, I intensely wanted to finish, especially since I was running for a purpose bigger than just myself. I was running to raise money for the kids in the equine therapy program at Owl Hollow Farm. The words from the song became my mantra: “Hold on, hold on. He’ll get you through this.”
There are some spectacular views from the top of the ridge along this section of trail, enough to make me stop and exclaim, “Wow, God! That’s some beautiful work!” There were also some scenic sections where the trail went between bluffs rising up on both sides (almost reminiscent of FlatRock). We started gradually going mostly downhill toward Dalton Lake on an exposed section of trail tucked into the side of the hill. It was hot. I was still struggling with stomach issues. I decided to eat the piece of (gooey) HS waffle and nut butter sandwich that was in my pocket. “It can’t make my stomach any worse,” I told Aaron. It stayed down and as we got closer to Dalton Lake, I began feeling better and was able to run some again.
Finally (I’ve used that word a lot, but it is so often appropriate), we reached the end of the multi-use trail. Even though the single-track here was rocky, it was an immense relief to leave the multi-use trail behind. From this point it was down, down, down to Dalton Lake. Aaron urged me to run as much as possible. I knew I needed to push to stay ahead of cutoffs. I hit the long switchbacks down to the aid station and just let loose and ran. I felt like I was flying.
I came into Dalton Lake feeling okay. I had gained some time, coming in at 10:06 when cutoff was 10:30 a.m. I ate a couple of small slices of salted watermelon and it tasted wonderful. I took another one with me in a ziplock bag and ate it later on the trail. My crew noted that I had some smiles and seemed a bit more upbeat. I enjoyed watching Marleigh play in the dirt and snitch watermelon slices from the aid station table. I got ice in my hat and plenty of ice in my bandana before heading out.
Elizabeth and her boys hiked out with me for a ways. She told me folks in South Dakota didn’t know how to name things, since Dalton Lake was a pond and the Black Hills were mountains. After they turned back, I took the lead with Aaron behind me. (Looking back, I think I was moving better when I was chasing Aaron.) It was starting to heat up again with temperatures headed into the mid-80s. It was much warmer than the original forecast, but mercifully still cooler than the previous day.
Aaron told me that the next time we saw our crew at Elk Creek, my mileage to finish the race would be in about 17 miles. This fact amazed me! Could it be possible that I was actually going to reach the finish line? Of course, we had (over) 12.9 miles to go to reach Elk Creek. It was 6.7+ miles to the next aid station at Crooked Tree. There is no crew access there, but it didn’t matter to me now that I had Aaron with me.
It was a long, three-mile climb out of Dalton Lake. At the top, I sat down on a rock for a few minutes and ate the rest of the watermelon. The exposed sections were toasty-warm. After a bit more hiking, I was able to run fairly well again as we hit the runnable downhill switchbacks to Crooked Tree.
After we got past 6.5 miles by the Garmin, I kept looking for landmarks and thinking the aid station was just around the next bend in the trail—but it wasn’t. And it wasn’t around the bend after that, or the next bend either. Several runners of the fifty-mile race caught and passed us, asking how far it was to the next aid station. “Not too far,” we told them, but we were wrong. We went on and on with no aid station in sight. Aaron asked me if we could have missed a turn off, but I was pretty sure we hadn’t. He was getting annoyed at the extra mileage, because he was trying to get me into the next aid station at a certain time and figuring the pace we needed to hold to achieve that goal—and then it was over an extra mile in distance to Crooked Tree. It seemed to Aaron that even though I was running well, we were losing time. Actually, we weren’t losing time; we were adding distance. Either way it ends up with the same effect.
Finally, we saw the Crooked Tree aid station up ahead. Just before we reached it about four to five 50-mile runners passed us and hit the aid station. Aaron said I had priority on chairs as a 100-miler, so I sat down for just a minute and ate another slice of watermelon while Aaron refilled my bottles and iced up my hat and bandana. My stomach was tolerable, but my energy level was low. I was still very deficient on calories. Somewhere in here, Kaci Lickteig’s mom, who was running the 50-mile race, passed us.
As soon as I was done with my watermelon, I hiked down the trail while Aaron tended to his own fuel and fluid needs and then caught up to me. I don’t know what time we were in and out of Crooked Tree aid station. It was supposed to be 6.2 miles to Elk Creek. Aaron was hoping that since the distance between Nemo and Crooked Tree was so far over the charted mileage that the distance between Crooked Tree and Elk Creek would be shorter than the mileage on the chart. I was still just focused on getting to the next aid station before cutoff, but Aaron was starting to look at the big picture and realizing it was going to be tough for me to reach the finish line before cutoff if the distances continued to be more than charted.
By this point, everything was kind of blurring together. We just keep going on and on and on and the trail stretched out forever in front of us. I knew needed to push as hard as I could to keep ahead of cutoffs, but I felt tired. When I started slowing down and hiking a bit more, Aaron got ahead of me again to try to set a faster pace.
The actual crooked tree which is part of the Black Hills logo was somewhere past the aid station. We started looking for it because I wanted my photo with it. It was much further out than I remembered, and we had given up, thinking we had missed it, before we finally came to it.
Not long afterwards, we started smelling smoke. This is quite alarming when you are miles out in a national forest! Soon we could see it. The smoke wafted in thick clouds between the hills, actually dimming the sunlight. This was becoming scary. Were we going to burn up in a forest fire? There was absolutely no water in the stream beds to help us. As crazy as it sounds, my biggest concern was that the race directors were going to call off the race and pull us from the course, preventing me from finishing after I had come so far.
The smoke was stinging my eyes and giving Aaron a headache. He suggested we might want to get to the next aid station as fast as we could to see what was going on, but there was only so much I could hurry at this point. Finally, we hit the jungle area and the five crossing of Elk Creek. So much poison ivy!
It became obvious that I could not make the 2:30 Elk Creek cutoff. I was pretty sure they would let me go on anyway and felt surprisingly little concern over missing the cutoff. It was no surprise that stretch between Dalton Lake and Elk Creek was long. It was charted as 12.9 miles, but Aaron had 13.5 miles on his watch at the trail head parking lot at 2:35 p.m. and it was still 0.7 mile to the aid station. He told me it was frustrating to him because I had been running well, and we should have had enough time to make cutoffs, but because of the extra distance between aid stations, I was dropping behind his calculations. My Garmin battery died somewhere along here, and I didn’t bother to swap out for the other at Elk Creek since Aaron had on his GPS watch.
The race directors had moved the Elk Creek aid station from the trail head to a point 0.7 mile up the trail so the aid station volunteers would have cell phone signal. When I say up the trail, I mean UP the trail. It was a steep haul from the trail head parking lot up to the aid station. As I worked my way up the hill, I thought of my faithful crew who had lugged all the crew bags and gear up that hill for me on the way out. (They told me later theydidn’t quite know what they were getting into!) This time, they decided to meet me at the trail head parking lot—which was a fine plan, since I would come through there first, except now it was imperative for me NOT to stop at the parking lot, but get up to the actual aid station to check in as soon as possible. I hoped this would not disappointment the grandchildren, since I would not be able to stop and see them at the trail head.
Once again, Elizabeth had hiked out and was looking for us. When we reached her, she asked how I was doing and then hurried ahead up the hill to the aid station and to tell them I was coming in. As we came through the parking lot, Don, Kadan and Kolton joined us and ran/hiked along with me to the aid station. It sure seemed like a long 0.7 mile, but eventually I reached the actual aid station. I sat down a couple of minutes and ate another piece of watermelon. Elizabeth gave me a second piece in a baggie for on the trail.
It was huge for me to sit down for just a few minutes and take a load off of my legs and feet at almost every aid station. I know the ultrarunners’ mantra of “beware the chair,” but I never had trouble getting myself up again, and the little bits of rest really gave me a boost. I think it was about 2:55 when I came into Elk Creek and 3:05 when I left. The volunteers said the Bulldog aid station would be manned until 5:00 p.m.
The crew notes for Elk Creek say I was feeling good and going steady. I felt like I had moved steadily, albeit slowly, from Dalton Lake to Elk Creek. Now there was less than 20 miles left! The aid station volunteers told us there were two big climbs to reach Bulldog. We discovered that when these folks say “climb” they don’t mean individual uphill sections, but the whole doggone stretch to the highest point, which includes mostly uphill trail with some level and downhill parts. The trail from Elk Creek continued steeply uphill for quite a ways. I started hiking. I felt okay for a few minutes, but the climb seemed to drain the last bit of energy from my body. I tried to run on a few more moderate stretches of trail, but I couldn’t make my legs go. Then I started feeling wobbly even hiking, like I might just fall over.
I stopped for a minute and told Aaron I couldn’t run any more. He said, “That’s okay. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other.” I felt surprised at his response because from the time he started pacing me at the turnaround, he had been pushing me along—and now suddenly he wasn’t. Aaron calculated out loud the mileage left and how fast I would have to go to reach the finish line by 8:00 p.m. It was something impossible like 10 minute miles for the last 17 miles. As a good pacer, Aaron had been calculating splits in his head all along. Finishing before time ran out seemed tough but possible, until all the unplanned extra miles. Now it became apparent that there was no way I could make it to the finish line before the 8:00 p.m. final cutoff.
The fact that I wasn’t going to get my belt buckle and be an official finisher washed over me. Maybe because of all the times I had already given up the possibility of finishing or maybe because I was just so tired—for whatever reason, I didn’t feel crushed as reality set in. I just felt resigned. My biggest concern was disappointing my crew and the folks at Owl Hollow Farm.
My mind was foggy and groping for what to do now, when Aaron said, “Keep moving. We are going to finish anyway. You are going to finish what you came to do.”
I took a few steps forward. We were going to finish anyway. Of course we were. I was not going to be an official finisher, but I would be a finisher. My mind took hold of this new goal. Of course I was going to complete the course. There was no other acceptable alternative. I settled into a slow and laborious walk. The pressure to hurry was gone. I was no longer racing time cutoffs. It seemed impossible to me that I could cover still another 17 miles the way I felt, but I didn’t think about that too hard. I just did what Aaron told me to do and put one foot in front of the other.
Aaron admitted later that it was a relief to stop calculating splits in his head, which he had been doing continually for over fourteen hours, but he was feeling like somehow he had failed me as a pacer because he could not get me to the finish line before the final cutoff. In reality, he had been and continued to do an amazing job of helping me overcome discouragement and of motivating me to move forward. No one could have done a better job of pacing me. There is just a limit of how far one can push their body on so few calories for so long. The relentless stomach problems which prevented me from fueling were the undoing of my race. This would become vividly clear to me at the last aid station.
Aaron was starting to suffer physically, too. His feet were becoming painfully sore. Now that there was no reason to hurry, we just plodded along the trail. I didn’t even try to run for several miles. We sat down a few times to rest. This slow moseying pace finally allowed my body to recover and I found myself thinking I could eat something. I had very little in my vest pockets, however. I did eat a few animal crackers that I found. Aaron tried not to look at his Garmin because we were moving so painfully slow that it seemed like we were going nowhere.
After a while I was able to run a few short stretches now and then. Aaron’s feet were becoming excruciatingly painful. My muscles along my shin became painful when I ran downhill. Soon these muscles were painful when I even walked downhill, which was bad news since the course was net downhill from where we were. I decided it must be from braking down all the steep descents with my feet plantar flexed.
We started discussing what we would do if the Bulldog aid station was no longer set up. We decided that between us, we had enough fluid to make it to Alkali Creek if we conserved. Fortunately, the temperature was starting to drop into a more pleasant zone.
It was supposed to be 6.0 miles to Bulldog, but Aaron had 8.5 miles on his watch when we arrived around 6:00 p.m. The volunteers were starting to pack up, but they were still there. We thanked them profusely. We were very thankful to be able to refill our ice and water supplies. I grabbed a few grapes and sat down for a few minutes next to a young man who having knee problems and dropping from the 50-miler.
I was very concerned about our family crew waiting and waiting at Alkali Creek and wondering if we were okay. I asked the aid station volunteers if they had cell phone signal and they did, so I asked them to call ahead and tell our crew we were okay and we were coming, but not going to make the cutoff. I felt better when they were able to convey that message.
Aaron was starving and the aid station workers told him to take whatever he wanted so he grabbed a bag of chips to take along with us as we headed out. One more aid station and then the finish line. It was supposed to be 4.4 miles to Alkali Creek. There is a good climb out of Bulldog, and then a section of winding downhill switchbacks which would have been a blast to run if either of us were in better condition. We continued to make slow progress, mostly hiking with some running when I felt able. As we came out into the grassy area near Alkali Creek, I was able to run a bit more.
Once again, Elizabeth had hiked out to find us. It was great to see her! She was so encouraging and told us we had lots of fans cheering us on! Elizabeth had been posting updates on Facebook all day about how far along I was and how I was doing. She had asked for prayers for me when I was feeling so awful. Quite a few people had been following my progress online and told me later that they had prayed for me and that they appreciated knowing what was going on.
We ran with Elizabeth down to the creek, where Kadan and Kolton were having a great time playing, and went through the tunnel under the Interstate. After a short climb, we crested the hill and saw the aid station down below. They had kept this aid station open for us, too! Bless the volunteers! I sat down and asked for some- thing to eat. Finally, I was hungry! Someone fixed me a Honey Stinger waffle with chocolate hazelnut butter and I ate it all! I ate some watermelon, too. I told my crew, “I’m finishing.”
Elizabeth said, “That’s good, because we are not giving you any other options.”
I replied, “I’m glad we’re on the same page.”
Fellow Trail Nerd, William Sprouse was also at Alkali Creek. He had dropped out of the race due to some injury issues, but he came back to this aid station to check on how I was doing, which was very kind of him.
Soon it was time to move on and finish this thing! We picked up our lighting and I started hiking out as Aaron got his fuel and food. Elizabeth followed us out to take some photos. I knew we had a wicked climb ahead of us (remember that description of the first big climb?) but I was starting to feel a surge of energy. Getting in some substantial calories was like flipping a switch! I actually felt cheerful, my legs didn’t hurt anymore, and amazingly, I could run again! I was able to run better than I had since early in the race. It was incredible what some fuel in the tank did for me.
It was a long climb. At this point, I think Aaron was feeling worse than I was because of his feet. (For some reason the muscles in his feet were all cramped up.) Near the top of the huge hill, Aaron said, “Look over there!” I looked and saw a tiny fawn returning my gaze. It wasn’t quite sure what to think of us. We admired it for a few moments and then moved on. We made it down the steep descent and across the road. Up and over the grassy hills. Yes, here is where the photographer took our photos on the way out. I recognized landmarks and began to get excited about finally, finally reaching the finish. I thought we were getting close. It was supposed to be 5.7 miles from Alkali Creek to Woodle Field.
Aaron didn’t care for this final leg, as it looped around up and down every available hill in the area without really going anywhere. It got to be a joke. “I suppose we are running up that hill over there, too?” Aaron asked facetiously. Why yes, actually we are. It was much farther than I remembered it being on the outbound trip.
I really didn’t want to turn on my headlamp for a second night, but it got dark enough that I had no choice. We crossed a stile and ran passed a small military cemetery on the top of a hill. I remembered that. We had to be close now. We came down the hill and found a three-way split in the trail, but no flagging to tell us which way to go. Where now? I remembered going across a field so we opted to turn right. Soon that path dumped us out into a subdivision. Nothing looked familiar.
Across the street, an older lady was taking out her dog. “Is there a bike trail near here?” I hollered. She couldn’t hear us, so we had to walk closer. When we finally got her to understand the question, she assured us there was no bike trail nearby. “People sometimes ride their bikes around on this road,” she offered.
We turned around and backtracked. One of the other options was marked with the Centennial 89 brown post, but it headed off into the woods. I was pretty sure that was not the right way. We walked a ways up the third option which was sort of a gravely path. “Does anything look familiar?” Aaron kept asking me.
No, nothing looked familiar. On the way out, it was daylight, I was traveling the opposite direction, and I just followed the flagging and the runners ahead of me. We were lost.
Aaron suggested that we backtrack to a point that I was sure was on the course. I told him I was sure we had run past the military cemetery. That was way up the next hill and neither of us wanted to climb back up there, but we had no choice. Back we went. Then we looked to see if perhaps we had missed a turn off. There were no other turn offs. We did not have cell phones with us. “No one has any idea where we are,” Aaron said, “and we have no idea where we are.”
“I think we’d better pray,” I said and Aaron agreed. We sat down on the ground right where we were and prayed for God to help us find our way.
Where was Woodle Field? We turned off our lights and looked for the North Star. Locating north, we tried to calculate which way Woodle Field would be. Then we heard hollering. It was Elizabeth. I had heard some yelling earlier and thought it sounded like her, but I dismissed it as being kids playing out in their yard or something. But this time, I was sure it was Elizabeth. “They see our lights and are out looking for us,” I told Aaron. We decided he should run on ahead and find Elizabeth.
Thank the Lord that Elizabeth had hiked out to find us and stayed on that hill hollering for us. She had seen lights earlier and thought it was us, but then lost sight of them. I caught up to them and Elizabeth led us back. We had spent about forty-five minutes being lost.
The gravely path in the middle had been the right way. Elizabeth said we were about thirty minutes out from the finish. We went up over a small rise and down a gradual slope, then finally under the road and onto the bike trail. It was tough running on the concrete path, but only 1.2 miles to go. Elizabeth urged us on. The concrete path seemed like running on a treadmill in the dark. It seemed like we were getting nowhere, but finally the lights of Woodle Field came into view.
Was this really it? Was I really going to finish this course? No one was left at the park other than my family crew, but that was all right with me. They were the ones who counted, and they were all clapping and cheering for me as I ran across the dark parking lot.
Another wish of mine was granted—the finish line archway was still standing. It would have been a bit anticlimax to just run into the grass of the park and think, “Well, the finish line was here somewhere.” But it was still up! Elizabeth told me this was my moment of glory and videotaped me in the dark as I ran under it—finally done! As close as we can figure, my finishing time was 36 hours, 34 minutes, 31 seconds (including the time we were lost). By the grace of God, and with the love and support of my family crew, and prayers from many friends, I had run 106+ miles. I had completed every step of the course.
It felt strange to stop running and be done. My legs didn’t hurt and I actually felt decent. Elizabeth directed me to stand in front of the banner on the fence that said “Finish” and took some photos. Then we all climbed into our cars and headed home. I took home no belt buckle, but I took home the satisfaction of knowing I had finished.
It was hard a few days later when results were posted on UltraSignUp.com to see my name listed under DNF. Then there was the email offering a 25% discount on next year’s entry fee to anyone who DNFed.
It is inevitable, I suppose. My daughter-in-law said she knew it before I did myself. I have to go back. I have unfinished business with that course. I don’t know yet if it will be possible for us to travel back to South Dakota next June, but Lord willing, I will try again. Next time, I want to return home with the satisfaction of finishing and with a belt buckle.
Many thanks to all of you who supported me with kind words and prayers! And it’s not too late to donate to Owl Hollow Farm! We have raised about $520, and I would dearly love to see that amount doubled!