In this episode we tell you all about our summer ultramarathon sufferfest in the mountains of South Dakota and Montana. Plus coach Angie will explain how to effectively go from marathon to 50k.
The Black Hills 50k
I choose the Black Hills 50k in Sturgis as my South Dakota race in my quest to finish a marathon or beyond in all 50 states. There were a couple of other options in the state that I’d been eying but this race was too convenient to pass up. It also landed exactly one week after my Michigan marathon.
Even though this is not a big race I received good communication from the race directors. In fact, they sent out a couple very amusing missives detailing information about the course. The 50k was part of multiple other distances that they offered including a 30k, 50 mile, and 100 miler.
We arrived in town Thursday before the race and stayed at the Sturgis RV Park & Campground where packet pickup was taking place.
The race offered busing out to the start line from the city park and the 50k bus left at 6am. It was already completely light by this time and getting warm which worried me a bit. It was a 45 minute bus ride to the start line. When we got to our starting area near the aid station at Dalton Lake there was a few port-a-pots, a couple camper trailers for the volunteers, the drop bag area for the 50 and 100 milers, and the food table. The sun was feeling very hot already and we had over an hour wait until the 8am start. As we waited there were several 100 milers coming through the aid station and we were able to cheer them on.
The 50k distance was a point to point course. 95% of it was single track following the Centennial Trail. Marking the 100th anniversary of statehood, 1889 to 1989, the 111-mile Centennial Trail represents the diversity of South Dakota. The Trail crosses the prairie grasslands near Bear Butte State Park and climbs into the Black Hills high country, skirting lakes and streams until it reaches Wind Cave National Park near Hot Springs.
The starting elevation was 4,455 ft and there was a total of 3,891 ft of climbing. Here are some excerpts from the race directors about the course:
“Every year we say pretty much the same thing: the course is easy to follow, but don’t miss this one key turn. And every year someone misses that one key turn. The majority of our course follows the Centennial trail, which for the most part is well marked with the standard #89 buffalo skull trail signs. FOR ALL DISTANCES, if you’re cruising along and you see a small white sign with a red ‘W’ on it, that doesn’t mean, “WOW, you’re doing a great job!” It actually means, “WOW, you’re about to f%&* up!” For our purposes, W=WRONG WAY. No matter where you are, a W sign is a bad omen. If you see a W, turn around, go back to the last intersection and reevaluate your options. The basic rule for our course is, if you don’t see very clear markings telling you to turn off the trail you’re on, don’t turn off the trail you’re on.”
There were five creek crossings, one which came over my knees. I always find the first creek crossing (or time you get your feet wet to be a bit daunting). They had ropes strung across the crossings to hang onto since the creek bottom was a bit slippery and the water flowing fairly strong. But after that first crossing the coId water felt very refreshing. Thankfully my On Cloudventures dried quickly. I found the course to be very clearly marked and it was beautiful with views of mountains, valleys, trees, and a few cattle.
The aid stations were located approximately every 7 miles. They were well stocked with fueling supplies and the usual great ultra food offerings. They handed out collapsible cups at packet pick up to cut down on the number of disposable cups. The race email said,
“In reality, if you’re running an event like this you should probably have a liquid carrying vessel of some sort on your person. We really don’t care if it’s a collapsible cup or an empty beer can that you scavenged from the bed of your truck, but we would strongly encourage you to carry something reusable to drink out of. Just doing our part to save the planet, one cup (or beer can) at a time!”
I stayed very conservative the first half and didn’t really pass people unless they were hiking uphill more slowly than me. I remember looking down at my watch about midway and thinking that I’d already been out there longer than my last marathon. But overall I enjoyed being out on the trail and was able to keep my headspace very positive. I kept rolling my right ankle several times which really hurt but it didn’t seem to interfere with my ability to run. I also caught my foot several times on the trail but managed to catch myself before falling.
For gear I was wearing my compression socks (for support and protection of the legs in tall grass/weeds), ON Cloud Ventures, Trail Toes ointment, Nathan Vapor Airess Pack, and UCAN bars. Trevor and the boys met me at the final large aid station at Alkali Creek (around mile 24) and gave me a Mountain Dew which hit the spot with the jolt of caffeine and sugar.
I didn’t get passed by anyone in the last 8 miles and was able to make up some ground. For the final mile the course came off the trail back into town to the finish area in the City Park. I was able to pass several people and my final mile was my fastest with a 9:45 pace. My finish time was 7:41:44 for my 3rd 50k (and slowest to date). They gave out a nice finisher’s mug (and the race shirt was great as well). I was 34th out of 96 50k runners.
The finish cut off for all the distances was 8pm on Saturday June 29th, 2019 (the 100 milers had started the previous day).
- The 100 miler had 41 finishers. The men’s winner was Andrew Pavek with a time of 21:47:58. The women’s winner was Lisa Walbridge with a time of 27:01:04.
- The 50 miler had 62 finishers. The men’s winner was Devon Olson with a time of 7:50:40. The women’s winner was Christine O’Gorman with a time of 11:14:34.
- The 50k had 96 finishers. The men’s winner was Mark Marzen with a time of 4:36:25. The women’s winner was Denise Kaelberer with a time of 6:16:44.
- The 30k had 93 finishers. The men’s winner was Tim Fryer with a time of 2:50:38. The women’s winner was Alicia Porsch with a time of 3:18:03.
- Shout out to MTA listener Yoko Hartland who finished in 3:36:19 and placed first in her AG.
After finishing I felt pretty tired from all those hours in the heat. We had a nice dinner to celebrate and then hit the road the next day to continue our travels. I was pretty stiff and sore, especially through the quads, for the next three days and came away with a couple bruised toenails. I’m guessing that my body wasn’t completely recovered from the marathon a week before. Still, I thoroughly enjoyed the race and would recommend it to anyone who wants to enjoy some great trails in South Dakota.
The Divide 50k took place on July 13. My build up wasn’t stellar but I had good mental training after reading the book Can’t Hurt Me by David Goggins.
The race started in Thompson Park- a large land area south of Butte that connects to the Continental Divide Trail (the CTD runs from Canada to Mexico along the Continental Divide 3,100 miles).
The Course: The course was single track- kinda congested the first mile until everyone spread out. It took a while for everyone to filter out to their correct pace. The course description just listed a bunch of trails that I’d never heard of since I wasn’t from the area. There were tiny orange flags along the course for directions. Sometimes there weren’t any flags there and you had to refer to your directions. Ran for a couple miles and I knew there would be tunnels- the race recommended bringing a headlamp (which I didn’t since I didn’t want to carry more stuff- I could make it through with my phone light).
We came to the first tunnel and there were runners ahead of me so I took it easy so I didn’t trip on anything. We came out the other side (an old railroad line turned into a trail/bike path (Milwaukee Trail) but then I started seeing runners coming toward me and I realized that something was wrong. There was a group of four runners who said they saw the fast people ahead emerging from the side of the trail. They thought they missed a loop.
Sure enough, before the tunnel, the course went off to the left. It was marked with flags but we all missed it (10 in front of me and 5 behind me). I back tracked for a mile. As we were running back to find the turn we missed we kept intercepting runners and telling them the bad news. We had to run back through the tunnel. I pulled out my map (it says, “do not go through the tunnel- turn left before the tunnel).
This illustrates that when you’re out there running on trails it’s so easy to get into a rhythm, especially if it’s a hot day, and your brain is totally not alert to the course. It also illustrates how easy it is to follow people ahead even if you’re not totally sure about it. It felt like a vortex (black hole) that pulled us all in since we were expecting to run through a tunnel. We got back on course and it added a couple miles to our total distance.
We eventually came to the right tunnel (the one we were supposed to run through) and right when I got to the mouth of the tunnel (it was an old railway tunnel-massive), there was a huge slab of ice spanning the whole front of the tunnel (which was cold with water dripping through). Everyone was walking through the tunnel to avoid slipping on the ice. There was a nice cool breeze coming through the tunnel which felt good in contrast to the hot day. The further into it the darker it got and pretty soon I couldn’t see a thing.
I thought, “Oh, this is why they told us to bring a headlamp.” It was so dark you couldn’t see your feet. There was a runner behind me that I was talking to and I waited for her to catch up so I could run in her light to the end of the tunnel. Another interesting feature was that we got to run across a bridge that was also at one time, like a rail to trail bridge, which spanned this massive canyon with beautiful views.
We came to the first aid station at the 16k point (Pipestone Pass). It was a dude at a table where they had all kinds of water and snacks. All I needed was some salt so I grabbed a bag of potato chips and was good to go. We had to run up the highway a little ways to get back on a trail. Once we got back on the trail it eventually connected to the CDT (the first time we ran on it). It has wooden markers (little signs with CDT burned on them). I was pretty much by myself for the next couple of hours. I saw maybe one other runners. I also saw some hikers and cyclists out recreationally, not connected to the race. But the higher I got the more spectacular the views got. I could see Butte in the distance. It was a clear and gorgeous day, even though it was a bit hot.
Slogging Up the Mountain
I’m slowing way down slogging up the mountain. I knew that the next aid station was at the 25k (halfway) point and ending for the 25k runners. But I didn’t know at any given point what kilometer I was in because my watch always dies so I was only using it for music. The instructions that they gave us didn’t give kilometer marks and the course didn’t say what point I was at. All I knew was what time I had started. On the way down the mountain it was endless switchbacks, that’s all I remember.
I had thoughts of “this is just going to be a long day on the trails.” I love trails and nature so I thought it was an awesome way to spend the day. But like happens to every runner during a race I was concerned at how long it would take me to finish. But I tried to crowd those thoughts out with things like, no sound of civilization, no other runners, enjoying the trail, alone trek through the mountains.
But I was wondering if I was going to have to run the entire course again, I was confused because people past the turn around point were coming back on that trail. They were very nice and said “great job”. I was amazed because they were running all the uphills, uphills I knew I would be walking.
Half Way Point
I got to the aid station. There were 4 or 5 runners there (one or two had just finished the 25k and they were going to get a ride back to the start). There was lots of food to choose from, all kinds of goodies. I grabbed another bag of chips and filled my water up. There was all kinds of candy and bars. They did have some lawn chairs and I sat down and got the rocks out of my shoes (it felt great to sit down). The clouds started to get very dark because there was a 40% chance of thunderstorms that day. Around that time you texted me and said “are you getting any of this rain?” So I knew it was coming. When I refilled my water I filled it to the brim and immediately felt dumb because I knew I’d have to carry all that weight. In retrospect it was a good decision because that was the last water I would come across. The last aid station was unmanned with a bunch of empty water jugs.
After leaving the aid station I had a long slow slog back up the mountain. One lady passed me as we went 5 miles back up the way I came. The next turn was not going to be marked with flags I was told. So I had to pay close attention to Beaver Ponds Road. It started to rain and actually hailed on me a little bit. It cooled the air down and blocked the sun but it didn’t really soak us. I did get out my poncho and put it on but it was superfluous and it actually made me sweat more because they’re not breathable.
I continued on feeling very tired and my legs feeling quite dead. And then I got a text from you wondering how far I was along. All I knew was that I’d passed the 25k point plus 5 more miles. So I had you help me figure out how much I had left because I couldn’t do math very swiftly. My ears got all plugged up which happens to me when I’m out trail running and I couldn’t hear very well. I was worried about my water situation because I couldn’t get enough, I was sucking it down like a camel. Since I couldn’t breathe through my nose I had to catch my breath after getting a drink.
I ate a pop tart after around 21 miles that tasted so good. I hadn’t had one in decades (strawberry with frosting).
There was a tiny stream crossing and I bent down to splash some water on my face and could see little gold specks in the stream and it reminded me of gold panning in Juneau, AK. When I bent down I laid down on the ground and it felt so good. Then I thought to myself, “Angie would never allow herself to do this, even if no-one was around on principle.”
After I got going again it seemed like every rock and tree stump looked like an inviting chair. I had to resist the urge to sit. There was one point where I tree had fallen across the trail and I just laid back for a minute and it felt great. I thought, “if this wasn’t a race I’d probably take a longer break here.” As I was laying there a runner came up to me and said, “how’s the lactic acid treating you?” And I felt embarrassed to be laying on the ground with another runner nearby because I hadn’t seen another runner for a long time. I ended up running with Anna from Bozeman (grew up in PA) for a while and we did some talking. She was feeling tired but went on ahead of me.
Originally when you guys dropped me off we talked about getting you at 3pm which would be seven hours. By 2pm I knew I wouldn’t make it in by 3pm. It was hard to make myself keep going and it was still mostly uphill, but gradual, so I was doing a lot of walking. All I could think about was how I would love to jump in a lake and to hold my head under a fountain of fresh clean water and guzzle water. I would have drank out of the stream if it was safe because I was having to ration my water. I was also starting to get cramps on the inside of my thighs which I’d never felt before.
I got to the very last stop where there was supposed to be water but all there was was five empty gallons of water.
Other than that it hurt in the usual places that a marathon does. And my neck was sore too from the combination of looking down and carrying my pack, maybe bad form. So, with 2 miles to go a runner came upon me and he had told me that this was going to be his fastest 50k (his 3rd one in 14 days). I asked him “why.” He said, “just to see what I have in me.”
I crossed the finish line at about 4:30 in the afternoon. There was a small group hanging out who started clapping for me as I crossed. The race director gave me the chintziest medal that I’d ever seen. But they had some great food. I grabbed some Pringles and a beer and sat down and put my recovery sandals on. But it was great to be done and it was a very satisfying feeling to have finished that distance on very minimal training.