Twice Baked Gnarly – An Exercise in Survival: Part III

Black Hills 100  June 24-25 2016

The Black Hills 100, leg 3 of the Gnarly Bandit, was new territory for me.  While I had finished Zumbro and Kettle prior to this year’s events, the only connection I had to the Black Hills race was that I’d donated an entry fee three years earlier.  I never made it to the start of that race, so this year I would somehow have to get a double entry fees worth of pain and satisfaction out of the run.  Who could have known that that was exactly what the Centennial Trail from Sturgis to Silver City was holding in store?

Once again, I’d be coddled with personal transportation from Minneapolis to the race start in Sturgis.  Being about a 9 hour drive, we wanted to leave early on Thursday.  We departed shortly after 5 am, right on schedule.  Having worked the night before, I was only afforded about 3 1/2 hours sleep prior to departure, so I spent a decent amount of the ride there nodding and dozing amid the passenger comforts of the Geo.  It is kind of a boring stretch of road to drive, but one is kept excited with the anticipation of reaching Wall Drug and its multitude of treasures.  When you finally get there and see it is just some crappy little town, all you want to do is keep on driving.  So we did, and a short time later we reached Rapid City and the beginnings of the Black Hills.

Another half hour of driving, now with scenery abound, and we had reached the site of our campground.  I spent some time the week before carefully studying the dozen or so campgrounds listed on the website, and chose the best looking one, “Camp Rush No More”.  And I’ll be danged if it wasn’t the best campground in all of South Canada!  We claimed our site, and then drove the 5 miles further into the city of Sturgis for packet pick up at the city park.  The park was situated in a beautiful spot, nestled at the base of a massive bluff.  I imagined what it would be like to watch a Friday night football game at Woodle Field with the giant hill as a backdrop.

Back at Camp Rush No More, I couldn’t have been happier.  We had a great campsite, with time to relax.  It was wooded and private, with bathrooms and showers just a stones pitch away.  I was ready for the task to come, and was now free to enjoy the nature and the weather for a few hours before turning in.  A few other campers arrived at the site near ours.  In my last blog posting, I mentioned that I expected to cross paths with a man named Jim Lemke.  As it happened, we would meet that evening before the race, as he would be my camp neighbor!  Coincidence, I think not.  I had to decline his offer to go to breakfast at Perkins in Rapid City Friday morning.  It was too far in the wrong direction for me the day of the race, plus I don’t know if I could have eaten anything there anyways.

I ended up catching and passing Jim, maybe 12 or 15 miles into the race.  He looked pretty parched.  The mid-day heat and sun was doing a number on him, and he appeared to be motoring in recovery mode at that early stage.  Temperatures of up to 105 degrees F can do that to a person. I didn’t see Jim again until after the turnaround, him being a few miles behind me by that point.  I was feeling the heat too, but I was feeling strong and was still building steam.  It wouldn’t be for another 10 miles or so before my wheels started to rattle.

When I came into the Dalton Lake Aid Station around mile 30, the heat of the day had taken a toll on me.  I knew I was behind.  I needed to eat and I needed to drink.  I was slightly nauseous from the heat.  My internals had been living in a state of half clenched uncertainty for some hours.  I was so tired.  The past couple miles I had been scheming how I was going to take an hour nap come the turnaround, time permitting.  Kari took good care of me, setting me in a chair, bringing me food and drink.  I got a fresh shirt and pair of socks, buff and headlamp.  I was no less blasted from the heat, but I was remade and recovered enough to continue.

The sun was finished for the day, and the temperature was now relenting.  When I reached the aid station at 42 miles, I got a couple of surprises.  Kari was there dressed to run, “Wait a minute, did I miss something, I couldn’t be at the turnaround already”, I thought.   No, it was only mile 42.  Ed had dropped her off here while he turned back to meet his runner.  Kari would get a ride up to Silver City from here.  The next surprise was the food.  “Is that bacon!?”, I exclaimed.  I grabbed a handful, must have been 8 slices, then a hot cheese quesadilla, and chicken noodle soup!  I devoured this fine food, eating as much as I dared, it tasted so good.  Within 20 seconds of consumption, my stomach finally felt right, for the first time all day.  If only that had been a sign of things to come…

Evening had arrived and I was feeling somewhat renewed.  I made it to the 50 mile mark at Silver City and was ushered inside some kind of old schoolhouse or community building to another surprise.  Mark Smith, who I’d shared the battle of Kettle with, was there with updates and words of support.  He had taken respite from a family reunion in Rapid City to come check on us Black Hills runners.  I thank him particularly for his weather reports that may have spurred me to take a light jacket for the return trip.  After baking in the sun and heat all day, a jacket was one of the furthest things from my mind, but I had one packed in my drop bag for the overnight, just in case.  As it turned out, I was oh so glad to have it as the temperature dipped and the wind whipped.

I was keeping it together, but I felt the fade was ready to come heavy.  I knew I would have to start on the coke real soon, sooner than I wanted, but it was necessary.  The night went by quickly, and soon the sun was rising.  This is usually a rejuvenating point in a 100 mile race, getting through the night and feeling enlivened by the sun of the new day.  This was not the case here.  Everything seemed backwards in this race.  The sun rising merely sparked the realization that I still had a full day of work ahead of me.  The reprieve of nightfall was gone.  Today wouldn’t be as hot as the day before, thank goodness, but it was still going to get warm.

The rest of the miles were kind of a blur.  I was really tired.  My legs were still in great shape, so I was running hard when I could.  I knew there was plenty of time, as long as I kept moving forward.  My only real concern was staying awake to do it.  Few points of this race were comfortable.   While there were many nice runnable sections of trail, the weather variables didn’t allow for them to be fully enjoyed.  And the hills here are no joke.  There are several good climbs in both directions.  It is quite reminiscent of the ascents at the Leadville 100, save the altitude.

As I logged out the final miles of this day, I didn’t feel good about the whole experience.  I felt internally violated by this race.  It hadn’t been a fair fight.  We finally exited the Centennial Trail, crossing a street and on to the sidewalk for the final 1/2 mile.  During these steps, emotions were welling up within me.  I had to fight back tears.  I don’t know what I was feeling exactly: some weird combination of relief, happiness, sadness, anger, and pure exhaustion.  It wouldn’t be until later that I could really appreciate what this accomplishment meant.  But that did slowly begin as other runners came in to finish.

Just minutes after me, the next finisher came in.  It was Jim Lemke!  This excited me.  I clapped and shouted some cheers.  Susan Donnelly had passed me by at the last aid station and finished just ahead of me.  The three remaining Gnarly Bandits after this day interestingly finished in order: 16th, 17th, and 18th places, respectively, within 35 minutes of each other.  The next finisher was who other than trail running legend John Taylor, raising both arms above his head as he crossed the line.  Following him were a handful of other runners who I’d spent time with over the last couple days.

Chad Brower, who I’d met and become friends with at Zumbro this year, finished his first 100 miler in fashion, being paced and crewed by his wife and 15-year old son.  His determination and focus through the final 1/4 of the race was evident, as his running stride had declined to barely faster than a brisk walk.  A younger runner named Chancell, whose legs looked in much worse shape than Chad’s with 20+ miles left, would finish next.  He had pushed through obvious pain, and found a working rhythm with his trekking poles to make those final miles happen.

I feel in some respects that my role as an ultra runner expanded during this weekend.  Being still fairly new to the sport, I have usually found myself watching and learning from others more experienced, despite maintaining a strong and independent individual constitution (something quite obviously necessary to be successful in these events).  On this day, I felt 100% within my self and my plan, in spite of the extreme conditions.  I felt on a number of occasions that I was able to offer some wisdom and reassurances to fellow runners, that may have contributed in some small way to their successes.  I hope that I can continue to achieve my dreams, and in doing so, grow as a resource of knowledge for others.

In conclusion, this was a bitch of a race.  The ~40% finisher rate is pretty clear evidence of this statement.  As we drove away from Sturgis on Sunday morning, I finally felt good about it all.  You couldn’t have removed the smile from my face with 100 grit sandpaper, it had taken over my entire head.  The ride home was enjoyable, as I relished in glory for every minute of it.  The power mullet had done its job.  I should be able to get by with just the beard from here.

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