Black Hills 100 Mile | South Dakota | June 25, 2011
More Ponderosa Pine Than You Can Shake a Stick At
By Gary Dudney
I sit like a prince high up in the cab of my jet-black GMC Denali SUV rental sipping coffee and waiting for the start of the inaugural Black Hills 100 mile in Sturgis, South Dakota. A school bus painted black with “Lean Horse Ale” in white lettering on its side sits in the parking lot next to Woodle Field’s immaculate track. There is a big blue inflatable arch on the track and a clock ticking down the last ten minutes before the race. A few puffy clouds float above a fringe of Ponderosa pine on the cliffs overhead. Then a guy walks by dressed in a pink tutu carrying a magic wand with a star on top. I hope to God he will not be running at my pace for the next 30 hours.
Race directors Jerry Dunn, Chris Storrs and Ryan Phillips have billed Black Hills as an alternative to Western States for the many lottery losers. The two races share the same day, June 25, and as it turns out, kick off at exactly the same instant, 5 AM PDT in California and 6 AM MDT in South Dakota. Chris Storrs has written in the pre-race build up that the Black Hills should be a worthy alternative to Western States, noting that “it’s rugged, with sharper elevation gains and a tougher trail” than the Lean Horse 100, its sister race farther south in the Black Hills, but in fact most runners expect a pretty easy run. These are “hills” after all, and we’re crossing “creeks” and were following a fully maintained state trail, number 89, the Centennial Trail, established in 1989 to commemorate South Dakota’s 1889 statehood. How hard can “Cruisin’ the 89,” as the slogan goes, possibly be?
A little over a day later the results are in. Western States this year has proven to be something of a pushover, registering a record 83% of the starters crossing the finish line with a remarkable 125 runners receiving silver buckles for sub-24 hour performances. At the Black Hills 100 by contrast, the runners have been tripped up, hailed on, soaked to the bone, bushwhacked and generally beat to a pulp. Only 28 of the ninety or so starters have made it to the finish under the 32 hour cutoff and exactly two runners have earned sub-24 hour buckles. The Black Hills of South Dakota have spoken loud and clear.
Called the “Black Hills” because of their dark appearance from a distance, the region is an island of trees in a sea of grass. The race course cuts through a large swath of the Black Hills National Forest, traveling fifty miles to the turnaround at Pactola Reservoir through river canyons and endless Ponderosa pine and Black Hills spruce. Much of the trail was difficult with steep climbs and descents and tons of broken rock. On sections of jeep roads, there were foul looking mud puddles baking in the sun that stretched from one side of the road to the other with slippery edges just waiting for a misstep.
After a warm day on the trail and half of the 16,000 feet of elevation gain behind us, the night fell quickly as a storm front moved in and a Wagnerian lightning and hail storm greeted the first steps of our return trip to Sturgis fifty miles and many dark hours away. An hour of pouring rain left the trails covered in slippery mud and made the uphills all but impossible to negotiate unless you found rocks to include in your footsteps. Long after the storm had passed, the forest was still lit up by ghostly lightning flashes from far in the east. The ubiquitous puddles, full of croaking frogs at night, expanded with the rain and now the treacherous mud was everywhere. When I took my inevitable fall into one man-eating puddle, I banged my ear on the road hard enough to make it bleed and stood up to find my race number obliterated and a handful of mud where my flashlight had been. The trail markers were easy to lose in the dark. I spent a nice chunk of time backtracking after I had wandered off course and picked up another runner on the way who had missed the same marker that I had. The creeks had swollen into rushing torrents that would have been uncrossable without the ropes that the race directors had provided.
A series of three sharp climbs in the last five miles of the race formed the final barrier to the runners before they were allowed a blissful stroll down a bike path and a cushy jog around the track back at Woodle Field for a hard-earned finish. There was certainly much about the Black Hills 100 to love on top of it being a worthy ultrarunning challenge. The course and the area in general are beautiful. The aid and support on the run was exceptional. There were concurrent 50 mile and 100 kilometers races in conjunction with the hundred mile distance. Sturgis, home of the nation’s largest motorcycle rally, has tons of character, and the race venues (host hotel, community center for pre-race meeting, and the start and finish at Woodle Field) are all off the same main street and within a couple of miles of each other. The Old Fort Meade Calvary Museum and Bear Butte State Park are on the outskirts of town and just 12 miles down the road is Deadwood, noted for its legal gambling and site of Wild Bill Hickok’s demise during an unfortunate poker game. The entire town of Deadwood is a National Historic Landmark.
One thing you won’t find in the Black Hills are flies and mosquitoes, despite all the standing water. Maybe the frogs keep ahead of them or maybe the nation’s flies and mosquitoes have just not gotten the memo about the Black Hills. Oh, also, the guy in the pink tutu finished in seventh place, way ahead of me.