Saturday June 24 started auspiciously: the weather was cool and I awoke feeling rested when my alarm went off at 4:30 am. Three months ago when I flipped a coin to decide whether or not to register for the Black Hills 50k, I figured I’d be going in a bit undertrained. However, I’d managed to cap out at 62 miles with almost 7000′ of climbing including a long run on the race course. Not too bad for an old guy with 2 kids and a pretty demanding job!
I made my way down to the finish line to meet the bus to the start, where I had a chance to commune with this lovely goat and send an obnoxious number of texts to Kate and my dad.
The bus left right on time for the winding drive to Dalton Lake. Happily, there was at least one other nervous talker on board, and everyone seemed to tolerate my chatting magnanimously. The long wait at the starting line proved pleasant, as I talked to most of the other participants and tried to stay reasonably warm. The first little nervous moment happened when I forgot to check in. Fortunately the race director called the names of the missing runners and I hopped up like a pogo stick to shout “present.”
Due to a re-route for a forest service timber sale, the course started on a sloping gravel road. I settled into a pleasant rhythm near the front. Seven runners strung out ahead of me. I figured I’d see at least a few of them again. With one exception, I was wrong.
Almost all of my runs are solitary, but during a race I love how company helps the miles click by. True to form, I barely noticed the first mile chatting with a fellow local runner who’d run the 100 last year. When we hit the first hill, he decided to drop back and I was on my own, as I would be for the rest of the race.
The section of the Centennial Trail from Dalton to Elk Creek is rocky, twisting single track dropping up and down the scenic canyons. When we hit the top of the first hill, my erstwhile conversation partner zipped by, noting that downhill running was his strength and kindly saying I’d probably catch him on the next climb. I did not.
I’ve always been a big, clumsy guy, though running is one sport where that’s not such a big deal. Unfortunately, technical trail running is the exception, and I’ve been known to take brutal falls. As I eased into the long downhill, I could already sense that I’d have some trouble finding a rhythm. The twisty, rocky singletrack is lovely and also quite treacherous for my heavy size 13 feet.
At about mile 4, another runner cruised by me on a gentle downhill. Watching him fleetly run past, I took my first fall, hard on my left knee. Falls generally fill me with a sense of shame and frustration, though I popped up quickly and relatively unharmed. This would be my first of 3 falls before the first aid station (mile 6) along with 3-4 near misses. I was pissed!
Pride wounded, not the mention left knee sore, I resolved to slow down and give the course what it was asking for: for me to be slow and careful. I jealously cursed runners who can nimbly dance over technical trails, though of course I damn near tripped every time my mind wandered into malice.
Slowly but surely the miles clicked by, bolstered by the kind aid station volunteers and the pleasant views (though I was too annoyed with my slow pace to stop and take pictures). Past Elk Creek the trail played to my strengths a bit more (grinding up runnable climbs chiefly), and I began to hope I’d make up ground. I did pass one quick-starting runner who admitted to struggling along with a smattering of bedraggled and admirable 100 milers.
All-in-all I felt pretty solid: focused, balanced heart rate, no issues other than a tight hamstring and newly sore knee. My fitness seemed to outpace my technical abilities, and I still harbored hope that I might catch a few struggling runners and move up the pack. I was encouraged by hitting familiar territory, and cruised into the final aid station at Alkali Creek suspecting that I’d be able to meet my goal of strongly running the last 7 miles.
For the first time during the race, I let the volunteers fill my bottles, feeling thirsty and dizzy. I knew this last section well. The temperature was rising into the mid 70s which shouldn’t have felt warm but did. I noticed some nausea after I downed an extra cup of HEED. I passed a pleasantly delirious 100 miler who’d been out for 27 hours as he played some Micheal Jackson from a hidden speaker. And on a mild incline, I walked. It’s hard to explain, but some switch suddenly snapped off. Perhaps it was muscle fatigue, nutrition, and incipient dehydration, but I struggled the rest of the way.
My lack of rhythm came to it’s fullest fruition over the last 6 miles. I hiked the last real hill, heart rate hitting 90% at 15 minute/mile pace. I did mange to remind myself that I could let gravity do it’s work on the downhills, though my legs felt trashed and I just didn’t have the energy to push. The exposed and rolling final 3 trail miles were awfully bleak, and I was passed by the 50 mile leader who appeared to be hurting and determined.
As the route turned on to the bike path for the final mile, my commitment to shuffling the last stretch at any cost totally collapsed. I played the mental game of “run to that bench then you can walk” in ever shortening increments until I saw my family just a few yards from the finish. My four year old was bouncing with his boundless energy, and he shouted out “c’mon Dad, race me.” He won by a nose as we crossed the finish line, by far the highlight of my day. I finished 8th overall/2nd Age Group, a bit lower and much slower than I’d hoped but still a minor moral victory that I didn’t get run down over the last few painful miles.
Reflecting today as I nurse my sore legs and wounded pride, I’m reminded that I run precisely for days like yesterday. Having to adapt on the fly, humble myself, and push through pain is running’s greatest gift. And I’ll be out there again, perhaps with a few more terrain specific long runs, bigger water bottles, and a sterner focus on getting in calories. In case someone actually reads this, I also want to thank the race directors, aid station volunteers, and all the fellow runners! Most of all, I’m immensely grateful for my family, who support this ridiculous hobby, share in the ups-and-downs, and were there to get me across the finish line and bring me potato chips while I laid on the floor all afternoon. Thank you for sharing this little adventure with me. I can’t wait to share in yours.