A guest post by Chris Stores
|Credit: Johnathan Karol|
|Credit: Johnathan Karol|
At first glance, the Black Hills aren’t all that intimidating. After all, there’s a reason they’re called the Black “Hills” and not the Black “Mountains.” They rise gently out of the surrounding prairie into rounded, tree-covered lumps. No sheer cliffs rising almost straight up like you’ll find along the Rocky Mountain front in places like Montana or Colorado. Prominent peaks are rare in the Black Hills, replaced by gradually rolling terrain where one high point looks remarkably similar to the next… and the next… and the one after that. The most prominent peak in the entire landscape is one made so by man, bearing the likeness of four legendary presidents. 14,000-foot peaks are a pipe dream in the Black Hills, with the highest point, Harney Peak, rising to a mere 7,244 feet. If the Rockies of Colorado were the star quarterback of the football team, the Black Hills of South Dakota would be the 90 pound freshman riding the bench. But, as they say, looks can be deceiving.
Ultrarunning isn’t an entirely new endeavor in the Black Hills. In the late 90s, when the number of 100 mile races in the U.S. was still relatively small, the Mt. Rushmore 100 was created and was held for several years. Ultimately, problems with trail marking and disagreements between the race directors led to that race’s demise. For a few years the Black Hills, and all of South Dakota for that matter, were ultra-less, something noticed by an admittedly miniscule number of people. In 2005, Jerry Dunn, founder of the Deadwood-Mickelson Trail Marathon, brought the Lean Horse Ultra to Hot Springs, SD, nestled on the southern edge of the Black Hills. That race, which is held almost entirely on a relatively flat, smooth stretch of the Mickelson Trail, quickly gained a reputation as a good beginner ultra or as a great place for ultra veterans to post a fast time. And, ultimately, that race led to the creation of the Black Hills 100 six years later.
As one might guess, the ultrarunning community in the Black Hills is small. Like, “count the ultrarunners on your fingers and toes” small. But, as so often happens, people with similar interests are eventually drawn together, which is how I met Ryan Phillips. We were both training for our first 100 (Lean Horse, of course) and found ourselves trudging up a hill on the Centennial Trail one morning, discussing the future of ultrarunning in South Dakota. Ryan had an idea for a new ultra along the Centennial, one that would challenge runners in all the ways that Lean Horse didn’t, with single track trails, grinding ascents, multiple creek crossings and amazing views… everything you could hope for in a trail run in the mountains. While power-hiking up a particularly steep, washed out section of trail, I could easily see the picture Ryan was painting. And that’s how ultramarathons are born.
The Centennial Trail, so named because of its dedication in South Dakota’s centennial year of 1989, traverses a total of 110 miles of the Black Hills, from the summit of Bear Butte in the north to Custer State Park in the central Hills. Unlike the rails-to-trails Mickelson Trail, the Centennial is primarily single track, linked together where necessary by old logging roads. The section we chose for the Black Hills 100 lies in the northern Hills, beginning at the Woodle Field track in the city of Sturgis, legendary for the annual motorcycle rally, and stretching southward as far as Silver City, a not-quite-abandoned mining town deep in the Black Hills. In between is a roller coaster ride that deceptively accumulates over 16,000 feet of elevation gain in the form of small, but nearly constant, ups and downs. It’s an out and back route, a result of both logistics (fewer aid stations, volunteers and less course marking) and bureaucracy (the impossibility of obtaining a permit to use the portion of the Centennial Trail that crosses the Black Elk Wilderness near Mt. Rushmore). For those not ready for the full 100 miles, shorter routes of 50 miles and 100 km are also offered.
The race is held each year on the last weekend of June in an attempt to take advantage of the narrow window between late spring/early summer rains and mid-summer heat. That also happens to be the same weekend as the legendary Western States 100, the Super Bowl of ultra running. We were well aware of this when they set the date for the Black Hills 100. We were also aware that demand far exceeds supply at Western States; only a fraction of those who want to run it each year will actually get that opportunity. So why not offer an event that presents a similar challenge at the same time of year?
The inaugural race took place in 2011 and quickly earned a reputation as a tough finish thanks largely in part to Mother Nature, the one variable that no race director can control (despite their most fervent wishes). What was a perfectly fine summer night for running quickly turned into a maelstrom as severe thunderstorms pounded the course for a couple of hours just before midnight. Torrential rain, screaming winds, pounding hail, nearly constant lightning; you name it, these storms had it. The result was a 35% finish rate for the 100 mile race with only two finishers earning the golden buffalo buckle symbolizing a sub-24 hour finish. While the weather certainly played a role in the low finish rate, ultramarathon veterans gave plenty of credit to the course itself, with several proclaiming it to be tougher than Leadville or Western States. The runner-up, a sub-24 finisher at Wasatch, described it as “Zane Grey without the rocks.” The crux of the problem is that the relatively short, but almost constant, climbs and descents are all perfectly runnable under normal conditions. But, when strung together over 100 miles, they will slowly but surely pound unwary runners into submission.
Mother Nature returned for an encore in 2012, bringing scorching early summer heat and high humidity instead of thunderstorms. The runners who managed to make it to sunset generally ended up finishing, but the drop rate in the late afternoon hours was high, resulting in another sub-40% finish rate and only three sub-24 finishes. As the old saying goes, the third time is the charm and those runners who ventured to the Black Hills in 2013 were rewarded with nearly ideal summer running weather. Perfect running temps early in the morning and again overnight with relatively mild afternoon highs and no precipitation led to a finish rate of nearly 70%, including a whopping fourteen sub-24 finishers. Course records fell like a ton of bricks, with the top three finishers all running sub-20 and the women’s course record falling by an almost unfathomable seven hours.
The Black Hills 100 course has rightfully earned a reputation as a tough nut to crack, but if run smartly under decent weather conditions, it has also shown that it can produce some impressive ultra performances. South Dakota may not be near the top of the list in most ultramarathoners’ minds when it comes to locales for tough mountain ultras, or even on the list at all, for that matter, but don’t overlook the Black Hills. Remember, looks can be deceiving.
|Champ Jeremy Bradford hoisting the painted buffalo skull - Credit: Johnathan Karol|