Lean Horse 100 Ultra
The woods stay the same, but what you see is a reflection of your mind.
South Dakota marks my 36th State of this journey of marathons (or greater) across the 50 states. There were a few reasons I chose this race and distance besides what my wife believe is my proclivity for punishment. Besides well timing and my fair physical conditioning, I had some unfinished business with the 100 mile distance. After being literally destroyed at the 2013 Nanny Goat 100, then dropping down to the 50 miler at the Nanny 2014, I had something to prove to myself. Did I get lucky in 2013? Was it a fluke? My confidence was a bit shaken and I needed to prove to myself that I can.
My friend, Joshua Holmes, told me about Lean Horse 100 sometime earlier this year. "LH is a fast trail, I call it a track...my most favorite surface ever to run on." Joshua is a super strong and experienced ultra runner who I bother often and trust for advice. I also see him as sort of a drug dealer of ultra running...instead of slinging crack, he dishes out bigger and badder ultra races for the running addicts.
I was convinced this would be my 36th State after some further research. 99% of the race course is run on the Mickelson Trail on crushed limestone and gravel. The course is an out-and-back on the trail built on what would have been rail from the gold rush era. It includes breathtaking rail bridges and tunnels and is surrounded by mountains, rivers, and wildlife of all kinds. On my run, I would experience the beauty that is South Dakota as well as traveled a bit back in time in history.
I faced one problem before I would commit to this adventure. I was badly injured after early June when I ran five marathons in five days in the Heartland Series. For the first time in years I was forced to rest for a few weeks. Those tough few weeks in June may have been a blessing as my legs finally had a chance to really rest. By July I was finally cleared by my doctor and what do you know, I went out and signed up for the 100 miler the same day.
Typically I try to minimize the amount of days away from the family when I travel for running. Typically for a Sunday marathon, I would travel out Sat, run Sun morning, then return immediately after the run on Sun afternoon. Well, running an ultra gets a little challenging. I had to ask my wonderful wife for a special hall pass for Lean Horse. In theory, I could have traveled out Friday, ran the race Sat-Sun, then flew home Sun afternoon. The issue is that plan would put a lot of pressure on me to finish the race well so not to miss a Sun flight. Also, I had concerns about my ability to drive (or function for that mater) immediately following a sleepless 24-30 hour 100 mile race. A special hall pass was granted for a Monday return. Did I mention my wife is wonderful?
|"Eat a sandwich, love, your marathon widow" A nice find in my bag when I left for LH100|
Custer is a small town about 30 minutes south of Mount Rushmore and is the start and end of the Lean Horse 100. The logistics consists of a short 1.25 hour drive from Rapid City to Custer on the open highways surrounded by the smell of pine and rolling hills. I don't know why the sky always seems more blue and vivid when I am in a new experience. A side tour on Friday to Rushmore was worth the $11 parking fee at the monument. In the town of Custer, the hotels, restaurants are literally 5 minutes from race packet pickup and the race start. Its a neat, friendly, self-containing little town with a lot of charm. It would be a great place for the outdoors loving family and history buffs.
I arrived in Custer on Friday afternoon as planned and met the race director, Royce Wuertzer, who I've been in communications with since July at the packet pick-up at the Custer YMCA. Shook my hand and when I said my name he immediately recalled we had exchanged emails. There is something very special about smaller marathons and ultra races. The community that they built is vastly different from those of big city marathons. At small marathons and ultras, I meet exceedingly interesting people, amazing athletes, and sometime make new lifelong friends. I need to praise Royce, the LH team, and volunteers for a top notch job organizing and supporting the runners. The personal attention from pre-race, at every aid station, and post race was AMAZING. I hope I don't wear that word out before the end of this blog post.
|Receiving my buckle and AG award post race with LH100 RD Royce Wuertzer|
An early dinner at a surprisingly fantastic brewery (without beer) called "Bitter Elma's" included an outstanding pasta and ginger ale. I vowed to return on Sunday for a pint of some amazing on-location brewed IPA. Oh yeah, it would come true. Then off to bed at about 7:00PM before a 4:00AM wake-up call.
5:30AM, most runners had gathered at the start and I met a few runners who Joshua had introduced to me on-line prior to the race. We exchanged pleasantries and encouragement but the tension was as noticeable as the slight chill in the air in the Custer High School football stadium where we awaited our start. 59 were about to embark on the 100 mile journey with a 30 hour limit. Together with the 50 mile and 50K runners we were off at 6:00 dusk prompt into the smoky hills of Mickelson trail.
|Pre-Race LH100 2014|
As the race started I reminded myself why I was there, how I am going to do it, and most importantly to enjoy the journey. I've learned something at every race I've run regardless of the distance and I would apply what I knew at each mile, each section, and each obstacle during the race. I ran the first quarter of the race at an easy and controlled pace of about 12:00/mile. I met Mike the school teach and cross-country coach, "red/white/blue" Ann (who I later watched finish an emotional 100 in the final hour of cut-off), and "marathon maniac" Jill in these early morning miles while exchanging stories about running. The heavy over-cast was more than I could have asked for. Looked like we missed the predicted storm.
|early morning miles|
|Crazy Horse Monument in distance|
I've never been exceptionally good at fueling at ultras. Gels and sports drink work for my muscles but not my stomach. In the first half of this race I alternated between gels and solid food provided at the aid stations, each roughly 5 miles apart. As predicted, my stomach started cramping after the 25 mile mark. I can think of nothing worse than running with the worry that I may poop my pants. The positive was that after the 25 mile marker, the field thinned significantly. While I ran mostly alone from miles 25 forward I felt VERY uncomfortable in 4 attempts at doing my business (slightly) off the trail. For one, sometimes there were just no space to pull off and I was never good at identifying poisonous plants. Also, periodically a mountain biker would show up unexpectedly and quickly. At last the stomach settled down after about mile 35.
The climb from about 5,200 to 6,200 feet from miles 45-50 was mentally draining as the sky cleared and sun beamed harshly after mile 40. "Just keep moving" was the voice in my head as my running mentor Richard "Shifu" Yiap had repeated to me many times. So I ran where I could and walked (fast) when I needed. Even during the tough stretches, I was able to manage some 15-16 min miles. The game plan was to take no significant breaks before mile 50 and I mostly stuck to it. Some things I'd have to "earn" by getting to the half way point. A 15-20 minute break at mile 50 along with fresh clothing, shoes was rejuvenating. Really enjoyed my first larger meal of instant ramen, a cup of coffee, and also earned the right to music at 50. Time out of turnaround station, roughly 11 hours, 40 minutes.
With some hip-hop in my ear, new cloths, and a meal in my belly, I felt great... and moved faster... for a short lived 4-5 miles. For me, feeling good is a bigger problem than feeling bad. When I feel good, stupid ideas of unrealistic and unnecessary goals begins to creep in. "what if I ran sub 24?" "what if I can pass that runner in front?" "how do I keep that runner behind?" These are the trappings that puts unnecessary pressure on me mentally and destroys me physically.
By the time I reached the next station, I was drained. For a brief moment, and the only time during this race, I thought "I can't do this." When that thought appears in the mind of (this) a runner, it is like chink in the armor that leads to a floodgate of negative thoughts. "you are not made for this" "see how stupid you look now" "you still have 45 miles to go!"... I sat and stewed at the aid station of mile 55.
"stick to the plan," "there is no hurry" said ShiFu's voice. I swear! like a montage from the movie Kung Fu Panda. We had run countless times at lunch prior to the race and those were the words he said over and over. So I ate, filled my water bottles, and hit the trail again "not in a hurry" and just focused on keeping on moving. Whenever the idea going faster would creep in, I would say out loud to myself "there is no hurry, just keep moving." Thank goodness there were nobody around to see this maniac talking to himself.
|Mickelson Trail SD 30 minutes before night fall|
Soon the night fell. The majestic mountains changed hues from green to sage and sky from blue to red then deep purple. By 8PM Sat night, 14 hours of running, there was just a twilight in the sky to the west. Then complete darkness. With a crescent moon, there was not a light besides the millions of stars in the sky. I wish I had the time or frame of mind to stop and enjoy the stars. I felt incredibly small...smaller than a dust moving under the star studded sky. But while small, I was not drifting...I was moving with a purpose.
Running through the night in these woods was an incredible, soul changing first-time experience for me. The woods stay the same, but what you see is a reflection of your mind. From station to station I ran, no crew, no pacers, just me, the Mickelson Trail, the darkness, the stars, and too much time inside my head. I saw eyes staring back from the darkness and heard large animals imaginary and real. I heard wind that sounded like cries and shadows that looked like hands reaching onto the trail. I ran scared, pridefully, lonely, angry, sad, and finally peacefully. I just focused on one thing. Keep moving. (I saw and heard a lot of imaginary things that night. funniest had to be smelling BBQ pork sausages before mile 80 but NOWHERE near an aid station or signs of human life. Its funny b/c I said out loud "its not real")
From 70 and beyond I ran sufficiently and felt stronger as I went. I walked when needed and ate when hungry at every station. The cheese quesadilla at the Mystic station was so good it made me want to cry. After Mystic I passed my first runner in the night fall. It scared the shit out of me. In the distance I saw a floating light but moving from side to side. I am not sure why this guy decided that waving his hand held flashlight was the best way to survey the trail but I thought I was going to be abducted by aliens. As I got closer and closer I finally realized that it was a fellow runner. I gave some words of encouragement and made sure he was okay. "my strategy is to alternate between walking and walking" he said. Made me chuckle.
|@ mile 85 aid station. amazing tomato soup, Campbell style|
As I forged forward, those gentle downhills on the way out seem to have turned into aggressive climbs on the way back. "just keep moving" I said. I hope the wild animals enjoyed my rendition of some New Edition and even some Eminem because I know most humans would not. But it kept me moving. As I moved, I came across more moving lights ahead as I passed more than a dozen runners after mile 80. I was surprised at how many runners were struggling in these final miles. I was more surprised at how good I felt. I felt so good that I began running more and more. With the end in sight I let go of fear of breaking down and ran it fast.
In the last ten miles I ran down more and more of those glowing lights ahead. Some were unrelenting as they realized my approach. It became a game of chase in the darkness. I'd see a light ahead surge away then get closer as I pushed. As I passed I'd aways encourage with "way to grind it out" or "great work, you are doing great."
Miles 90 to 96 was the final climb before 4.4 mile descend back to the finish line. I worked hard up these hills and awaited for the second sunrise. It was beautiful. I felt a rush of emotions as I got to the top of mile 96. The station at 96 was the only one I passed altogether without stopping. I just wanted to finish. On my way down from Crazy Horse to Custer I saw deers roaming the fields, birds in the ponds, and the fields coming back to life. I should be dead tired but I never felt so alive. I ran down those last few miles at 12 min/mile splits and kept moving. Looking at my watch I saw that I would finish under 25 hours. Nearly 3 hours under my previous 100 mile finish.
The first buckle was no fluke. I am an (pedestrian but) ultra runner.
|Buckle, AG Award, and "bitter elm's" IPA|
Four hours later after a shower, meal and quick nap, I returned to a packed Custer High Stadium to watch and cheer for the final hour 100 mile finishes (an incredible 50/59 would finish). For my friends who have never witnessed an ultra marathon, I encourage you do the same one day in the future. Because if you want to witness the spirit of the human will, thats where you'll find it. As the last runner crossed the finish just under 30 hours and nearly collapsing after (but not before stopping his garmin!), I couldn't help to feel the deep happiness for them and within myself.
one step, one mile, and one race at a time,
special thanks to Joshua Holmes, Ethan Matyas, ShiFu Richard Yiap (not on social media) and of course Aud Liu for your support for making LH100 a reality