After moving to South Dakota in 2006, I became aware of the Lean Horse Ultra, a three-race (50K, Half Hundred and Hundred) event held in late August in the southern Black Hills. At the time, I was just seriously getting into marathoning, having run two with two more on my schedule. The 50K seemed interesting and doable to me. After all, it’s “only” 5 miles further than a marathon. The following summer (2007), curiosity got the best of me and I ran the Lean Horse 50K in 4:46, good enough for 2nd overall in a field of 20 or so. I enjoyed the ultra scene, even though I had just barely touched my toes in the water. But, I still had unfinished marathon business to take care of. Namely, qualifying for and running Boston. That goal consumed the next year and a half of my life, but it was worthwhile. After qualifying for Boston in July of 2008 and running it in April of 2009, I was ready to set my sights back on the ultra world. The Lean Horse Half Hundred became my next target race, with the Bighorn Trail 50K in June thrown in as a training run. I had a great time at Bighorn (I mean, I had fun, my run time was decent) and was looking forward to the challenge of a 50 miler. Be careful what you wish for…
While training for this new endeavor, I felt like a rookie again. It was very reminiscent of training for my first marathon (i.e. I didn’t really feel like I had a friggin clue what I was doing). I adopted a plan based off of Hal Higdon’s Comrades Marathon plan and hybridized it with a 50 mile plan from Runner’s World. Then, I butchered it some more to make room for some other races, mainly the Deadwood-Mickelson Half Marathon (where I ran a PR in June) and the Missoula Marathon (where I attempted a PR but came up short in July). Ideally, I would have liked to have done more back to back long runs, but my strong run at Bighorn and a 31 mile/23 mile back to back a few weeks before Lean Horse left me confident that I could cover the distance. The question would be, at what pace? So much can go wrong over the course of 50 miles that I had no clue what a good prediction might be. Based off one predictor I saw online (double your fastest marathon time and add two hours), I could be expected to run 50 miles in approximately 8:15. I decided that sub-8:30 would be a “stars align” day, sub-9 was maybe more reasonable, sub-10 was probably realistic and just getting done was the main goal.
I made the trip down to Hot Springs, about 2 hours south of Belle Fourche, on Friday afternoon to arrive in time to check-in and attend the pre-race briefing and cookout. All of that was fairly uneventful and painless. The big concern was the weather. After an unusually mild summer (including highs in the 60s just a few days before the race), the race weekend was looking to be more typical of August in South Dakota (highs in the 90s). I don’t enjoy running 5 miles in anything above 65 degrees, much less the better part of 50 miles in temps exceeding 80 or 90. Granted, the 6:00 AM start would give us some cooler temps for awhile, but there’s just no way to avoid the sun when you’re gonna be outside for 8+ hours on a hot day. I wasn’t happy with the weather, to say the least, but more so than I have for any marathon, I accepted it for what it was and told myself to adjust my goals as necessary when the time came, keeping in mind that Goal #1 was to get back to Hot Springs without having to hitch a ride.
The Lean Horse course (hey, that rhymes) is an out and back, starting behind the Mueller Civic Center in Hot Springs, following some city streets and the bike path for a few miles out of town to Argyle Road and then about 13 miles of Argyle Road northwest to the Mickelson Trail. From there it’s 9 miles out on the Mickelson for the 50 milers before turning around and repeating the whole damn thing backwards. The race is advertised as “one of the easiest ultras in the country”. Now, using “easy” and “ultra” in the same sentence is somewhat of an oxymoron, but relatively speaking, this claim is probably true. This isn’t like Hardrock or Leadville or Western States with massive climbs, single track trails and the distinct possibility of getting lost. The 50 mile course climbs just over 2000 feet on the way out before heading back down those 2000 feet on the way back. Of course, the overall elevation gain is much higher as the course rolls up and down. The toughest section is the 26 total miles of Argyle Road, which is an almost constantly rolling gravel route. The Mickelson is much more gradual, with no grades exceeding 3%. During my training long runs, I had been utilizing a run/walk strategy, mostly 20 minutes running followed by 4 minutes of walking. I knew this would be difficult to adhere to on Argyle Rd., so I decided that for the first 16 miles (until I got to the Mickelson) I would just walk the ups and run the flats and downs. Upon reaching the Mickelson, I would switch to the 20:4 run/walk. Ah, the best laid plans.
I actually slept fairly well Friday night but probably woke up earlier than necessary. I ended up taking a shower, getting dressed, eating a bagel and then sitting on the bed and nearly falling back asleep while watching SportsCenter and waiting for it to be time for the morning check-in. At around 5:30, I headed over to the civic center and checked in then sat and chatted with a few other Black Hills area runners who were running the 100.
As far as fueling goes, I was wearing my Amphipod belt, which holds two, 22-oz. bottles and has a mini-pack in between them which I had stuffed with Clif Bloks, Hammer Gels and Clif Bars. I was also carrying a little baggy of S-caps, which I planned on taking every 45 minutes to an hour. One of my bottles was filled with Gatorade and the other with water. The plan was to consume all 44 oz. of liquid between each aid station, eat either a gel, Clif Bar or blok packet every 45 minutes to an hour and supplement with food from the aid stations.
At 5:55, we were evicted from the friendly confines of the civic center and lined up outside. Promptly at 6:00, we were off like a herd of turtles.
Start to Morph
Okay, my intent here is to break the race down into sections between aid stations, but I’m skipping one aid station here because I skipped it in the race. The first aid station is actually Coldbrook, about 4 miles from the start. Since it was a cool morning and I wasn’t yet in need of more fluid, I breezed by on my merry way.
Immediately after starting I fell into a very easy pace, about 9:00 miles and thanks to the flat terrain for the first few miles, ran most of the way until the first significant hill just outside of town. After cresting that hill and dropping down the other side, we went past the aforementioned Coldbrook aid station, across a grassy meadow and onto the Argyle Rd. This is where the hills really start and there was a lot of power hiking the ups and running the downs going on. I was popping S-caps and gel/bloks on cue and made it to the Morph aid station, 10.1 miles into the race, with just a little bit of liquid left in my bottles. So far, so good. I refilled at Morph and was quickly on my way.
Morph to Argyle Loop
More rolling hills and more hiking/running. Nothing much really to report about this section. After starting out fairly close to the front of the pack, I got passed by several people through here, which was slightly discouraging, but I kept on telling myself to run my own race and let the cards fall where they may. After a couple of ups and downs, we reached the end of Argyle road at Argyle Loop, 16.6 miles out. Again, my bottles were just empty, so I refilled them and headed out with little dilly-dallying. On to the Mickelson…
Argyle Loop to Lime Kiln
Now that I was on the Mickelson and the course was much more runnable, I switched to my 20:4 strategy. This went very well and I started to catch up to and pass some of the people who had passed me on Argyle Rd. At some point, I glanced at my Garmin and saw that 3 hours had passed. Time flies when you’re having fun, I guess, because I had no clue that I had already been running for that long. Funny how your concept of time changes when you know you’re going to be running for a long time. I’ve had 3 hour training runs that seemed like they lasted for 9 hours, but the first 3 hours of Lean Horse flew by in the blink of an eye.
This section was much more shaded overall than Argyle Rd., which made things more comfortable as it was starting to get warm out. Also, after two 6 mile sections between aid stations, this next leg was only 3.5 miles, so I arrived at Lime Kiln with quite a bit of fluid left. Upon pulling into Lime Kiln, I heard someone call out my name and looked up to see that one of the volunteers was a lady, and fellow Forest Service employee, I had met at Bighorn back in June. Even though I had quite a bit of fluid left, I topped my bottles off before heading out. Just one more aid station before the turnaround.
Lime Kiln to Pringle
More running and walking at the appropriate intervals and before I knew it the trail was descending into the hamlet (okay, more like a defunct logging town) of Pringle at mile 24. I blew by Pringle on my way out, knowing that I would be back in a couple of miles. I first started to feel the heat of the day on the stretch between Pringle and the turnaround. The sun was out in full force and the slight breeze was at my back. Also, the stretch of trail before the turnaround was straight as an arrow and I could see the little sign marking the 25 mile point from what seemed like 20 miles away….I didn’t think I was ever going to get there. Finally, I did and when I turned back the other direction and got that slight breeze in my face, it felt heavenly.
I stopped at Pringle on my way back and refilled my bottles. I may have eaten something too, but I really can’t remember. Pringle was also a drop bag location, so I grabbed my bag and sprayed on some more sunscreen (I had applied one layer before the race started). I debated about changing my shirt and shoes, but decided it could wait until the next (and last) drop bag station at Argyle Loop.
Pringle to Lime Kiln
This is where things began to deteriorate for me. Despite taking S-caps at regular intervals and staying as hydrated as possible under the conditions, I could feel the beginnings of cramps lingering in my calves. I decided to switch to a 15:3 run/walk ratio and then a 4:1 to give my legs more frequent breaks. This carried me into Lime Kiln in still decent shape, but concerned about my twinging calves. I made sure to eat a banana while my bottles were being filled and headed out toward Argyle Loop wondering what the next section would hold.
Lime Kiln to Argyle Loop
And this is where it went to hell. Just after Lime Kiln, as I was in the midst of one of my 4 minute run segments, my right calf seized. It wasn’t really a cramp and didn’t really hurt at all, but the entire muscle totally locked up, making it difficult to even straighten my leg properly, much less run. Hell, I could barely walk, but after a few awkward steps, the calf finally released and I walked on. I continued walking for a couple of minutes and the decided to see if I could maybe run again. Big negative on that one. This time, not only did my right calf seize, but my left calf joined the party and my quads threatened to cramp up too. Awesome. Here I am, 20 miles from the finish and I can barely walk, much less run. And, even if I could easily walk, the though of walking in the last 20 didn’t seem all that exciting right now. As this was all occurring, I was on a long uphill grade, about the steepest you’ll find on the Mickelson (which isn’t very steep), so I decided to just walk that entire uphill, knowing there was a slight downhill leading into Argyle Loop. After a long walk break, my legs calmed down a little and I was able to resume a very slow run into the aid station, 34 miles and just over 7 hours into the day.
At the aid station, I again ate a banana, got my bottles refilled and decided to change my shoes just to see if that would help and also threw on a sleeveless shirt since it was pretty hot out by then.
Argyle Loop to Morph
This is a long section. After the last several aid stations had come 3-4 miles apart, this was a 6 mile stretch in the heat of the day and I was moving slower than I had been the first time I’d come through. I told myself that I needed to hydrate, but that I also needed to ration it a little. I was very glad at this point that I had two bottles with me and honestly don’t know how the people carrying only one made it (I’m sure some of them didn’t).
I was able to jog the first big downhill right after the Argyle Loop station fairly well, which gave me confidence that I might actually be able to cover this last 16 miles at a decent pace. It didn’t seem likely that I’d be able to do it in 2 hours, which was what I needed to break 9 hours, but I thought I’d give it a shot. Well, my calves had other plans. I was most definitely walking the uphills at this point, but even on the downhills I often couldn’t run for more than 20 yards or so before one or both calves would seize up in mid-stride. I would reach a long flat or downhill section and try to pick out a point to run to before walking again and would invariably be forced to walk before reaching that point. Frustrating, to say the least. But, at this point I knew I was going to finish, it was just a matter of how long it was going to take. Dropping never crossed my mind. Like I said, the cramps weren’t really painful at all, just horribly inconvenient. So, I powered on walking the uphills and walk/shuffling the downhills until I hit Morph, the second to last aid station. There, I again tried a banana, not really expecting a miracle at this point and again refilled my bottles. I drank some Mountain Dew too, hoping for some sort of sugar and caffeine induced boost.
Morph to Coldbrook
Another long section of over 6 miles in an even hotter part of the day with legs that are even more pissed off now than they were before the last section started. I did discover on this section that if I ran very, very slowly, really just a shuffle, I could maintain it for longer before the seizing of the calves set in. As a result, I was able to lay down some sub-12 minute miles, which is almost unattainably slow for me under normal circumstances but seemed blazing fast at the moment. The calf seizing still hit every once in awhile, but I was learning through trial and error how to deal with it. Just before turning off of Argyle Rd. there’s a long, fairly steep downhill that ends at the 45 mile point. I was able to “run” most of this and was finally, blissfully, done with the hilliest section of the course.
After Argyle, it’s back on the grassy two-track road across a meadow, which was almost suffocatingly hot by that time of day, for 8/10 of a mile before reaching the Coldbrook aid station. I had blown by this one on the way out, but I certainly wasn’t passing it up this time. I stopped, got some more fluid and ice in my bottles (by the way, nothing is more devine than ice cold liquid after running 40 miles on a hot day) and grabbed a chocolate chip cookie for the road.
Coldbrook to the Finish
Immediately after Coldbrook, there’s one more pretty serious uphill, which I walked casually while eating my cookie. I caught a couple of 50Kers on this hill (they had started 2 hours later) and chatted with one for a bit before passing. Upon cresting the hill, I was hoping to resume shuffling, but found that the steepness of the climb had infuriated my quads, which cramped immediately upon reaching the apex. The lady I had been chatting with passed me as I tried to rub out my quads. After achieving a little relief, I again started walking, and then walking quickly and then shuffling down the hill. Upon reaching the bottom, we were on the outskirts of Hot Springs and about 2.5 miles from the finish.
One thing I haven’t really mentioned was my overall position in the 50 mile field. I knew from counting blue bibs (the 100 milers had white, the 50Kers orange) as I neared the turnaround that I had been in 8th at the halfway point. I had passed a couple of people in the second half, but hadn’t seen a single 50 miler since just after Argyle Loop on the way back. I figured I was probably fairly secure in 6th place. Well, I was wrong. Within a half a mile after reaching Hot Springs, I got passed by two guys with blue bibs. I wanted very badly to run with them and defend my position but I simply couldn’t. I mean, I felt like I could run and run fairly quickly but my calves just would not let me. Believe me, I tried after the first guy passed me and within 10 yards my calves seized up and I watched him run away from me. My legs weren’t necessarily tired, they just weren’t functioning correctly. Well, not much to do about it but soldier on…
On the way out that morning, I had made a point of marking where the one mile point was. Turns out, it’s along the bike path just where it passes a little waterfall. As I neared this point on the return trek, I noticed that I had about 12 minutes left to cover the last mile and break 9:30. I knew that if I could maintain my shuffle for a mile, that was doable, maybe even with some walking thrown in. Well, that wasn’t to be the case. As soon as I passed the waterfall and started the shuffle, my legs protested defiantly and I knew that it just wasn’t going to happen. And, besides, did it really matter at this point? I knew I was going to finish and that’s all I really cared about at the moment. So, I continued my walk/shuffle and finally saw the greatest sight I have ever seen (at least at the moment): the Dairy Queen. I like Dairy Queen and go there often, but that’s beside the point. The Hot Springs Dairy Queen is special in its own right, because it’s right next to the Best Western, which is right next to the Mueller Civic Center, which is were I could finally cease this endeavor. My legs, calves in particular, were not happy at this point. I told myself I would walk until the DQ then run the rest of the way in (maybe 50 yards or so). When I reached the DQ, I stopped to stretch my calves one last time before the final “sprint”. As I was doing this, I glanced back the way I had come and saw a lady with a blue bib coming. Crap! I did NOT want to get passed again with the finish line in sight, so I ceased my stretching and took off at a run the best I could. My calves weren’t happy about this gesture, but I didn’t care anymore. With both of them on the point of all out revolt, I “surged” under the finish banner and was done, 9 hours, 32 minutes and 18 seconds after I had begun.
Final Time: 9:32:18
Overall Place: 8th (there were 75 registered, not sure how many started or finished)
AG Place: 2nd
So, yeah, wow. Did I run it as fast as I think I could? No. Am I happy with it? Yes. Will I do it again? Probably (ask me in a week or two). But I would very much like to know what it is that caused my rampant calf cramping. I’ve never experienced anything like that during a race or a long training run. I thought I was taking in plenty of salt and electrolytes, but maybe not enough for as hot as it was? I don’t know.
I also don’t know where I go from here. For the first time since I started training for my first marathon 5 years ago, I do not have a training schedule hanging on my refrigerator. I’m definitely going to resume running when I’m able (my legs feel alright overall, although my calves are mighty sore from all that extracurricular work they put in), but I don’t have a big goal race right now. That’ll take some thought. A faster (sub-3) marathon or more ultras? I don’t know right now and really am not in a huge hurry to figure it out. For now, I’ll just enjoy the freedom to run how far I want when I want.
Okay, so it didn’t take me 9.5 hours to write this. Yeah, it’s long, but not THAT long. It was one helluva ride for sure, thanks for coming along!