Wednesday, June 29, 2011

A view from the other side: Directing the Black Hills 100

Wow. You truly can't comprehend what all goes in to putting on a 100 mile race until you've actually gotten in there and done it. I've volunteered at ultras, I've run ultras and now I guess the trifecta is complete. Trust me when I say that, in many ways, running 100 miles is easier than directing. When you run the race, you have one mission in mind: get yourself to the finish. I spent the better part of 39 sleepless hours on Saturday and Sunday (not to mention all the time put in before then), stressing out about getting 150+ runners to the finish. Of course, not all of them made it....not nearly so, but it was rewarding nonetheless and we'll definitely do it again next year.

So, a not-so quick recap. I spent most of Wednesday and Thursday and part of Friday marking the course. Ryan had already done some marking before that, so we were just finishing up. Our intent going in was to mark only the intersections and trouble spots that we knew of (i.e. the places where we have gotten off course ourselves while running the trail). For the most part, the Centennial is easy to follow and has dedicated trail markers, but there are some confusing areas. We ("we" being the three co-directors; myself, Ryan and Jerry) had thought that we got everything marked sufficiently, but apparently not as a few people had some trouble. Sounds like most of the confusion was along the motorized portion of the course, so we'll definitely focus on making that easier to follow next year. It's so hard to estimate how much is enough....we don't want to go out there and hang a flag every ten yards when the trail seems obvious, but we also don't want people lost. So, something to work on for next year.

Everything pre-race (expo, pre-race briefing, dinner, etc.) went very well. The only big snag was when one of our EMTs, who was supposed to be at the finish line on Saturday, bailed because of a scheduling conflict. We scrambled to find a replacement on short notice and I eventually got in touch with one of my co-workers who is an EMT and she was able to fill in. Other than that, everything seemed to be running like clockwork right up until about 10:00 on Saturday night, about 16 hours into the race. That's when a massive thunderstorm moved across the northern Hills and started unleashing rain, hail and lightning. I stepped out from under shelter for about 15 seconds to try and rescue the $5000 race clock and was instantly drenched (the clock was fine, by the way). I can only imagine what it was like for the runners on the course, but I think the storm led to a lot of DNFs....kind of hard to leave a nice warm aid station and face the prospect of running through hail/rain for an unknown amount of time.

In the midst of the chaos caused by the storm, we got a report of a runner stranded at an unmanned aid station who needed a ride out. We got someone headed that direction and the runner also managed to place a 911 call. Our rescue vehicle and the local ambulance got there at about the same time and brought the runner back in (they were fine, basically just cold, tired and a little freaked out by the storm). One other runner was transported to the ER in Rapid City with chest pain, which turned out to not be serious, fortunately. Other than that, there were no serious health issues that I know of, although my own blood pressure was probably sky high for the duration of the storm.

Because the course crosses Elk Creek five times, we were concerned about runners getting safely across in the dark after the torrential downpour had bloated the creek. Ryan and I actually discussed holding runners at Dalton Lake, the last manned aid station before the crossings, for a while, but as the storm tapered off we decided against that. Luckily, we had placed ropes across all of the crossings before the race, which allowed everyone to get safely across.

One of the things we were most curious about before the event was just how long it would take someone to run 100 miles on this course. Thanks to the storm, I still don't think we have a good answer for that. The winning time was 23:01 and we only had two sub-24 finishers (at that rate, we have enough sub-24 buckles to last us 25 years). Out of 91 starters in the 100, only 30 finished. That's a ridiculously low finish rate. How much of that can be attributed to the storm and how much to the course itself is hard to say, but I think a good 30% of the drops could have been storm-related. I mean, I know the course is hard, but not THAT hard. Having said that, there were a lot of people who underestimated just how hard this course is. The most common comment I heard at the finish was "that was way tougher than I thought it would be". It almost sounds blasphemous, but I heard from more than a few people that the course is harder than Western States or Leadville. The 2nd place finisher ran it only 10 minutes faster than his most recent time at Wasatch. We "only" have about 16,000 feet of elevation gain (Leadville and Wasatch are around 28,000), but the course is just relentless, constantly hitting you with relatively short ups and downs that eventually take their toll. I'm still curious to see how fast someone could run this under better weather conditions. Hopefully, the word gets out that this is no walk in the park and we get some big guns to put it to the test.

We also heard from several runners that the course is actually 104-105 miles long. One of the hardest aspects of setting up an event like this is getting the course laid out and measured accurately. Our measurements, which put it within a mile of 100, were gathered by a local mountain biker who rode the entire course in one day (well, the out portion anyway). I've GPSed it section by section and some of my measurements were a little off of what he got, but not drastically so. But I've also run the same section on different days and gotten different measurements using the same GPS. It doesn't take much variation per mile to add up to a signficant chunk of mileage over the course of 100 miles. In any case, I'm not sure if the course is long or not, but it's something we'll try to get nailed down before next year.

All in all, the weekend went well, despite the high stress moments (and I knew there would be some). I know the event isn't perfect, but I think we got off to a good start and the vast majority of the runners I talked to were impressed and had good things to say. Of course, people will rarely give you negative comments to your face, but I got a good vibe overall from the people I did talk to. We'll take what feedback we do get and try our hardest to improve for next year.

Thanks to everyone out there who participated in the inaugural Black Hills 100 and a huge thank you to the volunteers we had. We got incredible support from the local running community and it was a huge part of our success.


mike_hinterberg said...

Sounds like another awesome job from the SoDak crew, well done!

The numbers and topography made it sounded like a tough course -- and it sounds like it was even tougher considering the conditions. Some of the Wisconsin and Minnesota runs are similarly, deceptively, tough, with the relentless hills. One clarification: Leadville has roughly half the gain of Wasatch, so for someone that is OK with altitude, I would bet comparing Black Hills to Pbville isn't blasphemous at all.

With all that said, now that you have some solid numbers, can you petition the Hard Rock crew to allow Black Hills as a qualifier?

Chris said...

You are correct....I was confusing Leadville's total elevation change with pure elevation gain. So, in that respect, the BH 100 actually has more gain, but at half the altitude. So take that for what it's worth. After you run Leadville this year, you could run BH next year and give me a blow by blow comparison ;).

We will definitely petition to become a Western States qualifier for next year. I believe Hardrock wanted us to have a few years under our belts first, but maybe if word spreads we'll be able to work something out.

Rob said...

Thanks again Chris for all of your efforts and sharing this beautiful part of the country for all of us to see. I was told by a Leadville veteran dropping at Rapid Creek that this was harder than Leadville. I would say it compares quite similarly to Bighorn. As far as the distance, my Garmin has proved to be very accurate on distance over the few years I've used it, so I'd say for sure you are between 52 and 53 miles to Rapid Creek. But I wouldn't change the course because of it. And there are definitely a lot of small ups and downs throughout the course because I get between 15K and 21K feet of climbing depending on how much "smoothing" of the elevation data. Great race that I am sure you will make even better in the future. I will highly recommend it to all my trail running friends down here in Fort Collins.

Run Happy said...

One question…can you put on another Blackhills 100 next week???? I was totally blown away by the course!! The beauty alone is a reason to come out and play. Yes the course is tough, but it is also a fair course. So many new races just throw “stupid” at you so they can say, “We are the hardest”…but for the true trail runner, we want a challenge, but not something designed to be horrible. But that just might be me. Race distance….100 or 104, does not matter, trail millage is trail millage, and heck, have you ever run a David Horton race? Talk about long miles, gosh darn it.
Yes, I was one to the ones “freaked” out by the storm. Partly because I did not prepare correctly (no rain gear of any kind), and partly due to concerns on that multi-use section (29 – 36). Will I be back? Absolutely!!! The Blackhills 100 has a chance to be one of those must do classic 100s.
Thank you again for such an incredible weekend and I promise you, I WILL be collecting my Blackhills 100 buckle in 2012.
Run Happy