Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Spring on the Centennial (with PICTURES!)

Alright, by popular demand (*cough* Rob and Mike *cough*), I toted a camera along on my long trail run this past weekend. I just got a new iphone last week when it was finally time for me to upgrade and the picture quality is pretty damn good, actually better than the two or three year old digital camera I have (the actual location of which I'm not entirely sure of, it's been so long since I used it). Besides that, it's a pretty damn sweet device if you're into electronics, although Siri didn't have a damn clue what I was talking about when I asked "how far is an ultramarathon?"

But that's beside the point. The plan for the day was to get in 25 miles on the Centennial Trail. After venturing further south to Wind Cave and the Deerfield Trail the past couple of weekends, I elected to stay closer to home this weekend and started my run from the Alkali Creek trailhead just outside of Sturgis, which is about 5.7 miles into the Black Hills 100. The hill in the first picture below is the first (and also last, due to the out and back course) significant hill that must be climbed during the race (I wouldn't climb it on this day as I headed in the other direction instead.) The trail going up/down the hill is actually just on the other side of that rock face you can see in the picture.

After leaving Alkali Creek it's a steady four mile climb to the top of the next ridgeline. This climb is entirely runnable as the trail switchbacks up the hill at a fairly constant, relatively gradual grade. Once you get to the top, it's back down into Bulldog Gulch. On the descent, there's very little switchbacking as the trail basically just dives straight down the hill. This is all fine and good if you're heading south, but it's kind of a pain in the ass coming back up the other way, especially on tired legs.

Bulldog Gulch doesn't generally carry a ton of water. Last year, there was enough for the creek to be flowing, but you could easily cross without getting more than the soles of your shoes wet. As you can see from the next picture, not even that much moisture can be found this year. It was bone dry.

After some gradual, rolling trail along the bottom of Bulldog Gulch, it's time to start another climb. As with the descent into Bulldog, the climb out is a fairly straight shot. You COULD run the entire thing, but powerhiking is probably the more prudent option if you're going for distance. Just before the steepest part of the climb started, I got passed by a mountain biker who was making pretty good time. Before too long though, he was thwarted by the loose rocks on the steepest part of the ascent and I pulled back ahead and continued to the top before he caught me again after the trail had leveled out.

At the top, the trail goes through Beaver Park. This area is somewhat notable in that it is the site of a congressionally approved timber sale back in the 90s that was meant to stop a mountain pine beetle infestation (perhaps the only thing South Dakota's mixed democrat/republican congressional contingent has ever agreed upon). You don't see much evidence of pine beetles now, but there are also notably fewer trees.

From Beaver Park, it's a long descent (about three miles) into the Elk Creek drainage. I hit the Elk Creek trailhead and was sitting at about 11.4 miles for the day so decided to continue on to Elk Creek itself, which is about a mile beyond the trailhead. The trail actually crosses Elk Creek a total of five times within about two-thirds of a mile. Unfortunately, I don't have any "before" pictures for reference, but I can tell you that last year Ryan and I strung ropes across each of the crossings. While the creek was flowing fairly quickly and was about knee high on us (keeping in mind that we're both over 6 feet tall), we didn't really expect the ropes to be necessary to cross the creek....we put them there more as a reference point for the 100 milers after dark because at some of the crossings it's tough to see where the trail is on the opposite side of the creek. Well, as it turned out, it was a good thing we did install those ropes because the severe thunderstorm that rolled through during the race swelled the creek significantly and the ropes became fairly instrumental in runners being able to cross safely. As you can see from the picture below, one year without much snow can make quite a difference. I was actually fairly shocked when I got to the creek and saw nothing. Not a single drop of water. Sure, there is still some snow that is yet to melt in the high country, but not that much (and, really, not much high country in the Hills). Unless we get some significant spring rain, wet feet and raging creek crossings won't be a concern at the Black Hills 100 this year.

I turned back after reaching Elk Creek and was able to run pleasingly strongly (with some powerhiking mixed in) back up to Beaver Park and down into Bulldog Gulch again. The ascent out of Bulldog required pure powerhiking, but wasn't bad at all (it helps that it's only about four-tenths of a mile). After that, I was pretty much home free with just a nice, easy four mile descent back down to Alkali Creek remaining. As I was cruising down the trail, about 23 miles into the day, something caught my attention out of the corner of my eye. The first pasque flowers of spring (or the first I've seen anyway).

Exactly 25 miles for the day in just under 4.5 hours of running (closer to 4:45 including picture, food and bathroom stops). And the best part was that when I got back to my car, I felt great. My legs felt like they had some miles on them, as expected, but they weren't achy at all and, perhaps most important of all, my stomach was happy. All in all, a great way to kick off the spring (which is remarkably summer-like so far).

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

First 30

With summer weather fully settled in (in March, no less) and the Quad Rock 50 only a couple months away and the Bighorn 100 a month after that, I figured it was high time I got in a 30 mile run. I've come close a couple of times with runs of 26.5 and 27.5, but hadn't hit the magical and totally arbitrary big 3-0 yet this training cycle.

I also decided that with the snow pack rapidly receding (70-80 degree temps will do that for ya), it was time to explore some new territory. I set my focus on the Deerfield Trail, which branches off of the Centennial Trail not too far from the southern-most point of the Black Hills 100 course. The Deerfield is about 23 miles long in and of itself, but also connects to the Deerfield Loop, which loops around Deerfield Reservoir for 11 more miles. So, conceivably, you could get in a good 34 miles by running the whole kit and kaboodle. Unfortunately, the logistics of such an endeavor aren't all that simple. Doing so pretty much necessitates having two vehicles and leaving one somewhere along the loop and the other at the Deer Creek Trailhead, which services both the Centennial and Deerfield trails. Complicating things further is the fact that the road system in the area doesn't provide a quick and easy way to drive back and forth from the reservoir to the Deer Creek trailhead to drop off/retrieve those vehicles...there would be a fair bit of driving (and subsequent time wasted, which I hate) involved. So, a full running of the Deerfield and its loop would have to wait for another time.

Instead, the plan was to meet Ryan at the Deer Creek TH. From there we would run out on the Deerfield Trail for aways before turning back and returning to Deer Creek and then I would continue on the Centennial to wrap up the rest of the mileage (Ryan is on the mend from a bout of pneumonia, so he wasn't up for a full 30). We ended up going 10 miles out on the Deerfield, for a solid 20 out and back. After a fairly steep but relatively short climb upon branching off from the Centennial, the Deerfield dropped down into the old mining town of Silver City, which is now not much more than a city hall, a fire hall and a few houses. At that point the trail leveled out considerably, following a paved road for a very short stretch, and then a dirt road and then a wide single track trail (much like a rails to trails trail) and then finally dwindling back down to single track.

After leaving Silver City, the trail first parallels Rapid Creek for a ways before branching off to follow Slate Creek, a smaller tributary of Rapid Creek. The Slate Creek section is where the trail really got interesting. It was still fairly gradual along that stretch as we were immediately adjacent to the creek, but as the canyon narrows, the trail starts criss-crossing the creek multiple times. As in 25 times in 3.5 miles according to the informational sign we came across at one point. All of the crossings have footbridges, which was good on that day since the shaded canyon was still holding a lot of ice and snow and the water in the creek was fairly frigid. Not really conditions where you want to run with wet feet for a significant amount of time. All in all, it was a nice, easy, very scenic section of trail (pictures, I know, I need pictures).

Not so easy was that damn climb out of Silver City back over the mountain to the Centennial. I swear to God, we went up three times as far on the way back as we had come down on the way out. Funny how that works out. Regardless, upon returning to Deer Creek, I refilled with water and parted ways with Ryan not feeling all that hot. I chugged a Boost at the trailhead and that was sitting pretty heavy in my gut, so I took it pretty easy for the first couple of miles along the Centennial. Eventually, my stomach settled down and the Boost kicked in and I started feeling significantly better and managed to crank out the final 10 miles on the Centennial without too much trouble.

All in all, not a bad way to spend 5.5+ hours on sunny and warm Saturday morning/afternoon. If nothing else, it got me out of a trip to Chuck E. Cheese. I definitely think I got the better end of that deal.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Bison and coyotes and elk, oh my!

I've run certain sections of the northern Centennial trail (i.e., the Black Hills 100 course) many, many times. But the trail in its entirety is approximately 111 miles long. The Black Hills 100 course only covers about 49 miles of that, which leaves a good chunk of trail to be explored. With spring weather settling in, I decided Friday was the perfect day to do some of that exploring.

The original plan was for myself, BH100 co-director Ryan and trail running friends Nathan and Bob to all meet up for a run starting at Wind Cave National Park, which is the southern terminus of the Centennial. However, Ryan was diagnosed with pneumonia the day before the planned run, so he had to bail. So, Nathan, Bob and I met up and set out to do some exploring.

Bob had been on some of the trails we were to run before, but this was totally virgin territory for Nathan and I. Even with one of us being somewhat experienced with the terrain, we managed to fall victim to the "head down, charging forward" trail runner blunder and just a couple of miles into the run ended up taking about a six mile detour off of the Centennial on one of the park's other loop trails (actually, we aren't entirely sure it was even an official trail, but buffalo tend to blaze a path that looks remarkably like legitimate single-track trail). Eventually, we decided we should probably backtrack and sure enough, when we got back to the intersection where we'd left the Centennial, it was painfully obvious which way we were supposed to go.

So, go that way we did. By that time, on our detour, we'd already run through a prairie dog town and spotted a few coyotes trying to snare a morning meal. We'd also seen a few buffalo and some deer. Not long after getting back on the Centennial, we came upon a burn area from one of last summer's wildfires and up ahead on the trail spotted a very large bull buffalo eyeballing us. He didn't seem too interested in yielding the trail to a few scrawny humans, so we gave him a wide berth, detouring around through the burn area before finding the trail again on the other side of the buffalo. Not long after that, just as Bob was commenting that he hadn't seen any elk during his last few visits to Wind Cave, we spotted a small group of them up ahead. Deer, elk, prairie dogs, coyotes, elk, various species of birds...it was like a genuine South Dakota safari.

We continued on the Centennial for several miles with no more navigational errors, although there was one section where the trail was totally just not there, but luckily there were marker posts guiding us across the open meadow. Eventually, we left Wind Cave and crossed over into adjacent Custer State Park. Through there, the trail was actually a jeep road, which always seem less interesting to run on for some reason, although they are essentially just parallel single-tracks. With the miles and time accumulating, we didn't delve too deep into Custer before turning back for the trailhead.

Lucky for me that we turned around when we did. Although we only covered about 24.2 miles all told, I experienced a minor bonk in the last few miles. It's been awhile since that has happened and I've run longer runs in the past couple months with no problems, but I think the "heat" (60 degrees was feeling pretty warm after most of my long runs have been in the 20s-40s) combined with not taking in nearly enough calories took its toll. The last couple miles were pretty slow as I felt hazy and just had no energy whatsoever. Ended up walking most of the last mile, even though the trail was virtually flat, which is a shame because I had felt pretty good all day right up until that point. Still, a good run on some good trails in some new country, so can't complain about that.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Barkley Marathons

I've come to the conclusion that something is wrong with me. I know several people who would probably say that they could've told me that a long time ago, but it's becoming more and more obvious to me. How so, you ask? Well, maybe you didn't ask, but you're gonna find out anyway. Because I have a weird fascination with The Barkley Marathons and the more I read about the event, about how horribly, brutally punishing it is, the more I want to do it someday.

Okay, so a little background for the uninitiated. Chances are, if you're not an ultrarunner, you've never heard of Barkley. Hell, if you're not an ultrarunner, chances are you haven't heard of ultrarunning period, but I don't have the time to go that far back. To put it simply, Barkley is on the tattered fringe of a fringe sport. The race begin in 1986, but the race's roots actually go as far back as 1977. That was the year that James Earl Ray, the assassin of Martin Luther King, Jr., made an escape from the Brushy Mountain Penitentiary in Tennessee. Ray spent three days on the "run". In those three days he made it all of eight miles. Ultrarunner Gary Cantrell, known widely as "Laz" for reasons unknown to me, was convinced that he could've covered 100 miles in that time. And the Barkley was born.

The event takes place in the Tennessee mountains of Frozen Head State Park, immediately adjacent to the Brushy Mountain prison (in fact, the race course now includes a trip through a drainage tunnel under the prison, which has long since been abandoned). Everything about the event is just....different. The registration fee is $1.60. Why? No one knows (except Laz, I suppose). In addition, if you're a first timer, you must supply Laz with a license plate from your home state. The race has no official website, although through the magic of Google you can gather quite a bit of information about it. One thing you won't find via Google is an entry form. That's because the registration process is largely secret. Basically, you have to know someone who has done the race before or knows how you can get ahold of Laz. It is known that the entry process includes writing an essay explaining why you should be allowed to run The Barkley. Reportedly, Laz receives about 200 entries each year and selects 35 or so, possibly at random (although once you've participated once, it seems your odds of getting in again are fairly high). One entrant each year is designated as the sacrificial virgin, i.e., the one who Laz thinks has the least shot of finishing.

In reality, though, no one has a decent shot of finishing. The course consists of five, 20ish mile loops (some people claim the total distance is closer to 130 miles). The cut-off is 60 hours. When compared to other 100 mile races like Leadville (30 hours), Western States (30 hours) or even Hardrock (48 hours) this seems quite generous. But in the 25 year history of the race, only 10 runners (out of 700+ entrants) have ever finished. The course record is 55:42. Laz seems to delight in the extreme difficulty, and almost absurdity, of it all and also seems somewhat offended whenever someone actually does finish; a finish one year virtually ensures that the ever-changing course will be even more difficult the following year.

As for the course, it includes roughly 59,000 feet of elevation gain. That's nearly twice as much as Hardrock, which is widely considered the most difficult "conventional" ultra in the U.S. The route follows very little actual trail. Laz refers to any type of established trail, whether it's been maintained in the last 30 years or not, as "candy ass trail". Much of the course involves bushwacking, often through sawbriars, straight up and down the mountainsides. To prove that you've covered the entire course, on each loop you must locate 10 or 11 books that Laz stashes in specific locations. For each loop, you are assigned a number. Upon locating a book, you rip out the page corresponding to your number and continue on in search of the next book. At the end of each loop, you turn your pages in to Laz, are given a new number and sent on your way for the next loop (if you're brave enough). If you manage to finish three loops (60 miles) you go down in history as a Barkley "fun run" finisher. The chances of finishing the fun run aren't all that great either.

The race doesn't seem to have a set date, but it looks like it's always around April Fools Day, which Laz probably gets some twisted pleasure out of. The race starts sometime between midnight and noon on the designated day. Laz signals one hour until race start by blowing on a conch shell. Once the hour is up, he signals the start of the race by lighting a cigarette. Last year, he blew the conch at 12:07 AM and the race started promptly at 1:07. How's that for a good night's sleep before a race?

Sounds like a grand old time, doesn't it? So, I guess the real question is, why in God's name would you enter this crazy ass, brutally tough event that you know damn well you don't have a prayer of finishing? For me, it's the intrigue. Everything I've described above just seems too crazy to be true. The event has this almost eerie, haunted, surreal aura around it that some part of me wants to witness first hand to see if it really is as crazy as it sounds. Will I ever actually take that plunge? I don't know for sure. Hell, I don't even know where to send my essay. But I've obviously been thinking about it.

Monday, March 5, 2012

In sickness and in health

I hardly ever get sick. In fact, I can't recall exactly the last time I came down with the flu, I just know it was awhile ago. A couple of months ago, everyone in my family came down with a stomach bug, but I emerged unscathed. Of course, I only mention this because this past weekend I did, in fact, get sick.

I woke up ridiculously early on a Saturday morning so I could get in a 20 miler. Nothing seemed all that amiss right after I woke up, but as I was eating a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast, I noticed my stomach felt a little off. I choked down the remainder of the oatmeal and parked myself on the recliner to watch Sportscenter for awhile, assuming things would settle down. After an hour or so, I didn't feel horrible, but I still didn't feel totally right either. I thought that if I went running, I would very likely end up puking, but I didn't really feel like puking right at that moment, so I decided the only way I was going to find out was if I actually did go running.

While I don't get sick often, this isn't the first time I've had this dilemma and, inevitably, the resulting run ends up going horribly and I ultimately end up slogging home after a mile or two cursing myself for being so damn stupid. About 1/4 mile into Saturday's run, I was fairly certain this was going to be another one of those runs. I definitely did feel like I was probably going to puke by that point, but stubbornly decided I was damn well going to forge ahead until I actually did throw up in some poor old lady's front yard. Amazingly, the feeling passed after a few good burps and while I didn't feel great, I also didn't feel so bad that I needed to abort the run. A persistent side stitch stayed with me for the first 5 or 6 miles, but eventually that went away and by the time I hit the 8 mile mark, I was actually feeling almost normal. While it wasn't my fastest 20 miler ever, it did end up being a 20 miler when all was said and done.

Right after I got done, I felt pretty much fine and even boasted on Facebook that I'd stared sickness right in the eye and emerged victorious. Jinx. It took a couple of hours, but eventually sickness won out and I found myself praying to the porcelain god. I am eternally amazed by how much liquid can fit in a human stomach. Judging by how much came out, I'm not sure a single drop of water I consumed during my run was actually absorbed by my body. After making my sacrificial deposit to said god, I felt much better, but I was then left with the dilemma of what to do for Sunday. I had just run 20 miles and then puked out pretty much all of the calories I had consumed for the day (or at least all of them that I hadn't burned off during the run). I had planned on going on an 18 mile snowshoe run (my first ever snowshoe run) with my friend Ryan and another guy on Sunday morning, but that didn't seem like all that great of an idea anymore.

Ultimately, I decided I would stick close to home and play it by ear. By Saturday night, I felt pretty much normal again, so in an attempt to make up for lost calories, I devoured an entire Tombstone pizza for dinner. You gotta do what you gotta do. It stayed down with no problems and when I awoke on Sunday I felt fine. So, back out onto the mean streets of Belle Fourche to attempt another 20. This run felt fine right from the beginning and I cranked out the full 20 with no problems. In fact, when I got done I certainly didn't feel like I'd just run 40 miles in the past 26 hours with a bout of puking in between. A good sign, I guess?

The only downside of the weekend (besides the whole puking thing) was that none of those 40 miles were on trails. Road miles are great and all, but not all that race specific for Bighorn. Hoping to remedy that this coming weekend.

Thursday, March 1, 2012


Some random February stats:

Total Miles: 328.3
Total Runs: 36
Longest Run: 27.6 miles
Shortest Run: 3 miles (a short 5K race)
Lookout Summits: 9
Highest Weekly Mileage: 83.9
Lowest Weekly Mileage: 68.7

What does all of this mean? Hell, I don't know. I'm fairly happy with the 320+ miles for the month. Hoping to raise that a bit here in March and April. Also happy with 80+ miles in four out of the last five weeks (and on pace for five out of six). The only thing I'd like more of is trail miles. I've been hitting the Centennial at least every other weekend for one long run and Lookout twice a week for a shorter afternoon hill workout, but I'm hoping for warmer March weather and the opening of more trail opportunities (although we haven't had a ton of snow this winter, many of the trails deep within the Hills are still pretty well buried).