Cilantro’s Black Hills 50M Race Report

My customary pre-race selfie!

To be clear, the Black Hills 50-mile ultramarathon is only 50 miles.

And yet, I ran 55.

But I think I am getting ahead of myself here, so I will start at the beginning.

I registered for Black Hills shortly after choosing Burning River as my first 100-mile attempt because it fit into the time that my training plan called for a 50-mile race, and it was within the 500 mile radius that I try to fit my B and C races in to save money, gas, and painful 20+ hour drives (like last year’s Trail Rail 50M and HURL Elkhorn 50M). I didn’t learn my lesson last year to read about the course before registering, and erroneously assumed that the course would be like my memories of driving in Eastern South Dakota (flat and flatter) instead of my memories of Mount Rushmore (mini-mountains). Black Hills is held in Sturgis (it begins in Silver City) which is on the western and therefore more mountainous side of the state. I am not sure I will ever learn this lesson, as I still have no idea what the course at Burning River is like.

My race kit

I began race week almost over-stimulated for the race.  I had back-to-back long runs Friday and Saturday (20 and 22) that both felt really good, and after a long road back to health, I was so excited to be in the ultra world again.  I left GFK on Thursday to arrive in Sturgis two days early.  This year, I switched up my pre-race running so I rest two days before the race, and run 3-4 miles the day before.  I’ve found that this keeps me from feeling lethargic and while the runs sometimes feel a bit rotten, I feel fresh going into race day. Friday morning I did a quick 3.5 miles with 4 strides, and picked up my packet and dropped off my drop bags (and also caught the tail end of the 100M start, which happened at 10 am). After purchasing a case of water, I headed back to the hotel to practice my complementary hobby: “moving as little as possible.”  Since the bus to head up to the race start left at 4 am, my goal was to eat all afternoon and be in bed by 7 pm.

I accomplished both goals.

Race morning I work up at 2:50 am, and did my pre-race ritual which includes coffee, soy milk and a selfie before heading to the buses.

It was already warm, so warm that I didn’t need anything outside of my shorts and tank.  The bus ride up to Silver City took over an hour, but I used that time to eat breakfast (a Perfect Foods Bar). It was colder at the start, but luckily there was a lodge where we could wait inside.  It was there that I met a another runner, waiting to start his first 50M.  In fairness, while this was his first 50M ultra, he seems to be a running freak of nature (this is meant in the most positive way ever and if it comes across as snarky, it’s probably just because I’m jealous), and has some seriously fast half and full marathon times without training, so he was well-equipped to run this race. We decided to run together for a bit, because ultras are more fun with similarly-paced people. This is a fact.

The start, like the entire course, is beautiful, and we walked couple hundred yards down the road to start.  I was still really stoked to run, but had taken a look at the course description the night before and talked to the race directors, where I learned that the race, while a net downhill, had some serious climbs and descents to get there.  To quote one of the race directors, “the course is either going up or going down.”  And that was true. We started the race conservatively, following my usual ultra race plan, which is to run the flats and downhill portions of the race, and walk the inclines. The course began with a rather gentle decline, and my legs felt good.

You may remember, if you read my HURL Elkhorn recap, that technical running, especially downhills on uncertain footing (read: scree) is definitely my trail running weakness.  I remember, at one point during Elkhorn, where I was passed by someone who was literally flying down an incline, gracefully (it seemed) leaping from one rock to another.  In comparison, during Elkhorn I had to move slowly down the hill, searching for a firm place to place each foot.  That is not only slow, but a nightmare for quads as they have to act as brakes.  Coming into Black Hills, I hadn’t trained as much as I would have liked on technical trails, but with cross training and yoga, I was hoping that I would have more confidence on the descents.  And I did.  While I am sure I looked clumsy, I was confident on the downhill portions of the race (at least the early part), and was able to pull in some great splits.

The first 22 miles of the course literally flew by. Our feet were wet from almost the start as we ran through runoff and mud, but it felt really good.  My right quad was beginning to hurt a bit, but nothing serious, and the biggest hiccup was my own, in my drop bag prep.  We had drop bags at mile 22 and 33.  Going into the race, I knew we had five river crossings before the mile 33 aid station, so I put shoes and socks into that drop bag.  However, I did not have the foresight to put socks in the mile 22 drop bag, which would have given my soaked and dirty feet a nice respite.

Mile 23 is where things went wrong.  Around mile 21, the course goes down a fire road before joining the Centennial Trail, which would take us back to Sturgis (and the finish).  Somehow, both of us missed the turnoff to the Centennial Trail, and we ran two miles down the fire road.  Around a mile into our detour, I started questioning our path, given that the muddy patches didn’t have any other footprints.  We may have been moving quickly, but there was a 100M race and other 50-milers ahead of us, so the muddy portions should have shown evidence of other people.  These didn’t, and I started to worry.  Finally, there was a branch in the road where it was clear that the race directors would have put a sign to show us which branch to take, and we knew we had to turn around (as a side note, we weren’t the only people to make this mistake, which should make me feel better…). At that point, I knew we were way off course, and I took a huge mental hit.  Up until this point, I had been feeling really good and strong, but the realization that this 50 mile day would be at least a 54 mile day and that any of the speed and distance we had put on our fellow competitors had been completely lost was a huge mental hit for me. Even though I knew this was just a “B” race for me and prep for Burning River, I still wanted to PR.  I was struggling.

To make things worse, my feet (without fresh new socks) were really starting to hurt.  By the time we made it to the mile 22 aid station, the extra 4 miles (or more) meant that I was completely out of water too, and I was struggling. I started the hardest portion of the race for me, which was between mile 22 and 33.  Because of the detour, I lost some of my motivation to push it, so I started moving a lot slower, which actually makes the descents harder. Before the mile 27 aid station (which was mile 31+ for me), my new running friend, who was feeling much stronger, split up so he could move more quickly.  I was trudging by now, and going between 27 and 33, I was just pushing myself to get through.  The cutoff to reach mile 33 was 3:30, and I found myself wishing that I would miss the cutoff so I could get this misery over with.  I knew I wouldn’t quit voluntarily, but if I didn’t have a choice, I’d take it.

And the thought that I wasn’t even going to try to push to make the cutoff was almost more mentally debilitating than the detour had been.  I questioned if even had any business running ultra marathons, and worrying what the Salties who are volunteering their time to support me at Burning River would think if I couldn’t even finish a 50-miler.  In retrospect, I know these feelings are largely irrational, but I was struggling and trying to come back from dehydration.  Interestingly enough, the portion of the race that I had dreaded the most, the river crossings, were what pulled me out of my doldrums.  I’ve never crossed a river (okay, creek) before, and the race team had put up ropes to help us cross, but I was nervous about falling in and getting my iPhone wet (yes, I still had the mental fortitude to worry about my iPhone).  The first crossing was the toughest, but I moved slowly across the cold creek, holding onto the rope for dear life, and something happened when I climbed out the other side.

My legs felt amazing.

My quads had been sore from the descents, but the cold water had completely refreshed them.  The anxiety over the crossings and the focus it took to keep my footing and balance had completely pulled me out of my funk. The next four creek crossings were fun, and I headed into the mile 33 aid station feeling good.  My longest stop in the race was at mile 33, because I carefully cleaned my feet and put on new socks and shoes. I left the aid station still feeling a bit damaged (and my feet showed evidence of massive blisters), but ready to go.  I usually don’t listen to my headphones during races, but I knew I needed something to keep going, so I listened to the Game of Thrones audiobook (book 3) and just focused on putting one foot in front of the other.  This carried me until the aid station around mile 40, when the volunteer informed me that I had an hour to make it to the next aid station to make the 7 pm cutoff. I had an hour to go 4.6 miles, which on a non-trail course (and not after running 44 miles) would be pretty easy, but since I’d been averaging 3-4 miles per hour, was going to be tough.

Where I had been hoping to be pulled hours earlier, now I was determined that was not going to happen. My second wind hit, and I sped through the miles.  I had some of my fastest splits of the race during this period, and I made it to the final aid station with minutes to spare (I found out later that they were not pulling people off the course at the final aid station).  I got a refill on my water and headed back out. I had already ran 50 miles because of my detour, and I was so ready to be done.

Fun with a FitBit
Fun with a FitBit

But the course wasn’t done with me yet.  About a half of a mile out of the final aid station, we suddenly started to climb.  And not a North Dakota hill, but a real mini-mountain, and it was almost more than I could handle.  I think I cried a little (or a lot of sunscreen was in my eye) and just pushed forward with everything I had left.  After the worst of the hill was done, I ran into four fellow 50-milers who seemed to be hurting as much as I was. We formed a pack, and stuck together for the remaining five miles (and one more missed course turn, taking my final miles off course to 5).  As we got close to the finish, we decided that we needed to do something together to commemorate our finish, together and strong.

All five of us crossed together, arms linked.  If you the check the results, there are five people with identical times.

That was us.

Our time was 14:56

Ultrarunner, adventurer, academic, and feminist. Running Across the USA in 2021 to raise money for Girls on the Run. Next challenge: Pinhoti FKT. I write about ultrarunning, adventuring, and the intersection of endurance athletics and life.

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    1. Thank you! It is always crazy to me how I can go from “this is horrible, I can’t do this” to “this is fun” in the same run. Proof that so much of running in mental.

  1. Wow, tough race, but I loved how you guys banded together at the end. This is what I love about trail runners – such a friendly and supportive group.