In 2016 I crewed and paced for my boyfriend Erik at the Black Hills 100. It would reach 103 degrees that day. That experience in itself was blog worthy; driving my tiny red Geo Prizm through the Black Hills of South Dakota trying to get to aid stations ahead of Erik in the blistering heat. The runners coming in then looked like totally trashed, grey, versions of themselves. Erik looked at mile 30 like he does at mile 60. The heat was incredible. It was this race one year ago that a spectator saw me waiting for Erik, asked if I ever did any of this stuff, when I replied “Yes” she looked me up and down in shock saying “wow, you do NOT look like a runner.” Gulp. After staying up and crewing for him, I paced the last 50 miles, it was the hardest pacing job I had ever done. He was on the whole time, and me, by over extending my duties earlier that day, fell off at the end. Black Hills gave me a one-two punch, and I left last year knowing I wanted to do it.
The training for Black Hills was totally different than any race. Winter ultras take MONTHS to fully recover, so I was still eking my way out of Actif when I was supposed to be building miles. My plan: run a lot of little runs, and do a ton of strength training and swimming. That way, I wouldn’t be totally gassed from doing 30-50 miles on a weekend, and could maintain some consistency in training. This was a total experiment and I had no idea if it would work. Leading up to BH, I did three 20+ runs, all races or pacing Erik. THREE. Dang girl. But as we gathered our things and drove west, I was ready to see if my little experiment would work.
As we checked in to Camp Rush No More just outside of Sturgis, I finally felt like we were back. I love this place, we tented here last year, and if you ever find yourself near Sturgis in need of a place to camp, this place is great! It was good to be out West again, God it makes me feel WILD. Like I just want to keep going. When I was a little girl, we frequently drove this way to Montana, how many hours have I spent gazing out of a car window day dreaming, having a thousand adventures in my mind? Louis and Clark. The Bad Lands. Beaver Head. The Tobacco Root Mountains. When you are out here, they are at your fingertips, waiting to be touched. As we crept into night for that final sleep I wanted to run, explore, stay up all night, find rocks and see animals, a very good sign.
That morning, it was like a high school reunion! Seeing friends I saw, last night, a few weeks ago, or last year when we met. Chad came over to me, arms spread wide open for a hug. I hadn’t seen him since last year, I loved this family that I felt very much a part of, how close the shared experience makes us! As we gathered in the parking lot, chattering excitedly I still had no idea what was coming, but these great people made me completely fearless. As the race director quietly counted it off, our small group of runners left Sturgis and headed for the Black Hills.
Well it is stunning, that much is sure. I had this desire to see all the places so the beginning was great! I ran with Kate a bit, with Andrew a bit, with Erik a bit, they all moved on and I maintained my slow pace, wanting my legs for later. Susan was behind me which is never great, that means I’m going too fast. The open prairie and big blue sky was all encompassing. Still I found that I was walking… a lot. I found that I was walking more in these first few miles than any other race! It was all HILL! Thus begins the mind game of “Are You Prepared For This Kari, Or Not.” Still, the strength training was paying off, the hills were tough but I was scooting along quite easily. Until I was not. The climbs just got hard all of a sudden. My heart was trying to break free, and about 10 runners pass me on this one hill. Just like that. WTF. Andy stopped with this concerned look, “do you need anything?” he asked. I thanked him but no, what was alarming was the way he was looking at me. I felt like shit. Did I LOOK like shit? I began the check list: going to hard? No. Drinking enough? Yes. Eating enough? Yes…. how much?……….
Really? Like what?
Well I had that half banana at the first aid station… And then two gummies. Oh and then four pretzels at the last aid station! I looked at my watch, it was 2:20. I had been running for nearly four and a half hours, and eaten enough calories for one. I’ve decided to rename my blog- “Weeeeehooooo Mistakes!” Since that is more appropriate to how I roll.
Getting to the next aid station, refueling was number one. First, Tailwind in the pack, so no matter what I’ll always get a steady flow of calories. An amazing idea that I came up with several hours into the race. Then lots of food, but not too much and I was off. Soon I was running steady again, passing two guys where one of them said “wow you recover quickly! I want what you’re having.” “Tailwind!” I shouted as I ran past. Then we saw a rattle snake, sunning himself on the trail and totally pissed we interrupted him. Oh yeah, I was in it now. The legs felt great, I was on a reroute that was very runnable so I was hauling ass. Very much, the whole race my thoughts were, if you CAN run you MUST. That is, all flats and downhill’s I have to take advantage of. Eating a cookie and running hard into the aid station at Dalton Lake (mile 30), my friend Rick was there waiting. I didn’t know how much I wanted to see a friendly face until I saw him. I asked how the kids were (Jeff and Erik), and they were doing great, a few hours ahead of me. Leaving the aid station, I knew what was coming. A long, giant, climb. It starts out as switchbacks and turns into a jeep road, and then just keeps going. At some point my thoughts moved to, we actually WILL run out of mountain at some point, right? It CAN’T go on forever… can it? But alas it ended, and off I went, trying to get to the next aid station before nightfall.
I was familiar with what was coming because of running the last half with Erik last year and Black Hills is an out and back course. Thinking of Erik, I missed him a bit, which was a strange sensation, and was a reminder of my goal: this race, no crew, no pacer. Susan usually runs like this and I wanted to see if it was for me. Night came and thus ended the perfectly warm day. I cannot express how deeply I enjoy running into dusk, and that magical moment when you decide to flip the headlamp on. Oh yeah…so good. The cold was coming, so the plan was to get to the turn around by midnight-ish to get my coat. I continued hiking up the jeep roads and seeing the dust rise in my headlamp, hearing cows moo in the distance, I was completely alone and completely contented. Bypassing two aid stations gave me a little time and I was soon on my way to the turnaround. This is always exciting because you start running into people on the return trip, which always gives you a little pep. I chatted with Angela for a bit, she is one of the Gnarly Bandits, and the most upbeat human you’ll ever spend trail time with. If you can run with Angela, do it. Soon Erik and Jeff came out and I smooched on Erik for a bit, they both looked good, and I really began yearning for that turnaround. As I left them I thought, change shoes, get coat, eat food. Those three things were swarming my mind, but this part of the trail is single track and riddled with big climbs, and steep descents, and seemed to take forever.
Alas, I made it. Half an hour, that is as long as I get. This is also my “one sit” I get every race, so I ate soup (a lot) and changed shoes. The feet were fine, I just wanted something new, so I discarded the Salomon’s and grabbed my Brooks Glycerin, yup, that’s a road shoe people. I would regret this decision for the remainder of the race. Susan came in and we chatted a bit, I hang on her words since she does so much RIGHT. A chat felt good and reminded me of my mission, soon after she left, so did I.
Leaving the turnaround is the half way point, it was inky black outside dotted with the headlamps of other runners. I love this part. The sky was wide open, stars shinning their brightest now that the moon was out of the picture. It was cool and damp and I knew it was more downhill from here, so essentially easy right? Well then right away I was dying on those climbs and thinking a mountain lion was going to eat me. Then I would hit a cold pocket and freeze my butt off. Basically from the turn around to the next aid station I unraveled completely, turning every once in a while to sweep my headlamp in the trees ready to see my demise mid air, claws out, jaws wide to eat my face. So by the time I got to the next aid station, I was a pooped frozen popsicle Kari, and falling asleep. I needed to take caffeine AND stay warm standing still, tricky. Until I saw the chair in front of a heater and a blanket. There, I broke my rule of only one sit. Plopping my frozen butt down, a woman sat next to me saying “It’s got to be difficult without a crew, no one is grabbing stuff for you.” “Yeah…..” I replied. “So can you get me a coke?” Maybe that’s what I needed, my Mom. This chic just volunteered.
Then Daryl Saari came into the aid station in shorts, now caffeinated and not wanting to look like a wimp in front of this ITI competitor, I was motivated to follow him out. Up and out we went, climbing the big climbs I was now warm and snug as a bug. I went through the rest of that chilly night unaffected, and when dawn came, I welcomed her as I always do, unaware at the time that during that black night, my Grandmother had passed away. She was one of the people that was a part of my frequent journeys out west as a child, and for better or worse, I learned a lot from her. Looking back at it, I see that night and feel…tiny.
All we had to do was get to Dalton Lake, then, we could just coast. I was running on and off with Daryl, we talked about ITI, this race, and mountain lions. Apparently I was right to be terrified! We got to the descent at Dalton Lake, and I ran down (mostly), my legs felt great. Like I was riding a horse I was barely in control of. Yet the “kick” was there, my quads were burning on the down hills but they took them all. I kept wondering when the wheels would fall off, when would my training experiment bite me in the ass. But I was good! Hike the uphill’s, run when you can, hike hard when you can’t.
The last 20 miles were so strange. First I met a girl at an aid station that was unraveling. Daryl and another chic continued on, and me, momma bear, stayed with her. We talked, we had a good clip going and when I found the stray dog she was in a good place. Enter Poett the dog. Who was happy as hell to run with me, and I him. But the poor pup would have followed me to oblivion on that hot day so we stopped and I called his owner. Yes, in the middle of a race, this bitch made a phone call. We made arrangements and Poett and I parted ways. Off I went, running actually really well, legs flying on the downs. Except when I was trying to find a place to poop (which never actually happened, tragically). It was warm out, getting to an aid station I was so relieved they had ice for my pack, I told them “It wasn’t 6 hours ago I was bitching about how cold it was!” We laughed, the volunteers were awesome this year. My feet were killing me. DO. NOT. wear road shoes during a trail run. They are different you guys. Every rock and root my dear, you WILL feel it.
Then I was almost to the last aid station, exactly where I wanted to be. No more “next one” or “three more” just the finish from here on out. As I made my way around the prairie, I saw my friend Kate walking with her husband. We chatted for a bit, I don’t think I know anyone stronger. I told her, and I’ll tell you dear one, that what I love about these events is, there is enough distance to make mistakes and have the wheels come off (they will by the way) and there is enough time to learn, adapt, and finish said race. That EVERY event can be a learning experience and an opportunity to become more adaptable. I told her my wheels came off at 17 miles! And look, here we were, 7 to the finish. It was a great place to be.
Then the last 7 miles started. I climbed and climbed and told myself this is the end and to be super positive. I passed three women on horses and longed to ride out here, to smell the leather and listen to the saddle creak, to hold reigns and touch a horses neck, to lean back as we descend the mountain. This place puts a spell on me! Then the spell popped like a bubble filled with will power as I climbed a meaningless hill out of no where. I stood on the top and said “who seriously cares!? WHY am I doing this? This is so STUPID who would do this? What IDIOT runs 100 miles this is absolute bullshit I’m done no more never again!!!” So I lost my patience a little bit there. But scooted along after meeting a woman who was looking for her dog, it’s easy to pull yourself together when you have an audience. Plus I really wanted to find two stray dogs on this run! Alas I found myself looking at the pavement, one mile to the finish. I only wanted to take my braids out, so I undid them and let the wind cool my hair. I was in a place where I’ve not been before; I lost my ability to run. But REALLY couldn’t you guys! No worries really, plenty of time and all, it was just a strange place to be. Probably from not doing more long runs, still not bad! I think the training was a success, since I’m not here to win it but get that finish, and oddly felt better in some areas. More strength training! Anyway, I saw a shape walking toward me, it looked like Erik but it couldn’t be… and then it was! Oh lordy my girl heart melted, so I got to walk it in with my man. Walk by the way, and as we got to the finish and my friends were cheering I yelled “I’m not running!”
As I looked at my friends laying in the grass, I just felt so in love, most had finished and were happy to be relaxing either way. I felt something then that I hadn’t before, having always having been a person on the move, from those early days going out west, everything temporary, I looked at them and thought this community might be here forever. That I might be here to stay.
And then on our way home, Erik and I visited the Bad Lands, I had been here so many times as a child, but distance makes the heart grow fonder, and I did not want to leave. The open Wild, just waiting to be touched, each path, leading to more Wild, I was drinking it up with my eyes. Knowing now that the end of an era was happening within my family, I desired so much to just continue driving west instead of going home. Living a life of freedom pulls at my heart, running the Black Hills didn’t quench any of it, as usual, I want more.