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By Deborah Sexton
Before I start my sad saga, I want to talk about Ryan Loehding’s win. I ran into Ryan at Arbor Hills a couple of weeks before the race and we chatted about Lean Horse. (He obviously was taking it easy that day as he was running with me!) He was interested in doing it because his parents lived in nearby Wyoming and it was good chance to visit with them as well. When he e-mailed me that he was definitely going, I looked up his time at Rocky this year (16:32) and the winning time at Lean Horse last year (17:38) and e-mailed him back to say, You can win this!
And he did. I was just pulling into Oreville aid station around mile 38, when he was leaving. So at that point, he was 44 miles ahead of me! We didn’t see the next runner for about 10 minutes so I was pretty confident this was Ryan’s day. I was so happy to be able to take his photo receiving his overall award. I am very proud and honored to be a part of North Texas Trail Runners with such great runners as Ryan and Scott Eppelman and our Grand Slammer Letha Cruthids. You will never know how inspiring you are to us slower and less gutsy types. So congrats to Ryan for bring home the gold to the NTTR.
I’d also like to note that Kevin McCormick is a very nice guy. We need to persuade him to come out to some NTTR meetings. I had never met him but I know he’s done lots of ultras. I met him at the pre-race dinner. I had only chatted with via e-mail and when I found out his flight came in too late for the pre-race meeting, I offered to pick up his packet for him. I suggested that he call me on my cell phone at the dinner not knowing that there would be no reception. So once I finished eating, I started walking around table to table and in my usual shy way asking every guy if he was Kevin McCormick. Finally I found him! He ended up finishing in 27:47. Congrats to him as well.
Stan looked really strong when he passed me going out of the turnaround as I was coming in. I still have no word on his outcome.
In the weeks leading up to Lean Horse 100 miler, my single biggest concern was the heat. Expecting temperatures in the 90s, a friend told me she was going to bring a sun protection hat and long-sleeve shirt in lieu of sun screen. I thought this was a great idea and promptly began searching for appropriate clothing. In the end, I spent about $70 on a legionnaire’s style hat with flaps (that is also bug proof!) and a shirt at REI. After experimenting running in the shirt and hat in 98 degree temperatures, I brought the hat but left the shirt. A good decision. (If anyone is interested in a women’s long-sleeve XL SPF 30 button-down shirt, I’ve got a brand new one I’ll sell you at a great price. I don’t recommend running in it in 98 degrees.)
About three days before the race, the temperatures started dropping first to the 80s and by race day, in the 70s. First we heard there would be scattered showers during the night, but in the end, it rained off and on all day and all night and the temps during the night dropped to the 40s. Yikes. This all happened in like 24 hours.
And so I learned another lesson about preparing for an ultra. Bring everything. You can’t depend on the weather. I was completely unprepared for rain or lower temperatures. I had neither rain poncho nor pants packed in my drop bags and both would be desperately needed.
The pre-race dinner is held at a very cool restored building called The Flat Iron. This is a coffee shop and hotel with a beautiful outdoor court yard where the buffet dinner is held. There was penne pasta with red or white sauce, vegetarian lasagna and all the buffalo burgers you could eat. (They have a lot of buffalo in South Dakota. You would see them on the prairies as you passed by.) There I hooked up with Kevin McCormick, Stan Roady, and some of my other ultra friends. I also met my pacer there, Lisa Gustin, a Rapid City, South Dakota, native who had driven 90 minutes to meet me at the pre-race dinner. Lisa is an active mountain biker and rock climber but had never run farther than a marathon. We agreed she would meet me around 6:30-8:00 p.m. at Hill City (55 mile mark).
Race day morning was overcast and drizzling as we rode the bus from the race headquarters in downtown Hot Springs to the trail head of the George S. Mickelson Trail. (About 12 miles.) Last year we just got off the bus and stood around until it was time to start but this year there were several RVs and a huge breakfast buffet with homemade muffins, all kinds of breakfast bars, juice, coffee, and water.
Someone said “go” at 6 a.m. and the runners (50K, 50 milers, and 100 milers) started off crossing a fairly broad grassy plain. The wind blew and we were pelted with a light drizzle. I had on a tank top and biker sleeves. In the open areas I was cold and pulled the sleeves up and in the more covered areas out of the wind, I pulled the sleeves down. Those sleeves are great.
I started off running with Mary Vish, a runner from New Jersey whom I had met at Bandera 2005 and paced at Arkansas Traveler 2005 and Rocky Raccoon 2006. Where we started was dirt but most of the trail is 10-foot wide crushed limestone that used to be a railroad line, which is very comfortable to run on and you do not need trail shoes. Road shoes work fine. However, wear your gaiters. Those without gaiters were seen to be shopping frequently to get pebbles out of their shoes.
The trail itself is very scenic. You pass beautiful fields with the Black Hills in the background, old farmhouses, quite a few abandoned cars, some beautiful homes, awesome bridges, a few tunnels, the Crazy Horse monument, lots of rocks, streams, waterfalls, and a lot of wildlife. We saw deer, buffalo, and even some chipmunks scampering along the trail. They are so cute! At night, big hairy spiders came out on the trail. They were not very cute but at least I didn’t step or sit on one. Yes, I did sit on the trail, more on that later.
The first 16 miles into Pringle aid station were relaxed and fun even though by the time Mary and I got there we were soaked to the skin. Just as we had the pavilion in view, this guy comes up behind me and says something like, “You know what’s famous about the name Pringle other than this aid station?” I looked at him (he looked like Pete Yorn, for those of you who know him), I said, “potato chips?” He says, “No, that’s my last name!”
I said, “Oh, how exciting.” I quickly put on a dry shirt and Mary and I headed out, as I passed him, I said, “Bye Mr. Pringle.” Well, Mr. Pringle ended up catching up to us, so then I had to ask him his first name, which was Joe. Joe was from Atlanta and was running his first 100 miler.
So Joe, Mary, and I continued to walk, talk, and run to the 50-mile turnaround. We would pick a point to run to, reach it and walk, pick another point, and run again. There were a lot of bridges and a lot of stop and yield signs along the trail as it crossed little roads. So we got into the habit of every time we’d see a bridge in the distance, we’d run to it and then walk across. This kept us going at a pretty steady pace. I told them that after this race, “Run to the bridge,” would always have a special secret meaning to just us.
At Harbach, which is about 30 miles, I called David, my husband, on my cell phone. This was just about the only spot I could get the cell phone to work. I told him I was going to need a long-sleeve shirt and a poncho and pizza. I told him a place near Harbach (which is in Custer) to buy that stuff as Mary had bought a poncho there the day before. With the steady rain and predictions of 40 degree temps, I knew I was going to freeze if I didn’t get some rain protection and warmer clothes.
As we came through Hill City (45 miles) I took advantage of the fact that this aid station was in front of someone’s house and they were letting us go in and use a real bathroom. Joe’s wife was crewing for him so he was busy getting stuff from her. Stan Roady’s wife Beverly, his daughter, and his pacer (Mike) were all there waiting for Stan to come back from the turnaround. Stan’s daughter told me to tell him to “Hurry up.” Mary was planning a clothes change at High Country Guest Ranch (the turnaround) so she whizzed in and out of Hill City and pulled a little bit ahead. She hit 50 miles at 12:20 and Joe and I hit it at 12:25. Pretty much the pace I was looking to do.
Mary changed into long pants and a long-sleeve shirt (I’m going to have her pack my drop bags next time.) at the turnaround and so the three of us set off again together for the second 50 miles. At the next aid station (Hill City), David met me with pizza, a long-sleeve shirt and a poncho. I went back into that nice couple’s bathroom and changed and met my pacer Lisa and her friend Kelly. We all enjoyed the pizza. The five of us set off for Oreville, 5 miles away. At that moment my cell phone rang (Tammi: was that you?) I couldn’t answer it fast enough and since everyone was leaving me in the dust, I hustled to catch up.
At this point, I was tired but OK. Mary took off doing was she does best, which is walking like a bat out of hell. Neither Joe nor I could keep up with her. Coming out of Hill City, we had a very long, but gradual climb to the highest point of the course, 5900 feet, which took us to the Crazy Horse Memorial.
Within about 15 minutes, Mary was out of sight. Joe and I started spotting light sticks and we would run to the light stick, but this was getting harder and harder for me to do. I’m not sure if it was the altitude or what, but I started feeling really sick. Not nauseous but an upset stomach and a flu-like feeling.
Joe was keeping a steady pace and I started to lose him walking and had to run to catch up. I did that most of the way to the next aid station, which was Oreville. I gratefully sat down on a bench, while Lisa got my bladder filled with water. Then we walked over to Joe’s truck where his wife and mother-in-law were and Lisa got some ice from Joe’s cooler and I also got a Boost from him. I drank the Boost and we headed off for Mountain Trailhead, about 5 miles away.
After drinking the Boost, if I tried to run, my stomach really started bothering me so I concentrated on just walking as fast as I could. I could no longer run to catch up with Joe so Kelly and he faded from sight and I walked with Lisa. I started feeling worse and worse. I sat down right in the middle of the trail and ate a gel trying to recover and get myself back in the groove.
When we reached Mountain Trailhead, Kelly was waiting for us. Ulrich Kramm, the famous ultra walker who has finished Hard Rock 10 times walking, had passed me on the way to Mountain Trailhead and Kelly reported that Joe had left with him. I knew I was in danger of missing the cutoff once Ulli passed me as he typically finishes just ahead of cutoffs.
I sat down and wrapped a blanket around my freezing legs and downed a big cup of hot soup. Then Lisa, Kelly, and I started off for Harbach, and the 70 mile mark.
There is no other way to describe this section other than a death march. I felt the worst I’ve ever felt in an ultra. There were benches along the way, and I stopped and sat at every one. When there were no benches and I couldn’t stand up any longer, I sat on the trail. I was supremely miserable and I knew I would never make another 30 miles. So many things ran through my mind. Why am I in such bad shape? I was eating and drinking and urinating at regular intervals. Was it the altitude? I had gone over the highest point at Western with no issues as well as paced 20 miles at Hard Rock going over a 14,000 foot mountain, with no real issues. Did I not rest enough? I ran a 15 miler and then only 90 minutes the two Saturdays before with no running at all the week of the race.
I was at a complete loss for my collapse but as I continued to sit down every 10-15 minutes on the way to Harbach, all I could think of was reaching there and calling David. A little bit earlier I started calculating what I would have to do to make the cutoff. With Lisa’s help, I figured if I could reach 70 miles by 2 p.m. I only had to do 3 miles an hour to make 30 hours. How do-able that sounded. Well, we hit the 70 mile mark at 2:10. Despite my frequent stops, I was still in the range and if I hadn’t felt so sick, I could have pulled it off but I knew I could not do it. I had nothing left.
As we got to Harback, Lisa says, “There’s David.” I never heard two (or three if you don’t count the contraction) more glorious words in my life. I thought I would have to call him, pray that the stupid phone would work and then sit and wait in freezing cold until he got there, probably at least 90 minutes.
John, the runner in front of me also was sitting there deciding whether or not to drop. He informed me we had 13 minutes to decide. I told him, I’d give him a ride back to Hot Springs if he wanted one. We all ended up climbing in the car and we dropped John off at his hotel and Kelly and Lisa came back to our room and slept in the extra queen size bed until 7:30 a.m. Then Lisa called her Dad to come and pick her up.
I came to this race with no concerns about finishing. I felt I was in shape, I thought I had planned and packed well, and while I didn’t expect it to be easy, I felt confident I could do it. I think my experience proves that every race is a unique event and there are never any guarantees. You really can’t predict weather or your body’s reactions to the stress of a 100 miler on any given day. When either of these conditions go south, sometimes you go south with them.
I have to say that Lisa and Kelly were wonderful pacers. Neither one of them had ever run an ultra but both were avid mountain bikers and rock climbers as well as road runners. I never gave Lisa a word of instruction but she did all the right things: she asked me if I was drinking, taking my s-caps, asked how I felt, offered me hard candy, lifts up from the road when I sat down, and a lot of encouragement and moral support. I feel like I have made a new lifetime friend and I am eternally grateful for her willingness to drive 90 minutes and go through the night with me. Especially knowing that it was going to be cold and rainy the whole way. At several aid stations, I announced that I had the best pacers in the race. And I did! A huge thank you to her and she has my promise that if she ever decides to succumb to the insanity of attempting a 100 miler and I can get there, she has a pacer.
I kept telling people that this is the easiest 100 miler but after this experience, I am going to retract that. Even though this course has virtually no terrain and there’s no way you can get lost, it is a slower course than Rocky Raccoon. Three people I know (Ryan Loedling, Mary Vish, and Lori Sampson) all ran Rocky this year roughly an hour faster than Lean Horse this year.
Some guesses as to why. It does have some altitude. The uphill is very gradual but it does go for a long way (miles). The rain this year contributed to wet feet which resulted in blisters. I had blisters on the bottom of my feet for the first time. You run more on this course with no variety so you wear out the same muscles.
As far as race management, it is top notch all the way. Jerry Dunn has one goal in mind when he plans his race: to get as many runners across the finish line as he can. Aid stations were well stocked and volunteers were very helpful. The food before and after is above average. He gives away age group awards, which is almost unheard of in a 100 miler. It’s a very beautiful course and is set in an area with tons of stuff to see so it’s a great place to bring family and sight see. Just a few of the things David and I did was see Mount Rushmore, drive through Badlands National Park (very cool), drive up Iron Mountain in Custer State Park where we saw a donkey standing in the road, deer, turkeys, cool bridges and tunnels, killer views, etc. There is lots to do. Jerry says he’s doing it again next year, so put it on your calendar!