I spent the weekend in South Dakota, where I was to crew and pace Stephen Young in his quest to conquer another 100-mile race, the Black Hills 100. The weekend didn’t turn out exactly as planned for any of us, but it was still an amazing weekend. I learned so much about running 100 miles, got a front-row seat to witness a course record being broken, and made some amazing new friends in the process. I can't say enough about the experience. But I did draw up a decent summary of what went down.
1. Stephen’s race
To put Stephen’s race in proper perspective, I think it’s critical to give a little background. Jaime Yebra introduced us last summer at Leadville, where both of us were pacing other runners. Later, in the summer, Jaime, Stephen, and I ran a 27-mile big loop around the Indian Peaks. It was a pleasure watching Stephen Young dance along the trails with effortlessness and grace. I immediately recognized that this guy was a natural. He’s young, fit, and has enormous potential as a runner. I spent that entire day dragging my butt up and down the trail while he ran without breaking a sweat. Six days later, I ran my first sub-3 marathon, and Stephen was out of my league fitness-wise. Two weeks later he proved it with a sixth-place finish at Wasatch.
Fast forward eight months and Stephen posted on Facebook that he was looking for a crew and pacers at the Black Hills 100 this last weekend in South Dakota. I don’t work anymore, so I figured, why not. As Vonnegut said, “Invitations to travel are like dancing lessons from God.” I knew it would be fun, and I figured I could learn a lot by watching someone with Stephen’s pedigree in action.
The two of us picked up Bryan Williams, another ultrarunner, and super cool guy, in Erie, Colorado drove up to South Dakota on the Friday. We had great time swapping stories about ultrarunning and getting to know each other. We’re all passionate about the sport and fairly new to it, so it was great just shooting the shit and getting to know each other. Stephen told us that he had been diagnosed with some health problems associated with B12 deficiency and anemia, but that he had been feeling better lately. He struggled in his last race at the Jemez 50, running a sub-par effort by his standards, but still finished in a respectable time, despite serious issues with nausea.
Stephen is a laid back dude when it comes to ultras. He started his day out on Saturday with a handful of donuts and a double shot of espresso, and then we headed to the start. The race began at 6 am, and Stephen went out conservatively, letting the leaders go out ahead, despite the fact that he was probably the best athlete in the field.
We first saw him at mile 17. He came in about 2:50, and he was still plenty bouncy. We asked him how he was doing, and the first thing he said was “it was hot.” This was at 8:55 in the morning. Hmmm… Yeah, it was pretty warm, but it was about to get a whole lot hotter. Not a real encouraging sign. We traded out bladders in his pack and he went on his way without eating or drinking anything else. It was a super quick transition. In retrospect, probably too much so.
There was no crew access at the next aid, so we next saw Stephen at mile 29, Dalton lake. The first 100 miler, fellow Coloradoan Jeremy Bradford, whom we had met before and we all ate dinner with the previous night, arrived at 11:05 am. Two minutes later, he was out on the trail again, with a smile on his face and bounce in his step.
Stephen was three or four minutes behind Jeremy at 17. Ten minutes passed. Then twenty. Then thirty. Uh-oh. This can’t be good. Stephen’s too good a runner to fall that far behind Jeremy in 12 miles. Something is up.
Finally, Stephen arrived around 11:45 am. His body language was no bueno. He was clearly overheated and hurting. We doused him with about twenty pounds of ice until he was literally shivering. He said to me, “I’m really questioning the sagacity of going back out there.” Hum. He was hurting, and he was overheated, but 100 milers take a long time and it’s possible to turn things around. Bryan and I had a chat and I said I don’t think we should let him quit. Bryan was even more adamant about it than I was. Fuck no, we’re not letting him quit yet. After about 45 minutes, he got him out of the trail and back on the course.
Then, Stephen ran what was probably the fastest split of the day to the next station. So fast, we nearly missed him. That was the good news. But he’d puked up all the food we’d given him at the last station. Bad news. We repeated the process. Ice, food, water.
And then he did it again. He caught a half a dozen runners going to the next station. But he had puked up all the food we had given him. Bad news. But then he scarfed down a full grilled cheese sandwich. Nice. He told us he was done with gels. Ok. So then we tossed some powdery mix to put in his bag. And then he got up out of the chair and started jogging to the next aid. Encouraging signs. Despite puking a bunch of times, he was still catching other runners and working his way into the top ten. If we could just figure out what he could eat, there was still plenty of opportunity to turn this around.
We went to the turnaround at mile 50 next. I remember doing the math and thinking, if he keeps up the way he was running from 29 to 43, he could be back in the top five by the turnaround. I jogged out to the trailhead about a half mile short of the aid station and waiting for him. 5th passed. 6th. 7th. 8th. 9th, 10th, 11. Uh-oh. 12th, 13th, 14th, and 15th, all came into view, and I was pretty sure he was number 15. I could see him shuffle a bit down the hill. When I finally saw him clearly I could see he was carrying his pack. Not good. He just shook his head. “I’m done,” he said.
He hadn’t kept anything down since mile 29. With the 90-ish degree heat and no food, it was over. It wasn’t a good idea to push him forward. Any further progress would have been a risk to his health. Stephen seemed at ease with his decision. It was clear he had made the right call.
2. Plan B
Once the decision had been made, I started to think about what I was to do for the rest of the day. I had come out here, in part, to go on a 20-some mile run with Stephen during his race. Now that wasn’t going to happen. Bryan quickly volunteered to pace Bill Geist, another runner we had met the night before, for the full 50. Given the condition of most of the folks at the turnaround, I knew that pacing anyone from there would be a 13-20 hour death march. It was amazing of Bryan to volunteer to for the task. But that didn’t sound like much fun to me.
Selfishly, I wanted to run with Jeremy. He was winning the race, so that sounded exciting. Plus, I wanted to witness someone having the race of his life in full action mode. And Jeremy was certainly doing that.
I volunteered to drive Stephen back. Right before we left, we picked up Scott Dunlap of “A Trail Runner’s Blog” fame, who was also dropping at 50. Scott had some major medical issues of his own (I’ll let him decide if he wants to share those details) with the world. Scott’s an amazingly cool guy, with all sorts of great stories about trail running and other topics. The three of us drove back to Nemo, the mile 63 aid station, only to learn that Jeremy was so far ahead that I wouldn’t be able to pace him until at least mile 83, because he would make it to mile 71 before we could. In the meantime the three of us had dinner and a couple of beers at the aptly named Nemo Restaurant. I had the fuel of champions, fried chicken.
We dropped Scott off at his car and then drove back to the mile 83 station, where we met up with Jeremy’s wife, Natalie, who was pretty much a lone ranger at that aid station.
Natalie is a super patient woman and a skilled crewer, managing two young children and pacing duties by herself -- no small feat!
3. Hopping on the Winner’s Bandwagon
We waited about an hour and we finally saw a headlamp. There he was. Looking like he’d been out there for 1 hour, rather than 16, Jeremy came to the aid, chugged about three bottles of water, ate three gels, and we were immediately on the trail again. Wow. He was crazy smooth and focused, even after 80-plus miles. For the first five minutes, he was chatty, probably glad to have some human interaction for the first time in 50 miles. But then, he got back to focusing on the task at hand, and we trudged through the night in silence. We had a moderate climb, and he asked me to take the lead, so I tried to do a decent job of sensing what a leader of a race would want to run or walk at this stage of a race. Whenever I pushed the pace a bit, he stuck with me. He was absolutely motoring for this stage of a race.
True to my typical form, I kicked a rock about two miles into my shift and went ass over head. It was totally embarrassing. Here he was running all day, and I was the one who couldn’t hack it on this moderately technical trail at night. I got up quickly, apologized and we went on our way. After a full day of lounging, eating, drinking, and chatting, it took me a couple of miles to get my wits about me, but after a while, I just focused on the beam from my headlamp and the trail. All said, the time went by pretty quickly.
I thought the mile 90 aid was at 89, so I got a little nervous and ran ahead on a quick scouting mission. I found the aid, told the volunteers that the first 100-miler would be there shortly, and then raced back to Jeremy. He repeated the same process. Three gels, two bottles of ice water. Refill. On the trail. We took it easy the first bit out of the aid so he could settle, and then it was back to pushing the pace.
Mile 95 aid came. Same process. Three gels, two bottles, and out on the trail. Damn, this guy is a machine. Three gels at mile 95? I might have had three gels the last 25 miles of my 100, and wanted to yack every time. This guy eats three at every aid and then a gel in between? He’s not a human. He ‘s a running robot with a steel stomach.
Jeremy was all business until about mile 99. Natalie had told us that 2nd place was only 10 minutes back at mile 83, so there wasn’t much room for error. But once we got to the last mile and we couldn’t see any headlamps in the distance, we knew that the race and the course record would be Jeremy’s. We did a little fist bump and then started running side by side and chatting. Soon we hit the track and he had his victory lap.
Turns out things weren't that close after all. Jeremy won by nearly 40 minutes.
Turns out things weren't that close after all. Jeremy won by nearly 40 minutes.
Too bad the only people there to see it (at nearly 3 in the morning) were Natalie, Stephen (who had set up a sleeping bag about 10 feet from the finish line), one lone race volunteer, and the race photographer who was startled out of his sleep. As impressive as his race was, I can testify that the glory of winning a 100-mile race must all be appreciated internally, because there isn't much fanfare waiting for you when you do.
Jeremy is a humble guy – so let me brag for him. To have run 20:50 in those conditions on that course, only one week after running a 2:06 at Mt. Evans, is otherworldly. That guy is only going to get better. It was an absolute pleasure to be able to get a front-row seat for the whole affair. Glad he let me tag along.