Friday, August 20, 2021

Lean Horse 100

 A couple years ago, a friend told me about an out-and-back 100-mile race in South Dakota, a slow incline on the way out and then a slow decline on the way back. Sounds good, I always thought. But the race wasn't a Western States qualifier, and I never managed to make it a priority. 

I ran my 2020 WSER qualifier (Bandera 100k) just before the pandemic, and because of how things unfolded, that same race will be my qualifier for 2021's lottery. With that, I looked to non-qualifier races to run this year—and in states I hadn't run in before. I attempted a 100-mile in North Carolina in March but DNFed, and I was looking for a race to run in summer. Finally, it was time for Lean Horse.

At packet pickup the day before the race

Training for this one went well. Back in May I started getting an Achilles injury, so I dialed down the mileage for about a week and then wore shoes for some runs rather than my usual sandals. After that, I was able to build up to 70+ miles a week and maintain that without trouble, taking down weeks every so often. 

Planning was another sort of endurance quest. Sometimes I make a short weekend trip out of a race, but this one turned into a weeklong family vacation. There was a lot of confusion around who was coming, how much things cost, etc., but we got through that. In the end, thirteen of us moved into a big, remote cabin on a bison ranch in the Black Hills just in time to see the Perseid meteor shower after dinner on the first night, and we had a few days for sightseeing before the race.

Me and family before the start

Awaiting the start of the race

The Lean Horse course wasn't exactly as my friend advertised it. It was an out-and-back, and it wasn't technical, but the climbs were up and down in both directions. Even though the climbs are all at about a 2-percent grade, it starts to gnaw at you after 10 miles of ascent, especially when you've already run 50+ miles. 

The field shortly after the start

Typical view: lots of pine trees

One thing I really appreciated about the race was its noon start. I'm a creature of habit, and being able to wake up naturally in the morning and enjoy my normal routine helped keep me calm. The downside of the noon start: The first segment of the race was out in the heat of the day. It was sunny and in the high 80s, and I was feeling it. Not to mention the elevation (only one mile above sea level, but I live and train at sea level) and the dry air (I'm used to humidity). But I made do with my sun runner cap, ice in my neckerchief and lots of water. 

It's usual for me that miles 20–30 are the hardest. It feels like I've run a long way, and there's still unimaginably long to go... and it gets to me. On this race, this was compounded by the heat, and the blues came as early as mile 15. But I saw my family unexpectedly around mile 20, and that was a big cheer-up. After that, I played race-the-sun to hit the mile 38 aid station before nightfall (where I had my nice new waistlight). 

As the race progressed, I made pretty good time. My stretch goal of a 20-hour finish became quickly unrealistic, but through mile 60 or so I was on track for a 22-hour finish. I saw my family once again near nightfall, and I was leapfrogging with a fellow runner throughout practically the whole race. I had coffee a few times and put peppermint oil near my nose to help wake me up... but by 3 o'clock in the morning I was pretty drowsy. Shortly after that, the extended inclines started getting to me, and by mile 70 I could run very little. I tried to hang on for dear life, but I had to walk more and more as the temperature climbed. I felt disoriented and desperate for sleep. 

The trail just after sundown

View in the night

My family visited me again at mile 90, by which time I was reduced to a slow but steady walk. My mom volunteered to walk it in with me—and though I was crabby at the time, I appreciated it. A couple hours later, I made it across the finish line, just past hour 25. 


Me just after finishing

I was disappointed with myself for losing track of my pace toward the end and having to walk so much, so it was difficult to be happy with the fact that I finished and didn't DNF. And this in perhaps Lean Horse's most difficult year: Historically, Lean Horse has few DNFs compared to most races; this year, though, nearly half the field dropped (37 of 90 registered runners either DNF or DNS).

In all, it was a full experience: highs, lows, beauty, pain, friendship, love... everything you'd want from a 100-mile race. I'm proud to have this base to continue my training, and I look forward to the next race.