Alright, by popular demand (*cough* Rob and Mike *cough*), I toted a camera along on my long trail run this past weekend. I just got a new iphone last week when it was finally time for me to upgrade and the picture quality is pretty damn good, actually better than the two or three year old digital camera I have (the actual location of which I'm not entirely sure of, it's been so long since I used it). Besides that, it's a pretty damn sweet device if you're into electronics, although Siri didn't have a damn clue what I was talking about when I asked "how far is an ultramarathon?"
But that's beside the point. The plan for the day was to get in 25 miles on the Centennial Trail. After venturing further south to Wind Cave and the Deerfield Trail the past couple of weekends, I elected to stay closer to home this weekend and started my run from the Alkali Creek trailhead just outside of Sturgis, which is about 5.7 miles into the Black Hills 100. The hill in the first picture below is the first (and also last, due to the out and back course) significant hill that must be climbed during the race (I wouldn't climb it on this day as I headed in the other direction instead.) The trail going up/down the hill is actually just on the other side of that rock face you can see in the picture.
After leaving Alkali Creek it's a steady four mile climb to the top of the next ridgeline. This climb is entirely runnable as the trail switchbacks up the hill at a fairly constant, relatively gradual grade. Once you get to the top, it's back down into Bulldog Gulch. On the descent, there's very little switchbacking as the trail basically just dives straight down the hill. This is all fine and good if you're heading south, but it's kind of a pain in the ass coming back up the other way, especially on tired legs.
Bulldog Gulch doesn't generally carry a ton of water. Last year, there was enough for the creek to be flowing, but you could easily cross without getting more than the soles of your shoes wet. As you can see from the next picture, not even that much moisture can be found this year. It was bone dry.
After some gradual, rolling trail along the bottom of Bulldog Gulch, it's time to start another climb. As with the descent into Bulldog, the climb out is a fairly straight shot. You COULD run the entire thing, but powerhiking is probably the more prudent option if you're going for distance. Just before the steepest part of the climb started, I got passed by a mountain biker who was making pretty good time. Before too long though, he was thwarted by the loose rocks on the steepest part of the ascent and I pulled back ahead and continued to the top before he caught me again after the trail had leveled out.
At the top, the trail goes through Beaver Park. This area is somewhat notable in that it is the site of a congressionally approved timber sale back in the 90s that was meant to stop a mountain pine beetle infestation (perhaps the only thing South Dakota's mixed democrat/republican congressional contingent has ever agreed upon). You don't see much evidence of pine beetles now, but there are also notably fewer trees.
From Beaver Park, it's a long descent (about three miles) into the Elk Creek drainage. I hit the Elk Creek trailhead and was sitting at about 11.4 miles for the day so decided to continue on to Elk Creek itself, which is about a mile beyond the trailhead. The trail actually crosses Elk Creek a total of five times within about two-thirds of a mile. Unfortunately, I don't have any "before" pictures for reference, but I can tell you that last year Ryan and I strung ropes across each of the crossings. While the creek was flowing fairly quickly and was about knee high on us (keeping in mind that we're both over 6 feet tall), we didn't really expect the ropes to be necessary to cross the creek....we put them there more as a reference point for the 100 milers after dark because at some of the crossings it's tough to see where the trail is on the opposite side of the creek. Well, as it turned out, it was a good thing we did install those ropes because the severe thunderstorm that rolled through during the race swelled the creek significantly and the ropes became fairly instrumental in runners being able to cross safely. As you can see from the picture below, one year without much snow can make quite a difference. I was actually fairly shocked when I got to the creek and saw nothing. Not a single drop of water. Sure, there is still some snow that is yet to melt in the high country, but not that much (and, really, not much high country in the Hills). Unless we get some significant spring rain, wet feet and raging creek crossings won't be a concern at the Black Hills 100 this year.
I turned back after reaching Elk Creek and was able to run pleasingly strongly (with some powerhiking mixed in) back up to Beaver Park and down into Bulldog Gulch again. The ascent out of Bulldog required pure powerhiking, but wasn't bad at all (it helps that it's only about four-tenths of a mile). After that, I was pretty much home free with just a nice, easy four mile descent back down to Alkali Creek remaining. As I was cruising down the trail, about 23 miles into the day, something caught my attention out of the corner of my eye. The first pasque flowers of spring (or the first I've seen anyway).
Exactly 25 miles for the day in just under 4.5 hours of running (closer to 4:45 including picture, food and bathroom stops). And the best part was that when I got back to my car, I felt great. My legs felt like they had some miles on them, as expected, but they weren't achy at all and, perhaps most important of all, my stomach was happy. All in all, a great way to kick off the spring (which is remarkably summer-like so far).