The Black Hills Ultramarathon: 50 Mile

Putting the running pack on her knee she pulled out a five inch blade, “You never know when this will come in handy out there, I always run with it.” Pondering my position in the back of a sprinter van, in the remote Black Hills of South Dakota I measured my response “where do you train that a five inch blade is a necessary part of your training?”  She responded “Indiana.”  

For a moment I thought, are they going to shank people in the wilderness and leave them for bear bait? 

For a moment I considered the emergency latch for a quick escape!

For a moment I wondered, how did I even get here, in a van, in South Dakota with seven women (some of them armed) and a pastor from Florida?

That story starts in New Mexico, by way of Texas.

In San Antonio, the day before running the 2020 Run the Alamo, I attended a Team WorldVision luncheon for final race instructions and to meet others running in the race. During the luncheon, one of the speakers mentioned the Comrades Marathon in South Africa. Intrigued, I signed and left one of those cards, left the luncheon and prepared for the race.

The race was my seventh marathon, a success! Ever since I missed a time-cutoff in a New Mexico ultramarathon, I’ve learned to never take any race finish for granted. An emerging global pandemic would make this one of the last races of its kind for more than a year.

After the race, I spent time with mom and dad, family and friends; returned to New Mexico. Government business closures took a big hit on my business, down 85% in three month’s time. The business decline translated into available time. I decided a return visit to Houston for dad’s 83rd birthday was a good idea.  We grabbed donuts, laughed and enjoyed the time. Tragically, a month and a half later, COVID-19 would claim his life.

Looking for a way to runoff the grief, sorrow, and loss of my biggest fan, I received a call from Josh at Team World Vision.  He was following up on my interest in Comrades. The timing didn’t work to participate in the race. Our family was still trying to figure how to align schedules and public health orders to bury dad at the family plot in New York. 

Then Josh shared his vision for an inaugural Team World Vision event, the Black Hills Ultramarathon. It was a race in South Dakota. Specifically, he had a 50-mile point-to-point race in mind.

I said yes!

The training and support provided by Team World Vision was excellent. Due to schedules and some injuries my training program had an 85% efficiency rate.

Mornings were the easiest time to fit in the training. It provided a needed break for my mind and a jump start for my body. The repetition provided a way to work through loss, anxiety and worry.  Encouragement from friends, my men’s group through Sagebrush Church and the monthly team calls with Team World Vision were all a Godsend.

Through the course of training, I sponsored four children through World Vision. Each of the four have birthdays that coincide with both my daughters, dad and my date of birth. They live in  Mozambique, Bolivia, Kosovo and Ethiopia.  Their pictures were on my refrigerator and would hang from my jersey during the race; providing inspiration.

Fast forward through the snow, wind and many epic sunrises; race day was here.  Three sprinter vans dropped off the team at the starting line in the Black Hills of South Dakota.  One of the vans stayed behind and provided refuge from cool morning temperatures. I was able to get a seat in the van, back row, by the door. In airline realm, it would be a jump seat. I didn’t care it was warm and the conversation was familial. 

The van was filled with a group of women from Indiana, all recruited by a life force named Glenda! Little did I know that more than one of the ladies in the van were packing blades worthy of a high-end steak shop. It turns out she had packed it in the event they came face to face with unreasonable wildlife.  I looked to the front for some assurance from a World Vision pastor. To each their own.  It was ok.

How do you run a 50 mile race? Great question.  One mile at a time? Close. My mind still has a hard time comprehending 49 miles, then 48, 47… it is still a long distance. 

The approach I took was to focus on running from aid station to aid station, generally a seven-mile distance.  I can run 7 miles, right?  Right! I would need to just run a seven-mile race seven times.

Game on.

The race started with a serpentine line of runners marking the path through a dew filled field.  After about a mile the line, and runners, vanished into the Black Hills.

Running segments one and two were solid. It felt great to be out in the trail. For a time, I was pacing with different World Vision team members. A new friend Dave and I seemed to pace well for the first part of the race.

Then came segment three.  It was far more technical than any trail I’ve run in my adopted home of New Mexico.  It was a much slower pace, tackier path and a surface that demanded my attention.  It threw me off my game. The slowness put my goal pace in jeopardy and cut-off pace in question.

Finishing segment three, I was able to get some time back on segment four. But it would still be short of missing the time cutoff. The DNF was haunting me at this point.  Missing the cutoff, getting pulled from the race and a the thought of an overzealous gate keeper was impacting my confidence. Would it happen again?  Would all of the training simply result in another DNF?

Thirty-five miles into the 50-mile race, I missed the time cutoff by ten minutes.  Getting some items out of a drop bag, I asked the gate keeper what happens now? She asked, do you think you can finish?  I said yes.  She said, ok, just be safe and try to catch water refills as the aid stations shut down.  Texting Coach Josh “I’m at mile 36.7 I’m going to try and finish as much of the course as possible. I’ll keep you updated.” He responded “Tommy-G!! You are amazing man. Keep me updated we’re cheering for you and praying for you!” Encouragement and will provided the affirmation to run.

I ran.

Arriving at the segment six aid station I inadvertently startled the volunteer who thought that all racers were off the course. As I was getting water, she proclaimed “You are DFL!”  Perplexed, I learned it is a badge of honor… ok, it is a badge… more a declaration for the Dead Freaking Last (ok, she didn’t say “freaking”). I took the DFL as an encouragement that I was still, in fact, in the race. I kept running.

Starting segment seven, coach Greg was there waiting for me.  Thinking that he was there to pull me off the course. I slowed. He approached. I asked, “what’s up?” He responded, “do you need any water, coke, gels?” He was a Sherpa extraordinaire. He loaded me up with stuff and said “be safe”.  

Mile 50 clicked over on my dying Garmin watch about two miles short of the finish line.  The last two miles felt more like a slow victory lap.  In the dark, running off of the fading light of day, coach Josh ran with me for the last half mile. It was a great encouragement, he pulled off just before the finish.

The finish wasn’t enthusiastic but it was euphoric.  Checking to see that my feet were still attached, I saw that my fellow runner Dave had just finished the race a short time before me. He was there with coach Lynn. The four of us took pictures, got the swag and jumped in a van to tell stories about the day and our motivations of what pushed us through to the finish. The accomplishment finish would not hit me until later that night as I was reminded of the four children whose pictures were pinned to the back of my race vest. 

It was a good day.