The Black Hills of South Dakota: Running Part 1

I arrived in the Black Hills, specifically Custer State Park, with the intentions of lots of rock climbing. An uninvited guest, carpel tunnel syndrome, decided it too was coming along for the trip. After climbing a few routes with a numb hand, I knew I was not up for the mentally challenging climbing leads of the needles. Fortunately, the Black Hills also has a great number of trails and races to run. I needed be training for some other races anyway, so the break from hard climbing was not a complete loss.

Heart of the Hills 10.4 mile Race – Hill City, SD

I ran this race the first weekend I was in South Dakota. I haven’t ever been excited about running on roads, much less racing on roads and swore them off after developing shin splints the one time I tried it. For some reason this race sounded like a good idea. My energy and motivation levels were low after being at a music festival for four days and driving for two long days from California. So I needed a jump start to run and the race was good motivation to run a moderate distance. The girl on the phone easily convinced me when she said it was a really nice run on the old Hill City highway between Hill City and Keystone. My gut said I should check it out and at the very least I would have first hand experience on which I could hate road racing.

This old Hill City highway did not disappoint. I think the Black Hills are so beautiful that even roads can be fun to run on. The course had a couple of moderate climbs but was mostly gradual to flat. The scenery took one through fields, forest, streams and a good view of the Needles and Harney Peak. Not many of the other racers cared to hold a discussion. This seems to be common with roadies as opposed to a lot of trail runners that don’t mind chatting it up. We finished in Keystone with an old downtown full of neon, tourists, food that could clog the up the mighty Mississippi River and post race awards and beverages.

I don’t know how to race. I just start running at a pace that feels good and hope that I don’t crash. Roads are especially unfamiliar. I passed the first mile in 6:44. I looked over to the racer next me, Brandon who had ran a half marathon earlier in the day, and declared, “that can’t be right. that’s too fast.” He thought I meant it had just gone by fast but on trails I rarely get out of the 8 minute mile range so this was completely unfamiliar. I went with it and it felt good. I kept on truckin at a fairly good pace between 7 and 8 min miles. The New Balance MT101’s were feeling nice and fast even off the trails. I experienced my first water cup hand off which I quickly realized sucked. One cannot drink the small cup full of water in the short distance to the garbage can further down the road. That is if the water is even at the right temperature for one to drink while running. Some of the aid stations had water colder than a well diggers… Anyway, I tried to get a sip without splashing it up my nose and the rest went over the head to cool down. I was holding a good pace and had hit the “zone.” I think the ease of hitting the zone is why so many like road running. I enjoyed this feeling as well. Once in the zone all one has to do is keep the machine rolling down the level, mostly flat, very predictable road surface. There aren’t any rocks, roots, trees, pokey plants, critters or unknown trails to slow one down.

The zone was abruptly shattered when I lost my stomach at miles five and nine. Apparently eating a super scoop of chocolate chip mint ice cream for lunch before a race is not such a good idea. Twice I sprinted off the road to ease my stomach pain, which lingered into the next day. Hard lesson learned. Even with the emergency stops, I managed to finish in 1:22 at just around an 8 min/mi pace. I felt pretty good it but I would’ve been close to medal (rail road spike) contention in my age group without the stops. At least I didn’t end up with any other injuries from running on the hard road surface.

The Heart of the Hills race has been an annual event for around thirty years. The history of the event, friendly folks and beautiful route made for a great first time road race and I just might try out the roads again sometime.

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