First and foremost, be aware that this course is almost assuredly harder than you think it is. Being located at relatively low elevation in South Dakota tends to create the impression that the course can’t be that difficult. The finish rate for the inaugural 100 mile race in 2011 was about 35%. In 2012, it raised all the way up to 40%. That is fairly ridiculously low. A good number of the DNFs can probably be attributed to the severe thunderstorm that bombarded the course in the middle of the night in 2011 and unseasonably hot conditions in 2012, but the course itself took a toll too. We are not by any means trying to scare anyone off here, but the most common quote heard at the finish line is “that was way harder than I thought it would be”. This is probably as much because of the course as it is because of runners underestiming the course. If you go into it expecting that there will a certain degree of difficulty, you will be fine (well, better anyhow). We are confident that, given “normal” weather conditions and a little advanced warning, our finish rate for coming years will be much higher (as in 60% or greater, typical of other ultras of similar difficulty).
Several runners have described the Black Hills 100 as harder than Leadville. We won’t make that claim ourselves since we haven’t run Leadville (yet), but we do know that the Black Hills 100 is not easy, if any 100 mile race can truly be called “easy”. On paper, Black Hills actually has slightly more elevation gain than Leadville, although Leadville takes place at about double the altitude. The major difference is how that elevation gain is accumulated. Whereas much of Leadville’s elevation gain occurs in a few big climbs, the gain at Black Hills is accumulated in a bunch of small chunks that eventually take their toll. To make a boxing analogy, it’s like taking a few big uppercuts to the chin (Leadville) versus a bunch of body shots (Black Hills). Both will eventually put you on the mat if you’re not prepared.
Regardless, our goal for this race was to create something that is very much the polar opposite of our sister race, the Lean Horse 100. If you are a a first time 100 mile runner, you may want to consider testing the waters on an easier course first (Lean Horse, for example). Black Hills is not closed to first timers by any means; we’ve had several first timers finish the race and do very well. Just be aware of what you’re getting yourself into. Nor is Black Hills a “graduate level” run like Hardrock. We have no entry requirements and no lottery system; anyone who wants to register is more than welcome (until the 150 runner cap is met, of course). But, if at some point during the race you find yourself saying “this is way harder than I thought it would be”, don’t say we didn’t tell ya so. Rest assured, the Black Hills 100 will make you earn that buckle, but it will be well worth the effort.
The Centennial Trail, which is the primary venue for the Black Hills 100 was created and is maintained by the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks. The trail itself has permanent course markings in the form of carsonite posts along the trail as well as signs attached to trees, both of which bear the trail number (89) and a buffalo skull (hence our buffalo skull logo and slogan, “Cruisin’ the 89″). For the most part, the portion of the Centennial used for the Black Hills 100 is easy to follow without the aid of additional markings. The trail does intersect the occasional road or other trail. Where these intersections have the potential to create confusion (i.e., where we have stopped and wondered ourselves which way to go), the proper choice will be clearly marked with flagging. Since they occur at rather random locations along the trail, the turnaround points for the 50M and 100K will also be very clearly marked (the 100 mile turnaround is at the Silver City town hall). Other than that, you will probably not see an abundance of what is often called “feel good flagging”. We will not be hanging flagging every 1/10th of a mile along the entire course when the route is, for the most part, plainly obvious. This race is not meant to be a navigational challenge; we are not intentionally going light on the flagging to make things difficult, it just seems like overkill to flag a clear path that has dedicated course markings already in place. Don’t turn if you don’t see flags and pay attention at intersections and you shouldn’t have any problems.
While the majority of the Centennial is open only to non-motorized use, the 13 mile stretch from Dalton Lake to Pilot Knob is open to ATVs. As a result, this section receives much more use and the trail is criss-crossed by many side trails that look very similar to the “real” trail and, in some cases, are marked as trails. This is the one section of the course where the actual trail is less obvious and where the potential for confusion is highest (especially after dark). Consequently, this section will be more heavily flagged than the remainder of the race course. Those “feel good” flags you won’t find on the non-motorized sections will be found here.
For night time markings we will use reflective tape. You may see some glo-sticks as you near aid stations, but due to the fact that they require essentially double marking the course (because their effectiveness wears off after several hours), you will not see glo-sticks extensively used. The reflective tape used to mark the course will be visible during the day and will reflect a headlamp beam after dark.
The following description is very quick and general. For a much more detailed course description, please refer to the Race Packet.
All three events began and end at the Woodle Field track in Sturgis. The first mile follows the paved city bike path east to the Fort Meade trailhead. From there, the course takes to the Centennial Trail, which is mostly singletrack trail with a few sections that follow old logging routes (and one short section that follows brand new logging roads). In total the course is approximately 98% trail with only the first and last mile following the paved bike path.
All three events follow out and back routes. The 100 mile course will take runners to Silver City before turning around and heading back to Sturgis. The 100K turnaround is about one and a half miles past the Dalton Lake trailhead. The 50 mile turnaround will be located between the Elk Creek and Dalton Lake trailheads, about 2.5 miles past the Crooked Tree aid station. Both the 50M and 100K turnaround will be clearly marked on race day as there aren’t really any discernible landmarks at those locations. All official Forest Service trailheads encountered along the course are also aid stations with the exception of Boxelder Creek (Boxelder was an aid station in 2011, but we have moved the aid station to the nearby Nemo Guest Ranch). In addition, there are two additional aid stations (Bulldog and Crooked Tree) at miles 10/90 and 22.5/77.5 . Because they are located on rough, unmaintained logging roads with very limited parking, Bulldog and Crooked Tree are NOT accessible to crew vehicles; only volunteer vehicles are allowed at those two aid stations. Runners may leave drop bags at three trailheads: Elk Creek (50M, 100K, 100M), Dalton Lake (100K and 100M) and Silver City (100M). We strongly encourage that you have dry shoes and socks in your Elk Creek and Dalton Lake drop bags since the route crosses Elk Creek (several times) in between those two trailheads and your feet may get wet. See the Aid Station page for more details.
As noted above, don’t be deceived by the relatively gentle, rolling terrain of the Black Hills. While this course does not feature the lung searing elevations and jagged mountain peaks of some other western ultras, it is by no means an “easy” course. The best way to describe the Centennial Trail is “relentless”. As you can see by the elevation profile below, the trail is almost constantly moving up or down. All of those climbs add up eventually, resulting in more elevation gain than you might expect from an ultra in South Dakota. It’s a challenging route, but also a very beautiful one. Make sure to take a look around while you’re huffing up one of the climbs!
The 100 mile course has a cumulative vertical gain of 16,231 feet of climb and 16,231 feet of descent for a total elevation change of 32,462 feet, and takes place at an average elevation of 4,627 feet. The 100 mile cutoff time is 32 hrs.
The 50 mile has 9,051 feet of climb and 9,051 feet of descent for a total elevation change of 18,102 feet. The 50 mile cutoff time is 16 hrs.
The 100K has 10,831 feet of climb and 10,831 feet of descent for a total elevation change of 21,662 feet. The 100k cutoff time is 20 hrs.