- 50K, 50 miles, 100 miles, Other
- Trail Race
The Lean Horse 50 mile ultra marathon was my very first ultra experience. Coming from South Dakota's northern neighbor, there aren't a lot of ultras that offer a fairly (relatively) flat experience. Lean Horse offers that in spades. This isn't to say that the course is flat, just that it isn't technical. At all, actually.
The entire course takes place on the George S. Mickelson trail, a 109 mile long trail winding through the black hills of South Dakota. An out and back course, the race starts and ends at the Custer track, which as an ultra enthusiast struck me almost as a nice nod to Western States 100, although it could be a totally common thing to use available tracks.
Before I delve too deeply into the race itself, let's discuss the surrounding area and town the race is based in, Custer, SD. It's a small town. As such, it has small town amenities and restaurants that close quite early, even on weekends, about 8:30pm. As such, if you run the 50 miler and take the entire 16 hours, you'll get done at about 8pm, so plan accordingly. However, that being said, it is a supremely friendly town. The race comes shortly after the Sturgis bike rally and Custer is quite a tourist town as well, due to the local sights. Mount Rushmore is maybe 45 minutes away, depending on traffic and the route you take. We went through Custer State Park to get some more scenery. May have taken a bit longer, but was totally worth it. Also, just up the road (and on the race course) is the ongoing Crazy Horse memorial, which is a phenomenal undertaking. And probably my recommended way of seeing it. We went up to the monument itself, and it costs $11 a person or $28 a car, pretty steep for not a lot. Granted, all the money goes to funding the memorial so it's not like it's a bad cause.
The packet pickup and race expo was pretty quaint. If you're used to giant marathon expos with inflatable stuff and music and all sorts of hullabaloo, this won't be your cup of tea. They had 2 vendors, 1 from the closest running store, in Rapid City, about 45 minutes away. I didn't need or want to buy anything so I was in and out pretty quickly, but they had a variety of potentially useful things for the course along with regular "running store close out stuff they're trying to dump at an expo" fair. There was also a table with branded "Lean Horse Ultra" stuff, shirts, arm sleeves, and the like. There was one other booth selling what looked like maybe analgesic cream or something, I didn't stop as I was hungry.
As far as swag, you get a pretty nice tech shirt, some information about Custer and its history, and $10 in "Custer Bucks". This is basically a free $10 to spend at many establishments in town. I forgot to use mine, but it was a really thoughtful touch I thought. I'm not a big swag guy, so I was happy with a shirt. Those looking for a bunch of stuff, again not going to be super happy. But it's a small race in a small town, they did what they could and I didn't personally hear anyone complain about the swag bag.
As far as race management, it could not have been better. I cannot say how blown away I was by the race director Royce and his crew (family) and the fantastic volunteers. They went above and beyond for all the racers, from the guy that set the new course record in the 50 miler to my slow poke butt. They had great directions written out for crew members to get from aid station to aid station and a pre-race list of what was going to be at the aid stations so we were able to plan what else I might want to eat along the course, and above all were happy smiling faces at the low points. Anyone who's run a race and hit a low point has had that moment when a stranger cheers you on and you get a boost, well imagine that every aid station, but they know your name! Huge boost for me, along with seeing my wife and dog at every station. From what I heard, the parking for the aid stations was super quick and convenient and close.
As far as the course itself, it was super easy to follow. You literally just run along the Mickelson trail. There is one mildly tricky part when you get into Hill City because you have to run on a sidewalk for a bit, but there's still ample signage. The course tricks you, though. There is definitely some elevation gain and loss, but it's super subtle. The longest climb lasts over seven miles! So it is tough to make sure you don't run the whole thing and burn out your legs before you get back to it on the return trip.
The nice thing about it being an out and back is that you get to see everyone in front of you. As it's trail folks, almost every single person that I passed or that passed me gave out words of encouragement, something I've not had happen in road races. Plus seeing a guy run past that went on to break the course record was pretty inspiring.
The scenery is just astounding. Hills, forests, tons of wildlife, and a pretty great look at the Crazy Horse memorial all await you. I personally saw a tree fall, a deer, rabbits, cows, horses, mice, a garter snake, and a ton of birds of prey flying. At points it turned into a death march nature hike for me. One recommendation though, get gaiters. I never thought I ever would, and I still haven't, but as the trail is mostly crushed stone, lots of little bits get kicked up and can find their way into your shoes. Time can be lost quickly trying to dig around looking for all the tiny rocks.
Coming back to the track was a nice touch as it gives your crew a nice place to meet you and pour you into a car. And in theory you get to have people cheer for you as you cross the line. I didn't, but I'm slow. I finished in 12hrs 19min, and it was just my wife, the dog, and the race director's daughter who gave me my medal. Until the race director popped out to congratulate me. It was totally coincidental as he was just loading up a car to head out to restock aid stations, but I thought it was awesome. He stuck around and chatted with me for a bit, made sure I was OK and hadn't lost any toenails (nope) and talked about races. Then with a very sincere "Let me know if there's anything we can do." he was off.
I was happy to be there for the guy that finished behind me as we had been trading a lead back and forth over the previous fifteen miles or so.
That is something I can't stress enough, particularly if you use this as your first ultra. Make SURE you head back to the track the following morning for the Golden Hour, the last hour before the time limit expires on the hundred milers. Absolutely heart-wrenching in its inspiration. This year, getting to see a 75(!) year old, Bob M., cross the finish line under the 30 hour limit was probably the most amazing thing I've ever seen. But every single person that ran, walked, hobbled, or cartwheeled across that line was life-affirming. It's so worth it. Plus that's where the award ceremony is.
They didn't do much for the 50 milers, but there weren't many of us there, so I didn't really mind. It was fun to get to see who won the race and age groups. I wouldn't necessarily recommend doing a 50 miler as your first ultra, but I would absolutely recommend making the trek to Custer, South Dakota to partake in the Lean Horse Ultra.