A little over a year ago I started thinking about what my next non-race long run would be. Having grown up in North Dakota, when I thought about the Maah Daah Hey Trail (MDH) this seemed like a perfect option. The MDH Trail is a 97 mile trail connecting the North and South Units of Theodore Roosevelt National Park in the Badlands of North Dakota. To be able to do a long run in my home state would be great. The MDH is mostly known for mountain biking and horseback riding, but I figured anything that is good for riding, should be good for running. When I started researching the MDH in more detail, I found that it had been run once in 2003 by David Holland in 32:53 (at least this was the only documented run of the MDH I could find online). I also learned from my father-in-law that they were building a MDH Trail Deuce (part 2) which would extend the trail around 40 miles south to Burning Coal Vein Campground. This kept getting better, now this run could be close to 140 miles (which would be my single longest run ever) and a run that no one had done before. With further research, the logistics were getting more difficult. There is no water along the trail, there is water at 4 campgrounds along the way, but these are all 1-3 miles off the trail and running that extra distance was definitely out of the question. Due to this, I would need to have crew instead of running this self-supported like I did on the Highline Trail in 2010. Emily said she would gladly crew me and pace me if I wanted. As I started to map out the route in TOPO!, I was marking crew spots at locations where the trail would cross the road. There were 9 logical spots for my crew to meet me . Now the next hurdle, I needed to cross the Little Missouri River at around mile 51. For crew, the closest bridge across the river was I-94. This meant in a section where I would run 12 miles, my crew would have an ~100 mile drive with 60 of those miles on rough gravel roads. This would be a 3-4 hour drive and would mean that my crew could not get to the other side of the river before I would. My options were to have a 20 mile section without crew or have 2 crews. Since I was doing the run supported anyway, I saw no reason not to make this as easy on myself as possible. My crew just grew from Emily to Emily, my parents, and her parents and would require 2 trucks so the crew could split up to cover both sides of the river. Everyone was on board with this concocted idea and even a little bit excited (I think). Now the million dollar question – when to do the run. With North Dakota’s 2 weather seasons (fry and freeze) late spring or early fall would probably be the best weather. Unfortunately, with Emily’s and my race schedules, my only window was the first week of August (a time when the average daytime temperature is 87F with 20-30% humidity. This was not good running weather, but I figured I would just spend a lot of time on heat mitigation and not worry about it.
After a few more weeks of mapping and planning and I had a very solid plan for the first 97 miles (original MDH), but since the Deuce was not officially open yet, there was no maps available (including from Don Mayer the president of the Maah Daah Hey Trail Association) who had been helping me with some logistics. He assured me that when we arrived in Dickinson, he would be able to help me map out that section. The week before the run, the weather kept getting better and better each day. The forecast dropped from 88F to 78F as a daytime high, from 70% to 40% humidity, and a good strong NW wind on Monday. This had my confidence increasing and my fear of the heat (which originally outweighed my fear of the distance) had decreased. With as much planning completed before leaving for ND as we could do (I estimate I had over 60 hours into mapping, food planning, and general preparations), we packed our bags and were off.
Saturday and Sunday were spent purchasing and organizing food (not only for me, but also for my crew of 5), finalizing the mapping of the Deuce, getting a first run in the heat on humidity (on Saturday), then going out to the trail and scoping out 1 of the difficult stream crossings (the muck was knee deep with waist deep water). Unfortunately, due to having to scope out this crossing (which I was very glad to have done), it meant I had run 13 miles in the 2 days prior to the race – not exactly the rest I would have hoped for. By Sunday afternoon, all of the crew was together and were busy all afternoon reviewing maps and crew points, loading crew point waypoints onto GPS units, and reviewing the plans for the following 2 days. I think my crew was more worried than I was as they were afraid they may miss me somewhere (my response was, ‘well, then I will just see you at the next spot). I had full confidence in them and wasn’t going to worry about it.
Emily and I pre-running the Theodore Roosevelt National Park South Unit Section of the MDH Trail 1 day prior to the run.
Monday morning, we all drove to the MDH trail head at the CCC Campground. I started the run at 8:32AM.
The first crew point was only 5 miles in so I just took 2 hand bottles 2/3 full and 2 gels to keep my load small. This section went fairly quickly, but I realized in this section that in spite of having only 11,000’ of climbing in the original trail and another 5,600’ in the Deuce (a total elevation change that I felt made this a relatively flat run), this was going to be a hard run. Due to being an incredibly wet year in ND, the trail was very over grown with switch grass (which has razor sharp blades), sage brush and weeds and there were numerous landslides on the side hills along the trail (I estimate that over the original trail, I crossed at least 2 miles of landslides). I had a quick crew stop, grabbed the new Mountain Hardware Fluid 6 pack I was testing (it weighs only 8.5oz compared to 11 oz for my Nathan vest) and kept going.
Running into my first crew stop
The next section was just under 9 miles and took me through the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. This was a challenging section where I lost a shoe twice in knee deep muck and almost stepped on a rattle snake. At only 14 miles in, I was starting to wonder if this trail had it in for me since each section seemed to be throwing everything it had at me.
Running through the Badlands
The next 10.5 mile section continued to throw it at me. I blew out the toe box of both shoes (with only 150 total miles on them) and kicked a prickly pear cactus. It was also by this time that my shins were completely raw from the razor like switch grass blades that completely covered the trail. I was really starting to contemplate how this run was going to play out. My legs did not have a lot of energy in them (go figure since I only tapered 1 week and had run 13 miles over the 2 previous days) and I was getting beat up in every section. How was I going to make it another 115 miles? I was able to keep my spirits high with the help of my great crew and was able to get in and out of the crew points very quickly while at the same time taking in a lot of calories at each stop. I knew I had to spend more time focusing on eating if I was going to make it the full 140 miles. It was after this stop that my crew split up with Emily and her dad picking up Don Mayer and going to the west side of the Little Missouri River; my parents and Emily’s mom meeting me at the next 2 crew stops on the east side.
Typical badlands terrain
The next 23 miles went much better. I got off trail for about 20 minutes, but other than that the sections were very runnable and I was feeling good. It was at one of these crew points where my mom reminded me that I came in and said, “By morning, this could reach the top of my list for bad ideas.” I reached the half way point in 11:05 which was about 1 hour slower than my goal pace, but I wasn’t too worried about it since the half way point was for the original 97 mile trail and not the full 140 miles. I had around 90 miles left, I needed to keep a comfortable pace to ensure I had enough left for the last 40 miles. The last mile approaching the Little Missouri Crossing was tough with head high grass, weeds, and shrubbery. It was truly a bushwhack. Emily, Don, and her dad had descended to the river and found the best crossing. This was a huge help as I would have gone straight across the river, but they had found a gravel bar that went at a 45 degree angle up stream that allowed me to cross with only thigh deep water. We climbed the couple hundred feet out of the river bottom just as it was getting dark and were treated with another great aid station with warm soup and other food from Rod (Emily and I are thrilled at how well both of our parents have picked up on crew duties and are able to do exactly what we need when we come in). I changed socks as I was having issues with the ball of my left food. Unfortunately, since my crew had to split up, they made decisions about what gear would go into each vehicle. I was left with only Wright Socks which I love on dry runs, but with wet feet, they tend to bunch up and cause issues. This is exactly what happened and this caused me severe issues for the next 50 miles (note: my crew made the right decision about socks as I had 2 dry pair and they were keeping the best pair for late in the run when I would need it most). I left this crew point with Emily who was going to run the night with me. As night fell, route finding got more and more challenging. If we were in the open prairies, we could easily find the trail by looking for the next sign post, but as soon as we dropped into a creek bottom or into the woods, we were quickly off-trail. I was carrying a Garmin Oregon GPS with a way point every 0.15 to 0.25 miles, but even with this it was very difficult to stay on track. Over the next 8 miles, Rod (Emily’s dad) and Don met us at numerous road crossings to keep us on track and help find the trail on the other side of the road – this was a huge benefit to keep us moving a a fast pace. It was the 9 miles between Elkhorn and Road 722 during the night that provided us the most challenges. Instead of 2.25 hours, this section took almost 5 hours. We were off track 5 times, once for 20 minutes and another time for 40 minutes as we wandered around in the middle of about 100 head of cattle trying to discern our trail from theirs. We were happy to finally see the distant truck lights of our crew and they were happy to see our bobbing headlights running across the top of the butte. This section took a lot out of us (mentally more than physically). We spent some time ‘regrouping’ at this spot, then off again for a 12.5 miles to Wannagan Camp. Morning started to break about 90 minutes into this section and with the dawn of a new day, we were able to pick up the pace and finish this section 25 minutes faster than my goal pace.
Dawn of a new day
At Wannagan I had to spend some time on foot care. I was down to only 1 pair of dry socks and shoes (I was thankful that at the last minute I brought a third pair of shoes) and if I was going to finish both MDH and the Deuce, I had 60 miles left. I decided that dry feet were the most important thing at this point and drained a blister, padded it with Mole Skin, taped it up, then I was off. My dry feet lasted all of 0.5 miles until I had a creek crossing and entered low that was thick with morning dew. Well, the 7 minutes of dry feet were worth it and regardless, I had on my Dry Max socks which even when wet, are very comfortable. As I left Wannagan, I started contemplating the next 17 miles to the end of MDH and then the next 40 miles after that. After 30 minutes of ‘taking stock’, I had made the decision that I was only going to finish the original MDH trail and not start the Deuce. There were several factors that went into this decision including: I had been running with 1 pain or another since mile 20 and some of these pains were now becoming sharp (I was worried about the potential long term damage), I wanted to ensure I was recovered for Bear 100 in 5 weeks since this was my ‘A’ race for the season, the Deuce had several sections which were not completed yet (this concerned me about how much time I was really willing to spend wandering around lost), the impact of another 11-12 hours on my crew, and the fact that I could finish the first 97 miles strong with a time to be happy with. The decision was made and if I wasn’t going to run both trails, I was going to finish the first trail as strong as possible and if I pushed hard enough, I may be able to come in under 26 hours. With 16 miles left, I put the hammer down (which is somewhat relative at mile 85). I ran this challenging 12 mile section (including a couple of land slides, several climbs, and a waste deep river crossing that had knee deep muck) in 2:40. At my next crew stop with 5 miles left, I stopped only long enough to grab a hand bottle and kept going (unfortunately, I also dropped my gel bottle at this stop so I had no food for the next hour). I had spent the last 6 miles deep in the pain cave and I was worried that if I stopped I would not be able to get back in. The last 5 miles had 2 large climbs, 0.5 miles of beach sand, and a 50M neck deep river crossing.
Neck deep and half way across the Little Missouri River at mile 101.5.
I was at over 95 miles and running harder than I have ever run at that distance and was feeling great. My entire crew was at the river crossing 1/4 mile from the final MDH marker post. My dad had waded/swam across the river finding the best way across, I hit the water running and was quickly neck deep (I had remembered to get my camera out of my pocket, but not so lucky with my iPod or my dad’s GPS). I got out of the river, ran the last 1/4 mile and finished the MDH in 25:56:00 having run 101.75 miles. I covered this section is 1:05 having run negative splits for the final 16 miles (compared to the first 16 miles). I was happy with my finish and sort of happy not to have another 40 miles to run.
The finish marker!!!
Chad’s shriveled feet and Emily fixing her feet at the end.
I will be back to the MDH to complete the entire 140 miles. There are a few things to do differently.
- Run the next 40 miles first to know what to expect.
- Ensure the trail conditions are better than they were this year.
- Start at midnight and run the first 50 miles on my own with 2 water/food caches and not have crew until I cross the river. This will allow me to minimize the impact on my crew.
- Taper for more than 1 week.
- Not run 8 miles the day before I start (I really didn’t have a choice in this as I needed to find a safe river crossing)
Maah Daah Hey Video
Local Dickinson Press article about the run.