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Badlands Fast

Jan 27, 2021

Lance Smith attempts a Fastest Known Time in the Badlands' Sage Creek Wilderness.

You won’t find the “Sage Creek Wilderness Loop” on any map of Badlands National Park. There is no official trail or signage. Lance Smith of Sioux Falls had hiked the area numerous times with his son, and thought that others might enjoy the scenery, if they knew about it.

“So I went on my own and decided to see how fast I could do it,” Smith says. “And the FKT (Fastest Known Time) website put it up as a route.”

He put up a time to beat, and somebody did.

“I did a great time, I thought. But then a guy named John Haak went out and beat the time I put up by 56 minutes or so.”

Haak beat Smith’s time just two weeks later, in an area of the park that sees very little foot traffic, beyond a small area around the Conata Picnic Area.

“The first time I did it, I wanted to spend some time trying to get some good pictures, video, just to try to entice some other people potentially to do it,” says Smith. “Because the Badlands can be a place that a lot of people don’t think of doing this type of thing.”

Smith returned recently and reclaimed his Fastest Known Time (FKT), clocking 3 hours, 27 minutes, 8 seconds on the 22-ish mile loop. Still, his record may not last for long, and that’s fine by him. “It’s really fostering this competition like, ‘Hey, I did this. Now you go beat me.’ When that person beats you, you congratulate them. Then if you want, you can go back and try to beat that person again.”

There are currently five routes listed on the latest iteration of the Centennial Trail, a Black Elk Peak out-and-back, the Run Across South Dakota, the Sage Creek Wilderness Loop and the Mickelson Trail (for which no winning time is listed as yet). Other than the initial FKT for the Black Elk Peak route, set by Jeff Valliere in 2017, all listed times were logged in 2020.

FKT’s have been gaining in popularity, nationally and around the world, since the early 2000s — especially on well-known, signed trail systems like the Appalachian Trail. The FKT world witnessed a tsunami of new fastest time submissions in 2020. “It blew up so much because of COVID,” says Smith, who also holds the FKT for the Centennial Trail. “All the races that people like to participate in got canceled, postponed. People are looking to get out to kind of push themselves, experience something.”

Smith says he’s interested in pioneering more off-trail routes. “There’s some really cool landscapes that we have in South Dakota. We just don’t have very many routes submitted to the website, which I’m hoping to maybe create.”

Finding a good route is about more than just picking a place to run, says Smith. “It has to have good aesthetics, be fun, challenging. Anybody can go out and run from point A to point B. I’m kind of looking in the Black Hills for some stuff to do. There are the Slim Buttes and the North and South Cave Hills. I’ve kind of been looking at how to link those two distinct areas together with a run.

“I would hope that maybe some other people see this as an avenue of sharing some cool adventure running or hiking that they’ve done with others.”

Michael Zimny is a content producer for South Dakota Public Broadcasting and is based in Rapid City. He blogs for SDPB and contributes columns to the South Dakota Magazine website.


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