STURGIS | Jeremy Bradford started running three years ago after making a New Year's resolution to improve his health.
He lost 40 pounds and gained a passion -- endurance racing.
Just before 3 a.m. on Sunday, the 31-year-old Denver runner won the Black Hills 100 ultramarathon, crossing the finish line 20 hours, 50 minutes and 11 seconds after his 6 a.m. start on Saturday. The second-annual Black Hills event was his third win in a 100-mile race this year.
"I certainly had no expectation of winning going into it. So, that was a surprise," said Bradford, whose recent desert runs prepared him for this weekend's hot temperatures. "I think the heat played to my advantage. I don’t really think I could have won had it been any other way."
The thermostat hovered around 90 degrees this weekend and Bradford battled the heat by filling his hat with ice at each aid station and eating energy gels throughout the race. Unlike many runners, Bradford said he has no problem digesting food in the heat.
"I just kept my head down and pushed through the heat," he said.
Almost 200 runners signed up for this year's 100-mile, 100-kilometer and 50-mile races, which all started and ended at Woodle Field in Sturgis. The up-and-down course travels south from Sturgis along the Centennial Trail.
Race directors Ryan Phillips and Chris Stores expect this year's heat and the course's technical terrain to put the 2012 100-mile finish rate close to last year's 35 percent. A thunderstorm knocked out a number of good runners last year.
"It just confirms that this is a very difficult course," Phillips said.
Paul Holovnia, 50, of Chanhassen, Minn., was one of the runners who dropped out last year around mile 50, but a blood test would later confirm that he had run the 2011 race with mononucleosis.
Holovnia returned this year to see if he could add the Black Hills 100 to his list of completed ultramarathons.
"For the challenge of it -- how far and fast can you go?" Holovnia said. "You got to answer those questions."
He earned a fourth-place finish, clocking 25 hours, 36 minutes and 54 seconds with his 13-year-old daughter Sarah keeping pace beside him.
"It brought tears to my eyes," said Holovnia, recalling the moment the finish line came into view. "I've been praying for the finish line for the last 20 miles. You just never think it's going to show up."
Surrounded by his family, Holovnia stiffly made his way from the track to a nearby tent.
"Oh, I can tell I'm going to feel like I've been hit by a bus," said Holovnia, as he lowered himself onto the grass.
Used to Washington state's cooler temperatures, Danny Kuhlmann, 29, of Lakewood, Wash., prepped for the race by bundling up in ski gear days prior to the Black Hills 100. But, his attempt to acclimate to the warmer weather did not work and he busted his under-24-hour completion goal by two hours when the heat and an inflamed tendon in his foot forced him to slow down.
To add to the heat and his injury, Kuhlmann also ran into some unwanted company on the trail. Two mountain lions showed up roughly 10 yards from where he was running.
"I pulled my shirt up and growled at them," said Kuhlmann, who still finished fifth in the 100-mile race. "I picked up a big rock and ran with that for at least three miles."
Olga Varlamova-King, the first woman to complete this year's 100-mile race, crossed the finish line about seven minutes after Kuhlmann. The 42-year-old Russian from Austin, Texas, had made it into fourth place for part of the race, but a foot injury forced her to slow her pace.
"You just don't allow yourself to give up," said Varlamova-King, who missed her 26-hour goal by 11 minutes and 43 seconds.
This year's winner almost dropped out of the race. Bradford said around mile 16 he rolled his right ankle, but ran through the pain.
"I thought that might be the end of the race for me," said Bradford, who pulled ahead of the pack at mile 35. "I was feeling fantastic."
Bradford finished the course about 35 minutes ahead of Edina, Minn., runner John Horns, who was never far behind Bradford for most of the race.
"I definitely brought up the competition and it was a lot fun," said Bradford, who added that a pacer running with him for the last 17 miles really made a big difference.
But, flash back two years to Bradford's first 100-mile race and he was not having much fun. He describes that run as 29 hours of "pure torture."
Today, "Trail Runner" magazine ranks Bradford No. 1 for its 2012 Trail Runner Trophy Series, which awards points to runners who finish designated races during the season.
"I just wanted to do it faster," Bradford said. "It’s just one of the most supreme challenges that I’ve ever been able to face."