The course is wild and scenic traversing territory inhabited by elk, deer, moose, bears, cougars, mountain lions, and rattlesnakes with the potential for wildlife encounters with runners…runners may be subject to extreme temperatures of heat and cold, hypothermia, heat stroke, kidney failure, seizures, low blood sugar, disorientation, injury, falling rock or trees, wild animal or reptile attack, or even death from their participation in this event.
Well now, this certainly is going to be an adventurous run don’t you think? The Bighorn 100 has been on my list for some years so I’m excited to finally be here in Dayton, WY. The 100 mile course is an out-and-back across the Bighorn National Forest. It feels strange to be waiting at the starting line at 10am for an 11:00 start. What do you do with all that extra time in the morning? Stress out! I know I’ll calm down once I get on the trail and start ticking off some miles.
|Tongue River Canyon|
When the race starts, about 340 or so runners take off along the Tongue River on a gravel road that soon turns into a single track trail.The further upstream we go, the louder the wild river down below becomes; snow melt crashing over huge boulders. Rugged cliffs tower above us with the “Needles Eye” formation coming closer and closer. This distinct feature looks just like the eye of a needle and is part of the Bighorn race logo.
|The Needles Eye|
The weather is hot; probably 85 degrees with no breeze and we have a steady 4000 foot uphill grind for the next 12 miles. After running through Tongue Canyon we begin to climb out into a sun exposed meadow. My shirt is already soaked through with sweat and I’m sucking wind as I slowly hike the steep grade.
The scenery is like something out of “Sound of Music” though. In fact, I would twirl around with outstretched arms or give a little yodel if I didn’t feel like I was going to die. Seriously, for someone who trains in the desert this looks like Ireland. Large house-sized boulders are strewn about willy-nilly, carried on the backs of glaciers during the last ice age. Green grass gives way to fields of wildflowers the higher we climb.
Aid stations are placed about every 3-6 miles, but some are just water only stops and some are unmanned. The remoteness of the course requires some creativity by the organizers of this event; thus I arrive at a station where folks are filling water jugs from a spring. The water is cold and delicious especially after having climbed several thousand feet.
In five more miles, I make it into a fully stocked aid station, Dry Fork (mi 13.4), which also doubles as the race command post. It took me over four hours to get here which makes me worry about the cut-off times. Although I’m an hour early, I wonder if I can stay ahead of the cut-offs for another 86 miles. I try not to waste time and just do the essential tasks like sunscreen, water bottles and eating. Before leaving, I grab a turkey and cheese wrap to nibble on the run.
The trail is downhill for a while with several creek crossings and the sky is starting to look dark in places. There is a 60% chance of scattered severe thunder storms today so I made sure to pack a rain shell. I also have warm technical shirts in each of my three drop bags in case I get caught in a gully washer. The clouds bring relief from the heat and a refreshing breeze blows across the ridge.
I make it into another manned aid station where they are cooking bacon. The latest trend in ultrarunner food is to add more fat and protein to your diet. The bowls of candy, cookies and simple carbs are being replaced with avocado, meat jerkies and even bacon. Runners are training their bodies to burn fat instead of carbs for a more stable energy output so I brought some salami on this run.
Before leaving, I ask how far to the next stop. A volunteer informs me that it’s 7 miles to Cow Camp, but there’s a stock tank to fill water bottles halfway between. Cow Camp, Bear Camp, Lower Sheep, Creek Spring, Stock Tank…all the aid station names and distances are getting confusing. I’m old school and don’t wear a gps watch, so I printed a copy of the aid station chart.
After leaving I consult my list to discover that I’m barely going to make the cut-off time if it’s really 7 miles to Cow Camp. I pick up my pace and run as many of the flat and downhill sections as possible. In three miles I reach a stream where cold water is spewing from a PVC pipe protruding from the ground. Runners are filling bottles so I do the same. Is this Creek Spring? Stock Tank? I’m so confused, but just keep running all the same.
In no time I’m at the next manned station where I ask, “Where am I?” A cheery volunteer replies, “Bear Camp.” “What mile is this?” I ask. She says, “26.5”. Whew! What a relief. “I thought I was only at mile 19, all I have to do now is run three more marathons!”
Now that the pressure is off, I relax a little and take more time to enjoy my surroundings. I stop occasionally to take pictures as the sun becomes lower in the sky illuminating ochre stained cliffs. Tall purple, pink and blue wildflowers adorn the trail flanked by fir trees. I can see a lush green valley in the distance.
The trail descends sharply with some more stream crossings. The steepness is difficult, but I try to run down as fast as I can so I don’t trash my quads this early in the race. I drop about 2000 feet in a little over three miles and, after crossing a bridge, I arrive at Sally’s Footbridge Aid Station (mi 30) with two hours to spare.
After eating and drinking, I change into long pants and shirt to get ready for the night part of my run. I have a 4000’ climb up to almost 9000’ elevation and temperatures can reach freezing in the middle of the night. I reluctantly decide to leave my camera in my drop bag since it will be dark for most of this leg. I’ll turn around at the halfway point and come back to pick it up in the morning. After donning my headlamp, I take off along the Little Bighorn River.
|The Little Bighorn River|
It’s hot and muggy as I travel upstream along a trail at the base of some high crumbly cliffs. We were warned to move quickly through this area especially if it’s raining, “You will know why when you get there.”, said the race director. The bluff is made of a conglomerate of dirt and stones so rockfall is a serious threat. At least it’s not raining.
As the sun sets, I arrive at a cowboy camp complete with a warm fire and a pot of hot broth hanging over it. Horses are tied to trees and a few young cowhands offer me something to eat. Another lady is there who asks if we could travel together for a while since she gets “freaked out in the dark.” I reply, “Well, they say to travel in pairs in bear country as long as you can outrun your friend.” She seemed only half amused at my attempt to be witty.
Nevertheless, we switch on our headlamps and run together for a while, but eventually I pass her. Fast lead runners are already coming down the mountain on their way back to town. The trail makes a sudden steep drop and I come to a scary bridge crossing, a fast running creek with boulders and rapids underneath. While waiting for the race to start, a veteran runner told me to be wary of the bridges especially if it freezes. This is not a place to make a misstep. Without thinking about it or looking down I quickly walk across three lodgepole pines lashed together with bailing wire. Before long there are several more scary bridges some with ropes to hold onto as hand rails.
The uphill grind isn’t too bad until there are no more bridges but lots of water and mud. I must be passing the base of Leaky Mountain where a number of large springs gush from the sides of the cliff, but it’s too dark to see. There is no way to avoid getting my shoes completely soaked as I tromp through Spring Marsh. Before long I notice chafing where the tongue of my shoe meets the top of my feet. I also have a large blister forming on the outside of my heel. I stop to apply some anti-chafe balm to limit the friction.
Sometime around 1:00am I come up on another runner who appears to be marching. He is taking short choppy steps lifting his knees to chest splashing lots of water as he plows through a marshy stream. I think nothing of it except maybe his feet are trashed and that’s the least painful way to walk. After passing him, I reach another cowboy camp where I get some food and fill my water bottles. About this time the marching zombie rolls into camp and declares, “I’m having a hard time standing up.” A coyboy says, “Why don’t you come sit down by the fire?” The man replies, “because, if I sit down, I won’t be able to get up again.” “We’ll help you stand up.”, says the aid station captain. “I’m hypothermic, I keep falling down,.” Suddenly the man stumbles into me and I have to grab him to keep him from toppling over. This is very frightening so the volunteers escort him to the fire. It’s 4.5 miles further to the turnaround point and a ride out but I think the race is over for this guy. Too bad.
I press on as my feet continue to get chewed up. The closer I get to the top of the mountain the more marshy the terrain gets and I slip many times almost landing in the muck. At about 3am, I arrive at Jaws Aid (mi 48) where everyone is hanging out in a large heated tent. I get my medical check. A lady gets in my face…um…we’ll call her Mom. “You peeing OK?” “Yes” ”Drinking and eating?” “Yes” “Any stomach problems?” “No”. I guess I passed the test so I move on to my drop bag while “Mom” goes to fetch me some hot soup.
I get a flask of chia seeds out of my drop bag and hydrate them with sports drink. They should give me enough energy to make it back down through the canyon. Before leaving I put a few gels in my pocket and finish my soup. The air temperature feels chilly after leaving the warmth of the tent.
My pace should be quicker since I’m traveling downhill, but it isn’t because of all the mud. I slop through a puddle, marsh, wetland, morass, bog, quagmire, river, creek and stream before finally reaching terra firma. After passing through the Elk Camp aid station (mi 52) time has stopped. A cowboy told me it was 3.5 miles to the next aid station, but I’ve been running a good downhill pace for what seems like hours. Am I confused again? I keep leapfrogging two other guys who are walking and, even though I’m running, I can’t gain any distance on them. They just keep passing me over and over like a nightmare where you are running at full speed but going nowhere. I start to get discouraged, but there is nothing I can do.
Finally, the sky starts to lighten and time starts to move again. The scenery is beautiful with a wide western stream twisting and turning making its way through the canyon. I’m disappointed that I don’t have my camera. By this time 50 mile runners are coming down the mountain behind me. They were bussed to the turnaround point early this morning to start their 50 mile journey back to town along with the 100 mile runners. Around 9am, I make it back to Sally’s Footbridge (mi 66) where I change into shorts and dry shoes. Breakfast of bacon and pancakes is served, but I only eat the bacon and take a dry pancake with me.
The climb from here is steep and the sun is hot. Before long my shirt is soaked through again. I just keep power hiking longing to reach the high point at the command post (Mi 82). I worry about the cut-off knowing that I’ll have to get there by 3:00pm so I’ll have a buffer zone to make the last 18 in 5-6 hours. Once half way up the mountain I start to overtake runners who are starting to die.
After passing through several smaller aid stations I make it to the command post by 2:30 where I waste little time. I take care of a few necessities and get the heck out of there. Some 50 milers pass me, but are very encouraging as they go by. “Way to go hundy miler, you’re doing great!” they say. You have no idea how meaningful this is when you have been running for over 28 hours.
A group of about six of us are together on the trail and we hit a downhill dirt road. I break into a jog and promise myself that I’ll keep running for 10 minutes. I give myself a walking break and then run some more hoping to make the next five mile stretch in two hours. Surprisingly, I arrive in a little over an hour, way ahead of my schedule. Unfortunately all the downhill has taken its toll on my feet and the balls of my big toes are very painful, not to mention the quarter-sized blister on the outside of my heel.
The last 15 miles are extremely steep and at times I’m completely out of control. The trail is so precipitous in one spot that I lose traction and slip backwards. I’m able to catch myself, but this just propels me forward and down the mountain. The only way to stay upright is to go into a Road Runner (meep, meep) style eleventy million steps per minute cadence.
The pain in my feet is horrible, but there is nothing I can do but bomb down. I try to focus my attention on parts of my body that don’t hurt. Soon the chafing spots on top of my feet begin to bother me again as well, so I finally stop to apply some anti-chafe. When I take my sock off, my foot starts to bleed, so I use my bandana to wipe off the blood and then put the balm on the sores and my big toes.
This brings a little relief and I continue running down as fast as I can. At least I’m making good time. To help quell my misery, I occasionally stop to take in the expansive view of God’s country. The sound of the rushing river, colorful wildflowers and streaked cliffs that resemble medieval castles help me cope. After passing through several aid stations I reach the “Needles Eye” and then make it to the dirt road where we started yesterday. Just five more “easy” miles to reach the finish line.
I run as much as possible and am able to pass quite a few people. It feels good to still have enough energy to run. I text Cara to tell her to meet me at the finish while some kids on bikes ride up and down the road offering popsicles. I politely decline so I don’t puke or anything. I enjoy watching the river that is lined with log cabins. I reach the highway where a group of us run across a bridge and into the park. Lots of people are cheering for us and then I spot Maddie and Cara.
|Nearing the finish|
After more than 32 and a half hours, I cross the finish line and collapse in the soft green grass. What a journey! After spending some time with my family, I hobble over to the Tongue River to soak my sore feet in the ice cold water. A few others are doing the same so we compare battle wounds. “Dude, is that really your toe? Where’s the nail?” “Aw man, that’s nothin’, look at this.” “Groooooooooooss!”
See you on the trail.
P.S. A huge thank you to all the Bighorn race organizers, volunteers, fellow runners, my training partners from Run El Paso/Team RWB and of course my loving family for helping me reach my goal.