For full disclosure purposes, I've been registering for Western States for several years and not getting past the lottery, so this year I decided to look elsewhere. In terms of goals, I finally got my sub-three hour marathon (with a little downhill help) a couple years ago so why not go for the century? Initially, I was going to register for the Vermont 100, since it was closer and did have a good reputation. But, some friends already had their eyes on Big Horn and when I learned Vermont had filled up before I could register, the die was pretty much cast. On the day that registration opened, I found myself signing up for the Big Horn 100 (http://www.bighorntrailrun.com/.) A friend sent me, post-race, a comparison/ranking of the U.S. ultramarathons. It had Big Horn rated as the 7th toughest and "12%" tougher than Western States, so while I might not have been taking on the event most synonymous with ultras, I certainly wasn't avoiding a challenge.
Big Horn takes place in the Big Horn National Forest in North-Central Wyoming. It's an out-and-back course that includes an estimated 18,000' of elevation gain. Most participants stayed in Sheridan, Wyoming, a city somewhat comparable to Hickory, NC in population, with perhaps less development, and about 25 minutes from the start. For anyone who considers this event for themselves, I want to pause quickly to note that there is an airport in Sheridan, and there are some very friendly and helpful employees who work there, but they seem to be on a shoestring budget. I heard a lot of comments from flyers who were familiar with the airport that delays were common. Indeed, I had my return flight to Denver delayed over six hours for mechanical issues. They were apologetic and ordered pizza for everyone but when you want to get home, you just want to be going. To give some perspective, The airport has only one gate, three flights per day--all to Denver, and the planes seat about 30 passengers, less when heat makes weight an issue. Point being, if you go to Big Horn, consider carefully before flying into Sheridan. The convenience may well be offset by problems.
There are actually four races that make up Big Horn Trail Races: 30K, 50K, 50M, and 100M. They have staggered starts, and each starts on a different part of the 100 miler course. Our event, had the easiest logistics for the runners as no early morning shuttle buses were required. We were a group of approximately fifteen to eighteen competing in the various distance events. There were seven of us in the 100M, Dennis, Doug, "Mo," Beth, Dave, Joey, and myself. What follows, is my race day(s) experience, as best I can remember.
At 8:15 a.m. on Friday, we set off for Scott Park in Dayton, WY, about 25 minutes from Sheridan. This was the site of the finish line as well as the 9:00 a.m. pre-race briefing. When we stepped out of the cars, we found ourselves greeted by "snowfall" from the park's cottonwood trees. If you aren't familiar with these trees, they shed dandelion-like seeds in pretty large quantities. There were large dust bunnies of these seeds gathered in the corners of the parking lot, looking a little like exploded feather pillows. It was comfortably mild with temperatures perhaps in the upper 50s and a slight breeze. There were few clouds in the sky, meaning sunscreen was going to be layered on thick. Slowly our group gathered together in the parking area, some of us meeting up for the first time since arriving in Wyoming. Even the runners from the 50-mile and 50-K events were present to see us off.
The briefing was the standard stuff: introducing the race staff, going over the schedule, and some general course information. One person gave a very descriptive overview of highlights along the course. Perhaps it was too descriptive, because I couldn't remember 1/4 of what he said. After the briefing, we milled around a bit and those of us who had not yet met, got to know each other. Time began passing quickly and suddenly it was 10:15, time to make the short drive to the actual race start.
The drive took us upstream along the rain-swollen Tongue river, into a canyon with huge cliffs looming above us on either side. This was our last chance to check our gear, apply vaseline to critical areas, and rethink the wisdom of what we were about to do. I once told someone as we were driving to run up Table Rock Mountain in a downpour that we were crazy for getting in the car, but we are dedicated for getting out. I think that pretty much sums up my feelings at the start of Big Horn. Standing amidst a crowd of eager runners, I looked around at some of the others who were not with our group. Ultras are unusual events. You really see all types of people and you can never be too sure which ones will be far ahead and which will be behind you when its over. If you try to guess, you'll probably be wrong more often than right. No one in our group was looking at this as a race, but more as a challenge to complete the distance. If we lost to an eighty year-old, then so be it. Dennis and I had briefly thought about trying for a sub-24 hour time, to be inducted into the "Rusty Spurs" club, but knew that was a lofty goal and tried to put our primary focus on just finishing.
Once the national anthem was complete, our journey finally began. The crowd quickly thinned out to where you weren't bumping elbows as we continued upstream, along the same gravel road that we had driven to the start along. Soon, we veered right onto a trail and began a very long climb that would net us over 3100' of elevation gain over the first 8.5 miles. "It's like the Shire," Beth from said in awe as the canyon opened up before us. "Middle Earth" might have been a better description since it looked like almost every scene from "Lord of the Rings" could have been shot along various parts of the course. The part we were on now, was a large, rocky, wildflower-laden meadow that bore a passing resemblance to Roan Mountain in Tennessee. Only much, much steeper.
The toughness of the climb was offset by the beauty of our surroundings and the nervously excited conversations of still-energetic participants. This early climb gained about 3000' in 7.25 miles, for an average of 413' per mile. For comparison, The Bear 5-miler gains about 316' per mile. So, we power-hiked through most of this stretch. Several false-summits later, we found ourselves at 7450' (mile 8.5) and finally got a short break from climbing. The plan was for Dennis and I to hang together unless one just isn't feeling it. A friend of Dennis's, Sheryl, was crewing for us by meeting us at three points along the course and would later be pacing us from the last point at mile 82.5. Sticking together was the plan, but somewhere after the first major checkpoint at mile 13.4, I began to have problems and fell back. Dennis didn't realize I dropped off and would later tell me he thought I had pulled out because of my ankle, which I complained about a little early in the race. I think It was actually a combination of the heat and the elevation, having never worked so hard at this altitude. I've hiked this high, but never tried to run. My legs were fine but my chest felt compressed. To help, I swapped out my red Under Armour compression shirt for a white, loose fitting shirt. I should note that by North Carolina foothills standards, it was not really that hot (maybe 60-70) and it certainly wasn't humid. But, anything over 45-50 degrees when running gets me overheated.
|Can you see the steepness of a 416' per mile climb?|
My struggles would continue for the next 15 or so miles and I had already begun to mentally calculate if it would be possible to walk it in and beat the cutoffs. It was the "Footbridge" aid station at mile 30 where I had my first medical check. I began to feel better once the sun dropped below the mountain peaks and left a cool shadow across the canyon. Plus, I was back down to 4590', an elevation that was at least closer to my experiences in NC. It was about 5:30 p.m. (6.5 hours into the race) and, though I didn't know it at the time, I was twenty minutes behind Dennis. The medical check I knew was coming was mostly visual, with the EMS guy sizing me up and looking for signs of weakness. He said he was going to ask me a few questions, so I went ahead and answered "2013, Obama, and Big Horn. He sort of smiled and asked when I had last gone to the bathroom. While I didn't lie about the "when," the amount would not have filled a 1/4 teaspoon. He also wanted to see my tongue for some reason, so I obliged, despite having just started chewing a bunch of potato chips. I do not know what he was looking for on my tongue, but I apparently passed the test and was allowed to continue on. Oddly, I would be feeling better when I came back through this same aid station at mile 66 than I did at this stop.
My decision to press on was not borne of pride or stubbornness, but largely of logic. I knew the next 18 miles would have a net gain of 4360' so there would be a lot of walking. I had cooled down and really did feel a little better. After leaving Footbridge, I found myself heading upstream beside a another fast-moving river with spectacular mountains rising up on either side. The rocky mountains were not only impressive for their size and color but for the interesting formations time and weather had carved into the rock along the summit. I almost thought I could make out carved shapes in the rock: spires, amphitheaters, and the like. As the sun slowly set, they began to take on an almost other-worldly appearance.
|Wildflowers along the trails were in full bloom.|
|There was a lot of this on our left between miles 30 & 40.|
|The leader (at the time) coming back after the turnaround.|
Despite the darkness and the fact that I had over 50 miles on my legs, I was able to run more in this stretch than I for the majority of the course. Of course, there was downhill, but it was nice to feel like maybe I was catching up to Dennis and Dave. They said the temperature was in the 20s at the turnaround but it seemed much warmer. I had two lightweight long-sleeves on and was rolling up the sleeves to try to cool off.
Jeremy, a guy who I had spoken with early in the race, caught up and I let him by. He said they had held him at the turnaround tent for quite while because of dehydration and had made him drink a LOT of water. I mention this only because it would become a "running" joke for the remainder of the race. I saw him pull over to urinate at least four times in about three miles and then for the rest of the race, we would constantly catch up to him, pulled off the side of the trail, relieving himself. I say "we" because I did finally catch up to Dennis and Dave perhaps a mile or so after the mile 52.5 aid station. It was at that aid station that I heard them radio the turnaround aid station, to say a member of our group, Beth, was dropping. I had somehow not seen her pass me in the dark. Dennis told me that Doug was dropping out as well. I really hated to hear that and hoped that they would just take some time in the turnaround tent to recoup and then start back up. Sadly, they did not and their 100 mile adventure would be cut short.
Dennis and I would soldier on through the night, joined frequently by Dave and his wife, Ally. Ally joined Dave at the turnaround and while she was originally going to stay with him to mile 82.5, she would ultimately stay with him to the end, traveling 52 miles and setting a new personal distance record. Since it was dark and quiet, the next thirteen or so miles were fairly uneventful. I can't even really remember our conversations, but I'm certain they weren't of great importance--just a way distract us from the grind. At one time, Dennis pulled out an MP3 player he had borrowed from Jenny, but it only lasted a few songs before the battery died...That said, there is a calmness in running at night. A friend and I have often said that night miles are "free" miles because they don't feel as hard. Maybe it's the quiet or the fact you can't see very far ahead, but there is at the very least a placebo effect with running in the dark that can sometimes overcome the realization that you could be at home in a warm, soft bed.
Finally, at just before 4:00 a.m., we reached the Footbridge aid station. With all the mud we had come through, both Dennis and I changed shoes--they even had about a dozen plastic tubs where you could wash the dirt/mud off your feet. This was where I made probably the worst race mistake I have ever made. My Brooks Cascadia trail shoes were caked with mud, so I decided to change them. I had an almost-new pair of Salomons that I really liked, but they were to cause more problems
|Dennis is ahead of me just after sunrise on Saturday.|
Sunrise came behind us as we made our way up "The Wall," a 2200' climb in about 3.5 miles (629' per mile.) We were still with Dave and Ally, though we couldn't be sure if Dave was having trouble or not. He'd lag back out of sight then suddenly catch up. We managed to make the climb without a rest stop, but it was a heart-pounding effort. After we left the mile 69.5 aid station, I commented to Dennis that he was now setting a new personal distance record, the previous being Pitchell's (Mount Pisgah to Mount Mitchell, along the Mountains-to-Sea Trail) 66 miles, with some detours added in. I did not mention that he still had a 50K to go, to finish the race. Mostly because I had that far to go, as well.
Our next aid station was at mile 76.5 and this is where I got some oatmeal, one of the few things I thought I could stomach. It wasn't mixed completely and was kind of warm water with oats in it, but it went down ok. The sun was up but it was still relatively cool and there was a sporadic breeze. We were beginning to feel that the end was in sight. Our next aid station would be Dry Fork, where Sheryl would join us and, hopefully, give us some new energy. The manned aid stations were often six or seven miles apart and that can be a pretty long stretch when you aren't moving quickly. In races this length, you break it down into manageable pieces so we were using each aid station as a goal, taking Big Horn in six mile increments.
All the miles in the latter stages of the race seemed long and this stretch was especially so, exacerbated by the fact that I couldn't remember any of it from when we passed through earlier/the day before. The one thing I did remember was the spring we passed at mile 79.5. Unlike the first time through, I did not need water, but seeing it did tell me we had only about three miles to Dry Fork. What I had forgotten was the long up hill we would have up to the Dry Fork aid station. When it finally came into sight, Dennis had gotten a bit ahead of me, but we both came into Dry Fork at about 9:11 a.m. At ten minutes, our stay at this aid station was about as long as Footbridge, though it seemed like I didn't do as much here. After shedding my CamelBak and anything else I was certain I wouldn't need, I had some moleskin applied to my achilles to ease the rubbing. Unfortunately, it wouldn't help much and soon slid off.
Sheryl was instantly helpful as she encouraged us along. It's good to see someone with energy when you have none as it can sometimes rub off. It would be five miles to our next aid station and we needed all the pushing and pulling she could offer. The sun was higher now and it had begun to warm up noticeably. When the aid station finally appeared, Sheryl ran ahead and got us some Mountain Dew (I had more M.D. in this race than in probably the previous three years combined.) I topped off my bottle, grabbed a banana and some potato chips and walked on until Dennis caught up and we "ran" again. We were about to begin our big descent back to the gravel road where we had started.
|Sheryl paces us down the mountain.|
As we drew close to the base of the mountain for the five mile home stretch, Dennis was calculating that we could reach a secondary finish time goal if we maintained ten minute miles over the last five or so miles. I told him there was no way I could and that he should go on and give it a shot. But, we were further from the "five mile point" than he thought, so by the time we got there, that goal was out.
About this time, Sheryl had gone from lead pacer and aid station aid to motivational speaker. She was also in rare form, resorting to heavy bending of the truth to encourage us on. She would run ahead and claim that a "Runners on road" sign said "one mile to finish" or that the paved road we longed to see was "just around this corner." It became more of a game than anything and helped with the grind of this section along a hot gravel road in mid-day sun. There were a couple of people standing outside their homes with sprayers, misting participants who wanted it. It helped a little, but my skin was so hot by this point, it seemed to evaporate the minute it hit me.
At the real "two miles to finish" point, there was a small aid station where I got the best thing I had found at any aid station--a grape popsicle. It was just what I needed (though I probably wanted 8 or 10.) Refreshed mentally and a little bit physically, we picked up the pace. Sheryl would later tell us that we ran the final two miles in 15 minutes. I can somewhat believe that as Dennis was actually trying to outrun Sheryl in a brief moment of sadism. We finally hit the pavement, made a few turns and realized we just had one block to go to the park entrance. Doug happened to be walking toward us and turned to join us as we passed. Eager to be done, we pushed harder, even passing someone from one of the other distance races. One last right turn and we entered the chute. Since there were several races going on, there was no clock (each race was at a different time.) Dennis said our time was 26:10; slower than our original, unrealistic goal and faster than our expectations once we got on the course. Dennis had wanted to break 26 hours, and had we done so, we would have been right with Dave and Ally (25:58,) but the time savings probably needed to come from quicker aid station visits earlier in the race and not pressing even harder at the end--I doubt we could have covered the last five miles that much quicker.
Upon finishing, we were given a green, logoed blanket that appears to zip into its own pouch. I joked that it would come in handy since I was so cold. The lady who handed it to me said that we get other stuff later, so I don't know for sure if she understood I had been joking, but I assured her that I actually liked the blanket. It later made for a great pillow on the plane trip home.
The park was a good area for the finish, though you did have to keep relocating to stay in the shade as the sun moved overhead. They had live music and a number of picnic tables set up. There was the ice-cold Tongue River beside the park for numbing sore muscles. I had no sore muscles, just shredded feet. I stuck them in the water until I began to fear frostbite. Leslie called me on Sheryl's phone as I sat by the river. Since Sheryl had little battery life left, I quickly summed up the last 26 hours and told her I'd call again from back at the hotel, when I had my phone. Many people, presumably the ones who drove to the race, had brought their own folding chairs to sit and enjoy the finish area. Our group found a picnic table. Hamburgers and hot dogs seemed to be the primary finish line food. I'm not sure if this race has latched on to the vegetarian/vegan crowd yet. Having little appetite, I would have been happy with more popsicles.
I hung around as long as I could, but really wanted to just get back to the hotel and get cleaned up and lie down. We stayed for several hours, watching for fellow group members to come in. At about 6:00 p.m., Sheryl's car was back at the finish (she had left it at mile 82.5) and I grabbed my stuff and caught a ride with one of our 50K runners, went to my room and fell asleep at 7:30 p.m., having hardly eaten anything for dinner. After a fitful sleep, I woke up at 4:00 a.m. and watched television until the pancake breakfast / awards ceremony at 8:00. I was quite famished by this point and the three large pancakes were gone quickly. For the carnivore, they also had ham and sausage. Of our group, only Beth (a different Beth) won an age group award, in the 50-miler. But as finishers, Dennis, Dave, Mo, and I got lots of stuff. There was a lightweight finisher's jacket (it had a partial zipper, but maybe it was a shirt?) a duffel bag, and a glass belt buckle. Throw in the blanket handed out at the finish, the pre-race stuff (socks, an insulated zipper bag, shirt, cap, ...) and my luggage--carry-ons only--was stuffed. I actually had to throw stuff, mostly food, away to make room.
But the best take-aways are the memories. As much fun as running alone can be, sharing an experience with a group can also be rewarding. Everyone goes and does their thing and you get to hear their individual perspectives and experiences at the finish. When our group reunited, conversations were filled with a lot of "how about those wildflowers," "did you see" and "what did you think of that hill?" type comments.
Usually I spend more time on the race than I do on my personal experience, but being that this was such a long event, I figured it might give others an insight into what they might expect. The race was very well managed and obviously scenic. I don't have any 100-milers I can compare it to, so I won't. Aid stations were well stocked, but I've yet to find something that appeals to me food-wise after 50 miles. This is one tough course. Though I never fell, I could see many opportunities to do so. Something this long requires a bit planning (like what to put in drop bags) and a lot of persistence because most of us are going to go through many good and bad stretches while we are out there. If you are ready for a 100-miler and don't mind a (very) tough challenge, this one should certainly be on your list. Just make sure you pack the right shoes...