"A Sweet Finish with Family:
A 2013 Bighorn 100 Mile Race Report"
From a purely running standpoint, my big news from this year was my third finish in a row and bettering last year's time on the "traditional" course by six minutes (33:39:03) on a course that was slightly more than a mile longer. But the great and wonderful novelty of my Bighorn experience this time around was sharing it with family! This is something I've dreamed of doing at one of my longer ultras and especially Bighorn, having Esperanza and Mihiret (and my mom as an added bonus) at both the start and finish, and crossing the finish line with Mihiret hand in hand. That's a moment I've envisioned for a couple years in my mind's eye and to have it come to fruition was just amazing!
Photo: Joyfully crossing the finish line in Scott Park with Mihiret (but where'd that black cat come from?) Courtesy Fotosport
I've reflected in a submission to Ultrarunning magazine (which it looks like they'll run some time in the next few months!) how entangled my history dating back to 2007 at Bighorn is with the struggle to adopt and become a father and then the elation of being a new father. So I don't want to go over that ground too much, and I'll wait to post that story till I know how that will shake out and see what edits they make. Suffice it say, non-father Scott was 0 for 3 at Bighorn (and 1 for 7 at 100s), while "father Scott" is now 3 for 3 at Bighorn and 4 for 4 at 100s. Go figure! Purely coincidence? I think not! But exactly how are the two connected? Food for thought!
I guess the hallmark of my race this year was a certain efficiency of effort. I came in less fit and somewhat worried, but I think knowing the course and when to push and hold back paid off handsomely. Compared to last year, I was slightly behind schedule for the first third (through Footbridge A.S. out), worrisomely behind by the halfway turnaroud (at Jaws Trail Head), made up time nicely in the wee hours and in the early morning from 48 to 66 (Footbridge back), and then had some ups and downs the last third of the race but kept it together. My stomach held together exceptionally well, and using my new nutritional system of Vespa paired with small, frequent bites of calories really worked well for even energy. Even though at the larger aid stations, as planned, I indulged in a modest amount of "real food," which hit the spot.
While I allowed myself to be awed yet again by the stunning vistas of canyons, wildflowers, raging rivers, and so forth as always, I was a bit business-like and in kind of a "bubble" of concentration on this run. I stayed on an emotional even keel pretty much, and opted not to leave the camera. This as I tried to monitor my pace, how I was feeling, my nutrition, what I would do at the next aid station, etc. I think getting into this mental place has somehow been the secret of moving away from the hugh swings of "highs" and "lows" during the race that have characterized my DNFs.
There were certainly quite a few "weird" or unusual moments: In the nighttime just as I was getting back some energy after starting to feel the long upward slog in the chilly temps (Spring Marsh to Elk Camp), I took a nasty sideways spill in one of the many huge mud fields. That sure threw me off my game for a while. Then the uncertainty of how far away the new turnaround at Jaws was really played mind games with me (it took forever!). Then it had me a little worried as I headed "back" that the additional distance (about 1.2 miles by my GPS) might push me dangerously close to the cutoffs. That proved to be premature, but sure was great motivation to pick it up!
Photo: Cruising somewhere past Dry Fork at around mile 14. Courtesy Fotosport
Then--to complete the theme of weird and unusual moments--coming back at Bear Camp (69.5), I somehow relied on foggy math rather than reading my pacechart carefully, miscalculating that the last major hard cutoff and thinking I'd need a much faster pace to make it. In the event, I proceeded to pick it up for 5 miles to a pace I knew to be dangerous and unsustainable at that stage of the race, exhausting myself a bit before I discovered my error. I probably paid the price later on for that!
Some of the other race highlights were:
* Glorious, copious wildflowers, brighter and more abundant than ever!
* A quarter moon and (later in the night) starry sky during a very cold night in the high mountains.
* Bright sunshine, and pretty darn hot on day two.
* Running for a bit with ultra legend Hans-Dieter Weisshauf, who was completing something like his 136th 100 mile race..at age 73!
* Seeing friends Diane and Rob at the start, Dry Fork aid station, and finish.
* Meeting up with Noe from the Bay Area (and Mexico), whom I'd met online a few months prior. We gave him a ride to the start when I recognized him from his Ultrasignup picture at the pre-race briefing, and then I would see him at several points along the way. He had a great second half in finished in 32 hours+.
[Note to reader: this is where it starts to get "nuts" and "bolt-sy" for the non-ultra-holic, so reader be forewarned! You may just want to scroll through the pictures and to the concluding section.]
Prerace: We got into Billings airport two days before the race around lunchtime, and on the drive south Sheridan got to stop by the Tongue River canyon where the race starts, so I could show my family around what is basically hollowed ground to me by now. It was nice having half of the day on Thursday so we could drive up the mountain on 14 west to Burgess Junction, and get off at various places and walk around. I could tell already the wildflowers were more plentiful than ever, and also that there was less visible snow high up than some years.
Photo: A gorgeous spot where we stopped along Highway 14 in the Bighorns.
Photo: Just like the million or so resplendent wildflowers I saw during the course of the race!
We stopped quickly when we saw a moose by the highway (a rare sight in the middle of the day), and also saw mule deer at another spot. Back in Sheridan, I checked in and left the drop bags and asked the course director Wendell about the new turnaround aid station this year. Unfortunately, we were in a rush to get back to the hotel pool so I could take Mihiret swimming, so I could only chat briefly with long-time Bighorn friends Diane and Rob (doing the 50k) when they arrived from Laramie.
Photo: Just munching away on lunch beside the highway!
I though I might feel a little torn between doing my usual "pre-race stuff" and being with the family. But in the end I think it relaxed me to play tourist and not fret about he race, and I was glad I had taken extra time to get all my drop bag stuff together and pack it carefully before the flight. It was nice to have the escort to the pre-race briefing (where Mihiret could play at the nice playground at Scott Park). And then to the race start. But it was with a bit of a knot in my throt that I said goodbye to them and especially Mihiret, who naturally couldn't understand that Papa was lining up with all these people and taking off into the mountains, while they went back to playing tourist! It was good, as always, to have the familiar faces of Diane and Rob there at the start, as they were among the small throng of family, friends, and crew who were there to see the runners off from the scenic Tongue River Canyon start.
The 11AM start is rare for 100s, known to start at 6, 5 or even 4AM. The upside is it's good for getting a good night's pre-race sleep. The downside is you start in the heat of the day (not a biggie as you start climbing seriously by the second mile and it gets cooler) and hit the night relatively early in the race compared to most 100s. And then face a longer day two.
[Note: I reconstruct what I can of pace from the official race splits they posted plus my Timex race watch, even though my Garmin memory malfunctioned so I couldn't retrieve data from the first half of the race. What I was seeing during the race were mainly my mile splits from the Garmin, though.]
A Good Start: Tongue River Canyon Start (4275') to Lower Sheep Creek (5025'), mile 3.5, 11:53AM: After about a mile, the wide gravel road ends as you start heading up single track. I think I ran more of the road than in past years, and then felt pretty good as I moved up the miles-long climb. It was pretty hot. The views of runners up ahead and all the rock formations behind and above them, and down on the raging Tongue, were as spectacular as ever. (section pace= 15:06)
The Long Upward Trek: Lower Sheep (5025') to Upper Sheep Creek (7450'), mile 8.5, 1:32PM: I'm feeling good on the long beautiful trek upward, passing more than I'm passed, and feeling controlled. I try to remember to enjoy the amazing views of the wildflowers in both directions, and of the forest and rock formations and higher peaks ahead. Every once in a while I glance back over my shoulder to look back at the spectacular canyon as it fades from view. Somewhere in this section I recall passing Noe. It get windier and chilly as we get up around 7,000', and I roll down my arm warmers for warmth, and zip up my vest. I move through the aid station quickly, refilling my 2-liter bladder about halfway and grabbing a few mouthfuls of snacks. I'm trying to stick to my plan of small nibbles (e.g., one shotblock or 2-3 Sharkies) every 12-15 minutes or so, and a packet of Vespa every 3-4 hours. (section pace=19:48, cumulative pace=17:53)
Photo: Gotta run past the photographer! Somewhere past Dry Fork around mile 14/15 Courtesy Fotosport
Testing out the Running Legs: Upper Sheep (7450') to Dry Fork Ridge (7480'), mile 13.4, 2:41PM in, 2:50PM out: This is a rolling, open section with nice single track through fields of creosote at the beginning. Followed by dirt roads the last few miles. Quite runnable, at least at this stage. I'm moving pretty well. But when I crest the hill on a stretch of single track to begin the 3/4 mile or so winding dirt road descent into this major aid station, I start feeling in one eye the combination of some dust, dry air, bright sunshine, and maybe sunscreen that's running with the sweat. I have to keep it closed for several minutes, and dab at it with my bandanna. (I have this eye irritation issue pretty often at Bighorn, the daytime sun in the open section is so bright and the air so dry.) While I've had a good section, several folks pass me as they hammer down toward the aid station. Nothing much has changed, the straight running sections are never my forte any more!
It's great to see Diane as I enter the aid station, and she grabs my drop bag and asks me what I need. (Rob is there somewhere but I didn't spot him as I focused on getting through quickly). I eat some small bit of solid food like maybe a turkey roll-up. Quickly I lube, apply some more sunscreen, and exchange my cap for a "safari" cap with neck protection. I grab another packet of Vespa and maybe a packet or two of chews, but I still have a lot left in my race vest pockets that I carried from the start (note to self: I need to start carrying less, as you end up eating less with the Vespa). Leaving Dry Fork, I note that I'm only five minutes behind last year's time, and feel pretty contented. The double track descending Dry Fork is as dry as last year and possibly even smoother, much unlike wetter years when it gets all rutted and you can't find a smooth path to take advantage of the downhill. (section pace=14:05, cumulative pace=16:30)
Photo: Those flowers are wild in all senses! Feeling pretty good past Dry Fork around mile 14/15. Courtesy Fotosport
Cruising on the Open Trail: Dry Fork (7480') to Cow Camp (6600'), mile 19.5, 4:15PM: The field always seems to spread out more after Dry Fork, and this year was no exception. It's a open rolling section of double-wide ATV trail, with an overall downward trend. Pretty views of ridges and rock formations on either side. Some very low stream crossings that you can easily rock-hop across. While I'm moving decently and running most of the time, a few people pass me, and I feel like my energy level and concentration dip just a little and my mile splits get a bit slower than I'd like. Starting to feel the effort, I guess. I can't recall if it was in this section or after Cow Camp that I took my first dose of Advil (two tablets) and half a dose of Vivaran (which equals 100mg). I think it was 5 or 6 hours into the race, and I pretty much tried to stick to that frequency throughout the race.
Somewhere in this section, at a pretty similar spot to one previous year where he did the same, course director Wendell passed me and I yelled encouragement as he zipped by. I saw Noe at this aid station. Here I re-loaded water with the kids who were tending the water jugs with their family and ate a small amount of solid food and headed out quickl. (section pace=13:48, cumulative pace=16:09)
Forests and Flowers: Cow Camp (6600') to Bear Hunting Camp (6800'), mile 26.5, 6:15PM: This really cool section is mostly single track and more technical at times. A lot of up and down and it trends upward overall. You spend time in the evergreen forest and also traversing open meadow mountainsides full of wildflowers. By this point there's some cloud clover. A few people like Noe and Hans--with the latter of whom I yo-yo for a couple miles--pass me. I'm powerwalking the climbs and running the downs and flatter stuff like I should, though I feel like my mile splits are slower than I'd like and that I'm working fairly hard. The cowboys are tending this aid station as usual, and I grab a small handful of snacks as they help me refill water.
I leave the station thinking I need to have a good section into Footbridge and to work the downhills in order to make sure I'm on last year's pace. I couldn't find last year's splits for each aid station ahead of the race, so instead was relying on the official splits they posted from the major aid stations (ie., those with dropbags) last year plus the station-to-station average pace times from my '12 race that I'd scribbled last minute on my pace chart as a very seat of the pants reference. Probably just as well the data were incomplete and sketchy, as I might have fretted too much about my aid station splits if I'd had all this info with me! Anyway, I was feeling pretty good and moving well, so no need to get panicked.
Dorothy Enters Oz: Bear Camp (6800') to Footbridge (4590'), mile 30, 7:07PM in, 7:34PM out: This is my favorite "out" section of the course (a modified out and back), and least favorite "back" section. It's fairly early in this heavily downhill section that, like Dorothy entering Oz, you emerge from the forest with a meadow of a million yellow wildflowers yawning before you toward the crest of a ridge, with a whole series of peaks ahead--glowing red and orange in the late afternoon side--and ridges with amazing rock formations looming a couple thousand feet up on both sides. It's a truly giddy feeling, and I had to resist the urge to dig my I-phone out of the bottom of my hydration pack to take a few shots. (I'd decided to carry it "just in case," but had opted not to carry my "trail camera," and reluctantly stuck to my plan not to snap pictures this year.) I can't remember if it was in this or probably the former section that Noe, when he passed me, said he just couldn't stop taking pictures, it was so gorgeous!
Anyway, as the narrow path wound its way downward through forest on what is probably one of the most technical and gnarly sections of the race, I got into a pretty good downhill rhythm. I was mindful of last year when I clipped a rock and had a scary fall in this very section, so kept thinking "knees up!" I was using gravity but still had to brake some, and was definitely a bit slower than some past years when I've hammered this section. My legs didn't feel like hammering all-out, and plus you can pay the price later if you pound your legs hard a little more than a quarter into the race, I've come to realize. Call it experience, or just call it age!
I passed one or two people lower down the forested descent, as you start to hear the roar of the raging river below, on the other bank of which sits Footbridge. It's always a mental lift to cross that bridge and enter the familiar territory of this large aid station that feels like an outpost in the wilderness and an important crossroads in the race.
I knew as I looked at my pace chart that I would need a quick changeover to leave Footbridge not too far off my 2012 pace. But it takes a while to change shoes and socks, re-lube, change into a nighttime base layer, grab outer layers and lights, restock water from table and food from my stash, and do the pro forma "checkup" as they ask you a few medical question before you leave (they no longer weigh you since last year). At least it was quicker than my boneheaded one-hour stint retaping feet at my first Bighorn at that spot! I ate some soup as I sat in a chair doing all this, and several runners were engaging with an animated Hans who was seated nearbly. He asked me how old I was, said something I didn't quite make out about 59 years old (like maybe he started running ultras or 100s at that age?) and that he was now 73 (74?). When someone asked, he said this was like his 137th 100 miler! Boy, that puts it all into perspective--here I am working hard to try to finish my fifth 100 miler, at the comparatively tender age of 51! (section pace=14:59, cumulative pace=16:13)
A Good Start to the Long Ascent: Footbridge (4590') to Cathedral Rock (5080'), mile 33.5, 8:35PM: I duly noted as I left Footbridge that I was 17 minutes behind my 2012 pace. So that gave me a certain sense of urgency (but not panic), and I felt strong and efficient on the climbs as I kicked it into gear. This is a technical section that traverses the rocky slopes on the shores of the Little Bighorn river, at one point dipping down onto a sandy section at river level that usually involves a short wade through a side pool of standing water. But it was just a little bit of easily navigated mud this year. Later in the section you ascend steeply up out of the canyon, winding your way up switchbacks poised above the raging whitewater .
I passed a couple folks in this section, and moved quickly through the aid station--stopping just long enough to top off my water--while a few runners lingered and were joking with the volunteers about something. This is a station where the volunteers have to bring supplies in via horseback. They always seem like they are having fun camped out in the forest, and the station has a lively "rock 'n roll" feel which you suspect might be fueled by a few hidden spirits (of the liquid variety!). (section pace=17:26, cumulative pace=17:10)
Up into the Dark: Cathedral Rock (5080') to Spring Marsh (6920'), mile 40, 10:58PM: We move into the night in this section, as a mile or two in, still under forest cover, I finally turn on the headlamp. This long section entails some serious climbing, part of it fairly steep, and some more gradual. I put on a second long-sleeve layer and gloves not long after nightfall as it got chillier, followed not too long after by a third layer and my ski cap. The only layer I left in my pack was my Marmot Precip pants. I'm climbing well, and thinking that my ascent so far feels about as strong as last year's, and much better than in '07 and '10 when I DNFed on this very same course and was suffering a good deal around this point (in the "snow years" of '09 and '11 we ran alternate courses that were different).
It was as cool as always to head up the initial long grassy clearing that opens out into broader meadows, where you could still view a few rays of twilight over the distant ridges above at first. Then as full darkness set in, a quarter moon (ascending, I knew, as I'd checked) and some stars were visible in the clear night sky. Occasionally, you could see lights ahead moving toward you, as the lead runners approached and then came whooshing by, some 20-plus miles ahead! I stepped off the single track to let them by while trying to keep my momentum, as we exchanged "good jobs." (section pace=24:55 pace, cumulative pace=17:57)
"What May Go Wrong...": Spring Marsh (6920') to Elk Camp (7430'), mile 43.5, 12:41AM: This was my "what may go wrong, will go wrong" section, and I guess it was good to get it out of the way in the first half! I was running low on caffeine and energy a mile or so in. It seems like a lot more climbing than 500', it was getting pretty cold (plenty cold enough to see your breath), and the novelty of being in the nighttime had given way to the drudgery of the midnight hour. My pace was slowing. I was due for Vivarin and Advil, and popped (I think) a full one of the former and two of the latter.
The meds were just starting to kick in when I came to one of the many sections of muddy, watery slop--they are always numerous in this treacherous section that goes up a drainage and crosses a couple streams (mostly over a couple on makeshift log "bridges" with one or two ropes as "handrails" ). You are passing through terrain that feels the direct or indirect effects of recent or ongoing snow melt up higher. Anyway, I lost my balance, and fell a little awkwardly on my side into the slop. Nothing hurt, but it kind of stunned me, and the mud felt cold as it covered my right leg and side, though my Goretex shoes and water repellent mid-calf gaiters continued to keep my feet dry. I then kicked myself for not having put on the Marmot pants I was carrying, and made a mental note to do that at Elk Camp or at the Jaws turnaround. I also couldn't help but laugh at myself for, once again, packing Microspikes in my Footbridge dropbag after some hemming and hawing (thinking of snow up high), and once again having left them there snug and dry--only to remember in this section, hey, these things also help you move faster and keep you upright in the slop! (But, seriously, wouldn't they be more hassle than their worth, reflecting back?)
Anyway, the effect of the fall was a little more mental than anything, leaving me a little dazed and unhappy for a few minutes. I was happy to get into Elk Camp--which had a roaring fire going and as usual was unappealingly smoky, especially under the canopies where they had the food and water tables. I had something hot like maybe broth with noodles and got some water and got out of there. (section pace=29:25, cumulative pace=18:52)
"Where the Hell's the Turnaround?!": Elk Camp (7430') to Jaws Trailhead (8800'), mile 48 (48.6 unofficial), 2:35AM in, 3:02AM out: This section was long, cold, and mentally agonizing, though I was moving and feeling better. It features more slop, including lots of places where you have to figure out which way to go to get around the deeper, bigger puddles. And some snow patches that have been tramped down and post-holed through. It contains the one course change from previous years, as they have moved the turnaround to a tent camp they set up at Jaws Trailhead from the traditional Porcupine Ranger Station. You still cross Devil's Canyon Road at 8,950', and the maximum elevation is around 9,100'-9,300' from elevation charts of past years. So you really climb close to 2000' over maybe 3 miles, before you descend about 300'-500' over (officially) the last mile and half or so. Oh yeah, and by now it's down into the 20s, with wind in some places, and it's the middle of the frickin' night!
The "official" part of the mileage is the kicker of the story. All along, my brand new Garmin (the 410XT, of which I have three now), had been tracking the official published aid station splits within one or two tenths of a mile. Unlike previous Garmin models I've owned, it tends to be quite accurate in terms of tracking official race mileage in general, I've found. So it was with more than a bit of anguish that I observed no signs of the upcoming aid station even as the watch passed mile 48 and kept ticking off the tenths. All this as small groups of runners and pacers came running past every so often, saying "it's not far" or "half a mile now" or encouraging but misleading "sweet nothings" like that! In the end, the station finally came into sight, and not a minute too soon. Six-tenths farther than 2012, the Garmin said, which meant another six-tenths extra on the return. Great--bonus miles! And I can already see that I'm behind my 2012 schedule for the turnaround by well over half an hour--even better!
It was that double-whammy realization of "bonus miles" plus "behind schedule," on top of being cold and tired in the witching hours, that made it feel like the race was "piling on," and I might have a bit of a struggle on my hands. Still, I was coming in there almost 2.5 hours under the cutoff and thought I could get out within half an hour. This would mean more of a cushion starting the second half than I'd had in either of my two DNF years on the traditional course. But, wait a minute, didn't the cutoff here used to be 4AM back 4, 5, 6 years ago, I wondered (and still am not sure)? So maybe that cushion was an illusion? (You see how the mind plays games with you as you try to think rationally about your position at this point in a 100 and at night!)
Anyway, even with the new location, this aid station was like a MASH unit as usual, only inside a cramped if large tent rather than in a ranger station. Runners were holed up in sleeping bags toward the rear beside the raging fire. Trying to get their core temperatures back up, or resting up as they had decided to drop. Volunteers and crew members were tending to glassy-eyed runners seated on chairs, tending to blistered feet and other maladies. It's a depressing scene, and makes you want to get out of there in a hurry. So, I toweled off some of the mud on my leg, changed my base and middle layer plus gloves and stocking cap from my drop bag, and stuffed daytime gear (biking gloves, hat, sunscreen packets, etc) plus food into my pack. I also put on the damned pants finally! All this while eating some broth and noodles, and something like a grilled cheese.
I grumbled something to other runners and anyone who would listen "they've added more than a mile to the course!" No one seemed as exercised as I about it, concentrating as they were on the mundane tasks and self-inflicted human misery at hand. Somehow, in the bright light and warmth of the tent, all the suffering behind and ahead of you out in the cold darkness just seems a bit magnified, and is pretty much etched on all the runners' faces.
Some time during all this I saw Noe again, but he left before me. So, I checked out of the tent with the volunteer, asked where the port-a-san was, did my business, and hustled out into the freezing night. And I do mean freezing! Compared to some past years where I've dallied longer, I felt reasonably good to be out of there in 27 minutes including bathroom stop. I was leaving with 1:58 on the cutoffs, as opposed to an official split I had a question mark by on my pace chart that showed me leaving in 2012 with about 2:45 margin (those splits didn't show an entry time for the turnaround station, so that may have been the time when I got there rather than departed). Part of the difference may have been the extra distance, too. Either way, I knew I had a margin that left me with a decent shot at making it, but not a ton of room for maneuver--I needed to move well back to Footbridge!
It Gives Me the Shivers: Jaws (8800') to Elk Camp in (7430'), mile 52.5 (unofficially 53.7), 4:49AM: I was shivering as I headed back into the night. It had gotten colder, there was some wind, and it just felt that much colder after being inside and with a fire. It took me several miles to warm up, and maybe 10 minutes or so into it I stopped and put on the daytime vest (or was it a windbreaker?) I had in my pack over top of the three long-sleeve layers I was already wearing. Yes, I ran for quite a while with four layers! It was good, after the first mile, to finally be heading DOWN after pretty much spending the whole night going UP!
This is a section where it's gotten light on me before (never a good sign), and I was happy to be moving through it still in the dark this time around, as in 2012. And wide awake and moving reasonably well. Being peeved about the extra mileage and somewhat apprehensive about my cutoff margin served as good motivation to push it up a notch, and hot food had given me a boost. And the cold certainly played its part, too, as the best way to warm up was to turn it over a bit faster. I felt in the first few miles past Jaws a weird mix of solace in the fact that for a couple miles you see a few people still moving toward Jaws (hey, somebody is actually behind me, imagine that!) and sympathy for them, since you know their odds of even continuing beyond the turnaround are slim and none (hey, I've been there before).
It was good to get back to Elk, and I grabbed some water and ate some broth and noodles and headed out toward the awaiting dawn. (section pace by official mileage=23:46, section pace by unofficial mileage=20:59, "official" cumulative pace=20:22)
Plodding through the Dawn: Elk Camp in (7430') to Spring Marsh in (6920'), mile 56, 7:09AM: It was less than half a mile or so out of Elk that the "battery low" signal beeped on my Garmin. I hit it once, but the next time it beeped I put it down on a rock or log, pulled out the second (and identical) watch I'd stored in my Jaws dropbag, and turned it on to get the signal. Once I got that and hit the watch to start timing, I turned off the first watch and stowed it in my pack. I had gotten about 18 hours of battery life out of watch #1 (compared to advertised life of "up to 20 hours"), and hoped that watch #2, which was older, would last the 15:30 to 16 hours I'd need to last me to the finish. (It actually did work out that way this year, unlike 2012 when each Garmin gave me around 16 hours.) I'm kind of attached to at least knowing if my mile splits are getting faster or slower, and also having a good sense of how far the next aid station is, in order to track progress (or lack thereof!).
I thought I was moving pretty well through the pre-dawn and dawn hours, aided by the general downhill trajectory. Notwithstanding a bathroom stop behind trees in the meadow just about dawn, which brought welcome relief, and navigating all the mud, which was a little easier in the light. But looking back now on the data the pace was pretty pedestrian. It was still pretty chilly, and I found myself looking behind me a lot so as not to be surprised by the front-running 50 milers (had they started at 5 or 6AM from Jaws, I started wondering?). I've been startled by them so many times over the years, I've become extra wary, and once this year even mistook a fellow 100 miler overtaking me for one of them! I vaguely seem to recall that maybe Noe, whom I guess I passed somewhere around Elk, overtook me for good on this section (and would go on to finish in 32:10, so really picked it up over the last 40 miles or so).
Ever since Jaws, where runners were also volunteers about this issue, there had been some lingering uncertainty, which came up in aid station conversations....was the next hard cutoff at mile 66 at Footbridge 9AM (as apparently was still printed on some old aid station charts you can find online) or was it 11AM (as it said on the pace chart I had printed a few days before the race and I remembered to also be the case from 2012)? It didn't make any sense that it would be the former (and all the volunteers said they "thought" or "our best information is" it's 11), though if it was at 9 there was no way I would make it or the runners near me. (Anyway, what it does make me wonder, looking back, is whether maybe they loosened the Footbridge cutoff looking back now my first years doing the race, where twice I was timed out at Footbridge and once I foolishly dropped when I came in there with only a 10 minute margin. What might have happened....Woulda, coulda, shoulda.....)
It was a gorgeous sunny morning as I hit Spring Marsh in the middle of a meadow. I took time there to take off my pack, and peel off nighttime layers and headlamp, change into short sleeves, arm warmers and vest, hat and biking gloves. Between the food I was carrying (chews, gels, bars, Vespa packets) and all the nighttime gear, my pack was now stuffed to the gills and felt heavy. (section pace=22:34, cumulative pace=20:30)
Exorcizing Ghosts of Bighorns Past: Spring Marsh (6920') to Cathedral Rock (5080'), mile 62.5, 9:17AM: Aided by a not considerable amount of downhill, I kicked it up a gear from my plodding pace in this section. Instead of being passed, I passed a few folks. It was daytime on day two, and I was moving well, and I liked the splits I was seeing on my watch! It felt like, coming where you enter the forest a couple miles out from Cathedral, the point where the first 50 milers started zooming past was at least as far the point where that happened in 2012, if not a bit later.
All this was very encouraging and buoyed my spirits! All this in a section which had been one of "impending doom" in my first few Bighorns. The same section where I had just missed falling in the raging whitewater on a makeshift two-log bridge with handrail and then had a blister pop and have to stop and treat it, pretty much ending my hopes of making the Footbridge cutoff and shattering my fragile newbie psyche back in '07 at my first 100. And the same section where I felt like the early morning sun was bearing down on me (and I'd forgotten the sunscreen!) and I was basically just hiking toward the Grim Reaper and an ignominious DNF, that year and in '09 and '10, unable to run any more. Instead, this year, I felt good, and as I look back now, this is where I started to "break it open" (in my modest way) . In the sense of getting that gap that would ensure I would finish and not "kiss the cutoffs" (in my friend Wendy's wonderful phrase) too closely.
To put it in perspective, I knew that any mile split under 20 minutes (which give or take you need to average to finish Bighorn) was putting me further under the cutoffs. And I was seeing splits that started in 19, 17, 18, 18, and 15 in this section, and felt good even when it started climbing some again as we got closer to Cathedral. We're gonna finish this sucker! (section pace=19:29, cumulative pace=20:26)
Cruising the Canyon: Cathedral Rock (5080') to Footbridge (4590'), mile 66, 9:19 AM in/9:45AM out: After getting some water and a few pretzels or some such snack, I headed out toward Footbridge. The flow of fresh 50-milers passing me was copious by now, but I felt a little less stressed by it than past years, looking over my shoulder a lot, and stepping off to the side of the single track as best I could to make way. Runners were nice enough to let me know they were coming, and to tell me I was looking good...even as they zoomed by like I was standing still! It really is an art to do this without falling off a hillside and tumbling down into the forest and toward the river, or simply falling off a narrow trail with no "shoulder." Suffice it to say, I've had six years' practice now, and have come to live with what is one of the few annoying aspects of Bighorn (that is, having to yield to and dodge fresh runners on narrow trail when you are 60+ miles into a race) . I didn't let it "knock me off my game," and kept moving at a fairly decent clip, even as I felt my tender feet on this rocky, gnarly section through and beside the river canyon.
It always does seem to take forever, getting through the last few miles of this section. It keeps taking you up high above the river and then back down again, and you get the illusion of being near the bend where you will finally descend toward the aid station several times before the real thing. Anyway, it was a nice feeling to enter this aid station, where I've fallen on my sword at Bighorn so many times, and to be moving well and feeling confident of finishing. In fact, I was entering (and would leave) with a bigger margin than last year, so it raised some hopes of maybe making it under 33 hours or at least 33:30.
If I had any doubt about changing shoes yet again (this time to the new pair of once-worn Hoka Bondi B's I'd brought), it was sealed by the fact that I could feel a heel blister forming on one side. So, part of the longer-than-wished 26 minutes I spent at this dropbag station was spent cleaning and putting New Skin and a blister patch and Leukotape over that. And the rest with the shoe and sock change itself, changing shirt and hat, re-lubing and applying sunscreen, and eating some kind of snack and re-stocking my electrolyte and food supplies in the race vest. (section pace=17:17, cumulative pace=20:36)
Moderately up the Long Ascent: Footbridge in (4950') to Bear Camp in (6800'), mile 69.5, 11:15AM: It felt good to leave Footbridge with fresh shoes and socks and (Joe Trailman lightweight) gaiters. The Hokas felt so much springier and more cushioned than the Vaque Blur GTX (which had done their job again in keeping my feet dry through the nighttime slop). But there wasn't much time chance to actually run, as this section is pretty much straight up, with varying but mostly steep gradient, for 3.5 miles. Just as in previous years, it was really starting to get hot in this section, and it's exposed to the sun a lot. But I was determined not to push it as hard as last year, so I kept it steady but in check on the climb.
It's hard not to hit this aid station feeling at least a little hot and bothered. There's still like thirty miles left, and I'm working pretty hard here! (section pace=25:08, cumulative pace=20:55)
Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory?: Bear Camp in (6800') to Cow Camp in (6600'), mile 76.5, 1:15PM: I looked at my pace chart as I left Bear Camp, and proceeded to do the fundamental miscalculation I describe above--somehow I thought that Dry Fork, the last real hard cutoff, came at mile 87, and not mile 83 (it's a modified out and back, so it's 13 miles from the start, but more like 17.5 from the finish). So doing the math to the 4PM cutoff time (and like a ditz ignoring the mileage column on my pace chart), I calculated that I needed to average a heroic sub-15 minutes per mile over what I thought would be the ensuing 18 miles. How did I get myself in such a predicament? Did I take too much time at Footbridge? Was taking it slow and steady up to Bear Camp a huge strategic blunder? How could I have thrown away a finish with such carelessness?
These were the wonderful, anxious thoughts that weighed on me as I tried to crank it up on the rolling single-track traverses through hillside meadows and evergreen forests in the mid-day sun on a day that must have reached 80ish. I threw in miles of 16:53, 14:55, 15:12, 15:59, and 15:04 and passed several 100 milers and even a 50 miler or two, before running out of steam and dropping down to 18:00 minute pace. It was at this point that, rounding a bend, I caught sight of Cow Camp, maybe less than two miles distant. Wait a minute, I thought, Cow Camp isn't that far from Footbridge! Sure enough, I checked the mileage column in my pace chart, and lo and behold, realized my error, and that I was doing just fine and could afford to back off and try to keep it steady. The tricks the mind can play on you in a 100 miler!
So I allowed myself the luxury of sitting down for a few minutes in the chair that the nice families with kids manning this aid station offered. 100 milers get kind of special treatment at some aid stations as they know what you're going through. I knew it was the famous "bacon station," and treated myself to not just a strip but also to a serving of home fries slathered with bacon grease. Delicious! It felt good to have the brief respite and gain back some strength after my premature and unnecessary surge. (section pace=17:17, cumulative pace=20:36)
Cruise Control: Cow Camp in (6600') to Dry Fork Ridge in (7480'), mile 72.5 (duh!), 3:27PM out: Here is where I started to pay the price for my mistake--the legs weren't there any more to run on this upward trending but rolling ATV trail-cum-dirt-road. Last year I'd had to make a big push in this section, quite fearful of not making the cutoff. I was happy not to have to dig deep this year, as it just wasn't there and it was as hot and bright as ever in this totally open section. As usual, it seemed to take forever, as you can see Dry Fork looming at the top of the ridge as you crest each of a series of hills, and it never seems to get any closer. Fifty-milers and 50K'ers were streaming by, wishing me well.
I think I came in with around 45 minutes on the 4PM cutoff and so took about 18 minutes to get through, counting a port-a-san stop on the way out. I kneeled down on the ground with my dropbag as I applied sunscreen, quickly lubed, may have swapped a shirt, and re-loaded food. I think I ate something solid from the table. I overheard a volunteer across the grassy drop bag area say "7D Ranch," and turned to ask who had said that, remembering that the folks at the dude ranch five hours west on the way to Yellowstone where we were headed the next day had said one of their staff was running the 50 mile. They pointed to a 50 miler who had passed me and was sitting in a chair. I went over to introduce myself to what turned out to be a very nice 20-something guy named Ted Bross, who would then help us unload suitcases the very next day, and take me mountain biking through gorgeous country two days later at the ranch! It turned out he was from my native Ohio, a fellow Buckeye fan, and lives in Columbus, the area where we still have family. Ultras are a small world! (section pace with aid stop=21:50, cumulative pace=20:21)
Photo: On the way to Upper Sheep Creek, around mile 74. Courtesy Fotosport
Shuffling Forward: Dry Fork in (7480') to Upper Sheep Creek in (7450'), mile 87.5, 4:57PM: The beginning and ending elevation may make it seem flat. But this section starts with a mile or so of dirt road climb, then rolls a lot on open dirt roads, and then winds on single track through creosote meadows, only to then have a steep climb and quick descent into Upper Sheep. I wasn't catching anybody or moving as fast as last year, and was frustrated I couldn't pick up my legs enough to do more than shuffle fast. But at least my shuffling had a good rate, and in the end I managed in miles of 19, 18, 17, 18, and 17 minutes--better in hindsight than it felt like I was moving at the time! (section pace=17:48, cumulative pace=20:31)
An Epic Climb and Forever Descent: Upper Sheep (7450') to Lower Sheep (5025'), mile 92.5, 5:28PM: First you drop a couple hundred feet to cross the river, then it's a steep climb of 400-500' with maybe the steepest grade of the race (albeit short), and then the LOOOOOONG descent that essentially takes you down 2,500' over five miles, past Lower Sheep aid station and down to the canyon floor at Tongue River Trailhead aid station. There are always a few folks basically stopped dead in their tracks by the steepness of that last significant climb of the race, around mile 93. But I was surprised to see one of them this year was Hans (he the 73-year-old of the 134 100 mile finishes). I expected him to be a couple hours ahead of me by then. He was seated by the trail, and I asked him if he was ok. He said his back was acting up (I knew he had been off the 100 mile circuit with back issues fairly recently). He said that he was going to have to alternate a few steps and then rest in order to get up the mountain. I was wondering about him the rest of the way and when I didn't notice him finish. But I heard later that he did cross the finish line, so apparently he came in shortly after 34 hours so was an "unofficial finisher."
I got up that climb with my usual combination of forward steps and mountaineering style, crossover sideways steps, to spread out the burn. At the top I admired as always the panoramic 360 degree view of peaks and the huge vastness of the canyon thousands of feet below. You get a sense of the immensity of the Bighorns at spots like this. I was dreading the downhill a bit, and ended up descending gingerly, between sore muscles and the various hot spots (toes, heels) I had been feeling for some miles from my "road" Hokas (at size 10.5, they were undersized for what I wear for trail races even if oversized for what I wear on everyday runs). Unless you want to run with abandon and be hyper-alert for the occasional rocks and ruts, you have to do a good amount of braking to control your momentum in this section. I kind of kept my spot in the spread-out line of runners you could look up and down to see for some distance. It seems to take forever, and you keep thinking, did I really go up all that yesterday? (section pace=18:12, cumulative pace=20:25)
Does this Trail Ever End?!: Lower Sheep (5025') to Tongue River Trailhead (4240'), Mile 94.75, 7:13PM: As we came into Lower Sheep, the volunteers routed us into the grass around some rocks by the trail, where they said they had spotted a rattler. I quickly put a little water in the bladder, and a guy who had been just behind me told me to go ahead. I wasn't moving any too fast for a downhill, but now at least it was shaded, twisty single track rather than open meadow single track. Looking down over the fast-moving river. It winds its way a long time into the canyon--farther than the advertised 2 1/4 miles--and passes a pedestrian bridge that you think should be the trailhead. But no, you've got to keep going, and even start climbing a little, before you finally come to the last little descent that leads you to the trail head. By that time you're getting nervous you've gone too far, as course ribbons are spaced out far apart in this section.
The volunteers were making noise as I got to the trailhead aid station, and course director Wendell was ringing a cowbell. He asked me how I felt, I said "pretty good," and made a comment about the additional distance to Jaws. He insisted, as he had at the race check-in two days before, that it was the same distance as to the old Porcupine turnaround. I asked what had happened in his race, and he indicated he had dropped somewhere past halfway, but I don't recall where. Anyway, I drank a little something, ate a few bites of some snack I think, and took off on the dirt road through the canyon. (section pace=16:13, cumulative pace=20:24)
Tongue River Trailhead (4240') to Finish at Scott Park in Dayton (3970'), Mile 100 (101.2?), 8:39PM: This final section has been somewhere between anti-climactic and frustrating for me the last three years. At least till the finish! After the first mile or so within the canyon, the road widens a little and goes through an area with occasional houses on one side and the river on the other. I guess you're spoiled and jaded by the previous 95 miles of spectacular backcountry, as it's still pretty ranch country. But it's a little jarring to be back in an area with car traffic, even if most of it is volunteers and crew cheering. Unfortunately when you can only shuffle, and other runners are moving by you, it's frustrating, as I always feel like the energy level is greater than what my legs will allow me. After trying mightily to get my shuffle to become an actual "both legs off the ground at same time" run, I came to the conclusion that it was heavy legs and especially quads that were the offender.
It's weird, as sometimes, like at Massanutten last year or at my first 100 at Iroqouis (now Virgil), I've been able to muster the legs to finish strong. But not at Bighorn. Ever. I guess it could be that the huge descent toward the end just sucks any remaining life out of tired legs. Anyway, my energy level felt ok, but I've got to say that my nutrition and hydration have tended to become more sparing in the last couple hours these past few years at Bighorn. Like I'm sick of eating and drinking and take in the bare minimum. Despite that, you're running on adrenaline and with finish line fever, so I can't say it's really a lack of energy per se.
A couple of things stand out from those final miles on the dirt road--the one Bighorn veteran who was listing so far to one side it seemed he might topple at any point (and obviously in pain as a woman presumably his spouse walked only worriedly beside) but who did go on to finish; the delicious popsicles the girls were handing out at mile 98 at the stand by their house, a wonderful Bighorn tradition; and almost stepping on a snake that had already been run over and left for roadkill!
I switched from my safari cap to a normal cap before the little bridge heading into Dayton for the finish (gotta look good for that photo!). I was hoping Mihiret, Esperanza and my mom would be there. As I crossed the road and headed toward the park, I first spotted my mom, who gave me a hug, and then Diane came running up and hugged me, and ran with me a few steps till we got to the corner by the park entrance, where Esperanza and Mihiret were waiting. I hugged them, and grabbed Mihiret's hand, and said something like "run with papa." So we "ran" hand in hand beside the fence that marks the campground, with some campers cheering us and other approaching runners. At one point I picked her up and carried her and her 45+ pounds for a few steps, which I thought might be faster. But as we made the turn into the finish line, we switched back to hand in hand. It was with great elation that I crossed the finish line, in a moment that felt and looks on film pretty much just as I had imagined it these past couple years since Mihiret came into our lives. Pure joy! (section pace=16:23, cumulative official pace=20:12, cumulative unofficial pace=19:34)
Photo: Another shot of me finishing with Mihiret. Courtesy Fotosport.
Postrace: After the hugs and congratulations, I wandered over to the food area and served myself a plate of food. I was in a bit of a daze, and felt a little lightheaded. I made sure to put on the jacket from the bag they brought me from the car. It was getting dark and cooling off quickly. Rob was nice enough to gather the drop bags and help carry them to the car. I ate a burger and a little pasta salad, but couldn't even finish the plate of food. I would have liked to linger a little bit longer, and force myself to eat a little, but they'd been waiting for me for a while, and we had to get back to Sheridan.
Race Takeaways: Five minutes faster and on a somewhat longer course, so I consider this to be my best Bighorn. Also my second fastest 100, though quite a bit off my 32:40 PR, and I think I could go faster at Bighorn. But I'd need better finishing legs. And less of a "just racing the cutoffs" mentality I guess!
Anyway, my nutrition and hydration are pretty well dialed in, and I experienced practically no stomach issues. Eating less food at aid stations and especially the fruit slices (which I'm drawn to but indulged in too much last year) worked well. The shoe and sock changes were good but I should have gone with a larger-size pair of Hokas the last third.
Hopefully, I can sort of keep the same even-keeled, problem-solving, "roll-with-it" mentality I seem to have develped the last three years at Bighorn and MMT. As I turn to maybe some new and different courses, like Chimera in November, and as I continue to return to familiar courses in future years, which are sure to thrown unfamiliar challenges my way!
It was a truly rewarding and memorable experience doing it with family, and nice to get the sendoff. I think seeing them at the finish gave me added impetus to finish and something special to look forward to. Also, it was great to have the dude ranch vacation days afterwards to look forward to, and the time at 7D Ranch really capped off an outstanding Wyoming sojourn! Can't wait for the next one!