The Wednesday before the race, my final, easy, 2-mile jog was a disaster-- at least from a psychological perspective. My left Achilles tendon, which I had been dutifully rehabilitating for the last 3 weeks, felt no better. It was still tight and mildly sore. I had only run a total of 14 miles during my taper, trying to rest as much as possible. I know tendon injuries can be difficult to overcome, but really? No change? Nothing? Some days it felt better, some days not. I couldn't figure out a pattern. Occasionally, I'd feel optimistic that it was manageable, but now I was slipping into pessimism again. As I trotted up Hagerman Road, gazing at the beautiful snow-clad peaks across the valley, I wondered what the hell I was doing. Was Bighorn just going to degenerate into 70 miles of limping?
Despite the fact that I was probably in better shape than I'd ever been in this early in the year, it was impossible to feel confident as race day approached. As I packed for the race, my eyes briefly lingered on the little packets of painkillers I placed in each of my drop bags. Advil, Tylenol, Aleve... How many of these would I have to take? I've survived multiple 100s while fighting stabbing IT band pain, but Achilles tendonitis was a first for me. How bad would it get? So far it had never gotten so painful that it caused me to limp, but 100s have a way of finding any weaknesses you might have and amplifying them as the miles accumulate.
So, I approached Bighorn with a very conservative frame of mind. I really didn't know how the race would unfold, and I tried not to worry about it. Perceived effort was going to be my guide. I'd just listen to my body. Run within myself. All the standard ultrarunning cliches. I took some comfort in Bighorn's generous cut-off times. I had 34 hours to complete this sucker, if things went badly. Though I didn't relish the thought, I could walk every step if I needed to. I had picked 27 hours as a rough goal. Maybe estimate is a better word, as I didn't really plan to push to finish at any particular time. I probably wasn't quite as fit as I was for Leadville last year, I was nursing a potential injury, I didn't have any crew or pacers to help speed me through the aid stations, I had never step foot on the course before, and based on historical results, Bighorn just seemed... slower. More elevation gain. More mud.
I loaded all my running and camping gear into the Prius, kissed my wife and kids goodbye, and headed off for Wyoming on Thursday morning. First stop: the local coffee shop, to grab some breakfast. The drive up was uneventful. Towering, snowy mountains gave way to the heat and traffic of the Front Range, which in turn gave way to the big sky and rolling, grassy plains of Wyoming. When I finally hit I90, I looked east and thought of Boston 2,000 miles away. (Through the magic of the interwebs, I telecommute there every weekday.)
After registering, and dropping off my drop bags, I met my friend Alex and his family at the free pasta dinner in downtown Sheridan. I scarfed it up quickly, heading back for seconds and thirds. We then drove on to Dayton and up into the Bighorns to our campsite at Sibley Lake. Alex had camped there for the race last year and recommended it. I had waffled back and forth as to whether or not to camp or hotel it the night before the race. Ultimately, I decided to accept Alex's generous offer and camp with him and his family up at the lake. In hindsight, it was the right decision. Sibley Lake is about 30 minutes from downtown Dayton, but it's a scenic drive and a very peaceful site. The place was almost deserted. No other runners that I could see. It was good to get to experience a bit of the mountains before the race, and I'm sure it was much cooler than Dayton itself. I could better gauge what the temperatures might be like the following night on the course. It was also closer to my home elevation of 10,000 ft.
As a former thru-hiker, nothing is quite as relaxing as camping out under the stars. And that is just what I needed the night before the race. The simple rituals of camping are familiar and calming. I got a good night's sleep-- turning in just as it got dark (hiker midnight) and woke up the next morning at dawn. I went for a short stroll down to the lake itself, munching on breakfast (banana bread, scones, and smoothies), and soaked up the peaceful atmosphere, stretching my calves. I was relaxed, but also excited to spend some quality time in the mountains. I was ready.
Time to run 100 miles.
I quickly packed up camp and drove down to the park for the pre-race meeting. The excitement was palpable. Crowds of runners went about all their pre-race routines, myself included. I met Mike, my friend and neighbor from Leadville, in the parking lot. The pre-race meeting wasn't terribly helpful, but the one important fact I did take way from it was that there was 100 lbs of bacon out on the course. Now, that kind of information is absolutely vital! It drew a hearty round of applause.
After the meeting there's this awkward dead period until the 11am start. First, you have to drive/carpool four miles up a dirt road, following the Tongue River, to the actual starting line near the mouth of the canyon. (These would be the final four miles of the course, which finishes in downtown Dayton, at Scott Park where the meeting was held. That's where I left my car.) There's not really enough time to do anything, except maybe visit the restroom one final time, and wait. I sought out a spot in the shade and sat down, chatting with neighboring racers. Finally, 11am rolled around and we set off with a cheer. I assume there was a countdown, but I didn't hear it from my position way in the back of the pack. They obviously need to get themselves a shotgun!
|Alex and me at the start.|
Start (0.0) To Dry Fork (13.5)
Following a reoccurring pattern (of comparing Bighorn to Leadville), I couldn't help thinking to myself that I would already be 40 miles into Leadville by this time, passing through Twin Lakes. And here I was at mile 0 at Bighorn! The scenery in the canyon was breathtaking and I spent most of the first mile craning my neck to look straight up the steep canyon walls at the strange rock formations that towered above us. It sure as hell beat the Boulevard! The river was raging below us, as we climbed away from the dirt road on narrow, rolling single track.
I heard a few veterans comment that there seemed to be about twice the normal number of runners in the starting crowd. Determined to take things slowly, my first order of business was to get a sense of how my Achilles was feeling. It felt better during those initial 2 miles than it did during my final 2-mile shakedown jog. Still, I could feel it. Some tightness, but about as good as it's ever felt this June. I tried to keep my feet beneath me, to avoid over-striding and minimize toe-off. Theoretically that should lessen the load on my tendon.
Whenever I had talked to folks about Bighorn-- or read race reports about it-- two things were always mentioned: wild flowers and mud, with freezing nighttime temperatures coming in third, perhaps. As the course veered away from the river and steeply up a large, open, grassy hill, I could already confirm the first! Fields and fields of wild flowers. Truly spectacular. A long conga line of runners wound its way up the narrow single track up the hill. Since I had stopped at the Lower Sheep aid station to refill a bottle, I had dropped back a bit. I would guess that maybe 70% of the field was in front of me. It was pretty much impossible/pointless to pass anyone, so I tried to stay patient, chat with my neighbors, and eat/drink as many calories as I could. During the climb, I made a brief cameo in Brandon Fuller's video, as we were close together at this point. I kept telling myself that no one regrets going out too slow in a 100, but I won't lie-- I was a little exasperated at times at how relaxed the pace was. I could tell I wasn't going to hit my estimated time for the first split to Dry Fork. Relax, Andy. It's 100 miles. You're injured. Enjoy the scenery and calm down!
Near the top of the climb, the final switchback turned to double track and I could finally pick my own pace. I jogged the last bit and made my way to the Upper Sheep aid station, where I refilled my bottles, grabbed some melon, and took off for Dry Fork. The tightness in my Achilles was growing. It now felt like it did on my last run on Wednesday. I could feel myself slightly favoring my left leg. We were barely 3 hours into the race. Extrapolating from how I felt at the starting line, I guessed I'd probably be limping in another 3 hours. I was pissed. I swore to myself. A lot.
Dry Fork (13.5) to Footbridge (30.0)
Finally Dry Fork came into view, below us on a dirt road. I jogged down to it at a fair clip, dryly commenting that this might be my only 9 min/mile of the entire race. I arrived at the 3:30 mark. Already 30 minutes behind schedule-- for whatever that's worth. I was in and out of the aid station fairly quickly, just grabbing some more maltodextrin out of my drop bag. I had consumed 1,500+ calories at this point, which was great. I elected to not grab my ipod as I still wanted to keep things easy. I didn't want music to inadvertently cause me charge off too fast.
This next section to Footbridge was one of the more enjoyable of the race. It was generally rolling downhill, with a few short climbs, through a mixture of forest and fields. More incredible displays of wild flowers. I slowly worked my way up, passing many runners, but still trying to keep things easy. I continued to focus on eating and drinking and staying cool. It was hot, but not unbearably so. I felt good. Perhaps all that time in the sauna in Leadville had helped a bit?
Even though I was carrying two handhelds (40 oz), I still found myself running out of water just slightly before aid stations. Luckily there was a nice piped spring in this section, which I took advantage of. Just as I was about to run out of water, I turned the corner and there it was. Perfect. I settled into a routine that I would maintain more or less throughout the race: carrying one bottle of maltodextrin and one bottle of water, alternating between the two.
During this section I bumped into "Hawaiian Shirt" Ray (a familiar sight at pretty much any race in Colorado) and Neeraj Engineer, who I'd seen at a few races previously, but never introduced myself to. We chatted for a bit on what became a common topic of discussion during Bighorn (once folks found out where I lived)-- what I, as a Leadville local, thought of Lifetime's management of the 100 last year. I, uh... have some opinions on the subject.
And my Achilles? To my amazement it seemed to be getting better! WTF? As the miles clicked by, I caught myself thinking about it less and less. I joked to myself that I had just needed 20 miles to warm up. As silly as that sounds, it's the only explanation I can think of. Whatever. I'll take it! My biggest fear of the race actually seemed to be manageable!
As we descended "The Wall" down to the next major aid station: Footbridge, the scenery escalated to jaw-dropping. More than one runner ahead of me pulled off the trail to stop and take pictures. It really was that impressive. The next river canyon spread out below us. Gazing into the distance I could see the long, 18-mile climb up it that awaited us. I was feelin' good. Bring it!
Footbridge (30.0) to Jaws (48.0)
I made it to Footbridge from Dry Fork in about 3.5 hours, which was what I had predicted. That meant I was still 30 minutes behind schedule, however. I wasn't stressed about it. I was so elated that I wasn't limping-- nothing else mattered! This aid station stop was more chaotic, and I took a little time as I rummaged through my drop bags for more maltodextrin, my headlamp, the first of my cold weather gear, and swapped out my GPS. (I had trouble acquiring a signal this deep in the canyon, but it eventually locked on a mile or so out of the aid station.)
So far, so good.
I felt really comfortable at this point. And I was interested to see how the climb to the turnaround point would go. I set off at a relaxed pace-- a slow jog-- and headed up the canyon. The sun was getting lower in the sky and the shadows were growing longer. Heat was no longer a concern. The aid stations were smaller and more remote in this section, it seemed. But I was carrying pretty much everything I needed. I took a few sips of soup here and there, and grabbed a salted potato or two. I filled up my water bottles at the strongly-flowing stream near Leaky Mountain-- an interesting landmark, with multiple cascades springing out of its rocky cliff face. As described in the pre-race briefing, it looked like God had taken a shotgun to the mountain and blown it full of holes. You have to keep your eyes open for it, as it's only visible from one small meadow. There's an old sign there, pointing it out.
I passed a few more runners along this section (generally on the uphills, which I was still jogging), but it seemed like I had finally reached my natural position in the field after falling back on the slow initial climb up to Dry Fork. I reached the Spring Marsh aid station around dusk and put my headlamp on, preparing for the night to come. I fell in with a small group of runners around this point (Scott Wesemann and Katie Noelck, who I ran pretty much all of the second half of Quad Rock with this year). We passed the time sharing stories about some of our past races, laughing. This kind of friendly banter is one of the things I love most about ultras. Shortly after Spring Marsh, we encountered the first of many long, muddy sections. Wildflowers: check. Mud: check.
The leader passed us just before Elk Camp. I calculated I was about 9 miles behind. That's about how far behind the leader I typically am at Leadville while climbing Hope Pass. Not bad, not bad...
Now the fun began.
As I approached Elk Camp I noticed that my headlamp was growing dim after only being on for a mile or so. What the hell? I had just replaced the batteries! I had another headlamp waiting for me at Jaws, a few miles away, so I wasn't panicking yet. But still, it was frustrating. (My plan was to wear two headlamps-- one on my head and one on my waist-- to better illuminate the descent). At Elk Camp, sitting in the flickering light of the campfire, I refilled my bottles once again and popped my first caffeine pill. I drank a cup of soup and then set off again into the night.
Soon my headlamp grew so dim that it was useless. I was smack dab in the middle of the muddiest section of the course and I couldn't see anything! Was that a patch of mud? A rock? Grass? Where was the trail? Thankfully, I had the foresight to carry a backup microlight with me-- a habit I formed while hiking the Appalachian Trail. About the size of a nickel, and virtually weightless, it was tucked away in one of the pockets of my vest. It had saved my ass more than once. While not exactly blazing with the light of a 1,000 suns, I was able to use it to slowly negotiate my way through all the mud.
Then the thunder and lightning started.
Bright flashes of lightning illuminated the trail and thunder rumbled in the distance. In the darkness, I hadn't noticed the clouds roll in. The storm didn't seem to be directly overhead, but soon sprinkles of rain began to fall. I stopped yet again, muttering to myself, microlight clenched in my teeth, and took off my vest and got out my rain jacket. Grinning, I spread my arms wide, "Is this the best you've got, Bighorn?" 45 miles. Mud. Darkness. Thunder. Lightning. Rain. A dead headlamp. Hell, yeah!
After only 10 minutes or so, the rain abated. Certainly not a major storm, but enough to make things interesting. I plodded along, gingerly trying to follow the cow path, er... trail up the valley. When I crossed the dirt road, I knew I was close. Things leveled out a bit and I slowly jogged my way into Jaws, the not-quite-halfway point of the race. Soon I crossed paths with Mike in the darkness. He was maybe 30 minutes ahead of me, I'd guess. We chatted briefly and I filled him in on the good news (no Achilles pain!) and the not-so-good news (dead headlamp!). He looked to be in good spirits, and I wished him well.
Jaws (48.0) to Footbridge (66.0)
I wasn't really paying much attention to time at this point, but I did glance at my watch and noted that I had slipped a few more minutes off of my goal pace. Oh, whatever. Considering my headlamp shenanigans, I was happy to have made it as quickly as I did. I sat down, sipped some more soup, and rummaged through my drop bag. The aid station volunteers were very friendly and asked a few obligatory questions about my general well-being. Just fine, I assured them. Especially since I now had a huge, new bright headlamp strapped to my head! (Cue ominous foreshadowing music.)
Even though I hadn't felt the need to wear the extra layers I had already picked up at Footbridge, I picked up my second set of extra layers at Jaws. Better to have 'em and not need 'em, than to need 'em and not have 'em, I rationalized. I don't like extra weight, but I also didn't want to be caught unprepared.
I was in-and-out of Jaws fairly quickly, all things considered. My vest was bulging with extra clothing and maltodextrin. Just outside of the tent, who should I bump into but my buddy Alex! Woo hoo! He was just behind me and looking great. He was crushing it, and was way ahead of his estimated time to Jaws. Psyched for him, I headed out into the night again for the long descent back down to Footbridge.
Now the fun continued.
Just as I crossed the road-- about a mile from Jaws-- and began to drop back in to the valley, my headlamp flashed three times.
Fuuuck!!! You have got to be kidding me!
That was the signal that its batteries were running low.
I spent a good 5 or 10 minutes swearing to myself. I had just changed its batteries before the race. I had tested the frickin' batteries with a frickin' multimeter! What the hell?! Fuckedity, fuck, fuck!
Never. Ever. Ever. Use. Old. Batteries.
Of course, I had yet another (my third!) headlamp stashed in my drop bag at Footbridge, but that was 17 miles and an eternity away. Crap. As I wallowed through the mud again, my light grew dimmer and dimmer. Soon I had to stop and switch to my microlight again. Another half a mile or so and I realized that this simply wasn't going to work. I was moving way too slowly. I had no choice, but to start begging incoming runners for extra batteries.
"Excuse me, I'm sorry, but I don't suppose you have any extra batteries, do you? AA? I've had two headlamps die on me..."
"Oh, yeah. Sure. I've got some in my pack. Let me get 'em for you..."
Sheila Huss saved my race. The very first runner I asked! As we sat together next to the muddy trail on a fallen log, I promised to name my next child after her, and thanked her profusely. Did she need anything? Food? Water? Tylenol? Antacid? Anything? Are you sure it's okay that I'm stealing your spare batteries? She looked a little exhausted from the climb-- perhaps she was going through a rough patch-- but I looked her up after the race and she finished strong. I was glad. Later, I tracked her down on Facebook and thanked her again. Sheila, you rock. I owe you one!
With my newly-powered headlamp, I was now able to make reasonable progress through the muddy fields and back down to Elk Camp. As I sat in the firelight, fiddling with my gear, I noticed that the aid station captain had a pistol strapped to his waist. In his thick, cowboy drawl, he was chatting with another aid station volunteer, discussing the pros and cons of various calibers of side arms. Horses whinnied in the shadows just outside of the flickering firelight. Overhead, stars were sprinkled across the inky night sky. I chuckled to myself, and turned to them, and laughing, thanked them for sharing this quintessential Wyoming experience with me: a campfire, horses, and firearms! This is why I signed up for Bighorn!
As I jogged off, I smiled and wondered if I should've packed a pistol in my drop bag at Jaws. I mean, I didn't even have trekking poles to fend off... what, exactly? A bear? A moose? A mountain lion? More likely: an angry cow. It's all good. But I had bigger (and more realistic) things to worry about, like staying awake, staying warm, and continuing to eat and drink enough.
The rest of my descent into Footbridge is kind of a blur. I never got too tired; the caffeine pills appeared to be doing their job. I seemed to be in a gap of sorts and ran the entire way solo, all through the night. I'd maybe see one or two runners at the aid stations, but that's about it. Maybe a flicker or two of a headlamp up ahead in the distance. I refilled my bottles again at the raging stream beneath Leaky Mountain.
Strangely, I never felt particularly cold. I only wore the two lightest of my five (!!) possible layers. I put on a pair of light gloves, but I didn't even feel the need to wear a warm, fleece hat. Where were the 20 degree temperatures people were predicting? I don't know... but I never felt 'em. I was extremely skeptical that it would ever get that cold (below freezing? in June? really?), but I certainly expected to be wearing more layers than I was. I guess maybe I had enough calories in me-- and I was moving well enough (though by no means fast)-- that I was generating enough heat to stay warm? Or maybe it's because I live in Leadville, where there are only two frost-free months per year!
The dawn chorus began sometime in the faint morning light around 5am. I was running east, so I could see the sky slowly growing lighter ahead of me. I was getting increasingly hungry, but maltodextrin was losing its appeal. Stupidly, I stopped consuming any calories and continued to push for the aid station, where I was hoping I could get some real food. My stomach started growling, but I stubbornly refused to drink.
At last, to my great relief, Footbridge came in to view around the corner. But, I had dug myself into a bit of a hole at this point. I was ravenous. I rolled in around 5:30am-- about hour behind my predicted time. I had lost yet more time on the surprisingly-slow descent from Jaws.
Footbridge (66.0) to Dry Fork (82.5)
I staggered over to a chair next to a foot-washing station and flopped down. (Yes, an officially designated foot washing station, complete with a bucket with fresh water and a sparklingly clean white washcloth!) I grabbed my drop bags, took off my mud-encrusted shoes, peeled off my wet, knee-high compression socks (not the easiest thing to do), and proceeded to clean my feet and replace my socks and shoes with dry, clean copies. All the while, I was slowly nursing cups of ginger ale, trying to get something into my stomach. I was right on the edge and needed to be very careful. Rebooting a stomach is a delicate process.
The aid station volunteers at Footbridge were fantastic. Incredibly attentive. Always asking if I needed anything, and checking in to see how I felt. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Mike seated in a nearby chair. I gave a shout. I don't think I'd ever seen him this late in a race before-- he's usually over an hour ahead of me by this time at Leadville. It was good to see a familiar face. He smiled, and heartily recommended the Egg McMuffins they were serving. He'd scarfed down two. A particularly friendly volunteer, who had taken me under her wing, brought one over to me. I slowly started munching on it. Delicious! I cracked open a chilled Starbucks Doubleshot Espresso that I had stashed in my drop bag and took a sip. Ahhh... Now, where did I put my copy of the morning paper?
Somehow-- and I'm not quite sure how-- I managed to spend 37 minutes at Footbridge. I wasn't even keeping track, and I only realized it after the race was over and the splits were published. I guess between washing my feet, changing my shoes and socks, eating a leisurely breakfast, swapping out nighttime gear for daytime gear, and swapping my GPS again (which had been recharging in my drop bag), it took, uh... a while. 37 minutes is almost certainly more time than I spent at all the aid stations during the entire Leadville 100 last year! (Yes, the entire race!) Impressive.
Feeling better-- not exactly full, but certainly better-- I began the hike up the dreaded "Wall". It actually wasn't that bad. Steep, but relatively short. Maybe two miles of serious uphill. I stopped once to take off a layer as I climbed out of the cool river canyon and up into the bright morning sunlight. Near the top, I carefully tried to make my way around the last patch of mud on the course. Splosh! Slurp! Gaah! My foot slipped off a rock and I staggered into a large puddle, covering my pristine shoes in mud. Oh, come on! It was the last mud puddle on the course! Damn it.
By the next aid station, Bear Camp, my breakfast had worn off. Sadly, the greasy, salty magic of the Egg McMuffin was gone. Maltodextrin still wasn't very palatable, so I tried to cobble something together out the limited supplies available to me. I really, really wanted some Coke. But, sadly no Coke. Bear Camp is very remote and everything must be horse-packed in. Chocolate? Maybe chocolate would help. I spent the next mile or so nibbling mini Snickers bars and drinking water. My lack of appetite had turned into nausea, but I was battling it as best I could. More water. I must drink more water. Lay down a foundation for the calories. Keep them flowing through the gut. I slowly got down a Justin's Nut Butter. I refilled water at the gushing piped spring next to the trail. It was much colder and more refreshing than the water at the aid station. Runners began to pass me. I wasn't stopping, but I was moving very slowly. Minimal jogging. Mostly hiking.
The seven miles between Bear Camp and Cow Camp is the longest stretch between aid stations in the race. I was on my own. As I slowly staggered along, the forest (with its pleasant shade) diminished and the meadows increased. The temperature began to rise. I needed to do something to break out of this bad patch! Anything is preferable to nausea. Dammit, Andy! You're carrying all the nutrition you need! Drink the damn energy drink! I don't care if you're tired of it! There are no other options! I had been sipping it off and on, but now I began to make a concerted effort to choke down entire bottles. I became methodical about it, checking my watch and maintaining a steady intake. Water, maltodextrin, more water, more maltodextrin. 320 calories down. 640 calories down. Drink!
I began to jog.
The runners who had passed me earlier slipped back into sight. I was closing in on them. The reboot was working. And finally, there was Cow Camp in the distance. I was still on the edge, but I seemed to be recovering. I plopped down in a lawn chair, with the smell of sizzling bacon wafting through the air. I remixed another bottle of energy drink and asked if there was any Coke available. No Coke, just Pepsi. Well, that would have to do. I took a few sips, said thanks, and got up. I wasn't getting any closer to Dry Fork sitting there. Burp! Wait? What was this feeling? Uh oh... About a hundred feet out of the aid station I finally puked. Ugh. I was bent over, hands-on-knees for a good two minutes or so. Judging from my stomach contents strewn on the trail, I didn't lose too many calories, but damn... I was hoping to make it the entire race without puking. Instead I had to settle for a massive PR. 77 puke-free miles. A 26-mile improvement! I gave a weak "Woo hoo!" I smiled and muttered to myself, "That's ultra!" (My favorite post-puke mantra.)
I knew what I had to do. Build back up. Water. A little bit of melon. More water. Some energy drink. More water. More energy drink. I was an eating machine. What I felt like eating did not matter. If I didn't have an appetite, it did not matter. Must. Keep. Consuming. Liquid. Calories.
The 100-mile race had now intersected the 50K and 30K races. Runners were slowly jogging past, congratulating me, and giving encouragement. I didn't exactly feel heroic at that very moment, but it was good to have some company. I fell into a conversation with a cheerful, very friendly woman from Wyoming, named Alisha. She was running the 50K today, and recounted the epic story of her first 100-mile race at Wasatch, where she finished a mere 37 seconds before the 36 hour cut-off! Wow. It was so nice to have someone to talk to, to take my mind off of endless, rolling double track up to Dry Fork. You can see the aid station, perched up on a hill, from miles and miles away. She was doing most of the talking, while I continued to drain my water bottles of energy drink and grunted acknowledgment in between sips. I truly appreciated her company. Eventually, she said good luck, waved goodbye, and bounded ahead up the trail.
And that's when the miracle happened.
Though already a ways ahead, I found myself trying to keep up with her. I must've begun to tap into some deeper reservoir of energy, because I simply refused to drop to a hike, even as the grade grew steadily steeper and steeper. After about a mile or so, I was hanging maybe 100 yards behind Alisha. I don't even think she knew I was following her. We started slowly passing other runners-- 30K, 50K, 100 milers. (You could tell by the color of the race bibs.) It was mile 81 and I was stubbornly jogging uphill! Amazing. I'm not good at judging grades, but it became very steep as we neared the aid station. Powerlines steep. Everyone around me was hiking. What the hell was going on? I would barely be able to jog a grade like this while fresh! Perhaps it was the extra oxygen? But we were still at over 7,000 ft. An enthusiastic spectator was clapping with approval and yelling, "You're an animal!" I don't know what happened, but I was in the zone. It was very emotional. 100 miler races have a way of stripping you to your core. Your emotions become raw and unfiltered. I couldn't tell you exactly what I was feeling, but it was some combination of anger, sadness, and joy. That moment made the entire race worth running.
I was back from the dead.
Just outside of the aid station Alisha turned around (probably to see what the commotion was about) and saw me there right behind her. Surprised, she also cheered heartily. And who I did I see laying on the grass in the sunshine with his family, but Alex! Wait? What? How was Alex at Dry Fork? As it turned out, he had slipped through Footbridge ahead of me, while I was taking my time cleaning my feet and eating a leisurely breakfast. Neither of us saw each other! He had been running just a bit in front of me for the entire section! I was psyched that he was doing so well, but bummed that my stomach had prevented us from running all those miles together. It would've been great to have bumped into him earlier on the trail. That would've been fun.
Dry Fork (82.5) to Finish (100.0)
I was in and out of Dry Fork as quickly as possible. I wanted to see how far I could continue to push with this mysterious surge of energy I was experiencing. I grabbed my drop bag, switched my shoes again (but not my socks), and also grabbed my ipod.
It was finally time for some music.
As I left Dry Fork, I waved to Alex and hollered that I was heading out. He waved backed. He looked good, he was just changing his shoes and taking care of his feet, I think. I had refilled my bottles and had a fistful of melon that I was chomping away at. The uphill continued for a bit, up a dirt road, and then a bit of single track, to the top of a ridge. As my music kicked in, and I enjoyed the melon, I smiled. A few clusters of runners were ahead of me, hiking uphill-- including the lead 50-mile runner, who had passed through the aid station just as I was leaving. I felt so good, so confident. It was incredible. I just knew that I was going to run up that entire hill.
And I did.
There I was, hanging just behind the lead 50 mile runner, as we passed everyone going up the climb. He was at mile 35, I was at mile 83. I couldn't believe what was happening. I gave up trying to understand it, and just went with it. It was perhaps a little reckless, but it felt so good. I mean, I still had 17 miles to go! What the hell was I doing? But, I threw caution to the wind and started dropping 8-minute miles down the back side of the ridge. I was flying past runners. Soaring. I glanced at my GPS at one point and it read 7:50 min/mile. Insanity!
When the course switched to single track again, I calmed down a bit and slowed to a more sustainable pace. I was still moving well. The terrain was gently rolling until the Upper Sheep aid station. There I grabbed some more melon, which seemed to be working for me, and some more Pepsi. As I crossed the stream just outside of the aid station, I dipped my hat in the water to cool off. It was starting to get a bit toasty with the afternoon sun blazing down on us. After a short downhill section through a meadow, and another stream crossing, the last significant uphill remained.
A short, but steep ascent up to the final ridge above the Tongue River, I power hiked up it with authority. I passed a few more runners in front of me on the way up, exchanging pleasantries along the way. I couldn't believe my uphill legs were this strong almost 90 miles into the race! I was amazed.
My amazement soon became tempered as I began the steep, tortuous 4-mile descent to Lower Sheep. It wasn't called "Lower" for nothing! My quads were completely shot and I winced with every step. My pace was painfully slow. Apparently designed by wandering cattle, the trail barely switch backed. It was narrow and lumpy and generally went straight down. The lower I got, the hotter it got. I was beginning to bake as I approached the canyon floor. A few 50-mile runners shot past me like I was standing still. What I wouldn't give for their downhill legs! The beautiful fields of wildflowers took my mind off the pain and the heat a bit, but I would still say that these were some of the more humbling miles I've ever run during a 100-miler.
As I finally reached Lower Sheep, a small pack of 100-milers had caught up to me. We all looked fairly beat up, but they were moving better than I, that's for sure. There were 2 miles of rolling single track left-- on the rocky slopes above the river-- and then the endless, flat dirt road back to town and the finish line. The total mileage left was now in the single digits. I could do this, but it still remained to be seen how ugly it would get.
My nausea was beginning to creep back. My energy was fading. Could I somehow rally again? I really, really didn't want to have to walk the road back to town. That was one of my main goals for the race. Finish strong. In fact, I had saved my most ambitious split (i.e., faster than the historical average) for the final 17 miles from Dry Fork to the finish. In the abstract, it seemed like a good idea at the time, but now, staring reality in the face, I was beginning to question the wisdom of it!
The canyon was like an oven. I slowly jogged along the undulating, rocky trail, glancing at the raging river below. Now would not be a good time to stumble and fall! I continued to nurse my bottle of energy drink, grimacing. But, anything was preferable to nausea. Not eating was not an option. At the Tongue River trail head, I grabbed some gummy bears in desperation. More sugar! Need more sugar! Spectators clapped and a couple of laughing kids hosed me down with their squirt guns.
Now the dirt road. My legs felt heavy. I trotted along. Another 50-miler passed me, jogging along at a fair clip. He turned the corner. I had to run this. I had to. 5 miles left. I'm not walking this road!
I started running... slowly.
I turned the corner and saw the 50-miler walking. A target. I cranked my music louder. Just 5 more miles! Come on! More gummy bears. More energy drink. Soon thunder rumbled through the canyon. I looked back over my shoulder and saw dark clouds forming above. I passed the 50-miler and we exchanged nods. I was beginning to move now. My energy was returning. My legs were loosening up. 12:00 min/miles became 11:00 min/miles, became 10:00 min/miles. Rain began to pour down, soaking me. No need to get my rain jacket out, it was welcome. Cooling. I kept replaying the same song over and over on my ipod.
"To get a thousand miles from the earth, a rocket would need this much power... This much power... This much power... This much power... This much power..."
10:00 min/miles became 9:00 min/miles. I was pushing. Hard. I could barely hold back the tears. It was another ones of those moments I've only experienced running ultramarathons. Transcendent.
"Guess who's back, mutha---?"
I passed by groups of runners, lost in my own world. Focused. I just needed to finish this thing. I blew through the final aid station without stopping, passing up a popsicle offered to me by a young girl riding a bike. You know you're focused when you turn down a popsicle!
Two miles to go.
I was nearing town. I saw one final 100-miler in front of me in the distance. I recognized him from the last climb up to the final ridge. Sean Mullet. He was being paced by his wife, I think, and moving very well. The rain had let up a bit. It took me forever to finally pull up alongside of him. I said hi and we chatted about the final miles, smiling, so happy to be almost done. The ups, the brutal downs, the heat, the mud... everything that makes Bighorn, Bighorn. As we reached the intersection just before the park I began to pull away and he waved me on.
Two helpful volunteers stopped whatever little traffic there was in the small mountain town of Dayton, and I charged across the street and headed for the park and the finish line. Oh God, finally. The finish line. I gave it my best and sprinted through the crowds of cheering spectators, across the grass, and through the arch.
28 hours and 40 minutes. 62nd place out of 149 finishers (out of maybe ~240 starters?).
Some random thoughts.
Bighorn was fun. It was tough. It was dramatic. It was new. It was authentic. It did not lack for challenges.
It was everything I'd hoped it would be.
If you're thinking about doing it, do it.
Mike finished 20 minutes ahead of me, and Alex finished 30 minutes behind me. We all had solid races-- especially Alex, who simply crushed it. It was a 100-mile PR for him. I'm so happy for him. I think he said that it was the first 100 where after he finished he didn't immediately swear off ever running another 100 miler again!
All in all, I felt I ran a pretty solid race. I wasn't in a rush. I approached the race very conservatively. I really wanted to soak it all in. Enjoy the aid stations. Enjoy the camaraderie. Enjoy the scenery. I wanted to feel good. And I did-- mostly. I've struggled with nausea in all my 100 milers, so Bighorn was nothing new. In fact, it was probably one of my best races as far as my stomach was concerned. It took a little effort, but I was able to eat an entire plate of food (hamburger, potato salad, pasta salad, etc.) within 30 minutes of finishing the race. That's a very good sign.
It is a huge confidence boost to know that I can turn things around late in a race. Being able to come back from the dead like I did at Bighorn was so uplifting. It makes me super excited to see what I can do at Leadville. I have never been able to run from Mayqueen to the finish. To be able to drop 11:00-9:00 min/miles at miles 95-100 at Bighorn was incredible. It felt so good. (I'm sure the oxygen at 4,000 ft helped a bit!)
Endurance. That's what this sport is about. Whoever slows down the least, wins.
When all was said and done, I think it was the footing that made Bighorn slower when compared to the Leadville. Yeah, Bighorn has a bit more elevation gain than Leadville, but not that much more, really. Leadville's altitude more than cancels it out. It's really Bighorn's narrow, lumpy, muddy single track that slows you down when compared to Leadville. It's not that Bighorn is really that technical, but Leadville is just so damn runnable: smooth, buttery trail, plenty of dirt road, and even pavement. And Bighorn's major descents happen at less-than-ideal times: at night, when you can't see very well, and at mile 90, when your legs are probably completely shot. (I still don't quite know why the 18-mile descent from Jaws to Footbridge takes so long, but apparently it does! That's got to be the key to running a fast race.)
The Bighorn-Leadville relationship isn't linear. I think Bighorn is harder to run faster. Just look at the course records for the two races. However, I think if you can finish Leadville in 28-29 hours feeling good, then you can probably finish Bighorn in about the same time-- maybe an hour slower. However, finishing Leadville in 24-25 hours is much, much easier than finishing Bighorn in 24-25 hours. I mean, you're going to be just outside of the top 10 if you finish Bighorn in less than 24 hours. My Ultrasignup ranking for last year's Leadville compared this year's Bighorn is less than 1% better! That has everything to do with the winners' times. It took me over 4 hours longer to run Bighorn.
|Casualties of Bighorn. From L to R: 0-66, 66-82.5, 82.5-100.|