“I have seen at least a couple runners who have looked worse than you.”
– comment from an aid station volunteer at mile 92.5 after seeing several hundred runners before me.
I ran in the Bighorn 100-mile trail run for the 4th time. Many times these race reports are a means for me to write about an achievement, perhaps setting a new personal best time for a course or a distance. This is not one of those times. The 100-mile distance is such an unpredictable adventure that you never are very sure what the end result will be. I learned a lot about overcoming adversity and not giving up on a goal. For me, this story is a victory — just not the victory I went into the race hoping for.
The Bighorn 100 is run in the Bighorn Mountains near Sheridan, Wyoming. This event is extremely challenging due to the rugged terrain. The course is an out and back with elevation gains of 18,300 feet. It features three major climbs and goes in and out of forests and fields full of wildflowers. There is about 75 miles of single-track trails. Conditions of those trails vary every year. Some years there are miles of mud, marsh, and snow slogging. This was one of those years.
Also a very unique feature is that four races run concurrently: 100-mile, 52-mile, 50K, and 30K races. They schedule the races to all finish on Saturday afternoon. During the final 17 miles of the 100-mile race, depending on your speed, you can be running with participants in the other races. By 10:00 a.m. on Saturday, there can be over 500 runners on the trails at the same time.
The race starts on a dirt road in the Tongue River Canyon. After a mile it joins a single-track trail running along the Tongue River and then makes a massive 3,500 climb in about four miles to Horse Creek Ridge, giving amazing views at nearly 8,000 feet. From there you run down “the haul” into the Sheep Creek drainage. Next there is a mixture of single-track and dirt roads through the Camp Creek drainage and Dry Fork drainage to a nice single-track trail that rolls up and down ridges, and eventually goes down “the wall” (a 2,000-foot descent in less than 3 miles) into Little Bighorn Canyon to the footbridge over the river. From there it is a long (4,500 foot, 18-mile) climb up the Little Bighorn River and Porcupine Creek drainages on a single-track trail to the Porcupine ranger station. After that, you turn around and go back the way you came. Once in Tongue River Canyon, you run out of the canyon on a dirt road to the finish at a park in Dayton.
Last year I did very well on an altered course because of deep snow. I finished in 26:45, in 25th place. (see race report). This year I hoped to do even a little bit better and finish in about 26 hours. My main concern about reaching this goal was my injured ankle/foot. I had been nursing this nagging injury for the past couple months and was not fully recovered. Also my training had obviously suffered. However, I kept my fitness up through swimming, running a couple road marathons (doing a Boston qualifying time on each), and finishing Squaw Peak 50 two weeks earlier. So I believed I could perform pretty well.
Listen to pre-race comments from Matt Watts
After a couple weeks of drenching rain, we were lucky to have nice sunny weather for the race weekend. However, we knew we would run into to mud. How much mud was the question on our minds. At 11 a.m., 107 runners, including me, started running up the Tongue Canyon road. I initially was messing around with my electronic gear, so fell behind the leading pack, but soon caught up behind the speed demon pack of runners lead by Karl Meltzer. I ran the first three easy miles fast before hitting the grueling climb. The climb arrived like a punch in the gut as I climbed up and out of the trees from the canyon below onto steep grassing slopes. It really looked cool to look up ahead and see Karl and others, already small figures way up the steep slope.
The next 4-mile, 3,500-foot climb was a tough grind. I held position in the top ten for the next mile but then backed off and was perfectly happy to have other runners pass me. I knew many of them, but we didn’t converse much because we were so busy just trying to catch our breath. On the grassy slopes I noticed that they had cut down some grass extending a foot out from the trail. At the race briefing they explained this was to help us see the rattlesnakes. Snakes? Great! I went in and out of some aspen groves and eventually passed by Fence Spring at mile 6.25 in 1:32
It was great to finally arrive at the top of Horse Creek Ridge. The views were incredible. I liked looking far down the steep mountain below and watching the stream of runners far behind. I stopped for a minute to tighten my shoe laces for the downhill section coming up. Scott Mason and others went on ahead. I was concerned about my shoes, they just didn’t seem to fit quite right. I was wearing the new model of Vasque Velocity (VTS), and I was starting to believe that the size it was off by a half a shoe size from the old model.
After running down the steep “haul”, I ran into the Upper Sheep aid station (mile 8.5) at 2:06, about five minutes slower than past years. The next section is one of my favorites on the course, a nice rolling single-track section. I always chuckle how I start running faster and stronger when I turn onto a rolling, technical single-track. I pushed the pace harder and then noticed that three runners ahead led by Scott Mason were off-course, down on the boring dirt road below. I yelled at them, and the runner in the rear finally looked back and realized their goof. He eventually made his way up to the trail I was on and joined me. I said, “This is one of the best sections of the course, I would hate for you to miss it.” Eventually the other runners joined us.
As we hit the steep downhill, I was again very frustrated with my shoes. My toes were painfully pushing on the front of my shoes. These shoes just didn’t fit! I ran with them on Squaw Peak and noticed the problem, but now had made the bad decision to continue to use them. I just couldn’t run downhill very fast. Also, my problem ankle was still giving me pain, so I was forced to take it easy.
I arrived at Dry Fork Aid Station (mile 13.4) in 3:02. My pace was about the same as in past years. I was feeling pretty good. Anne Watts was there to crew for me and helped me quickly fill up my two water bottles, one with Ensure and the other with water. I was running light, without a waist belt and a few gels in my pocket.
The next 6.1 mile section was a dirt-road run through a wide-open exposed canyon, mostly downhill. I caught up to Cory Johnson, a strong runner from Ogden Utah. I knew if I could keep up with him, I would have a great race. But Cory was complaining about cramping legs so was struggling a bit. We ran together for awhile, but eventually I had my own problems to deal with. First, I noticed my breathing was becoming very labored when I tried to push the pace. I knew this was a sign of dehydration. I also needed to stop for a bathroom break. My stop was a frustrating 7-10 minutes. From the bushes, I watched at least six runners pass me by. Back on the road, I was ready to run hard again but it was frustrating that I could not. My breathing was still very hard when I tried to push the pace. I recognized the dehydration problem and drank as much as I could, but it didn’t seem to help.
The next leg of the course was among my favorite sections, a rolling single-track high above Little Bighorn Canyon. The trail goes in and out of forests and through meadows of wildflowers. But this year I didn’t enjoy it. I was struggling too much with my pace. Other runners caught up with me and asked if I was OK. “I’m OK, but struggling” was my typical reply. Once past the Bear Camp aid station at mile 26.5, there is a huge descent down “the wall” to the bottom of Little Bighorn Canyon. I would usually blast down this very fun technical section, but my poor-fitting shoes and soft ankle were still a problem causing me to carefully make my way down into the canyon.
I arrived at Footbridge, a major aid station (mile 30) in 7:09. I knew that this was an hour slower than my goal pace and almost 20 minute slower than my first year running this race. I was discouraged. I was weighed on the scale and wasn’t too surprised that weight was down several pounds from my starting weight. I knew I was still dehydrated. I wasn’t thinking very straight because I had some better shoes in my drop bag at this location but didn’t take the time to put them on. All I did was grab my flashlight, waist pack, fill my bottles and quickly hit the trail.
Listen to my comments at mile 31
I was now facing the long 18-mile, 4,500-foot climb up to 9,000 feet. The first ten miles are very runnable, but with plenty of hills. After three miles I finally recovered from my dehydration and was ready to work hard again. I was running near Jason Spruill of Atlanta and we did a great job pushing each other. I began a very strange pattern of running that I had never done before. My legs, especially my quads felt rested and strong from the slow pace of the past few hours and seemed to crave running hard up hills. So I began running all the uphills and walking the flats. That is opposite of what you normally do. But I really enjoyed the challenge. I would see a short steep hill coming and would crank up the running gear and run all the way to the top pressing far ahead of Jason and then would recover from the work by walking the flat part at the top.
My pace was now very good and we started to catch runners ahead. However, yet a new problem arose. Both of my feet started to hurt terribly from the tight shoes. The sesemoids in the balls of both feet started to scream in pain. It became unbearable. I finally had no choice but to stop, put up my feet for a few minutes and let the pain calm down. Jason passed by and said he would surely see me later. I felt better in a couple minutes but was very frustrated as a couple other runners caught up and passed me. I arrived at Spring March (mile 40) at 10:18. I was now only six minutes behind my 2006 pace, but I didn’t realize this because I lost my pacing chart somewhere on the trail.
Yet another challenge arose. I was becoming cold. I had thought my pace would be fast enough to reach the top of the 18-mile climb before the cold set in. I had a jacket in my drop bag at the top. But that was 8 miles away. I warmed myself near the aid station campfire and realized that this would be a real problem. I asked a volunteer if they had a spare garbage bag. They did, so I quickly made a jacket out of the bag and knew this would greatly help. There was a cold breeze coming down the canyon sending a chill through my body.
I continued on my way as dusk approached. The trail now started to have stream crossings and muddy sections. I knew it was silly to try to keep the feet dry because I knew there would be unavoidable mud ahead. Sure enough, it became terrible. We would “run” through marshes, mud bogs, and cross tons of small creeks. Later on, Matt Watts lost a shoe in the mud! It was pulled right off his foot and he had to go back and search for it in the mud.
I saw first-place runner, Karl Meltzer running toward me on his way toward his course record. He was over ten miles ahead of me. I later heard that he had been attacked by a moose near the top of the climb not far from the Porcupine ranger station. Read his story here.
I arrived at Elk Camp (mile 43.5) at 11:51 (10:51 p.m.). It was now completely dark. Before eating anything, I quickly made my way to warm myself by the camp fire. It felt so good but I knew it was dangerous to enjoy it too much. I felt beat up, but I had no choice but to continue on.
If the mud wasn’t bad enough, snow banks showed up. I now had to hike through snow fields in the forest. My feet had been wet for the past two hours and now were becoming frozen from the snow. I started to see friends running down the mountain toward me. They were coming back from the turnaround and were several miles ahead of me. Many were doing very well. I was discouraged to be so far behind where I normally should be. For the first time, thoughts of quitting started to enter my mind. I was having a bad race. I was cold, tired, and not having fun. I wasn’t even half way to the finish. Quitting would be the easy and comfortable way out. I tried to push those thoughts from my mind.
Finally, I made my way into the warm Porcupine ranger station at mile 48. It was about 13:35 (12:35 a.m.). I looked around and was surprised to see many battered runners sitting in chairs. At the start I had met Jeff Nielson’s wife (from Utah), a marathon runner who had seen me at the recent marathons I had run. She very kindly came led me to a chair and started to take care of me. “How do you feel?” “Pretty thrashed,” I replied. I quickly put on my jacket, gloves and she filled my bottles and helped me change my battery in my mp3. She gave me many words of encouragement. I can’t remember much of what we talked about, but I only recall that she was saying all the right things, keeping my mind off quitting and bringing me back to life. When a grilled cheese sandwich was brought to me, she said, “You can eat that on the road.” I realized at that point, that she was trying to get me going again. My mind finally again kicked in and I thought, “Yes, it is time to go!” I got up, gathered my stuff and headed out the door. The cold air hit me and I immediately started to shiver. I looked at cold crews outside the doors looking like homeless guys in blankets, waiting for the runners to arrive. “It is so cold” I shouted. “You’ll feel better as you get moving” was a reply. I did, but thinking that there was till 52 miles to go was a daunting thought.
I now was on the return trip and started to greet runners behind me making their way up the mountain. About a mile out, I ran into Matt Watts. He was in good spirits. I saw Andrew Barney about 2.5 miles out, still looking strong. Many runners, with tired voices, would ask me how far it was to the aid station. They were suffering because of the mud and snow. I tried to encourage them, but was honest that many of them still had tough mud and snow sections ahead of them. It certainly was easier for me going downhill, but not really faster. The mud was still terrible. I tried to avoid bogs that would cause my feet to sink into the mud up to my ankles. When all was said and done, there was probably about ten miles of mud, marsh, and snow to go through.
There were some pleasant moments. The moon-less starry sky was incredible. As Venus started to rise, at first I thought it was some car headlights up on a ridge ahead. It was so bright and had a yellowish color. But after awhile, I could see that the light was not on the ridge but in the sky. It was amazing. Long before the dawn could be seen in the sky, I could hear the birds starting to chirp and greet the morning.
Back to the unpleasant moments. My right foot was in terrible pain. The ball of my foot had become swollen around the sesamoids. My pace started to slow even more. At mile 55, as I was still slogging through some marshes, I made the decision that I would drop out of the race. There is no way I could continue all the way to the finish with this painful foot. The problem was that the next opportunity to receive a ride back to Dayton would be at mile 66. I still had a long way to go. I came into the Spring Marsh aid station (mile 56). They asked how I was doing and I told them I would be quitting at Footbridge (10 more miles). They understood.
Now that I had made the decision to quit, there was no reason to try to run faster. I did a lot of slow walking for the next three hours and greeted many runners who passed me. Matt Watts caught up, and I told him I was done. I rationalized that by quitting early, I could start driving home and arrive home for Father’s Day. That would be nice.
But around mile 60, after taking Advil and some pain killers, the swelling in my foot went down and I felt much better. I started to run fast again. My entire attitude changed. I started to think about how I could get back into the race. I had good shoes at mile 66. I could cut a notch in the insole to give more room to the swollen sesamoids. I could make this work! I was now running with mid to-back-of-the-pack runners. It would be easy to run faster than them and would be fun to catch and pass so many of them. I decided I would not quit after all. Well, that thought lasted another half hour until the foot started hurting worse than ever. The swelling had spread. I again slowed down to a plodding pace.
After what seemed to be an eternity, I returned to Footbridge aid station (mile 66) at about 19:50. It had taken me nearly seven hours to descend from Porcupine and I was about four hours behind my pace from last year. When I arrived, I hesitated whether I should weigh myself, because I planned on dropping out of the race. I told the volunteers that I would probably be dropping. My weight was up seven pounds since I was weighed here 13 hours ago. During the night I was retaining water. I noticed that my hands were swollen.
The volunteers gave me my drop bag and I thought it wouldn’t hurt to at least take a look at my feet, wash them, and see how they felt in my other shoes. Other runners came in who I knew, including Rickie Redland. They all quickly claimed the chairs and the tubs to wash their feet. I stood there looking at them. They had something that I didn’t have. They all still had a determined look on their face to continue. I was patient to wait until one of them was done. They were still in the race, I probably wasn’t. Finally, I sat down and started to care for my feet. I probably took a half hour, but eventually I stood back up with clean feet in clean socks and shoes that fit much better. My excuses were gone, but I knew there was still 34 miles to go in not more than 13 hours. How could I do that if it took me 7 hours to go the last 18 miles? “It’s possible,” I told myself. I told the volunteers, “I’m going to try to go on, but I’ll probably be back.” I crossed over the bridge and started the next huge climb. I didn’t look back. I was back in the race!
My progress was pretty good. My feet felt much better and I had plenty of uphill strength as I made my way up to steep 2,000-foot three-mile climb. Eventually the leading 50-mile runners could be seen power-hiking behind me. (They had started at Porcupine at 6 a.m.) It was depressing to see them, because last year I beat all of the 50-milers to the finish. Not so this year. I did my best to try to keep up with them. Soon good friend, Todd Holmes arrived. He was in about eighth place in the 50-mile race. He slowed down to walk with me for awhile. Gee, a front-runner taking the time to encourage struggling runner. I told him about my difficulties, and why I was so slow this year. He assured me that he would see me at the finish. Later, Shane Becker, also in the 50, totally stopped his race to spend some time with me. What great guys!
As I was making my way on the rolling seven-mile single-track toward Cow Camp, Scott Kunz, Karla Holgers and others in the 50 race, also caught up and recognized me. They really encouraged me, saying confident things — that I would surely tough it out. While with them, I took the lead and ran very hard for about ten minutes along the trail. I was really cruising and passing several 100-milers along the way and even some 50-milers. I still had plenty of leg strength. But then I dropped on the side of the trail, exhausted. The problem now was the heat. It was the afternoon and hot again.
Shortly after that, I again decided firmly to quit the race at the next aid station. My energy level was low, I was stopping for rest breaks, and the heat was really affecting me. There was now no reason to push the pace, so I slowed way down. Soon Andrew Barney caught up and exclaimed, “Oh no!” He knew that I should be many miles ahead. I explained my difficulties and my decision to drop. Andrew went on ahead and would tell the aid station that I planned to drop out.
After that I looked at the sky, saw a few clouds and offered a silent prayer that the afternoon might become cooler. Within ten minutes a cool breeze came in and the clouds covered the sun. I was amazed how much cooler it was becoming. Within just a few minutes I was feeling much better and my pace increased. My main excuse to drop out was gone.
I arrived at Cow Camp aid station (mile 76.5) at about 26:00 (1 p.m.) feeling somewhat better. The aid station guy said, “Oh you are the one who is going to drop out?” I was wavering on that decision so he said, “Why don’t you sit and eat for a few minutes and then decide.” That was a great idea. I chowed down on some greasy bacon and fried potatoes that were wonderful! I couldn’t believe how great they tasted. It seemed like they went directly into my blood stream. I drank plenty for about ten minutes as I watched runners coming and going. Little by little, I came back to life and felt great again.
Finally, I jumped up and proclaimed that I was going on. I thanked the aid station volunteers and hit the road ahead, with a couple 50-milers in my sights. I quickly discovered that I now had plenty of energy. My well-rested legs had been lazy for the past 15 hours and were now anxious to really have a work out. I had a discussion with myself. I realized that I was now at the back of the pack with no hope in salvaging a respectable finishing time or place. It was time now to just have a great training run with a strong finish. Finishing was the ultimate goal.
The next 6.1 miles were mostly uphill on dirt roads, normally a tough stretch. I started to REALLY take off. Those 50-milers ahead of me had no hope in leaving me behind. I came to the next hill and ran up the entire way and then slowed down a little on the flatter spots. For some reason my quads craved being pushed. I ran harder and faster up those hills than I have in many weeks. It was thrilling! I kept passing groups of runners. I finally caught up with Andrew and thought it would be funny if I sprinted past him. I did this on the steepest hill of the entire leg. As I passed without comment, he noticed me, and said with surprise, “What the…?? I thought….??” Ha, ha, I really shocked him.
I was now going full speed and didn’t quit. I passed runner after runner both 50-milers and 100-milers. They would each give me a double-take, wondering what it the world had gotten into me. I was having a great time. Finally I climbed up to the Dry Fork aid station (mile 82.5) with a smile on my face. I had completed that leg in only about 1:15, far faster than I ran it downhill the day before.
Paul Grimm from Colorado was at the aid station and he turned his undivided attention to me. I plopped down in a chair and now was in no hurry. I wanted to carefully wash and care for my battered feet. I then lubed them and put them in clean socks to prepare for the final stretch. I now knew I would finish. I had over 6 hours left to cover that last 17.5 miles. I did groan when someone mentioned that distance. I enjoyed talking to the volunteers and laughing with other runners. I took my sweet time, almost 30 minutes at that aid station. Paul gave me a hug and his classic wide grin. “See you at the finish!”
The next five miles went very well. Hours ago, I received very concerned comments from runners passing me, now I received comments, like “Wow! Doing great! Impressive” as I ran past these runners. Once I hit the rolling single track, I really blasted up and down it. I set my sights on groups of runners and ran hard, catching up until they had no choice but to step off the trail and watch me sprint past. I arrived at Upper Sheep Aid station (mile 87.5) at 29:20 still feeling great. I did my best to quickly eat something preparing for the steepest uphill and the longest downhill of the entire course. I attached “the haul” with a vengeance. My legs felt great, so I actually RAN portions of this very steep hill as others were having trouble just lifting their legs forward.
Once I reached the top, I said, to another runner, “Here we go! It is all downhill!” I looked down in the valley far below and prepared myself mentally for the next 4 miles, with 3,500 feet to descend. I decided that I would try to run very hard all the way down if I could. In past years I had run about half of this at top speed with the front-runners of either the 50-mile race or the 50K race. So I knew I had it in me. I knew I could blast down this hill as fast as any top runner in this race.
I put it into to high gear and started to go crazy. I noticed that I had no pain at all in my problem ankle! I let gravity pull me down and used balance and fast footwork to really move fast. I passed runner after runner and lost elevation very fast. I don’t think I have ever run such a tough, long downhill section that fast in my life, even on fresh legs. I would spy out a group of runners, who were running downhill pretty strong. Then I would dig deep and say to myself, “I’ll show them what running downhill is really like!” I then would kick up the speed to even a higher gear and make noise so they could hear me coming. I then would even run faster and blast by them like flying bullet. I would hear cries of surprise. As thoughts of stopping came to me, I told myself, “No! Keep it going!” And so I did for more nearly four miles in less than 30 minutes. I probably passed about 30 runners on that descent. Finally, I noticed that again I was badly dehydrated and put on the brakes not far from the next aid station. I noticed that I had passed almost every 100-miler who had passed me during that past 26 miles. I even passed Rickie Redland who I had not seen for over ten hours, at Footbridge. That wild run was a blast!
I stumbled into the Lower Sheep aid station (mile 92.5) at 30:30. Jody Aslett was there and asked what I needed. I try to explain about my crazy downhill sprint, was probably incoherent. I plopped down in a chair and Jody kindly brought things to me. Jody had seen several hundred runners come through this station. She said to me, “I have seen at least a couple runners who have looked worse than you.” That made me laugh. As other runner arrived, many made comments to me about my impressive downhill run.
Eventually I got up to go. I knew there was about seven miles to the finish and that I had over three hours to make it there. The fun part of the course was over. I had enjoyed my training run. I didn’t care about my finishing time or placement, so I decided that I would just walk the rest of the way to the finish and enjoy the walk in. Most of the 30-40 runners who I had passed during the last couple hours would all eventually catch up to me. It was fun to talk briefly with them and receive kind comments. Those last seven miles were long and very painful on the battered feet. Thunder storms gathered around me and it was interesting to watch them form as I walked along.
Anxious to finish, I turned into the park in Dayton. Usually I sprint to the finish in victory. This time I was content to just calmly walk and wave at kind people cheering. Friends yelled that Davy Crockett was finishing and they ran up and walked near me, laughing and cheering me on as I crossed the finish line. I finished in a terribly slow 33:21, I believe it was my slowest 100-mile finish ever!
I now have even more deep respect for back-of-the-pack runners. I commented that 33 hours was just way too long to be running. Finishing in 24-27 hours is much easier. Andrew Barney finished a few minutes after me.
This was a victory for me! I finished a race that I had quit at least twice. This had never happened to me before. In the past when I decided to quit, I did. But this time, I somehow found again the determination and strength to continue on. I believe I learned more about myself during this race than any other before. I am so grateful to so many of the other runners and volunteers who were so supportive and encouraging to me during that tough day, night, day and evening.