“It’s better than descending the canyon, it’s better than descending the canyon!” This was the phrase that, much to the annoyance of anyone within earshot, I was incessantly repeating, OUT LOUD! I was blurting this outwith as much anger and passion as I could muster while trying to keep myself from blacking out around mile 99 of the Bighorn 100. I slowly covering the last mile, 1 very long, hot, exposed mile of a long journey. I was suffering from heat exhaustion, (verging on heat stroke-I had stopped sweating), sleep deprivation, full body destruction, and severe calorie deficiency. I refused to allow myself to pass out, thereby needing medical attention and getting DQ’d at mile 99 of my 100 mile race. The descent of the “canyon” I was using as motivation to keep moving forward had just happened. Mile 88-95 of the Bighorn 100 involves descending a 7 mile, exposed canyon trail which starts at ~7500ft and ends at ~4200ft. Most of the rocky descent is in excess of 15-20% grade, making it a difficult journey on fresh legs much less legs with 90+ miles on them. But this was the end of the journey; let’s go back to the beginning.
First I’d like to take an opportunity to thank a few people who made this journey possible. First, my family who supports me and my fun little hobby, you may not understand or even like it but, you are always my number one fans! To my sponsor Performance Running Outfitters, you truly provide me with the ability to pursue these ridiculous adventures. If anyone should ever happen to be in the Southeastern Wisconsin area and need anything related to running or outdoor activity this locally owned business are your experts. For my running club Lapham Peak Trail Runners and all of the individuals who mentored me, the advice was priceless. Finally, to Team Red White & Blue, an organization driven to help those who have sacrificed more than could be imagined live happy lives. Coming from a military family, and being a US Navy veteran myself, I am constantly in awe of sacrifices some made while serving, and if you wish to support them this is a great group, just click on the link.
I arrived in Sheridan, WY after a 15 hour drive. After check-in I went for a little hike up into the canyon that would be the race start and (after a drive) around the courses high point, at 9800ft. It was during this hike that I realized I was truly ready to run my first 100 mile trail race. My training had gone well; I was fit and not injured (thanks to my coach IanTorrence). I practiced, what I thought was a solid nutrition/hydration strategy. I had erred on the side of keeping it simple with my gear; I figured a more minimalist approach would leave less chance for malfunction. Most importantly I had committed to a reasonable set of goals that would allow me to focus on my own race.
Goal setting was interesting for a race challenge of this magnitude. This was my first 100 mile race so everything was uncharted territory. I must have answered the “goal” question a hundred times in the weeks leading up to the race. After speaking with my coach and running mentors, I chose a tiered goal that would allow me to mentally accept and adapt to any unique challenges that the course would provide. Bighorn being one of the more challenging 100 milers (as if 100 miles is ever easy, sheesh!) would provide me with ample opportunity to practice this art. My goals were as follows:
1. Finish the race, un-hurt, and still having fun!
2. Break 30 hours. (Bighorn has a 34 hour cutoff)
3. Break 24 hours. (Usually less than 15 people do this at bighorn)
4. If all of the above have been met push as hard as possible for top 10.
|Why there was tiered goals (Photo: Joey Luther)|
I was asked a lot if I really thought I could run sub 24 or break into the top 10 in my 1st 100. I usually answered that I wasn’t really sure but my fitness was good and it would all depend on the course. (Now there’s a committed answer, right!)
Well race day came (JUN 19), and I found myself calmly riding a shuttle to the race start at 10:45 AM. Yes that’s right the Bighorn 100 mile actually starts, not at some silly zero dark thirty time but rather, at a casual 11am. Now this late start also has its drawbacks, by 11am it is already starting to heat up! This year WY and most of the mountainous west has had an abundance of rain and heat. This meant it was going to be hot and humid. The course itself was going to have mud, lots of it! The conversation in the shuttle and at the start was pretty relaxed, and soon it was time to run.
The Bighorn 100 is an out and back course, it has 3 big climbs and descents, an elevation gain over 17,000ft, and a peak elevation of 8,950ft. Being that it is an out and back you cover 2 of the climbs in the first half, and 1 on the return. This means you have to be somewhat conservative with your quads in the beginning of the race as you have 2 really steep, technical descents later in the race. The race begins with a 7 mile climb straight up a very exposed canyon. Since the heat was out in full force I took this climb pretty easy. I watched the lead group fly up the canyon at what seemed like 5k pace. The leader of this group was a 19 year old runner from OR named Andrew Miller, he would eventually go on to smoke the course in 18:29 and set a new record. As for the rest of the group running with him, a lot of them would end up dropping out. Coming to the top of the canyon I stopped to admire an absolute breathtaking view, and then began to run the up and down the bumps which would bring me to the first real downhill of the day.
|View of Tongue River Canyon from top (Photo: Andy Wellman)|
I was running with a group of about 20-30 people, a little back from the leaders, many whom had run this or other similar 100’s at a very comfortable pace. This early in the race my only priority was to manage the heat, keep eating, and to try not to make any silly mistakes. I was working hard to stay cool by wearing a bandana filled with ice, keeping ice in my hat and water bottles, wearing a cotton t-shirt which I kept soaking wet, and soaking myself with water from the mountain runoff every chance I could. It seemed all the 100 mile veterans were doing the same. Then one by one all of us started to have stomach issues. I realized something was not right with my stomach when my adductors and quads all cramped climbing up a pretty easy hill around mile 11. I stopped to stretch everything out, and realized that although my stomach was allowing me to eat it was not absorbing anything I was putting in it. My muscles were not getting any glycogen and they cramped. The only thing I could do at this point was slow down, keep eating, and manage the pain. It was really frustrating watching the group I had been effortlessly running with, although now smaller, run away from me. But that only lasted for a brief second as my mind was busy trying to solve my current problem. (Scratch goal #4)
I managed to run off and on dealing with the cramps for the next 10ish miles before coming to a mountain creek that would allow me to fully submerge myself. I did, for several minutes. I am not sure whether I finally cooled my core enough to turn my stomach back on or it just gave up and started to work, but suddenly my cramps were gone and I had a ton of energy. Luckily for me this energy and abating of cramps happened right before the first huge descent into the mile 30 aid station. I happily ran down this insanely steep (think 2200ft in less than 3 miles) trail into the Footbridge aid station. I was greeted by what looked to be a combat field hospital. There were runners in all states of destruction. I am pretty sure I moved up 75 spots by just moving in and out of Footbridge Aid in a few minutes. Upon leaving this station you begin climbing all the way up to the turn. That’s right, almost a 20 mile continuous climb. Unfortunately for the runners, the previous weeks had been so hot that all of the snowpack up high had melted creating a swampy muddy mess for a majority of this climb. I was able to run/hike most of this climb, when I wasn’t loosing shoes in ankle to knee deep mud. It was somewhere in between 35-40 miles that my next problem appeared, BLISTERS.
|Bighorn Canyon, Jaws Aid is far away in the middle (Photo: Andy Wellman)|
Let me back up a bit, I have never had a blister, EVER, on my feet. I ran my first 50 miler without socks and did not get blisters. So when at mile 35ish I began to feel this weird sensation on the bottom of my feet could only guess that the mud and water was finally taking a toll. Well I was right because around mile 40ish two huge blisters one on the ball of each foot exploded. (Scratch Goal #3) This was a whole new level of pain that took my breath away. Unfortunately for me, I land on the balls of my feet when I run, so I had two options. I could change my running gait, possibly causing some other injury to appear, or I could grit my teeth, keep running, and accept the pain. I chose the latter. I made decent time to the turn-around point (Jaws Aid Station), and even though my feet were trashed, I was in pretty good spirits. I had been eating well (Gels, broth, and PB&J quesadillas) and had great energy. I quickly changed shirts, grabbed my headlamp, and ran back into the night.
Being above tree line, at high altitude, in the middle of the night, during a new moon (no moon) makes it appear as if you can reach out and touch the stars. The night sky was beyond impressive. Other than being asked what my goals were for the race, I am pretty sure the next question I answered most was how I was going to run all day, night, and some of the next day without sleeping. Well with such inspiring star filled skies at night and mountain/canyon filled vistas during the day my mind was so overwhelmed with beauty it forgot to even recognize fatigue. I moved (hiked/jogged) pretty well down the technical, muddy descent back to footbridge aid (mile 66) arriving about the time the sun came up. It was here that I decided to assess my feet. I removed my mud soaked shoes and socks and cleaned my feet. The damage had been done, all I could do was cover them in Vaseline, put on clean shoes and socks, and move out. (Lucky me they stayed dry and clean all of 30 seconds!) That same insane downhill I ran to get into Footbridge back around mile 30, I would now be climbing out. There were several times over the next 3 miles where I was scrambling on all 4’s to keep going up.
By the time I reached mile 70 a combination of the food I had been eating plus the sun rising allowed my running legs to find another gear. I only had two smaller climbs plus the final huge descent left, so at this point if my body wanted to run hard then that’s what I was going to let it do. I moved really well for the next 12 miles, making the obscene climb up to the final big aid station at mile 82. Here I made my second big mistake of the race (1st was the feet), I sat in a chair! Persuaded by a great medical volunteer, that she might be able to help with my feet, I SAT. I should have known they were beyond help at this point, but the promise sounded so good. While sitting in the chair I realized I was going hypotensive (my blood pressure was dropping), I began to shake, and was quickly losing all the valuable energy that had propelled me that last 12 miles so effortlessly. I got up and out of that station as quickly as I could but it took me almost all 5 miles back to the top of the canyon to pull myself back together.
So as they say what goes up must come down! Well this race started with a 7 mile climb up a steep, exposed, technical canyon and now with 88 miles in my legs and destroyed feet I was going down that same route. I ran down as hard as I could before I would have to slow myself to keep from blacking out due to the pain in my feet. It took a supreme effort of concentration through the fatigue to stay upright in this mess. (Plus some gum from the aid station volunteer so I wouldn’t crack my teeth while gritting them!) I managed to make it to the bottom of the canyon to the final 5 miles of flat, completely exposed, sun baked road during the hottest part of the day! (Lucky me!) That brings me back to how this report started, with me trying mightily to not be disqualified at mile 99 of a 100 mile race for passing out and receiving medical attention. I somehow managed to pull myself together enough to jog that last mile through the finishing arch, (100 miles in 29:45:26) where I immediately fell to the ground.
“I am done!” That was my first thought as I lay on the ground, on my back, with tears streaking down my face. I am not sure why I was crying (although tearing up may describe it better). I am pretty sure at that point my body was going to do one of two things vomit or cry, and I guess it chose the latter. I say my body chose because my mind had finally shut off and I had zero control over my body. Amazing, thirty seconds earlier I was running and now I couldn’t even move. Well I eventually got it together enough to enjoy a post-race soak in the creek, dinner, hanging out re-hashing the race with all the other finishers, and a few hours of sleep.
The next morning was the awards ceremony where it seemed I was not the only one with feet that felt like smashed hamburger. I left WY a little more tired and beat up then when I arrived but elated with the fact that I had finished this adventure. This race tested me and my problem solving abilities like no other. I told people at the finish that this was the second hardest mental and physical challenge I had ever completed. Amazingly finishers of multiple 100 milers all said they agreed that this race was a whole new level. Over 440 people started the race and barely 190 finished. That’s almost a 60% DNF rate. The Bighorn 100 mile course had claimed many victims but I was not one of them. There are things I will do different in my next race, and things that will stay the same. (I will write about that coming up.) Overall though this was a spectacular race, the beauty of this course is beyond words, hopefully some of the pictures do it justice. I can’t thank the race organization and volunteers enough, you are all first class! As for me I am taking a few weeks off, then focusing on some strength training (Got to look good for the beach, yeah right!), and then shifting my fall focus to some cross country (think 5k-8k) trail races I have always wanted to do.Enjoy the race photos and gear list below!!
Shoes: Hoka One One Challenger ATR (Performance Running Outfitters: PRO)
Shorts: Pearl Izzumi 3/4 Ultra Tight (PRO)
Jersey: Performance Running (PRO)
Socks: Smartwool: PHd Outdoor mid crew (PRO)
Hat: Team Red White and Blue
Nutrition: GU (regular & Roctane) & S-Caps (PRO)
Bottles: Amphipod 20oz & 12oz (PRO)
|Pre-Race Napping (11am start time)|
|Single Track up Tongue River Canyon with Needle in background (Photo: Andy Wellman)|
|Tongue River Canyon Trail (Photo: Bighorn100)|
|Trail Outbound (Photo: Bighorn100)|
|Final 1 mile of road (Photo: Bighorn100)|
|100 Miles Complete!!|
Thanks for reading; I hope you enjoyed the write up.See you outside!!