As 2012 neared, though, the 100 mile bug started festering in my brain again. Lean Horse was a good first 100, but I was left with the feeling that I still hadn’t run a true mountain ultra. The Lean Horse course is about as easy as they get for 100 milers, allowing you to go head to head with the distance without having to worry so much about the terrain. As I began to run more and more on trails, I was inevitably left wondering if I could cover 100 miles in the mountains, taking on the distance and the terrain all in one shot. This question nagged me for a good part of last fall and the thought of running the Bighorn 100 began to take hold. By the time the new year rolled around, I had basically made the decision.
Bighorn was the logical choice for two main reasons. One, its close; only a three hour drive down I-90. Two, it’s everything that Lean Horse isn’t; a tough, trail ultra with over 17,000 feet of elevation gain. It also helped that I’m familiar with the Bighorn course. I ran the 50K in 2009, DNFed the 50 mile at mile 34 in 2010, and then finished the 50M (on an alternate snow course) last year. So I knew what I was getting in to, for better or for worse. Never mind the fact that when I finished the 50 mile last year, one of my first thoughts was “100 miles of that would suck ASS!” Funny how you conveniently tend to forget such things over time…
One of the challenges of running Bighorn when you live in this part of the country is an issue of timing. Since Bighorn takes place in mid-June, that means the bulk of your training has to take part in the late winter/early spring when the weather can be, to put it kindly, slightly uncooperative. In the Black Hills, we’re blessed with some awesome trail running opportunities. Unfortunately, old man winter often negates many of those opportunities for several months out of the year. Apparently, though, the ultra gods were shining down on me this year as we had minimal snow throughout the winter, allowing me hit the trails consistently from January all the way through to June. My training basically followed a repeating four week cycle. The first three weeks of each cycle included between 80-90 miles per week, with a big chunk of those (40-45) coming on the weekend. The weekend was typically something like 25/15, 20/20, 30/15, etc. I made a serious effort to make at least one of those weekend long runs, preferably the longer one, take place on trails, but that didn’t always happen. The rest of my weekly miles were virtually identical from week to week and included short recovery runs on roads along with short hill runs (often up Lookout Mountain in Spearfish, which I summited 41 times during my Bighorn training). The fourth week of each cycle was a recovery week of 50-60 miles. Thrown in there was one tune up race, which was also my longest pre-Bighorn run, the Quad Rock 50 in Colorado five weeks before Bighorn.
I ran Lean Horse solo; no crew and no pacers. I was completely comfortable doing so given the course. I think I made a half-hearted effort to recruit a pacer on Facebook, but when no one volunteered, I didn’t worry too much about it. For Bighorn, though, a pacer seemed beneficial. First off, the course is much more rugged and remote. If I had a pacer, I at least wouldn’t feel totally alone out there. Second, since Bighorn starts at 11:00 AM, everyone runs through the entire night, even the winner. At Lean Horse, with its more traditional 6:00 AM start, I finished a little after 2:00 AM. At 2:00 AM at Bighorn I would still be smack dab in the middle of the course with several hours left to run. It seemed like a good idea to have someone along to make sure I didn’t just curl up under a tree for a snooze or wander aimlessly off the marked trail. I was lucky enough to have two people step up and offer to pace me. First was Ryan, my Black Hills 100 partner in crime. Second was Jim, another local Black Hills trail runner. The grand master plan was to have Ryan meet me at the Porcupine aid station (mile 48) and pace me back to Dry Fork (82) where Jim would take over and prod me to the finish.
As much as a 100 mile race can sneak up on you, Bighorn did. Between running Quad Rock, coaching my daughter’s softball team, running a few trail series races and the Deadwood-Mickelson trail marathon, making final preparations for the Black Hills 100 and watching my son’s baseball games, it was mid-June before I knew it. In some ways, that was good. Less opportunity to stress out about it. I arrived in Sheridan the day before the race feeling reasonably prepared, both mentally and physically. After going through the check-in process, including the seemingly pointless medical check, I retired to the hotel and commenced doing as little as possible. The nice thing about the late morning start at Bighorn is that you can get a full night’s sleep before instead of having to wake up at the buttcrack of dawn. And I actually slept quite well, falling asleep right away and waking up suddenly two minutes before my alarm was set to go off.
After a casual breakfast I headed from Sheridan to Dayton, the location of the finish and pre-race briefing. The briefing was a pretty laid back affair; everyone was just chilling, killing time until it was time to start running. I was wearing a Black Hills 100 shirt, which prompted a couple of people to come over to talk to me about the event (free advertising!). No earthshaking information at the briefing…having run the course a few times before, I was already familiar with pretty much everything that was said. I did run into Alex , Kyle and Pete , who were part of the quite sizeable Fort Collins contingent. Kyle and Pete were both running, Alex was there to pace Kyle. Alex also graciously offered to give me a ride to the start line, which is four miles down the road from the finish (no official shuttles to the start, everyone just carpools over). Once at the start line at the mouth of the Tongue River Canyon, some more milling around took place. By now, the late start was getting a little old…everyone was just ready to start running already. Finally, there was a live performance of the national anthem and quickly thereafter we were on our way.
Going into the race, I had thought extensively about what a reasonable goal time would be. Number one, I wanted to finish; I was determined that I was not going to DNF unless the medical staff on the course were the ones to make the call. Based on past results and my Quad Rock 50 time of 11:11, and my time of 11:15 at the Bighorn 50 last year, I somehow came to the conclusion that sub-26 would be a good “perfect day” goal and that somewhere between 26-28 hours was probably a bit more reasonable (don’t ask me what kind of highly intensive algorithms I used to make these determinations…they just kind of happened). I definitely wanted sub-30, for no other reason than the thought of being out there for 30+ hours was just way more daunting than 20-some hours.
The first few miles were fairly flat along the Tongue River road and then onto the Tongue River trail. I fell into a steady, easy pace and just went with the flow. After the Lower Sheep aid station a few miles in, the trail starts ascending up out of the canyon and continues up for a solid 4 miles. This is just a long, grinding stretch. Not much running was to be done here, just very short stretches here and there where the trail leveled off briefly. It was powerhiking for the most part, but when we finally topped out on the ridge, I was encouraged to see that I was still maintaining a sub-26 pace even with all the early hiking.
After the first climb the trail pitched steeply down into the Upper Sheep Creek aid station and then rolled and rose a little more before dropping down into the first major aid station at Dry Fork. My fueling strategy was to eat some solid food at each aid station for as long as possible and supplement that with EFS Liquid Shot gels in between aid stations. For the most part, this strategy worked well for quite a long time (more on that later). Along those lines, I grabbed some food at Upper Sheep and continued motoring on. I ran a good chunk of the trail between Upper Sheep and Dry Fork and was really starting to feel like I was hitting a groove by the time I hit the final downhill stretch of road heading into Dry Fork at mile 13.4. Once there, I was immediately greeted by Alex and Cat, who were actually crewing for the Fort Collins runners but quickly adopted me and helped me get my hydration pack refilled and my drop bag retrieved. This is what ultrarunning is all about…runners helping another runner even though he isn’t the runner they were actually there to help. Thanks Alex and Cat!
I was through Dry Fork fairly quickly and heading down the rolling, generally downhill stretch to Cow Camp. While I felt totally fine physically along this stretch, I hit my first mental low right after leaving Dry Fork. As late in the day as it was, I felt like I should be further into the race, but since we hadn’t started until 11:00 I obviously wasn’t. The weight of 87 more miles of being on my feet seemed extremely heavy at that point and I had to make a concerted effort to stop thinking about it and instead just focus on getting to the next aid station….and then the one after that…and then the one after that. I did make pretty good time to Cow Camp and passed through fairly quickly on toward Bear Camp. I was alternating running and walking as the terrain dictated and not really pushing myself to run any kind of uphill whatsoever. Much of the stretch between Cow Camp and Bear Camp is completely runnable, but I was playing it VERY cautiously and walking uphills that I would normally not think twice about running. The unforeseen bonus of this strategy was that I was hydrating extremely well. It seems that whenever I stop running to take a walk break, I almost reflexively take a drink of water. At some point, I realized that I had been hydrating so well that I wasn’t going to make it all the way to Bear Camp before running out of water, even though my 70 ounce hydration pack had just been filled at Dry Fork and Bear Camp is only about 14 miles down the trail (70 ounces usually lasts much longer than that). Luckily, there is a natural spring a couple of miles before Bear Camp that had the coldest, awesomest tasting water I’ve ever drank…it was like dew drops from Heaven (or something equally as devine and profound). It took significant will power to not just sit there guzzling straight from the spigot.
Just before Bear Camp, it started to rain a bit. The forecast had called for a 30% chance of thunderstorms, although the slight sprinkle never developed to anything more serious than that and was actually quite refreshing after several hours out on the trail. Immediately after Bear Camp, the trail descends what is called The Wall, a 2.5 mile stretch of trail that drops approximately 2500 feet down into the Little Bighorn canyon. Last year, The Wall was even more treacherous with mud-slicked rocks and water running down the trail in several locations. The dry winter/spring meant that the trail was in much better shape this year and I descended at a decent clip while still trying to not pound my quads too hard.
At the bottom of The Wall is the Footbridge aid station at mile 30. This is also the second drop bag location and the point where I grabbed my headlamp and some colder weather gear. Although it wasn’t dark yet (I arrived in Footbridge somewhere around 5:30), it would be dark, and much colder, by the time I got up to the next major aid station at Porcupine. So, I shoved my headlamp, hat, gloves and a longsleeve shirt into my hydration pack, grabbed some grub and was off for the longest climb of the race.
The 18 mile stretch between Footbridge and Porcupine is a fairly daunting one. From 4500 feet in the canyon bottom at Footbridge, the trail ascends approximately 4500 feet up the drainage, topping out at just over 9000 feet before descending the last mile or so into the Porcupine ranger station. Of course, that ascent is stretched out over 18 miles, but still, that’s a lot of climbing. There are three other remote aid stations in between Footbridge and Porcupine, so it’s not really one single aidless stretch, but, again, the enormity of it was weighing on my mind as I started hiking out of Footbridge. At that point, I was actually on a solid sub-24 pace although I knew that that was about to change. I expected to hike quite a bit of those 18 miles to Porcupine, and I did, but I was also able to do a bit of running here and there. The Narrows aid station came and went in no time. It seemed like the Spring Marsh aid station, 6.5 miles up the trail from Narrows, took forever to arrive, but it did eventually and I was greeted by a fellow South Dakotan, Kent, a veteran aid station volunteer at Spring Marsh as well as at the Alkali Creek aid station on the Black Hills 100 course. I chatted with him briefly before continuing up the trail and before too long was met by the race leader, Mike Foote, heading back down. He was absolutely cruising and was well ahead of the 2nd place guy and would go on to break the course record by 7 minutes.
The last aid station before Porcupine was Elk Camp at mile 43.5. By the time I got there, it was getting fairly dark out. I could see fine when I was out in the open, but when the course passed through the trees, it was getting harder to see the trail. It was also getting a bit chilly, so I pulled out my hat, longsleeve shirt and headlamp before leaving Elk Camp. I also ate some canned peaches while there, which tasted awesome at the time but may not have been the wisest choice in hindsight (again, more on this later). At the time, my stomach was feeling great, so whatever solid food sounded good, I was eating.
The final stretch from Elk Camp up to Porcupine is only 4.5 miles, but it was pretty slow going. The closer I got to Porcupine, the worse shape the trail was in. First, there were mud bogs. Then, there was snow. Then, there were mud bogs interspersed with snow. At one point a couple of miles before Porcupine, I went to hop across a small creek but my plant foot slipped on the wet, muddy grass along the bank and I instead fell on my ass right in the middle of the icy cold creek. Awesome. Up until that point, I hadn’t been all that cold, but I sure as hell was cold for awhile after that. Finally, I reached the top of the climb and was on the dirt road heading down into Porcupine. I ran this section at what felt like a pretty fast pace, happy to have solid footing and a nice, gradual downhill.
In my head, I had envisioned arriving at Porcupine to huge fanfare with crews and pacers and volunteers all cheering us on. The reality was actually quite anticlimactic. I didn’t see Ryan or Jim immediately but didn’t think much of it; I thought they just must be in the ranger station warming up. So into the ranger station I went where I was quickly swept away by the medical staff and volunteers who, while very helpful in getting me food and my drop bag, weren’t all that helpful as to the location of my crew. I drank some Pepsi and had some chicken noodle soup inside the toasty warm ranger station and quickly decided I needed to get out of there before I got too comfortable. So, I stepped back outside, wondering again where in the hell everyone was. Not only could I not find my pacer, I couldn’t really seem to locate ANY pacers and it seemed like there should be several waiting. I looked around a bit and eventually spotted a campfire off to the left and wandered over there. As I walked up, I saw one guy who I thought was with the Fort Collins crew and then I saw Alex sitting by the fire. I tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Hey, have you seen Ryan?” and almost before I finished asking noticed the tall dude in the Black Hills 100 sweatshirt sitting on the other side of the fire, dozing. Upon hearing his name, he jolted awake and was ready to go remarkably quickly. I had run right past them when I came into the aid station but we had failed to notice each other.
It was just after 11:00 at that point, so I was about a half an hour ahead of sub-26 pace. Just before Ryan and I took off into the dark, I told Jim that I’d probably be back down to Dry Fork at around 8:30 in the morning, if things went well. And, to begin with, they did. I had been feeling good before, but having Ryan with me gave me even more of a boost. Heading downhill for the most part didn’t hurt either and we quickly started to pick off other runners as we descended toward Footbridge. For the first 10 miles of the descent, my stomach and legs both felt remarkably great considering I was over 50 miles into the race. Somewhere after Spring Marsh, I started to notice a little discomfort in my gut, but nothing too serious. Not long after that, Ryan tripped and twisted his ankle on the rocky trail heading toward the Narrows and I wondered if I might have to carry my pacer out. He walked it off like a trooper, though, and soon enough we were running again. Just after the ankle incident, I tripped too and while I mostly caught myself, my gel flask went flying out of my front hydration pack pocket and flew off the edge of the trail into the steep ravine below. Ryan and I searched the dropoff below with our headlamps for a minute or so before deciding that A) we couldn’t see the flask and B) even if we could, neither one of us were all too eager to climb down after it. Chalk that one up as a sacrifice to the ultra gods. Ultimately, it wasn’t a huge tragedy as I had a second flask with me.
We were back in Footbridge, mile 66, at around 4 AM. After a quick change of socks and some refueling, we headed out to tackle The Wall. My old nemesis. It was while climbing The Wall in the 50 mile two years ago that I started puking, which eventually led to my DNF at Dry Fork. The first part of the climb this time went fairly well, but the further up we got, the worse I started to feel and consequently started slowing considerably, to the point that we got passed for the first time since leaving Porcupine when I had to step off the trail to take care of some business in the bushes (not puking….yet). That relieved the digestive pressure a bit and we continued on. As the sun started to come up, the wind also came up, blowing up the canyon wall and making it quite cold, especially considering how slow we were moving. This was my first real, total body, mental and physical low point of the race. Eventually, after what seemed like an eternity, we reached the top of that God-forsaken climb and were back at Bear Camp. I didn’t feel all that great still, but was glad to be off The Wall and knew that at least now I could walk at a decent pace even if I wasn’t running. And, as I walked, my stomach actually started to feel quite a bit better, which led to an improvement in my overall mood (I’m fairly sure there was a significant stretch of time there where I didn’t utter a single coherent word to Ryan). But then I started noticing something else….I was really tired. Not physically tired; my legs felt fairly fine. But I noticed that I was starting to nod off as we were walking. Not knowing what else to do to alleviate the situation, I decided to start running. And it worked. The running motion got my blood flowing and perked me back up. So then I got in a cycle of walking the uphills and almost falling asleep and then running the flats and downs and waking back up. This probably lasted for a good hour or so until we were almost to Cow Camp.
At Cow Camp, the infamous bacon station, I decided I’d better try some bacon since I never have in past years. And, even though my stomach wasn’t feeling all that solid and the mere thought of another gel literally made me gag, that bacon tasted pretty damn good. I think I may have had some fruit too, but at that point I was mostly fueling off of Pepsi or Mountain Dew and chicken noodle soup. Right after Cow Camp I actually felt pretty great and Ryan and I fell into a pretty decent hike up/run down cadence. But eventually my stomach started to revolt and, with Dry Fork in sight on the ridgeline above us, I finally stopped to face the inevitable. And it was, without a doubt, the oddest vomit I’ve ever vomited. You see, every other time I’ve puked during an ultra, it’s almost all liquid…more liquid than I ever imagined could fit in a human stomach. This time, there was virtually no liquid, it was all solid food (those peaches from Elk Camp were prevalent). It’s like what my dog pukes up when he eats his dry food too fast and then just yucks it back up in almost-whole form. And this is after I had just drunk some soda and soup at Cow Camp along with some water after that. It was like my body was absorbing the fluids, but not the solid food. Regardless, I felt light years better when it was all said and done and we powered up the last stretch of hill to Dry Fork.
I had told Jim that 26 hour pace would put us at Dry Fork at 8:30 and, despite the digestive setbacks, twisted ankles, lost gel flasks, and nodding off along the way, we rolled in at around 8:45. The medical staff immediately asked me how I was feeling. Not sure if they had witnessed my puking incident on the hill below, I played it kind of coy and told em, “I feel fine…now”. They asked when I’d last peed and seemed delighted by the fact that it was just a few miles before (which wasn’t a lie) and left me alone after that. After shedding my extra clothing, as it was starting to warm up, I said my goodbyes to Ryan and told him I hoped to finish in the 27-28 hour range, as I wasn’t sure how my stomach was going to hold up. With that, Jim and I headed out for the last 18 miles to Dayton.
I had warned Jim beforehand that this might be the longest 18 miles of his life and given my stomach issues, I was wondering if we weren’t going to have to walk the entire damn distance. On the way up the road leaving Dry Fork, I decided to try sucking on a ginger candy to help my stomach and, lo and behold, it worked. When we reached the next downhill section of trail, I tried running and it felt pretty okay. Not super great, but hell, we were over 82 miles into the day. I could at least move forward at a running cadence for a bit. By the time we reached Upper Sheep Creek, my stomach again was feeling off so I popped in another ginger chew as we ascended the last major hill of the day, The Haul. Again, the ginger did the trick and we were able to run off and on as we headed down into the Tongue River canyon. By this time, my feet were pretty raw and the trail was pretty rough, which isn’t a great combination. It hurt to walk and it hurt to run, so I tried to just run as much as possible to get it over sooner, but there were some extended walk breaks thrown in too. Eventually, blissfully, we reached the flatter trail at the bottom of the canyon where the running and walking were both much more comfortable. By this point, we were getting overtaken by a constant flow of 50K and 30K runners, who had just started that morning from Dry Fork. This was kind of a pain in the ass on the trail as we constantly had to step aside, but when we finally reached the trailhead and hit the road with 5 miles to go, there was plenty of room for them to run around us.