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Bighorn 50M: Slaying the Demon

Posted Jun 20 2011 12:00am
Last year, I started the Bighorn 50 with no doubt in my mind that I would finish. After all, it was just a training run for the Lean Horse 100 later in the summer and I had never once before, in any race of any distance, not finished. What could go wrong? Approximately 19 miles into the race, I was on my hands and knees in the bushes alongside the trail heading up The Wall, the steepest and longest incline of the course, puking my guts out. Suddenly, finishing didn't seem so certain. In fact, I wasn't quite sure just how I was going to make it to the next aid station at Bear Camp a couple of miles up the hill. I did, eventually, and actually death-marched another 13 or so miles further before finally accepting my fate and dropping at the Dry Fork aid station at mile 34.

As a result of last year's humbling experience, this year was all about Bighorn. Instead of serving as a training race for a later summer ultra as it had the last two years (I also ran the Bighorn 50K in 2009 as a training run for the Lean Horse 50M), this year Bighorn was THE race, the one race that I was focused on all winter and spring. I did run the Collegiate Peaks 50 as well, but I basically entered that on a whim and treated it as a training run. With Bighorn as the focus, I made a concerted effort to get in more trail miles this winter and spring. Last year, I didn't really start any trail running until March or April, when most of the snow was gone and even then I didn't get in many long trail runs. In fact, just one of 20 miles with the rest of my long runs done on roads. This year, I hit the trails early and as often as possible, snow or not. I also hit up the trails for many more long runs and ran over twice as many trail miles as I had leading up to Bighorn last year (see my last post for all the nerdy details on that). The hope was that my body would be better conditioned for the abuse it was going to take in the Bighorns. I needed to convert my road runner legs into trail runner legs, or at least enough so to avoid another DNF. By the time May and June rolled around, I could notice a definite difference. My legs started to feel more comfortable on long trail runs than on long road runs and many of the local trails that I had to walk portions of before, I was now able to drop into a grind gear and run the entire distance. On my last long trail run before Bighorn, a 30 miler on the Centennial Trail, my legs felt good all the way to the end and were minimally sore afterward. On my last long road run, a 15 miler the week before Bighorn, my legs felt like crap....my pace was decent, but my legs just did not enjoy the experience all that much. I took that as a good sign.

I headed over to Sheridan on Friday afternoon. I was flying solo, which is kind of boring in that you have no one to hang out with all weekend, but it's also relaxing in a way because you can just chill and do whatever you want. What I did was check in, drop off my drop bags, grab some dinner and head to the hotel. I fell asleep reasonably easily and slept really well considering what lay ahead in the morning. Good thing I did sleep well, because I didn't sleep long as the alarm went off at 2:30. Now, I've been up at 2:30 many times before, but nearly all of them were back in my college days and no sleeping had yet been involved (plenty of hydration, though). It's times like 2:30 AM when you're sitting on your hotel bed, struggling to fully wake up and realizing that you're about to run 50 miles in the mountains that you really start to question your state of mind. Regardless, I got up, ate a Clif Bar, a bagel and a banana, had some really bad hotel coffee and hit the road for Dayton, 20 miles away. From the Dayton city park, the location of the finish line, you catch a bus that hauls you up into the Bighorns and leaves you behind with no way back but your own two feet (or, as I learned last year, the vehicle of a another runner's crew if you happened to drop at Dry Fork...I was hoping to stick with my own two feet this time).

Normally, the Bighorn 50 mile course is actually 52 miles and is run point to point, starting at the Porcupine Ranger Station deep in the Bighorns and heading down to Dayton. Thanks to high snowpack and a cool spring, the upper elevations near Porcupine still had significant amounts of snow (as in 80+ inches), forcing the organizers to revert to an alternate course. The alternate course starts at Dry Fork, which is normally mile 34 of the regular course, and follows the regular course backwards to the Footbridge aid station 16.5 miles away. From Footbridge, it turns back and follows the same route back to Dry Fork and then on to the finish as usual, adding up to exactly 50 miles (or close enough for government work). On paper, the two courses would appear to be similar in difficulty since either way you run generally downhill into Footbridge to start out and then run the same route from Footbridge to the finish, with all of the big climbs from the regular course included in the alternate course. The results tell a slightly different story though as this year's winning time was nearly an hour faster than last year and the times overall were also faster this year.

In the minutes leading up to the start I was feeling surprisingly good. The proper level of anxiety, but I felt rested and ready to face the day. And, following a live singing of the national anthem and a quick ten count, the day began. My plan was to run the downhills and walk the uphills for as long as possible. For the most part, the first 16.5 miles to Footbridge are downhill; Dry Fork sits at about 7600 feet while Footbridge is down in the Little Bighorn Canyon at 4200 feet. A big chunk of that descent comes in one big bite though as the course drops 2100 feet in about 3.5 miles from Bear Camp down The Wall to Footbridge. I followed the plan all the way from Dry Fork to Bear Camp, approximately 13 miles. I had a pace chart made out that showed times for 10, 11, and 12 hour pace. I basically knew that 10 hours was probably a little far fetched for me, but I wanted a point of reference. Eleven hours seemed somewhat realistic, maybe closer to 12 hours if the course was as muddy and snowy as I expected going in (turns out, it wasn't). When I hit Bear Camp, I was about 20 minutes ahead of 10 hour pace, but I knew not to read too much into that considering I still had all of the major climbs ahead of me. Heading down The Wall was downright treacherous in some areas with mud covered rocks covering the trail on steep descents, but the lower we went, the more solid (and more runnable) the trail became. I fell in with a couple of other guys and followed them down a majority of the descent, maintaining a steady pace. One of them commented that the longest run he had done in training had been 25 miles and had been just a week ago. Really curious as to whether that guy finished, but I never caught his name or bib number.

I hit Footbridge exactly 3 hours into the race, 16 minutes ahead of 10 hour pace. I was feeling good and took a few minutes to refill my hydration pack, guzzle an Ensure and strip off the long-sleeve shirt and gloves I'd been wearing. I opted against changing shoes and socks here since I knew they would just get muddy and wet again right away. Although the mud wasn't horrible, there were quite a few small stream crossings and getting muddy, wet feet was inevitable. Once I had everything squared away, I set back out to tackle The Wall, the place where my race basically came to a screeching halt last year. This year, I was able to get into a good hiking groove and do a little bit of running on the few and far between sections where that was realistic. I tried to remember the exact spot where I had puked last year, but I couldn't recall for sure. This year, I think I only got passed once along The Wall, near the beginning, and managed to out-hike several others, a definite improvement over last year. Slow and steady wins the race...or at least allows you to finish it.

After Bear Camp, the course levels off somewhat with some rolling, twisting single track. It took me a little bit to get back into a running/walking groove after The Wall, but I eventually did and hit the Cow Camp aid station about halfway between Bear Camp and Dry Fork feeling pretty good. The stretch between Cow Camp and Dry Fork starts off with some pretty good rollers, so I was walking the ups and running the downs. At some point along this stretch, you come over one of those hills and can seed the Dry Fork ridgeline from what seems like 10 miles and 10,000 feet of elevation gain away. Of course, it's not nearly that far, but seeing the aid station and vehicles perched up on the ridge with a long stretch of road heading up to it is kind of daunting. That last climb up the road to Dry Fork just about did me in last year....I was honestly hoping that someone would see me struggling and stopping every 10 yards and send an ATV down to retrieve me, but they never did. This year, I was able to get into the slow, steady hiking groove and maintain forward momentum up to the ridge. When I DNFed at Dry Fork last year, it had taken me just over 9.5 hours to reach that point. This year, I hit the aid station in just under 7.5 hours. That put me at 20 minutes OVER 11 hour pace, so I had lost a fairly significant chunk of time on the return trip from Footbridge, but I was still moving and feeling good...more than can be said for last year.

At Dry Fork I took another few minutes to down another Ensure and change into dry shoes and socks. I knew they would get wet eventually, but my Cascadias were so saturated and mud covered that I needed to get them off. I tried to eat some solid food at the aid station before I left, but my saliva level was low and nothing was really looking all that good. Up to that point, I had been forcing down Hammer Gel and the two Ensures, but felt like I should be taking in more. I also made the decision at Dry Fork to abandon Nuun and go with straight water in my hydration pack. I had been drinking pure Nuun up that point, but the taste was starting to bother me and I noticed that my hands felt a little swollen, which I assumed was from too much electrolytes. So, I went with straight water and it seemed to work...I found that I could drink more and my stomach seemed to tolerate it a lot better.

After Dry Fork, the course follows a gravel road for a mile or so, mostly uphill, so there was more walking in store. Eventually, the course diverts off the road onto a series of trails and smaller roads. The course also levels out at this point and then heads downhill some, so I was finally able to start running for extended periods again. When I ran the 50K two years ago, I made up a ton of time on this section and this year was no different. My stomach and legs had managed to agree on a working relationship, which allowed me to maintain a nice easy running pace for the most part. My legs actually felt really good considering I was 35ish miles into the day. Just before the Upper Sheep Creek aid station at mile 38, you can see the final big climb of the day aheah, dubbed The Haul. The Haul is steep, but much shorter than The Wall. After a brief stop at Upper Sheep Creek for some Pepsi (the one source of calories I've found I can consistently stomach during an ultra), I started in on The Haul and was quickly able to get back into the slow, steady hiking groove. Once you top out on The Haul you're faced with what, on paper at least, seems like the kind of descent that might be kind of fun. From the summit of The Haul to the Lower Sheep Creek aid station, the trail descends approximately 3000 feet in a little over 4 miles. With 40+ miles on your legs though, this is really anything but fun. I don't know that the descent itself has a name, but it should be called The Tenderizer, because once you get done your quads are guaranteed to be quivering. The thing is, walking down it really isn't any more comfortable than running, so you might as well run and get it over with. So I did.

After Lower Sheep Creek, the course finally levels off and follows the Tongue River trail along the surging Tongue River. This section is very runnable, assuming your legs are still functioning after the last four miles of downhill pounding. My legs still felt decent so I ran the majority of this section, passing a few other 50 milers, a couple of 100 milers and some back of the pack 50Kers and 30Kers. At mile 45, the trail ends at the Tongue River aid station. At this point, I glanced at my watch and the pace chart and was surprised to discover that if I covered the last 5 miles at just under 10 minute pace, I would finish in under 11 hours. As easy as that would be under normal circumstances, 45 miles into a 50 mile run is far from normal circumstances and I was pretty sure I wouldn't be able to maintain that kind of running pace for 5 miles straight. And I was right. After leaving the Tongue River aid station, the course follows a fairly flat gravel road into Dayton. This would seem to be the easiest, most runnable part of the course but instead it was the point where I ceased to be able to run for any significant stretch. I would do the ultra shuffle for awhile, walk and repeat, but could never maintain a run for very long as my legs were getting tighter and tighter. With about three miles to go, I was basically resigned to just walking it in. At the final aid station, Homestretch, with just under 2 miles to go, they had popsicles. Nothing in the world at that moment sounded more magical than a nice, cold popsicle, so I grabbed one and resumed my walk toward the finish. I don't know if it was because of the popsicle or not, but at some point I decided to try running (if you can call it that) again and managed to shuffle to the next turn in the road. I walked for a bit and then picked out another point to run to and made it there. Finally, I saw blacktop ahead, which I knew meant we were getting into Dayton. I ran to the point where the blacktop started and then took my last walk break. When I reached the intersection at the edge of town, I started running again, made the last couple of left turns into the city park and onto the bike path and, finally, the finish line was there. 11:15:48. A year in the making, but I finally finished the Bighorn 50.

Immediately after finishing, one of the friendly volunteers gives you your finisher's award. Bighorn doesn't give out medals like most other races. Instead, they give out apparel. And not cheap apparel either, but good quality running gear. One of the most disappointing things about DNFing last year was that I didn't get the fleece finisher's pullover. This year it was a New Balance quarter-zip thermal running pullover, much more useful than any medal I've ever received. I think I might wear it for, oh, the next three months straight, summer weather be damned.

After retrieving my cell phone from my car and placing the requisite post-race phone calls/text messages/Facebook updates, I headed back to the finish line with a camp chair and a couple of cold beers to take part in one of the coolest scenes in ultra running: the Bighorn post-race BBQ. The start times of the four races (30K, 50K, 50M and 100M) are staggered so that the majority of runners finish on Saturday afternoon. They bring in a caterer to grill up brats and burgers while everyone hangs out in the park, cheering in the finishers and telling war stories. Very relaxing after a long day on the trails.

That's about it, or all that's worth telling (including some that probably wasn't worth telling). Although my finish time at Bighorn was slower than at Collegiate Peaks, I would rate my performance much higher. Collegiate became a death march with a good 15 miles to go and I never really felt all that strong past mile 30 or so of that race. At Bighorn, I was purposefully conservative for the first 33 miles and it paid off, because the next 14 miles I felt great. Of course, that left me with 3 miles of feeling not so great at the end, but what're ya gonna do? Three is certainly preferable to 15. So, even though it was a slightly slower time (I ran 10:54 at Collegiate), I think it was a stronger effort overall and, given my DNF last year, much more rewarding.
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