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Bighorn DNF: A Day of Firsts

Posted Jun 21 2010 12:00am
Apparently, there really is a first time for everything. Up until yesterday, I had never DNFed a race before. Thirteen marathons, two 50Ks, one 50 miler and numerous shorter races and I’d finished them all and, honestly, a DNF was the furthest thing from my mind when the Bighorn 50 started yesterday morning. I was sure I was going to finish, it was just a matter of how long it would take. I figured that no matter how bad my legs started to feel, I would be able to push through like I had done in other races before. As it turns out, it wasn’t my legs that failed me. It was my stomach, which was something I didn’t expect. Up until yesterday I had also never puked while running, whether in training or in a race. That changed too and directly led to the breaking of my non-DNF streak. In a nutshell, I finished 34 miles of the Bighorn 50 yesterday. It took me 9:15 to cover that distance. To put that in perspective, I ran the Lean Horse 50 mile last year in 9:32. I also ran the Bighorn 50K last year, just two miles shorter than the distance I covered yesterday, in 5:46. It was a rough day, to say the least. For the gory details, read on…

I made the trip to Sheridan, WY, which is about 20 miles from the finish line in Dayton and serves as the race headquarters, with two friends, Jerry and Ryan, who were both running the 30K. Actually, Ryan was not only running the 30K, but is the defending champion and went back this year hoping to set a new course record (he ended up defending his title, but coming up 2 minutes short of the record). Ryan is also an occasional training partner for the Lean Horse 100, which will the first attempt at 100 miles for both of us. Needless to say, when we run together the pace is much easier for him than it is for me, but what doesn’t kill me only makes me stronger, right?

Based on my time in the Bighorn 50K last year (5:46) and past results of other runners I recognized, I came to the conclusion that I would likely finish in a fairly broad window between 10 and 12 hours. I made myself a pace chart showing what time of day I would need to be at each aid station for a 10, 11 or 12 hour finish. Sub-10 seemed highly unlikely given that Ryan had run a 9:56 a couple of years ago and I know he is significantly faster than I am, but he contended that he made a lot of rookie mistakes that day and shuffled most of the last 10+ miles, so I left sub-10 as “perfect day” goal with the more realistic expectation of 10.5 to 11 hours barring any major setbacks. In hindsight, that was highly optimistic. Even if I hadn’t started puking, I doubt I would have finished in under 11 hours. It would have been much closer to 12; the Bighorn course is just flat out tough.

The 50 mile race starts at 6:00, but since the start line is 60 miles from Dayton and I had to ride a bus from even further away in Sheridan, I was up a the ungodly hour of 2:15 to get ready and be on the bus by 3:15. I did manage to doze most of the ride up there. The bus dropped us off at the Porcupine Ranger Station at 5:40 and I immediately got into the porta-potty line and stood in the cold (lower 40s), where I would remain until 5:57 when I finally made it to the front and took care of some business just before the race started. After the singing of the national anthem, we were off.

Porcupine to Footbridge (Start to mile 18)
This first 18 mile stretch is big net downhill, but there are a few short ups along the way. Shortly after leaving the ranger station, the course takes to the Little Horn Trail and follows it down the Little Bighorn Canyon passing through a few small aid stations before arriving at Footbridge, the first major aid station and drop bag location. Although I have been utilizing a run/walk ratio of 10 minutes to 2 minutes during my long training runs, I decided that I would run, albeit slowly, the majority, if not all, of this stretch to take advantage of the downhill, realizing that I would be doing a fair amount of power hiking on the uphill sections later in the race. This stretch of trail is absolutely beautiful, or at least the scenery I took in when I dared to take my eyes off the trail for a couple of seconds were. But, despite the downhill, the running was far from easy. It struck me early on that even the “easy” sections of Bighorn are hard. Early on there was significant snow on the trail and in fact part of the course was rerouted to avoid the worst of it. At one point, I misstepped and ended up knee deep in a snow bank. Where there wasn’t snow, there was mud and lots of it. When there wasn’t snow or mud, more often than not there were rocks. And to add to the challenge, there was a crossing of a raging, snow-melt bloated creek. It wasn’t very wide, but the water reached up to my thighs, and I’m 6’3”. And it was moving fast….one wrong step and you could easily be knocked down by the current.

Despite all that, I was feeling pretty good when I arrived at Footbridge, right on about 11 hour pace. I had been drinking water and fueling with Perpetuem, which I’ve been doing for all my long runs, and refilled both at the aid station. I also changed out of my soaked, mud-caked shoes and socks and put on a dry set I had in my drop bag. I was probably in the aid station for less than five minutes, although I didn’t really keep track.

Footbridge to Dry Fork (Mile 18 to 34)
The first major uphill of the course comes right after Footbridge and it’s a doozy. Appropriately dubbed “The Wall”, the trail scales a seemingly never ending hillside that takes you out of the canyon and back up onto the plateau above (all told, it’s approximately 2000 feet of elevation gain in about 2 miles). At the top of The Wall is the Bear Camp aid station, which is accessible only by horseback (or by running, obviously). After Bear Camp, the trail levels out some for 7 miles into Cow Camp. One of the more cruel sections is between the Cow Camp and Dry Fork aid stations; you can see the tent and vehicles at Dry Fork on top of the ridge from what seems like 100 miles away and there’s a seemingly never ending slope between you and them. Dry Fork is another big aid station and the 2nd (and last) drop bag location.

After leaving Footbridge, I felt awesome. Having dry socks and shoes felt great and I cruised a short section of trail before The Wall started and then began power hiking up. This feeling wouldn’t last long though. Appropriately, I hit the wall on The Wall. And I hit it hard. As I hiked, I started to feel my stomach start to turn. My hiking pace slowed more and more, but the feeling kept growing. Eventually, I pulled off to the side of the trail, found a secluded spot in the bushes and took care of #2, hoping that would relieve things. It didn’t. I resumed hiking and the feeling of nausea just kept worsening. Eventually, I decided the only way to relieve it was to actually throw up, so I purposely pushed the hiking pace a little faster and in no time I was spewing what seemed like gallons and gallons of water and Perpetuem into the shrubbery. It really is truly amazing how much fluid the human stomach can hold. After that was over, my stomach did feel better, but my legs and entire body in general felt weak, kinda like how you feel when you’ve got the flu. I kept walking, extremely slowly, up the seemingly vertical never ending slope. By that time, a DNF was seeming like the likely end to my day, but the question was, where could I do it? Bear Camp was too remote and unless I was seriously injured, I had no interest in being packed out on a horse.

I did stop at Bear Camp and sat for several minutes while sipping on some chicken broth and water. Eventually, I pulled myself up and set off for Cow Camp, which was 7 miles away but at least was on a four wheel drive road accessible by ATVs. That was a long 7 miles, let me tell ya. I think it took over 2 hours to cover it, considering I was traveling at 20+ minute pace because my body still felt weak. But then, magically, just as I crested a hill and could see Cow Camp about a quarter of a mile away, I started to feel better and ran most of the remaining stretch to the aid station. When I got there, I was very unsure what to do. Thirty minutes before, I had been sure I was going to drop at Cow Camp and I told the aid station captain I was thinking about it. He encouraged me to sit down and drink for awhile, which I did. By this time, it was past 1:30 and the cut-off at the next aid station was 4:00. If I moved as slowly along the 6 miles between Cow Camp and Dry Fork as I had along the stretch between Bear Camp and Cow Camp, it was likely that I would miss the cutoff. But, I decided I didn’t want to be hauled out on an ATV either, so I refilled my hydration pack and handheld and told the aid station captain I was going to see how things went and reevaluate at Dry Fork.

After I left Cow Camp, I caught a second wind and I caught it hard, like a surfer catching the ultimate wave. Immediately after leaving the aid station, I realized that I felt really good….better than I had felt since before Footbridge. So, I started running the downhills and power hiking the uphills and was “flying” along at 12:00 pace or better (there were a lot of uphills to be hiked). I started passing several people who had passed me during my rough stretch and one guy even commented as a I flew by that I had made a miraculous recovery. I was feeling great for a couple of miles and suddenly the world seemed a little sunnier again. I started doing the math in my head and thought that if I could continue like this I would easily beat the cut-off at Dry Fork and be able to finish the race in the 13 hour range. Not what I expected, but pretty damn good considering the dire circumstances I had been in not 20 minutes before. And then, just as quickly as it had come, my second wind was gone. I was reduced to walking again, and walking slowly at that as I felt the contents of my stomach start to revolt. Once again, everyone who I had just passed, passed me again and although they offered words of encouragement and told me I’d make it through, I knew then that my day was done as soon as I got to Dry Fork. Reality began to set in as I hiked the hill up to Dry Fork. I hadn’t taken in any “real” calories since before Footbridge, and I had thrown most of those up. All I’d been able to stomach since then was a small cup of chicken broth and a few pieces of cantaloupe, neither of which have much caloric value. I had been drinking quite a bit of water and Heed, but the way my stomach was feeling, that wasn’t going to remain with me much longer. I actually stopped 4 or 5 times in the last mile to Dry Fork and started heaving, but nothing came up. I could not imagine attempting to cover another 18 miles, including another big climb (“The Haul”), feeling like this and possibly not being able to keep down any calories or fluids to keep me going. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, I arrived at the aid station.

Although it was only 3:15, 45 minutes ahead of the cut-off, my goose was cooked. A volunteer asked I needed my water filled and I said no, I was done. A nice medical lady directed me to a chair and told me to sit and relax for a bit, which I was more than happy to do. She asked if I really wanted to drop and I immediately said yes before I could talk myself out of it. I told her my sad tale and she immediately asked me for my bib and asked if I needed a ride down to Dayton. As luck would have it, there was a lady who was crewing for her husband who was in the aid station at the same time. She was just getting ready to leave and graciously offered to give my muddy, sweaty butt a ride. Sadly, I don’t even remember her name, although I do remember her dog’s name (Samson). That isn’t the first time I’ve done that. He was a cool dog. And he had a cool owner too.

So that’s my tale. I have no idea what caused my sickness. I will say though, that even this morning, the day after the race, while I was eating breakfast I started to feel a little off again. I’ve been battling a cold for almost two weeks now. Maybe the bug caught up to me when I stressed my body at Bighorn? Maybe the altitude (we started at almost 9000 feet) played a part? It wasn’t heat related, because it was only in the 60s. I didn’t commit one of the cardinal sins of running and try something new on race day; everything I consumed was stuff that I’ve used regularly in training. So I really have no solid answers. The only thing to do is move on. At least I got a 9+ hour long, 34 mile training run out of the deal.

From here, I’m fairly certain I’m still going to attempt the Lean Horse 100 in August. In fact, one of the friends I traveled with this weekend, Jerry, is the director of Lean Horse and as we were riding home he asked if I wanted him to sign me up. As I was puking in the bushes earlier in the day, I was 100% certain that the answer to that question was “no”, but of course that’s probably not the best time to be making decisions on such matters. So I told Jerry yes and today I’m even more certain of that. What doesn’t kill ya only makes ya stronger, right? Not to mention that Lean Horse is a MUCH easier course than Bighorn.

I’d be lying I guess if I said I wasn’t disappointed in yesterday’s result, but I am glad I pushed on as long as I did. If I had dropped earlier, I think I would’ve doubted the decision. But by the time I reached Dry Fork I KNEW that I was done; there was no longer any doubt in my mind. The only thing left to do is move on, go tackle Lean Horse and then come back next year for some revenge on Bighorn.
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