Hubris and Humility and 15th Place at the Bighorn Wild and Scenic Trail Run 50

June 16, 2012

Just getting to the starting line of Bighorn was an endurance race in and of itself. The race starts in far northern Wyoming on at 5am Saturday morning. I had planned to take off Thursday night to make the 7-hour drive up to Sheridan, WY, and work from there on Friday. However, on Wednesday, my boss told me several times in quite emphatic terms that he really thinks I should go to casting out in LA on Friday. After several go arounds, figured I’d have to find a way to make it work. And it would be a doozy.

So, I flew in to LA Thursday night, went to casting Friday, jumped in a cab for LAX that afternoon, checked into my flight only to discover it was delayed 3 hours which would make me late for the start. I quickly got my travel department to get me on another flight, ran across the airport (literally) to catch it, got on, flew the 2.5 hours home, hopped into my Jeep, pointed it north and drove 7 hours. The only thing that kept me up driving through desolate Wyoming in the middle of the night was my This American Life app on my phone. By the time I finally rolled into town, it was 2:15am, and I had to get up at 3am to catch a bus to the start of the race. I got in my hotel room, unpacked all my gear and prepped it and then went to sleep.

Fifteen minutes later, my alarm went off. I got up and went to the race.

All my gear. Pretty minimal since I’d have to carry it with me the entire race.

Now, fifteen minutes of sleep may sleep like a lot before running a 50-mile race, but trust me, it’s not. Everything felt just a little off and wacky all day. My first inclination of that was when our bus drove us up through Bighorn National Park to the start at 8,800 feet. My people were dressed in solid winter gear. It seemed weird until we got up there, and I realized there was still snow everywhere. I, on the other hand, had on a small running tank, short shorts and no socks. I looked ridiculous, mostly because it was about 35 degrees up there.

But, at 5:02, the starting gun went off, and we were off. And instantly, the Bighorn Wild and Scenic Trail Run lived up to its name.

We were following something that was less like a trail and more like a shallow, icy-water-filled canal. It took us across open fields, still covered with snow. We plunged through forested sections, where the trail turned into a 4-foot wide mud pie. I’m not sure what I expected out of the race, but I don’t think I expected this. Either way, a lead pack of us distanced ourselves pretty quickly, and splash and smashed through all kinds of obstacles. It meant you couldn’t get a great rhythm going, but it was still pretty damn fun and great for a good laugh. I also knew (as I always know at this point in my races) that I was going too fast.

The gooey mountain top eventually was traded for drier, open fields and then dense sections of sage brush. A very narrow trail had been cut through them, just wide enough to put your two feet down. And because it was so open, you could easily see where everyone was in front of you. I saw a few people ahead of me that I could pick off, and I started moving faster. But with a narrow trail and plenty of brush to snag your feet, it quickly got pretty scary. Miraculously, I only manage to spill once (my only fall of the entire race). And more importantly, I started to move up. I probably took down 4 or 5 people in this section.

By the time I reached the Foot Bridge Aid Station at mile 18, I had been running alone for 8 miles or so. Everything had been one long, 4,200-foot descent down to a river. There was a chance to grab a drop bag here, but since I pulled into town late the night before, I didn’t have a chance to get drop bags out. I was carrying my entire race in my vest. I grabbed a little food, refilled my water and took off.  I was doing frickin’ great. I was killing it. Could I catch up to to top few?

From Foot Bridge, it was a steep haul up and out of the valley. After enjoying a lot of tree cover in the first 18 miles, we were suddenly exposed to an open roasting oven through wild fields. I hiked and hiked and hiked but was losing steam fast. This is the point when I realized that my overconfidence early on had failed me. I got passed several times here. In the few moments when I would look up, I was totally floored by the spectacular beauty of the canyon. Huge slabs of gray framing up a floor bursting with green and yellow and purple life.

Courtesy of the Bighorn Wild and Scenic Trail Run site.

By the time I made it into the Kerns Cow Aid Station at mile 28, I was in sort of rough shape. I sat for a bit, choked down some water, some Mountain Dew, oranges, pretzels and more importantly just got a breather.

From here, it was just going to be gutting it out. I synced up with a guy from Boulder named Jason Vieth. We chatted for a bit, which helped to take my mind off how I was feeling. This is also about the time when I remembered I’d only slept 15 minutes the night before. That certainly doesn’t help your head.

The climb up to Dry Fork doesn’t look that impressive when I look back at my Garmin, but at the time, it was death. I got in and choked down about three cups of Mountain Dew (which that had on tap!).

From there, I pushed through to Upper Sheep Creek at mile 39 and Lower Sheep Creek at 42.5, just trying to get this thing over with. From Lower Sheep Creek, it was supposed a 2-mile drop down into the Tongue River Aid Station, which was basically the beginning of the end. I promise you it was not 2 miles. I have run 2 miles before, and that was not two miles.

My Garmin had long died at this point, but it felt like it was taking far longer than that. Looking back, I could have mixed up my aid stations, but the net results was about a 3,000 foot drop into Tongue River Canyon that brutalized my legs. They were taking a whacking, just turning into tenderized meat. As I’ve done more races with really steep ascent and descent (like the Chimera 100K), I’ve started to intimately understand why downhills are far worse than uphills.

By the time I reached the Tongue River Aid Station, I was just angry. It was the first time that I really have felt irritable in a race, likely from the lack of sleep too. Luckily, the guys at this aid station were super friendly and poured a bucket of water over my head that they had dragged from the river nearby.

I took off with the end in sight, theoretically. It was a bit of a jog to hit the gravel road known as Homestretch and the 5 miles to the finish in the center of Dayton. I walked a bit, since my legs were trashed from that drop, and soon someone caught up with me.

He was a 100-miler that I had passed a few miles back and looked super-familiar. We got to talking a bit, and I mentioned that I think we had run a few of the same races last year. In fact, I remember him from my first-ever ultra, the Kettle Moraine 100, last June. He was running the 100, and I was just doing the 38 Mile Fun Run. I remember seeing him in pretty rough shape about 16 miles from the finish. Then I saw him again at the Chimera 100/100K in November. He was running the 100; I, the 100K. And now, here we were again. His name is Mark Tanaka, and he’s a pretty funny guy. But at this point, he was in really rough shape. He had been running for 28 hours. I had only been running for 9. But I told him, I’d help him get to the finish and under 29 hour mark. He thought it was going to lose his stomach so I gave him some ginger I had in my pack. We picked up some sugary icy pops at the final aid station, which seemed to help him but turned my stomach. But we got sprayed down by a guy with a hose and a stereo blasting some Survivor in his front yard.

I could’ve taken off and shaved my time down, but I was actually enjoying “pacing” Mark. Another 50-miler had passed me, but I didn’t care too much. The fun part was passing a 100-miler with just a quarter mile to go. Mark joked that he just moved up from 70th place to 69th.

Finally, we saw town in our sights, heard the crowd and rolled into the finish. I was done, some 51 miles and 9:50:59 after I started. And only on 15 minutes of sleep. Appropriately, I got 15th place (3rd in my age group). Certainly not my best race, but pretty good out of 139 finishers and considering the circumstances.

The Bighorn race was absolutely spectacular. I signed up for it on a whim and snuck my way in two weeks before it, but I’d recommend it to anyone. I just wish I’d prepared for a bit more and didn’t have a marathon just to get to the starting line.

Next up… the Grand Mesa 100.

Official results:

The first 36 miles on my Garmin: