Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Qualifying for Boston in All 50 States

The July issue of Runner’s World includes an article about Dennis Frisby.  Dennis has qualified for the Boston Marathon in all 50 states.  There’s a companion piece on runnersworld.com featuring other runners who have done the same thing.  I’m one of eight runners mentioned in this article.  Here’s a link to it.

I often set goals that are larger than any one race.  I’ve reached several over-arching goals.  The most difficult of these was qualifying for Boston in every state.  I didn’t originally set out to do this.  It was something that evolved gradually.

I started running marathons in the early 1980s.  At the time, the qualifying standard for Boston was 2:50.  It took me three tries just to break 3:30.  The 2:50 standard seemed way out of reach.

Sometime around 1987, the BAA changed the standard to 3:00.  That still seemed out of reach.  Then, in 1989, they changed it to 3:10.  At the time, my PR was still 3:28:20, but 3:10 seemed feasible.  With enough training, I could get there.

At the time, I was training for the New York City Marathon.  My goal was 3:15.  On the morning of the race, I made an impulsive decision to try for 3:10.  I’m not sure if I made that decision before or after starting the race.  I might have upped the ante after starting at a fast pace.  The crowds in Brooklyn can have that effect on you.

After running a blistering pace all the way through Brooklyn and Queens, I started to slow down in Manhattan.  At about 22 miles, I fell off the pace.  Then the wheels came off.  I finished in 3:19:46.  It was hard to be too disappointed.  It was still a PR by almost nine minutes.

In 1990, I set my sights on qualifying for Boston at the Twin Cities Marathon.  I followed a training program for a 3:10 marathon.  My training went well.  I toed the line believing I was ready.  For most of the race, I was right on pace.  At 23 miles, I fell off the pace for the first time.

In that moment, I had a mental meltdown.  I was only a few seconds off the pace, but I felt like I was coming apart.  I gave up on qualifying.  I didn’t just give up on qualifying in this race; I gave up on ever qualifying.  I was filled with pessimism.  I can recall thinking that I might run other marathons, but I would never set a time goal again.

At 25 miles, I was still only seconds off the pace, but felt totally defeated.  I walked for one minute.  When you walk, you’re still covering about half as much ground as you would of you kept running.  My one minute walking break probably only cost me 30 seconds, but that was enough.

I finished that race in 3:11:10.  I missed qualifying by just over a minute … or so I thought.  In those days, when the BAA said 3:10, they meant 3:10 and change.  Anything up to 3:10:59 would have been good enough.  I missed by only 11 seconds, although I didn’t know that at the time.

The day after a marathon I always felt like I was run over by a truck.  Not this time.  The next morning, I didn’t even feel sore.  That’s when it hit me.  I should have qualified in that race.  Physically, I was ready.  I forgot that even when you’re in good shape, you still have to dig deep in those late miles.  I think I was expecting to qualify just by showing up and going through the motions.  To say I was upset with myself would be an understatement.

Less than 24 hours after giving up on ever qualifying for Boston, I was already looking for another race where I could try again.  I chose the Seattle Marathon.  This race was six weeks after the Twin Cities Marathon.  That gave me enough time to be fully recovered, but I wouldn’t need to start training from scratch.  It was a medium-sized race with a flat course.  Deb had always wanted to visit Seattle, so we could combine the race with sightseeing.  That made it easier to justify the expense.

To bridge the gap between the two races, I did a 21 mile training run three weeks before Seattle.  A week later, I did a 10 mile race as a final tune-up.  I was ready.

The Seattle Marathon was on Thanksgiving weekend.  In Seattle, that falls during the rainy season.  It rained every day we were there.  Weather for the race was 50 degrees with light rain.  I found the right clothes to keep warm enough, but I also had to contend with puddles all over the course.

At that time, the Seattle Marathon was a point-to-point race.  It started on the east side of Lake Washington and followed the Burke-Gilman Trail around the north end of the lake, finishing in Seattle.  It was a paved path that was about 10 feet across.

I started at the right pace.  After about seven miles of successfully dodging puddles, I misjudged one and plunged ankle deep into the water.  That shoe was soaking wet.  Before long, I plunged the other foot into a puddle.  Now both shoes were waterlogged.  That made them heavy.

During the middle miles, I started talking to another runner.  After a couple miles, I noticed that we had fallen off the pace by about a minute.  I told him we need to speed up.  He said he couldn’t and told me to go on ahead.  I picked up my effort.  I was no longer losing time, but I also wasn’t gaining back the minute I had lost.  With soaking wet shoes, my calves felt like they were tied up in knots.  My stride was getting less efficient.  I had to work harder and harder just to run the same pace.  This went on for miles.  Each mile I would push harder, only to find that I was still running the same pace.

With five miles to go, I still needed to make up a minute.  I calculated that I needed to run seven minutes per mile for the rest of the race.  I didn’t think I could run that fast without burning out, but I took it one mile at a time.

I played a mental game to coax myself to pick up the pace.  I picked out a runner who was about a block ahead of me.  I told myself that I needed to pass him … I needed to pass him as quickly as possible.  When I caught him, I immediately picked out another runner who was about a block ahead of me.  One after another, I caught and passed the runners ahead of me.  That worked.  I was running the pace I needed.

This went on until I was almost to 26 miles.  Then I pointed at the runner in front of me and said to myself, “He’s going to be the last runner to break 3:10.  If you want to qualify, you need to finish in front of him.”  I did.  I finished in 3:09:47.  I thought I qualified by just 13 seconds.  I still didn’t know that the BAA would give me 59 extra seconds.  The whole time I was thinking I was a minute off the pace, I was actually doing OK.

Deb didn’t have a clear view of the clock when I finished.  She didn’t know I qualified.  She thought I just missed.  After the race, I got really cold, so I didn’t say much.  Deb thought I was depressed about not qualifying.  I was just too cold to express any emotion.

At the Twin Cities Marathon, I should have qualified, but didn’t push myself hard enough.  Seattle was just the opposite.  Conditions were much tougher, but I pushed harder than I’ve ever pushed in my life.  I earned it.

When we got back to Minneapolis, Deb’s whole family met us at the airport.  They knew qualifying for Boston was a big deal.  They held up a big sign that read, “Congratulations Dave.  Boston Bound.”

In April of the following year, I ran the Boston Marathon.  My time there was 3:22:48.  Although I had qualified once, I wasn’t able to do it consistently.  I also didn’t qualify at Grandma’s Marathon.  In 1992, I had the fastest marathon of my life.  I ran Grandma’s Marathon in 2:58:17.  That was my second Boston qualifier.  It was also the last one I would have for five years.  I let myself get out of shape.

When I turned 35, I set a goal of qualifying again, since I was now in a new age group.  The standard for the 35-39 age group was 3:15.  I had to lose some weight and get back I shape, but I qualified at Grandma’s again with a time of 3:14:01.  That would be my only Boston qualifier in the 35-39 age group.

By the time I turned 40, I had set a lifetime goal of qualifying for Boston at least once in each age group.  In 1999, I ran the Chicago Marathon in 3:21:19.  That’s not quite fast enough.  I needed 3:20.  In 2000, I ran the Myrtle Beach Marathon in 3:21:31.  That’s not fast enough.  I also ran the Flying Pig Marathon in 3:21:31.  Are you kidding me?  Finally, in 2002, I ran the Tucson Marathon, which is almost all downhill.  With the help of a lightning fast course I was able to qualify with a time of 3:16:59.  That would be my only qualifier in the 40-44 age group.

By the time I turned 45, I had run 40 marathons, but I had only qualified for Boston in four of them.  Then three things happened.  I lost 18 pounds, I started biking on the days I wasn’t running, and I moved into the 45-49 age group.  Before, I needed 3:20, but I could barely break 3:30.  Now I only needed 3:30, and I could break 3:20 again.

Suddenly I was qualifying for Boston consistently.  I did it in almost every race.  By this time, I was working on running marathons in all 50 states.  I didn’t need to run them fast; I just needed to finish.  Most of the time, I broke 3:30.  That happened to be the qualifying time for my age group, but that was just a coincidence.

In 2010, I completed my goal of running marathons in all 50 states.  Then I set my sights on 50sub4.  I already had times under four hours in 42 states.  Over the course of the next year, I repeated the other eight states.  I broke 3:30 in all eight of them.

After finishing 50sub4, I decided to set the bar higher.  I already had Boston qualifiers in about half the states.  I set a goal of eventually doing it in every state.  As I scheduled races, I looked for opportunities to repeat states where I didn’t have a qualifier yet.  I looked for races with certified courses that weren’t unusually difficult.

About the same time I finished 50sub4, I moved into another new age group.  By chance, it coincided with a change in the qualifying standards.  The BAA made them five minutes faster across the board.  For five more years, the standard for my age group would be 3:30.  I actually had to run faster now.  They were no longer giving me those extra 59 seconds.

By the beginning of 2013, I had fewer than 10 states to go.  I managed to work them all into my race schedule.  I wanted to finish by the end of the year.  For most of that year, everything was going well.  Whenever I had an opportunity to pick up a new state, I ran a qualifying time.

With three months to go, I just needed four more states.  Then disaster struck.  I pulled a hamstring during the Twin Cities Marathon.  I was in the middle of a 19 week period during which I had 29 marathons.  Besides qualifying for Boston in every state, I was also trying to run 52 marathons in 2013.

One week after Twin Cities, I had the Hartford Marathon.  I needed to qualify for Boston there to get Connecticut.  I didn’t know of another marathon in Connecticut with a certified course.  If I didn’t do in this race, I wouldn’t get another chance for a whole year.  Because of my hamstring injury, I ran that race wearing a compression wrap.  I had run other races that way.  It protected my hamstring, but it also made it harder to run fast.  It took everything I had, but I qualified in a time of 3:28:18.  I still don’t know how I did that.

After that, my schedule was horrifying.  The next weekend I had a double.  The weekend after that, I had another double … then a triple … then another double.  Each week, I spent Monday through Friday trying to recover from the previous weekend’s races.  Then on the weekend, I tried to somehow get through each race.  I had to accept slow times to finish races with the injury.

Finally, I had a weekend with only one marathon.  Naturally, it was in one of the states where I still needed a Boston qualifier.  It was the Richmond Marathon, which I needed for Virginia.  I was still injured, but by now I was able to run without the compression wrap.  I had to pace myself carefully.  If I ran too fast or made a sudden acceleration, I could aggravate the injury.  It was nerve-wracking, but I finished that race in 3:27:38.

I only had one marathon the next weekend, but the temperature never got out of the low 20s.  My muscles tightened up in the cold, and my hamstring got worse.  Next I had the Seattle quadzilla – four marathons in four days.

On the first day of the quadzilla, my hamstring started to hurt.  I had to stop during the race to put on my compression wrap.  On the second day, I wore the wrap for the whole race.  On day three, I felt a little bit better.  I ran that race without the wrap.  I also felt better on day four.  I also ran that one without the wrap, even though it was the hilliest of the four.

Next up was the Rehoboth Beach Marathon in Delaware.  I already had a qualifier at the Delaware Marathon in 2006, but I felt like that one deserved an asterisk.  That race was a loop that you ran multiple times.  At the end of each lap, you crossed a chip mat that recorded your time.  On the last lap, however, you were supposed to make a turn right before the end of the loop to run to a finish line that also had a chip mat.  I’m pretty sure this was in our pre-race instructions, but I forgot about it.

As I was finishing my last lap, I was looking straight ahead and following the other runners.  Nobody else was finishing, and I never saw the turn.  I ran to the chip mat that recorded our splits for each lap.  When I sprinted across the chip mat and suddenly stopped, an alert volunteer realized my mistake.  She led me back to the turn I had missed and pointed toward the finish line.  By the time I crossed the correct chip mat, the time it recorded was 3:30 and change.  At that time the BAA still gave you 59 extra seconds.  That would have been a Boston qualifier, but that was the furthest thing from my mind.  My goal was to break 3:30.  I thought I did it, and I was upset about the confusion at the end.  In one of my least graceful moments as a runner, I made a fuss about it.  The RD had the timekeepers make an adjustment.  They used the time that was recorded when I crossed the wrong chip mat, which was at least as far as I was supposed to run.  My official time was recorded as 3:28:47.

Despite my mistake, I still finished the full certified course, and I did it in a time that would have been a qualifier.  The official time that went the books, however, was for a distance that wasn’t the certified course.  Because of that, I would feel sheepish if that was my only Boston qualifier in Delaware.  I wanted a qualifier that was above reproach.  I wanted to qualify again at the Rehoboth Beach Marathon.

I had once again recovered sufficiently that I could run without the compression wrap, but I had to be careful.  For most of the race, I was right on the pace I needed.  Then I tripped on a shrub while trying to go around a large puddle.  I lurched forward and had an awkward landing.  I immediately felt pain in my hamstring.  At first, I was limping.  I eventually forced myself to run without a limp, but I was no longer running fast enough.  I didn’t know if I could get back on pace.

A mile or two later, I saw a runner ahead of me who was dressed as Santa Claus.  He was moving through the field, passing most of the runners around him.  I told myself that if I could catch up to him, I could get back on pace.  This was another mental trick, just like the one I used in my first Boston qualifier back in 1990.  It worked.  I caught up to him.  I stayed on pace the rest of the way, finishing in 3:28:40.

Now I just needed Nevada.  My next race was the Hoover Dam Marathon.  This race is somewhat hilly.  At the time I scheduled it, I was confident that I could qualify there.  Now, I wasn’t in the same shape.  After two months, my hamstring was finally feeling better.  Unfortunately, I had gone too long without any quality training other than my races.  I was starting to lose some of my fitness.  In particular, I was getting weak on hills.  I ran the pace I needed in the first half of the race.  In the second half, I ran out of gas.  I finished in 3:49:38.  That was too slow by almost 20 minutes.

I needed another Nevada race.  I wasn’t going to reach my goal in 2013, but I still wanted to do it as soon as I could.  The next marathon in Nevada was the Running From An Angel Marathon in January.  That course is non-stop rolling hills, with roughly twice as much elevation change as the Hoover Dam Marathon.  If I couldn’t do it there, the next chance would be the Red Rock Canyon Marathon in March.  That was much tougher than Running From An Angel.  If I couldn’t do it there, the next Chance would be Labor of Love in May.  That was even hillier, plus it was at a higher elevation.  They just kept getting tougher.

I entered both Running From An Angel and Red Rock Canyon.  Then I started doing hill training.  It wasn’t easy, but I whipped myself into shape to qualify in a hilly race.  At Running From An Angel, I was on pace for about 17 miles.  Then I started to fall off the pace.  The toughest hill was still ahead of me.  It was a steep hill that comes at 20 miles.  I almost gave up.  The lead woman caught up to me.  As she started to go by, I realized that the field was pretty spread out.  If I couldn’t stay with her, it might be a long time before I found anyone else to run with.

I forced myself to stay with her until we reached a downhill section that allowed me to recover.  Then we hit the big hill at 20 miles.  I told myself I could slow down a little, but I had to limit the damage.  If I could get through this hill it would be mostly downhill to the finish.  After cresting the hill, I looked for the next mile marker, so I could check my pace.  I was still on pace.  I fought for it the rest of the way, finishing in 3:29:01.  I had less than a minute to spare.  That was cutting it close, but I qualified.

After the race, I told my friend Karen that if I didn’t qualify there, I would have tried again at Red Rock Canyon.  She laughed.  She knew how hard that race is, and she told me I’d never qualify there.  I dedicated myself to training for Red Rock Canyon.  I wanted to know if I could do it.  Karen was right.  It’s a good thing I qualified at Running From An Angel, because I was 11 minutes too slow at Red Rock Canyon.

There are several other runners who have qualified for Boston in all 50 states.  Most of them did it with faster qualifying times.  Most of my qualifiers came after turning 45, so I didn’t have to run as fast.  Looking back, the four qualifiers I had before turning 45 were in Washington, Minnesota (twice) and Arizona.  Since turning 45, I’ve had at least one more qualifier in each of those states.  I didn’t think to mention it when I was interviewed by Runner’s World, but I’ve qualified for Boston in every state after the age of 45.

If you can’t get faster, get older.  It worked for me.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

I'm Still Injured

Ever since Bighorn Mountain, I’ve wanted to post an update about my recovery from the groin strain I suffered in early May.  I would have written something sooner, but I’ve been struggling from one day to the next to figure out how I’m doing.  I keep thinking, “Maybe tomorrow I’ll have a better idea,” so I wait one more day.  I’ve been doing that for a week now, and I’m still not sure where I stand.

In the days leading up to the Bighorn Mountain 100, I felt like I was about 90 percent recovered.  Not counting the race, I did two short runs that week.  They were only about five miles each, and they were at a slow pace.  I didn’t have any discomfort in either run.  I knew I wasn’t fully recovered, because I still had some soreness at night.

I’m a light sleeper.  I tend to wake up several times during the night.  I usually get back to sleep quickly.  Lately, I’ve noticed that each time I wake up, I stretch and flex the muscles in my legs.  I do this subconsciously.  Since my injury, I’ve noticed some soreness in my groin when I flex the muscles in my upper legs.  Even after I stopped noticing any discomfort during the day, I still felt a little bit of soreness at night.

The first night I didn’t notice any soreness was the night before the Bighorn Mountain 100.  That was encouraging.   I got through 30 miles of running on rugged terrain without discomfort.  That too was encouraging.  In retrospect, it’s also kind of surprising.  I wasn’t fully healed, and that race really subjected my legs to some awkward landings.  I also didn’t notice any soreness the night after the race or the next day.

Even though I no longer seemed to have any inflammation, I knew the injured muscles were weak.  I also have weak hips.  My PT has included some exercises to strengthen my hips, glutes, hamstrings and groin.  In the days leading up to the race, I skipped my exercises in favor of complete rest.  Last Sunday, I resumed my exercises.

Although the injury was only to my right leg, I’m doing the same exercises with both legs.  On one, I could tell that some of the muscles in my right leg were still much weaker than the same muscles in my left leg.  That wasn’t too surprising.  Building strength takes time.

Later in the day, I did a core workout that includes incline sit-ups.  I felt soreness in my groin doing the sit-ups.  The soreness increased over the next day or two.

On Tuesday, I had a PT appointment.  Even before that appointment, I realized that I had hit my exercises too hard.  Even my left (good) leg was now weak and uncomfortable.  Talking to my therapist, I learned that incline sit-ups really force the groin and hip flexors to work.

We discussed several changes in my exercise regimen.  First, instead of doing my exercises every other day, I’m cutting back to twice a week.  We also cut out a couple of exercises.  Finally, I’m supposed to stop if I feel I’ve reached my limit, even if I haven’t done very many repetitions.  I’m also going to modify my core exercises.  Instead of doing sit-ups with my abdominal board set to the steepest incline – as I’ve been doing for many years – I’m going to set the incline to the minimum.

In the meantime, I’ve resumed running.  On Monday, I felt some soreness from the time I got up.  As I started running, the soreness was already there, but it never got any worse.  I felt the same way on Tuesday.

On Wednesday, I did weight training, but I put off my PT exercises until later in the week.  I ran a little bit farther on Wednesday.  Since I was still feeling some soreness, I decided to see if compression would help.  It’s getting too hot to wear my hamstring compression wrap, but I did my next few runs using an elastic bandage.  It’s not as convenient, but it doesn’t restrict other muscles to the same degree, and it’s also not as hot.

On Saturday, I finally did my PT exercises again.  I didn’t have any discomfort while I was doing them, but I started feeling sore later in the day.  Wearing the elastic bandage enabled me to run today, but I don’t feel that confident in my recovery.

Before Bighorn Mountain, I felt like I was 90 percent recovered.  Now I’m not sure.  I vary from day to day, but I feel like I took a big step backward.

I was originally planning to do my PT exercises again tomorrow.  Then I’d run on Tuesday before talking two full days off.  My next race is on Friday, but I don’t want to risk another setback so close to the race.  If I’m feeling OK, I’ll stick with that plan.  If I still feel sore tomorrow, I’ll postpone the exercises until at least Wednesday.  I may postpone them until after next weekend.

Next weekend, I’m signed up for three marathons in three days.  I really don’t want to run a full marathon with my leg wrapped, much less three of them.  Wearing the elastic bandage is a last resort, but I’m exploring all my options.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Race Report: 2015 Bighorn Mountain 100

On June 19, I made my second attempt at the 100 mile race of the Bighorn Mountain Wild & Scenic Runs (a.k.a. the Bighorn Mountain 100).  I attempted this race last year, but had to drop out after 48 miles, because I fell into a cold stream during the night.

This was my third attempt at a 100 mile race on mountain trails.  Besides my DNF in last year’s race, I also had a DNF at the Western States 100 in 2012.  I’ve finished the Lean Horse 100 twice, and I’ve done 100 or more miles eight times in fixed time races, but I’ve never finished 100 miles on technical trails.

This is an extremely challenging race.  Here’s an excerpt from the information in our race packet:

“The Bighorn Trail 100 Mile Run is an arduous trail run that will take place in the Little Bighorn – Tongue River areas of the Bighorn National Forest. Starting time for the event will be 11 AM, June 19, 2015, with a 34 hour (average pace of 2.94 mph) time limit to finish the event. Runners must be prepared for potential extreme temperature variation and weather conditions during the event with possible temperatures exceeding 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the day in the canyons and being well below freezing at night in the mountains. The course is wild and scenic traversing territory inhabited by elk, deer, moose, bears, cougars, mountain lions, and rattlesnakes with the potential for wildlife encounters with runners. Crew access points on parts of the course are limited and the runner should be prepared to participate with a fanny pack and other necessary equipment to ensure their ability to safely traverse difficult remote mountainous trails in potentially unpredictable weather conditions. The course is an out-and-back consisting of 76 miles of single track trail, 16 miles of rugged double track jeep trail, and 8 miles of gravel road with approximately 17,500 feet of climb and 18,000 feet of descent.”

We started at 11:00 AM on Friday and had until 9:00 PM on Saturday to finish.  That’s most of Friday, all of the night, and most of Saturday.  I expected to need most, if not all, of the 34 hour time limit.

I had a pretty good mileage base at the end of April, but I was hoping to focus on trails and long climbs in May.  A groin strain in early May prevented me from doing the terrain-specific training I had planned to do.  I had to hope that my overall fitness was enough to pull me through.

Although I finished the Comrades Marathon on May 31, I experienced some groin discomfort during that race.  I took it easy in the three weeks between these races, and I continued my physical therapy.  I tried not to worry about getting out of shape.  To get to the finish line, I needed to get to the starting line healthy.  After Comrades, I did only a token amount of running.  I spent more time doing exercises to strengthen my groin, hips, glutes and hamstrings.  I went into the race cautiously optimistic that I was sufficiently healed, but I probably lost some conditioning.

The first 96 miles of the course is out-and-back.  Then there’s an additional four miles on dirt roads to get back into town.  Last year, I made it to the turnaround, so I got to see all of the course, except the last four miles.  Knowing how fast I ran the first half last year gave me a pretty good idea how to pace myself this year.  I also had a good idea what gear I would need and where I would need it. 

Last year, I had one drop bag, which went to the Footbridge aid station (30 and 66 miles).   I used this bag to hold warm clothes, rain gear and lights that I would need during the night.  This year, I had two drop bags.  In addition to the one at Footbridge, I had one at the Jaws Trailhead aid station (48 miles).  The drop bag at Footbridge had the same gear as last year, plus an extra pair of shoes to wear for the last 34 miles.  My bag at Jaws had an extra set of warm clothes.  I didn’t really expect to use the drop bag at Jaws.  It was there in case I needed to change into dry clothes.  Having a bag there last year might have enabled me to finish the race.

The race finished at Scott Park in Dayton WY, which was also the site of the pre-race briefing.  Packet pickup was 20 miles away in Sheridan, WY.  There’s more lodging in Sheridan, so that’s where I stayed.

I had a late morning flight to Billings, MT on Thursday.  We were halfway to the airport when I realized I forgot my carry-on bag.  It was the same bag I was going to use as my drop bag for the Footbridge aid station.  It had my flashlight, head lamp, extra pair of shoes, plus one set of warm clothes and rain gear.  It’s definitely not a bag I wanted to leave behind.   Fortunately, we left early enough that there was still time to go back and get it.

From Billings, I had to drive for about two hours to get to Sheridan.  After checking in at Hampton Inn and organizing my drop bags, I drove to packet pickup, where I also had my pre-race weigh-in and medical check.  Then I walked two blocks to Sport Stop to drop off my drop bags.

The race has grown too large to hold a pre-race dinner for everyone in one place.  This year, they had two different dinners.  One was in the same building as packet pickup.  The other was at Ole’s Pizza.  Naturally, I went to Ole’s.  I saw a runner named Ray who I met at this race last year.  Ray remembered that I fell into a stream and had to drop.  He ended up dropping at the same aid station, but for a different reason.  I also saw a couple runners I know from Minnesota who are veterans of this race.

I got bed early.  I slept well at first, but got restless toward morning.  My alarm was set for 6:00, but I was up before that.

The race started at 11:00 Friday morning, but I had to be in Dayton by 9:00 for a pre-race briefing.  Hampton Inn has a free breakfast, so I ate a full breakfast before driving to Dayton.   I don’t usually eat much on the morning of a race, but it was the last real meal I would eat for a day and a half, and there was plenty of time for the food to digest before I started running.

I arrived in Dayton at 8:00.  That was early enough that I was able to get a parking spot at Scott Park.  After the 30-minute pre-race briefing, we all needed to get to fishing access point on the Tongue River that was four miles away.  Most people got rides from their crews.  I didn’t have a crew, but I was able to get a ride from Ray.  The start was right next to the river, with views of the surrounding canyon.

It was hot waiting in the sun for the race to start.  The high temperature in Dayton was going to be 87 degrees, and it felt like it was already getting close to that.  That’s several degrees warmer than last year.  To stay cool, some of us sat on this bridge.  It was one of the few shady spots, and there was a cool draft off the river.

The distance between aid stations varies.  Sometimes I could get by with one bottle, but other times I would need two bottles.  I wore a fuel belt that held one bottle and I also had a hand-held bottle.  When I wasn’t using the hand-held bottle, I was able to clip it to my belt.  I arrived at the start with two full bottles.  I drank one while waiting for the start and saved the other for the first 3.5 miles of the race.

I also wore a large fanny pack to carry warm clothes and lights that I would need during the night.  My night gear was in my drop bag at the Footbridge aid station.  Until I got there, I had extra space in the fanny pack, so I was able to carry a camera for the first 30 miles.  I also carried a compression wrap, in case I experienced groin discomfort.  I was hoping I wouldn’t need it, but better safe than sorry.

The first 1.25 miles are on a dirt road with views of the canyon.  I started running at a slow pace.  With all the extra weight I was carrying, even running slow didn’t feel easy.  Before we reached the trail, I was already feeling hot and sweaty.

Where we left the road, there was a small aid station.  I had enough fluid to make it to the next aid station, so I didn’t need to stop.

The first several miles of trail are all single track.  There’s no room for passing.  At times the trail was runnable, but there was a general uphill trend.  Where the trail was steep, we had to walk.  I just followed the runners ahead of me.  When they ran, I ran; when they walked, I walked.  When I stopped to take a picture, I stepped off the trail so people could pass.

The first aid station where I stopped was Lower Sheep Creek.  I wasn’t carrying any food with me, so I needed to eat food at each aid station.  I didn’t see any solid food that looked easy to eat, so I had a GU packet.  It was five miles to the next aid station, and I knew the entire thing was a steep climb, so I filled both of my bottles.

The next section of the course is a narrow cow path across hillsides covered with wildflowers.  I remembered this climb from last year.  Everybody walks the whole way.

This climb is almost five miles long, and it’s all you can do to keep walking.  There are several false summits.  Each time you get to what looks like the top, you discover another long hill.

I was sweating profusely on this climb.  My eyes were stinging from the sweat dripping into them.  I made sure I was drinking enough to stay hydrated.  I knew we were finally getting near the top when I saw my first view of the valley on the other side.

After reaching the top, we had a brief descent to get to the next aid station.

The next aid station was Upper Sheep Creek.  I hadn’t had much food yet, so I stopped for a few minutes to eat.  They had peanut butter and jelly roll-ups.  I ate a few of them before heading out on the next section of trail.

The next section of trail was more runnable.  Parts were single track, but other parts were dirt road.  I enjoyed having more room to run.  We were getting spread out on the trail, so it was easier to set my own pace.  I ran slowly for a minute or two at a time and then walked until I caught my breath.  I was happy with my pace, but I could tell that I was working much harder than last year.  Last year I took walking breaks to save energy for later.  This year, I was taking walking breaks because I needed them.

The Dry Fork aid station was much larger than the earlier aid stations.  This was one of three large aid stations that were accessible by road.  You could have a drop bag here, and runners could meet their crews here.  There was a wider variety of food, and there were port-o-potties.  I didn’t have a crew, but I made a point of eating what I could.  I had noticed that the GU Brew wasn’t mixed very strong, so I wasn’t getting many calories from beverages.  I needed to compensate by eating as much as I could at the aid stations.  Before leaving, I also took advantage of the opportunity to use a port-o-potty, since I wouldn’t see another one for hours.

Leaving Dry Fork, we were on an ATV trail, and it was downhill.  I made good time while I could, but eventually, we were back on narrow single track.  We were staying near the top of Dry Fork Ridge, with an elevation of about 7,000 feet.  We didn’t have long climbs or descents on this section, but there were still some gradual ups and downs.  I tried to mostly run when it was flat or downhill, but I had to slow to a walk where there were rocks.  Going uphill, all I could do was walk.  I tried to maintain a fast cadence where I could.  Most of the time, I had my head down to watch for rocks.  When we had good views of the valley, I had to remind myself to stop and take in the views.

After six more miles, we reached the Cow Camp aid station.  This aid station always has bacon.  This is one of the remote aid stations that can’t be reached by road.  All the supplied have to be packed in.

From Cow Camp, it was seven more miles to Bear Camp.  I really felt myself slowing down on this section.  It seemed like there was more uphill than downhill, but that wasn’t the whole story.  I could no longer walk briskly going uphill.  I felt like I was barely moving.

Weather on top of the ridge was fickle.  At times, we had a strong headwind that was nice and cool.  Other times, the wind would die, and it would get hot again.  Eventually, it got cloudy and windier, and I wondered if a storm was coming.  The forecast included a 50% chance of an afternoon thunderstorm.  It was getting to be that time of day.

All along the ridge, there are stream crossings.  Most of them are easy to cross without getting your feet wet.  Since leaving Cow Camp, they were getting harder to cross.  The streams were getting wider, and the trail was muddy on both sides.  In a few cases, there was water running down the trail.

The list of aid stations includes a few “unmanned aid stations.”  These are known sources of drinkable water where you can refill your bottle.  This is the “Stock Tank" aid station.

Stock Tank was four miles from Cow Camp.  Checking my watch, I saw that I averaged 18 minutes per mile over that section.  I found it distressing that my pace was that slow, even though I was running as much as I was walking.  I was tiring.  I felt like I was working much harder than last year, yet going slower.

It was three more miles to Bear Camp.  We started getting more nice views, but we also seemed to be gradually ascending. I had to do more walking.

When I got to Bear Camp, I had to stop to catch my breath before I could eat.  My pace on the last three miles wasn’t any faster than my pace on the previous four.  I took solace in knowing that we were about to start the fastest section of the course.  Over the next 3.5 miles, we could descend all the way down to the Little Bighorn River.

I knew the descent would be uncomfortably steep.  I also knew parts of it were littered with large rocks.  I was stunned to discover that the beginning of the descent had been turned into shoe-sucking mud by recent rains.  Making matters worse, horses had chewed up the trail, making it impossible to find good footing.  It was slow going.

Eventually I got past the muddy section and reached the section with the most rocks.  I had to descend slowly to avoid tripping on rocks.  Even going slow, I kept stubbing my toes on rocks.  My legs were getting stiff and sore, and I was fatigued.  I tried to step around the rocks, but I kept hitting them.

I noticed an annoying pattern.  I always caught rocks with my left foot.  Then I’d have an awkward landing on my right foot.  I was starting to get spasms in my right calf.  I had been working hard all day to stay hydrated in the heat, but I probably wasn’t getting enough salt.  That was easy to correct in the long term, but for now it was painful.

Pretty soon, I found myself walking, even though we were going downhill.  Halfway through the descent, the trail leveled off, and we came out to good views of the canyon.

Even on level ground, I had trouble forcing myself to run.  The descent was destroying my quads, and fatigue was catching up to me.  I realized that progress would be much slower for the rest of the race, and I started to worry about whether I could finish the race in 34 hours.

We began another steep rocky descent.  This is an example of what the trail looked like.  Some sections had twice as many rocks.

An hour after leaving Bear Camp, I reached an overlook where you can see the river.  It's hard to tell from this picture, but it was a long way down.

I remember reaching this spot last year and wondering how much longer it would take to get down to the river.  It was much faster than I thought.  This year I clocked it.  Six minutes later, I was at the bridge.

It took me more than an hour longer to reach the Footbridge aid station than it did last year.  That still gave me plenty of time, but I was more distressed about how long the rest of the course would take.

From Footbridge to the turnaround at Jaws Trailhead is 18 miles, with 5,000 feet of ascent.  Last year I covered that section in seven hours, but I was running everything that seemed runnable and walking briskly the rest of the time.  I doubted that I could do any more uphill running, and I couldn’t maintain a brisk walk either.  I expected to be at least five minutes per mile slower this year.  That would be eight and a half hours for this section.

I was originally expecting to be much faster on the return trip to Footbridge.  Now I had to question whether I could make better time descending.  That part of the course is always muddy, and a thunderstorm was coming through in a few hours.  The first half of the descent would be through mud bogs in the dark.  The second half would be descending a slippery trail with rocks.  I might have to walk the whole way.

Even if I could gain an hour on the descent, it would still take me until 11:15 AM to get back to Footbridge.  I would need to change clothes and shoes, so it would probably be 11:30 before I started the last 34 miles.  The steep climb to Bear Camp would take at least two hours.  That would leave seven and a half hours for the last 30.5 miles.  That’s faster than I ran it the first time.  I didn’t see any realistic way that I could finish before the cut-off.  Most likely, I would miss the cut-off at Dry Fork.

If I had nothing to lose, I would have pressed on until I missed a cut-off.  I did have something to lose.  So far, my groin wasn’t bothering me, but I was really pushing my luck by doing this race.  The jarring my legs took descending from Bear Camp was scary.  If I stopped now, I could count my blessings that I didn’t reinjure my leg.  If I continued, I would put that at risk.

At the pre-race dinner, Ray mentioned that last year he wanted to drop at Footbridge.  When he asked what would happen, he was told that he would have to camp out overnight at the aid station and get a ride back in the morning.  Technically, Footbridge is road accessible, but the road has several stream crossings, so you need a vehicle with high clearance.  Very few crew vehicles come to Footbridge, and the volunteers stay there all night.

After checking in at Footbridge, I prepared myself for the trip to Jaws and back.  I took the camera and compression wrap out of my fanny pack to make room for clothes. I tied my long sleeve shirt and jacket around my waist.  Then I stuffed my hat, gloves, mittens, wind pants, flashlight and spare batteries into the pack.  Finally I put on my head lamp, even though it would be light for at least two more hours.

When I was ready, I asked one of the aid station volunteers if there were any crew vehicles at the aid station.  If I couldn’t get a ride out, I would keep going to Jaws and drop there.  That’s what Ray had to do last year.  I got lucky.  There was crew vehicle there, and they were going to be leaving in five minutes. They had room for me.

I notified the aid station captain that I was dropping, and she took my race bib.  While I was waiting for the others, I ate some food.  It was a long walk to the car, but I got a few extra views of the canyon.

I got to see for myself how difficult it is to drive to and from Footbridge.  We drove through several streams.  A couple of them were two feet deep. That drive isn’t for the faint of heart.  It was a long drive back to Dayton, and from there, I had another 30 minute drive back to Sheridan.

I was sore and stiff, and my feet and legs were covered with mud.  It took a while to get cleaned up.  My feet were cramping, and I couldn’t get to sleep.  I only slept for an hour last night, but that’s an hour more than I was expecting to get.  No groin pain so far.  I’m crossing my fingers on that.

My DNF last year was a fluke.  I was on a good pace, I was feeling good, I had already made it through a thunderstorm, and then I had a freak accident that ended my race suddenly.  That was hard to take.

This year is harder to take.  I just wasn’t physically able to run this course in 34 hours.  That seems like a really generous time limit, but this is a challenging course.  Even though I ran it last year, those first 30 miles surprised me.  This course was much more technical than I remembered, and I just wasn’t ready for it.

It didn’t help that I lost some training time.  It didn’t help that it was so hot.  Still, I was nowhere close to being as prepared as I was last year.  Last year, I had no doubt that I would come back to try again.  This year, I’m not so sure.