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.