This is a Throwback Thursday post. In a week, I’ll be traveling to Wyoming for the Bighorn Mountain 100. Here’s the race report I wrote a year ago after a DNF at the same race.
On June 20-21, 2014, I attempted the Bighorn Mountain 100 Mile Run in northern Wyoming. I didn't finish. This was my second DNF in a 100 mile trail run. Two years ago, I had a DNF at the Western States 100. Although I mostly run marathons, I plan to run a different 100 mile race each year until I eventually get into Western States again. This year, I picked the Bighorn Mountain 100 for my qualifying race. I chose this race because everyone I've talked to who has done it has described it as the most scenic 100 miler they've done.
The course is out-and-back, starting by the Tongue River near Dayton, WY and finishing at Scott Park in Dayton. The turnaround point is in the Bighorn Mountains. The course follows Bighorn Canyon. It's mostly single-track trail, but there are sections of dirt roads and ATV trail. Aside from the obvious difficulty of running 100 miles, I had to contend with long tiring hills, rocky terrain, elevations ranging from 4000 to 9000 feet, hot temperatures in the afternoon and cold temperatures during the night. The out-and-back course made it feasible for me to run without a crew. I used drops bags to hold the extra gear I would need during the night.
I knew I could run 100 miles. I also knew I could handle getting enough food, liquid and electrolytes. I've handled racing in hot weather. I expected the biggest challenges to be the high elevation and the long climbs. Then I read this recommendation in the runner's handbook:
“Each runner and any pacer should strongly consider taking a minimum checklist of equipment and safety clothing with them from the Little Bighorn River Footbridge Aid Station at 30 miles on their way out on this course to ensure in their safety in ascending the Little Bighorn Canyon in the evening or at night. In past years, the Bighorn Trail 100 was held in near perfect to somewhat warm conditions; and yet many participants experienced significant hypothermia in their ascent of the Little Bighorn Canyon due to night chill and the predictable canyon headwinds. This canyon is isolated with very limited access points making any needed rescues extremely difficult and complicated. Sudden thunderstorms or snowstorms can unpredictably occur at any time in the Bighorns especially in the late evening hours. The list includes a minimum of 1) three working flashlights (additional spare batteries suggested), 2) a long sleeve moisture wicking material shirt, 3) long tights or long weather pants, 4) a nylon jacket or similar type of upper shell, 5) a plastic emergency poncho 6) gloves, and 7) headwear (a stocking cap, balaclava, or some type of hood).”
I was already planning to have a drop bag at this aid station to pick up my headlamp, flashlight, spare batteries and some warm clothes for the night. I didn't realize how much extra clothing I would need until I read this. First I had to figure out if I had adequate clothing that was lightweight and compact enough to carry with me in a fanny pack. Then I had to find a large enough fanny pack. Deb had one I could use, but I realized that Deb's fanny pack wouldn't fit over the fuel belt I usually use because that belt had zippered pouches in the front and holds water bottles in the back. I ended up buying a new fuel belt that only holds a 22 oz. water bottle. I had to try it on to make sure I could wear both the fuel belt and the fanny pack. That worked, as long as I wore the fanny pack in front. Next I had to decide if I could get by with a single 22 oz. bottle. Some of the aid stations are only a few miles apart, but others are as far as seven miles apart. One such section was all uphill and would probably take two or three hours. I came to the conclusion that I would need two bottles for a few sections of the course. I could carry the extra bottle while I was using it and clip it to the fanny pack when it was empty.
I tried wearing both the fuel belt and fanny pack on a 10 mile training run, to see how they felt. I started my run carrying a hand-held bottle. When that bottle was empty, I clipped it to the fanny pack and started drinking from the second bottle. I felt slightly weighted down, but it seemed like I could wear everything comfortably. It's important to test new things in training runs, rather than on race day.
Two days before the race, I checked the weather forecast for Dayton. It wouldn't tell me much about the weather conditions in the mountains, but I wanted to know what the sunset and sunrise times would be. Sunset Friday night would be 9:00. That meant it wouldn't get completely dark until about 9:30. Sunrise was before 5:30, so I expected it to start getting light again by 5:00 Saturday morning. This race finished on the longest day of the year, so I would only have to run in darkness for about seven and a half hours.
For what it's worth, the forecast high in Dayton was 80 degrees. Since most of the course is at higher elevations, it would only get that hot in a few places. The overnight low for Dayton was 53, but that was completely meaningless. In the mountains, it could easily drop below freezing.
There isn't much lodging in Dayton, so I stayed at the Hampton Inn in Sheridan, which is about 20 miles away. Most of the pre-race and post-race activities were also in Sheridan. To get there, I flew to Billings, MT on Thursday and drove the rest of the way. The drive time from Billings to Sheridan is about two hours. I took a little extra time to stop at the Little Bighorn Battlefield in Montana. It was along the way, and it gave me an opportunity to learn more of the history of the area.
When I arrived in Sheridan, I checked in at Hampton Inn. Before going to the expo, I packed my drop back with the clothes and gear I would need during the night. Once my drop bag was packed and properly labeled, I went to the expo on Main Street. I needed to pick up my race packet and drop off my drop bag by 6:00. After stopping at the hotel to finish getting organized, I went to the pasta social at Ole's Pizza. I met a few runners who have done this race before. I learned that even the sections of the course I thought were easy were challenging in ways I didn't expect. I also learned that the aid station at the turnaround has a heated tent. If I needed to get out of the elements to change clothes, I could do it there.
After dinner, I tried to get to bed as early as I could, but I couldn't fall asleep until it got dark outside. Likewise, I was awake at dawn. I got about seven hours of sleep, but I had hoped for more. The previous night I was kept awake by a thunderstorm. After getting dressed and applying sunblock, I ate breakfast at the hotel. I left for Dayton at 7:15. The race wouldn't start until 11:00 Friday morning, but there was a pre-race briefing at 9:00 in Dayton, which is a 30 minute drive from Sheridan. Knowing that parking there would be limited, I tried to get there as early as possible. I arrived at 7:45 and was rewarded with a nice close parking spot.
The briefing lasted about 30 minutes. In addition to reviewing the rules, we were told about a few places where we could find drinkable water between aid stations that were far apart. After the briefing, I left my car at the finish and got a ride to the start, which was four miles away. Most runners were dropped off at the start by their crews. There were also two small shuttle buses for runners who didn't have a ride.
At the start of the race, I was dressed for warm daytime temperatures. Most of my warm clothes were in my drop bag, along with my headlamp, flashlight and spare batteries. I left another set of warm clothes in my car. At the start of the race, I only filled one water bottle, but I had a second bottle clipped to my fanny pack for later. Because the course is out and back, I was able to get by with only one drop bag. I had it sent to the Footbridge aid station. In the first half of the race, I would get to this aid station at 30 miles. I expected to get there around 5:00. Even if I got there later than expected, I would pick up my headlamp, flashlight and warm clothes well before nightfall. On my way back, I would go through this aid station at 66 miles. By then, it would be after dawn on Saturday, so I would be done with my headlamp, flashlight and most of the warm clothes.
There were several things I needed to do at every aid station. The most important was to check in when I arrived and check out when I left. This is important not only so the race officials know you reached each aid station, but also so they know where you are on the course at all times. A lot of things can happen when you're on a remote section of trail by yourself. You could make a wrong turn and get lost; you could fall and injure yourself, you could suffer heat stress in the afternoon heat; or you could succumb to hypothermia at the higher elevations during the night. Checking in at the aid station lets the race officials know you're still moving. Should you fail to check in for a long time, knowing when and where you last checked out from an aid station lets the race officials know where to look for you.
Besides checking in and out of each aid station, I needed to know where I was on the course and how far I would have to go to reach the next aid station. I always needed to refill at least one bottle. Where the aid stations were far apart, I would need to fill two bottles. Finally, I needed to eat enough food to sustain myself. I wasn't carrying any solid food with me, so the aid stations were the only places I could eat.
I had a five word mantra as a shorthand notation for my aid station checklist: “In, Ask, Fill, Eat, Out.” This referred to checking in, asking where I was and how far it was to the next aid station, refilling my bottle(s), eating food, and checking out. Each time I went through the Footbridge aid station, I would also need to ask for my drop bag.
In long ultras like this one, training is somewhat important, but planning is more important. After studying the elevation profile, reading the course description, and talking to other runners, I broke the course into four sections. Each section called for different pacing plans and goals. The first section was the 30 miles from the start to the Footbridge aid station. While not easy, I thought this would be the most runnable section of the course. The elevation ranged from 4100 to 7800 feet. There was a long steep hill near the beginning and a steep descent near the end. I would be running it in daylight, and I would be running it with dry shoes. After Footbridge, my shoes would likely be wet and/or muddy for the rest of the race. Without having seen the terrain, my hope was that I could find enough runnable sections to average 12 minutes per mile. That would get me to footbridge in about six hours.
The next section was the 18 miles from Footbridge to the Jaws Trailhead aid station at the turnaround. This would be mostly uphill, gradually ascending above 9000 feet. There are lots of small mountain streams and part of the trail becomes mud bogs. I would start this section in daylight, but finish in darkness. I would also experience a significant temperature drop. By the time I reached Jaws, it would most likely be below freezing, so I would need to add extra layers of clothes along the way. I expected to walk most of this section. At three miles per hour, it would take six hours. Because of all the climbing, I expected to be closer to nine hours.
The third section was the 18 miles from Jaws Trailhead back to Footbridge. I would start in darkness, but finish in daylight. It would be mostly downhill, but without knowing what the footing was like, I couldn't assume I would go much faster than I did on the ascent. I pessimistically budgeted eight hours for this section.
The last section of the course was the remaining 34 miles. It included retracing my route from Footbridge back to the start and then doing four relatively flat miles on a dirt road to reach Scott Park in Dayton. I knew I would go slower at this point in the race, but it was hard to know how much slower. If I ran the first three sections in six, nine and eight hours respectively, I would have 11 hours to finish the last 34. That seemed manageable, even if I walked more coming back.
That was the plan. The reality was, of course, quite different. I discovered during the race that I underestimated the difficulty of some sections and overestimated the difficulty of others. I also discovered that the obstacle that would ultimately end my race was something I never would have anticipated.
Although the race didn't start until 11:00, most of us were at the starting line by 10:00. It was sunny and it was already getting warm. I kept off my feet by sitting on a large rock, but it was in the sun. I was getting hot, so I moved to find some shade. Near the start, there was a footbridge over the Tongue River. Lots of runners waited there. It was a nice shady spot with views of the river.
|View above us at the start.|
We started on a dirt road. I ran at a conservative pace, so I wouldn't be near the front of the pack when we got onto the trail. We reached the trail at about 1.25 miles. There was a self-service aid station where we left the road. I topped off my bottle, knowing it would be all uphill to the next one. We were still packed together, and there isn't much room to pass on this part of the trail. I didn't have to give much thought to when I should run and when I should walk. I just followed the runners ahead of me. Whenever the runners ahead of me started walking, I knew we were reaching a section that was steep or rocky. At 3.5 miles, we reached the Lower Sheep Creek aid station. The volunteers there reminded me that it would be five miles to the next one, so I filled two bottles.
The next five miles were so steep that everyone was walking. We just went up and up and up, with no end in sight. At times, I could look up and see a line of runners ahead of me that stretched for a mile. They were all walking. There were several false summits, but each time I reached one, the trail continued going up. The trail was a cowpath across the hillsides, surrounded by wildflowers.
|Wildflowers along the trail|
Walking uphill for so long was making my calf muscles sore. I had a shorter stride than the runners in front of me, so it was hard to keep up. Not wanting to hold up the line of runners behind me, I looked for opportunities to run, even if it was only for a few feet at a time. During the steep climb, sweat was dripping down my face. Because of the 11:00 start, it was already hot, and I wondered if I was drinking enough. At the top of the climb, we reached the Upper Sheep Creek aid station. I still had some HEED in one of my bottles, so I used it to wash down a potato wedge. Then I refilled one of my bottles. It was going to be almost five miles to the next aid station, but there was very little elevation change, so I didn't fill the second bottle.
The next five miles were much more runnable. Now that we were above 7000 feet, we got our first views of Bighorn Canyon. At first, we saw forested hillsides on the opposite side. Whenever we had good views, I had to force myself to look around so I wouldn't miss them. Most of the time, I was looking just in front of my feet to make sure I didn't trip on anything. Later in the afternoon, we would see walls of colored rock. We were now exposed to the wind. It was a headwind, but it felt good. For the next few hours, I didn't feel as hot. Although we were still running on a cowpath, the vegetation at this elevation was different. The trail was narrow, and the sage brush scraped against my legs. At times, it also obstructed my view of rocks in the trail. I occasionally caught my foot on a rock, but I did a good job of keeping my balance.
At 13.4 miles, I reached the Dry Fork Ridge aid station. This was a larger aid station. It had chip mats to record each runner's check in and check out times. It was the first aid station that was accessible for crews. It was also one of the few aid stations with bathrooms. Although it was going to be six miles to the next aid station, I decided I could get by with only one bottle if I also drank at the aid station. I ate a PBJ and washed it down with a large glass of Pepsi. Before checking out, I made use of the bathroom. Bears may poop in the woods, but I try to avoid it.
As I left Dry Fork Ridge, I started down a long gradual hill. We were now on an ATV trail. It was easy to see my footing and there weren't any rocks. The only thing uncomfortable about it was the varying depth of the ruts. I took full advantage of the opportunity to run downhill. The ATV trail eventually led to a dirt road, which was also a gentle downgrade. For the first time, I wasn't always within sight of other runners. I told myself I would have to start watching for trail markers. I should have listened to myself. Within minutes, the trail diverged from the road, and I missed the orange flagging that marked the trail. Three runners in front of me also missed it. Fortunately, two of them noticed flagging in the nearby meadow. When they yelled that we had to go back, I backtracked until I saw the trail marking. I was only off course for a minute or two, but after that I was more vigilant. About three miles from the aid station, I saw a runner refilling his bottle from a crystal clear mountain stream. I assume this was one of the places where we were told the water was drinkable. I had enough HEED to last until the next aid station, so I didn't need to stop. There were numerous other stream crossings. Most of the time, I was able to step across on rocks to avoid getting my shoes wet. Later in the race, getting my shoes wet or muddy would be unavoidable, but I wanted to keep them dry as long as possible.
At 19.5 miles, I reached the Cow Camp aid station. When I asked how far it was to the next one, I was told seven miles. That surprised me. I didn't think there were so many long stretches between aid stations. I was confused because the list of aid stations on the race website included the “unmanned” aid stations. These were spots where you could find an easily accessible source of drinkable water. In this case, there was a large pipe about four miles after Cow Camp with a constant stream of fresh water. It's used as a course of drinking water for cattle. It was obvious that parts of the trail were recently used by horses or cattle. They made footprints in the trail when it was soft from recent rains. Then the mud hardened, leaving uneven footing. It wasn't as bad as the rocks in other parts of the trail, but it was still uncomfortable.
The last aid station before Footbridge was Bear Camp. I'm not sure, but I think this is the aid station where I discovered that a potato wedge in a cup of soup broth tastes great. Two runners who were leaving the aid station asked where the fun begins, and a volunteer said “right here.” I think they were referring to “the wall.” On the return trip, “the wall” is the most difficult climb of the race. We were about to do it in the downhill direction. In the next 3.5 miles, we would descend roughly 2200 feet. Immediately after the aid station, the trail turned downhill, but then it turned up again. When the real descent began, it was steeper. Just when I thought it couldn't get more difficult, the trail became littered with rocks. I don't know how anyone could descend quickly without hitting a rock. At one point, I came out to what looked like a small cliff. It was only about five feet down, but it was nearly straight down and it was all rock. I had to stop and study it for a few seconds to figure out how to get down without falling. Then I wondered how I would ever climb it on the return trip. Earlier in the day, I was occasionally passed by a faster runner. Now everybody was passing me. Others wanted to make good time on this section. I just wanted to get down in one piece, and I didn't mind being the slowest runner on the trail. At one point, we briefly emerged into a clearing. One of the fast runners ahead of me walked off the trail and stopped in the grass to take pictures. When I got there, I discovered why. We are alongside the canyon and had spectacular views in both directions.
I descended for what seemed like miles. Then I heard the sound of a raging river. I soon came out to another clearing where I could see the Little Bighorn River below me. It was WAY below me. Realizing that I needed to descend all the way to the river, I was dismayed how far down it was. The trail here was wider and less rocky, enabling me to descend quickly. It's scary how quickly I got down to the river. I stepped down over a few rocks to get onto the footbridge. I could see the Footbridge aid station on the other side. I paused as I crossed the bridge so I could take in the views of the canyon from river level.
It took me just over seven hours to finish the first 30 miles. I wasn't surprised by that. I realized on the first long climb that this part of the course was more difficult than I originally thought. What concerned me more was realizing how challenging “the wall” would be later in the race. I started doing the math. If I took nine hours to reach the turnaround and another eight to get back, I would only have 10 hours to do the last 34 miles. The first 30 miles took me seven hours when I was still fresh. Add an hour for slowing trudging up “the wall” with fatigued legs Add another hour for having to cross the next 26 miles in the afternoon heat after climbing "the wall." Then add one more hour for the extra four miles at the end. That adds up to 10 hours. Unless I could make good time getting to Jaws and back, I would be cutting it close.
I was also noticing a blister on the tip of one of my toes. It didn't hurt when I walked, but every step was painful when I ran. Knowing I would feel that for the rest of the race contributed to my pessimism. I tried not to think about it.
When I checked in at Footbridge, a volunteer immediately retrieved my drop bag and led me to a chair. This was the first aid station with a medical check. When I asked about it, I was told that at this point at the race, they were just asking everyone how they felt and only doing follow-up checks if someone didn't look good. I exchanged my running hat for a warm winter cap and put on my headlamp. Next, I transferred my warm clothes, flashlight and spare batteries into my fanny pack. After stuffing all the clothes in, I could barely zip it shut. I was ready to return my drop bag, but the volunteers were all busy. While I waited, I had some soup broth and candy bars. Then I returned my drop bag and checked out. After leaving the aid station, I noticed my overstuffed fanny pack was putting pressure on my stomach. I took off the fanny pack so I could loosen the waistband. While I had the fanny pack off, it seemed like a good time to also remove my fuel belt so I could pee. It was my first “bathroom” break since Dry Fork Ridge, and I didn't have to go very much. I was probably getting a little dehydrated, but the temperature would soon be dropping, so I could easily rehydrate just by maintain my same fluid intake as it got colder.
I was beginning the next major section of the course. It was 18 miles from Footbridge to Jaws. This would be almost entirely uphill, with the elevation ranging from 4600 to 9400 feet. I pessimistically estimate that this might take as long as nine hours. I now realized I would need to do it in eight. The descent into Footbridge had taken a toll on my legs. As I left Footbridge, the trail followed the river, and it was rocky. Walking over rocks, I was moving slowly. I also quickly got hot wearing a winter hat. I stuffed my hat into my fanny pack and wore my headlamp directly against my forehead. It was uncomfortable, but I would have to live with it until the temperature started to drop. Because I was walking slowly, I realized I would need to run anywhere I could to keep my average pace from being too slow. I really wanted to do the next 18 miles in seven or eight hours. At first, everything was either steeply uphill or rocky, but then the trail came back to the river, and I found several runnable sections. My legs were fatigued, so I couldn't run very fast. By forcing myself to run where I could, I maintained a decent average pace.
After 3.5 miles of alternating slow running with slow walking, I reached the Cathedral Rock aid station. It took me slightly less than an hour to get there. I was pleased with that. This was a remote aid station where all the supplies had to be carried in by backpack. The volunteers had a bonfire and were camped out for the night. I knew it was 6.5 uphill miles to the next aid station, so I filled both of my bottles with HEED. As I surveyed the food options, I saw some Pop Tarts. I needed something to wash it down, so I asked if they had any Pepsi. They didn't, but they had soup broth. Soup broth and a Pop Tart is an odd flavor combination, but it gave me a nice mixture of sugar, salt and water, with just a little bit of fat. While I was eating and drinking, I sat down on a stump. Before I left, I put on my hat again. While it wasn't cold yet, it had cooled off just enough that I could wear it without getting hot. When I got up to leave, I realized I had been sitting too long. My legs felt a little bit stiff. I forced myself to run, so I could work out the stiffness.
Although the next 6.5 miles were all uphill, it wasn't too steep, and the trail didn't have too many rocks. I found plenty of sections that were runnable. 6.5 miles is a long way to run. With a mixture of slow running and slow walking it seemed to take forever. Until I got to the next aid station, I wouldn't have any idea how far I had gone or what my pace was. I was probably about halfway to the next aid station when I started to feel cold. I waited until I was done using my handheld bottle, so I had two free hands. Then I put on my gloves. A short time later I pulled on my Tyvek jacket. That kept me comfortable all the way to the next aid station, but I had difficulty reaching my other water bottle without the jacket getting in the way. It probably would have been smarter to clip the belt on over the jacket instead of under it. Before I got to the next aid station, it got dark enough that I needed to turn on my headlamp. That gave me enough light to see the trail, but the trail gradually became less well defined. Sometimes the trail split into two paths. They usually recombined a short time later, but I never knew for sure unless I saw a trail marker.
At 40 miles, I reached the Spring Marsh aid station. It took about two and a half hours to cover the last 6.5 miles. While not as fast as the previous section, it was still an acceptable pace. While I was there, I decided to put on my long sleeve polypro shirt. It needed to go underneath my jacket and singlet, so I sat down while I changed clothes. Before I checked out, I asked how much more climbing we had. I was told 2000 feet. In fact, it was worse than that. The net ascent to the Jaws aid station was 2000 feet, but we would actually climb 2500 feet and then descend 500 feet. Shortly after leaving the aid station, I started seeing the lead runners coming back. They were spread out, but whenever I saw a headlamp approaching, it was like an extra trail marker.
I was about a mile past Spring Marsh when I heard thunder in the distance. Soon, I also saw lightning. After one particularly bright flash, I listened for the accompanying thunder. There was a long enough delay that I guessed the lightning was two miles away. That was comforting, since the lightning seemed to be horizontal. I waited until I felt rain drops before opening my fanny pack to get my rain poncho. By the time I finished putting it on, the rain had become a downpour. I also put on my shell mittens, in hopes of keeping my hands warm. Ever since Footbridge, the stream crossings had been more difficult. I sometimes couldn't avoid getting my feet wet. More recently, I had encountered mud bogs. With the rain, suddenly they were larger. In some places, the trail itself had become a stream. Worse yet, even on high ground, the trail was becoming slippery. The trail was still mostly uphill, and I sometimes took two steps forward and one step back. I had to wonder how treacherous it would be going downhill. Before the thunderstorm, I was optimistic that I could make really good time on the return trip to Footbridge. Most of the trail had a gentle slope, so I could probably run most of the downhill. The mud changed everything. I now questioned if I could run any of it without slipping. Even though I was making good time, I was once again pessimistic about finishing before the cutoff.
By the time I reached the Elk Camp aid station at 43.5 miles, the rain had stopped. The damage to the trail was already done. There were deep puddles and muddy patches everywhere. The aid station had a bonfire surrounded by benches. My shell mittens were wet, so I set them on some rocks near the fire to dry them out. That worked well. I was able to leave the aid station with dry mittens. Shortly after leaving the aid station, I encountered a stream crossing that seemed more like a raging river. There was a log bridge across the river. Unlike similar bridges I had crossed earlier, this one didn't have any rope or railing to hold onto. The logs were wet, and my shoes were muddy. I didn't have any confidence that I could walk across without slipping. I also didn't think I could wade through the river without getting swept away by the current. After a few moments of hesitation, I got down on all fours and crawled across the bridge. It wasn't elegant, but I got across safely.
|This is another runner crossing the same bridge in daylight.|
A short time later, I encountered another stream. This one was only a few inches deep. I could have waded through it, but I didn't relish the thought of filling my shoes with ice water when the air temperature was probably in the low 30s. There was a large rock in the river, and I tried to use the rock to step across. My muddy shoes didn't get any traction on the wet rock, and I fell backward, landing in the stream. The stream was fed by snow melt, so it was ice cold. Another runner reached the stream just after I fell and held out a hand to pull me out of the water. My shorts and gloves were soaked with ice water. I was lucky I was wearing a plastic rain poncho, or all my clothes would have been soaked.
I still had about four miles to go to get to the Jaws aid station. They have a large heated tent that's like a hypothermia triage unit. I was going to need it. My hands quickly became numb. It was only a matter of time before I would get hypothermic. It was now cold enough that I could see my breath. I realized my race was over. I couldn't continue through the night like this. Now I was in a different kind of race. I was in a very remote area. If I collapsed from hypothermia, it would take a long time for help to arrive. I had to make it to Jaws on my own power. I was literally racing for my life.
The trail was so sloppy that I couldn't run without slipping, but I power walked as fast as I could. Moving quickly served two purposes. It would help me keep warm and it would get me to Jaws faster. Contributing to my worries, I could no longer use my hands. With effort, I could wiggle a finger, but I couldn't handle a water bottle. For the next four miles, I didn't have anything to drink. I felt the need to pee, so I was hopeful that I was well-hydrated.
I desperately wanted to know how far it was to the next aid station. The next time I saw a runner going in the other direction, I asked how far it was to the next aid station. He said, “three or four miles.” That answer stunned me. I thought there was an aid station at 47 miles. That’s only 3.5 miles after Elk Camp, and it seemed like I must have covered at least a mile by now. After what seemed like another mile, I asked another inbound runner. He said “two and a half miles.” I kept getting answers that seemed like a mile farther than I expected. Eventually I realized why. There wasn't really an aid station at 47 miles. They were giving me the distance to Jaws. The aid station list included a crew access point at 47 miles, but there wasn't an aid station there. Once I understood that, I felt some relief. By now we were going downhill, and I was going faster and faster. For most of the race, other runners were passing me. In those last four miles to Jaws, nobody passed me. Now I was passing runners left and right.
When I got to Jaws, I was a little confused by the layout of the aid station. I asked where to check in, and a volunteer pointed to the tent. I entered the tent and said “218 checking in.” I then immediately asked where I could find the aid station captain. During the pre-race briefing we were told that if we needed to drop, we had to tell the aid station captain. The volunteer asked why I needed to see the captain, and I told her I needed to drop. She said she could handle that, and she removed my bib number. I explained that I fell in a creek, and one of the medical volunteers led me to a chair. After helping me remove my wet gloves, she brought some hot wash clothes to warm my hands. Then she brought me a cup of soup broth and wrapped me in two blankets.
I recognized another runner in the tent. He was a faster runner who passed me 20 miles earlier and looked strong. I was shocked that he was still there, since he probably arrived an hour before me. I think he headed back out, but lots of other runners were dropping. I think most of them were unprepared for the thunderstorm.
After my hands felt better, I asked if there was a bathroom. I had needed to go over since Elk Camp, but I didn't want to stop in the cold air. The medical volunteer was relieved that I needed to go, as that was a sign that my kidneys were still working. I made my way to the bathrooms. Since I didn't have anything to drink in the last four miles, I was relieved to see that my urine was clear. Unlike at Footbridge where I barely had to go at all, this time I could have filled two mason jars. I was probably over-hydrated.
When I returned to the tent, I was moved to a different chair. Another volunteer brought me a cup of hot cocoa. It occurred to me that I never stopped my watch when I reached the aid station. It now read 14:34. I had been there a long time, so I estimated that I arrived at about 14:15. That meant I covered the last 18 miles in seven hours. If I hadn't fallen in the creek, I would have had a good chance of finishing. It was only a few more hours until the sun came up. The trail conditions on this part of the course were scary, but I probably could have walked until dawn and then started running with better visibility.
Jaws Trailhead is the only aid station on the upper part of the course that's accessible by road, but I still had to wait for a ride back to Dayton. Jaws Trailhead is crew accessible, and the only vehicles coming and going were crew vehicles. Whenever a crew member leaves, the volunteers ask the driver if they can transport a runner who needs a ride. About an hour after I dropped, there was a crew vehicle with room for four runners. At the time, I was getting ready to put on my polypro long pants. I had just untied my shoes when they asked who was ready to leave. Even though my shoes were untied, I immediately got up from my chair. Within a minute all four spots were spoken for. The ride back to Dayton took more than an hour. From there, I had to drive back to Sheridan. By the time I got there, it was 4:00 Saturday morning. My shoes were still untied. When I took off my shoes and socks, they went straight into the wastebasket. I took a shower to rinse the mud off my legs. By the time I was ready to get some sleep, it was 4:30. I could only sleep for about 30 minutes at a time. I was still over-hydrated, so I kept waking up to make trips to the bathroom. While I was at Jaws, I had two cups of soup broth and two cups of cocoa. It helped me warm up, but I really didn't need that much liquid.
At 8:00, I gave up on getting any more sleep. Hampton Inn has a free breakfast, and I was hungry. Without a bath or shower, I threw come clothes on and walked down to breakfast. After eating, I took a bath and stretched. There was a post-race barbeque in Dayton from 1:00 to 8:00. I needed to go back eventually to get my drop bag, so I went there for lunch. As I arrived in Dayton, I saw runners coming into town. Besides the 100 mile race, there were also 50 mile, 50K and 30K races. The shorter races all started Saturday morning, so everybody was finishing on Saturday. Because I left and came back, I had to find a new parking spot. The parking lot at Scott Park was full, so I had to find street parking a few blocks away.
As I arrived at the park, I saw more runners finishing. Most of the runners finishing when I got there were doing the 30K, but I watched carefully for the white race bibs of 100 mile runners. I spotted a few I had seen during the race. I ate lunch and then waited for drop bags to be delivered. The drop bags from Jaws were already there, but the Footbridge aid station had a later cutoff time.
While I was waiting for the drop bags, I noticed how hot it was at the finish. When I was driving to Dayton it was 83 degrees, and it seemed to be getting hotter. Most of the 100 mile runners who didn't drop at Jaws were still on the course. The last runners to make the cutoff at Footbridge were just finishing “the wall.” The heat on that climb had to be brutal at this time of the day. The first shipment of drop bags from Footbridge arrived at 2:00. I helped them unload and then retrieved my own bag.
I was too tired to do much else. After returning to Sheridan, I had an early dinner and went to bed early. I slept well that night. When I woke up Sunday morning, I finally started to notice stiffness and soreness in my legs. I also noticed that I had several small black and blue marks on my right hip. I assume that happened when I fell into the creek. My hip probably took the impact of the fall. The creek was lined with small rocks.
I experienced a range of emotions after the race. A DNF is always disappointing. This one was doubly disappointing because I was going to use this race as my Western States qualifier. I can come back and do this race again next year, but I don't have room in my 2014 schedule for another qualifying race. The soonest I can try to get into Western States will be 2016. Even then, I'll be starting over with only one ticket in the lottery. I'm beginning to wonder if I'll ever get into that race again.
Even coming back to the Bighorn Mountains was tough to contemplate immediately after the race. Even though I only ran 48 miles, I went through a lot to get that far. I would have to do that all over again before I got a chance to run the rest of the course. On the ride back from the Jaws aid station, I was fighting to stay awake. Had I been able to continue, I would have been running all night and most of the next day.
The disappointment was offset by relief. I had two goals for this race. The first goal was to finish. The second was to make it home safely. I wasn't able to finish, but I did get home safely. Those last four miles to get to Jaws were scary. I didn't know if I would make it. I probably felt as much elation to reach the tent at Jaws as other runners felt when they reached Scott Park in Dayton. I don't usually wear a race shirt until I finish the race. After my DNF at Western States, I didn't wear my shirt or use any of my Western States gear. I gave everything away because I didn't feel I earned it. When I went back to Scott Park on Saturday, I was wearing my race shirt. I also wore it when I drove to the airport on Sunday. I felt I suffered through enough adversity to earn it. I wasn't alone. Of 291 runners who started this race, only 149 finished.
People often ask me why I would want to do a race like this. It's about challenging myself. There can be no success without the possibility of failure. This year was disappointing, but you can bet that when I eventually cross that finish line it's going to be especially satisfying. On Saturday, I was still too tired to think about coming back. After catching up on sleep, I was already thinking about things I could do better next year. If I had another drop bag at Jaws, I could have a spare set of dry clothes, just in case. If my long pants were in the drop bag at Jaws, I wouldn't need to stuff as many clothes into my fanny pack. Most runners keep a dry pair of shoes and socks in their bags at Footbridge, so they don't have to wear muddy shoes for the last 34 miles. Some runners also keep spare shoes and socks at Jaws. That seems wasteful, since they'll get muddy within a mile or two, but it would make it easier to change clothes. I ran far enough to see the entire course. Next year, I'll have a better idea of where I can run and where I need to walk.
Friedrich Nietzsche said, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” Next year, I'll be stronger.