The Bighorn 100M had never been on my radar, but when Megan suggested we do it, I immediately agreed. I mean, why not? I had no other plans for mid-June, and a long run in Wyoming’s Bighorn Mountains sounded fun. I didn’t know anything about the race, except that it’s famous for its mud. That’s not a plus for me, but it couldn’t hurt to try something new.
The race follows an out-and-back course that starts a few miles west of Dayton, arcs northwest to an inflection point at Sally’s Footbridge, then turns sharply southwest and climbs to the turnaround at the Jaws aid station (mile 48). You then retrace your steps to the start and continue another five miles to Dayton’s Scott Bicentennial Park.
Half of the course’s 20,500′ of elevation gain is packed into a few sustained climbs: about 4,000′ in the first 7.5 miles (most of that after mile 4), a more gradual 4,000′ between miles 30 and 47, and a steep 2,200′ between miles 66 and 70. The altitude ranges from just over 4,000′ at the start/finish to just under 9,000′ at the turnaround. There’s mud in various places, but the worst of it is concentrated in the few miles before and after the turnaround.
Before the race, a friend advised me that trekking poles were “100% mandatory” because of the mud. I’ve never loved poles, but in this case that sounded like good advice, so I spent late May and early June practicing with my Black Diamond Carbon Z’s. I warmed to them pretty quickly: they gave me a boost going up and cushioned the impact coming down. I also got a Salomon quiver to hold the poles when I didn’t need them, which I figured would be much of the time.
The only other advice I got on this race was “Take care of your feet.” Another friend had had a bad race here because the constant slogging through mud and water had left his feet waterlogged and chewed up. I packed an extra pair of shoes and socks for my drop bag at mile 66.
On Tuesday, June 14 we flew into Denver — which, though a six-hour drive from the race, allowed us to drop Megan’s mom off at a friend’s in Loveland. After spending Tuesday night there, we drove the remaining five hours to our Airbnb in Sheridan. This place, located on an alpaca farm, was one of the nicest Airbnb’s I’ve stayed in — and I’ve stayed in some pretty nice ones. The lodging itself was great, but what really stood out were the sweeping views of the Bighorn mountains and the animals: three dogs to greet you whenever you stepped outside, alpacas and horses to feed and pet, and well-loved free-ranging hens to provide as many guilt-free eggs as you want. This video of Megan’s nicely captures the vibe (watch to the end, which is pretty entertaining):
On Thursday I got up, made myself some coffee, and went outside. Our host Cristine was already doing some farm work, so I chatted with her for a while, then went back inside and made myself another cup. I generally have two cups of coffee in the morning, but — being a lifelong insomniac — I’ve recently tried to make it as weak as possible, particularly the day before a race when I hope to get to bed early. In this case I couldn’t regulate the strength, as our place only had a Keurig coffee machine, and I used Starbucks pods. I probably should have noticed that the Starbucks coffee was waaaaay stronger than my usual, but I was on autopilot and drank my usual two cups without thinking about it.
A couple of hours later, I noticed that my back was really tense and sore. Weird, but I chalked it up to pre-race nerves. I spent some time foam rolling my back to try to work out the tension. Megan and I spent the day leisurely doing pre-race stuff: preparing food and drinks, organizing our drop bags, foam rolling, etc. After an early dinner, we headed to Sheridan to check in, leave our drop bags, and go to the pre-race briefing. It was around then that I realized I felt….wired. Like, really nervy and alert. Only then did it occur to me that I’d consumed way too much caffeine that morning, probably two or three times my usual. That explained both the tension in my back and my jittery mental state.
Well, shit. That was inexplicably stupid, given that I’m usually careful about these things. I think the whole farm atmosphere was so relaxing that I’d forgotten my usual pre-race concerns. In any case, I’d just have to hope my usual solution worked — the usual solution being to knock myself out with edible marijuana. Most nights, I take one capsule that contains 10mg THC / 10mg CBD. If I’m particularly concerned about getting sleep, I’ll take two capsules. If I have to get to sleep much earlier than usual, as I usually do before a race, I’ll take three. Bighorn has a late (9:00am) start, so I didn’t have to get to bed that early, but I decided to play it safe and downed three capsules at the pre-race briefing. Megan drove us back, and we watched a couple episodes of Stranger Things before heading to bed.
Unfortunately, going to bed did not make me sleepy: I still felt wired. When 10pm rolled around and I still felt wide awake, I decided to take a fourth capsule. I’d never taken four of these before, so this was a gamble, but the alternative was probably lying awake all night. For good measure, I decided to just keep drinking beer until I felt tired enough to fall asleep. By midnight, I’d chased my 40mg THC with five beers. That finally knocked me out, and I managed to get 5-6 hours of sleep.
When I got up the next morning, I was messed up. A bit hung over from the beers, but also in a thick THC fog. I stumbled around getting ready. As I was putting on my shoes, I looked down at them and exclaimed “Oh my god!!!” Megan, alarmed, asked me what was wrong, and I said never mind. For some reason, I thought I’d brought the wrong shoes — a pair of Inov-8’s I’d decided against — and panicked, thinking I’d have to run 100 miles in the wrong shoes. That kind of sums up my mental state.
My back felt itchy, and when I looked in the mirror, I found it covered with ugly red hives. I have a hyperactive immune system and have occasionally broken out in hives due to stress. I didn’t feel especially stressed about the race, but my THC-induced mental state had apparently triggered something. (Footnote: as I write this two weeks later, I’m still sporadically breaking out in itchy red rashes. Whatever I set off that day is taking some time to settle down.)
I was clearly not fit to drive, so Megan drove us to the start. The drive was beautiful — a windy dirt road through the foothills — but also terrifying for me. Every time we went into a turn, I clutched the seat, thinking we were going too fast and would fly off the road. Megan, for the record, is not an aggressive driver, so this was clearly the THC talking.
We arrived safely at Scott Park, where we’d catch a bus to the start. While it may seem odd to take a shuttle for five easy miles — aren’t we supposed to be runners? — this was the only way to finish at Scott Park and still cap the race at 100 miles. I applauded this decision, knowing from experience that I tend to resent every mile beyond 100. Besides, the road from Scott Park to the start wasn’t exactly Bighorn’s trademark “Wild and Scenic.”
We reached the Tongue River Canyon around 8:30. It already felt hot. Our race date coincided with a record-setting heat wave sweeping the American west, and the Bighorn mountains seemed to be at the epicenter, as measured by temperature anomalies:
The forecast predicted a daytime high of 99F on race day. On the plus side, the heat would dry up some of the mud, but on the downside, that’s pretty damn hot.
I was still having trouble functioning like a normal human being. Megan seemed amused by my condition and said “I think you better stick with me.” I replied that I wasn’t sure I could.
At 9:00am we were off. The race begins on a flat fire road through the canyon, flanked by picturesque rock formations. I was a bit conflicted about how to start: I always like to start slow, to get a good warmup, but I knew that in just over a mile, we’d be funneled onto a long uphill single-track where passing would be difficult. There was case for getting ahead of the pack to avoid this bottleneck, but I felt so out of it that I decided to just go slow. We’d be out here for 100 miles, so there’d be plenty of time to speed up later on.
We quickly reached the single-track and began to climb. And climb. And climb. That first uphill was long and steep, but I was wrong when I said passing would be difficult: with dozens of bumper-to-bumper runners in front of me, it was impossible. Oh well: I was ok with the pace for now, which was so slow that my heart rate probably averaged around 90, and I was able to trundle along in a half-awake dream state. I knew Megan was further ahead in the pack, pulling away from me, but I hoped I’d catch her somewhere down the road.
The steepest part of the climb lasted about four miles, rising almost 3,000′ over that stretch. The climbing per se wasn’t strenuous, due to the slow pace, but it was really hot. It was also really humid, something I don’t handle well: I’m used to having my sweat evaporate instantly rather than dripping down my face. I was glad when we crested that first climb, especially since the higher altitude brought a nice cool breeze. We took a steep downhill to the Upper Sheep Creek aid station, where I stopped briefly to fill a flask and put some crushed ice in my hat. It was almost painfully cold, but nice to have ice water dripping down my face and neck. We then climbed gradually to the Dry Fork aid station at mile 13.5.
I’d pulled out my poles at the start of the climb and had used them continuously since, digging in and pushing on the uphills and trying to cushion my descents. They seemed to help, although — given how much work my arms could realistically do — I suspect I was also getting some kind of placebo effect. Regardless, I was glad to have them: it was nice to feel like my legs weren’t doing all the work.
I reached Dry Fork at 12:26 — twenty minutes behind Megan, though I didn’t know it at the time. As soon as I arrived at the tent, a volunteer handed me my drop bag. Whatever else one might say about this race, it has some of the best-organized aid stations I’ve ever seen. At Dry Fork, volunteers with walkie-talkies let the aid station know who’s on the way, so they have your drop bag waiting for you when you arrive. I fished out my flasks filled with orange/pineapple/banana and orange/peach/mango juice, and liberally re-applied sunscreen. I couldn’t see my face, but given how my arms looked — solid white — I assumed my face looked cadaverous as well. A volunteer said “Well, you won’t be getting burned out there!”
Unexpectedly, I also refilled my hydration pack bladder. Given that I also had flasks, I’d expected the bladder to last until Sally’s Footbridge at mile 30, but it was already dry. Maybe I was drinking a lot, but I also suspect that, because I’d stuffed the pack with gear before filling the bladder, the latter couldn’t expand to fill. In any case, I was concerned about water because, after three and a half hours of running, I still felt no need to pee. It’s hard to overstate how weird this is for me. I usually drink a lot of fluids in the morning and start the day overhydrated, so I’ll typically stop and pee at least three times in the first two hours of a morning run. Today, nothing. Maybe it was the heat, but I also worried that last night’s beers had left me dehydrated, and I’d failed to compensate. I couldn’t change that now, but resolved to hydrate as much as possible in the coming miles.
Leaving Dry Fork, I actually felt pretty good. The THC fog was starting to recede; I was waking up; and we still had a refreshing breeze. It also helped that the first few miles after Dry Fork were an easy, runnable downhill. I stowed my poles in my quiver and clicked off some easy miles. The only downside to this stretch was that it got hotter as we descended: the wind disappeared completely, and the temperature rose by what seemed like 20 degrees in the space of just a few strides. This was fine for now, but as the race went on, I often wondered how this section would feel on my return. The thought of climbing this hill in the next day’s heat, 80 miles in, kind of scared me.
The next 12 miles were gently rolling and pretty. We passed through some beautiful meadows filled with wildflowers, mostly lupine and mule’s ears. It was around here that my running “cohort” began to form: people I’d see again and again for the rest of the race. For the most part, we weren’t running together: we just maintained similar enough paces that we’d pass each other repeatedly for the next 80 miles. There were two guys in matching Hawaiian shirts, one guy in Hawaiian shorts (who, it turned out, is actually from Hawaii), one guy in orange and red, and one guy in gray. I never learned any of their names and creatively referred to them as Hawaiian Shirts, Hawaiian Shorts, Orange and Red, and Gray.
After this rolling stretch, we began the steep descent to Sally’s Footbridge. Parts of this descent were dry, with good footing; parts were very muddy; all of it was steep: almost 2,000′ in three miles. I used my poles as much as possible to spare my legs. We were mostly in the woods, so there wasn’t much to see, but we did get some nice views down to the Little Bighorn River, which we would soon follow for many miles.
Reaching the Little Bighorn, we crossed Sally’s Footbridge and reached the eponymous aid station. I got my drop bag and pulled out two more juice flasks, but otherwise felt unsure what to take. My stomach is usually well-behaved during long races, but the heat was definitely causing some distress. I’d recently tried to eat an Aussie Bite, and trying to swallow something that dry almost made me throw up: I had to fill my mouth with water to choke it down. My usual go-to foods — dates and boiled potatoes — were going down ok but had no appeal. Basically, I got a little queasy at the thought of eating anything solid. I was glad to have the juice flasks, as well as several Gatorade packets to refill my flasks, but this wouldn’t be enough to get me through the race. Staring into my drop bag, I decided to take some potatoes, dates and Gatorade, but left the Aussie bites.
I’d also stashed some warm clothes — a long-sleeved shirt and gloves — as we’d been repeatedly warned that the temperature could drop into the 30s at night at the higher altitudes. Standing there in 90-something degree heat, however, it didn’t occur to me to take them. I put some more ice in my hat, swigged a cup of ginger ale, and moved on.
A few hundred yards of fire road ended at a single-track trail that paralleled the Little Bighorn. We’d follow this river more or less closely for the next dozen miles. The trail was rolling, but the net uphill was almost imperceptibly gradual: about 4,000′ over the next 18 miles.
Perhaps a mile after Sally’s Footbridge, I realized I hadn’t seen a course marker since…well, Sally’s Footbridge. That’s a long time without a confidence marker, and it started to worry me. I didn’t recall any intersections — certainly nothing marked — but I still found it disconcerting to go so long without a marker. Was I running farther and farther off course? How long should I keep going without seeing a ribbon? Another mile? Two? This is ordinarily where I’d pull out my phone and consult the course GPX. But for whatever reason, Bighorn doesn’t provide a GPX file, and I hadn’t taken the time to make one myself. I stopped running several times, continued forward, then finally decided to turn back. I retraced my steps for maybe a quarter-mile before I encountered a Hawaiian Shirt. “Are we on course?” I asked. “There’s nowhere else to go,” he replied. That wasn’t super reassuring, but I turned around again and continued forward.
After another half-mile, we encountered two more runners coming back in our direction. They had the same concern as me, saying they’d been a quarter-mile ahead but still hadn’t seen any ribbons. Orange and Red felt we should keep going, but the other runner continued back toward Sally’s. Gray said he’d done this race two years ago and was sure we were on course, as there was no other route up the Little Bighorn. That was good enough for the rest of us, and we forged ahead.
Two miles after Sally’s, we descended a rocky section of trail and were greeted by…a race photographer. Hooray! We all let out a cheer, relieved to finally know we were on course.
With the weight of uncertainty lifted, the running became easier. I don’t remember the next five miles that well: more rolling trail through river canyon. At one point Orange and Red asked for my advice on using poles: he was using them for the first time, and since I was, in his words, “clearly a pole master,” he wanted my two cents. I told him that was funny, since I was also a first-timer and couldn’t say much. Still, I was feeling pretty comfortable with the poles and was already having a hard time imagining life without them. The only downside was that I was starting to develop blisters on my hands, and I wondered how bad those would get.
After crossing the first of several rudimentary log bridges, the trail opened up again into some nice wildflower meadows. It was well into evening by now, and some storm clouds had begun to form. I didn’t especially want to get drenched, but I was happy it was cooling off.
These were good miles. I wasn’t moving fast, but I didn’t care. I kept telling myself “I’m just going to enjoy this.” My only well-defined goal going in was to keep my legs feeling good the whole race, and so far they were. This didn’t feel like a race so much as a leisurely and somewhat dreamy amble through the wilderness. My only real nemesis during these miles was an earworm. Megan had played the Encanto soundtrack on our drive to Sheridan, and for some reason the title track had gotten stuck in my head. It’s not a bad song, but also not one you want to hear over and over again for hours. I wished I’d brought headphones and some music, just to kill the earworm. Without them, I’d just have to wait for it to die of natural causes.
At mile 40 we hit the Spring Marsh aid station. This was my favorite of the race, not because of the fare (although that was fine) but because of its picturesque setting in an alpine meadow with sweeping 270-degree views. The tents, which could be seen from some distance, had an oasis-like feel. I refilled my flasks with Gatorade, ate a few banana chunks, and moved on.
More meadows, more woods, more log bridges. It started raining several times, and I nearly put on my jacket, but held off, as it still seemed too warm. Fortunately, the rain never lasted long. Still, the trail got muddier and muddier as we ascended, and I gave up on trying to keep my feet dry: I was splashing through mud puddles every few steps.
As I approached a large rock, Hawaiian Shorts suddenly emerged, holding a bag of toilet paper and proclaiming that he felt ten pounds lighter. I hadn’t seen him since he’d passed me ten miles earlier, and he did seem energized by his pit stop. We ran together for a while until we suddenly saw the lead runner, Shane Rominger, speeding toward us on his return from Jaws. I looked at my watch, which had just recorded mile 42. Holy crap! The Jaws turnaround was still six miles away, which meant that Rominger was at mile 54 exactly 11 hours in: just over 20-hour pace. That’s not in course record territory, but it seemed impressive given today’s heat. I later learned that Rominger paid a price for his fast early pace: he eventually crashed and had to lie down beside the trail for an hour and a half, still winning by 28 minutes.
Hawaiian Shorts was nipping at my heels, so I stepped aside and let him pass. He gradually disappeared from sight. Not long after, I arrived at the Elk Camp aid station (mile 43.5), a small outpost in the woods. I asked if they had veggie broth, and when they said no, I asked if they had hot water, which I could mix with miso soup powder I’d brought. They said yes, but then I realized I hadn’t grabbed the miso back at Sally’s and wouldn’t get another chance until the turnaround at Jaws. We made a date to make miso soup on my return. I asked if they had potato chips — I was clearly craving salt — but they said no, and suggested I try some Saltines.
A good friend of mine relies heavily on Saltines late in his races, so I figured this was worth a try. Having now tried this, I can’t understand what he sees in them. As soon as I started chewing one, it turned into a dry paste that sucked all the moisture out of my mouth. I couldn’t swallow it without water to wash it down. After struggling through one more, I vowed never to eat a Saltine again.
As we ascended, we encountered more and more snow. I couldn’t decide what was worse: postholing in the snow or wading ankle-deep through the mud. Equally slow, I guess. By now it was dark, so I’d taken out my headlamp and put on my jacket. My memory of this part is fuzzy, maybe because there wasn’t much to remember: snow, mud, fallen trees to climb over, all at a glacial pace. I encountered more and more people coming in the opposite direction, which suggested I was nearing the turnaround. I exchanged greetings with some inbound runners, then heard Megan’s voice: “Yuch?” She was on her way home. She wasn’t in the best of spirits, saying her legs felt really bad. We talked for a minute, and I said I’d love to run with her, but she was now three miles ahead of me and catching up would be hard. We went our separate ways.
Not long thereafter, the trail spit us out onto a fire road, after which a mile of easy jogging brought us to Jaws. This was a big mental milestone: not quite halfway, but the beginning of the return trip and the end of a really long climb. I was looking forward to some downhill. First, however, I went to the aid station tent and retrieved my drop bag. I picked up my last two juice flasks, a few more potatoes, the miso soup packets, a warm PrimaLoft jacket, and my light belt and batteries. I left the rain pants and warm hat I’d stowed there: no way I was going to need those.
I spent 15 minutes there refilling my bladder, drinking some miso soup, and eavesdropping on conversations. I heard one runner tell a medic he hadn’t peed in eight hours: yikes. Another said he’d had trouble keeping food down, and a volunteer said many people had similar symptoms due to the heat.
I grabbed two cheese quesadillas on my way out and ate them as I walked away. I wasn’t having trouble keeping food down, but getting it down was another matter, and I desperately wanted to eat something solid. I wasn’t in danger of bonking — I’d put down a lot of liquid calories — but it’s possible to be well-fueled and hungry at the same time. My stomach felt gnawing and empty. In retrospect, I should have been eating more bananas, which always went down well. But my mental gears had been grinding slowly all day, and I kept figuring out what I’d wanted at the last aid station five minutes after leaving it. I choked down the quesadillas and started running again.
The first few miles after Jaws were much the same inbound as outbound: snowy, muddy and slow. As I trudged through the muck, I heard Hawaiian Shorts behind me: he said he’d downed some caffeine and gotten a second wind. I mumbled something about holding off on caffeine for now, as we weren’t even half done, and I didn’t want to caffeinate myself for the next 14 hours. But as I watched him pass me and bound ahead, I wondered if I was making the right call.
As the snow got sparser and the trail got drier, the running got easier. We were now going gently downhill; it was cool; and I felt better than I had all day. I’d hit muddy patches from time to time — and at one point slid down a hill in my search for firmer ground — but otherwise I was making good time. I felt optimistic about catching up to Megan, thinking my fastest miles were ahead. Less promisingly, it got warmer as we descended, and I soon had to stop and take off my jacket, as well as my headlamp, which was giving me a headache (and wasn’t adding much to the light belt anyway). So much for those freezing temperatures: I was running in shorts and a t-shirt in the middle of the night while still above 7,500′.
My watch died around this time. The battery should last 30 hours in Ultra-Trac mode, so I was surprised to get a low battery warning after only 14.5 hours. Apparently I’d switched out of Ultra-Trac mode at some point and forgotten to switch back. Oh well: I wasn’t paying much attention to my pace anyway, and the miles would pass with or without a watch. I turned the GPS off.
Returning to Elk Camp at mile 52.5, I asked for hot water to make miso soup, but they had none. They did have lentil soup, so I sipped some of that. A volunteer told me I was making good time. I wasn’t sure I agreed, but I said “I feel good — that’s what’s important.” I thanked them and moved on. A few minutes later, I regretted not eating more lentil soup. I’d wanted broth and drank only enough soup to satisfy my craving for salt, but this was real food that went down easily, and I felt stupid for not having more. This is one reason people have pacers: to act as your brain when your own becomes dull and slow.
The next 3.5 miles to Spring Marsh continued to be runnable, and I made good time. At some point I heard someone greet me from behind: one of the Hawaiian Shirts. We ran together for a while, and I asked if he knew how far it was to the next aid station. He said he thought it was close, and as we crested the next hill, we saw it below us in the distance, glowing with strings of lights. I wish I’d taken a picture, as it looked kind of magical, but documenting the moment wasn’t top of mind.
Spring Marsh had both veggie ramen and veggie broth. I drank some of the latter, refilled my flasks with Gatorade, and moved on. Almost immediately after leaving, I regretted not eating any ramen, which sounded really good. Once again, my brain was five minutes behind where it needed to be.
A mile or so later, the trail crossed a small creek. I stepped on what seemed to be a solid-ish chunk of dirt and grass, only to find it less than solid: my foot shot out from under me, and I fell backwards into the creek. No harm done: just wet and muddy all over. I picked myself up and moved on.
Something happened to me around this time. I got really tired: not I’ve-been-running-too-long tired, but I-really-just-want-to-close-my-eyes-and-sleep tired. My body still felt surprisingly good, but I was losing the mental game. I started thinking about the miles still to go, which seemed increasingly long. I toyed with the idea of quitting — what was the point of those last miles, anyway? — but knew I’d regret dropping out while still able to run. My lack of clear goals didn’t help me here: I’d told myself I just wanted to enjoy the race, but now that I wasn’t, I felt kind of adrift.
Worst of all, once we returned to the canyons, it got warm. Not warm enough to be a problem, but enough to make me think — repeatedly — about what the next day would be like. I thought again about the long hill from Dry Fork and how hot it had been the previous day. The thought of doing that climb in tomorrow’s heat was oppressive. I was violating a cardinal rule of ultrarunning: stay in the moment and don’t think about the miles ahead. But fatigue and heat had me wallowing in negative thoughts. Several people passed me during this time.
In my last hundred-miler, I’d started taking caffeine around midnight, which helped a lot. It was now 3:00am, and I still hadn’t taken any. I’d left my caffeinated GUs in the Sally’s and Dry Fork drop bags, thinking I should hold off until late in the race, but those weren’t my only options: the aid stations had Coke and other caffeinated drinks. Why didn’t I avail myself of this? In part, I was too stupid and sleep-deprived to realize there was an available remedy for sleep deprivation. But I also felt a need to detox from the previous day’s substance abuse before putting more junk in my system.
At the Cathedral Rock aid station (mile 62.5), I asked for hot water, hoping to make miso soup. They didn’t have any on hand, but a child volunteer said he’d boil some for me. I didn’t really want to wait around for water to boil, but…whatever. I didn’t care much about time any more. I refilled my bladder, made and drank some miso soup, surveyed the snack options, found none of them appealing, and continued on.
The next 3.5 miles to Sally’s Footbridge are a blur in retrospect, but they seemed long at the time. I don’t remember anything particularly bad, or particularly good: just running slowly through the dark. I passed a few runners and was passed by more. Finally, Sally’s Footbridge came into view.
I retrieved my drop bag and sat down. Gray was sitting next to me. He said that Orange and Red had dropped out: the mud and water had been too much for his feet. A volunteer said lots of runners had been dropping out due to trench foot. My feet were doing fine, but I still changed into the dry shoes and socks I’d left in my drop bag. I put my wet shoes into the bag along with my warm jacket — which I clearly wasn’t going to need — and retrieved the caffeinated GUs I’d left there. This wasn’t a complicated set of tasks, but somehow it took me a long time. I spent minutes staring stupidly at my drop bag, wondering what to do. I felt like I was moving underwater. I decided to use the porta-pottie and took my time there. By the time I left Sally’s, I’d been there a full 40 minutes. That’s not such a long time if you need to lie down and recover from some serious physical ailment. It is a long time to putz around aimlessly because you feel you have nothing better to do.
It was almost 5:00am when I left Sally’s, and starting to get light. I turned off my light belt shortly thereafter. The climb from Sally’s was as described on the outbound journey: partly dry, partly muddy, all steep. But harder going uphill. Still, it almost felt good to put in a hard effort, as opposed to the monotonous droning I’d been doing for hours. At least the exertion helped wake me up. I took two caffeinated GUs on my way to the Bear Camp aid station (mile 69.5), which also helped. I wasn’t wild about these GUs: they had only 20mg of caffeine each, or one-fifth of an average cup of coffee. But maybe it was just as well that I’d have to eat a lot of them to get my caffeine fix.
I stopped briefly at Bear Camp, drinking some veggie broth and eating some watermelon. There was a bit more climbing after that, followed by a long, rolling stretch. With the sunrise and some caffeine in my system, I was starting to enjoy myself again. The wildflowers I’d noticed earlier looked even prettier in the morning light.
One other thing lifted my spirits: although the sun was rising, it was actually cooling down! This was partly because we’d left the heat-trapping canyons, but also because a lot of cloud cover was keeping things cool. The dread I’d nursed last night turned out to be not just pointless but also groundless. I felt silly for causing myself so much angst about nothing, but was glad to be proven wrong.
I took two more GUs enroute to the Cow Camp aid station (mile 76.5), where I swigged a cup of Coke. The caffeine was starting to kick in, and I was feeling much better. I wouldn’t say I was energetic, but I had no trouble running the parts I considered runnable. This included most of the six-mile stretch to Dry Fork, which I ran with a Canadian named Todd. I was grateful for the company, as talking helped pass the time, and we pushed each other along. It didn’t seem long before we saw Dry Fork on the ridge ahead.
Interestingly, there were a lot of runners moving along that ridge. Bighorn is a trail festival, with 52M, 32M and 18M races alongside the 100M. As we approached Dry Fork, the 18M runners were just heading out, forming a long column we had to cross. We darted through them to the aid station tent, where I was greeted by Hawaiian Shorts, who I hadn’t seen in over 11 hours. I grabbed my drop bag and sat down.
While I was filling my flasks with Gatorade powder, a volunteer told me my girlfriend had recently been through. I asked how long ago, and he said about an hour. That turned out to be wrong — according to the aid station data, it was more like an hour and a half — but it was just as well the volunteer got this wrong, as the shorter estimate gave me some motivation. I was feeling pretty good, and I thought it was just possible to make up an hour over the remaining 18 miles. Worth a try, anyway. The volunteer filled my flasks with water; I wished Todd and Hawaiian Shorts a good race and was on my way.
By mile 80 of a 100M — and usually well before that — my legs are typically screaming in pain, and I have trouble managing even the slowest of jogs. Today was different. My legs were tired but free of pain, so I could run as fast as my remaining energy allowed. I can’t say I sprinted away from the aid station, but I did manage to jog the uphill fire road and accelerated once I hit the downhill single-track. A column of 18M runners stretched before me as far as the eye could see. This was also a new experience: passing dozens of young, clean, fresh-looking runners at the end of a 100M. You might think the 18M runners — who at this point had run maybe two miles — would be moving faster than those finishing a 100M. But most of these runners were novices, and I was hitting the back of the pack first, so they were moving pretty slowly. Constantly passing on a single-track was kind of a pain, but it also kept my mind occupied. I really enjoyed stabilizing myself with poles on this winding downhill stretch, feeling almost like I was skiing. Only when the vegetation got too thick did I pick up and carry them.
I hammered it pretty hard to the Upper Sheep Creek aid station (mile 87.5), at which point the course turned abruptly and steeply uphill. I dug in with my poles and hiked as fast as I could, mentioning to someone along the way that I’d thought we were done with uphills. He said this was the last big one, followed by a few miles of tough downhill. I replied that I was fine with downhills.
That was true until it wasn’t. The first mile or so of downhill was on a fire road, where I could stride out and pass people easily. Then we got funneled onto a single-track, where the passing became harder, but I was still having fun. I recognized the fields of lupine from the previous morning and stopped to take a last pic.
After a while, however, this downhill indeed got tough. It went on, steeply and technically, mile after mile. It would have been physically stressful even if I’d been running by myself, but navigating the trail amidst the 18M runners made it more challenging still: lots of braking and accelerating. I worried that, after preserving my legs for 90 miles, I was going to trash them on this last downhill. So I was relieved when the descent finally ended at Lower Sheep Creek.
I asked a volunteer how far it was to the finish. “11 miles.” What?? How could that be? Had I really only traveled 6.5 miles since Dry Fork? I’d thought I was further along, but since I only knew the mileage for the drop-bag aid stations, I took the volunteer’s information on faith. Feeling demoralized, I jogged away from the aid station at a much reduced pace. I’d worked really hard to cover those alleged 6.5 miles and needed to regroup.
The 2.5 miles to the next aid station were an easy, rolling trail through the Tongue River Canyon. Although we’d come through here on our way out, the views in the return direction were more impressive — probably the most striking of the whole race. I gave up on pushing hard and took some time to admire them.
At the Tongue River Road aid station, a kindly volunteer sprayed me with cold water. I refilled a flask for the last time and asked what the course looked like from here. A volunteer told me it was an easy five miles of dirt road. “And then what?” I asked. “Then you’re done,” he said. Whew! I’d been misled at the last aid station, where I’d actually had only 7.5 miles to go. That’s a weird mistake for a volunteer to make, but oh well. Feeling relieved, I picked up the pace.
Those last five miles were hard. Partly because long flat roads are monotonous, but also because, down here at 4,000′, it was once again really hot. The sun was out in full and the humid air felt thick. I forced myself to keep running, poling myself along. The poles weren’t doing much, but I’d gotten so used to them that I kept them out: I’d used my quiver for maybe five miles of the whole race. We passed a final — I think unofficial — aid station that was handing out popsicles. I would have liked one, but my hands were full with the poles, so I said no thanks. “1.7 miles to go!” they said. That was encouraging, so I dug deep and pushed on. Before long the dirt turned to pavement, and after a few turns, I ran through the finishing chute in 28:49 and was done.
I wandered around looking for Megan — who had finished 49 minutes earlier in 28:00 — feeling hot and disoriented. Finally I saw her walking toward me, visibly limping. Apparently that last downhill had been hard on one of her ankles: ironically, the good one she hadn’t sprained six months ago. I lay down in the grass, hoping to rest at last, but it was so hot and muggy that lying there felt intolerable. Megan suggested we move into the shade, which seemed like a good plan until I noticed the Tongue River flowing by the park. I walked over and immersed my legs in the cold water, rinsing off the mud. I splashed water on my arms and neck, then plunged my head into the water. That helped; I now felt cool enough to rest. We got some food and drink at the post-race BBQ, picked up our drop bags, and drove back to our Airbnb. I did the driving this time, seemingly in better shape than the previous morning, although still meandering a bit from fatigue. We both crashed pretty hard back at the farm, although I’d make one more drive that day, to pick up a pizza in Sheridan.
The next morning we both felt pretty good. Our legs seemed fine, although Megan was worried about her ankle, which had swelled noticeably. That was interesting: she hadn’t rolled it, but that last downhill clearly gave it a beating. My own feet had started to get puffy from inflammation, as they always do after long races. I went outside to drink my coffee and was greeted by the dogs, two of which jumped onto the bench beside me.
We cleaned up the place and wandered down to see the alpacas, who’d been rounded up for shearing. We’d hoped to see them get sheared, but the shearer was running late, so we just said our goodbyes.
Was I happy with my race? It was a mixed bag for me. On the one hand, I was slower than I’d hoped. I think I was in good shape going in, so this probably reflected other factors: the heat, being hung over, a lack of clear motivating goals, and so on. It did seem to be a tough year for everyone, with a slowest-ever average finishing time of 31 hours and a DNF (Did Not Finish) rate of 44 percent (134 finishers out of 241 starters). On the other hand, I was thrilled that my legs felt good at the end. I haven’t done many 100Ms, but my legs have always hurt by mile 80, and I generally spend those last 20 miles afraid that I’m causing permanent damage. I’m not sure why this time was different. Maybe my spring races — two 100Ks and three 50Ms in February, March and April — left my legs more resilient. Or maybe it just helped to go slow: this was my first 100M with lots of hiking, and almost four hours slower than my previous personal worst. I’ll get another “test” in two weeks, when I run the Vermont 100. Vermont is a famously runnable course, so I should know by the end which of these factors mattered most.
Whatever the reason, I was glad to finish strong. I gained 46 minutes on Megan in the last 18 miles: not enough to close the gap, but not bad. My last leg compared well with the rest of my cohort, too: I ran the last 18 miles 92 minutes faster than Hawaiian Shorts, 23 minutes faster than Gray, 27 minutes faster than Todd, and faster than both Hawaiian Shirts (though both finished ahead of me). These are somewhat arbitrary comparisons, but it seems I’d left a lot in the tank, maybe too much.
I’m still figuring 100Ms out, but these are my main take-aways:
1. Don’t OD on caffeine, marijuana and alcohol the day before the race. (Who knew?)
2. Run more aggressively. I’ve recently doubled down on the idea that you can’t start long races too slow. I still think this idea has merit: it’s not clear that (highly) positive splits should be the norm in ultras when the fastest marathon times are based on even splits. However, fast marathoners also don’t strive for steeply negative splits, and it’s certainly easier to shave an hour by running 36 seconds/mile faster for 100 miles than 3 minutes/mile faster for the last 20. There’s also a mental argument for running faster earlier: it’s motivating to hit your target pace and demoralizing to fall way behind it.
3. Have a clear B goal. I had a woolly, implicit A goal going into this race of 24-25 hours. But when I realized early on that this was out of reach, I reverted to the obvious C goal of just finishing. It might have been helpful to have a B goal of, say, 27 hours, just to focus the mind. It’s hard to push through all those miles when you don’t know what you’re pushing for.
4. Spend less time at aid stations. I don’t know how much time I spent at aid stations altogether, but I’d be surprised if it was less than two hours. That’s too much.
5. Take caffeine earlier, if needed. My race fell apart when I got sleepy during the night; maybe caffeine would have helped. There is a counter-argument, of course: perhaps I’d have ended up like Hawaiian Shorts, who surged after taking caffeine at Jaws only to die hard at the end. But my gut tells me drowsiness is a bigger problem for me than getting carried away, so I’ll be packing stronger GUs (with 40mg caffeine) for Vermont.
6. I love poles!
Would I do this race again? I won’t say “no,” but I probably won’t be back soon. The scenery was pretty but not spectacular: it didn’t wow me like, say, Bigfoot 73. (It’s a beautiful area, but I actually found the views on our drive to the race more striking than those along the course.) And the course’s challenges were hard without being exciting. In some races the slow, technical sections are the highlight: think the Palisades at Castle Peak or the Càrn Mòr Dearg Arête at Ben Nevis. These obstacles slow you down but are also thrilling and epic. The biggest obstacle at Bighorn is the mud: a challenge to be sure, but not one I found uplifting. But, who knows? I could see myself coming back, if only to hang out with the alpacas.