Well, I’m home! It was a crazy adventure, but I’ve lived to tell the story, so here it goes. A group of 8 of us from the Boise, Idaho area headed to Dayton, Wyoming for the Big Horn Wild and Scenic Trail Run this past weekend. My friends Tony, Dennis, Jeff and Emily were signed up for the 100 miler, Emily’s husband, John was signed up for the 50k and Donna, Theresa and I were in for the 50 miler. It was a diverse and fun group. John was out for his first 50k attempt and Donna and I were in for our first 50 mile attempt. Emily was on the hunt for a 100 mile official finish (having just barely missed the final cut off at the Bear -where, she did, in fact, run the entire 100 miles but did not get the coveted belt buckle of those who finished in the time limit.) The rest of the group had a bit more ultra experience under their belts and we all went in optimistic that we’d have a good outcome at Big Horn, though we were all a bit concerned with the reported conditions of the trails after such a snowy winter and cold spring left plenty of water and mud on the course.
On Friday morning, Emily, Dennis, Jeff and Tony lined up with the other 100 milers at the park, near the giant sculpture of the elk. The national anthem was sang by a man with a deep, warm baritone and then they were off on their 100 mile trail adventure! We cheered and clapped for our friends and I got a few pictures. I spent that evening curious how they were doing and was unable to sleep that night, hoping they were all having a great race under the full moon out in the mountains. I tossed and turned until 2:45am, when it was time to get up. I dressed quickly, used the bathroom and double checked my Nathan vest to make sure it was carrying 70 oz of water and all the essentials I thought I’d need out there: an extra long sleeved shirt, a pair of pants my friend Theresa had loaned me (thanks, Theresa!), plenty of trail mix, S caps and gels. I felt ready, calm and cautiously optimistic that it was going to go well.
Theresa, Donna and I walked to the buses about 3:50 am. We found seats and sat down. Within a couple of minutes, Donna realized she’d forgotten her coat and she ran back to the camp site to get it. Several minutes passed and the driver shut the door, turned off the lights and started to pull forward. Luckily, Theresa and I yelled that our friend wasn’t back yet. He stopped the bus and just a few minutes later, Donna was back wearing her coat and ready to race. Our bus (the lead bus of four), slowly took off on a 90 minute drive up, up, up into the Big Horn mountains. Many slept. I tried to relax and enjoy the colorful pink, purple and orange show in the sky as the sun was slowly rising while we weaved our way up the mountain. It wasn’t long before the bus came to a sudden stop! A deer had crossed the road right in front of us! We rounded a corner, and someone from the back yelled out, “A moose! Look!” Sure enough, a Mama moose and her baby were wandering in the meadow just off the road! Shortly after, we also spotted a doe and her tiny, spotted baby trotting along about 20 feet from the road. I could tell it was going to be an exciting day, with so many wildlife sightings already!
We arrived at Dry Fork (the 50 mile start) at an elevation of about 7500 feet about 5:30 am and saw a 100 mile runner coming up the side of the mountain towards the aid station. The whole bus started hooting and clapping! Everyone was so excited to get to see some of the 100 milers in their race (though, of course the winner of the 100, Zachariah Miller (age 35) had already finished the course at 5:15 am (19 hours and 13 min – amazing!) We filed off the bus and it was a thrill to get to cheer on those racers (many of them looking exhausted and worn down after a long night of running and then climbing up the hardest section in the whole course, affectionately nicknamed “The Wall” which gains about 2000 feet of elevation over just about 3 miles.) It was pretty cold -maybe 40 degrees and breezy as we shivered in the cold and waited for our own start at 6 am.
They finally lined us up, the national anthem was sang, and we were off! Since the 50 milers were heading down the wall, it was pretty good running for the first mile or so. I settled into a quick, relaxed stride and felt amazing almost from the start. I was so happy to be racing finally! You lose 451 feet of elevation in the first mile, so I was in 7th heaven running downhill, quickly warming up and feeling strong. The path was very rutted, crowded and muddy, but I picked my way down the first stretch dodging slower downhill runners and settling into a good pace. It wasn’t long before we came to the first stream crossing. I remembered what my friend, Dennis had said about these, “Just go straight through them. Don’t dilly dally looking for ways to keep your shoes dry. You won’t be able to anyway and you’ll waste time.” So, I just charged straight through, splashing water all around me as I went, feeling the icy chill of the mountain water soaking my feet. It felt GREAT and I knew I was in for a good time!
The first six miles were a lot of fun. If the entire race course had been as pleasant as they were (you know, early in the morning, no hot sun beating down on me yet, all downhill and only somewhat technical) I’d have been golden. But, of course, that wasn’t going to be the case. I was using my strategy of “Play to your strengths” and just running well on the downhill sections, which just happened to take place right at the start. It did occur to me that this section was going to be hell to come back up later, but I tried not to think about that.
Just about 2 miles into the race, I saw my friend, Dennis coming up the Wall! I was so excited to see one of my friends! Every single time we encountered a 100 miler coming up the singletrack, I’d pull off into the thick sagebrush and cheer “Way to go! Looking good! and I did double that for my friends, evening hugging them and wishing them well before sending them on. Shortly after seeing Dennis, I ran into Tony, cheered for him, then a few minutes later, I saw Jeff. Jeff said , “I feel like crap!”, I told him he looked great and headed back down the trail. My heart was happy that I’d been able to witness my pals on their 100 mile journey. I felt pretty honored, honestly and that section was a highlight for me.
There was a lot of shoe-sucking mud, roots, tons of rocks of various sizes and the path was more challenging than any I’d ever ran before in racing or training. I was still all smiles, though, when I caught the scent of bacon cooking. Wow, that was a boost! I ran into the Cow Camp aid station, smiling from ear to ear and ready to eat some of that delicious food. I knew that time can get lost in aid stations, so I tried to be quick, flashing my number, getting checked “in” to the aid station, grabbing a piece of the bacon and one of the chip-thin cooked potatoes and flashing my number to check “out” before running down the hill side. I felt pretty good. I’d taken my jacket and arm sleeves off and was wearing a singlet tank top and a light pair of running pants over my compression shorts. The sun was out and I was getting hot. I did a great job of staying hydrated, taking the S caps and peeing. Everything seemed to be on schedule.
Things got a lot rougher after the Cow Camp aid station. It’s the prettiest section of the course, but it’s also very challenging. It really did look like the Grand Canyon with high white walls of rock just climbing high into the sky surrounded by meadows of thick seafoam green sagebrush and yellow and purple wildflowers. It was gorgeous! It just took my breath away to see on the opposite side several mountainsides thickly covered with pine forests. It was truly one of the most breathtaking views I’ve ever witnessed. But, I tried to keep my eyes on the technical single-track trail, so that I wouldn’t fall down the mountainside, slanting steeply away from the path. It would have been a long fall down and I didn’t want to think about that.
The path weaved into thicker tree cover finally. That was a relief as it was getting so warm. There were many more creek crossings and thick sections of shoe-sucking mud throughout the course to endure. I’ve never raced in mud up to my mid-calf before but I did it for many miles in this race. I’d also never ran uphill while a stream of water was running down at me, but that, also happened in points on this stretch. Crossing the streams and creeks, which were impossible to go around, made for some very technical terrain as well. I think there were at least 20 of them (and we had to go back through them on the way back!) I really did love the water crossings, believe it or not. The shock of the cold water on my feet was very refreshing and I’d bend down and splash some on my legs and hands as well to refresh myself at each one. My feet were wet and muddy the entire race.
It was through the canyon section, with the wildflowers all around that I finally saw the one person I wanted most to run across at this race — my friend Emily!!!!! I squealed and yelled her name and broke into a fast run towards her! She was all smiles, which was a very good sign considering she was probably at least 75 miles into her race! She looked strong, was feeling good and was still running! I wished her well and headed on my way.
Several miles later, I made it into Footbridge (the first cut off) at 4:10 into the race. The cut off was 4:30, so I was feeling pleased. I was burning up and wanted to get my pants off and leave them in my drop bag. An aid worker found my bag, and I sat down in a chair to get the pants off. Now, in race reports about this race that I’d been reading, I’d noted that nearly everyone takes off their shoes at this point in the race and changes them out for clean, dry ones. I had shoes and socks in my bag. I had no intention of putting them on though, since I was feeling fine and figured I’d just get wet and muddy again quickly anyways. But… as I yanked on the pants it became clear that with so much mud caked on them, I would not be able to get them off quickly without taking my shoes off. It seemed like it would just be easier to yank off the shoes without touching the laces under all that mud, so I did. My socks were totally black and I took those off too. My feet were dirty, but looked great. No blisters at all! I quickly took off the muddy pants and put them, my arm sleeves and my long sleeved shirt and jacket into the drop bag. It would occur to me very quickly after I left that it was not a smart move to leave my only jacket behind, but I was in a hurry and clearly not thinking about the fact that I’d still need to be prepared for another 11 hours of trail running. For some reason, I was thinking we had to run to Footbridge from Dry Fork twice and that I’d have an opportunity to get into that bag and get my jacket or arm sleeves later on if needed (which was incorrect.) I put on the fresh shoes and socks and they did feel great! I grabbed my Nathan which again had 70 oz of fresh, cold water and grabbed another 5 gels from my drop bag and put them into my pocket. I headed to the foot table eager for some salted potatoes, soup and soda. What I found was lots of fresh fruit, some sandwiches with a couple of flies sitting on them and plenty of chips and candy – but no salted potatoes or soup. I grabbed some fruit and a few pretzels and heard the aid station captain shout out “10 minutes until cut off” and only had time to pour a little Pepsi and sip a couple sips before I headed out of there. I left by 4:21 into the race.
I felt pretty good and enjoyed the handful of fruit, but I could tell that I was low on calories. I took a gel and an s cap, but quickly realized that I was starting to really feel the affects of the work I was doing and needed more to eat than I’d been given. I was dying for a salted potato since that’s what I always trained with this past few months and was really shocked I’d been unable to get any from the 3 aid stations I’d encountered so far into the race. I was very concerned how I’d feel in a few hours if I didn’t get more calories into me.
Going back up the area I’d come down was so much harder. I passed many 50 milers here and encouraged them to hurry since the cut off was close. Within a few minutes, I felt terrible when I realized that those smiling runners I was passing would be pulled once they pulled into Footbridge after 16.1 miles into the race. I felt terrible about it especially when I saw my fun-loving pal Jennifer. She was all smiles and I was so happy to see her, but felt terrible when she asked me if she’d make the cut off since I was certain it had passed by that point by just a few minutes.
I kept moving forward and it was suddenly eerily quiet. When so many were pulled at that aid station and there were no longer 100 milers or faster 50 milers passing me on the trail, it was a sudden and drastic change. I was also going uphill now – the thing I am worst at in all races. I munched the grapes and pretzels I’d brought and just hiked as hard as I could on my slow climb up “The Wall.” My Garmin Connect shows 589 ft of climb at mile 17, 644 ft at mile 18, 711 at mile 19, then 371 ft for mile 20 and 283 ft for mile 21 – and we weren’t done climbing yet! It was torture! It was muddy, wet and technical and there were no longer any other runners very close to me. I spent nearly 2 hours completely alone through this section. I thought I was the last 50 mile runner and that got me concerned. I’d say I had my lowest moments from miles 19 – 26. I was bonking, moving at a snail’s pace, the heat and hunger and lack of any other nearby racers getting to me. I had taken a gel but had felt nauseous from it (which was a first since they usually work well for me and have in other races.) I tried to nibble more of the trail mix I had with me, but it just didn’t satisfy that hunger for salted potatoes and soda I was having.
I pulled out my mp3 player and tried to pump myself up with music. It helped some. Shania Twain’s song “Up, Up, Up” seemed very appropriate with all the climbing and “Help” the Beatles came on just as I was slogging through yet another long stretch of thick, shoe-sucking mud. I was getting a headache, the wind started to pick up and I suddenly realized I wish I’d kept my jacket on me. The weather can change very quickly in the mountains. Luckily, the wind never become too overwhelming and the heat was pretty strong, so I was fine for this stretch.
Somewhere in this section (I think around mile 20) I came into the minor aid station that I’d earlier came through at around 12.5 miles. I don’t recall the name. Horse Camp, maybe? Anyways, I’d been dreaming of salted potatoes and soda for miles and just knew I’d get my needs met here. But, I was wrong. They had ran out of those earlier so instead I was offered salted peanuts and mini candy bars. My stomach just turned looking at my options, but I knew I had to eat, so I took 3 mini candy bars and a handful of pretzels and kept going. This was a low spot. I was very concerned I’d be unable to come back from the bonk fully without something more substantial in my system. I just don’t handle sweet things when I’m running. They usually upset my stomach. This proved to be the case when I tried to eat a few peanut M and M’s. My stomach felt really nauseated, but I kept moving forward.
This was the point where I had my first real wildlife sighting of the race. I came upon a lovely doe munching grass in the meadow. She saw me and then bounded off into the tree cover, where she turned and curiously watched me from a safer distance. I stopped and watched her too. She was lovely and seeing her cheered my heart.
I fought the nausea, the headache, and a bit of an upset stomach and my cravings for better food and drink as I went along this stretch. I thought of the Hobbit, on his first adventure, far away from his comfortable hobbit hole, hungry and forlorn. I started missing my family really terrible at this point and was quickly starting to think I would not be able to make the time cut off in the race since all the uphill and the lack of food was getting to me and slowing me way down. I kind of wanted to just go home and would have taken the offer if a Fairy Godmother had shown up on the path and offered me a wish.
About mile 24 I thought I was hearing a bell. I thought I was hearing things. I’d already been “seeing” things that weren’t there for some time. Odd things, like a little boy peeking at me over the next ridge, only to get closer and realize that it was just an unusual bit of wood in a shape somewhat like that of a child’s head. I thought I saw a boat with a sail right in the forest after that. It turned out to be a tree with white bark. I have heard of 100 milers having hallucinations, but never of someone only running a short distance as I was. I thought it was odd that my mind was playing tricks on me, but figured it was from being hungry and alone. When I heard the bell and then clapping, I really thought I was imaging it. After a bit, my “imagination” ran up and waited to be petted. This cute lab was just standing there, her tongue hanging out, looking at me like, “Wanna run?!” I turned around to find a very pretty girl running in what looked like a tiny, white tennis skirt. She had duct tape on both heels and was running with her feet only partially in her thin shoes. She told me she was a bare-foot runner normally and was just waiting for a less-rocky section before she could run the way she wanted to. I let her and the dog (who it turned out belonged to someone at the next aid station) pass and jogged along, happy to at least have someone else on the trail with me for a change. When we’d gone another mile or so, she stopped and asked if I had any extra water. I told her that I did and she asked if I’d share some with the dog, who was very hot and thirsty. I said, “Of course.” After that, it was a long, slow climb up to the Cow Camp aid station.
At that point, I wasn’t sure if there was a cut off at Cow Camp or if I’d make it through. My face was caked in sweat and salt and when I sat down in the chair and took off my Nathan vest, suddenly the sweaty salt started dripping into my eyes and I couldn’t see. It was painful, too! I made my way to the water jugs and started splashing my face with water to remove the offending salt. An aid worker saw me and brought me a paper towel, which I appreciated very much. I felt so much better after washing my face. I was so hungry, still, too, so the first thing I asked for after that was something to eat. They had no more potatoes, but they did hand me a half peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a cup of raman noodle soup, some grapes and a slice of orange, along with a cup of Pepsi. I felt like a queen sitting down to a feast after being so hungry! There was this adorable little girl, with blond curly hair there chewing on an orange slice and I leaned down and said to her, “Are you 4 years, old, honey?” She held up her hand and showed me four fingers and nodded. I told her, “I thought so. I have a 4 year old little girl at home who looks a lot like you.” She asked me if I had other kids, so I started telling her about all five of mine. She wanted to know their names and I enjoyed our little chat, although it also made me a bit homesick again. I sat down and ate some food while they filled my Nathan up with some cold water.
Within just a few minutes, I felt awesome again! It was like I’d come back from the dead! I was still sore and tired but all of a sudden, I felt like I could run again instead of just walk or hike. (I’m sure climbing up that 2,000 up the Wall and finally reaching a flatter section helped mentally, too!) The aid station worker said with a concerned face, “Good luck on the next cut off.” That’s when I finally looked back at my Garmin and realized I’d really have to run well from this point to the next aid station to miss the cut off! The Cow Camp aid station had come along at around 26.2 miles or so. I needed to make it to Dry Fork (the start spot) by 4 pm. I knew it was over 5.5 miles there and I had about an hour to get there. I knew it would be tough, but I broke into a run and started working for it. Very quickly, I was comfortably running 9 – 11 minute miles and thought there was hope again. I caught up to my friend, Donna who’d came into Cow Camp and immediately went out again without eating or really stopping. I told her we had less than 50 minutes to make the final 4 + miles and asked if she wanted to join me in trying to hit the cut off. She said no and so I headed on, determined to meet the time limit and feeling optimistic that I at least had a shot. I caught up to another man, who’d also passed me while I ate at the aid station and asked if he would like to run with me to the next aid station. He said he just couldn’t keep up at this point and was ok with whatever happened at the aid station, so off I went. It all went well, until, after yet another water and mud crossing, I reached the point that I could finally see the aid station wayyyyyyyy up on the hill top — 451 feet of climb up. It was a mile away and I was down to about 6 minutes before the cut off. I knew then that it was just impossible. So very close, but so far away and so high up. Even on my best day, I can only do a 6:50 mile – on a flat surface!!!! It was just not meant to be. Once I accepted that, I stopped and turned towards the man I’d passed a few miles back and waited for him to catch up. He was only about 1/4 a mile or less back, so it didn’t take that long before he caught up. I said, “We’re not going to make it. Are you ok with that?” He smiled and said, “Of course! These things happen in tough ultras and this course was very tough this year!” I agreed. He also mentioned how the 100 milers had been given a bonus hour on the cut off due to the conditions and how it was kind of disappointing that 30 bonus minutes hadn’t been given to the 50 milers. I agreed and considering how close we were, that 30 minutes would have made all the difference in the world.
We had a great chat on the way up, though. He was an experienced ultra racer and had lots of cool stories to share with me about races he’d done all over the U.S. I enjoyed the chatter as we hiked the rest of that last mile uphill to the aid station workers, who looked a little sad to tell us the bad news. We already knew, though and I was actually in good spirits. I’d given my best. I’d ran well when I could and really pulled out some great times on the downhills. I really think I could have made the cut off if I’d had some potatoes along the way to nourish me better, but what happened, happened and I learned a lot. I made it 32.1 miles (a bit more than a 50K) with in 10:18:04 I took 24 minutes walking uphill in that last mile. It was a doozy! My best pace all day was on a downhill when I hit 5:45 at about mile 4. That was a highlight section for me and a lot of fun. My moving time was 9:12, so I was stopped either along the path cheering for the faster runners coming at me or stopped at one of the 5 aid stations I encountered while out there. I kept my heart rate right where I wanted to: My average was 153. I wish I’d packed some salted potatoes of my own. I realize I wasted too much time at Footbridge changing shoes and eating and at Cow Camp refueling and chatting with the cute blond 4 year old. I shouldn’t have been so energetically cheering for 100 + runners who passed me on the single track trail. I should have conserved my energy better instead. I should also learn how to allow those faster runners to pass me, without coming to a standstill. Run through the thick sagebrush? Maybe encounter poison ivy or ticks or rattlesnakes in doing so? Hmm.. I’ll have to think about that. I think about 250 were signed up for the 50 miler. Only 145 made it to the finish on Saturday. It was truly a tough race on a challenging course with super strict time cut offs! The final cut off was 15 hours. There is lots of downhill in the final 18 miles and I feel pretty confident I would have made that if I’d been allowed to go past the Dry Fork aid station, but —- things are as they are and I learned quite a few lessons out there. I got a nice 50k of training under my belt, you could say on some pretty knarly trails with some great people! The race web site said the altered course would have a total of 4,200 of climb. They were incorrect. In the 31.13 miles I ran, using the Garmin Connect elevation correcter — I gained 5,796 feet!!! The entire usual course had only 6,100 or so, so this was INTENSE to say the least and didn’t even take into account all the mud and water crossings or how bottled up it got with the 100 milers sharing the course (which doesn’t normally happen when the race is taking place on the usual routes.) I think those factors probably slowed lots of runners down, but it was a great race, nonetheless and I know the race directors were really having to work extra hard to accommodate so many runners on an altered course with very little time to work out the little details. They did a great job, the course was very well marked, the volunteers were wonderful and I am thankful I had a chance to experience the Big Horn mountains of Wyoming! They are truly a sight to see!
Now, believe it or not, the race story doesn’t totally end there. Once I got back to camp, I showered and chatted with several of my friends. Dennis had finished the race in 27 hours and some change – a fantastic time and about 2 hours better than he’d done the race one year earlier. That was good enough for 25th overall and a 3rd place finish in the 50-59 age category in the 100 mile distance. Tony did great as well! This was his second 100 and he did it in a little over 28 hours. Jeff did a great job, but was struggling at mile 83 and had to DNF. My fast friend Theresa had been at the front of the pack of 50 mile gals and was smiling when I saw her on the course, but ended up rolling both ankles badly and DNF’d a bit beforeDry Fork (about 50k just like me.) Emily’s husband, John had done really well in the 50k, running faster than he’d expected to in the first half, only to break his foot on the way back up, so he ended up with a DNF as well since they had to pick him up and take him back to Dry Fork. My friend, Donna, had also had a hard time with the cut offs and had been pulled at Dry Fork. It had been a tough day for the Boise, Idaho crowd! Of the 8 of us who went, only 2 had actually completed the race! We had one more runner still out on the trail — Emily and we got word that she’d just barely made it into the last aid station and was on her way the final 5 miles into town!
I didn’t have a clean pair of running shoes left, but saw Emily’s extra pair in the cabin and after asking her husband’s permission, borrowed them and put them on. I was honestly feeling fine since I hadn’t finished my race. I still had plenty of energy and drive left, so I headed out onto the course to find Emily and help run her in. Emily’s younger sister, Margie had come all the way from Singapore to be with her for this race, so it was pretty cute, when Margie borrowed a bike from one of the campers and headed out onto the course to find her big sister and cheer her in. By the time I headed out, Margie had been with Emily for awhile, which I thought was pretty sentimental and sweet. I didn’t wear the Garmin, but I think I jogged about 2.5 – 3 miles onto the dirt road before I finally caught sight of them in the distance! I broke into a grin and started running faster to reach her. When she saw my face, she grinned, too, which is a pretty amazing feat for someone who’s been running all day and all night and then all day again for nearly 100 miles. I was so impressed! I gave her a huge hug when I reached her and started to rub her shoulders and asked her what she needed. She said, “I’m so glad you came. I was hoping you would.” I told her, “The thing I wanted more than anything this weekend was to help you finish this race” and it was the truth. Even though my own race didn’t go as planned, being there for my friend in her much-bigger goal was something that mattered more to me.
Emily had picked up a great group of friends at this point. There were several 50 milers who had kind of taken to her when they’d come across her. They were all just hanging together for the final stretch and I thought that was awesome! You could see there was a lot of exhaustion in their faces, but they were all very determined to finish this up and come in as a group. It was pretty sweet!
Emily told me, “Let’s count steps.”, so that’s what we did. We’d power walk for a count of 50, then we’d pick something to run towards – like a big tree or a fence post or a farm house and then, we’d start to jog towards it as a group. It was fun being part of this section. I cheered for all of them, told them how great they looked (they REALLY did, too!), and even ran backwards a bit so I could make eye contact with Emily and encourage her. It seemed to help. She was awesome! Her form was good, despite both feet being plagued with a ton of blisters. She was so determined and strong minded and you could just see it in her eyes that she KNEW she was going to make it this time under the cut off! We finally crossed the red bridge, crossed the street and headed down the last 1/3 of a mile or so into the park. Emily said to me, “I’m going to sprint this in and I said, “GO FOR IT!” She took off and I ran with her until we reached the entrance to the park, where everyone was waiting near the finish line. I started clapping and whooping and yelling, “GO EMILY!!!!! YOU’RE AMAZING!” and ran into the grass so that I could get to the other side and watch her finish up! I was in tears watching her run so strong to the finish line just glowing with pride and strength! What a woman!!! She did it!! She made the cut off with 15 minutes to spare!!!!! Her grandparents were there, her husband, all of her friends from Idaho who’d ran earlier. We were all there to witness her achievement and it was fantastic!
It was a great weekend, a tough race, but one I will never forget! I’m glad I went!
Two volunteers drove us back down the mountain to our camp and I really appreciated that.