It has been six months since I completed my first 100 mile race. Often I think there is a pressure to put out a race report as quickly as we can in order to debrief all those who were following on how the race shook out. For many reason, mostly my schooling which continued through the summer and into the fall and winter , I haven’t had the motivation to sit down and put the pen to paper. Retrospectively, I think that this has been beneficial, as it has allowed me time to decompress on the race, to ruminate on my true takeaways from the experience and to come away with some lessons that I will be taking moving forward and using in the future.
As I outlaid in my previous posts from the spring, I had poured my heart and soul into training for this race. Every race that I did through the spring was a step towards Bighorn, each training run would have the focus of getting stronger and building the endurance to last a hundred miles of running. If I felt a little injury niggling away, I would ease off. If I needed a big weekend of running and if I had 5 exams the coming week, I would still make it happen. Life was pretty aesthetic; rise, school, run, study, sleep, repeat. I have found that I actually really enjoy this type of a schedule, the impending goal and event allows me to put into perspective what tasks deserve time in my day, and what I can cut out. Of course, I realize that this is just a fringe sport, existing on the edges of what is acceptable. Becoming too invested in this daily outlet could leave me shattered if I were to become injured or unable to compete.
By actively managing my running health, I had managed to arrive mostly uninjured. I was vigilant with stretching and massage treatment, while maintaining a clean diet and resting as much as possible where I could get it. Two weeks prior to the race, I had what I thought to be a minor toe stub while completing my last multi-hour outing. Still six months later, it is sore after almost all my runs, leading me to believe I either compressed the joint capsule quite severely or sprained some of the ligaments which protect the toe. Regardless, this was a moot point on race day, as it was the least of my concerns.
So the race, the big dance, the main event. Here I was down in Montana bundled into a rental car with my parents, Ross and Cathy, who had come to supervise this effort. My sneaking suspicion was that my mom wanted to be there in case I tried to die on race day and she could use her nursing skills on me. As we rolled across the plains of Montana and into Wyoming, I felt a mixture of calm and anxiety. The calm came from the knowledge that I had completed every big training run and race is my build-up. I was uninjured, and I had tapered well, babying my runs and resting as much as possible. The anxiety came from the unknown. How should I arrange my drop bags, would I leave two pairs or one pair of socks at the Footbridge aid station, where should I send extra pairs of shoes, how would the elevation affect me, and where should I start to push hard when racing a distance that I had never completed? I felt confident that I could complete the distance. The year before I had run around the 150km Wonderland Trail with my friend Jeff, but after all of this work and training, I wanted to race and have a crack at going sub 24 hrs and hopefully sub 22 if things went according to plan.
The evening before, I sifted these thoughts through my head as I packed my drop bags and tinkered with expected arrival times at aid stations. The race didn’t start until eleven the next morning, so we had a relaxed dinner filled with the tempered excitement of the coming day and what I was about to do. The morning came quickly. The sunlight showered across the long grass of the Wyoming plain as it flowed over rolling hills, before abutting the towering foothills and mountains that make up the Bighorn range. The pre-race briefing was at nine AM in Dayton, a tiny town situated at the base of the foothills. Hundreds of runners and their accompanying crew filled a shaded park on the river as the mercury and tension began to rise.
I greeted new friends and old from the ultra-community, and I gleaned last minute nuggets of intel on the course from Randy and Lori who had run the race previously. The anticipation began to well as we piled into cars and rolled along the dirt road to the start line in a canyon a few miles away. After parking, I was met by my childhood friend Jake and his girlfriend Pamela, who had driven across the state from Jackson Hole to observe the spectacle. They seemed incredulous at what was about to happen, and even more surprised at the fact that hundreds of people were about to do the same with me. Jake had figured that perhaps 10 maybe 20 other nuts would be joining me in this journey, not the 390 that had amassed at the head of the canyon.
It was game time, all I wanted to do was start, to get the first step under foot and clear the butterflies. The heat was sweltering as the American anthem was sung over a loud speaker, and as I looked out along the course I could see the heat radiating off of the rocky outcroppings and gravel road. With a rush the countdown was over and we were off, on the path to a hundred miles through the rustic Bighorn mountain range.
The first mile was filled with the excited and emotional faces of our family and friends as we moved up the canyon along a gravel road. Quickly the sounds of the line became muted, and I was left to my thoughts of the race ahead. The course begins with a long 14 km climb through meadows peppered with wildflowers and expansive views back out onto the Wyoming plain. The temperature hovered around 30 degrees and as we passed 7 000 ft in elevation I could feel my heart rate skyrocket. I had been moving easily, hiking uphill and enjoying the fact that we had begun. I couldn’t believe that I was already feeling overwhelmed 5 km into a 160km race. I slowed to an easy walk as I crested the first major climb, and tried to put down the doubts boiling in my head. The combination of elevation and heat are a dynamic duo that together sap your energy and put you in a world of hurt during a race like this. It certainly forced me to slow down considerably over the first leg of the race, and as I ran to meet my parents for the first time, I was worried. I could already feel that the first 21 km had drained me in a way I had no right to feel. I had taken it very easy in 2 hr 55, but I resolved to put on a positive face and to turn things around over the next runnable section.
The Dry Forks aid station at 21 km is the busiest aid of the course, filled with hundreds of spectators and crew members, and it functioned like a race car pit lane. Racers pulled off the trail and were checked in with their timing chips, then meeting only 2 crew members inside a cordoned off area. My parents quickly changed out water and put new food into my vest, checked to see how things were going, and I was off after only 6 minutes. The energy of the cheering people and seeing my crew had me optimistic and I ran off, looking forward to seeing them after another 27 km.
Its really interesting looking back at my projected splits compared to my actual times on course. My perception as I worked through this 27 km section of the course to Footbridge was that the race really fell apart. I was nauseous, walking often, and thoroughly defeated. Many times as my head throbbed, my stomach churned, and couldn’t force calories down, I contemplated if dropping was the smart play. My urine was starting to turn dark brown and I was forced to stop every 5 min thinking I had to pee, but then nothing but a burning sensation occurred. I was convinced that my body was starting to shut down, that this would be the end of the day for me. I ran down the 2 000 foot descent into Footbridge easily as I didn’t want to destroy my quads, and I could feel that my legs were completely fine but my body was very unhappy. At 6.5 hrs in for 50km I was actually right on my projected times, but felt that the race was completely derailed.
At the Footbridge aid station (48 km) I took in a ton of water and salt, changed out of my soaked shirt, and resolved to walk the next 30 km uphill to the turnaround at Jaws, and see how I felt. Maybe if I could get enough fluids in and restore my electrolyte balance, the just maybe I would be able to race the way I had intended to. Looking around the aid station I could see that the heat and elevation had laid waste to many of the other runners. I watched people puke, collapse while standing, and remain in their chairs with a thousand yard stare. It looked like we were at 150km into the race instead of 50, and it made me realize that I was not the only one in trouble out here.
The sun was low as I left the aid at 5:45 pm and I hoped for a revival by the time I reached the middle of the race late that evening. It was during this section that I teamed up with a friend who I had met earlier in the year at Gorge Waterfalls, Ken Sinclair. We decided to run/walk together for the next section, and his energy carried me along for many of the next miles. As the temperature dropped and I forced more solid food, water and salt into my system, I could feel my body coming to life. In particular the broth at the cowboy camps in remote meadows really brought my stomach around. Over the next 8 hours, I took as much broth as I could, it became my magic elixir. Just as I was hitting my stride, Ken was losing his. The climb to Jaws is gradual, over 4000 feet spread out over 30 km so much of the terrain is runnable if you have the legs. Given our current state though, we walked at least 80% of it. Ken is one tough son of a bitch though. An ex-Marine, he put his head down and followed me without complaint as I pushed our pace towards our crews at Jaws.
It’s difficult to say if this long section of walking saved my race, or perhaps added to my final time. By about 15 km into the climb, I was ready to start running, but resolved to stay with Ken and enjoy the companionship and experience of the 100 mile race. I knew I had no chance of competing at this point, so we would tackle this together. By the turnaround at Jaws (77 km) I felt fully recharged, like I was ready to start a new race. Due to the extended bout of walking I felt like my body was completely fresh. My parents supplied me with loads of delicious food, Corn Chips especially hit the spot along with pickles and potatoes dipped in salt. Ken and I parted ways, and I told my parents it was go time. I was fired up!! It probably was difficult to comprehend for them, it was 11 pm at night and I was jumping around like a kid on a sugar high telling them I was going to push the descent back to Footbridge and I would see them at 4 am.
The descent to Footbridge at 106 km seemed to take forever. I’m not too sure how it took so long as I ran almost all of this section, but after 5 hrs of slipping around in the dark I was at the bottom of the hill. I was having a difficult time staying awake as I descended, and perhaps this contributed to my time… its tough to say this long after the fact. Always there, my parents were patiently waiting in the 4 am darkness ready to care for my every need. The high of “racing” the back half had long since worn off as my mom washed my muddy, dusty feet and I munched on some food in a dazed state. I decided that some Coca-Cola was in order and this turned out to be one of my best decisions of the race. After two cups of Coke, my blood sugar had rocketed up and with new socks and shoes on, I felt like a new man.
If there is one thing that I am proud of from this race, it was how I raced the section from the Footbridge aid station to the finish. I was only 30 minutes slower over this 50 km section compared to the start of the race, and given my state early on in the race, I felt like I dug deep and ran this section extremely well. I passed at least a dozen runners over this section, and relished the fact that I was in fact going to finish this damn thing.
My final major aid station was back at Dry Forks at 8:15 am. The sun was up, and looked like it was ready to start melting everything in sight again. Mom and Dad got me sorted for the final leg, and I tucked a bag of ice cubes into my BUFF on the advice of Denise Bourassa who was there waiting for Ken. Boy, do I wish I had done this before. This cold BUFF was amazing and the ice kept my neck and head cool, and I will definitely be using this moving forward!
The final miles were difficult not in the sense of running them, but challenging to keep pushing the pace deep into the race in the heat of day 2. With less than 10 km left, I felt confident that I would not get passed by anyone, but I was unsure if I could sneak in under 25 hrs. Out of the corner of my eye I spotted a racer and his pacer come flying down the hill, and they dropped me before I had the chance to even try to respond. For whatever the reason, this lit a fire under my ass. I stowed my poles that I had been using to negotiate the steep descent and started running hard. Hard is a relative term when you are at km 150 of a race, but I’ll be damned if I wasn’t running faster than I had all race. My friend Jake had walked out to the final road section of the race to jog in to the finish with me. I think that he had assumed that we would be slowly making our way along at a shuffle. However, we averaged around 5:00/km for the final 6 km on the road, and he couldn’t believe that we were pushing like this for the final section. Having run the last 14 hours on my own, it was a treat to have someone to talk with. We talked about the race, what they had seen as they drove around the Wyoming backcountry, about how crazy this ultrarunning thing is, and he kept me motivated to continue chasing the racer in front of us. We finally had them in sight, and with 2 km to go passed without looking back, cementing a solid finish of 24th overall.
The finish line beckoned at the end of this long dirt road, and it seemed hard to believe that it was over. As I ran across the finish line I felt the incredible satisfaction of accomplishing a huge task, the joy of stopping running, and gratitude to have my parents and one of my great friends there to share in the experience. Lounging alongside the cool river at the finish was the perfect end to this chapter. Family, friends, and lots of food ended my first foray into the 100 mile distance. This year I cannot commit to the distance because of my RMT schooling, but I am definitely excited to compete again at the distance in 2017!
What I Learned
1. The combination of heat and elevation is one mean bitch.
2. When things go wrong keep moving. Eventually they will turn around, maybe in 30 min, maybe in 30 km.
3. New socks and shoes can be a game changer.
4. Ice in a bandana or BUFF is a must on hot days.
5. The light of the second day brings you back to life after a night of running through the dark.
Location: Dayton, Wyoming. Nearest Airport is Billings Montana, 2 hours away
Distance and Elevation gain: 100 miles (160km) and 17 000 ft of climbing (5150 m)
Shoes: Pearl Izumi Trail N1's. 2 pairs, switched out at 106 km.
Major aid stations:
Dry Fork (21 km): 2 hr 55
Footbridge (48 km): 6 hr 26
Jaws (77 km): 11 hr 53
Footbridge (106 km): 16 hr 58
Dry Fork (133 km): 21 hr 25
Finish (160 km): 24 hr 46 min
Total time in aid stations: approx. 45 min
Favourite Aid Station Food: Broth, Corn Chips, potatoes dipped in salt, pickles
Strava file: https://www.strava.com/activities/331026135