The Bighorn 100 was a really tough race for me. It was not tough because it was a hundred miles. It would have been as tough if it had been 100 kilometers, 50 miles, or even a 50k for that matter. My legs felt crappy from the start. I’m not totally sure why. Maybe it wasn’t a good idea to run the Dipsea 5 days before (but it sure was fun!)
Maybe it wasn’t a good idea to do yoga the day before. Maybe the heat zapped any and all energy from my legs. Or maybe it just wasn’t my day. But who cares about all of my excuses? I knew Bighorn would be tough. I knew what I was getting into when I signed up for the race. I had heard good things about the race (cool local vibe, beautiful course), but mainly bad things (soul sucking mud and freezing night time temps). I guess that’s what drew me to the race. I craved the challenge. We don’t sign up for these things knowing they’re easy. We sign up because we secretly (or not so secretly) desire the challenge, so that we can have the opportunity to overcome the challenges, and end up a changed person on the other side.
My first drop bag was at mile 13.5 Dry Fork Ridge and I already felt like I had come a long way. The race had started at 9 am and the forecast for the day was in the 90s. I started the race with Kfaka’s Kool Tie , or what I refer to as my “neck snake”. You soak it in water, the crystals inside hydrate, and the thing blows up like a gelatinous snake.
The snake worked out fine, keeping my neck cool, but at 13.5 miles, I decided it was time to get serious and picked up my ice bandana. I filled it with ice and yow! The ice was so cold it almost hurt, but it did its job, keeping my neck and therefore my core temperature cool. It worked so well that the heat never really bothered me. In addition to constantly keeping my ice bandana stocked with ice, I took advantage of each creek crossing, dipping my arm sleeves and visor in the water.
En route to Sally’s Footbridge at mile 30, I fantasized about all the ways I could get out of running the rest of the race. Yuch was somewhere behind me, but I was surprised that he hadn’t caught up with me. Maybe he DNFed too? If that was the case, perhaps I should DNF in solidarity. He needed me! Maybe I could DNF and blame it on my toe. I had sprained it 10 days before the race and had to buddy tape it to its neighboring toe. While it had bothered me in the days leading up to the race, it didn’t appear to be an issue. But, I could pretend that it was a colossal issue if that meant sneaking out of this massive endeavor I had ahead of me. The point is I wanted to DNF already at 30 miles. That is not a good sign when you have 70 more miles on the menu.
It’s not like anything was going terribly wrong. I was managing the heat really well and I was taking down food with no problems. My legs just felt trashed and that scared me. I also felt terribly lonely. Arriving at Sally’s, a volunteer asked me if I needed anything. I felt like crying. I told her I needed my boyfriend and he was nowhere to be found. I was scared of going on by myself. Scared of 70 more miles on these already trashed legs. Scared of the unknown. So I did the only thing I knew how to do and kept moving.
Leaving Sally’s, I ran a little bit with another female runner. It was clear this was not her first hundo, and I told her it was mine. I said I already felt like DNFing to which she responded that I couldn’t do that. “It’s an unwritten law that you have to finish your first 100!” I thought, that doesn’t sound like a law at all, but okay. I’m sure she just made that up, but I decided I better try and keep up with her as best as I could.
Another runner joined us and before I knew it they were ahead of me, chatting with each other, sharing a similar pace, and I got left behind. Alone, again. It’s not like I mind being alone. But I think it was kind of getting to me today. A big part of my enjoyment of races is meeting and running with other people. I had been running alone all day and feeling like crap. The wildflowers were pretty and the scenery was nice, but it was hard to enjoy it in my current mental state. It was hard to appreciate the highs and lows without any companionship or commiseration. You know what they say…misery likes company.
The miles leading up to the turnaround at mile 48 aka Jaws were slow, wet, and cold. We were approaching 9,000 feet and the trail was filled with a lotta mud, water, and snow. Ok yeah I could have gone much faster, but the feet were a concern. It would be a while until I got to dry socks and shoes and didn’t want to gain any foot issues before then. Avoiding wet feet was a futile effort. It was impossible. I avoided the water by going on the snow, only to frequently find myself post-holing into freezing cold slush. The trekking poles helped, sometimes. Because other times they post-holed too. I started running with another female runner who happened to be going my same snow/mud/slush pace. Getting to Jaws was bittersweet. I had overcome the trail to Jaws, but now I had to go back that same way and it was getting dark.
The aid station at Jaws was a well-oiled operation. The runners were shuttled inside a big tented space with chairs lined up, and numerous volunteers helped runners get food, give pep talks, and assess feet. I knew my feet were soggy, but I wasn’t about to get them assessed. I grabbed my drop bag, some noodle soup, and Coke then sat down to organize my things. I knew I was going to get cold fast. I had tons of warm clothing options in my drop bag that people had recommended I bring. I put on my Smartwool merino long sleeved shirt, my rain jacket, and my Light-Belt. It was so nice and cozy here at Jaws. Did I really have to leave?
I left Jaws with my new friend, Dana. It was her first 100 miler too. She was also from out of town and without a pacer, so we decided to stick together. I think we made a good team. We both had the silly idea (pre-race) that we were going to join the Rusty Spurs club (i.e. run sub-24 hours), but now had accepted the fact that we were going to be out on the course much longer than we expected. And we were okay with that. It was nice to have someone to talk to, commiserate with, and slip in slushy snow with. I told her about Yuch and that if I saw him, I would stop to talk to him, and that she should go on without me. As soon as I saw him, I pulled him aside and gave him a big hug. I told him, “I love you. I miss you.” and maybe something like “Hurry up and catch up with me”. But he was a mile or two from the turnaround which meant he was 2-4 miles behind me. I suppose I could have waited, but that idea didn’t seem to make sense. I felt like I needed to keep moving forward. Part of me felt like if I waited for Yuch, he might end up leaving me at some point and then I would be back to being alone. So, I said goodbye and moved on the trail, hoping that he would catch up with me at some point.
I was back to being alone again.The night was warm, and I quickly stripped off all my extra layers. I had descended past the snowy parts, and now the trail was “runnable”. Or was it?! Despite my Light-Belt lighting up the trail, I felt uneasy on my feet. Running was hard physically and mentally. My legs felt like they couldn’t run, but also I felt like I didn’t trust myself to put my feet in the right places without spraining an ankle, ending up in mud, or slipping on a rock. So I kept walking. And walking. And walking. I felt like I had no other choice. I had run out of running legs. After a lot of walking I decided this was going to take a long freaking time if I kept this up. Yeah, I guess I could walk the rest of the race, but think about how much faster I could get to the finish if I ran!
I forced myself to start running. It did not feel good, but who said anything about this feeling good? It had to be done. I realized that I could run (sort of), I just had to ignore the fact that it hurt…a lot. I finally decided to take in some caffeinated gels, and this helped tremendously. I realized that although I wasn’t sleepy, part of the reason why I was having trouble running was that I was unfocused. The caffeine helped me focus on navigating the rocks and puddles. Now we were talking.
The night sky was beautiful. I noticed it because I was now stopping to pee every 5 minutes. Perhaps my consistent hydration from the day had now caught up to me? I was barely drinking much now in the nighttime, but yet I peed at least a dozen times in 1 hour. I began to worry that I was over hydrated. Why was I peeing so much? Despite my numerous pee breaks, no one was catching up to me. Every now and then I would see a light that I thought was a headlamp, but it was just a course ribbon.
I finally caught up to Dana at the next aid station. Her feet were a mess and somehow she had collected a new pair of “borrowed” shoes and socks from one of the volunteers. The only problem was that the shoes were too small for her. This didn’t seem like a great idea to me, but she was pretty happy to have a change of shoes, and hoped they would get her to her next drop bag where she would have a pair of shoes waiting for her. I ate some more Ramen, which had now become my nighttime fuel of choice. Nice hot broth and carby noodles. We continued on together.
At Sally’s, we did all our drop bag and gear exchanges, stocked up on fuel, and made sure to head out together. I think we both knew we were stronger together. I again told the aid station volunteers to tell Yuch to hurry up and catch up with me. The climb out of Sally’s was brutal. It was a lot of steep climbing for a long long time. Or at least it felt that way. But Dana was a strong climber and kept up with me well. I had to go to the bathroom again, but needed to wait until the trail leveled out and there was somewhere to go. At the top, we arrived to a windy ridge. I squatted down, and failed to consider the consequences of urinating in the wind. The pee never made it to the ground. Honestly, this was the least of my worries. Running all day long through heat, mud, and snow really puts things in perspective. While I was peeing on myself, Dana lost her hat to the wind. We powered on.
The night time never felt hard from a sleep-deprived point of view. I was worried because I had such a hard time keeping my eyes open at New Years One Day, but this was very different. I was too busy problem solving and moving forward to worry about sleep. It also helped to have Dana there to talk to, commiserate with, and bounce ideas off of. Don’t ask me what ideas we were bouncing off each other, but I’m pretty sure that happened at some point. We kept each other moving by making conscious efforts to start and stop running. I could tell that she had the same determined and hardworking mindset as me and she never once failed to follow my lead. This was not an emotional endeavor. It was strictly business, and we just had to keep chipping away at the miles.
At Kern’s Cow Camp, Dana decided she needed to assess her feet. She knew they were a mess and that something had to be done. My feet were a mess too, but there was no way I was opening up that can of worms. Her eyes filled up with tears as she told me I should go on without her, that she really needed to take the time to deal with the situation. I had no idea how long it would take, so as much as I hated to leave without her, I left the aid station alone.
Arriving at Dry Fork Ridge the second time was a milestone. I had gone 82.5 miles which meant I was getting very close. I knew my feet were soggy and that the trail was relatively dry from here on out so I decided to change into clean shoes and socks. The medic/volunteer/foot-person/angel brought me a bin of water that I could soak and wash my feet in, in addition to a small towel to dry them off with. My feet were water logged. I had a couple blisters, but overall nothing to complain about, and my buddy tape still had managed to stay in place. I changed into a clean pair of Injini socks which meant I would have to buddy tape my sprained toe over my socks. I took my sweet time eating two cups of ramen, and left Dry Fork with clean dry feet and a belly full of noodles. As I left, I saw Dana coming in. I was happy to see that she had not dropped and had resolved her foot issues.
Unlike the previous day, the morning was relatively cool. The clouds favorably covered the sky keeping temps low and manageable. But as the morning progressed, this would change. I had left my ice bandana and visor at Jaws, thinking that I wouldn’t need them anymore. Now I was regretting this as I had no protection from the sun.
The single track was hard. My legs were dead and it was freaking technical. I walked a lot. I got passed by a couple men who seemed to be flying as if the trail was smooth as butter. I decided I needed to be more like them. Again, I forced myself to run. Again, I realized that I could do it if I just wanted it bad enough. It wasn’t pretty but I ran as much as I could. As soon as I started running I turned on Lindsey Stirling. I had initially turned my music on leaving Dry Fork, but immediately turned it off once I realized that music just isn’t that helpful when you’re poking along like a turtle. Now was the time to use it. Not that I was moving super fast, mind you, but I was moving.
I arrived at the last aid station before the finish, mile 96. The volunteers informed me that the last stretch was 5 miles of flat road. I looked at my watch and saw that it was 12:10 pm. If I could do sub 10-minute miles for the last 5 miles I could get a sub 28-hour finish in. This was no Rusty Spurs kinda goal, but I needed some kind of motivation to get myself to the finish so sub 28-hours it would be. I started running as fast as possible. I felt like I was running so fast. This was like a road marathon effort! But alas, I was not running as fast as I thought. Nevertheless, I passed quite a bit of people, both 18 milers and 100 milers alike. These people were just trying to get to the finish, but me? I had a goal here. I needed to get to the finish before 1 pm, or else. Or else, what? Or else I’d turn into a pumpkin. So, I did not stop at the popsicle stand. I did not slow down. I ran as fast as I possibly could. But it was not fast enough. I crossed the finish line in 28:00:02.
A volunteer asked me at the Tongue River Trailhead aid station (mile 95) if I would do this race again. I politely told them that it was not a great time to ask me a question like that. The truth is I would not. BUT. I would most certainly do a hundred miler again. I’m proud of myself for moving forward despite feeling like crap so early on. Just because you’re having a bad day or whatever, does not give you the license to quit or to justify quitting. Good things can still happen. I managed the heat superbly with the help of my ice bandana. I kicked ass at hydration and fueling and had zero GI problems. If it sounds like I’m boasting, it’s because I can. I’ve sucked at both of these things in the past, and having gotten to a point where I am able to problem solve through both of these things is a big accomplishment for me.
To those who ask, I’ve told that I did not find this experience very enjoyable at the time. I’m not totally sure why. Perhaps feeling physically bad led me to a bad mental state which led me incapable of enjoying the race. Some people might say “Do you ever enjoy this kind of thing?” My answer is, yes – of course! Most of the time I do. I would not do this crazy thing otherwise. Maybe I was too in my head until I met Dana. I’m not sure ultras are for me if I have to experience them completely alone. What’s the point of life if it cannot be shared with other people? Both the ups and the downs. Both the wildflowers and the mud. Joy and misery are better together. Having said all this, this was definitely leaning towards a more Type II fun. I found the experience incredibly rewarding. Solving problems and overcoming fear, anxiety, and feelings of failure is a gratifying and worthwhile practice. And for that I am hugely grateful to the Bighorn 100. So maybe it isn’t the most spectacular course I’ve ever seen. But it may be one of the most rewarding. Because without the obstacles, there is no overcoming. And the Bighorn 100 provides plenty of obstacles.
Disclaimer: Despite the hugely rewarding nature of the Bighorn Mountain Wild and Scenic Trail Run, do not sign up for this race unless are up to the following: chronically soggy feet, post-holing in slushy snow, lotsa mud, 90+ degree temps during the day, quad banging technical trails, and a long freakin day(s).