Special thanks to Aleksandr Khomyakov and Judy Garber for some of the photos, and Judy and David Garber for hosting me at their picturesque ranch in Big Horn.
When I pulled into Elk Camp at Mi 43.5 of the Bighorn 100, I was much less happy than I should have been. The station volunteers were enthusiastic and helpful; I was leading the race and had a 29-minute gap on my goal pace, which meant that I was on course record pace; and I felt relaxed, comfortable, and in control.
But it had started to rain about five miles earlier, and for the past half-hour had been heavy enough to warrant my shell jacket. Rain was in the forecast, so I was prepared, and I was expecting that management of the cold-and-wet conditions would cost time.
However, by Elk Camp an even bigger time-killer had been revealed: greasy, slick-as-snot mud that the rain was creating.
The resulting loss of traction forced me to hike grades that I had been running pre-rain, and to run next to the trail where practical (not on it) because plowing through grasses and slalom-ing through sage was faster than the open footpath. Race organizers had warned us about pockets of “shoe-sucking mud” where the ground was still saturated with snowmelt, but I was never told that the course would become an ultra-distance slip-and-slide with enough rainfall.
As one volunteer filled my bottles, another with pretty eyes asked how I was doing. “Frustrated. This course just got very slow,” I remarked. At the time, I didn’t know how prophetic this comment was, or how the conditions would completely undermine my effort to that point.
When I constructed my 2017 racing schedule, I knew that the turnaround between the Boston Marathon on April 17 and the Bighorn 100 on June 16 would be tight. After accounting for a two-week recovery, two-week taper, and a one-week “normal person vacation” to Scotland, I would have only a few weeks in which to re-adapt to mountain ultra trail running.
Nonetheless, I felt confident as race day approached. Most tellingly, I’d been lopping significant time off long-standing PR’s throughout Boulder’s foothill trails. For example, I lowered my Green Mountain Loop split by 4 minutes, from 63 minutes to 59. When extrapolated to a 20-hour ultra, that improvement amounts to 80 minutes!
Based on a comparative analysis of past Bighorn results, I was hoping to finish in 19:30, with quiet hopes for better. Coach David was more confident, saying that a 19:30 was a shoe-in and that a course record was within reach. David loves to flatter his athletes about how great they are, but I’ve found that his performance goals are reality-based. Even so, I was skeptical.
A 19:30 is normally in the mix for a win, but I would have been happy with a non-win if Bob Shebest, Michael Owen, Paul Terranova, or some fresher face dragged me to a faster time.
One perk of the incoming weather was that conditions were relatively comfortable at the 10 AM start: it was mild and mostly cloudy, although humid by Westerner standards. On a more typical June day — when the sun would have been heating up the Tongue River canyon for almost five hours already — I imagine the race couldn’t begin soon enough.
At the start I positioned myself about 20 feet back, expecting a foolhardy Run Rabbit Run-style off-the-line charge. But the field was more controlled than usual, so my plan backfired: if I’d started at the front, I still could have kept my effort in check without having to weave through any traffic before the course jumped onto singletrack.
The pace at the front seemed a bit too relaxed, so I took the lead before we reached the trailhead. Eric Lipuma, who I know from Boulder and who would eventually become one of the other three winners, came with me.
I soon regretted that decision. With the talent in this field, I could have relaxed in the Top 5 or 10 for the first 90 minutes without losing meaningful time off my intended pace. Instead, now I was using mental energy to pace-set, and I was getting anxious about what the field was doing behind me.
From Lower Sheep (Mi 3.5) I settled into a steady hike to keep my heart rate low on the first of three major climbs. I was tempted to jog a few rollers but opted not to. My average HR for the first 8.5 miles — during which we climbed 3,600 feet — was a purring 143 bpm. Paul Terranova stayed on my heels for most of it, and the effort allowed for easy conversation.
My only regret through this section was not drinking more water. It’s an exposed climb, and temperatures don’t cool off until near the top. I burned through both of my 17-oz bottles, plus a refill from a piped spring at 7,000 feet. That still wasn’t enough — it would take hours of deliberate drinking to overcome the hydration deficit from this early climb.
By Dry Fork Ridge (Mi 13.4) Bob Shebest and I had put a few minutes on the rest of the field. I pulled into the aid with a small lead, but lost it while in the potty. The lead would change again 9 miles later for this same reason — a 10 AM start would seem to provide ample time to squeeze everything out, but apparently not.
Before the rain
Bob and I made great time to Sally’s Footbridge (Mi 30.0), never running together but usually within sight. He seemed to be running downhills faster, but I would catch up on flats and climbs. When I left Dry Fork, I was exactly on pace. Seventeen miles later, I was 17 minutes ahead.
After an initial 3.5-mile downhill from the aid station, the course rolls for 8 miles along a bench high above the Dry Fork of the Bighorn River. There are countless dips, but overall the elevation stays constant. Bob and I ran all the flats and downs, and the easy ups. I’m sure that we both could have run everything, but Bob is also a conservative and experienced racer. On the return leg, we knew we wouldn’t be running steep or even moderate pitches — So why would we run them now and burn ourselves out?
I passed through Footbridge as quickly as Cow Camp (Mi 19.5) and Bear Camp (Mi 26.5). Refill a bottle, grab some calories, and go. But I should have grabbed the fleece shirt in my drop bag. I stashed it there because I figured I’d need it — not only would temperatures drop during the upcoming 4,000-foot climb to Jaws Trailhead, but the forecast called for increasing chance of precip in the afternoon and a higher chance of precip at higher elevations.
In hindsight, I gambled and lost. At the expense of 30 seconds and an extra 7 oz of weight, I could have been much more comfortable when the rain finally arrived, instead of trying to keep warm with just a singlet, rain shell, 6-inch shorts, liner gloves and a Buff.
Bob remained in the lead out of Footbridge, but relinquished it around Mi 40, saying he wasn’t feeling well and theorizing that the altitude was playing a role. I pushed on towards Spring Marsh, where I finally had to put on my rain jacket, and Elk Camp, where this story started.
Jaws Trailhead (Mi 48.0) is the turnaround for the out-and-back course and serves as the psychological halfway point. I wasn’t thrilled about leaving Elk Camp and climbing another 1,000 vertical feet to it, where it would be wetter, colder, and windier. But I couldn’t linger: the conditions were not improving and I was not getting warmer. The sooner I got to Jaws, the sooner I could begin descending again.
The five miles to Jaws were the wettest thus far. There were a few sections of shoe-sucking mud — notably through an aspen grove — but more often the ground was simply waterlogged. The trail was slick but not terrible — being the first through helped, as did the rockier topsoil and spruce/fir mulch.
As I closed in on Jaws, I became increasingly concerned about my core body temperature. From head to toe, I was either damp or soaked, due the steady rain, ground water splashing, and trapped perspiration in my rain shell. I knew that a delayed departure from Jaws was probably in my future — I would need to warm up before I could safely leave.
My split to Jaws was 8:24, an amazing 39 minutes ahead of goal pace. If I could stay on that trendline, I was looking at low- to mid-18 hours. The course record is held by Andrew Miller, in 18:29.
But that’s not what happened.
Instead, I spent the next 25 minutes inside a wall tent, changing into dry clothes, guzzling cups of hot broth, and enhancing my environmental defenses with the help of volunteers Steve and Marta. Steve graciously exchanged his rain jacket for mine, which had wet through; and Marta wrapped a space blanket around my waist, covered me in a disposable poncho, and inserted HotHands into my gloves. Without this assistance, my race may have ended at Jaws — I’m not sure I would have risked running back to Elk Camp in the condition in which I arrived.
Bob arrived 11 minutes after me, in 8:35. He was in equally rough shape: soaked through, shivering, and desperate for heat. He would linger for 25 minutes as well. (Interestingly, runners who arrived 30-60 minutes after us took much less time than we did, as if the conditions were less bad for them.)
It’s not happening
As I vacated the comforts of Jaws in 8:49 elapsed (still 11 minutes ahead of goal pace), I thanked all the volunteers for their help and gave Marta a big hug. They deserved the praise, but needed it, too — if these conditions persisted, they would be nursing runners back to health all night.
My legs had tightened up during the break, but otherwise I felt like a new man. My outfit was impervious to the rain and sealed off from the cold. In fact, I was so comfortable that I began donating my layers to pitiful-looking runners who were on their way up. Where they were going, they would appreciate it.
The precip seemed to be letting up, now more of a drizzle than a rain. But the damage to the course was done. The additional foot traffic had churned the dirt and precip, creating a linear oil slick. On steep pitches, I would shoe-ski down the slope. On moderate grades, it was more of a stride-and-slide pattern. The flats were runnable, but stabilizing muscles were being worked hard.
As bad as I had it, I felt worse for runners in the middle and back of the pack. For me, the miles between Spring Marsh and Jaws were slow on the way up, and horrible on the way down. For them, it was all horrible — and climbing on mud is much worse than descending on it. Some wise hikers had trekking poles. I’m unsure how the others managed without them.
Just before I reached Spring Marsh (Mi 56), I took my first fall, when I looked up while on a steeper pitch. The subtle weight transfer was enough for my feet to slip from underneath me, and I crashed onto my back, thankfully with my running vest softening the blow. Not all runners were as fortunate — Andrew Jones-Wilkins was concussed when he knocked his head on a rock.
My enthusiasm for the race increasingly waned throughout the descent. First, I figured that the inbound 50 miles were at least 1-2 minutes slower per mile than under normal conditions, putting out of reach a course record (for me at least) and a fast finish more generally. Second, an all-out effort seemed dangerous under these conditions, with a high risk of a hard fall or soft tissue strain. And, third, it now felt like more of a sufferfest than a race — the only reward for soldiering on was so that you could say you didn’t quit.
Not surprisingly, Bob caught and passed my sorry-ass between Spring Marsh and Cathedral Rock (Mi 62.5), while I was stopped to get my headlamp from my pack. I no longer cared, and resumed my safety-first descent to Footbridge.
Despite everything, I had given up only a few minutes versus my intended pace. Recall, I left Jaws 11 minutes up. At Elk Camp, I was still 11 minutes up; Spring Marsh, 13 minutes up; Cathedral Rock, 8 minutes up; and at Footbridge (Mi 66), still 4 minutes up.
The third significant climb is between Footbridge and Bear Camp (Mi 69.5) — 2,300 vertical feet in about 3.5 miles. It’s always a hard section, hence its nickname, “The Wall,” but it was much worse with a coating of mud. Step up and pressure the foothold, slide back a little, step up with the other foot and pressure it, slide back again. Overhanging brush soaked with cold rain did not improve matters. In short, it was deflating.
But perhaps the more concerning development was that I suddenly felt exhausted — sleepy tired, not physically. As I stumbled up the climb, sometimes with my eyes shut, I pondered the causes: emotionally, I had checked out and was no longer as engaged; my blood sugar might be low from inadequate fueling on the descent; and it was now 11 PM, about an hour past my normal bedtime. I wondered, too, if the mild hypothermia from earlier was catching up with me.
“What can we get for you?” asked the volunteers at Bear Camp (Mi 69.5) when I finally arrived.
I’d been thinking about this for the past half-hour: “A chair by the fire, please. And wake me up in 15 minutes.”
Through the night
I awoke with the arrival of Eric and his pacer Casey, who had flown out from New Jersey. The fire felt lovely, but I knew this was my best opportunity to get moving again.
My head started coming back around, with increasing alertness and less drowsiness. I think that nap had actually helped. Our pace was deliberate but comfortable — we were running flats and downs, and hiking the ups, always cautiously. The additional company made it much more fun.
Just before we departed from Cow Camp (Mi 76.5) I asked about Bob, who I had written off 20 miles earlier.
“He’s sick as a dog,” commented one volunteer. “We couldn’t get any food into him, and the only reason he left was because he saw your lights on the ridge.”
That was not the response I had expected, since Bob had looked so strong earlier. But ultras are unpredictable, usually in a negative way, and I always knew it was a possibility.
Eric said he needed a few more minutes at the aid, and encouraged me to chase down Bob on my own. That proved easy to do: when I caught up to him about a mile out, he was moving very slowly and seemed to be shutting down. I offered what was in my pack, but he was beyond help.
The jeep track between Cow Camp and Dry Fork Ridge was heinously slick. All of it should have been runnable, but none of it was. Adding to the joy: resuming of steady rainfall. Over these six miles we lost 24 minutes to my wished-for pace, despite an earnest effort.
Bringing it home
My Negative Nelly-ism had infected Eric, and he signed on to my proposal for a comfortable, cautious, and injury-free effort to the finish, where we would cross together.
While we took our sweet time, at least two other racers gained on us. Alex Ho caught us just before Upper Sheep Creek (Mi 87.5), and joined our party. And Brian Oestrike (with his pacer) caught our trio at the Tongue River Trailhead, from where it’s five miles of gravel to the finish. After a few minutes of uncertainty, Brian joined our truce.
For the first time in over fifty miles, the gravel road offered consistent traction. But we jokingly wished that it was the Bighorn 95 — we would have gladly done without this section.
For those watching the race online, via the confusing ITS Your Race platform, the final results were difficult to decipher. It looked as if four runners had sprinted to the line, finishing within a second of each other after 100 miles. In fact, we all finished together, holding hands, in a four-way tie for first. Indeed, misery is more fun with company.