Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Of Mountains and Mole Hills: A Bighorn 100 Race Report

Bighorn was my second mountain 100 of the several I want to complete. My first was Leadville and now having done Bighorn I think Leadville was a good introduction to mountain 100s because, and I hate to say this, it is comparatively easy. Don’t get me wrong, Leadville is a hard race and for some it may be completely out of reach. At Leadville you must be able to cope with the elevation, which through no fault of their own, some people can’t. You also have to deal with the cutoff times, which most people agree are a bit tight for the level of difficulty of the course.

However, there are large sections of Leadville that are very runnable, most of the climbing and descending is pretty manageable and the hardest climbs, up and down Hope Pass, contain a fair number of switchbacks. While this may sound obvious, the switchbacks really help take the edge off the steepness of a climb and, at a minimum, they change things up a bit giving you a stronger sense of forward progress.

I have to premise any comparisons of the two courses by saying that I did not run the “real” bighorn course but rather an alternate snow route, which incidentally was comprised of at least 85% of the normal course. I also ran Leadville in a perfect year. A friend of mine, Kurt, said I was almost cheating by running Leadville under such excellent conditions and of course the conditions on the day of the race can make all the difference.

In any case, the Bighorn course has few of the nice features of the Leadville course. Where Leadville has many runnable sections Bighorn has an equal measure of sections that few people are really able to run. The cruelest of which comes toward the end of the race between the climb called “The Wall” and the TR TH aid station. This section of trail is one you cover at the start of the race and you know it is steep but you are fresh so it’s a really good warm-up and you are slowed down enough that you can just enjoy the wildflowers and the gentle warmth of the Wyoming sun. However, on your return trip you quickly discover “Wow, this is freakishly steep!” and much of it is hard to run down. A fellow runner told me after the race “I felt like my knees were going to explode” and this was from a guy who was in the very respectable 26 hour finishing time frame.

Of course the corollary to the “unrunnably” steep downhills in some areas is the unrunnably steep uphill. I read once that the main difference between trails on the east coast and the west coast is that the trails on the east coast were mostly made by people and so they tended to go straight up the sides of hills whereas the trails in the west often originated with animal trails so they tend to have switchbacks and meander up and down the sides of mountains. Apparently the humans and animals in the Bighorn Mountains didn’t get this memo because there wasn’t a single switchback on the trail. The only deviations from straight up the mountain that any trail took were out of necessities such as avoiding a boulder, going to a narrower point in a stream or simply changing direction. The unbridled enthusiasm for going both straight and vertical that is exhibited by the people of the Bighorn Mountains made for a lot of very slow climbs.

On a more positive note, the exceedingly steep climbs and descents made it considerably easier for me to calculate the amount of time it would likely take me to get to the next aid station. I knew, based on the terrain I could currently see, that any given mile would take me either 20 minutes or 30 minutes to cover. If what I was looking at was flat or gently downhill at the moment I knew I was very near something unpleasant but I could take advantage of the current respite and probably accomplish a 20 minute mile while covering what I could see and the bit of unpleasantness that was invariably right around the next bend. Alternatively, if I was looking at some steep, rocky climb with water pouring down it and mud bogs flanking either side I knew that it would go on considerably longer than you would expect thus resulting in a 30 minute mile. This resulted in most aid stations being anywhere from an hour to two hours away. Leadville also has aid stations that take a good while to get to but that’s mostly because they are on average about 10 miles apart.

The final comparison between Leadville and Bighorn are aid stations. Leadville is a far larger race so that needs to be considered. The aid stations at Leadville more closely resemble mini-marts or sidewalk cafes than they do their distant cousin, the typical marathon aid station with cups of water and Gatorade. The one “limited” aid station at Leadville is packed up onto Hope Pass on the backs of llamas and even it contains soda and hot soup among other things though by comparison to the rest of the Leadville buffet it is limited.

Bighorn, on the other hand, has raised to limited aid station to a fine art form. Don’t get me wrong, Bighorn has a lot of good aid stations with attentive and dedicated volunteers. At least three of the aid stations required that aid be either brought in by horseback or backed packed in under human power while several others required lengthy and undoubtedly nerve-wracking drives using powerful ATVs. What impressed me most was their unmanned “aid stations” at Fence Spring, Creek Spring and Stock Tank.

I have been in three races with unmanned aid stations, the Black Warrior 50K in Moulton Alabama, the Turtle Marathon in Roswell New Mexico and the Rio Del Lago 100 in Granite Bay California. The unmanned aid station at Black Warrior was a collection of 5 gallon water coolers filled with water sitting in the middle of the woods near a stream, the ones at the Turtle Marathon were flats of bottled water sitting on the side of the road and the one at Rio Del Lago consisted of several boxes on one gallon water jugs sitting on a hydroelectric generator of some kind. When I saw there were three unmanned aid stations at Bighorn this is what I had in mind, no big deal.

I was incorrect. The unmanned aid stations at Bighorn are actually natural springs that have had pipes fitted to them. The first one at Fence Spring, however, was buried under a snow bank so the pipe couldn’t be set up for it. It was just a stream pouring down the side of the mountain out from under a snow drift and it was unmarked so it was indistinguishable from any other stream of water out on the course pouring down from somewhere higher. In fact, I didn’t even notice it on the way out because I had no idea that I should be looking for something like that as an aid station. In fairness to the race, they did specifically tell us about that aid station during the pre-race meeting, however, having absolutely no context for an aid station being an unmarked tube sticking out of the side of a mountain the warning about the tubeless Fence Spring just came across as a novel alert that much of the water you saw flowing down the streams in the Bighorns was both quite drinkable and tasty.

I never saw Creek Spring. I did come across a long garden hose coming out from under a snow drift and it was lying in a rush of snowmelt but this was no more than 30 yards from an actual aid station so I doubt that was it though I did suggest to the volunteers at the aid station that if someone would just go over there and shut off the hose the course might not be so muddy. The final unmanned aid station was Stock Tank. That one I both saw and used. It was described in the pre-race brief as an obvious wooden tank that was “almost completely disintegrated but the pipe is in and the water is flowing.” Stock Tank also had those little orange construction flags around it making the presence of human intention all the more obvious. The Stock Tank aid station does come after another plastic stock tank but that one is unmarked and is pretty close to the previous aid station, Cow Camp, so there was some room for confusion but not much, just enough that by the time you see Stock Tank you somewhat incredulously say to yourself, “Oh, THIS is a Bighorn unmanned aid station” and despite your disbelief you feel comfortably correct in your assumption.

Comparisons aside, the Bighorn course itself is not only difficult but it is beautiful. As you can tell I took a ton of pictures and have had a hard time deciding what to discard so I just posted most of them. Apparently this year the wildflowers weren’t as prevalent as they usually are but they were still there in abundance. There are several parts of the course where you are traversing wide open green spaces filled with blue, yellow, purple and white flowering wildflowers. I remember thinking “How very Sound of Music” during the initial big climb out of the Tounge River Valley where the race ascends into the Bighorn Mountains.

During the run from the start in Scott Park I was feeling good and snapping a lot of pictures. The climb is very gradual until you get to the Tounge River Trail Head aid station, listed as the TR TH aid station. From there the course turns sharply upward and I found myself getting stuck behind a few people that were climbing way too slow. In retrospect I’m still not sure if this means I was going out too fast. It didn’t feel like it and I was able to pass even at what felt like an easy pace so I think I was good. It was also during this segment that I missed the unmanned tube, or tubeless, hole in the ground that was the Fence Spring aid station, which resulted in a 7.4 mile uphill trek from the TR TH aid station to the Upper Sheep aid station rather than the 5 mile and 2.4 mile splits I was expecting. Fortunately I had two bottles and it was still relatively cool out so I didn’t run out of water.

The Upper Sheep aid station was at about mile 12.5 and already I had been skirting mud and water in the hopes of saving my feet as long as possible. While the mud and water didn’t slow me down as much as I had feared, it did slow me down because I wasn’t just running willy-nilly through every mud bog and stream crossing. I’m quite sure that would have done me in because there was just so much of it over the length of the course. I picked my way through and jumped streams and mud holes where I could but my feet and lower legs were damp and muddy from maybe mile five to mile 76 when I cleaned off my feet, put duct tape on them and changed into my last dry pair of shoes. The worst of the mud and water occurred between the Cow Camp aid station, about 30 miles into my race, and the Footbridge aid station. Apparently this is the way it always is regardless of what route is taken.

Apart from my adventures with mud I had the usual adventures with trying to keep myself going as did everyone else. The interesting thing for me during this race is that I never really had a low point. I had points when I was annoyed by the next steep climb or descent but beyond that I never hit a point where I was telling myself things like “I only have to make it through until morning.” I’m hoping that this is a new evolution in ultrarunning for me where the races aren’t as psychologically draining. The one point where I briefly considered dropping was mile 76 but at that point I still had eight hours to finish 24 miles. At that point I was weighed at 10 pounds over my pre-race weight and I had been going for 26 hours, my hands were swollen like balloons and the balls of my feet were feeling raw. I was a bit worried but the medical personnel deemed me ok to go. The final kick was sitting next to a women while I was taping my feet who was talking about dropping. She had a friend there who was trying to motivate her to keep going. She said that if she kept going “I might end up being DFL” and the guys trying to keep her going said “So” she said “Well, I don’t want to be a looser.” That did it for me. I have finished second to last in a hundred and as a triathlon referee I have seen many back of the packers and I have gained a great deal of respect for those whom persevere.

The aftermath of the race has been almost more intense than the race itself. It is a bit over a week post-race and my head is just starting to feel clear, my feet are still a little tender and it took about 6 days for the swelling in my legs to go down noticeably. I’m sure it didn’t help my recovery that I had to turn around the day after my return to Albuquerque and immediately fly out to San Diego for training in a new therapy intervention. It took about eight shots of espresso per day to keep me alert and focused during that training and I was still pretty “mellow.”

My next big race is Wasatch, which is supposed to be harder than Bighorn. I won’t lie, I’m a bit nervous about that but my confidence is very high. I have two months of unbroken time to train back up for Wasatch and hit a taper. I’m not going to push it because the chances are I already have the strength and fitness to finish I would just like to sharpen a bit and maybe do better than a finish.


  1. Big B!!! what a great recap and some pics!!
    hey what is that pack your carrying around your waist? seems like you got some great goodies in there!

    I am nervous about Wasatch too and I will be looking for the Finish.


  2. Those pictures are amazing. I am so glad you had a great time, and I enjoyed reading your RR on the BTK tri too.