We arrived at Scott Park in Dayton (race finish) with plenty of time to spare before the bus to race start left at 4AM. Despite the early start I felt ready to run by the time we were lining up at the Porcupine Ranger station at 8800ft (also the 100M turnaround) for the 6AM start. I knew it wouldn’t be easy but one tough climb and a few shorter ones, as well as miles of rollers, seemed pretty doable, albeit with much of the course in the 5000-8000ft range. Though I wasn’t sure if my training would stand to me today. It had been 5 weeks since Superior 50K where I’d felt tried and out of shape. In that time I’d had a few good training weekends including a long run on the Ice Age Trail and then a long weekend on the SHT. And the past two weeks I’d taken it easy with no running at all last week. So my legs felt more rested than for any race so far this year. I’d had no trouble with the cyst in my foot and didn’t expect it to bother me on the run other than some numbness which I was now used to dealing with.
Some familiar faces among the crowd – we found Jim and then I spotted the other MN representatives, Jan and Wendy, and a few others I recognized from other races. A few words from the race director and then it was time to run. We knew there was some snow and a lot of mud in the first several miles and with the downhill grade that made for more than a few hairy moments. I soon fell into a line behind two girls from CO. There was some nifty footwork going on to keep upright as we wound through the trees and started to catch glimpses of what promised to be as scenic a course as you can imagine. The temperatures were in the forties. I’d considered wearing a long sleeve but was happy I’d settled on the t-shirt and arm warmers. Apart from wet feet for the first few hours I felt pretty comfortable all day. I was wearing my North face hydration pack which I have to say is the most comfortable one I’ve used, a snug fit on my shoulders. In retrospect I would have been fine with a large handheld but with the altitude and potential for heat I had decided to wear it through the early sections for the longer climbs and swap for a water bottle at the second drop bag (mile 34.5).
I heard the girls in front mention Jemez Mountains, a 50M race in New Mexico that I’d run in 2008, so I asked them how it compared to this one. I liked the response - Jemez is a mini-Hardrock and Bighorn in a mini-Western States. I realized I’d actually spoken to Cindy the day before in the running store in Sheridan - she’d given us some good info about the course as we were looking at the map. I also heard from the girls that Darcy Africa (CR holder and definite favourite) was in CO running San Juan Solstice instead of this race – I’d assumed she was somewhere up ahead. So naturally that got me thinking... I knew there was a few girls ahead but was liking this early pace, keeping it steady and seeing how my legs felt on the small climbs.
The early aid stations seemed to come quickly. Elk Camp at mile 5 (0:52) was water only and then a limited aid station at Spring Marsh (1:26, 8M). I didn’t need to refill at either so just kept moving along. I’d gone by the two CO girls and I think had passed another girl by now. But it was so early and I was just trying to think about my race. I was running through wide open meadows, across creeks and generally adding to the mud content of my shoes. I came to a lovely section through the woods with a steep slope off to the right down towards the canyon. The course got somewhat more technical along here and I was enjoying what felt like a few fast miles moving across the rocks and roots. Went by a few runners including one female and felt like I was probably in the lead – I have no idea how I "knew" as I really had not taken notice of who was where at the start. Came into the Narrows AS at mile 14.5 with 2:30 on the clock still feeling pretty fresh. I was so glad I had done nothing but yoga and swimming all week. I left the aid station with a few guys and followed them long through the next section which boasted some of most stunning views so far with technical switchbacks down through Little Bighorn Canyon. We stopped briefly just to take it in. Yes, it was that beautiful! And then more rocky terrain as we reached the river and ran alongside the water for a half mile or so. Shortly after I had to stop for my one and only bio break of the day so I arrived at the Foot Bridge AS (mile 18) by myself. I refilled my water and was about to look for my drop bag when a volunteer handed it to me – such service! I sat in a chair, pulled off my filthy shoes and socks and on with the nice clean dry ones. Meanwhile the guy beside me was carefully lifting his feet out of a basin of water and drying them on a towel. You read correctly. I was up and gone by the time he was reaching for his clean socks. I know, I know, it’s not all about speed but at that moment all I could think was guys can be such pansies. 3:07 leaving here so I was happy with that. I knew the climb out of Foot Bridge would be tough but had imagined it as a straight up climb whereas there were several level sections and even a bit of downhill - we all know how annoying that is when you know how far up you have to go - so I could actually run every 5-10 minutes though I didn't feel much like it at times. I was expecting several guys to pass me on the climb but I think only one went by. Along here I started to see quite a few 100 mile runners – including John Taylor who was looking awesome for 70 miles. I had thought it could take me 90 minutes to cover the 3.5 miles to Bear Camp AS so was thrilled to arrive in just over an hour (4:09, 21.5M). As with many of the aid stations this one was in the middle of the woods. It was probably accessible by dirt road but still I was amazed by how much they had carried in. Having said that when my request for coke was turned down I was a little disappointed – there is nothing better after a tough climb! A few pretzels and I was off again.
By now I was thinking more and more about my goal of 10 hours that I had set back in January when planning out the year. Closer to the event with some good and some not so good races behind me, I was thinking 10:30 would be a more reasonable goal. But as I approached halfway and knowing I was in the lead, I decided there was no way I was going to win this race in anything more than 10 hours. It just didn’t seem right!
After Bear Camp the trail continued mostly through the woods for the next few miles of rolling terrain – somewhat technical but after the big climb anything felt good. Even being called names by the 100 mile runners I was passing. I wanted to say I know how you feel but at this stage it’s been quite a while since my one 100 miler. At this point my goal was to reach halfway in 5 hours. The course being 52 miles long I figured I’d need to get to the next aid station at mile 24.5 by 4:40-4:45. This was a water only station – and boy was I glad I stopped. Firstly because I had not refilled at the previous one thinking my pack was still half full only to find it was almost empty, and secondly because the guys here were filling the water jugs from a spring – that water tasted so good! Looked at my watch as I continued on – 4:45 (24.5M) – so far, so good. The next section through the woods was pretty nice and before long I was running through open meadows once again. It was so beautiful taking in the huge expansive views – looking north towards the canyon where we’d been earlier, and ahead towards the mountains – quite glad I didn’t have to climb much higher today than where I was currently at. Twenty minutes later and I could smell the bacon. Well, not quite, but I knew that must be Cow Camp aid station up ahead where they were grilling something like 20lbs of bacon over the course of the race. But first a sharp descent, across a creek and then an equally sharp climb to get there. I figured I deserved a few pieces by then. Quick chat with the aid station volunteers here who were more interested in where in Ireland I was from than how I was feeling, which was a good thing as I was sort of in the mood for complaining.
Those next few miles were probably the toughest of the race. 5:32 on the clock. 28.8 miles done. 6 miles to the next aid station. Two thirds of the way through the race. This is often a rough spot for me in 50 milers. My legs were a bit tired and I wanted to walk more than run. I was glad to have the 100 mile runners on the course. I know it can’t have been much fun for them having people continually pass by but for me it was definitely motivating to see them ahead and know how hard they’d worked for the past 24 hours. No way I could come up with a good excuse to walk.
As we emerged onto a dirt road all I could see ahead was r o l l i n g hills. Oh crap. Immediately followed by YAY – legitimate reason to walk! Along here I caught up with Nathan from South Dakota who remembered me from Lean Horse last summer. Which made me think how much better shape I was in back then. I was glad today’s race was on a completely different course – the kind that is well served by my decent strength and endurance base and forgiving of my slower leg speed this year. More dirt road and then a trip through the woods again. Some walking, mostly running. I learned later from Nathan that a guy who had been just ahead of us had seen a bear in this section. It was easy to remember the place as there was yellow tape blocking part of the trail. Bears running through the woods, moose sightings along the course and even a few rattlesnake stories - but not so much as a dropping to indicate this is also the home of these guys...
Out of the woods again and more rolling hills. And then, just as I was wondering if the next aid station (Dry Fork, mile 34.5) would ever appear I spotted cars along the ridge quite a distance away. I remembered Cindy explaining this section to us in the shop, cautioning not to look up as it was still a ways to go. But for me it was good to have that ahead as a goal and at 6:25 on the clock I decided I should try to get there in 20 minutes. Passing a few people along here as I tried to power hike at a good pace. The grade wasn’t so bad at first but got decidedly stepper so I knew there wasn’t much point in trying to run. I could tell this would be a busy aid station and even half way up the hill there were people out cheering. It was quite the party atmosphere. I reached the top feeling pretty strong. Before I knew it I was being offered pizza – looked good but no thank you - and then was handed my drop bag and swapped my hydration pack for a handheld which another volunteer filled for me. These guys were so on the ball. Chatted briefly to Andy who’d arrived just ahead of me and then into the tent for some fruit and pretzels. On my way again at 6:46 (34.5M). Nice. Things were going my way. I could tell. And wasn’t that, like, the second big climb of the race? Surely it was.
Out onto the gravel road which started off at a pretty gentle grade. Once I’d eaten that half banana and a few orange quarters it was time to run. Passed a few 50K runners along here. It is seriously impressive to see the number of 60yr+ runners in that race – including two guys in their mid-70’s. Across a few meadows as the trail continued to climb, all runnable, and then some downhill and flat gravel roads through more farmland. This was a welcome break from the rough dirt roads and it was nice to be able to settle into a running pace again. Several creek crossings to keep the feet refreshed and a few marshy sections. A short steep climb up to a dirt road that we followed towards some rougher terrain as we descended to Upper Sheep Creek. I was losing track of aid station distances at this point so I asked how long to the finish from here – 13 miles was the reply and 5 to the next aid station. At 7:40 on the clock I was feeling pretty positive about my 10 hour goal. After all I’d passed the last tough climb. Right?
Wrong. A half mile out of the aid station and I was looking up, up, up. Horse Creek Ridge. Seriously? That sort of knocked the wind out of my sails. My hamstrings which had felt pretty good all day were beginning to complain quite loudly. Things improved immensely once I realized I was catching a few 50K runners on the climb. And though I would not have believed it on the way up, when I reached the top and took a moment to look around me – all that lactic acid seemed to dissolve... WOW – if this is what running in the mountains is all about then I am all about running in the mountains. As I started the descent, the next mile of the course clearly visible as a line of runners wound their way through the meadows below, I thanked whatever god was listening that I had the ability and the desire to do this. I reached the wire fence and continued along the now flat trail, passing a few more runners and looking forward to more sweet downhill as we headed in the direction of the Tongue River Canyon. The sky so blue, the meadows full of wildflowers. The setting could not have been more spectacular. Sting’s “Fields of Gold” came into my mind. The wildflowers were purple and blue but there you go. I don’t listen to music much while running these days and not at all while racing but this is a song that often comes to mind when I’ve run myself into that state of mind where I feel like nothing can stop me (usually the grade is downhill). Long before I was a runner I associated that song with heaven. I guess there are no up-hills in my running heaven.
There were several more runners along here as the narrow trail passed through some long grass on either side which made things a bit tricky a times. Mostly 50K runners, a few 100 milers and then one 50 miler who didn’t let me get very far... we had good fun running through the next section of mostly steep downhill with a few muddy sections and still more creek crossings. It was great to have someone "chasing" me especially as I was beginning to wonder how long this 5 mile section was. We chatted a little bit but mostly I was concentrating on the terrain and trying hard not to damage my toes any more than necessary. I expressed my strong desire to finish this race in under 10 hours and was told no problem. I didn’t quite share his confidence. Especially as my watch ticked over 8:30 and still no sign of Lower Sheep Creek aid station from which I assumed I still had 8 miles to run. How pleased was I to reach it a few minutes later and be told seven miles to the end! The course info says 7.5 miles but either way it was less than 8 and that was all I needed to hear! 8:33, somewhere around mile 44.5. Only 2 miles to the next aid so I quickly refilled, a few pretzels, coke and a small bunch of grapes. My friend had left before me so it was my turn to chase him.
What happened next was most unexpected. A bagpiper standing on a rock in the woods. And further along the trail two guys on guitars. I would bet a few of the 100 mile runners thought it was their imagination getting the better of them.
That took my mind off the trail which had decided to climb through the woods despite the volunteer’s assertions that it was all flat from here home. But I was alongside the river again, the canyon narrowing ahead of us - and it’s hard to complain when you’ve got nothing but natural beauty all around you. But I am meant to be chasing someone here. Off I went in pursuit of my friend. I passed two 100 milers who were in great spirits along with their pacers. I took half a gel. I tried to take more but my stomach was having none of it. In general I did pretty well all day on the nutrition and hydration fronts. I probably drank a bit more than usual to offset any altitude affects (which I really didn’t feel). I’d eaten granola and yogurt on the bus earlier, 2 hours before the race and then starting at about 2 hours in I’d taken a gel every 45-60 minutes, along with a few electrolyte tabs. Pretzels and few pieces of fruit at all of the stocked aid stations. But now, 8 gels or so later my stomach was beginning to revolt a little.
Before I knew it I was descending towards the Tongue River aid station – the last fully stocked one, 5 miles from home according to the volunteers (5.5 according to the course map). Exactly 9 hours on the clock. I was going to do this. Gravel roads all the way. It was nice to know there really were no more climbs but I had totally enjoyed the previous section as it wound along the river, lots of short sharp climbs and a few scrambles across the rocks. It was fun and fun is always needed at around mile 45.
I could see my friend up ahead. Earlier when I was running in front of him on the downhill section I’d asked if he wanted to go by. He said no because even if he did go ahead he knew I’d catch him on the road. So I got a told you so and keep running hard all the way as I went by. Ahead I was a lady who looked like Alicia and sure enough it was - a veteran at the Bighorn races. I was half expecting to see Vishal along the way but also hoping not to as it meant he’d be well under his goal of 30 hours. It was pretty warm along here now that the sun had escaped all the clouds. The conditions had been close to perfect all day. Some sections got a bit toasty but most of the time it seemed like the sun would dip behind the clouds regularly and at times it even felt cool, especially when the breeze picked up on some of the more exposed sections.
Quite a few people along the course now, passing a lot of 50K runners, a few 100 milers and maybe 2 or 3 50 mile runners, one guy suffering pretty badly with IT band issues. Also, a lot of supporters along this stretch of road – all weekend I was impressed by how the locals seemed to really get involved with the race. A guy came along on a bike and told me if I kept running at this pace I’d be home in 20 minutes. 9:23 on the clock. Quick diversion to grab a freezepop from the ladies at the Homestretch aid station – it was pretty neat to have this last stop to get you over the finish line. I took another half a gel. Just in case bike guy was a bit off on his predictions. Around a few more turns and then the edge of town started to appear. I passed Vishal along here, with less than a half mile to go. He was in great spirits and moving well.
I was so happy to be almost done. Volunteers made for a safe road crossing, heading towards Scott Park, onto the sidewalk and into the park, around the edge of the field, searching for the finish line and very glad to see it a few hundred yards ahead, along the river. As scenic a finish line as I’m ever likely to cross. 9:42:59. Bike guy called it. 1st Female, 5th overall. I'll enjoy the memories of this race for a long time to come.
The afternoon was still young and after a ten minute soak in the chilly waters of the Tongue River, I got cleaned up, hung out with Karen and Alicia, chatting to several people I’d met along the way and just enjoying a really great post-race party. And if that wasn’t good enough, the next morning’s post-race breakfast was outdoors in the plaza in downtown Sheridan. It was just perfect – pancakes, fresh fruit, coffee, good company. Not to mention a nice $100 gift cert for the sports shop across the road and a rock that would put a fair dent in my luggage allowance...
This was one of the most enjoyable races I’ve been lucky enough to participate in. No question winning helps brighten the memories but I think more so the breathtaking views every step of the course, the incredibly well organized aid stations and, as always, the people... the runners, the volunteers, the supporters. Its memories like this that make sitting on my ass recovering from the (unrelated) post-race surgery just about tolerable!
On that note – a big thank you to Kami who gently persuaded me to reconsider my initial plans to schedule that surgery for 2 weeks prior to the race thinking I was better off just getting it done and that somehow I would be okay with spectating on the day. I am so very glad I took your advice!
First the course map and elevation profile (the downhill section around mile 43 is responsible for the current state of my toenails)...
A few from the finish line...
Kami and I drove back out to Tongue River Canyon the day after the race and hiked a very short section of the trail...
And these delightful photos of the trail are courtesy of Chris Gerber...
For anyone interested in the stats:
0:52 (0:52) 5.0 (5) Elk Camp
0:34 (1:26) 3.0 (8) Spring Marsh
1:04 (2:30) 6.5 (14.5) Narrows
0:37 (3:07) 3.5 (18) Foot Bridge
1:02 (4:09) 3.5 (21.5) Bear Camp
0:36 (4:45) 3.0 (24.5) Water AS
0:47 (5:32) 4.0 (28.5) Kern’s Cow Camp
1:14 (6:46) 6.0 (34.5) Dry Fork Ridge*
0:54 (7:40) 5.0 (39.5) Upper Sheep Creek
0:53 (8:33) 5.0 (44.5) Lower Sheep Creek**
0:27 (9:00) 2.0 (46.5) Tongue River**
0:28 (9:28) 3.5 (50) Homestretch
0:15 (9:43) 2.0 (52) Finish Line in Scott Park, Dayton
*the splits on the website list me coming in at 6:58 but I know that’s off and also I came in after some of the guys listed below me so the times are definitely a bit off here
** the volunteers at these aid stations said 5 and 7 miles to go, respectively, so I am not sure if the website info is correct – from my times I would guess it is 44.5 miles at Lower Sheep Creek and then 2.5 miles to Tongue River (27 minutes). And Homestretch is more like 1.75 miles from the finish.