Saturday, June 24, 2017

He Said: Joe's account of Bighorn 100

My first 100-miler has to have an accompanying race report, pretty sure that's a law of some kind.  I've resisted the urge to read Julie's so far, so that I won't start "remembering" things differently!

I think she signed up for Bighorn a long time ago - I barely remember her forwarding me her registration email and asking me if I wanted to come along.  I don't think she was actually expecting me to sign myself up for the race, but that's what I did.  For some reason...  The most I'd run in one stretch was 66 miles (thanks to a wrong turn on a 100k last year that added 4 bonus miles), but that was a much flatter course.  I didn't fully appreciate or recognize how difficult this was going to be…at all.

I typically under-prepare for races, and this was no exception.  When we checked into the Airbnb in Dayton, WY, there were 2 hours remaining to get any drop bags to the staff in Sheridan.  So that's when I dumped out my stuff and started thinking about what needs to go in a drop bag.  I settled on: an extra jacket, couple of protein bars, batteries, amino acid powder to dump in my bottles (great placebo effect), and some other crap I knew I'd never use.  That night I thought of several things I wish I would've put in there, but it was too late...didn't end up mattering.

The 10am start meant a lot of sitting around; I think everyone was ready to go after the race brief, but there was a 1.5-hour gap.  The race brief itself included the word "treacherous" more frequently than a Scooby Doo episode, and it almost seemed like they were trying to scare people.  Luckily, I never get nervous before long races, and knowing Julie and I were planning to stick together the whole time put me even more at ease.  She has a calming effect in pretty much any situation, and I love when we run together - we share a similar sense of humor, but we also never feel pressure to fill up every second with talk/chatter when we run, which is nice...and who has 33 hours’ worth of discussion topics anyway?  I was looking forward to a nice, relaxing stroll in the mountains to check off my first 100-miler.

Starting near the back of the pack was a new experience.  Once you get to singletrack, you only go as fast as the slowest person, out of the 300 people in front of you.  Of course, logically, I knew there was no rush, and Julie is a pro at letting people race ahead and mowing them down later.  But I still couldn't stand it.  Why are we walking downhill???  It was mile 3 and we were still sometimes just standing there, waiting for the traffic jam to clear.  After maybe 6-8 miles, we were finally determining our own pace.  Julie led the way, and I followed, as is our practice for singletrack.  The first 7 miles have almost a 4k' net increase in elevation - not easy, but we made it up in good shape.

Mile 30 (Sally's footbridge, big aid station) is where my only drop bag was.  There is some nice downhill in the preceding few miles - I think this is probably the only time I had more than 100 meters separation from Julie all day, as I played around a bit ahead on the gravity-assisted sections here…FUN!

From 30 to 48 is a long, gradual uphill.  This is also about where is started pouring rain.  For the next 11 hours.  So much mud.  I had the chance to pace my friend April at Bandera 100k back in January 2015 (anyone who was there will well remember the muddy conditions).  This mud was much more slippery and shoe-sucky than even that day.  At one point, Julie's shoe came completely off, lodged in mud.  At another point, there was a hill where I wasn't even sure we'd ever make it to the top!  Started sliding backwards and had to grab on to some trees to make forward progress.  It reminded me of my pitiful attempt at XC skiing back in December - there was one hill I eventually had to just crawl up on my knees in the snow, or we probably never would've gotten home that day.

Finally, we made it to the turnaround at Jaws (mile 48) sometime after midnight, and it was crazy with activity inside that tent.  Most people that I spoke to after the race that DNF'd, did it right there at Jaws.  So warm inside, volunteers were so helpful, and it was freezing outside thanks in part to the 9k’ elevation and constant rain.  Julie headed to the port-o-potty to change clothes so I just hung out in the tent to admire the chaos.  I saw Rob, who had just shuttled Jake and Edward out of there.  Everyone seemed to be doing ok according to him, and Julie and I were still at least a couple hours ahead of cutoff, joking around the entire time.  Physically, I was totally fine and having the time of my life, despite the conditions.  Now just head back down, this should be the easy part...

Well, the mud was getting ridiculous.  Julie and I stayed mostly upright in the first half, but were starting to spend more and more time on our butts.  As we approached Sally's again, entering the 18th, then 19th, then 20th hours, my attitude started to turn a bit; I think at this point I was still positive outwardly, but a lot quieter.  The mud was not funny anymore.  I also noticed it was doing quite a bit of damage to our pace.  We were starting to put down some 26-27 minute miles, and you need to average right around 3mph (20-minute miles) to finish before the 34-hour cutoff.  Our 2.5-hour pad had shrunk to 45 minutes.  Somewhere around here we crossed one of those “treacherous” bridges and I wondered silently whether anyone had fallen in yet, off the slippery planks.  No more than 10 minutes after that, Larry came passing by and after we greeted each other, he nonchalantly said, “Well, I fell off the bridge back there.” There ya go.
I finally let Julie know I was getting worried about the pace and said we wouldn’t make it unless we started going faster.  Somehow she immediately, almost frantically, increased the pace by ~5 min/mile.  I'd just calculated that we'd be really close to getting cut off at the mile 82.5 aid, and to be honest, I was looking forward to quitting there.  As Julie somehow got us back on pace, which was borderline uncomfortable for me since it was nearly impossible to actually “run” in that mud, I got even more grouchy.  After mile 66, the 2nd time at Sally's aid, I was improving slightly, but knew the worst was yet to come.
Going up to the next aid station was tough – 2k’ climb over 4 miles.  One of those four miles had half the climb (1000’) in it - took us 35 minutes for that one mile.  Fortunately, there was daylight now and you could sometimes make slightly better decisions about where to place your feet to slip around less often.
We had a funny conversation with the volunteers up there, who had to carry all supplies in with horses, about what to do with your dirty post-race clothes (suggestions were to drop them off at the YMCA or to just burn them), and some rather odd requests runners had made of them.  Ultra-runners really are a weird group of people.
The Dry Fork aid station @ mile 82.5 was in sight around mile 80; it was at the top of a long hill.  We kept seeing people that we passed earlier in the race being driven up that hill in ATVs or Mules, and I remember getting extremely jealous of them, just sitting there, not having to use their legs.  I let Julie know how lucky I considered those people to be, but she was just too damn positive about the prospect of finishing this epically difficult race. Finally, the climb (partially accompanied by Rob again!), we were there.  It was a quick stop, then another climb to the high point on that end of the course.  I was pretty sure we’d make it before the final cutoff now, but I had mixed feelings about having to cover another 17 miles.  A 17-mile run on pavement, with fresh legs, could be done in 2 hours or so. But this would take us 6 hours, since neither one of us could really “run” anymore.  We could kinda make it look like we were running, but it was basically a walking pace. Then tendon behind my right knee was also on fire (a week later, and it still hurts a little to straighten out that leg), but I knew it was not the kind of injury you stop for.  When I ran the Palo Duro 50-miler last year, I did have the kind of injury that you stop for during the last 15 miles of the race (although I was winning, so I didn’t stop of course), so I knew the difference; most of us do.  But Palo Duro took maybe 8 hours for the whole race.  We were now at hour 27.
Julie and I were barely speaking at this point, although we were very supportive of the other when needed.  We were both just so miserable.  After the mile 92.5 aid station, we found out we had 2.5 miles of singletrack, then 5 miles of dirt road back to the town of Dayton.  The Singletrack. Took. Forever.  We skipped the aid at mile 95, and with 2 hours and 20 minutes to go before the cutoff, I knew we’d make it.  I’ve never, ever, experienced the kind of expansion of time that occurred over those last 5 miles. Every step hurt so bad.  I had to stop looking at my watch, because it seemed like 10 minutes would go by and we’d move .03 miles or something, so I just quit looking.  I found out later that Julie was having some kind of panic attack or something and was probably worse off than me, but either she kept it to herself or I was so inwardly focused on my own suffering that I didn’t realize it.  Someone on a bike came by to congratulate us with 1.5 miles to go, saying that most of the Bighorn veterans agreed this was the hardest year ever.  I couldn’t even respond to congratulations at that point – the finish still seemed days away!
Somehow, someway, we made it to the town.  We held hands as we turned toward the park, and walked it in from there, crossing together in 33:16.  I rarely have “emotions,” but they sure tried to come out in that last tenth of a mile in the park.  Hopefully there’s no photographic evidence.
As soon as we stopped, and the tendon behind my knee cooled off / tightened up, I could barely use the leg. Edward, who had also just run the 100 miles, was nice enough to drive us back to the cabin (3 blocks away) since there was no way I could make it.  Even Julie had to go get my drop bag from the collection area – I felt pretty pathetic! Once in the cabin, after showering, I had these weird shivering-but-hot spells.  Felt like my neck and above was hot and sweaty while the rest of my body was freezing – I was sure I had some kind of fever and that the rest of our trip (3 days in the Beartooth wilderness near Red Lodge, MT) was ruined.  But the very-experienced Julie said it would be better in the morning, and it was.  With the help of 2.4g of Vitamin I per day, we were able to put in about 35 total miles of hiking in some incredible places from Monday to Wednesday morning.


Now that a week has passed, of course I’ll be running another 100-miler - probably Cactus.  I will only remember the good parts of Bighorn – the partnership with Julie, and triumphing over adversity.  I never stop growing when I’m around Julie – and these aren’t just lessons in running better ultramarathons, although I certainly get a lot of much-needed help there.  I am just a better person in general with her.