When all the race reports say it was muddy, the race officials are saying it’s going to be muddy, and the forecast is calling for rain…why do we still hold out hope that the course might stay dry for us? “Bighorn Mud” was a frequent proper-noun I saw leading up to my 6th hundred mile attempt. I prepared for mud, but had no idea how exhausting it would actually be. For the 2019 Bighorn 100, after being treated to 46 wonderful, mostly dry miles, I got to experience Wyoming’s finest snow, mud, and rain from a front-row seat.
Leading up to Bighorn, I decided that I was going to take this one seriously. Of course, it’s a 100 miler, is there such a thing as not taking it seriously? Absolutely there is, which I learned the hard way DNFing The Bear in 2017. “Respect the distance” is oft repeated, but I’m a millennial and don’t need sage wisdom from my elders. I had to learn my own way that 100 milers take work!
Now settled in Austin, I had the benefit of knowing where I could get some elevation training, how to cope with the heat a bit more, and how focus on running instead of lifting and shifting my entire life with Colleen. Of course, I would have loved to log more hours or vert, but the longer I’ve been a runner, the more I’ve come to terms with my life can’t revolve around training (especially when you have a job that sends you around the globe quite frequently).
While not devoting my entire life to training, I still managed plenty of 60 or so mile weeks with a lot of climbing (by Austin, TX standards). The only thing I wish I had added to my training was using poles. Come race week, with apocalyptic reports of snow and mud, I caved and ordered a pair of trekking poles. I wound up using them for 70 miles of the race, but my triceps wished they had gotten a bit more use leading up to race day.
Flying up to Denver the day before the race, Colleen, Matt, and I had a fairly long, uneventful drive up to Sheridan, Wyoming to check-in for the race. Upon arrival, I was greeted with the news that the race would have required gear this year: long sleeves, pants, a hat, and gloves. No big deal, I was planning on carrying all this gear with me, but the added stress of a potential DQ for missing some of this gear was weighing on me.
Drop bags got handed off and we were squared away to stroll around town and enjoy the energy before the race. Sheridan (like seemingly every town in Wyoming) is relatively small, and the whole community seems to be involved in the race. It’s an awesome experience for sure and definitely adds a special vibe to the whole event.
By 6:30, it was time for the pre-race meeting. The energy was tense with all of the talk of wintery conditions up high, but after a foot-by-foot breakdown of the course, I was confident that things seemed a bit over-exaggerated. We were being given an extra hour (added to the start of the race) to contend with them, and the idea of extra cushioning for the cutoffs was more than enough to assuage any fears. With the meeting over, it was time for the worst part of these events – waiting for the dang thing to start.
The 2019 Bighorn 100 Miler
Starting at 9 AM, the race definitely had a relaxed feel. I was able to wake up at a normal time, eat a full breakfast, and relax a bit before making my way to the start in Dayton. Colleen and Matt dealt with my nervous energy and hurriedly packed up our hotel so we could get to the start with ample time. We parked the car and took our shuttle to the start with about 10 minutes until the gun went off.
In what felt like no time at all, the gun went off and we made our way up into the canyon via dirt road that quickly turned into single track. The Bighorn course is an out and back, starting at around 4000 ft and climbing to 9000ft at the turnaround at Jaws aid station. From the canyon, we hit a huge climb in a meadow that the canyon opened into. Over 3 or 4 miles, we gained 3000ft. The views were absolutely breathtaking, and early on I knew I had done the right amount of hill training. The power hike up the steep slope felt relaxed and comfortable. I struck up conversation with folks from Minnesota, Utah, New York, and oddly enough Austin.
After the climb, the course rolled into the first real aid station at mile 8.5 where I stopped briefly. I had decided this race I was going to take care of myself at each of the aid stations. Having no time goal meant I was going to take in everything the race had to offer. The course is rolling from here until around 50k, so I was ready to settle in and get some good miles in. The weather was a bit warm, but otherwise beautiful.
Before I knew it, I was at the Dry Fork aid station at mile 13 which was my first chance to see Colleen and Matt. Even though it was early, I changed my socks and took in plenty of calories. Even though it wasn’t muddy or rainy yet, I wanted to take as much care of my feet as possible. That would end up being a worthless endeavor, but the mental boost is always great.
As I left the aid station, the sky was starting to fill with dark grey storm clouds. I distinctly remember thinking that it was about to turn from a beautiful day to a slog 15% into the race, but magically the storm held out for another 10 or so miles. During that time I was able to clear Cow Camp and on my way to Bear Camp the heavens briefly opened up and dumped rain and the runners I was currently with. Everyone stopped to pull out rain-shells, but I knew that would be pointless given how warm it still was. It was either getting rained on or sweat a ton. So I continued on rain-jacketless and 10 minutes later the rain stopped! Perfect!
I hit the Bear Camp aid station and quickly filled my bottles. Right after the aid station we hit mud. It fought hard to suck shoes and pull us over, but the worst of it was over quickly. Still, the course was wet and sloppy as we descended down the steepest climb of the return direction, lovingly titled “The Wall”. As we picked our way down the hill, a huge moose barreled across a field about 100 feet away from us. That was plenty close for me and decided I was ready to get to Footbridge Aid station at 50k and be officially into ultra territory.
Sally’s Footbridge is the second major aid station and was bustling with activity. I had a drop bag here and would pick up my poles and restock all my gels and electrolyte drink. For whatever reason, I forgot to change my socks after coming into the race with a “treat yo self” mentality. This turned out to be a mistake. From Footbridge, there is an 18 mile section of course that’s essentially all uphill to the turnaround. Wet, muddy socks would not do my feet any favors, but it was what it was.
As I left the aid station I continued my strategy of making conversation with other runners and just chipping away at the course. I was ahead of schedule to get to the turn around before dark, so I was feeling great. On the way to Jaws, the course is dotted with aid stations that amazing volunteers hike in all of the food and equipment for. For whatever reason, even with amazing, dry single track, views, and great weather, I slipped into my first low spot of the race. While all uphill, there was a ton of runnable sections that I wound up hiking. I tried not to get too negative. I was still making great time in amazing country, but after 7 great hours, the first low of the race was difficult to work through. I plodded the final aid station before the turn around, Elk Camp, where I finally started to feel reinvigorated. It was only 4.5 miles to the turnaround where I would pick up Colleen to pace me and be past the halfway point of the race.
Those 4.5 miles was where the sloppiness started. The course was extremely muddy from here on due to all the melting snow. At least, it was until you hit the snow itself. The remaining snow on the trail was extremely soft from the warm temps, and had collected pools of freezing cold water underneath them. The result was about a mile of post-holing through knee deep snow with an ice bath for your feet waiting beneath. My feet went numb, eventually turning into what felt like cinderblocks. I could no longer feel the hot spots on my feet, and each footfall felt like a jolt. Finally, the course spat us onto the dirt road leading to Jaws, and I was able to run in to meet my crew.
Matt and Colleen took amazing care of me at the aid station. I was just past 12 hours into the race, and had about 4000 feet of net descent on the return. Spirits were high as I imagined a 25 or 26 hour finish in my future. I ate some broth and mashed potatoes, restocked gels and drink, and changed my socks for the second time. I had made the decision not to bother changing shoes, as they were going to be trashed with mud immediately on the return journey. I took about 10 minutes cleaning my feet, getting warm clothes on, and just bracing for the night ahead. Thankfully, being so close to the solstice, it was going to be a short night.
Colleen got situated as well. I warned here that we’d have some lovely slush to plod through before making our way down to Footbridge, and that she should plan to try and stay dry. The forecast was calling for below freezing temps, and we were both apprehensive about staying warm. We layered up and started our trip back.
We made relatively quick work of the snow slush and slick mud before getting back to Elk Camp. We had some special bananas there that were essentially bananas and brown sugar, and they were totally amazing. I didn’t want to sit around two long at these stations before footbridge, so we took off quickly and efficiently. These trails were open with minimal tree cover, of huge valleys between mountains that were pitch black. As we continued downward, the rain started.
The rain wasn’t intense or cataclysmic, but it was enough. The clay-filled dirt that made up these trails quickly turned to a slick slime. I had been convinced this 18 mile stretch from Jaws was going to be my fastest of the day. But now, each step was a balancing act to stay upright. My tired legs and core depended heavily on my poles to brace each step (which you’d gain a couple of inches of slippage with each time) and Colleen cursed at the fact that she was without them. Exposed sections of the trail and slick bridge crossings became treacherous. Somehow, we were moving down the mountain slower than I was moving up.
My spirits plummeted. I knew it was going to happen and I knew to be ready for mud, but this fucking sucked. I wasn’t “low” I was frustrated! Frustrated to have the most runnable part of the course turned into an 18 mile slip and slide! Our plan to move through aid stations quickly was abandoned fast. We took time at Spring Marsh and Cathedral Rock to wallow in self-pity. Colleen was saintly keeping me moving and reminding me I had no time goal. At least we got to laugh about how ridiculous this was!
When we finally arrived to Sally’s Footbridge, I let Colleen know that I wouldn’t be mad if she had to drop. Prepping for her first 100k, I didn’t want her to hurt herself in the bad conditions. We compromised by taking 20 or so minutes changing socks and clothes, eating plenty of food, and recomposing ourselves for the remaining 17 miles together.
We left the comforts of the aid station and were greeted with “The Wall”. 2000 feet over 3 or so miles of steep climbing. We put our heads down and chipped away at it. Honestly, it felt good to go up the rocky, reliable terrain of a tough climb instead of sliding down what should be runnable. The sun rose behind us and we were welcomed to the top of a climb with a field of wildflowers. Even through the suck these races have their moments.
At Bear Camp I ate a snickers and we took off quickly, covering some muddy single track. This section though, with warming temps and tree cover had not been turned to a greased-hell, and we were able to run again! Well, run-walk, but averaging 14 minute miles on rolling terrain as opposed to 20 minute miles on pure downhill was a treat. The miles clicked away quickly to Cow Camp where Colleen and I enjoyed some delicious bacon and commiserated with the other runners there.
We had about 6 miles to make it to Dry Fork where I’d drop Colleen for the last 18 miles to the finish. With the weather warming, mud returning, and patience waning, Colleen and I both entered a deep space of negativity. I was moving too slow for Colleen’s liking and I was just praying for consistently dry conditions. The section took way longer than it should have, but that’s how these things go. I was out here to challenge myself, and 24 hours later I certainly was being challenged. Finally, we crested the last little hill to the aid station and the end felt like it was in sight.
At Dry Fork I finally changed shoes, changed clothes, and ate a handful of different things. I had decided that I was going to get this done sub-30 hours, which meant I had to get moving! I took off on the dirt road section, running relatively well since I had walked so much of the preceding 34 miles. I did as much as possible to keep my feet dry and move with purpose. I quickly arrived at Upper Sheep Creek and with 13 miles to go, I was ready to rock!
I hiked strong up to the top of the meadow climb, which returning down was absolute torture. The steep, rutted descent was inconsistent. It alternated between somewhat runnable and insanely steep. I did my best to move quickly on tired legs, using my poles to brace myself on the rougher sections. To make things worse, I was now being caught by 30k and 50k runners who seemingly passed every 15 seconds. I didn’t mind the passing, but stepping off the trail so frequently impeded progress. But eventually, I was back in the canyon with 8 miles to go.
The single track was slow going as I had done mental math projecting no matter what, I could do sub-30, so the fire within me to finish got a bit cooler. Still, I kept a decent pace before making it to the final 5 mile stretch of dirt road. I finally had an excuse to stash my poles and clicked away miles on the flat terrain. With 2 miles left, Matt met me. We ate an Otter Pop that residents were handing out and shared our experiences about how wild this race was. In no time, we had made it to the finish line, crossing in 29 hours and 18 minutes.
Post-Race and Thoughts
I crashed into a chair and had some chocolate milk immediately post finish. I was insanely hot and crushed after 29 hours of movement (a new PB for longest race). We collected my belt buckle, drop bag, and then showered at the local high school before heading on our way to Yellowstone for a little R&R post race.
Looking back, I obviously feel a bit disappointed I didn’t run a better time. I knew I was fitter than 29 hours, but this race was one of mental fortitude. Not once, even when the going was slow and muddy, did I want to drop. The finish of this race was guaranteed from the moment I started. I’m insanely proud of that. Having a steadfast desire to finish is difficult, especially in these conditions. And because of that, I couldn’t be happier to have my 5th 100 miler finish be Bighorn.