Well, the Bighorn 100 didn’t quite turn out as well as I’d hoped this year.
This year’s race was held in the best possible conditions in the most ideal weather. The trail was mostly dry for the first 45 miles all the way to Elk Camp, we didn’t have any major storms, and it didn’t get too cold over night. If there was a year to run a PR on the Bighorn course, this was it. Unfortunately despite all other conditions working in my favor, it just wasn’t my day.
From the start of the race, I took off chasing the lead pack for a couple miles up the Tongue River canyon and eventually fell into pace with Jason Ostrom and Nick Davis for most of the climb up Horse Creek Ridge. What should have felt easy seemed like a bit too much of a strain. I knew that I wasn’t in top condition but still felt strong enough to at least make my goal of finishing under 21:29. I made it to Dry Fork right on schedule and while it didn’t feel great, I wasn’t feeling terrible about it either so I figured I just needed more time to get into a rhythm.
Trouble started immediately after Dry Fork. The water I picked up tasted horrible and my stomach immediately turned. I assumed it was just a bad tasting water treatment but after hearing about how many other runners got horribly sick this year, I suspect they may have had some bad water out there. The combination of the water with my gel made me nauseous so I cut back on drinking and eating and slowed down to take it easy until I could get a clean water refill at Cow Camp. I picked up fresh water at Cow Camp and stopped to eat some fruit and pretzels to try to get some extra calories down. Unfortunately the water I picked up at Cow Camp tasted the same so I slowed down to try to work my way through the next section as carefully as possible. Luckily I noticed the pipe spring on the way to Bear Camp (I’ve run by this several times in the past) and stopped to cool off and finally get a refill of fresh, clean water. After that, I started to feel better and started working my way back onto my pace goals. My stomach was still on edge so it was a struggle to keep up with hydration while trying to get some minimal calories down without completely turning my stomach. I was only able to handle a tiny fraction of the gel I had planned to use so I took extra time at each aid station to grab extra food along the way.
This plan seemed to work out pretty well from Footbridge to Porcupine. I made up most of the time I lost between Dry Fork and Bear Camp and felt like I still had a decent shot at a strong finish. Slush was ready to pace me in to the finish and Mindy and Victoria were there crewing to help get me back out onto the trail quickly. Alex, Mary, and some other FCTR’s were just arriving as Scott and I headed out. So it was a nice mental boost to see some friends before the long overnight grind back to Dayton.
The trip home started out well. We had just enough daylight left to easily pick out way through the snow banks and bogs that covered the first couple miles. And we were just in time to see a gorgeous sunset from the open hill top at the high point of the course. Seeing the rest of the Fort Collins and Boulder runners on this stretch was a nice distraction from how tired and sick I was feeling.
But as soon as we hit dry trail on the way down to Elk Camp, my stomach rapidly deteriorated. Fatigue from a long day on the trail was setting in and running down the rough trail was jarring my abs. My stomach was threatening to blow at any second and I wasn’t sure which way it would go. I tried to stop and make a pit stop in the bushes before getting to Elk Camp but wasn’t able to get anything out of my system – I was stuck with a nasty, angry lower GI system.
I stopped for chicken broth at Elk Camp and Spring Marsh and picked up handfuls of saltines at each aid station to keep trying to get something down. But on the way to the Narrows, the minimal calories and lack of caffeine finally caught up with me. I couldn’t keep my eyes open and focused and started walking and stumbling. I had to pause several times to take a knee and close my eyes just long enough to refocus. It took forever to get through this section.
At the Narrows aid station I finally broke down and tried to drink some black coffee. It was possibly the best dark, sludgy cowboy coffee ever. And I was surprised that it didn’t immediately turn my stomach inside out and went down well. I pulled out my reserve stash of granola from my pack and managed to get a good chunk of it down with a second cup of coffee. After that I was back up and running at a decent pace all the way down to Footbridge. At Footbridge, I grabbed another 2 cups of coffee and managed to get a couple small bites of a turkey roll down. I was feeling better and now that I knew I could drink coffee at the aid stations, I was hopeful that this system would get me back on track to finish in good time.
Scott and I kept a steady pace up the Wall and we were actually starting to have fun enjoying a lovely evening (ok, middle of the night) out on the trails. I even got a preview of Scott’s new Swashbuckling Doctors song, Deep Skank 9. We made it to Bear Camp as I started to fade again just in time to get another dose of coffee. Bear Camp didn’t have coffee – oh, crap. I settled for a bite of a mini milky way bar and we headed on our way to try to make it to Cow Camp.
Without coffee, the wheels completely fell off. I started stumbling and wobbling and had to stop and rest my eyes half a dozen times. I took one extended break to sit and choke down enough granola to be able to get a guarana pill down but it barely made any difference. By daybreak we still had a couple miles left to go to get to Cow Camp. It was a minor relief to finally be rid of the headlamp tunnel vision but it was too early to get an energizing boost from the sun. It was just damn early and cold and I just stumbled along slowly.
I admit, I did a lot of Tebowing and even some Bradying.
But I narrowly avoided another Wasatch episode.
I finally made it to Cow Camp …no where near any previous goal time but I hadn’t puked yet and I didn’t pass out (completely) so I had that going for me. I got the best boost of the race when I discovered they were well stocked with Starbucks Via. I took a nice long break at the aid station and drank 2 full cups and managed to eat most of my remaining granola. And since I was a bit worried about the water quality, I filled one of my water bottles with hot water and a couple packets of instant coffee. I don’t know why I didn’t think of this before ….ok thinking of things in the middle of the night over halfway through a 100 miler is really hard.
The coffee to go did the trick to get me to Dry Fork. Scott started pushing the pace to run most of the easy sections and I managed to hang on the entire way.
It was finally warming up so Scott and I took a few minutes at Dry Fork to strip layers and ditch our extra gear. I decided to avoid the water again and filled my second bottle with ginger ale instead. I still had almost half a bottle of coffee left from Cow Camp and the balance between the ginger ale and black coffee seemed to work perfectly. Again, I have no idea why I didn’t think of filling up on ginger ale or 7-up on Friday the instant my stomach turned.
On the way out of Dry Fork, Scott and I kept the pace fairly easy but moved along steadily. Halfway to Upper Sheep Creek I finally had to make an emergency pit stop into the bushes. After that, whatever evil demon that had possessed my stomach for the last 21 hours was finally gone for good. I was tired and my legs were a bit stiff but once we got moving, I actually felt pretty good. We made a quick pit stop at Upper Sheep Creek and I got a refill of ginger ale to go. At this point, I was sure that I didn’t have any chance of finishing under 24 hours. I told Scott that I really didn’t care what time we finished and it just wasn’t worth pushing to the point of hurting myself. I had come to terms with the fact that I’d completely missed any goal I had set for this race and was prepared to just get to the finish line in decent shape, chock this up as a learning experience, and move on to the next race.
It didn’t take long to hike the final climb up the Haul and as we crested the top of Horse Creek Ridge with nothing but 4,000ft of downhill to the finish line in Dayton, Scott said, “Hey, I see three guys down on the hill ahead of us.” I looked at my watch, did some quick math in my head, and realized that I only had 12 miles to go with 2 hours left to finish under 24 hours. All I had to do was run. Game on!
I bombed down the entire drop into the Tongue River Canyon and was really surprised at how well my legs were working. My quads were holding together on the steepest drops and sharp turns and I still had plenty of spring to fly through the technical sections. Once I hit the rolling section of trail along the river, I kept up a steady tempo pace and maintained my speed all the way to the road. My GPS battery died just as I hit the end of the trail and headed out onto the road so I had to guess how far I had left. I was pretty sure that I only had a little over 5 miles of dirt road left but as the grade leveled out, I had to concentrate to pick up my feet to turn my legs over to keep my pace. I looked behind me for Scott hoping he’d be there to keep me on pace through to the finish but he was nowhere to be seen. Crap, I couldn’t afford to wait so I kept pushing. I couldn’t tell if I was running an 8 minute or 14 minute pace and I tried to guess the distance as the minutes passed on the road. I wasn’t able to finally relax until I made it to the mile 98 Homestretch aid station. They didn’t have their popsicles out yet but one of the girls sprayed me with a hose as I went by.
I made it to the finish in 23:39:12 – almost 21 minutes under the goal I had no chance of making just 17 miles ago. I ran the section from Dry Fork to the Finish in 3:03 and for comparison, Mike Wolfe ran this in 3:07 when he set the course record in 2010. So while most of the race was a disaster, I’m pretty happy that I was able to rally to finish strong.
I definitely learned a lot from this race. I won’t hesitate to fill my bottles with ginger ale any time my stomach turns sour and I won’t run overnight without my own instant coffee with me. And even though I wasn’t able to use my Vi Endurance gel for the full race, in hindsight I should have dropped a bunch of chocolate Vi into the coffee I had out on the course. This would have been an easy way to sneak in 200-300 extra calories. I’m very thankful that Vi Endurance supported me for this race and I feel bad that I wasn’t able to do a better job representing them. Getting a consistent volume of calories down during 100 milers is my biggest challenge and when my stomach turns, gel is just really difficult for me to tolerate. I’m going to keep experimenting with fueling strategies to see if I can find a way to balance out just enough solid food and liquid drinks to try to maintain a sustainable volume of gel calories that I need to keep up my energy during these runs. If I can figure this out, hopefully I’ll be able to run more than 17 miles at course record pace at my next 100 miler.
It’s only been a little over a week since the race but my legs feel fine and I’m ready to get back to training. I’ve moved down to 38 on the Cascade Crest wait list which seems promising. I’d really love to get back to the Northwest to run this race. If that doesn’t work out, the new Run Rabbit Run 100 in September looks like an interesting alternative. But before that, I have some pacing favors to pay back. I’m really looking forward to pacing Scott at his first 100 miler in Vermont this next month. It was a huge help to have him with me through the tough overnight sections at Bighorn. And having a good friend to run with just made it a lot more fun.