The Bighorn 100: A Race Report

100-mile ultramarathon map drawing

Here’s something you don’t really want to hear the week before you run a 100-mile race you’re not sure you can finish: The course has so much mud and snow on it this year that the race directors will give everyone an extra hour to complete the race.

Also, the night before, at the pre-race meeting: The section of the trail they usually say has “shoe-sucking mud” is now being referred to as “horse-sucking mud” because they almost lost a horse there a few days prior when the horse plunged into the mud up to its belly.

The Bighorn 100 is known for a lot of things: beautiful scenery, wonderful organizers and volunteers, lots of elevation gain (somewhere between 18,000 and 20,000 feet of climbing), and sometimes, slick mud. I signed up for the race back in January because a) it was in June and I wouldn’t have to take up my whole summer training for it, b) it’s in northern Wyoming, only about six hours from where I live, and c) I had a fuzzy memory of my friend Matt Trappe telling me it was fun when he ran it four or five years ago. At least I think he said “fun.”

The night before the race, at our Airbnb in Sheridan, Wyo., about 30 minutes from the race start near the town of Dayton, I was more worried about overdoing it in the heat than about the mud. “Mud, I can handle,” I foolishly told myself, popping a melatonin and lying down for what I hoped would be 6.5 hours of sleep.

The next morning, we drove to Scott Park in Dayton and boarded school buses taking us up the Tongue River Canyon to the starting line, and stood on the gravel canyon road for a few minutes awaiting the 9 a.m. start. I stood near the back of the pack and reviewed my goals, in order of priority:

  • Don’t die
  • Say thank you to all aid station volunteers you encounter
  • Don’t complain
  • Finish the race before the 35-hour cutoff
  • If possible, finish faster than 35 hours
  • Don’t sit down at more than five aid stations total
  • Don’t sit down for more than five minutes unless you’re changing socks
  • Run all the downhills until at least Mile 70; hike the rest as fast as you can
  • Don’t get hungry
  • Avoid serious injury

We jogged and walked up 1.25 miles of road to the Tongue River Canyon trailhead, where we switched to singletrack, and I ran into a couple local guys I know, Chris and Steve. I hiked and chatted with them for the entire first climb up the canyon, 3,300 vertical feet in seven miles. I had told myself that if I soaked the front of my shirt in sweat in the first climb, I would be screwed, as it would be impossible to replace all the fluids I lost. And of course, hiking fast to keep up with Chris and Steve, I was very near soaking my shirt in sweat. Thankfully, we dropped downhill at about 7,500 feet and I cooled off a little bit, and went off on my own pace. The people who said the course was beautiful were right—the route is essentially a tour of canyons with high limestone cliffs dotting the sides, and alpine meadows. Lots of it is open and exposed to the sun until about Mile 30, but breezes and a couple rain showers and thunderstorms kept me cool.

At about mile 9, I started jogging down a faded two-track road and all of a sudden felt the left side of my running vest become really loose, bouncing every time I took a step. I knew what had happened: Several weeks prior, I’d noticed the cord holding the left side of the vest together fraying. The core of the cord had remained intact, and I, an idiot, had figured it would be fine. I also didn’t bring another vest, even though my crew (my wife, Hilary, and friend Jayson) would be meeting me at Mile 30 and 66. I kept walking, pulled my vest off and tried to juggle it and my trekking poles as I figured out how to jury-rig the whole thing to last another 91 miles. After trying to tie it together twice, I looked down and realized my race bib was pinned to my shorts with four safety pins, which have heroically been holding things together since 1849, and, it struck me, might be able to do the job here in the Bighorn 100 as well. I pinned my vest together, ran about a quarter-mile, and forgot about it.

I rolled through the next few aid stations, stopping only to fill my bottles with water and Tailwind, always checking my watch to make sure I got in and out in less than two minutes. At about Mile 14, the course jogged up and down small inclines for about 10 miles, and I hiked the uphills and ran the downhills, chatting a bit with a few runners, including Sergio from South Carolina, who was running his first 100-mile race, and Larry from Pennsylvania, who had been running competitively since the 1970s and has done dozens of ultras. For a solid hour, we were harassed by rain and increasingly loud thunder, which got as close as about two miles away, and then moved away.

At 25 miles, the trail started to drop, gradually and then steeply, losing about 2,500 vertical feet before Mile 30. Up until this point I had seen little mud, but knew the forecast called for more rain, and wondered what the steep downhill section would be like on the way back the next morning.

I jogged into the 30-mile aid station just under the eight-hour mark to meet up with Hilary and Jayson, wipe off my feet and change my socks. My list of “Things I Need You To Make Me Do That I Might Not Want To Do (Or Remember To Do) at the 30-Mile Aid Station” read:

  • Eat a banana
  • Drink a protein drink
  • Refill food in vest (5 waffles, 6 bloks, 2 pie bars)
  • Pack two slices of pizza in vest
  • Put extra headlamp in vest
  • Put pants in vest
  • Put wind jacket in vest

At 30 miles, I felt OK. A headache from dehydration (took off too fast on the first sunny climb), but no major aches and pains, no hot spots, and no chafing. As I took off from the aid station, it started to downpour, soaking me through as I started a steady, 4,200-foot climb over the next 15 miles. Soon enough, I passed the Cathedral Rock aid station at Mile 33.5, then the Spring Marsh aid station at Mile 40, as the sun set and the light slowly dimmed around me.

chart showing your age during an ultramarathon

A mile or two after the Spring Marsh aid station, the trail entered an aspen stand, the entire floor of which seemed to be mud. I picked my way around, trying to keep my shoes clean and dry, succeeding for the most part. Almost out the other side, a runner came back through the forest toward me—he was near the front of the pack, headed down already. He saw me tiptoeing through the muck and said, “Don’t worry, there’s plenty more of that ahead.” Foolishly, I thought, “How bad could it be?”

At the Elk Camp aid station (Mile 43.5), I filled my water bottles and continued up, clicking on my headlamp. I suppose you could say this is where the bullshit started. When you think of mud, you probably think about it being messy, wet, maybe even sticky. The mud of the Bighorn Mountains is not sticky. I had actually read about it on the internet before the race, while doing a little research on what to expect. People said it was slick. People were right about that.

Most of the way up, it wasn’t that horrible. I had read previous reports of people saying they took two steps up and would slide one step back—at the time I was headed uphill, it wasn’t that bad. I slid around a bit, lost my footing a lot, and in general used way more energy than I would have if the trail was dry, or even less wet. My shoes and socks got completely soaked, and it was getting colder as I gained elevation, but I figured I’d be OK if I just kept moving.

The route between miles 43.5 and about mile 45.5 was mostly just a quagmire, a 10- or 20-foot wide path of marshy, muddy footprints. I gave up and started plowing through the mud, having given up on dry feet or clean shoes. Then some snow started to appear, and for the most part, I could trod across a dirty path where others had already tamped it down. But then I stepped shin-deep, both feet, into icy water that couldn’t have been warmer than 32.1 degrees Fahrenheit. I paused, shocked at how cold my feet were now, and wondered if the rest of my body would follow suit. For about 60 seconds, I was pretty sure I was fucked. I had no dry shoes or socks until Mile 66, which, at my pace, was six hours away. Unable to do anything else, I shrugged and kept plodding uphill.

Eventually, I came to a man holding a flashlight in the middle of nowhere, and he told me to continue across a dirt road, where I’d see the rest of the marked trail. Then another man with a flashlight, and a few minutes later I arrived at the heated tents at the Jaws aid station, Mile 48, at 8,800 feet above sea level, 11:15 p.m. If I wanted to, I could sit next to a heater, dry my clothes, eat a ton of food, get really comfortable, and take a nice nap. Also, I could quit the race—because after I did all that nice stuff and got comfortable, if I didn’t quit, I’d have to go right back down all that mud and snow I just wallowed through.

I sat down for four minutes, a saint of a man brought me a cheese quesadilla, I fished around in my vest and found my beanie, filled my water bottles, and got up and left. It was cold, and I was in shorts, a wind jacket, and a rain jacket, with both jacket hoods up and cinched, and it was just enough clothing to keep me warm if I kept moving. My headache from earlier in the day had disappeared, thanks to drinking lots of fluids, so on the spectrum of Feeling Like Shit to Feeling Fine, I was just over the halfway mark, slightly closer to Feeling Fine.

I started to gradually descend, and the course markers led me back into the woods, the mud, and the snow. I postholed in some of the same places, sort of flash-freezing my feet in the icy water again, and clenched my teeth for a second while I kept moving. I slid all over the place, worse than going uphill, at times feeling like I was wearing penny loafers while trying to walk down a ski slope. It sucked, but it was just going to suck as long as I was in it, so I kept going.

I kept thinking of the Russian spy character in Bridge of Spies, when Tom Hanks keeps asking him if he’s worried the Russians will kill him. He replies very calmly more than once, “Would it help?” as in, “would it actually change anything if I worried?” Complain, get mad, get sad, cry, whatever—none of it was going to dry the mud, or my feet.

I passed a lot of runners on their way uphill as I made my way downhill, wondering if they were thinking the same thing I was on my way up: that I would have to go right back down through this mess in a few minutes. I was solidly in the middle of the pack, so I’d been passed by 100-plus faster runners going the other way on my way up, and I passed 100-plus runners going the other way on my way down, as well as a handful of their pacers.

Probably around Mile 51 inbound/Mile 45 outbound, as I was negotiating another slick/steep section, I slipped, barely catching myself without falling, probably looking very much like a cartoon character. At the exact same time, an uphill runner about 15 feet from me slipped and fell into the mud, catching herself on one arm and narrowly avoiding a total mud bath. As she got up, she yelled, “Jesus Goddamn Christ, Shit, FUCK!” Which is basically the same feeling I was having, and probably almost everyone else in the race was too. I told her there was more mud ahead, but a nice warm tent at the top of the climb. Not that that helped our current situation, I guess.

I eventually made it through what I thought would be the worst of the mud, popping into the next couple aid stations to refill my bottles and then jogging and hiking the rest of the descent to the Mile 66 aid station, where I would meet my crew. I had lofty hopes of arriving there while it was still dark, but the sun came up in the last hour of my descent, gradually lighting the canyon around me as I shuffled along next to the Little Bighorn River. A lot of people say the night is the most depressing time of a 100-mile race, but I actually hate the sunrise the most—probably because I’m slow and it’s a sign that I’ve already been going almost 24 hours but still have several more hours to go.

I jogged into the Sally’s Footbridge aid station, Mile 66, at almost exactly 5:30 a.m., and sat down for about 15 minutes to change socks and shoes—my shoes, socks, and lower legs were now coated in mud a few millimeters thick. My list of “Things I Need You To Make Me Do That I Might Not Want To Do (Or Remember To Do) at the 66-Mile Aid Station”:

  • Eat a banana
  • Drink a protein drink
  • Refill food in vest (5 waffles, 6 bloks, 2 pie bars)
  • Pack two slices of pizza in vest
  • Apply sunscreen
  • Take phone charger + cable
  • Ditch pants and wind jacket
  • Ditch headlamp

I would not be the first person to say that people who pace and crew ultrarunners are heroes. By the time I jogged into this aid station, Hilary and Jayson had been awake for two and half hours, getting up at 3 a.m. just in case I was having the race of my life and managed to get from mile 30 to 66 in 10.5 hours. That didn’t quite happen.

But Hilary was waiting, standing at the check-in tent looking up the trail for me when I got there, and Jayson was ready to start running because he knows showing up is 75 percent of friendship. We started the steep uphill climb out of Sally’s Footbridge just before 6 a.m.—hour 21 for me. I trudged up the trail, dry at first. Then there appeared sections of mud that weren’t there the previous day. Then more mud, then very nearly the sort of fuck-this-shit mud we had wallowed through the night before, though not quite wet enough to submerge a whole shoe.

pie chart showing skills for pacing an ultrarunner

Here’s a neat thought process you should never start if, like me, you’re not a fast ultrarunner:

“Wow, I’ve been going for 22 hours now.”
“If I were fast, I’d be done now.”
“I’m not fast.”
“How many miles do I have left?”
“Wow, that’s a lot. How long will that take me, if I keep going the pace I’ve been going?”
“Oh wow, that makes me kind of sad.”

Instead of doing that, I recommend finding a friend to pace you who cares enough to do things like:

  • Take over for the part of your brain that is responsible for self-care and ask every few minutes if you have been eating and drinking, and if everything feels OK
  • Make you “run” downhill and flat sections, even if you can’t jog faster than 14- or 15-minute miles
  • Talk to you even though you’re the worst conversation partner ever
  • Keep you moving no matter what you say
  • Make you eat food at aid stations even when you repeatedly say, “No thanks, I’m fine.”
  • Put up with all this for 8-12 hours and still be your friend afterward

We trudged onward, thankfully in the shade for most of the morning climbing, leapfrogging with a few people including Katie, a young woman from southern Utah, and her pacer, exchanging wisecracks. The runners of the other Bighorn races, the 50-mile, the 32-mile, and the 18-mile, gradually joined us and shared the trail. Every once in a while, someone would glance over and see my 100-mile bib and offer encouragement or congratulations. At least I think they were looking at my bib to see if I was a 100-mile runner. They may have just assumed by my glacial speed and posture that I had to be running the 100-mile race.

The hours began to drag, and the pain in my feet and legs kept growing and growing, a steady ache that began as a whisper saying “Stop. Sit Down.” It got louder and louder from Mile 70 onward, until it was basically grabbing me by both shoulders, shaking me and yelling, “SIT DOWN.” I don’t know what other people think about to deal with this kind of thing, but nothing really works for me: not thinking about the food I’m going to eat when I finish, not thinking about seeing my wife, not even thinking about sitting in a chair. Usually I just hike and jog with my mouth hanging slightly open, trying to keep moving as quickly as possible, because there seems to be very little difference in the amount of pain in walking or running this late in the race, and as my friend Brody has kindly pointed out, you might as well shorten the time you’re in pain.

One other thing that’s neat about ultramarathons is that sometimes when you’re so fatigued that you can’t imagine bending your knees any further than about 45 degrees, you will probably have to take a shit. If you’re lucky, you’ll be near a port-a-potty at an aid station. If not, well, here’s what I recommend: Have a latex glove in your race vest, with one or two sanitary wipes in it. Go off the side of the trail and dig a hole with a stick or find a half-buried rock you can pull out of the ground so that you leave a 6-inch-deep hole under it. Put the glove on, squat down, do your thing, and clean yourself up using your gloved hand. Bury your poop, pick up your wipes with the gloved hand, and pull the glove off with by the wrist so that the wipes stay inside it. Tie off the glove at the wrist so your hazardous waste is neatly sealed off inside the glove, and put it in a vest pocket to throw in the trash at the next aid station. This way, you can continue to eat cookies without eating your own, well, you know.

By Mile 82.5, I was dragging ass up the hill into the Dry Fork Ridge aid station. At the aid station, I negotiated with Jayson to let me sit in a chair for five minutes. Being the friend he is, he not only agreed, but also somehow found a slice of hot cheese pizza somewhere at the aid station and delivered it to me. We hiked uphill out of the aid station and continued on, jogging some downhill sections of road on the way to the next aid station. I pointed out where my running vest had broken almost 80 miles back, when I was a much younger and more spry man, the morning before.

In my previous two 100-mile races, a similar thing has happened: Around Mile 80 or 85, I encounter another runner who wants to talk about how bad things are. A couple years ago, it was a guy who said he was trying to think about how he could get disqualified so he didn’t have to finish the last 20 miles. During my most recent race, it was a guy who was mad that the previous aid station was out of cheese for quesadillas, and that the volunteers told him he was in the home stretch, despite the fact that he had a 5,000-foot climb and a long technical descent remaining. Thankfully, in the Bighorn 100, this didn’t happen. I have a hard enough time keeping the negative thoughts in my own head quiet, let alone trying to drown out someone else. I mean, nobody’s making you do a 100-mile race. What am I supposed to say? “You’re right, Bob, this really is unjust. How dare the forces of the universe conspire to make us do such a painful thing to ourselves.” A few days before this, I was listening to a podcast about prison life, and to the stories of men who had done more than a decade in solitary confinement, and how they’d gotten through it. In our situation, in which we volunteered for and paid good money to attempt to find meaning through physical pain, I’m pretty sure we can make it to the finish line despite the lack of cheese, or whatever. (Not that the Bighorn aid stations ran out of cheese, to my knowledge.)

At Mile 87.5, we hit the Upper Sheep Creek aid station, and I grabbed a fistful of bite-sized candy from the tables and ate it while hiking away, with a fervor reminiscent of 9-year-old me on Halloween night. My first Butterfinger in 15 years or so was quite disappointing, but several bite-size Twix bars boosted my morale a little bit. We chugged up our final 500-foot climb, a steep half-mile I had sprinted down the day before, and popped over the top to look into the rolling descent down the Tongue River Canyon, which was larger and longer than I remembered. We jogged a little, but mostly hiked down the steep singletrack. I kept scanning the end of the canyon, looking for a color other than green or brown, an aid station tent that must be just around the corner. I did this for approximately 8,000 downhill steps.

Eventually, a tent and some really nice guys appeared. I negotiated with Jayson for one more five-minute sitting session and had a rather glorious time in a camp chair before we headed out to finish the last 2.2 miles of singletrack.

At the Tongue River Trailhead, our singletrack ended on a dirt road, and the aid station volunteers soaked our arm sleeves and hats with cold water for the sunny final five miles. Apparently someone had tried to drop out of the race earlier at this aid station, five miles from the finish line, and the folks there convinced him to keep going, with a volunteer walking him in.

We walked a lot of the final five miles, me doing the math in my head: If we ran, we’d only cut about 20 minutes off my final time, and I just couldn’t motivate to do it. I swear the road was slightly uphill most of the way into town, but that may have been a slight hallucination. We passed a boom box playing the theme from Chariots of Fire, and then the theme from Rocky (Rocky II, I think), and eventually the houses got closer together and we were in town. We jogged the final half-mile into Scott Park, around the perimeter of the park, to the finish line at Mile 100. Jayson was smiling and laughing, and I was just relieved to be done.

Hilary led us over to a camp chair and some pizza, and we sat for a few minutes and didn’t run or walk, finally off the clock after 32.5 hours. It was difficult. But we all signed up for it looking for something difficult, didn’t we? I guess I got my money’s worth. And hey, a free belt buckle.

—Brendan

[For more: We talked about the Bighorn 100 on last week’s episode of Off The Couch. Click here to listen to the episode.]

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