Two weeks ago I ran my first 100 Mile race since Europe: The Bighorn 100 Mile Wild and Scenic Mountain Run. There were 118 runners. The race was contained in (Gasp!) one state and the moose easily outnumbered the screaming blue-eyed Swiss children. And instead of chest thumping techno music at the start line, a lone elderly gentleman standing on a dirt road struggled his way through the Star Spangled Banner. After attempting to hit the high note of “the rockets red glare” three times without success, the entire crowd of anxious skinny ultra runners put aside their game faces to sing with him to the finish. I was without a doubt back in the US ultrarunning scene!
Not too long after the National Anthem I suppose a gun went off, or there was a count down, after which we all started our endeavor in an underwhelmingly slow jog (100 Mile starts are notoriously anticlimactic!). As often is the case, the race started with a group of a dozen guys up front chatting leisurely while cruising up the stunning Tongue River canyon. (Seriously. It’s gorgeous!) Upon reaching our first aid station a few miles into the course, most everyone stopped to top off water bottles. I jogged through into the lead to start the long 4000 ft. climb into the heart of the Bighorns. I didn’t know at the time, but that was the last section of trail I would share with another racer that day. In fact, my last running partner before picking up my pacer at Mile 66 was somebody’s dog who followed me 7 miles from the first to second aid station!
After parting ways from my K-9 friend, the course, bit by bit, unraveled in front of me in the form of singletrack trail, doubletrack road, and vistas of the characteristically Wyoming high mountain plateaus. As an out and back race, the first 50 Miles of the course draw you higher and deeper into the mountains. In your short shorts and tank top, you cannot help but feel progressively small, vulnerable, and “out there.” Twice, in fact, I was stopped in my tracks by moose blocking the trail. If you have ever spent time with moose in the wild, you know they can be ornery. One must be extremely diplomatic in persuading a moose to move along. And, you heard it here first, nothing says diplomacy like throwing rocks and yelling “Git on outta here!” And that is how the first third of this story went: putting one foot in front of another, and throwing rocks when necessary.
From mile 33 to 48, the course climbs and climbs and climbs. That brutal grade that is relentlessly runnable when all you want is to hike. Cranking away the miles to the highpoint of the race, which is also the turn around, one gets the feeling of a tightly wound spring storing potential energy for the long downhill to come. For most of this climb I never felt any sort or real rhythm. The thinner air, and perpetually tricky footing, never really allowed me to find that cadence and flow. Chipping away at the mileage and focusing on the stretch of trail between one aid station to the next became the strategy. The first shot of energy and excitement I received came as I was nearing the turn around aid station. Through the mental haze I could hear this obnoxious noise in the distance. Something akin to an extremely ambitious child blowing into a broken Kazoo. Sure enough, I round the corner to see Mike Wolfe blowing through the skinnier section of a bright orange construction cone making a complete scene with his self proclaimed redneck vuvuzela! As the current Bighorn 100 course record holder, I accepted his cheering as a mixture of grace, humility and hilarity. A true sportsman!
With the big climb behind me and the excitement of seeing my crew for the first time in hours, I threw my headlamp on and grabbed a layer before heading back down the trail. Not far from the aid station I passed the two closest runners behind me, Jared Scott and Dan Olmstead. By my estimate they were only 20 minutes back. At the turn around I knew I was only 5 minutes behind Mike Wolfe’s course record splits from 2010, which meant I was running fast and so were they. I also felt confident I had some fuel left in the tank though and they were going to have to run fast to close the gap.
So with that came the looooong descent into darkness. I pushed as hard as I could to cover terrain before the light completely faded and I would be relegated to the tunnel of light created by my headlamp. I stubbornly waited to flip the switch and, through the darkness, had to announce my presence to multiple folks still chugging uphill so that they weren’t surprised by me.
Less than an hour after sunset I reached the Footbridge aid station (Mile 66) and picked up my pacer, Justin Yates. A quick switch of socks and we climbed hard out of the aid station with Justin in the lead setting a strong pace. As a good pacer does, he kept me on a strict schedule of shoving down necessary, yet undesirable, calories and electrolytes.
As the nights tend to go, the miles between 11:00 pm and 4:30 am just blended together. Powerhiking the steeper climbs, shuffling on the flats and trying not to completely blow the quads up on the descents. Looking constantly for flagging to reassure ourselves we were still on course. Praying that each light you see in the distance is an aid station and not some wayward RV camped on a remote dirt road. (These are the tricks the mind plays on you.) Somewhere in the midst we saw my fantastic crew again. We put on layers and stripped them as the temperatures varied on hillsides, valleys and passes. We ate food, drank water, spooked up unidentifiable wildlife, stared at the brilliant stars and covered miles.
And then late in the night, or was it early in the morning, we began the seemingly UNENDING decent back into Tongue River Canyon. This may have been one of the few downhills I have run in my life that felt longer going down than it did going up. I guess the 80 Miles between the two had something to do with it. At this point I began to mentally prepare myself for the flat 5 miles of nondescript dirt road, which I knew would carry me to the finish. I knew I was somewhere in the vicinity of a course record time, but refused to think about it until the mountains spit me out onto that road.
Sure enough, as the sun was rising and I turned my headlamp off I was suddenly at the trailhead and last aid station with 5 miles of dreadfully monotonous road to the finish. Justin and I did the calculations and I would need to run HARD to squeeze in under the course record. What happened from there was what, in the business, we like to call “going to the well.” And the well was where I went. My favorite game to play from the well is the “how much pain for how long” game. 30 more minutes of pain. 20 more minutes of pain. 10 more minutes of pain. 5 more minutes of pain. This is what all runners alike do. They spread the last bits of energy as even as possible to get themselves to the finish. Turn the legs over. Turn the legs over. Turn the legs over.
At first the road was just an isolated ribbon of brown weaving its way to the horizon with no distinguishing landmarks. Slowly I began to see houses, and then more houses, and then suddenly pavement, and finally the finish line. From there the adrenaline took over and I crawled out of the well to begin my hollering and whooping into the finish. I assume I managed to wake dozens of people up in the adjacent campground as it was only 5:30 in the morning. When I crossed the finish line I looked at my watch and I had snuck in with not just the win, but a new course record by the skin of my teeth, in 100 mile terms, shaving off just 7 minutes.
And now, three weeks later, I’m sitting here still trying to process it all. There is something that is so overwhelmingly satiating about the hundred mile experience. And I’m not just talking about the day of the race. Or winning for that matter. It’s the preparation. It’s the months of physical and mental buildup and breakdown leading into it. It’s the staggering support from a strong community of friends and family who gracefully put up with the insanity. It’s the fight between confidence and doubt. It’s the crescendo of it all when you arrive at the start line. And it’s the going within oneself and embracing whatever that days holds for you. Whether you are sharing the trail with mangy moose, European children, or just your own two feet, a good day in the mountains is hard to beat!