The Bighorn 100 Mile Endurance Run takes place in the Bighorn mountain range of northern Wyoming. Billed as being “wild and scenic”, it never fails to deliver on either of those fronts. After running the 50 mile version of this event in 2011 I returned in 2012 to attempt to run the full 100 miles.
The course is in one of the most beautiful areas in the country. This would be the 20th running of the race which was started in 1992 as an attempt to bring national attention to a development project which threatened the wild landscape. Thankfully, the race contributed to the successful defeat of the project and the mountains remain relatively pristine.
Bighorn is in a class of mountain ultras which are all very tough. The trail has over 17,000’ of elevation gain over its 100 mile length and much of the course is between 7,000’ and 9,000’ above sea level. In some places, a lucky runner can see down to the valleys nearly five-thousand feet below them.
I arrived in Sheridan on Thursday evening and checked in to the race to be weighed and undergo a medical check. Cleared to run, I dropped my bags off and bought some groceries. I had a quick picnic in the park and then returned to my motel for an early rest.
On Friday, I was up early around 5:00 AM or so. Bighorn has a relatively unique feature in that all the races (100M/50M/50K/30K) all finish around the same time on Saturday. This means that instead of a very early morning start, the 100M runners get to sleep in and enjoy a leisurely start time of 11 AM.
I drove over to the town of Dayton to listen to a final pre-race briefing. It was there I met up with Christie Ebenroth who I knew online and had passed a few times at the Buffalo 100 a few weeks prior. She introduced me to the rest of the group from Idaho who had come out for the race. I was pleased to meet Emily Berriochoa whom I was familiar with from meticulously studying her Bear 100 race report a year earlier.
Christie was running the 50M the next day and she graciously agreed to give me a seat in her car as she drove a group of us to the race start.
As is my tradition, we arrived with only moments to spare. In fact, the national anthem was already in its final notes as we rounded the corner to see runners lined up. I quickly went through my final check-in and lined up a few rows behind the front.
Too soon, the countdown started and just like that we were off running down the canyon road. The lead group took off at an incredible pace and I settled in a little faster than I would have liked but the excitement of the race start swept us all up the canyon road as the roar of the Tongue River to our left was just about all that could be heard. After a mile, the course funneled us onto a tight single-track trail.
Immediately, I could tell that I was too far forward in the pack. In perhaps 20th place, I was near the lead group of women and the pace they were setting up the steep climb was punishing. The trail, however, was narrow and pulling over to let a large train of runners was problematic — not to mention a little embarrassing. While I could normally set a fairly decent running pace up a steep hill, there was no way I would be able to do it for the entire 4,000’ climb without having to back off the pace at some point. The true power-hikers all around made it look easy — pushing up the steep hill with ease.
A hundred feet before the stop of the ridge, my body had just about had enough. I had long ago passed the point where I wasn’t getting nearly enough oxygen and I started to feel pretty bad. I learned over and lost my breakfast on the side of the trail. Oops. That’s not a good sign not even ten miles into a hundred mile race.
I limped into Upper Sheep Creek at 7,450’ as the field streamed passed. I needed to sit down. What was going on? Only two hours into the run and thoughts of quitting were already entering my mind. I started to believe that something was seriously wrong. I backed all the way down to “survival pace” — a slow walk along the 4WD roads. After another mile, I again lost my lunch and was weaving all over the road.
A few minutes later, I began to get very dizzy and I stopped several times to try and get the landscape in front of me to stop doing barrel rolls. I concentrated on points far off the horizon and just walked slowly through the spinning panorama as the dizziness got worse and worse To make matters worse, my respiration started to spiral out of control and I was panting like a dog while even moving at a slow walk.
Clearly, this wasn’t right. The crazy pace on the climb had just driven things too far into the red. I resolved to stop at Dry Fork and visit the medical folks.
On coming into Dry Fork, Christie was there and when I told her I was dizzy she immediately took control and made sure I didn’t fall over. The race doctor had a look and told me to breath into a paper bag. Seemed like something they did in old movies, but I gave it a try. After a few breaths, I could feel everything coming back into focus. After another few moments the world righted itself and I felt a thousand times better.
I laid down on a bench just to give my stomach a chance to rest. A few volunteers saw my sorry state and assumed I was a DNF and were fairly surprised when I popped out of the bus after thirty minutes asking for food and water and ready to head down the hill.
Though it was now nearly 3:00 PM and I had only covered 13 miles in 4 hours, I was finally up and moving again, albeit at the back of the pack.
Soon, the problem became clouds moving in over the tops of the hills. I began to wonder exactly what would happen if lightening approached. The rest of the race was now safely down in the lower canyon where a storm wouldn’t be as severe but I was alone on the ridges thousands of feet above. The thought of becoming flash-roasted by a million volts of lightning began to motivate me. Soon, I was again moving well into the lower canyon and at times could spot the rest of the race miles in front of me.
Finally, I reached the Footbridge aid station around 7:30 PM. I changed into my warmer clothes and began to follow the Little Bighorn River upstream toward Leaky Mountain. For the first time all day, I began to feel fairly good and began to push a normal pace up the trail. I had now re-joined the back of the pack and began to pass runners every few minutes. I stopped to help a runner who couldn’t figure out how to switch his headlamp on and then headed on. For the first time all day, I was passing people and starting to regain some energy.
The trail ran alongside the Little Bighorn river and it was a thrill to see the huge amounts of water pounding over the enormous rocks that had fallen from the canyon walls over thousands of years. Some of them were as big as houses and must have weighed an incomprehensible amount.
Soon, the trail began to move above the river and the high alpine fields were visible high above as the sun set over the raging river in the canyon below.
Shortly after dark, I spotted Emily Berriochoa who was alone but moving steadily uphill at a good pace. As we approached Spring Marsh, however, my stomach rebelled once again. I once again felt awful. Runners on their return trip began to pass me going in the other direction — some over 20 miles ahead of me!
Finally, I couldn’t handle the terrible stomach pain anymore. I was moving at a crawl as the darkness closed in all around. I resolved to find a quiet place to lay down and try once again to let the stomach settle. While off the trail, several runners passed me and asked if I was all right. I could only groan in reply. I lay in terrible agony on the side of the trail, looking up at the stars until it became too cold and I began to shake violently. Ice began to form in my beard as I stared at the clear night sky. Best to get up and carry on, I decided.
Within a mile or so, I spotted the warm fire of Spring Marsh in the distance. It was now after midnight. It had taken 13 hours to go only 40 miles which was a miserable time.
Spring Marsh was filled with a few other worn-down runners, all of whom had decided to quit the race at that point and who would be forced to spend the cold night there trying to stay warm in front of the fire.
A few cowboys kindly gave me some crackers and water and tried to revive me. I sat close to the fire, at time so close that I was worried that I might catch my own clothing on fire but I continued to shake terribly. I couldn’t get warm despite my best efforts. Finally, somebody found an emergency blanket and I wrapped myself up in it. This worked extremely well, and after the warmth returned I felt much better. Every few minutes the aid station captain would call over to me, “How’s it lookin’, Salt Lake City?”. Most times, I would only grunt in reply. I stared at the fire, feeling very much like finding a warm tent to crawl into.
I still had a bit of energy, however and it didn’t seem right to stop without giving myself a fair shot. The Porcupine station was eight miles away but a steep climb lay in the middle. A runner returning from the other direction told me, “I won’t lie to you. It’s a tough climb and there is a lot of snow up there.”
I left the camp feeling resolved to at least get to the ranger station where I could drop if I was still feeling awful.
Soon, Matt Watts covered me who looked like he had been wading through a swamp. He looked at me and pronounced with great solemnity: “There is mud.” Then he trotted down the hill, toward the Little Bighorn River.
I soon saw Duncum creek. In my delirious state, I couldn’t find the flagging which showed the proper route to the bridge a few yards upstream. I very nearly waded directly into the swift water thinking it was the correct path. Luckily, I came to my senses before attempting what likely would have been a fatal maneuver.
Soon finding the log bridge, I gingerly crossed and continued upward. Lights from oncoming runners played tricks on my eyes. Sometimes they appeared to be on ridges many miles away but then after a few moments the runner would materialize a few yards away.
Soon, the mud which Matt Watts had promised began to appear. At times, my feet would sink in nearly to the ankles and I had to take care not to have a shoe sucked off and lost in the mud which would have been catastrophic. Just as the mud began to relent, the snow fields began.
I followed the glow sticks through the pine forest as they cast eerie glows on the snow fields which had paths carved through them from dozens of runners who had already passed through.
I hadn’t seen another soul for a long time. Alone, in the knee-deep snow I traversed from glow-stick to glow-stick, often falling down, trying not to break an ankle. I was a real mess.
Soon, the trail began to bend slightly downward and emerged into a huge field. Not far below was the warmth of the ranger station at mile 48. I trotted down the hill, spurred on by the promise of a warm building. Ice began to form on my eyeglasses. Occasionally a frozen puddle would give way and I’d slosh through a few inches of slushy ice.
I arrived at the ranger station around 4:00 AM. The small room looked like a M*ASH unit. Runners sat around in various stages of either hypothermia or sheer exhaustion. Many sat around a warm heater.
I sat in a chair far away from the heater and spent some time with my head down and entire body shaking from the cold and effort. After a while, a kind volunteer offered me some hot chocolate. It tasted good and soon my insides began to warm. I had another and then another. Soon, life began to return to my body.
The cutoff at the aid station was 5:00 AM. If I didn’t leave there by that time, I would be pulled from the race. I began to eat more. Cheese quesedillas tasted wonderful and I ate several.
All around, runners were making plans to be shuttled back to the start. At 4:40 AM, I was now the last official runner on the course. Runners all around began to prepare to board the buses which would shuttle them back to the start.
I looked up at a volunteer across from me.
The look he gave me was unforgettable. His eyes got wide and his mouth opened and I could see him struggling for words.
I stared at him and he stared at me and I started to get up.
I propped myself up on my walking stick, then almost fell down again and slowly but surely, started to wobble on out of the building into the black and cold night.
I could once again see my breath rising through my headlamp. It started small, but with each step the clouds of steam got bigger and bigger, like a freight train leaving the station. In the distance, the horizon started to glow and I began to pick up speed. Uphill I went, a walk turning into a jog, turning into a run turning into a sprint.
As the sun rose in front of me, the sky turned deep purple and then pink as I crested the snow fields and began making my way down the other side. I was running fast now — faster than I had all day. As the mountains awoke, I ran hard through the mud bogs with the sounds of the 1812 Overture playing in my headphones as I threw mud everywhere as I splashed through.
Soon, I again reached Spring Marsh where I had nearly quit a few hours before. This time, though, it was a different story. “Salt Lake City, comin’ through!” I yelled as I sprinted through the camp not even slowing down. As I dashed down the hill, I heard one of the cowboys say to the other, “Was that the same guy from before?”
The sunrise over the Bighorn range was spectacular. All around, birds chirped and the first rays of the morning lit up enormous fields of wildflowers.
Soon, though, the problem went from being too cold to being too warm. I stopped to shed my down vest and hat and gloves and tied them all to my waist and vest. Still with my warm tights on however, I baked in the early-morning sun. I couldn’t drop off any clothing until I reached Footbridge at mile 76 and there was nothing to do but try to deal with the heat.
Soon, the lead 50 miler passed me and I found myself on the trail with the front of that race as they swarmed passed. Many offered kind words as they passed and often they went around me instead of having me step off the trail. I was very grateful for their courtesy.
As we reached the river, I latched onto a train of fast 50 milers and stayed right with them for a few miles. They pulled me nearly all the way into Footbridge where I was glad to finally be rid of my warm clothing.
Now it was time for the most difficult part of the race. I faced a climb known affectionately as “The Wall”. The first few miles would be the worst and I would be facing it in the heat of the day, while most others in the hundred mile race would have faced it in the cool morning.
I found a good power hiking gear and moved steadily up the climb. I had again rejoined the back of the 100 mile pack and I began passing runners as I hiked quickly up the hill. Many were struggling on this section and would stop to rest and I set my sights on each runner ahead and resolved to catch them. I caught many and was not passed by any runners on this difficult section.
Soon I was over the Wall and into the high rolling hills. I was now among the middle of the 50-mile runners and having a great time. I would set my sights on a group of them and then come roaring past oftentimes to an exclamation of, “Hey, aren’t you a 100 miler?!”
I latched onto a few fast groups and together we made great time upward. The difficulty now was in making the 4:00 PM cutoff at Dry Fork at the very top of the climb. I pushed on hard ahead, often running up very steep hills that others were slowly walking.
With over 90 minutes to spare, I finally crested the pass and made it into Dry Fork. I knew now that finishing was probably going to happen unless something went really wrong. I saw several other runners in the station looking pretty haggard. I felt great, however and soon popped up out of my chair ready for the big descent that lay ahead.
I pushed very fast on the one mile climb over the head of the Dry Fork, passing a few 50 mile runners and crested the final pitch feeling absolutely great. Ahead lay a gradual descent before a final climb and then the 4,000’ drop into the town of Dayton.
As I came over the ridge, I felt amazing and decided to see what I could really do. With an enormous smile on my face I began running at a crazy pace. I called out to runners, “On your left!” and many could not believe what they were seeing. At times, my pace was near 5:00/mile. I was flying.
As I cruiser onto the singletrack, I passed another 50 miler I had seen a while before. I waved as I shot passed and he gave me a thumbs up. After a few steps, the trail dropped a few inches as a boulder lay in the trail. I attempted to leap over it.
As I was in the air, I could see the trail drifting further and further off to my left. As I drifted through the air, it became clear that I had jumped much too high and that I wasn’t about to land anywhere _near_ the trail. As I landed on the mountainside, I more or less bounced from my feet directly into a windmilling motion as my feet flew over my head and I landed hard on my back. Luckily, that’s where my water bottles were in my vest which acted as terrific shock absorbers!
I bounced off the trail, screamed “I’M OK!” and took off running again like a lunatic. I’m sure that guy behind me who saw that must have really enjoyed recounting that story to his friends.
Eventually, I came to the final climb. A brutal but short 1/4 grunt up a very steep trail known as “The Haul”. I labored to put one foot in front of the other, passing only a few people on this climb and struggling to stay with some very strong ladies in front of me.
As I came to the ridge, the enormous descent lay stretched out before me. I felt great and resolved to see how quickly I could make it down. I came upon a guy I had been running with a while who was in the 50-mile division. We encouraged each other on. As the trail veered downhill, I began again running as fast I could. It was great fun, leaping over streams and sprinting as quickly as possible down the narrow, steep slope. I was having a blast!
I passed many runners, but soon came upon a woman who simply would not move. She looked back several times and obviously knew I was there. I called out to her asking politely if I could get by but she seemed determined not to let me pass. It was bizarre. She was moving quite slowly and it began to get frustrating. There was no room to pass without being very rude and shoving my way around and so after some time, I finally just slowed down to a walk, hoping that she would get far enough ahead that I could again run at an enjoyable pace.
No such luck, however. Even after giving her a few minutes lead, I quickly caught up again. She again seemed unwilling to step aside. I was too tired to make an issue out of it. She was obviously trying to make some kind of a point and I wan’t into having a negative confrontation at this point.
I walked the rest of the way down the hill, though it took considerably more effort to do so since my quads didn’t really feel like acting as brakes to slow me down. On a few very steep sections, I was forced to step down sideways to control my descent on tired muscles.
Soon, we reached the aid station at the mouth of the canyon. A very nice volunteer with long hair told me I should make the remaining cutoffs with no problem. He joked with me that, “Women totally dig belt buckles, man!”
I latched onto a train of two women in the 50-mile race who were running near a 7:30/mile pace along the narrow trail near the Tounge River. They asked if I wanted to pass and I said, “It’s all I can do to keep up with you. Keep it going!” We did so, all the way to just before the final aid station at the base of the canyon.
We were now on the 3-mile stretch of road before the finish line. My body was paying the price for all the silly fast running on the steep slopes above. I ran, but only very slowly. I chatted with a few locals who were out walking their dogs.
Soon, I came upon Lynette who was also finishing her 100 miles. It was nice to have company in those final miles which were on a flat road which seemed to stretch on forever. We both cursed quite a lot and laughed about how ridiculous the whole adventure had been.
Before we knew it, Lynette spotted the bridge into town and I said, “Now we have to run to the finish!”. We both groaned and managed a shuffle over the highway and around the corner into the park.
We came into the park to applause and cheers from the other runners and families.
It was great to be done! What an amazing adventure it had been. I finished in 32:20:45. Before long, I was laying on the ground and listening to stories from others about their day.
After a wonderful rest, I enjoyed a great pancake breakfast where much of the town came out to celebrate and eat. I received my finisher’s jacket but just as they announced my name and my time, they discovered they had misplaced the rest of the belt buckles! Hopefully, mine should arrive in the mail any day now.
The Bighorn 100 was an amazing adventure and I can’t wait to do it again next year!