Friday, July 4, 2014

Bighorn 100

I’ve been in a slump for a while with the 100 mile distance. After an incredible 18:10 Badger Mountain 100 in March last year, I DNF’ed Bighorn and Leadville last summer and dropped down to the 50 miler at Badger Mountain this year. I think a combination of overtraining, poor recovery and eating, and some hubris got the better of me.

Bighorn this year was redemption for me. I came into it with a renewed sense of respect for the distance and, over the course of 27 hours, found my will to run again. 

The race is, to put it mildly, a bit of a monster. An out-and-back starting at the mouth of the Tongue River Canyon in Dayton, WY, runners ascend the Sheep Creek drainage from 3,000 to about 8,000 feet, descend the Dry Fork canyon to 4,000 feet, and then ascend the Bighorn River canyon to 9,000 feet, where they turn around, retracing their steps to finish at Scott Park in Dayton. The surface is a mix of dirt jeep track, rough singletrack, elk/game trail, and some bushwhacking across the tundra near the turn-around. The climbs and descents are big, sustained efforts.

The start of the race was hot this year, hotter than I remember. I opted to go shirtless with the UD SJ pack and use a bandana soaked in water to keep cool. I kept it real easy through the canyon and up the first climb to Horse Creek Ridge, making sure I was drinking and fueling enough to offset the stress of the heat. I was in good spirits at Dry Fork as I ripped down the steep descent into the valley, but I was soon feeling the heat radiating off the dry, dusty jeep track. 

Rolling down from Dry Fork with the Fort Golden Boulder pack. Courtesy of Foto-Sport.

The descent to Footbridge at mile 30 was relatively uneventful, as the early miles should be. I was getting calories in and staying somewhat cool despite the searing sun overhead. When I got into the shade of the trees near the bottom of the canyon I saw a lot of folks dragging on the downhill, and upon entering the aid station saw a pack of runners who had dropped due to the heat and were waiting for a ride out. 

I chugged along up the climb to the turn-around, beginning to notice that something wasn’t quite right. I was having trouble deciphering what other runners were saying to me, but I figured it might just be ear-fatigue from wearing headphones for the past 6 hours. The climb to Spring Marsh seemed to last forever, and I was getting worried as the sun kept disappearing behind the canyon wall; I had banked on getting into Jaws before nightfall, so I started to push the pace. At Spring Marsh I barely stopped for broth before pushing on around the corner into the numerous creek crossings and waterlogged trails ahead.

 Modern cowboy. Courtesy of Foto-Sport.

I made it to Elk Camp just as the sun dipped below the horizon. I was still shirtless, but the cold wind blowing down the mountainside convinced me to lace up my rain jacket and get some warm ramen at the aid station. The aid station captain pointed out some elk on the far hillside, and it took me more than a moment to focus on them – again, an obvious sign that something was up, but for someone who was dead-focused on making it to the turn-around as fast as possible, I didn’t spare a second to think things through.

The trail up to the turn-around was soggy as usual, with plenty of shoe-sucking mud and snow drifts to get my feet soaked. The creek crossings near the top of the climb were so obnoxious that I just plowed through them, abandoning any attempt to keep my feet remotely dry. It was getting dark in the stands of pine trees but I could still make out the trail just fine. It was only when I hit the gently-sloping tundra at the top of the climb that it got too dark to make out much detail, and I started running glow-stick to glow-stick.

I made it to the aid station just as the horizon transitioned from blue to black. Triumphantly entering the tent, I promptly threw back two quesadillas and a red bull, loaded up my pack, grabbed my head lamp, and got the hell out of there. I was anxious about getting too comfortable in the warm tent, and didn’t want to give myself time to think about the night ahead – just get out and do it! Unfortunately, that meant that I was still ignoring the warning signs of dulled senses.

After a few miles of running I was beginning to stumble around a bit, especially through the mud. A nearby flash lit up the clouds and the trees, with thunder following only a second or two later – a thunderstorm had parked itself over the turn-around and started dumping rain. The once-dry patches of dirt trail turned to slick mud. I was starting to have trouble convincing myself to eat gels, which usually go down just fine this late in a race. 

Elk Camp was like the medical tent at an army outpost – full of sullen faces, people sitting dejected by the fire, being tended to by some college students who had volunteered for a night full of fun. I cruised through there pretty fast, hoping to just get the hell out of this weather and off the mountain. 

Stumbling over rocks and tufts of grass, I landed into a seat at Spring Marsh and felt my vision spinning – not good. I put back a couple of cups of soup and a gel and still felt terrible. My right foot was starting to feel weird, too. It wasn’t in pain, but it felt like the skin in my arch was coming loose from the rest of the foot. Whatever, screw it, just keep plowing through the darkness down the mountain so you can change out of these muddy, water-logged shoes and socks. 

You can only ignore problems in a 100 for so long. I thought I was handling things but I was really just pushing them to the back of my mind. It’s a hard lesson that I’m not going to forget soon: it doesn’t matter if you keep running, because sooner or later, if you don’t fix those little problems, they will eat you alive.

Which is what happened. Not long after Spring Marsh, I started to lose it. I heard voices around me and kept swinging the spotlight of my headlamp wildly. After a while I realized something was wrong with my hydration – I had been drinking, right? Right. I had been eating salty stuff. I tried the ultimate, fool-proof test: I imagined myself eating broth, eating a gel, and drinking some pure, cold water. The first got my taste buds working, the second sounded mediocre, and the thought of water absolutely made me want to heave. I had hydrated plenty during the heat of the day and the climb, sure, but I was 99% sure that I had somehow skimped on salt and gotten hyponatremic. That would explain the fuzzy brain, the stumbling, the voices…only later would I learn that the Hammer electrolyte caps at the aid stations had about 1/3 of the salt as S-caps, which is what I typically use. Instead of putting back 1-2 pills per hour, I needed 4-6 to get what I was used to. Totally in my control, but when you don’t pay attention, even for a minute, things can go south.

So there I am, stumbling downhill to Footbridge like an idiot, in the dark, barely able to think straight. I can feel my foot starting to hurt, which is of course a bad sign – it’s a sharp, deep pain, but not muscular. When I hit the aid station I grab a seat at a chair with a tub of water and a towel. I gingerly remove my shoe, then my sock, and find a nasty, shriveled foot with a big crack running right down the center of my arch. And it’s oozing some pinkish, brownish goop.

Don’t panic. I slam back some pancakes with syrup and a couple of cups of broth and get my head straight. I need to get a hold of this foot before it takes me out of the race. I clean the crack and slather everything in Vaseline. With dry shoes and socks and a pack full of food I head out into the darkness again, across the bridge and up the impossibly steep climb up to Bear Camp aid station – “The Wall”.

The Wall was where I realized I was in for it. I had barely enough energy to stagger upward. The hyponatremia had killed my apetite so much that I was running on empty. I tried in vain to eat gels on the climb but they did nothing. Just as I was losing the will to keep moving, I looked back down the canyon to the Montana border and saw the sky turn crimson from the approaching sun. The tan and ochre striations of the Dry Fork canyon wall began to emerge from the darkness and the stars overhead faded. And I thought to myself, how often do you get to experience the absolute peace and serenity of being alone on the trail in the wilderness before the dawn? At that moment I stopped caring about the burning in my legs, the pain in my foot, anything – and I picked up the pace.

I hit Bear Camp and had broth, and coffee, and hot chocolate, and some salty-as-hell chips, and I started the long haul up the rolling hills to Cow Camp. My foot was really killing me and I started to notice that my…two members between my thighs were really, really chafed, burning with every step. I had another marathon’s worth of distance to cover with these two maladies, and I heard that voice in my head tell me to stop. But I knew that the pain would be gone soon after the race, so I decided then and there to slog it out, no matter how long it would take. At this point, my 24-hour time goal was going to be impossible after the hyponatremia and the hobbled foot, but finishing was totally in the cards if I kept myself moving.

At Cow Camp I had the medical volunteer take a look at my foot while I gorged on bacon and fried potatoes. He thought there was some nerve damage around the somewhat-closed gash, given the pattern of swelling and raw skin, and told me I could always hitch a ride back to Dry Fork in their ATV. No thanks, the only way I’m finishing this race is by crossing the line.

The sun was up, so I shed my jacket and ran in the cool morning air through fields of wildflowers covered in dew. I was feeling a little queasy but I was happy to just be in the sun again. Until I hit the dirt road back up to Dry Fork. It was 8:30 in the morning and the dirt was starting to cook. As was my skin. Without sunglasses or my bandana (which I had shed in a drop bag earlier) I was pretty exposed to the relentless sun.

As I crested a hill I saw something running ahead of me out of the corner of my eye – a moose! She was galloping ahead to the road where…her calf was parked under an overgrown bush. Oh no. Not now. I was so tired I knew that if she charged I was going to be totally screwed. I unlatched my emergency whistle, stood still, and ate a gel, waiting until she decided to herd her kid off the road. Seriously lady, I’m tired and sick and weigh about 1/5 of your weight – do I look like I’m a threat?

After that thrilling episode, I made it to Dry Fork totally exhausted despite eating my fill at Bear Camp. And I soon found out why. I ate a breakfast burrito while Celeste tended to my feet. She washed them off, dressed them with Vaseline, and put on my dry socks while I chomped down to try to get my energy levels back. But instead of feeling better I felt worse. And worse. And then it came up – the burrito, broth, gels, chunks of potatoes, bits of bacon. I hadn’t digested anything I ate for the past couple of hours. No wonder I felt like crap since sunrise.

 Entering the pain cave at mile 87, near Upper Sheep Creek inbound. Courtesy of Foto-Sport.

But then I felt amazing! I tied my laces, grabbed some soda, and got the hell out of Dry Fork. I had gotten so stiff that I started walking, and when I finally could, I started running again. And I looked around at the trees and the creeks and the fields of wildflowers filling the contours of the mountains around me. I found an ounce of happiness on that searing, white gravel road up to Sheep Creek and never let it go.

Passing 30K and 50K runners left and right, I rolled right into the thick of the Upper Sheep Creek aid station and starting eating everything in sight – potatoes, gel shots in cups, fruit. The volunteer running the station was hurrying me along as he filled my bottles with ice water and soda. And then I was off, headed to the final climb up to Horse Creek Ridge. As the trail turned impossibly steep I grunted and heaved myself forward until I finally crested the hill and saw the entire Sheep Creek drainage sprawl out below me, rocks and trees and wildflowers funneling down the steep hillside to the Tongue River canyon far below. In the distance, I could see the town of Dayton, still miles away, but in sight. 

It was hot and the downhill running ripped at my sore arch and pounded my blisters. I could feel my big toes going numb and my head burning but I threw it all to the wind and just ran. I hit the Lower Sheep Creek aid station with 8 miles to go and said not a word to anyone. I was so ready to be done, trying hard to hold onto that determination and drive it home, that I didn’t want to lose focus for a second. I filled my bottles and, on the way out, drenched my head in the creek. 

Everything was mechanical instinct. Take a gel. Take a sip of water. Squirt water on head. Sip soda. Feel the pain. Feel the heat. Ignore. 

Trees, other runners, rocks, the raging river – everything was just a blur. It felt like I was warping through time. My form was fluid but every step took tremendous strength. I lofted myself over the rocky outcroppings toward the end of the trail and plowed into the aid station at the start of the gravel road that would take me home. With 5 miles to go and the temperature soaring, I let a volunteer mist me down while I put back watermelon slices. 

And that’s where the hurt began to pile up. The miles of non-stop running since Dry Fork snowballed and, for a moment, started to defeat me. I walked for a minute or two along the gravel road as it wound through the trees lining the shoreline of the Tongue River.

Galloping down Tongue River Road into Dayton, with about 4 miles to go. Courtesy of Foto-Sport.

The voice in my head had been quiet until then, overwhelmed by my determination to push forward. But instead of tempting me to slow, to stop, to rest, all I could think of was: dig deep. Dig your feet deep into that gravel, or don’t even bother getting to the finish at all.

And I ran the rest of the way in. As I rounded the corner on the dirt road and entered Dayton the last 27 hours started to come back to me all at once. There were so many times that I almost didn’t make it, almost lost control, that I actually couldn’t believe I was back in Dayton. I could no longer feel the deep crack in my foot, the blisters, the chafing, the sunburn, nothing (that would of course change minutes after crossing the finish).
When I crossed the finish line I felt relieved and sat down in disbelief. I laughed to myself, because almost any one of the things that went wrong during the race would have caused me to DNF in previous races.
This time around, I was just resolved to never let anything get the best of me. When something went wrong, I handled it – eventually -, fixed it, and pushed on without thinking twice. It’s the key to surviving 100 milers, but somehow, I had forgotten it.

 And the face says it all. Courtesy of Foto-Sport.

Bighorn is the most beautiful, most remote, most wild race I’ve ever run, and I will absolutely come back next year. The people that manage it, the volunteers, and the community of Dayton are unrivaled, and the people that I met running it are some of the most badass, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps types I’ve encountered. 

100 miles through the mountains is a long way to go, that’s bound to hurt, with so many chances to fail; I think that’s why I love it.