Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Bighorn 100

Or how to not run a 100 miler in the heat. In some ways this race was a spectacular failure, but I did learn it’s possible to run 100 miles through the mountains peeing blood, vomiting, and only eating about 3,000 calories, and still get 35th. Ain’t no reason to not finish a hundred.

The race start in the Tongue River Canyon west of Dayton was characteristically sunny and uncharacteristically scorching hot and humid. I think we must have been topping 90 degrees and a dewpoint in the high 60’s. Shirts were already soaked through just standing around. 

Crossing Sheep Creek, photo by W. J. Wagner.

After the national anthem the crowd of runners roared down the gravel road. I was somewhere around 40th when we consolidated into a conga line and turned off onto the rocky canyon trail. People were itching to jump ahead and, presumably, blow up as fast as possible in the heat. I already went through an entire bottle of water by the time I reached Lower Sheep Creek at 3.25 miles. I grabbed a nectarine and got the heck out of there as fast as I could, hoping that temperatures would cool off as we ascended the 3,500+ foot climb up to Horse Creek Ridge. 

That hope faded fast. There were no clouds in the sky and the sun baked the expansive drainage. You could feel the heat of the trail through your shoes – at points you could actually see the waves of heat convecting over sections of dark trail. When we topped out at 7,500 feet there was a slight breeze but it was little help.
When I reached Dry Fork I was in good spirits but was feeling exceptionally hot. My shorts and shirt were both completely soaked through with sweat, something I’ve never experienced in a race before. I made a quick stop for water, Sasha refilled my gel flask, and I trotted off down the hill. All that did was get me back to the heat! Dropping down the dry, dusty jeep track from Dry Fork was like lowering yourself into an oven. With no trees for miles there was no cover from the sun. I blew through my water in about five miles and spent the last mile and a half on the way to Cow Camp thinking about how many cups I was going to chug in the aid station. It turned out to be four. Thankfully I got word that the Creek Spring only 3.5 miles out from Cow Camp was absolutely overflowing with cold water, so I headed out in good spirits ready to tackle the rolling hills over to Bear Camp.

This is where I noticed something was not quite right. I was feeling dizzy and had a mild migraine headache, and my ability to dance around obstacles on the trail was diminishing. I realized I hadn’t peed in, well, hours, so I decided to try to force it so that I could evaluate the situation. What followed was a trickle of very dark red urine. Nothing sinks your heart more than that, especially when it happens only 21 miles into a race. I calmly proceeded to the spring, on the way getting harassed by a falcon that kept dive-bombing my head, and chugged an entire bottle of water. I kept moving on to Cow Camp where I again chugged water just standing in the aid station. The heat was surreal.

The descent to Footbridge with Montana in the distance. Shamelessly pulled from Larry Sandhaas' blog (http://qcrunner.blogspot.com/2013/06/bighorn-100-wild-and-scenic-trail-run.html).

The descent to Footbridge was actually pleasant and I felt like my strength was coming back. I stopped to pee on the way down, again having to force it, and it was still a bit pink – better than red, still pretty bad. When I hit Footbridge I was greeted by an army of medical staff who instantly inquired about my hydration, whether I was hallucinating, whether I had brain fog, and if I had peed recently. The fact that my headache was gone and that I was lucid gave me a pass to keep moving so long as I promised to keep pounding water. Sounds good!

I was booking along the rocky, wet singletrack next to the Little Bighorn River with someone from Minnesota when, in the middle of our conversation, I abruptly pulled over to the side of the trail and unleashed a torrent of puke. I must have vomited multiple bottles worth of water. Everything I’ve been eating and drinking for the past hour has just sat in my stomach. This was the start of what I’ll call the Little Bighorn Vomit Comet. From Cathedral Rock at mile 33.5 to Elk Camp at mile 43 I would puke just about every 30 minutes. I’d pull off, do my business, and then resume hydrating and eating, all the while ascending from 4,000 feet to almost 9,000 feet. 

Nothing worked. Taking it easy and barely drinking anything would result in dry heaves. Hydrating with salt and eating crackers and other inoffensive food would just make the vomiting productive. Broth seemed to calm things momentarily. Sort of.

Here’s the thing about running in the heat that I didn’t appreciate. When the warning signs show up, it’s already too late. The bloody urine is an indication that you have long passed the tipping point of dehydration. Trying to keep moving is counterproductive. What I should have done is just sit at Footbridge for 30 minutes drinking water, eating salty food, and waiting until I was out of it. Instead, I kept slogging along in the blind faith that I could kill two birds with one stone – cover mileage and completely rehydrate. I think that as I stayed dehydrated for so long, I disturbed my stomach and my body so much that it became unable to absorb anything. I can’t fathom how messed up my system must have been. 

 The "creek" crossing on the way to Jaws. Also shamelessly stolen from Larry Sandhaas' blog (http://qcrunner.blogspot.com/2013/06/bighorn-100-wild-and-scenic-trail-run.html).

I made it to Jaws just after 9PM feeling a little more upbeat. I ate a quesadilla, had plenty of broth, and headed out into the darkness ready to tackle the downhill. I thought I had recovered. 

Not a mile out of Jaws everything came up. I was still riding the roller coast of feeling sick, vomiting and then feeling better, and then feeling worse as I tried to rehydrate and eat food. You cannot run 100 miles and not be absorbing food or water for over 7 hours. The vomiting finally stopped shortly before Cathedral Rock at 62.5 miles in the dead of the night. It took a while to get there because I had such bad tunnel vision from the lack of calories, and to top things off my feet started to feel like crap.

Footbridge was grim. I slammed pancakes and broth but I could tell that the dehydration had done a number on my feet. The skin on my pinky toes had elongated and become folded under the neighboring toes, and the skin on my heels and arches was red and raw. A volunteer drained the blisters and wrapped them in duct tape, saying that they “weren’t looking good” and would “probably just get worse”. I was actually really happy to hear an honest assessment instead of some motivational candy-coating, because I realized this was now about finishing and not about hitting time goals.

The climb up to Bear Camp was unbearable. Because I had not been able to take in any calories for about 30 miles, I was actually drifting off to sleep as I pulled myself up the infamous “Wall”, 2,000 feet in a bit over 2 miles. Despite that I was passed only once. I got to Bear Camp and collapsed onto a log, the last thing I remember. Then I woke up, broth in hand, to a volunteer asking if I wanted coffee. Oh yes, give me that delicious, dank instant coffee, and keep it coming.

I don’t know if it was just time, or the coffee, but something reset my stomach and I was suddenly very hungry and very thirsty. I obliged these unfamiliar sensations with more coffee and some waffles. My body had finally turned the corner and it was ready to work again! At this point sub-24 was totally out of the question but I was going to make every effort to finish as fast as possible. 

I ran most of the way to Bear Camp where I had bacon and soda at sunrise, a very balanced breakfast, and hitched onto another runner and his pacer. We ran most of the way up to Dry Fork, which was really starting to heat up in the morning sun. Seeing Sasha lifted my spirits, and I apologized for messing up so badly and being so far behind my goal times. I’m sure it just sounded like the rantings of a lunatic, or someone who was covered in their own vomit, essentially the same thing. Pickles seemed oblivious to everything going on around him, so totally normal. After broth and fruit I was ready to just finish the damn thing.

I ran alone to Upper Sheep Creek, not another runner in sight, not passing anyone or getting passed. I was thrilled, which makes it sound like I really lowered the bar for myself, but to be honest after the never ending saga of body breakdown earlier I was surprised I could still move at this pace. The hike up to Horse Creek Ridge was backbreaking and at times I felt like I might fall backward down the impossibly steep slope. It's called "The Haul" for a reason. At the top of the ridge I took a moment to let the view sink in, the wildflowers on the high ridge giving way to endless meadows sloping down to the river, the rock walls gently funneling everything into a narrow, twisty canyon. In the distance I could see Dayton and beyond it the High Plains. I wished that I could capture that moment and all of its emotions in a painting, but I realized I’m an awful artist and that I didn’t want to relive such an inglorious end to a race.

 Heading back down to the Tongue River Canyon. From the Bighorn 100 website (http://www.bighorntrailrun.com/photogallery.html).

I strapped in and began the quad-pounding descent, letting the trail guide my body down thousands of vertical feet of steep, rocky trail. In the blink of an eye I was at the bottom of the canyon at Lower Sheep Creek and roaring along the rolling canyon trail, passing the occasional hiker curious to see 100 mile, 50 mile, 50K, and 30K runners at the end of their journey. When I hit the road the reality of the final 5 miles set in.

 Giving the wizard sticks a go. I stashed them once I got my momentum back - don't want to be too embarrassed coming into the finish. Photo by W. J. Wagner.

So lonely, so endless, that gravel road snakes on forever under the hot sun. It’s nearly flat, but somehow the little hills feel like mountains. There was no breeze and I could feel the humidity from my sweat enveloping my body. I dumped water on my head and just kept plodding along. Just a few hundred feet from the Homestretch aid station some kids on bikes were handing out Otter Pops. I’ve never been happier to eat frozen sugar water and yellow #5. I knew at the Homestretch aid station that I could start my semblance of a kick into the finish. As soon as I saw the familiar streets of Dayton filter into view across the river I gritted my teeth and ran hard – down the street, across the bridge, into the park, and into the finish. 

I’ve never run in that kind of heat before and it absolutely destroyed me. I took in so few calories that I ran the entire race on fumes. But I still hung on, and I managed to snag 35th out of 331 starters in just over 26 hours. I refused to entertain any thoughts of dropping, because dropping is just not worth it, ever. What’s worth it is accepting your mistakes and your inability to handle the conditions, facing the challenge, and finishing what you started. The regret I feel from every 100 miler I’ve dropped from still weighs on me to this day. Conversely, every time I finish a 100 miler after blowing up I learn something and am better for it. I still have a long way to go in understanding my body, but I think this race taught me a lot, and I know I’m getting better at handling these bad days. 

When you toe the line at a 100 miler you have one duty: to finish it, to dig deep, and to never stop until it’s over, even if that means swallowing your pride and some B.S. about how you “could” run faster.