The Bighorn Mountain ‘Wild and Scenic Trail Run’ has been on my to-do list for a few years now. It seems like there are a lot of local Wasatch Front runners that go back to do it year after year, so I knew there was something pretty good going on up there in the middle-of-nowhere-Wyoming. The course is an out and back with over 18,000 feet of climbing in the Bighorn Mountains.
|Waiting for the start|
I am not a big fan of the late (11:00 AM) start that had us milling about the starting line for almost an hour in the heat waiting to run. I had 3 goals for the first 48 miles to the turnaround: Stay hydrated, don’t get overheated and save my legs. After 1.25 on a dirt road we hit some sweet single track trail in Tongue River Canyon. I was pretty blown away by how scenic this run was. From Tongue River Canyon to the turn around the views were mind blowing, probably the best I have seen yet on a 100 miler. Deep craggy canyons, meadows filled with wildflowers, mountain streams, thick green forest and endless mountain vistas. Like advertised it was wild and scenic. The first climb (3400 ft. 7 miles) was pretty tough. I kept a decent pace, but definitely held back. I ran the first 13 miles with Matt Van Horn who was nursing a sore knee and decided to hang with me in the middle of the pack. We had a great time and shared some good laughs.
I arrived with Matt at the Dry Fork Ridge aid station (13.4) feeling pretty good. I grabbed some watermelon and gel and walked out of the aid to let my stomach settle. I was taking 1-2 gels between each aid station and then fueling with watermelon and salted potatoes for the whole race. Matt passed me and got into a pretty good groove and I didn’t see him again until just before the turnaround. It was now really hot. I felt great and got into a nice running groove. From Dry Fork to Cow Camp aid (19.5) the trail is very runnable and I settled into a decent pace. One thing that really surprised me about this course was how difficult the trails are. Long sections of trail are boggy, bumpy, uneven, rocky, muddy, rutted and choppy. It was very difficult at times to get into a running rhythm, but I did find a pretty good one on this section.
|The first mile|
From Cow Camp to Footbridge I really focused on fueling, taking salt and trying to stay hydrated. I ran a few miles with KendallW and hoped to stay with him longer, but his pace was a little faster than I wanted to go, so I held back. The miles were really a grind until just after Bear Camp (26.5). Right out of the aid the trail is nasty with rutted mud bogs and it was very difficult to get going, but as we came out of the trees about mile 27 the trail improved and the views running down to Footbridge were some of the best I have ever seen. I had a wide smile on my face as I gulped in the vistas.
Coming into Footbridge (30) I knew that I needed to hydrate, cool off and get some fuel. So far it had been very hot and I knew blowing through this aid station would be a huge mistake. From Footbridge there is an 18 mile climb up to the turnaround and I wanted to make sure I was fresh. As I came in my good friend Bryce Warren grabbed my gear, filled my bottles and brought me food. It was great having him there and he knew exactly what to do. I stayed 15-20 minutes. That’s a long time to stop at an aid station, but for me it was necessary. I needed to make sure I was ready for the climb.
|One of many climbs. Photo by Kendall Wimmer|
The climb up to the turnaround (Jaws) was pretty brutal. Luckily it was in the shade and followed the Little Bighorn River for a while, so I really cooled down and felt fantastic. After about a mile there was a guy and girl (Katie) moving up the climb at a pretty good pace, so I jumped in and for the next 10 miles we we hiked all of the hills strong and ran everything flat or downhill. For at least 5 miles none of us talked or said anything until we saw a moose just off the trail. For the next few miles we chatted and two other guys joined our train.
Just before Spring Marsh aid (40) the 3 guys dropped back and Katie and I stayed together. We came across her friend Andy and for about 4 miles the 3 of us kept up a solid rhythm. It started to get dark and I was surprised how warm it was. From about mile 44 to Jaws the trails were in terrible shape. Muddy, wet and marshy. There were a few stream crossings and several sections with water running over the trail. It was impossible to keep your feet dry and it really slowed us down. On top of that it started to rain which only made it worse. There was also lightning, but it never got too close.
We passed Jennilyn coming back the other way. She was the first place female and I could tell she was having a rough time. She didn’t have a pacer and I was worried about her, but I was happy to see her out in front and hoped she could keep it that way to the finish. A few more miles and we ran into Van Horn who decided that he was going to drop because of his knee, so he ran back to the turnaround with us.
I stayed a long time at Jaws. Way too long. I ate, changed my clothes, washed my feet and changed my shoes and socks. There was an older guy there working the aid station that insisted I throw on another jacket. He demanded that I put my “tight pants” on, but luckily Matt already had them on. It was cold when I went back out, but within minutes I was warm and wishing I hadn’t put on the extra layer.
The trail conditions from 48-52 were horrendous. My feet were soaked pretty fast and caked with mud. I found a couple of guys that I ran with for about 3 miles. About a mile out from Elk Camp (52.5) I started running with another guy and we ran about 5 miles together until I had to stop to get a rock out of my shoe. From there it was a grind back down to the Narrows (62.5). I was getting tired and the lack of sleep was starting to take a toll. When I rolled into the Narrows just before sunrise I was going to quickly grab some gel and then Jennilyn called my name. She was sitting down wrapped in blankets and my heart sank. She had become very sick and threw up several times and somehow made it down to the Narrows where the cowboys were taking care of her. She told me she wanted to finish and asked if I would stay and run it in with her. I waited for her to drink some broth and I told her we were going to walk every step back to Footbridge to get her stomach settled.
At Footbridge Jennilyn was looking a little better, so we stayed for a long time eating, changing shoes and socks and getting ready for the climb ahead. The climb out of Footbridge to Bear Camp (69.5) is probably the most difficult climb of the entire course. We weren’t fast, but I noticed that Jennilyn was doing great on the climb and she seemed to be coming back. We didn’t stay long at Bear Camp. The next 7 miles were actually pretty fun considering how miserable we were now feeling. We laughed a lot and I complained about every hill.
At Cow Camp (76.5) they had bacon and potatoes fried in bacon grease. That might have been the best food I have ever eaten at an aid station. I also filled up on watermelon and Pepsi. We picked up another guy (Ryan) that was struggling and asked to join us and we walked out of the aid to settle our stomachs. The next 6 miles were pretty tough. It was now getting hot again and every climb was brutal. We managed to keep running on the flats and downhills and after a few miles we dropped Ryan. The climb up to Dry Fork was painful. It was now really hot, the climb was steep and we were both very fatigued. At this point I knew we had the finish in the bag, but it wasn’t going to be easy. We spent about 15 minutes at the aid eating and the wind picked up and clouds moved in and now we were actually cold.
|The wild flowers on the course were incredible|
The miles to Upper Sheep (87.5) were a total grind. The jokes weren’t as funny as they had been a few miles back and there was more time silently dealing with our own individual struggles. After the aid there is a bit of a climb. “It’s the last climb” I said in jest. I had been saying that for the last 15 miles on every big climb. This time it actually was. When we hit the top some dark clouds quickly rolled in and within 5 minutes lightning started to strike a few miles away. Jennilyn took off down the exposed slope running under 8:00 minute miles. At first I wasn’t happy about trying to keep up, but I quickly discovered that the faster I ran the less my legs hurt. The rain started and the lightning got closer. Bam! Boom! We were now soaked, but ran hard and fast all the way to the safety of the trees at Lower Sheep aid (92.5). We had run 3 miles and dropped about 2500 feet faster than I would have run it fresh. There were at least 10 lightning strikes and we were now completely wet. That run took a lot out of us and we slowed considerably the rest of the way out of the canyon.
The last 5 miles on the dirt road might be the toughest miles I have ever covered. It was once again hot and we had been battered by the trail and were now on our second day of being exposed to the sun and the heat. We were trashed. We whined, we laughed, we walked. Sometimes we shuffled, but it didn’t last long. More complaining, more walking and walking, and walking. Then finally we made it. I was so proud of Jennilyn for not giving up and pushing through to the finish. She was barely able to keep any food down for hours and could have easily quit. We came in 85th place out of 297 starters. Not great, but we made it. This was my 7th 100 mile finish and definitely one of the most difficult. The course is much harder than you think by looking at the elevation profile. We talked to a few veterans, including Roch Horton that said it was the worst trail conditions they had ever seen there. During the last 20 miles I vowed to never go back, but after a week of letting the experience marinate I’m already feeling a pull back to the wild and scenic Bighorn.