I’m not sure how to start this one so I’ll start with the basics. The Bighorn 100 is a 100 mile trail race that takes place in the Bighorn Mountains in Wyoming the 3rd weekend in June which this year meant the race started Friday June 16th. It started at 10am this year which was an hour earlier than most years but still 2 hours later than I’d like it to. This was my first mountain ultramarathon and a qualifier for both Western States and Hardrock which was part of the attraction for me. Honestly I probably wouldn’t have even considered it if not for some friends that have attempted it in the past. Most of the information I got from them and previous race reports helped a lot, some of it was just plain wrong and so my original game plan had to be changed. The main game changer in this race though wasn’t the course, it was the weather…
Before this race the whole family went to Yellowstone. I figured it’d help out with the elevation adjustment and it’s only 3 hours from Yellowstone so you might as well go there too. The race peaks out at 9000 ft. I live at 1000 feet. I’ve never had an issue when I go hiking in the mountains, even to 14,000 feet but it never hurts to give yourself time to adjust. Other than breathing faster than normal, I never had any issues during the race.
On a side note, Yellowstone was awesome. I did a few training runs in the park (one on which I had to wait on 6 elk that wouldn’t get off the trail). We saw 6 geysers going off in one day. I saw bison, elk, mule deer, pronghorn, bighorn, a wolf, a brown bear, a black bear, 2 osprey nests, marmots, and all the smaller things you see in the woods. Do you want to know how many animals I saw the entire race? 5 small mice at night on the trail. That’s it! Lots of flowers though as you can see in the photo at the beginning. Tons of lupines which I love.
So based on the above elevation profile, race reports, etc I set a race goal of just over 27 hours. It was pretty aggressive for me but it seemed very doable. It would’ve been doable save 2 things: those apparent straight lines aren’t, and it rained, for a long time.
The pre-race meeting was at 8am in Dayton, WY which is where the finish line is. After the meeting they had buses to shuttle us to the start line. It was a pretty long wait for the race to start and it was clear there were a lot of people. Turns out 373 runners to be exact plus their crew. I brought a chair to relax in since I knew it would be awhile. Normally this race is really hot so I decided to use my 2L bladder and made an insulated pocket out of mylar bubble wrap to keep the ice in it cold. Also I had a bad reaction to having ice straight against my skin at vol state and this prevented that. Even though the temperatures weren’t very high, I still was sweating a lot during this race so I was happy with my decision to bring the bladder. I was able to skip most aid stations as well this way and save time. I also had taped my feet since the race was starting dry. I planned on changing over to my wet feet setup later.
Finally we got into line just before 10am. It was crowded! We started on a dirt road but there were so many people that you really couldn’t even pass anyone on it very easy. Plus everyone was going fast already. I started towards the back middle and should’ve started way further up or just sprinted the first mile. After the 1.3 miles of road, we started the conga line up the mountain.
3200 feet in about 6 miles with most of the elevation gain in the last 4 miles. The trail doesn’t open up again until almost 7 miles into the race so any passing done in the beginning is hard fought. I’d have to save energy and then run full speed uphill around the 8 or so people in front of me to get anywhere. Then I’d catch up to the next group of people after power hiking for 5 minutes. There was no way to get a rhythm at all since your speed was determined entirely by the person in front of you. I was assuming the trails in this race would be similar to trails I’ve hiked in the mountains where the grade is pretty consistent with switchbacks in the steepest areas. Not so with race. The trails pretty much go straight up and down similar to back home in MN. Not a big deal but it keeps you from being able to get a good rhythm going like I was counting on when I set my goal paces. Especially when in a conga line. At times there was completely still air. I imagine this section really sucks with a cloudless sky above you and warmer temps.
The nice thing was all the flowers and since we were going so slow up the mountain, talking to people was easy. Here are the pictures I took on the way up.
At last you get to some dirt roads and more open pasture areas where you can go your own speed. Then you go down a steep hill to upper sheep aid station. From here to dry fork aid station (mile 13.5) is almost entirely on good roads, meaning a hard packed road with some rocks and not just clay. You go uphill and then back downhill into the station. This is the first big aid station where your crew can meet you.
On the way there was a spot I had to duck under a tree. I thought the path was clear but then something threw my head back and I almost stopped cold. There was a branch that hit my head and slid down my face. It hurt and was burning since all the sweat was going into whatever wound I had. I took a picture of myself to see what it looked like and I couldn’t see anything. By the time I finished the race though, it became clear.
The family was there with the cowbell cheering me on when I got in at 1:16pm. I got more ice water and Sword in my bladder. There wasn’t much else to get here but I took some time to make sure I had everything I needed since I wouldn’t see them until the turn around at jaw’s trailhead (mile 48). The kids still seemed in good spirits. This was the first 100 mile race they were helping crew so it was going to be a good test of my wife’s nerves. I bought some toys they didn’t know about to have her hand out throughout the race to help out with boredom.
From dry fork to cow camp aid station is about 6 miles all on dirt roads. It was also downhill overall but still lots of ups and downs in between. I did this section fairly fast since I love downhills and had plenty of energy from going so slow in the beginning. I passed a few people on this section.
Cow camp to bear camp was back on trail with lots of ups and downs but overall the elevation doesn’t change from aid station to aid station. It’s 7 miles long. This is where I determined it would be difficult to keep my 27 hour pace up. I was keeping it up so far but it was clear these up and downs would slow my expected pace on the way back to the finish line. 28 hours still isn’t bad and I was still having fun. Now, with the elevation I was pretty much open mouth breathing all the time since I’m from the prairie. Soon after cow camp I breathed in a fly. It went full on into my trachea and I could feel it’s wings buzz a little. Luckily I had my lungs half filled with air before he went in so I had something to immediately cough him out. He buzzed around my mouth before I could finally spit him out. Then I proceeded to cough for 30 seconds straight. Good times!
There are 2 water pipes with drinkable water coming out of them along this section. The first is almost exactly a mile from cow camp. The other is about 3 miles further. I washed my face in one of them and it felt amazing. It was cooler at the higher elevation but still hot for me so I was still sweating a lot.
Bear camp is a limited aid station since they have to hike in the supplies. Basically water and some food choices. The next section to footbridge is a large downhill. Don’t worry, there’s still a couple hundred foot uphill you get to do as well. This section is known as the wall. It’s not really a wall, just very steep at about 750feet a mile drop. Steeper in sections and flatter in others. Awesome views of the valley you were going to drop down into though. I put in my headphones here for the rest of the race and started down. I wish I could say I flew down, but you can’t go fast when it’s that steep.
This section was pretty rocky which would help some in my determination of if I’d be able to get up it in the rain later on. I’ll add that while running from cow camp to bear camp there are basically views of the cliffs down to the river. You’re never close to them so you can’t see the river, but it hints at how steep of a drop the wall will be once you get there. It got warmer as I went downhill and my ears were constantly popping.
Footbridge (mile 30) is a major aid station with drop bags. Your crew can meet you there but you have to drive through a couple streams and it’s a long drive so I decided it wasn’t worth my family trying to get there. Plus they make you park a mile away and there’s no way she was going to carry stuff a mile to me and a mile back. I got in at 4:34pm which was still on pace for me. I got my cold weather gear out to put in my pack. Also my headlamp as it’d get dark before I got to jaws trailhead. I put on a long sleeve tech shirt since it suddenly got cold with the large clouds and wind moving in. I left my hat in the drop bag as well. It looked like there was a campground near this aid station so the road in must not be as bad as I thought.
The next 17 miles is all uphill with a mile of pretty much flat after that into jaws trailhead. But, as before, the uphill is not constant. There are lots of ups and downs, especially in the first section to cathedral rock. This section was right along the river and kind of loud because of it. It was all pretty much rocky with a sharp drop off into the river on your left side and a steep hill on your right. As usual I was hitting my first wall of the race which I usually hit around mile 29 but since that was downhill, it came now. I could see up the valley that it was raining there already. By the time I got to cathedral rock aid station it was raining. I got my cheap Walmart poncho out and put it on. I’d have it on for the next 12 hours.
The next section to spring marsh is 6.5 miles long. This is where you start to pull away from the river some and are more in pasture land again. It was already muddy and I hit my low point in the race. I still had 66.5 miles to go! The most logical place to quit in this race is at jaws trailhead since your crew can easily get you there. I started worrying about getting up the wall in the mud on the way back. I didn’t want to quit at footbridge and then have to wait forever to get a ride back to the finish line. Plus the kids would now have to wait almost all of the next day for me to finish as I’d be way behind schedule. Food tasted gross, gels would almost make me barf. Etc, etc. All negative all the time for the next 6.5 miles.
Finally spring marsh aid station. This is where I instantly felt better and knew I’d finish the race. I wasn’t sure how I’d make it without poles but my mind was made up I was going to finish. It was 3.5 miles to the next aid station. The mud just made it impossible to move fast. I had to shorten my stride way down and use all my accessory muscles to stay upright. There is a constant slight slope which normally you wouldn’t even notice but when the trail is thick clay mud, it slides you around. People started making new paths through the grassier areas which helped some. It ended up easier when the trail had standing water in it since the mud didn’t grip your shoes as much while running through that. My shoes shed the mud on the sole but it was deep enough that it started building up on the sides and tops of my shoes. I’d run straight through any creeks to wash them off. I took a picture during one of the slower rain periods before dark to remember the trail conditions. They got worse in the dark after this was taken.
At elk camp aid station, I got my headlamp on since It’d be dark before I got to jaws trailhead 4.5 miles away. This is the section I suspect the moose like. Even when it’s not raining, you will get soaked on this part. It’s pretty swampy and there were spots the muddy water would go half way up my shin. I never lost a shoe though. I was kind of glad it was dark. I didn’t really want to know how bad it looked. The rain seemed to be letting up some finally. This is where I routinely saw the leaders coming back at me. I had seen some since spring marsh. I lost count of how many were in front but it seemed like only 40. It obviously was more than that since I was supposedly in 115th place at jaws. The last mile or so was on fairly flat pasture and road into jaws aid station. The wind had picked up so it was the first time I actually felt good temperature wise. Of course everyone else looked freezing cold and were huddled around the heater in the tent when I arrived at 10:48pm.
Jessie was waiting outside the tent since crew were only allowed in with their runner. It was crowded but they found a chair for me. This was going to be a fairly long stop since I had a lot to do because of the rain. First was to get out of my wet clothes. My long sleeves and gloves were soaked since the poncho only goes to my elbows. I also left my phone since I didn’t want to land on it since the chance of me taking a spill was pretty good. I had to take my shoes and socks off to start applying my wet foot powder and Vaseline mixture. No blisters yet but my shoes were already pretty trashed. I started this race with just over 600 miles on my Altra Olympus 2.0 shoes.
I got more water although I didn’t need much anymore. I was peeing all the time now since it cooled off; at least I was well hydrated. I just used soft body water flasks instead of my bladder from here on. I changed into another dry long sleeve shirt. The only dry gloves Jessie had were my warmer fleece gloves so I took those too. I put on a buff too. The aid station people were great here. It took some time for them to get a few things but I was amazed how cheerful they still seemed as it was clear this was a hectic time for them as well. I think I tried to eat half a quesadilla but I still wasn’t that interested in food. I’d just have to go off fat power for awhile. I was chilled by the time I left since it had been 25 minutes. Way longer than I wanted but as fast as it could’ve gone without 2 more crew members doing my feet for me. I told Jessie not to bother to get to dry fork until at least 2 hours later than my original time as I knew it would take awhile to get down the long hill in the mud and then back up the wall.
Jessie had to have the car jump started since the battery died. They slept in the back of the car at the aid station for the night. The kids were already sleeping when I got there but that was for the best.
The rain had stopped for now and the fog rolled in as I left the aid station. It was hard to see anything due to the headlamp reflection coming back at you. I warmed up after a mile or so and stopped shivering. I still had my poncho on to help stay dry. I decided to use it instead of my rain jacket because I knew that would be too warm and the poncho covered my shorts as well which my jacket didn’t.
So now I saw the course in reverse. Back through the swamp to elk camp. Back down the now very slippery mud to spring marsh. Even the new trails people had made going up were slop now going down. I met about 40 more people still coming up to jaws and then no more people. Either people hit a time limit cutoff at that point or they just quit while they were at footbridge. Either way I started wondering when the time cutoffs were. I hadn’t even bothered looking at them since I wasn’t planning on being anywhere near them. Well, nothing else to do but keep going I guess.
After spring marsh was more mud. It started raining again. Now the trail sloped to the right so I got to use all new accessory muscles on the other side to not fall with every step. Every once and a while I’d spin out and go down a hill backwards. I never totally fell but I’d have to catch myself a few times. About 2.5 miles out of spring marsh there was a fairly side sloped section that I slid off trail about 4 feet. Once I stopped I realized my foot felt weird. Well that’s because it was now half way out of my shoe! The right side of my right shoe had tore open about 4 inches long along the sole. Now every step I took my foot would slide out of my shoe. This is while going down muddy slopes mind you. I mentally thought of everything in my pack and how it could help me. I wish I had an extra shoelace like I had at vol state. Finally after about a quarter mile I kind of figured out how to mostly keep my foot in while running.
After 2 miles I saw a fence line. I was going to use the barbed wire if I had to but luckily there was just regular wire rolled up hanging on a post as if left there just for me. I bent the wire back and forth a bunch of times to break a piece off, almost burning my fingers off even through the gloves. It was some seriously strong wire. It was hard to bend in the perfect shape since it was so thick but I got it good enough to keep my foot in and not completely dig into the top part of my foot. Then I started worrying about slicing my other leg open with the sharp edges of the wire. It’s not uncommon to hit your leg with your feet, especially in uneven muddy conditions so it wasn’t a totally unfounded fear. I could kind of turn the one edge back which I hoped would prevent that and just paid extra attention to my foot placement.
Finally I got to cathedral rock again. I still had 3.5 miles to go in my sweet McGyver shoes. On steep downhills the wire would move back a lug or 2 and dig into my feet so I’d have to slide it back in to place. Other than that it held up pretty well. This is the section with the steep drop off into the river. Basically if you slip you’ll either die from hitting rocks or drown in the swollen, fast moving river filled with boulders. But don’t worry mom, the trail was rockier here and not very muddy at all. Of course I wondered how often the cliff just gives way and falls in the river, especially when wet and after 400 people have been jumping on it. Well it didn’t give way and I made it to footbridge at 5am (66 miles). I was now 2.5 hours behind schedule but I wasn’t surprised. Despite it sucking, I had still managed to pass about 20 people on the way down from jaws. Many people just walked the whole way down.
I was glad I had a pair of shoes waiting for me in my footbridge drop bag. This is the first race I’ve ever left a pair of shoes in a drop bag thinking I might want dry shoes if it stopped raining before I got there. My race might have been over if I hadn’t done that as I don’t think I would’ve gone another 34 miles in them. I put more wet foot paste on and new dry socks and dry Altra Lone Peak 3.0. My feet felt like heaven for a moment. I put on a dry t-shirt and dry gloves. I still had to have my headlamp since it wasn’t quite light out enough yet without it although it would be in 20 minutes. I found out the race time limit was 34 hours so I had plenty of time even if it totally sucked. At least 4 runners quit just before I got there since there was a car of them leaving. I still wasn’t sure if I’d make it up the wall but I left with an egg mcmuffin in hand.
It quit raining, but it would sprinkle here and there from now until about 9am. I left my poncho off most of the time since it wasn’t worth putting it on and off a bunch of times. The hike up the wall wasn’t that slippery at all. Previous footprints had made sort of terraces in the trail and there were lots of rocks to step on to help get traction. It still sucked going up over 2000 feet in a couple miles but I made it to bear camp. I even passed a few people going up. The volunteers here said the guy who was leading by 30 minutes quit at dry fork but they didn’t know why.
Bear camp to cow camp in the reverse direction seemed much easier than I thought it’d be. It was muddy yes, but the side paths were still in pretty good shape. Every once and a while I’d pass another person so I felt pretty good about that. The longest I went without seeing anyone was during this section. A whopping 10 minutes where I didn’t see another runner. Again this race is crazy crowded even after half the people quit. I’m used to at least an hour being the longest time I don’t see someone. Towards the end of this section the 52 mile leaders started passing me. I was slowly eating food and gaining energy. I actually ran this section faster than I had planned on initially even with the mud.
Cow camp finally came and now it was the road section for the next 6 miles. At least there was bacon at this aid station so that was good. This section absolutely sucked. Thick mud with no rocks to gain traction on. The side trails were just as bad. The road was rutted so even running through the thickest mud in the tire track section didn’t help because the side walls were so sloped you’d constantly slide and get off balance. Walking and running both were nearly impossible in sections. I didn’t think the roads would be so bad. In fact they were the worst section of the whole race. The sun came out so now I was getting sunburned. The road was SLOWLY drying out which made it worse at this point since it just made the clay even more sticky and shoe sucking. 52 mile people were passing in big groups now. How could they run in this crap? And how was I still slowly passing 100 mile runners here and there? The last hill up to dry fork took forever since you can see the aid station miles before you get there. I just decided to look at my feet and not look up to make it not seem as bad.
I got into dry fork at 11:02am (82.5 miles). 2:40 behind schedule which I thought would’ve been 3 hours so I felt good about that. They had sunscreen for me there at least. I had left my hat at footbridge so I still would get sunburned on my face. Putting sunscreen on my face is pointless as it just gets in my eyes and I wipe it all off after 20 minutes. They also had double cheeseburgers! Yum. I knew 2 hours from now I’d have a bunch of energy and it tasted sooo good. The aid station worker kept asking me questions while I was talking to Jessie. I figured later she was probably checking my mental status or something. I didn’t bother changing my socks. My shoes wouldn’t get any wetter since the grass had finally dried off but I didn’t want to take the time and I didn’t have any hot spots yet. I told Jessie it’d be 5 hours until I finished so she should just go to the cabin and I’d call when I finished. She handed me my phone back. I dropped as much weight as I could with her and left. 17.5 miles left to go.
I found out later it was a pretty interesting drive for the cars to get to dry fork in the mud that morning. Jessie said she saw some tire tracks go off the road at a turn on what looked like a steep drop off. She made it down OK but the car looked like it had 3 inches of concrete on it at the finish line.
The roads from dry fork to upper sheep were in good shape. The sun was getting hot and I was back to sweating again. Constant runners from other races were passing me. The hill seemed to last forever. I saw the stupid tree that hit me yesterday and stayed away. Finally the run down into upper sheep. I filled up with water there and continued on.
It’s there that I could see the one last big hill to climb before all the downhill to the finish line. How did it grow so much? I don’t remember going down that big of a hill yesterday while running into upper sheep aid station. It’s steep and about 500 feet high. Finally I got to the top and started slowly running down. It felt pretty good. My shins had been hurting for hours due to all the walking in the mud. I hadn’t planned on walking so much so they were sore. But now things felt pretty good going down. I started going faster. My cheeseburger 2 hours ago was now hitting my system.
Down, down, as fast as I could with the steep terrain. I’d have to walk in sections since it was too steep with too many round rocks to slide on. I was going even faster than I had planned on initially. I soon realized that a sub 30 hour finish was still possible. I was expecting 31 hours. I just kept pushing it down the hill. Now I started seeing a bunch of 100 mile runners just walking down. I started passing them right and left. It felt awesome for so late in a race. I finally got to lower sheep aid station. I tried to get a rock out of my shoe but another one seemed to find it’s way in. Looking back I think it was all the mud from my gaitors falling off as they dried. There was 7.5 miles left to go!
It wasn’t great having a couple rocks in my shoe but I wasn’t going to stop when I was passing so many people. The next section down to the road was so much more fun than yesterday’s conga line march up it. It was hot but I just had to hold on a few more hours. A 29 hour finish briefly came into thought but the math just wouldn’t work for that. I probably passed 10 people from upper sheep creek to the road. I generally never pass people at the end of a race. Just another sign I started way too far behind in the beginning.
I made it down to the road. Just 5.2 miles more to the finish line. The river was right next to the road and loud. It was so tempting to just jump in it and float on down to the finish line. The road was dry now and even though we were following the river downstream it sure didn’t seem to go downhill. I ran as much as I could but would have to take walking breaks here and there. I got a popsicle from a kid handing them out which helped some with the heat. Oh that road seems to last forever. It has a bunch of small curves that never let you see how much further it is to go.
Finally I got to town where you have to run around the park to get into it and then run back around the park again to get to the finish line. There were bleachers along the path through the park with people cheering. I think the whole town was either there at the finish line or volunteering somewhere on the course. Pretty awesome! I even saw Jessie and the kids about 100 yards from the finish line. Turns out they never went to the cabin. Finally, I finished strong at 3:34pm for a total race time of 29:34. 2 hours 20 minutes slower than I wanted but I did that section from dry fork 16 minutes faster than I had even planned on. I suspect without the mud 28 hours would’ve been pretty doable.
They had food at the end which was great but the line took over 10 minutes to get the food. I had to have Jessie stand in line for me since my feet hurt so bad and I was getting nauseous standing. You get your buckle and swag at a different area of the park so I got that. I then looked at the results and found out I was 62nd overall. I thought for sure I would’ve been in the 40’s since I had passed over 40 people since jaws, but I was obviously way further behind at jaws than I thought. I’d later find out only 175 of the 373 starters would finish. That’s pretty bad and shows how difficult the course was even though it wasn’t as hot as it can get.
I’m sure in dry conditions I would have a much faster time but likely my placing wouldn’t be any better. Other people usually do better in heat than I do and less people would drop out. I’m happy with it since it’s better than my usual 20% placing. I was told that recovery from this race is pretty quick compared to midwest 100’s. I would totally agree. I suspect with all the walking you just don’t trash your legs as much. My quads didn’t hurt in the slightest during or after this race even with very little hill training. My butt and feet were sore but I could run 3 days later and I usually take a week off.
I should’ve taken a picture of my legs when I was done. There was a thick coating of mud everywhere. During the last 20 mile of the race it would occasionally feel like I was getting bitten by something only to find out a chunk of dry mud had broken loose and was only being held by a leg hair. I’d brush that chunk off and keep going. Even after all the stuff I brushed off there was still almost a half inch of mud covering my calves and even my shins were covered. My Olympus shoes are now in a landfill somewhere in WY. I wonder what future archeologists will think about the wire shoes they find someday? The newer design of Altra trail shoes all have reinforced sides to prevent this sort of failure. The problem is that they hold almost half an inch of water in them now. If water gets in, they basically never dry. The lone peaks were still wet at the finish line 6 hours after the last puddle and when I washed them, they held a half inch of water with the insole removed. Never drained even after a couple minutes. Ridiculous. Figure it out guys! Now I’ll have to drill holes in the sides to make drain holes.
By finishing this race, I completed 786 race miles in the 6 ultramarathons I ran as a 40 year old. I didn’t really intend for that to happen but it just worked out that way. Vol State last July started it off and Bighorn was just before I turned 41 (Facebook doesn’t have my real birthday by the way). I don’t know if I’ll ever do that many race miles in a year again or not. I don’t regret it at all but 786 is kind of a big number and probably hard to repeat unless I just do a bunch of short 50k’s as training runs.
Thanks again to my super awesome wife and crew! The kids didn’t drive her completely crazy!
Results are posted here.