In 2016 I foolishly, but optimistically, chose Bighorn 100 as my first 100 mile attempt. For the most part my training that year was ok…until March when I DNF’d/got lost in the final miles of END-SURE 100k after a long battle. After this, I dealt with some injury issues in the following months. As I would tell people, I was woefully unprepared, in so many ways, and ended up getting beaten by my body, my injuries and most disappointingly, my mind. When I arrived at the turn around at Jaws Aid Station in 2016, I made it just before the cut-off, but had already DNF’d in my head many miles prior.
So Bighorn 100 hung over my head as unfinished business and with a few more ultras, a lot more experience, and a Superior 100 finish under my belt, I knew I had to return to Wyoming for a redemption run, to get that buckle.
To help me with this adventure, I enlisted the help of good friend Alain Dupuis, a pretty accomplished ultra runner in his own right. We regularly use each other as “passports to adventure”, as we call it, when we need to convince our better halves that we need to support one another on an adventure. It’s working pretty well so far, but I think our wives are on to us.
We left from Winnipeg on Wednesday morning and made the 13 1/2 hour drive to Dayton, Wyoming and the Foothills Campground located beside the park that hosts the pre-race meeting and finish line. On this particular weekend it was full of ultra/trail/adventure types and their dogs. It’s a great place to stay. Very rustic, to say the least, but served our purposes well.
The next day, our only responsibility was to attend the bib pick-up/registration in Sheridan, which is close to Dayton. We walked around, did some shopping, picked up the required bib and all the accoutrements associated with that, and were back at our campsite by early afternoon. Staring in the face of the Bighorn Mountains, bib in hand, it all becomes real. A battle is about to begin.
I slept quite well in my tent the nights before the race, and the night before was no different. When I awoke, I began to get ready, eating, dressing, gliding…and taking down our camp (we stayed in a hotel in Sheridan after the race). With the pre-race meeting at 8:00 AM, 30 seconds from our campsite, there was no rush. We attended the meeting, and afterwards picked up the rest of my gear and proceeded to the race start, 4 miles up the gravel road on the shuttles provided. Then we wait. I learned from the previous attempt and brought along a chair. So there I sat, in the shade, relaxing, waiting for the start. Then, as if without great fanfare (even through they played their national anthem), the race began. Seeing as I was chatting with Alain, as well as Carrie & Krystee who had come to see me at the start, I was last to get going and cross the start line. However, this was part of the plan, as I wanted to do the first leg slowly, taking it easy.
The race begins on a gravel road and then turns onto single track along the Tongue River. Then up we go, and up and up and up. It was cloudy during this part, so there were times you couldn’t see where you were headed up the mountain. I just figured it would go up forever, that way I wasn’t disappointed. There is a great write up on the Bighorn website regarding the route description so I’ll spare you from that.
Eventually I made it to Dry Fork Aid Station (13.4 mi, 3:42, 1:43 PM). There is a nice gradual downhill as you approach this aid station, and I ran it quite well. I restocked my vest with nutrition, filled the water bottles and was back on the course. Unless necessary, my plan was to spend as little time in the aid stations as possible.
The climb continued toward Sally’s Footbridge Aid Station. It was during the section that the thunderstorm rolled through the mountains. Something that is quite common in the late afternoon. With it came rain and hail, and this was the moment when I knew my feet wouldn’t be dry again for a long while. As the rain and hail came down, the puddles formed, turning the nice, buffed out trail into a muddy, wet mess. The mud was already becoming an issue, completely drenching my Altra Lone Peak 3.5 and the gaiters I was wearing with them. Then I arrived at “The Wall”, a final 3.5 miles extreme decent into Footbridge. Sections of this are notorious for the shoe-sucking (soul-sucking?) mud, and this year didn’t disappoint. I slid my way down to Footbridge, trying to make good choices and stay upright, and I was pretty successful. I arrived at Footbridge (30 mi, 8:21, 6:22 PM), and Alain was ready for me, to pace through the night. At this point, I was 30 miles into the race, mud up to my knees, shoes completely wet and filled with grit, but my feet were feeling pretty good. I told Alain I didn’t know what to do with my feet, so we restocked, filled bottles and were out of there.
Though the leg to Jaws at mile 48, and the turnaround has some up and down, it’s largely an 18 miles climb to nearly 9000′. The mud continued and many sections were nothing by slipping around. As my feet continued to prune and become “trenchy” (as Shane Mascarin would later refer to them), I knew I had to address some issues. So at a smaller aid stations along the way we stopped for a bit longer. I grabbed some socks from my vest, did my best to clean up and continued on our way. It was decent maintenance, but still insufficient. The climbing and slipping and falling continued, and eventually we made our way to the top, and the gravel road section to the Jaws Aid Station (48 mi, 15:15, 1:16 AM).
One of my goals for this race, and something I was looking forward to most was turning around at Jaws, my location of past failure, and making my way back down the mountain. We arrived inside the Aid Station and Alain took care of me. I ate, dealt with my feet again, and it wasn’t much more than 15 minutes and we were out of there. I suspect many of the 50% of DNFs dropped here. It’s very warm and tempting. Alain told me there was another tent that we were going to stay out of. People were wrecked, it was somber, and there were cots. We didn’t go in there.
And so the trip back down the mountain began, and at this point, I was feeling pretty good, encouraged and ready to battle for the buckle. It continued to be muddy, my feet got progressively worse, even as I tried to manage them with cleaning and Body Glide, but the conditions were just too much and my feet were getting pretty sore. With it being a June race, the night was short, we moved well even though the trail had deteriorated since our climb up, but we eventually make it back to Footbridge (66 mi, 22:04, 8:22 AM) with less than 2 hours of cushion before the cut-off. However, I knew if I was going to have any chance of finishing, I had to deal with my feet.
In what felt like an exercise in futility, I took some time to clean, dry and Body Glide my feet, and then put on new socks and my ON Cloudventure shoes. At this point the rain had stopped, but I was concerned about the 3.5 mile climb up The Wall. Alain was done his pacing duties at this point, and so the solo slog began. It was so slow, and at this point, I knew I would be flirting with cut offs. The Wall wasn’t puddly, but was a slippery, muddy battle. It took me 2 hours to get to the next Aid Station 3.5 miles from Footbridge, but I made it. It was during this section that I struggled the most, regularly figuring out what I’d post to Facebook when I’d have to justify my decision to DNF, to be beaten by this race again, to fail. But I also knew that there was too much at stake, that I had travelled a long way for this race, that it would serve as both a Western States and Hardrock qualifier, both of which are hard to come by. So I just kept moving forward, one foot in front of the other. I don’t run with a GPS watch, so I had to do the math, keep an eye on my time, and be aware of my pace and cutoffs. I was pushing it, but knew I had to keep it at a certain level. I needed a cushion at the cut off at Dry Fork, but if I pushed too much, I wouldn’t have anything left for the final leg. However, I feel like I paced well, and eventually began the climb to the last major Aid Station, Dry Fork (82.5 mi, 28:19, 2:19 PM).
I arrived at Dry Fork, and had been dealing with some stomach issues. Apparently the meal of chili and beans the night before the race may not have been the best choice. However, I had some time, took care of that with a porta-potty visit, and once again, after a short break, was on my way. The climb continued out of Dry Fork, but I knew that eventually, I would get to the top of the climb, and then would have to pound it downhill for miles. A few more aid stations, cut offs and climbs later, I made it, and the final major descent began. At this point I had nothing to loose. I knew I would cut it close, but it didn’t matter. My feet, though much drier now, were hurting, but it didn’t matter. I wasn’t eating properly anymore, my stomach was growling, but it didn’t matter. I just needed to keep moving, push the pace, and I’d get to the finish. So down the hill I went. When there was a more gradual downhill I pushed the pace, feeling relatively good. The sun had come out, it was heating up, but I continued, passing final aid stations, still with a cushion, until finally, the last leg along the river, and the gravel road. I met all the cut offs, I just needed to complete the final 5 miles on the gravel road, and I’d be done. At this point, I didn’t really care anymore about pushing the pace, but kept my eye on my time, and after a slow slog that went on too long, I made it to town, and the final push to the finish line. It was here that people were lining the path, cheering, saying; “good job”, including the other Manitobans who were there as well. Alain joined me for a bit, walking casually beside my max effort, and then I crossed the finish line with a leg kick, and it was over. I made it with 20 minutes to spare, a finishing time of 33:40. Alain, Carrie, and Krystee were right at the finish line, ready to help me, encourage me, and be awesome. It was so great.
It was a battle to say the least, but I’m glad I pushed through the negative mind games, kept up the pace, and was able to finish. I finally got my buckle, and along with it, qualifiers to a couple of great races I hope to do some day.
But more than that, I was able to spend 33+ hours in the mountains, having an adventure with a good friend, challenging myself, and seeing some beautiful things. Sometimes I’m asked why I do these things, and to be honest, I don’t really know? Lots of answers I suppose, but really, I know that if I didn’t do these things, I would miss it. There is so much that is great about these ultra endurance events.
Many people to thank. My family (Colleen, Joshua, Lucas) for their support in my many adventures and ideas. Mallory for her ongoing encouragement (postcards) leading up to the race. Krystee and Carrie for their hugs, cheers and support, particularly at the finish. And lastly, Alain, for giving up a number of days (thanks also to Lynn for that), sacrificing his own feet to help me in Aid Stations, taking care of me before and after, and helping me get through it all.
Photo Credits: Mike Holmes, Carrie Howell, Alain Dupuis