Rolling down the trail in the early miles of the Bighorn 50 trail run.
For the first 6 months of 2014, I trained with just one goal in mind: Competing in the Bighorn 50-mile trail run in the mountains just outside Sheridan, Wyo.
When the temperatures in Iowa dipped below zero in January, I bundled up and headed out the door to log my miles. When we took a few vacation days, I rolled out of my cozy bed to get in a run. When I arrived home late one Sunday evening after a long drive across the state, I finished my 20-mile training run after 10:30 p.m.
Needless to say, I had a lot invested physically and mentally in competing in the Bighorns.
So when my race on June 21 finished at 34.5 miles instead of 50, was I disappointed?
Sure, I was disappointed, but I wasn’t crushed.
The muddy, snowy, rocky, broken trails and the constant downhill slope in the early miles took a toll on my quads and ankles. I rolled my right ankle completely over twice, one time taking a spill onto a huge boulder and uttering a few words of which my mother would not approve.
Ready for the 6 a.m. start
As I plowed downhill for those first 18 miles, I made friends with a fellow runner who was moving at about the same pace. We were keeping an eye on the clock, knowing that the first time cutoff was approaching. We’d make that first cutoff, I told her, but we weren’t going to have much extra time to spare after that. But between the quads, the hamstrings and the ankles, I thought I was going at the maximum controlled pace that I could manage, even if it wasn’t the pace that I had hoped for. I’m not a great downhill runner, and that was borne out.
We did make the Footbridge Aid Station about 30 minutes before the cutoff. Despite needing to replace the tape on one foot and dealing with some rather troublesome cramps, I hustled out of Footbridge by myself with about 10 minutes to spare.
From there, it was straight uphill for three miles, gaining 2,300 feet in that span. It’s a stretch of trail that’s aptly nicknamed The Wall.
Having met up with my friend again, we hiked and huffed and puffed our way to the top of the ridge at the Bear Camp Aid Station. My friend decided to return to Footbridge, where she could catch a ride back to town. For the next 13 miles, I was on my own.
A pair of runners power-hike The Wall just ahead of me.
With no one to push me, without the aid of my GPS watch providing information on my average pace and knowing I was already flirting with the next cutoff, it would have been easy to slack off. But I decided I was there to finish in the best possible time I could. I had family waiting for me at the Dry Fork Aid Station — my brother and his daughter had driven up from Casper; and my wife, who has always been there for me during these crazy adventures. I knew that by now my niece would have already passed through Dry Fork on the way to her own strong finish. I wanted to give it my all until there was no more left to give.
So I ran when I could, and I hiked when I had to. But, as my wife would say, I made forward progress.
I hustled out of Cow Camp Aid Station knowing that with 6 miles to go, I wouldn’t make the cutoff. I wolfed down fried potatoes and 7Up with another runner, and he suggested that we might as well walk and enjoy the scenery because there was no way we’d make it to Dry Fork in time.
But I was still committed to recording the best time possible. I broke out my music player for the first time and left the aid station with the strains of Bonnie Raitt urging me on. (Love this song, and its reference to “small house under a Big Sky” always reminds me of Montana.) I probably ran the hardest in the last few miles before Dry Fork, knowing I wouldn’t make the cutoff and fearing I’d be caught up in the sweepers.
In the last 13 miles — from Bear Camp to Dry Fork — I passed 16 runners. It wasn’t about a better finishing time than someone else — hell, I was going to miss the cutoff time and be a DNF — but it was a way to measure and push my effort. I was going to give it my all, although on this day, my all wasn’t good enough to complete the 50-mile race.
Even if I had made the cutoff time, I’m not sure I could have gone on. Maybe a better statement would be “should have gone on.” I know I would have tried, just because I’m stubborn that way. But when I topped that last brutal hill at Dry Fork, there wasn’t much left in the tank.
I fell short of my goal — finishing the Bighorn 50 — but I learned a heck of a lot about the race’s overall challenge, about the course and about myself. And when the third week of June rolls around in 2015, I know I’ll make a better run having put forth the best effort I could in 2014.
My niece Melissa, left, and several other runners cross a stream.
My plan for conquering the Bighorn in 2015
After a week or so to reflect, I have a good idea what I need to do to get better:
- Coming from the flatlands, my quads and calves weren’t prepared for 18 miles of downhill on an uneven trail. My son is a big fan of weighlifting, and I told him those opening miles were like doing squats for 4 hours. To prepare for next year, I’m going to add weight room sessions.
- The treacherous footing posed by the mud and snow had me concerned about starting in my Hokas, so I started with my trusty Asics Nimbuses. But these shoes lack the stability in the heel to deal with the precarious footing, and my heel kept kicking out to the side.
- I need to run more trails. There aren’t any trails near my home, but I’ll have to make the effort to drive to some or find some races that will give me time on the trails. Iowa trails aren’t the same as Wyoming trails, but any trail time is better than road time.
- I need to run more hills. There’s a one-mile long hill on my running route, and I ran repeats there several times. But I need to do that several more times … with more repeats.
- And I need to simply run more miles. My longest run was 30 miles, although that was part of back-to-back long days. I had planned a 35-miler, but time lost to injuries kept me from making that run. I need to start my training cycle far enough out so that I can still make a 35-miler or at least two even longer back-to-back runs.