In all my athletic adventures, there’s seldom been a time when I didn’t think I could complete the challenge. Finish a triathlon? Just survive the swim. Climb a mountain? Follow the guy ahead and don’t look down. Run a marathon? It’s just a matter of how much it will hurt the last 6 miles.
But a mountain ultra? The distance, the vertical, the altitude, the rough trails? I’ll admit: I didn’t know if I had it in me.
And after failing to meet a time cut-off at mile 35 last year during my first mountain ultra, I really had my doubts.
That’s what made finishing the Bighorn 52-mile trail run this year that much sweeter. This was a goal that took much effort to achieve.
When I first attempted the Bighorn in 2014, I didn’t even know what I didn’t know. Fifty miles of rocky, rutted, muddy single-track trail? You won’t find that in Iowa. 8,200 feet of climb and 13,200 feet of descent? I’d have to run my training hill more than 100 times to approximate that vertical. I could read about the conditions and the challenges, but the only way to truly comprehend them was to experience them first-hand.
So that first year was a huge learning experience. When I missed that time cut-off, I felt I’d done all I could do on that day. As I climbed the hill into the Dry Fork Aid Station, my quads and hamstrings were shot, and my feet felt like they’d been through a meat-grinder. For the next several days, I could barely walk or climb stairs.
But I learned a ton in that first attempt. Running on single-track mountain trails is nothing like running on the roads. Long stretches of uphill and downhill require extra hill training beyond what I’d ever considered. Time-on-your-feet in training will pay huge dividends when you hit hours 10-11-12-13-14 during a race.
In my company, we set performance and project goals every year as part of the budgeting process. I’d like to set achievable goals — I mean, who wants to come up short? — but my boss always pushes me to set “stretch goals.”
Well, the Bighorn 52 was certainly a stretch. But I can definitively say that reaching a stretch goal makes it that much more satisfying.
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In the video I posted a few days ago on the race, I said that it takes a village to make an ultrarunner. That’s sure true for me.
I generally run four times a week: twice during the week, twice on the weekend. And on most weekend long runs and on many other runs, my wife logs miles on the trails, too.
Most of our long runs are at Geode State Park, which is about 40 miles from home. Having a companion on the drive is much appreciated. We generally head different directions on the trails, but we’ll pass each other on the trail or we’ll meet up for soup at the car. And those brief meetings help pass the time, too.
My wife and daughter, Laura, crewed for me at the Bighorns this year. It’s a big help to have an extra hand at the drop bag stations. My transitions in and out of the drop bag locations were easier and faster with their help this year. Ultras present a huge physical challenge, but the mental challenge is just as great. And it’s a huge boost to see a friendly, familiar face along the way.
And I had family and friends waiting for me at the finish line. I was elated to meet my two-year goal, but sharing the accomplishment with the people you love brought the experience to a whole other level. I can’t say how much it meant to me to have my family and friends there to support me.
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It’s hard to say enough good things about the Bighorn races and that part of the country.
The 52-miler starts on top of the Bighorn Mountains, just off Highway 14A, which is along the route to Yellowstone National Park. The race headquarters are in Sheridan, Wyo., a neat town of about 17,000. And the race finishes at the base of the mountains at Dayton, Wyo., pop. 700 or so.
The 52-miler starts at about 8,800 feet, tops out at a little over 9,000 and concludes at 4,000 feet. It follows mostly single-track trails in the backcountry, and the views of the mountains, valleys, rivers and wildflowers are spectacular.
This year is the 23rd for the races, which are run the third weekend in June and now include distances of 18, 32, 52 and 100 miles. The organizers do a very good job, and there’s plenty of good schwag.
The 100-mile race starts in the valley at Dayton, runs to the top of the mountain and finishes back in Dayton. The finishers of that race have some serious trail cred.
Both years, we’ve stayed at the Wyoming High Country Lodge on top of the mountain. If you are running the 50-miler, the lodge is only two miles from the start line. This year, a number of 100-milers had crew members staying there. The lodge is scenic and convenient, your food is included with the room (the lodge is miles from any town) and the managers and staff are great.
If you have any desire to tackle a mountain ultra, I’d recommend this one. It has a distance for anyone, and with enough training and preparation, the races are achievable. Most of the races fill up early, so don’t wait too long to register.