Staying true to your best effort when you know it’s not enough

1 Jul
Rolling down the trail in the early miles of the Bighorn 50 trail run.

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

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.

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 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

16 Responses to “Staying true to your best effort when you know it’s not enough”

  1. Rick Mitchelson at 11:35 am #

    Thanks for the heart-felt summary of your run. I too learned some lessons


    • Mark Smidt at 11:37 am #

      Thanks, Rick. Wyoming was a wonderful host. I’ve vacationed there for decades, and running there made me miss it more. Powder River!


  2. Love your plan for 2015. the 50 mile at Bighorn is an amazing course- a beautiful, challenging point-to-point run. i would add power-hiking to the training, as getting up and out of footbridge for most of us requires focused fast hiking on steep terrain for a sustained period of time, and i think that for many us that that trudge out of there is a physical and emotional crux. make your footbridge cutoff goal closer to no later than 10:20am (even though the race cut off is 11am). cheers, diane


    • Mark Smidt at 11:43 am #

      Excellent point, Diane. I did work more on hiking this year — I am a terrible power hiker. I run much faster than my wife, but when we walk, she could do circles around me. I am definitely trying to figure a way to get into Footbridge sooner. Those first miles were a HUGE learning experience this year.


      • i have three BH 50mile finishes (and i consider them a great accomplishment as a 50+yr old female), a 13:01, a 13:20 something, and the last one was about 14.5 hours. in the last one the cutoff at footbridge that year was 10:30am, and i got out of there at about 10:27am, having desperately sprinted in to make the time. i really had to push the “middle” section of the race out of fb to cowcamp, and then did not make the dryfork cutoff by more than 10-15minutes. i met up with three other runners about 4 miles from dry fork who had decided that they were not going to make the cutoff and were planning to enjoy the walk to dryfork and call it a day (they tried to get me to join them, it was SO tempting). but i talked them into coming with me and we all made the df cut off and the finish. without the prior finishes i think it would have been more difficult to believe that i could make it to dry fork and from there the other cutoffs to get the finish.

        re: the walking- for sure mix serious power-walking into your training runs, be able switch back and forth.


      • Mark Smidt at 9:23 pm #

        Love your story about making it into DF. The way I was feeling, I was wondering what I would do if faced with the same circumstances.

        I read another race report a couple weeks ago where a runner was facing the same situation; he grabbed the stuff out of his drop bag and walked out of the aid station, taping up and eating just a short bit down the trail.


  3. RIck at 8:59 pm #

    I too failed on the “Wall”, I was into FB by 10:00 and yet still missed the cutoff at DF by about six minutes. I spent just enough time at FB to change shoes and socks and actually felt pretty good. The climb was brutal on my time, but like you I have a plan which involves many more hills and some weight training (when you are over 55 there is no hiding weak legs). I enjoyed the scenery enormously, but I am determined to conquer the beast. The Good Lord willing I will see you next June. Thanks again for your blog, makes me feel better about no official finish time.


    • Mark Smidt at 9:11 pm #

      I guess there were different challenges on that course for all sorts of people, Rick. I’m sorry you missed DF by such a small margin. I’m sure that last hill to the aid station can take the last bit of blame.

      Yes, it is a beautiful area; it would be nice to hike the area and just enjoy the sights. I said they should have allowed stoppage time (like the World Cup) so we could take more pictures.

      Here’s to both of us conquering the beast next year!


      • Guy Comer at 10:46 am #

        Hello Mark,
        You ran that race with a ton of heart, and I know that you’ll finish it next year for sure! Training aside, I’ve always thought that so much of finishing or not finishing on a given day comes down to blind luck. There really is so much that can happen out of your control over 50 miles. Anyhow, it was great to meet you and your family this year. I’m putting my money on you for 2015! Best of luck next year!


      • Mark Smidt at 10:50 am #

        Thanks, Guy. I think I learned a lot and will have a better idea next year. Definitely luck always plays a part; I thought we got lucky with the weather this year, which was perfect. I hope that doesn’t interfere next year.

        The family saw you come across the finish line, but I must have been off doing something else. Wish I could have cheered your final yards. Anyone who finished that race — 50 or 100 — is a stud in my book. Congratulations!


  4. Girl Runs Wild at 12:31 pm #

    Ugh, I’m sorry to hear that things didn’t quite go according to plan for you on the day. It looks like a fantastic place to run and it sounds like you gave it a good shot! It reminds me a little of the time I got my first ever (and to date only) DNF at the 40km marker in a marathon (yes, two kilometres from the finish line!). At the time, of course it was a bit of a bitter pill to swallow, but in hindsight, it’s one of the best things that happened to me in my running life. After a little while, I didn’t see it as a failure; I just thought that I had found out about a bunch of stuff that didn’t work so well! Sometimes, things just don’t go the way we had planned them, and I really like that you just looking at the lessons learned now and use them to move forward, stronger than before. This year, it was just a recce of the route; I’m sure you’ll totally nail this race next year! 😀


    • Mark Smidt at 12:35 pm #

      Thanks so much for the kinds words. This was my first DNF, but, as you say, I’m going to make the best of it and nail it next time. 🙂


  5. Jason at 7:32 am #

    I can relate in that I’ve had a lot of difficulty with downhills in ultras – I think we’ll be alright if we both stick with it! I also agree about getting in a longer run. I went into my last 50m with a long run of 27m and it simply wasn’t enough. Live and learn!



  1. Daily News, Thurs, July 3 -

    […] Here’s another great DNF report from Bighorn 50 in Montana. […]


  2. Another run at the Bighorn 52-mile trail race | in the deed -

    […] This link will take you to a video I did on last year’s race, while this link will take you to my written race recap. […]


  3. Difficult goals are the sweetest and most satisfying to achieve | in the deed -

    […] I first attempted the Bighorn in 2014, I didn’t even know what I didn’t know. Fifty miles of rocky, rutted, muddy […]


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