Bighorn Preview, Episode I

bighorn_logoI don’t normally post race previews. That kind of fanboy nonsense I leave to Bryon Powell and his fine crew at However, I’m tapering and have some time on my hands and apparently the way I taper is by geeking out with maps and pacing charts and so forth, so here goes. This willmay be a two part post: first, a description of the course and logistics for those following along at home to familiarize you (and me) with the geography of a place I’ve never been. Second, if I’m feeling self-aware enough, will be my thoughts about my mental and physical preparation for this thing. Or maybe not.

Bighorn is a set of four races in the Bighorn Mountains in north-central Wyoming just south of the Montana border. The 100 miler is an out-and-back near Dayton, a small town near the large-for-Wyoming town of Sheridan; 48 miles out, 52 miles back. Wait, how does that work, you say?  The start is actually at the mouth of the Tongue River Canyon while on the way back you run past the starting line and then another four miles down a (reportedly torturous) dirt road into Dayton to the town park and a soak in the river. The 52 mile race is just the second half of the 100 miler starting Saturday morning just after the hundreders have started back. The 50 km (31 mile) race and 30 km races are also timed and situated that everyone is finishing in Dayton at about the same time (Saturday afternoon and evening).

One of the reasons I chose this race as my first (only?) hundred is that it starts at the unusual time of 11 am. Usually big mountain races start at or before dawn and go for 30+ hours meaning that not only are you going to be running through at least one night, you won’t get more than a few hours of sleep the night before. A lunchtime start means I can get (hopefully) a good night’s sleep beforehand, have a leisurely breakfast, and face the day fully charged. Everyone runs through Friday afternoon and night. The winners will finish around dawn on Saturday and the back-of-the-pack folks will finish (if they finish at all) around sunset. There’s a certain elegance to it.

bighorn_map_profileLogically, the course has three segments each of which is about 15-20 miles long and each of which you encounter twice (once in each direction). Segment 1 features a relatively steep climb from the race start at the mouth of Tongue River Canyon, through the canyon and up and over Dry Fork Ridge. Just on the other side of the ridge is the first of three major aid stations: Dry Fork (mile 13). I hope to accomplish this segment in 4 hours or so going as lightly as possible through the heat of the day (and reportedly it can get really hot!). Amy and the family will hopefully meet me here for some psychological support.

Segment 2 gets down to business with a 17-mile long, rolling traverse through meadows and forests under the southern face of the Dry Fork Ridge before dropping down a very steep bit of trail (more on this later!) to the second major aid station: Footbridge (mile 30). I hope to arrive at Footbridge in the evening (8pm?) and transition into night mode. Technically, I could pick up a pacer here, but I hope to make it through at least the first half of the night (and race) before picking up my first pacer.

The footbridge at Footbridge crosses the Little Bighorn River (as in Battle of the, Custer’s Last Stand, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and all that other unfortunate history) and segment 3 starts out climbing the long, gradual, remote trail along its banks. I don’t really know what to expect on the 18 miles of ascent here, but it will be dark for most of it and I intend to use what I learned on my all-nighter to keep moving and keep warm. There will probably be snow and certainly be mud. Coffee, headlamps, and one foot in front of the next. Relentlessly forward.

The turn-around point at mile 48 is, for some reason, called Jaws and marks close to the high-point of the course. It’s also not more than a mile or two from the famous Medicine Wheel, an important archeoastronomy site. Given what I do for a living, I would love to visit the Medicine Wheel but given that I’ll be in the middle of my longest run ever and probably about 4am, I’m unlikely to make the effort to stop by and pay my respects.

At Jaws, I’ll pick up Jason, my first pacer and one of the strongest, smartest runners I know. We run together a lot and he knows my running style, strengths, and weaknesses better than probably anyone else at this point. The race is within a day or two of the Summer Solstice and at high latitudes, night will be short. I expect we’ll get first light within a few miles of Jaws and have nice morning sun in our faces as we “run” the long, muddy, snowy downhill to Footbridge seeing all the sights it was too dark to see on the way up a few hours back. Jason, no doubt talking up a storm to keep me awake, will take me back down to Footbridge where I’ll transition back into daytime, hot weather mode and then across segment 2 to Dry Fork.

Remember that steep descent at the western end of segment 2? At miles 27-30 it was a fun technical downhill. On the way back (at miles 67-70), it’s not downhill and probably not any fun either. It’s called the Wall. I’m hoping to survive the Wall with enough energy to keep up a good pace from miles 70-82 across the rolling terrain through the camp aid stations. By mid-afternoon, I hope to make it to Dry Fork (mile 83) again, see my family, and change into a dry pair of shoes.

At Dry Fork, I’ll also swap Jason for the indomitable Kate. Kate is a former competitive cross-country runner who we are slowly but surely converting to the ways of slow, roots-and-rocks-and-vertical trail running. She’ll take me up the short climb to the top of the Dry Fork Ridge and then down the long descent into Tongue River Canyon.

Once we pass the mouth of the canyon and the starting line, I’ll be in newish terrain again. Unfortunately that new terrain will be a dirt road leading down into Dayton and the park and the finish line. Reportedly this is downhill, though I bet it won’t feel like it. Reportedly there are girls on bicycles distributing popsicles. I look forward to both of those.

So that’s the course and my plans. The course cut-off is 34 hours which would have me finishing at 9 pm on Saturday. I’d like to give myself a little cushion so I’m shooting for a nominal 32-hour finish (7 pm). Maybe things will go really badly and I’ll be timed-out somewhere along the line. Maybe I’ll be sick or injured and have to drop. On the other hand, maybe things will go really well and I’ll finish a little bit faster. One thing is certain: by 9 pm on Saturday night, it will be all over except for the ice baths, the icy beverages, and looking back on my most ambitious challenge to date.  Here’s a nice video put together by my good pal Eric during the 2011 edition (which was run on a slightly different course due to excessive snow in the high country).

I should also say that I’m looking forward to seeing a whole lot of friends, old and new up there.  This has become a real community event and I see a lot of familiar names on the registration list: Mark, Jon, FredX, Neeraj, Dale, Nick, Nate, Chip, Brian, Val, not to mention the various people I know will be up there pacing, crewing, and generally accumulating awesome karma for some race of their own in the future.

If you’d like to follow along, there is “live” tracking available.  My bib number is 155 and the following links may give reasonably timely information.

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1 Response to Bighorn Preview, Episode I

  1. Shad says:

    Tip: If you are overheating the last 4-5 miles in the finish along the road like I was have your pacer take one of their bottles to the river that runs along the road, fill it and use it to squirt over your head to keep cool. Unlimited refills in the river. Just a thought that worked for me.

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