The Bighorn 100 last year was certainly one of the highlights of my life. It was a huge challenge accepted and achieved, a new emotional and physical range, bragging rights galore, and basically one hell of a life experience. While I still have no desire to race it again, it was clear from very shortly afterward that I was far from done with Bighorn.
For one thing, I was so laser-focused on the race that I didn’t spend much time appreciating the area as a whole. For another, my support network was so amazing an integral to my success that I was looking for a way to pay it forward for this year’s crop of kindred spirits, thus cancel any karmic debts incurred last year. I’ve never paced someone in a race nor crewed except in the general aid-station staff sense, so that would be a new and giving experience. Plan A was to pace Brian and help him redeem his DNF last year and I spent half a year looking forward to running with him again. At the last minute, LIFE stepped in and Brian had to bow out of his repeat at Bighorn. Fortunately, I’d already convinced Ben that this level of suffering sounded like a good idea, so I switched to Team Ben instead.
Bags were packed obsessively and all kinds of logistics laid and I spent way more time fretting about things than my “mere” 35 mile pacing segment entailed. Finally, Ben and I with Tim, another Bighorn newbie, drove north on Thursday to start my reunion with this place and event which has so defined who I am over the last year.
The Other Side of Bighorn:
Hanging out in the shade of a tree along Tongue Canyon Road before the start of the race, I was struck by two thoughts. First was the usual cognitive dissonance of ultra-running: Where did all these hundreds of people come from? Who are you weirdos who are willing to pay hundreds (or thousands) of dollars to do terrible things to themselves? Don’t you people know what’s going to happen? There will be puking, blisters, heat stroke, sunburn, and hours of flat-out exhaustion. You will feel like boiled crap numerous times and you’re paying a couple bucks for each mile of this type-II fun.
Second, I had the newly-weird sensation of marinating in the nervous starting line energy while having no plans for the day except some driving, sight-seeing, and a short hike. Everyone was doing last-minute adjustments and gear checks. Me? All my stuff was in the car completely unsorted and jumbled. No worries; I’ll sort it later. Not starting a race is another thing I’ve never done.
It was a jovial time meeting up with old friends I’ve run with in various contexts: Chip, Rob, Shad, Dave, and bunches more. Ten minutes before the start, I left Tim and Ben at the starting line and jogged up the course about half a mile to get pictures and spectate. Was it this hot last year? Was it this pretty? Before long, all the racers came charging past and suddenly things were over. I drove back out to Dayton and paused to get my bearing before facing the side of Bighorn I’d never seen before.
Bighorn is an out-and-back course with three major aid stations which divide the course into six logical sections, each of which is about 16 miles in length. It’s an ultra, so each of these segments takes 4-6 hours. Nothing happens fast, so I took my time and poked around a little. My first task was meet the runners at Dry Fork, the first of the major aid stations (mile 13). The road west from Dayton climbs from the high plains up a series of impressive switchbacks to the plateau of the Bighorn mountains. Along the way are great rock faces and surprising views out to the east. Once on the plateau, it’s patches of forest with sweeping, flower-strewn vistas of… I suppose tundra isn’t really the word, but it has that above-treeline feel you get at lower latitudes and higher elevations. Spectacular in a way we don’t really have in my familiar Colorado Front Range. I’ll bet winters up here must be brutal!
Dry Fork, once I drove out the 10 miles of twisting gravel roads, parked, and hiked half a mile down the road, was hopping with activity. Ben and Tim came through right on schedule commenting that it was both hotter and more spectacular than they’d been expecting. Indeed, from what I’d seen on my drive, the flowers were even better than last year (and they were pretty impressive then too!). The breeze kept the temperature reasonable, but it must be brutal down in the lowlands right now. Both of them seemed to be in good spirits and condition. I bustled about in the aid station fetching drop bags, filling bottles, and getting them both launched. I’ll see you in about 10 hours. Go!
Another thing about the ultra community is that it’s full of good people and whatever problems you have tend to work themselves out. My logistical challenge was that I was going to be running from Jaws (the turnaround) back here to Dry Fork (the 4th and 5th segments of the race) but didn’t have a way to shuttle between. However, I ran into old friends Chris, Kari, and Steve who were headed up to Jaws for the night (Steve was racing the 50 miler in the morning and C&K were going to hang out and spectate). It didn’t take much convincing to get them to give me and a hastily-assembled duffle bag of running and camping gear up Jaws. Problem solved, plus I got to hang out with some old friends for the rest of the afternoon and evening.
My laser focus last year meant that I missed a lot of non-race things in the area. Primary on this list was the famous Bighorn Medicine Wheel which is about 5 miles from the race turn-around point. It is a sacred spot for many of the Native American tribes in the area (Crow, Lakota, Dakota, Arapahoe) and an important archeoastronomy site as well. There are many medicine wheels in the US and Canada, but the Bighorn Wheel is amongst the biggest and most important, analogous to Stonehenge compared with the hundreds of other stone circles in the British Isles. It took no convincing at all to get the others to head up there with me to include some cultural significance along with the athletic endeavors.
It was a remarkably moving experience. You have to walk about 30 minutes along a decent road to get there which gives you plenty of time to slow down a bit and appreciate the high, windy, sunny alpine environment. The Wheel is located on a triangular plateau with dramatic drops on three sides and spectacular views in all directions. A rope fence surrounds the wheel which is about 75’ across and composed of stones arranged in a spokes and wheel configuration. The spokes and cairns of the circle align with the rising and setting of different stars at different times of the year… or did eight centuries ago when the latest incarnation of the Wheel was laid down.
I know less about the spiritual significance of the place, but I can say that it certainly had some even to me. The rope fence was covered with offerings of all sorts; mostly bits of cloth, but also bone, feathers, hair, sea shells (some of them quite large and clearly non-local) and small leather pouches. Inside the circle were other offerings including pelts, skulls, and other items. It was silent except for the wind, and a great place for contemplation. After a bit of thought, I placed a stone on top of one of the wooden posts in the Jewish fashion as a general act of respect and remembrance (I’m not Jewish, but it seemed more appropriate than anything else I could think of).
What a fascinating, beautiful, moving place!
My experience of the westernmost parts of the race (miles 35-55) last year was somewhat limited: I got the impression of sweeping views, gorgeous scenery, and so forth, but my actual experience was a slim tunnel of illuminated sagebrush, mud, trees, mud, and one large, chaotic, surprising aid station. The reality of Jaws was somehow smaller and prettier than I’d expected and had the daylight benefit of actual sweeping views and sunny wildflowers. We found a spot off the road at the edge of the forest about half a mile from the aid station and set up “camp”. I say “camp” because Chris, Kari, and Steve were sleeping in the back of their respective vehicles to arise at dawn. “Bivy” would perhaps be more appropriate in my case since I was throwing a bag down on the ground to get (hopefully) a couple hours of shut-eye before picking up Ben at the aid station around 1 am.
We assembled dinner under impressively ominous clouds, swatted mosquitos, dove into the back of the van for the brief downpour, re-emerged for two desert courses, and watched the spectacular sunset (at 9 pm). Sometime around 9, the first runners came through (the course turned out to be about a hundred yards from our campsite).
Around 10:30 when it was finally dark, I lay down to attempt some sleep, but it just wasn’t going to happen. I was keyed up, worried about how Ben, thinking about all the contingencies and logistics, and listening to runners with headlamps moving past on the course. After an hour of this, I bowed to the inevitable and just got up and dressed for the day. Who needs sleep? The racers have had less than me. I wandered down to the aid station and hung out for a couple of hours helping out as I could and chatting with other pacers and crew.
Okay, game on! My whole purpose at this race is to get Ben to the finish line. Accordingly, I packed all sorts of contingency items in case of digestive, eliminatory, and motivational problems. Ben looked pretty terrible when he finally showed up at Jaws a little after 1 am (I must have looked equally bewildered last year). I’d had two cups of coffee at this point and was wired to the gills and ready to rock. If there’s one thing I learned last year, it’s the importance of momentum. Time to impart some momentum.
I don’t know if it was the company, the change to downhill running (something Ben is good at), the passing of the official halfway point, or the candied ginger I forced him to eat, but Ben perked up quite a bit over the next half hour. We set a decently fast (for an ultra) pace down the trail and were feeling pretty good. The trail was less muddy than last year and the temperatures much warmer (mid-40s rather than mid-20s). The moon was setting and everything was gorgeous. By 4 am, Ben was flagging and I was starting to feel a bit queasy and bonky myself whether from lack of sleep or poor nutrition. More likely, it was the terrible witching hour which makes all-night runs so difficult.
We were about an hour ahead of where I was during my race, so sunrise caught us farther down the canyon and we predictably started to perk up quite a bit. Last year I hadn’t really appreciated the scenery, but this time I was much better situated. It’s gorgeous! We dropped down into the Little-Bighorn Canyon and in the bright morning light, marveling at the sheer quantity of water roaring over the rocks and the greenness of the trees. Dawn of a new day; so far, so good.
The Footbridge Aid Station is the logical divider between portions of the race for a lot of reasons, for one, it’s either the beginning or end of the night portion of the race and marks the 1/3rd or 2/3rds point in distance. This morning, they were serving genuine McDonalds Egg McMuffins (really!) which, it turns out, are about the most perfect endurance food imaginable. I made Ben eat all he could stomach and wolfed down a brace of them myself.
Footbridge is also at the bottom of a significant climb no matter which direction you’re going. It was only 8 am, but all signs pointed to a scorching day to come. Ben doesn’t run with poles, but I gave him mine and made him use them for the painful, hot climb up the Wall. We leapfrogged with a couple other runners and their pacers making a congenial, casual way up the hill. Pole pole as they say in Swahili.
We paused at the cool, refreshing shade of Bear Camp. From here, it’s a long bit of rolling trees and meadows to Cow Camp. It was after 9 am and we’d both been awake for at least 27 hours. After 70 miles, Ben was clearly flagging mentally and physically. Ben asked me to pull; I started a mellow jog about 10 feet ahead of him offloading the mental effort of picking a pace and a line. Ben followed along behind connected by an invisible bungee cord. THIS is what pacing is all about! It was incredible! We bombed along covering five or six miles in not much more than an hour, passing many people along the way, feeling pretty good about life.
Cow Camp last year is where I reached the low-point of my race and I expected the same for Ben. It’s hard not to be dispirited at this point. You’re out of the cool forest and into the hot sun of late morning. There are still 25 miles to go and you can see the Dry Fork Aid station for hours before you finally get there. I was so discouraged last year, I even turned down a beer from the aid-station captain, a decision which was probably smart but that I’ve regretted ever since. (I’ve never before or since turned down a mid-race beer! This is the sort of thing that makes me love this sport!) I was determined to get Ben through Cow Camp and up to Dry Fork as smoothly as possible just as Jason got me in and out balancing the need for physical and psychological nourishment with keeping forward momentum. Ben got sunscreen, corn chips, his ubiquitous PB&J, and a large number of grapes. I got bacon, water, and finally redeemed the beer I’d rain-checked last year (oh my, that’s tasty!). Get in, get out, keep moving.
The poles came back out and we faced the last bit to Dry Fork. The less said, the better. Ben was pretty wiped out at this point, just as I’d been last year, and after 28 miles I was feeling pretty tired as well. Our incredible pace of before faded into something quite a bit less impressive but we both worked hard to keep the forward momentum. I pulled Ben down the downhills and trudged him up the hot, red dust of the uphills. A bandana dipped in each creek crossing proved nicely performance-enhancing as well. Finally we were lined up for the long climb up to Dry Fork and Ben marched gamely forward to the edge of the sixth and final race segment.
I liken my role as a pacer to that of a booster rocket: my job is to deliver my runner as far along the course in as good condition as possible before sending him off to orbit on his own while I… flame out and crash back to earth? Okay, I’ll admit the analogy isn’t perfect, but with only the last 18 miles to go, my usefulness was over. The rest of the course is generally downhill and is going to be hot. I don’t bring much to that party. Time to retrieve the car, buy the beers, and await Ben and everyone else at the finish line.
I remember the temptation to quit at Dry Fork was strong last year, so I had one more manic crew performance before my work was done. I loaded Ben with several cups of ice-cold Coke, fresh water, socks, food, sunscreen. Ditch a bunch of items he wasn’t likely to need (like the PB&J he’d been carrying for 80 miles) and we’re out the door. One last task: get him up the hill around the bend and out of sight of Dry Fork where the only option is to continue to the finish. See you in a few hours at the finish line!
Ben hiked determinedly out of sight, presumably to the finish line regardless of the certain hardships to come. I limped back down to Dry Fork and realized just how tired I was. Twelve hours on my feet and 36 miles. 5000’ of climbing (and more descent!) and no sleep. Despite my best training efforts this year, I was totally whipped! Chris and Kari were back spectating and had brought my bivy gear down from Jaws for me. I helped out a few more runners coming through (Chip, Rob and a bunch of people I’d met on-course this year) then headed to the finish line.
Dayton was hot (95 degrees even in the late afternoon) and the park was crowded with the awards being given out for the shorter distance races. Still filthy from my run but blissfully now in sandals, I staked out a spot with cooler and lawn chairs and prepared to wait. Tim had done really well and finished shortly before I arrived. He reported that the canyon was well over 100 degrees and people were dropping like flies. Ben does well in heat, but still! However, about an hour later, Ben came striding into the park looking tired and loopy but otherwise pretty good. Most of all, he looked incredibly stoked to have finished his first 100. Boom. There it is. Give that man the big buckle!
My own personal Bighorn story if finally finished. I saw the other side of the race and got to explore the country more than 2015. I paid-forward all debts and restored the karmic balance in my own corner of the universe. Most importantly, I played some part in getting Ben his first big buckle (and faster than me by nearly an hour at that!). It sounds trivial, but there were a lot of small, crucial bits of closure which meant a lot to me as well: I finally accepted that beer at Cow Camp. I finally saw the scenery around Jaws in the daylight and paid my respects at the Medicine Wheel. I got say a heartfelt thank you to Desiree, a volunteer at Footbridge who so energized me last year and was back this year for another go. I was given a finish-line beer by a complete stranger last year and this year I payed it forward to some other runner who looked just as awful as I probably did. Chip finished his fourth Bighorn and set a new PR in doing so, despite the heat. The long-suffering Rob, who has started Bighorn four times now, finally crossed the finish line. Perhaps that is why we pay hundreds of dollars to do horrible things to ourselves; we’re doing it together and developing a camaraderie you can’t have except through shared suffering like this.