June 15-17, 2012
After an unforgettable rendition of the Star Spangled Banner, the runners huddled around the starting line on this random dirt road, quite literally in the middle of nowhere in Western America. Outside the downtown area of quaint Dayton, WY; we all stood under a hot morning sun on one of Wyoming's rural dirt roads. This one, leads into the Tongue River Wilderness. Today, I assume it's called tongue river due to the heat and the waging tongues of us runners. I stood anxiously awaiting the start. I've trained harder for this race then I have countless others in the last few years. The Collegiate Peaks 50, 53 Miles of the Grand Canyon, a few winter Fat Asses. They all lead to here and yet, I feel underprepared. Always like I haven't done enough.
The countdown begins abruptly out loud. They count off from 7, 6, 5, 4... 1.. GO! We're off and running. I don't know what I was thinking but I find myself up front, struggling to keep pace with a few dozen runners whose pace is faster then my own. I look around and try and take stock of who I'm near. I'm gasping for air and starting to panic, worried that in my excitement for the race I'm on the verge of blowing up. Just then, Mark Larson, who had travelled to Wyoming with me; running his first 100; and much faster then I.. came up behind me. That scared me a bit. Mark came up behind me. I knew then that I had gone out too fast and I ease way off. I spend the next 5 miles trying to get my heart rate to come down.
I climb the hill at a steady clip. Trying to stay consistent and steady. I had my time goals in my head and was determined to make all of them so long as I was alive in the race. It was going to be necessary if I was to finish. I pass runners, and runners pass me. Mostly, runners are passing me. At some points I watch as fellow Boulder Runner Misti Hurricane forges ahead, running every step of the long hills, pulling away until I lose sight of her all together. She's a machine, and I'm jealous. I push on, concentrating on my own race. I stay inside my head, all ready fighting waves of good and bad juju.
The Thank You
Near the top of this first major climb, I am approached by a runner from behind me. As he approaches he says my name, "Sherpa John... I owe you a thank you." I have no clue who he is and it's not until after I return home that I find out. It's Jason Robillard of Barefoot Running University. "Years ago you posted on a website called Coolrunning.com about your ambition to run 100 mile races. You made it so that everyone could follow your progress and run along with you. It was because of your announcement, and drive, and journey that I decided that I too could run 100 mile events. Since then, I've made my life about running these events. So thank you."
I've been told and called a lot of things over the last decade. This single moment is what has made it all worth while for me. I was humbled and grateful for Jason's honesty. I've bottled it up and placed it in a special place in my heart to carry with me for a long while.. so I thank him in return. I started blogging years ago to share my adventures with folks in the hopes that they too would step out on the ledge and aspire for personal greatness of their own. I'm happy to hear it's worked even if for only one person.
I stick with Jason and a guy named Rush for a bit. We run together and talk about all of the tough races back east. How we all love the ultras in Virginia.. which in our mind is still the best at it all. In our conversation, we get lost. At one moment I notice a few runners off to our right, on a trail, traveling in the same direction. At that moment it sinks in that we're off course. I notice the people to our right. We've passed quite a few folks with our impromptu short cut. We pay for it by walking through a frigid creek. We're now all soaked, and enter this next aid station officially as "cheaters." I tell the volunteers that somewhere back there, it's easy to get lost/mis-directed. In my mind, I agree that if I make it back here later in the race, I'd double back to the aid station from my last known point to make up the miles.. and I forge ahead.
The next few miles is full of rollers. Jason has gone ahead and now it's just Rush and I. Rush has the most interesting tattoo in the world. A full zipper up and down the back of his spine. We talk about rock climbing in the Front Range and other parts of the country. Something we're both passionate about besides running. Rush is good company. A great sense of humor and easy to talk to. It's what every runner hopes for in races. During some strides he's faster then I, during others I've got the edge. We're always within ear shot and eye site though.. and run into the first handler station together.
I head down trying to catch up with Rush again. Along the way I come up behind a runner by the name of M. Watts. As I approached him I told him that he is by far the most consistent Ultra-runner I've ever met. I've seen him at countless ultras over the years. He's a seasoned vet and someone I respect greatly. He really is the most consistent runner I've ever watched at these things. He was there at the finish line of my first 100 in 2007, McNaughton Park 100 in Illinois. I used think that he had no clue who I was, and ignored me at races because of it. But lately, I've begun to catch on that I think he simply doesn't like me. I've no clue why, as I've never done anything to the guy. He now lives one town over from me here in the Front Range. I'd love nothing more then to run with him, but instead I get the cold shoulder. This panders on in my head for miles as he and I play leap frog on the course. I'm constantly trying to figure out what I did.. when in the end.. I determine I've done nothing. Maybe he doesn't know me. Maybe he's just a quiet guy. Maybe it just doesn't matter. But it's easy for negative thoughts to get stuck in my head and run around like a hamster on a wheel. I do hope someday to converse with the man.. for better or worse. I admire him.
Rush and I run together taking in the views of massive blow downs of pine beetle forest. A Major epidemic in the west. We watch a the storm clouds continue to build and roll in. It's only a matter of time before it starts raining. In the mean time, I feel like the course has been nothing but uphill from the word go. The downhills are short lived. They come and go as quick as butterflies do. I reach the bacon station and all I smell is grease, fat and pork frying on camp stoves. They have piles of bacon out on the aid table. I want none of it, for fear of what it'll do to my G.I. upon consumption. I opt for more fruit instead, and some beef jerky. I refill my bottles while Rush catches up. We head out together again.
I leave the Bacon station and head down a short hill and by a horse trough. After a quick downhill, the course continues with more of the same relentless uphill I'm starting to get irritated with. I take my camera out to share some of my inner thoughts for the movie I'm trying to make and realize that everything I share is rather bitchy and borderline dark. These uphills are slowly killing me. Then, finally, it seems as though things level off and I finally start to travel downhill a bit. Many of the runners who have passed me on the uphills are now hearing my clomping feet approach them from behind. So is the way of the world. Either you're good at one or the other.
And then.. it starts to drizzle and lightly rain. I had nothing on me but wasn't worried about getting wet, knowing I had a change of clothes down at the next handler stop. I just needed to get there. There's a chill in the air as the wind picks up a bit. These green mountain pastures seem to get greener as the sky darkens and the rain begins to fall. Before I know it, it's all out pouring out here. As we enter the Bear Camp aid station, it's raining buckets. I huddle in the tent with some other runners, grab more beef jerky, and then get out of there before I chill. I work my way through a short section of bushwhacking through some trees which avoids the horse tie-ups off to the right. I'm now officially soaked but smiling. From here, it's a straight shot downhill
We continue down steeply on a trail that seems like it's a straight down shot to Footbridge. I'm all ready dreading the prospect of traveling back up this hill as it's relentless, brutal even. I continue to pass runners every so often until I catch up to a young man running his first 100 miler. He tells me he chose Big Horn because of the beauty of the country side. It was either this or a 100 miler in South Dakota. I think he chose wisely. We talked about training for ultras while being a dad, as my life is soon to change (for the better) based on this same prospect. I met quite a few other folks today who were running their first 100 and they all said they signed up because they thought this was one of the easier ones to run. What the hell are people thinking?! In the mean time, I'm feeling great again and I've got my mojo back. The downhill, though steep, is greatly welcomed. The sun even decides to come out and with the combination of cool breezes, my running attire quickly dries. I forge ahead, alone now, when I come upon a steep cliff. I can hear the raging waters of a river below, then I see it.. and I figure I'll get to a bridge that crosses the torrent soon. It wasn't long when I found it, entered the Footbridge aid station and see my crew waiting.
After joking with the medical folks to prove that I was in great shape "F this! Lets go rafting!", I sauntered over to where my crew had set up. They'd been waiting for me and a grilled cheese was just getting finished on the pan placed over a Jetboil stove. I was humbled that my make-shift crew had listened to me when I said that my favorite ultra food is a grilled cheese sandwich. I grabbed a cup of chicken noodle soup from the aid table and a cup of coke, sat down on a rock, and sucked it all down. Jeremy went over and got me another cup of Ginger Ale, some chips, and I sucked all of that down too. It was, after all, dinner time. I sat and changed my socks, still wet from that water I went through when I was off course earlier. After changing socks and having a newly refiled pack, complete with cold weather gear and lightning solutions.. Lara rose to the challenge of pacing me up this next section. The next 18 miles is 98% uphill, all of it, with 5,000' of gain. A relentless climb that required energy and the drive to continue in this race. My goal was to make it to the top between midnight and 1am. So far, I've still met all of my time goals, I knew Lara could get me there and I trusted her to do so. Up, up and away we went.
We start by walking along the same stream I had run down along on the other side. Stream is a loose term. It's a raging river. Falling in would surely result in drowning. The higher we get the more the sounds of the river are muffled, until eventually, the sound of rushing water disappears all together. Now, it's just the sound of a light breeze rushing through pine and aspen. The sun continues to set, Lara and I are telling each other stories related to our convoluted lives. Anytime that the grade of our ascent eased a bit, Lara would turn it on and force me to run uphill a bit. By the time we reached the top, I'd run more uphill on this section of a race than any other race I'd run in. Soon, we started to crest above the trees, to the high meadows, where the glaciers had scraped across the land, and cooler temps prevents trees from growing. We turned around and watched one of the most spectacular sunsets we've ever seen.
We wind our way through the woods more. Reaching another aid outpost. We're pretty high now. It's down right frigid outside and the front runners have all ready passed while on their return trip. Lara asks me if I want to stand next to the fire for a bit. I know if I make my way over there, I'll never leave it, so I opt not to. It's in the 20's now for temperature, we just need to keep moving. Not far uphill we run into Mark. Mark is on his way back and is soaking wet rom the waist down, feet covered in mud and he shivers when he talks. He's freezing cold, despite being somewhat bundled up. He warns us of the mud and snow ahead, and how it affected him. It seems as though we could have stood there in the cold and talked for hours, but I push ahead. Soon it starts. 2 - 3 foot snow drifts. Sometimes you stay on top of them, other times you posthole in up to your knees. It's cold. The snow is melting and the run-off water is saturating all of the ground around the drifts. The mud is deep and slick. This is turning into a nightmare.
King of the Mountain
We manage our way through the mud and slop of the first section. Then I come to a dirt road where Jeremy is waiting for us. On the race website, they say that this is an aid stop.. From what I could tell.. I couldn't. Who know where the hell crew was supposed to go up there. I dropped some weight with jeremy, and ran down to the 48 mile turn-around without my pack. Just a flashlight and Lara. This last section on the top, a slight downhill to the turn-around, was the worst. Standing water, mud and slop everywhere. I do everything I can to keep my feet dry and for the most part, I managed quite well. Soon we find the barn where the aid station is. I walk inside and find that the heat is on. CRAP! The last thing I want right now is to be in a heated barn. I grab some quick food and get my butt right back out of there. From what I could see of my fellow runners, none of them were in the mood for joking, none of them in the mood to talk at all really. I was still feeling good, and it was 12:40am. Right on time..
Lara and I make our way back of the short incline. She reassures me of how great I'm doing. I feel good, I look good.. but this isn't my first rodeo. As we get back to Jeremy, they're talking about how things are going. I'm quick to remind my crew that, "anything can happen. This entire race and turn on a dime, and my day could be over... let's keep our heads on." Jeremy and I head out of the place where they had staged, and begin our way back downhill. The next 15 miles, back to Footbridge, would be all downhill. I've been looking forward to it all day, until now. As the temperature continues to drop, the water in these mountains continues to rise and seep from the pours of a frigid slope. The cold air causes the mountains to constrict, pushing all of the water up with it. I had sucked down a 5-Hour energy (extra Strength) and I feel like I can't stop talking. I'm wired.. and I'm ready to go. My main goal is to NOT sleep at all during this night, and I'm determined to make it happen.
I shot myself in the foot, literally. In trying to avoid the mud and standing water up high, I only make it worse. My feet are saturated and my shoes are starting to fill with grit and mud. From here, I start to slow down. We push onward, as I enter the first aid station up high. After a brief stop, I push through and head back out into the darkness. I'm moving as best I can, running what little stretches of dirt I can. I wish I was able to run more, but I feel shot. We make it back to Fire Swamp, where I have to take a brief bio-break. While doing the deed, I hear Jeremy talking to someone around the fire. When I'm done, I walk over and realize it's Mark. He's been sitting there for nearly 2 hours, saying he's dropped from the race and is waiting for a ride out of the middle of nowhere.
Jeremy and I convince Mark to come downhill with us. He agrees, and we tell the aid volunteers that he's going to walk with us down to his ride. I head out ahead of Jeremy and Mark.. who are moving incredibly slow. I forge ahead, alone.. hoping that these two will make it down. This, is the first time in my ultra life, that I've given my pacer up to another runner. This goes through my head again and again and again. What if I need my pacer? Do I need my pacer? I hope Mark's Ok. About 20 minutes later I stop to pee. This is the 3rd time I've peed in an hour and I'm starting to worry about it. Then, Mark and Jeremy catch up. Mark is a ball of fire, resurrected and back to life. He's tailing loud, laughing, joking. Not bad for a guy who had dropped from the race. He's talking about running to the next aid station and continuing to the finish.
I'm in a low spot.. one of my lowest all time. It's been 2 hours since the 5 hours energy went down and I'm crashing. Mark is bouncing off the walls. I'm angry at the thought of him having Dropped from the race, now thinking that he can just go on to finish the event, no questions asked. Just then.. he yells in my ear "Woooooooo! I'm out of here boys! Thanks! What's the plan anyway? Can I head down and grab Lara to pace me?!" Now I'm ticked. Lara is supposed to pick me up when I get down there, and Pace me. Not only had Mark enjoyed Jeremy for a time, but now he wants to take Lara off my hands. I'm infuriated.. how could this young kid come here so unprepared? What makes him think he can just take my pacer and crew from me? What kind of selfish..... I stop. I'm obsessing and I'm losing the battle.
Jeremy and I continue on and the sun begins to rise. At 5:00am, I'm still walking downhill. It took me 6 Hours to get UP to the top of this thing, I was hoping it would take me 5 to come down. I'm walking now. Almost stumbling downhill. I have no gas. My head is a mess. My feet are killing me. The sun comes up fully and I realize that I've finally made it through a night without taking a single nap. But at what cost? I need to change my socks. I sit down and jeremy gives me an extra pair. Just then, I feel my bowels ready to release. I have every little control. I get up and scramble into the woods. I hunch over and while the #2 comes out, I urinate all over myself. I look down and see that it's pooled up on my compression shorts. My shorts are black.. my urine is a cloudy white. I've continued to urinate every 20 minutes for what seems like forever. I'm getting more nervous about it. I'm angry, irritated and in a bad place. Hell.. I'm even mad at Jeremy and I don't know why.
Sleep Monster Defeated, Inner Monster Not
I finish changing my socks and we continue to hike down. The rush of the raging river has come back. I'm excited to hear it but it reminds me just how far out from the Footbridge I still am. In my head, I start thinking of that steep hill one has to climb out of Footbridge on the other side. I'm doubting my ability to even do that. My feet are trashed, blister and battered, complete with a skin fold crater. It hurts to step down on my foot. Shades of my first 100 ever, where I quit at 70 miles and took a 4 hour nap to let my feet dry.. all because of the same issues. I don't have that kind of time out here. I keep drinking, but have lost my appetite. Whatever fluids I get in, I'm still urinating out every 20 minutes.. like clockwork. Something isn't right. Finally.. after a long downhill battle, longer then the up, I walk into Footbridge aid station a broken man at 7:20am..
In my head I'm terribly late. I have less than 14 hours to complete the race. I take my socks and shoes off and my crew sets them out to dry around the fire. I walk over to the medical staff to get checked on. My weight is exactly as it was at the beginning of the event. I've not lost or gained. There is no explanation for my constant urination, and I'm deemed as "Fine." I'm not fine. I'm a mess. I sit in a chair around the fire, the temperature down here warming nicely. I start doing the math in my head. It just took me nearly 7 hours to go 18 miles. I still have 32 to go, and less than 14 hours to make it. As I did the splits, the math, knowing what lies ahead, I've figured that it's impossible in my condition.
Lara looks at my feet and says, "I think we're done here." Really? It's that easy huh? I look to Jeremy. he says, "I have some duct tape if you want. We can pop that blister. Dry your feet and shoes. Change your socks and go." Maybe Lara is right... This thing is done. I rely on my feet for work. I can't screw myself up too bad.. and what for? I have bigger things to worry about. I have a child on the way. My first.. and a son. My wife is at home waiting for me, worrying. I'm a mess. Can't figure out why I'm urinating so much.. and what do I have to prove. I sat at that fire for 30-40 minutes, doing the math over and over and over. "I can do this!".. "What's the use.. you'll never make it."..."We can get this done man.. let's go!"... "You need a miracle."
And then, I stand up from the chair and walk over to the aid station table... and hand my bib to the volunteers there. "Sherpa John, Dropped."
From here our day wasn't over. After packing everything up, myself and my crew agreed that we should get over to that next handler station so we can meet Mark. From there, Jeremy can pace him into his first 100 miler finish. Now that I'm out, he can have my pacer and crew all he wants. We all wanted to get this kid across the finish line and wouldn't 'ya know.. we did.
I always look back and reflect on everything after a race. When it comes to DNF, I stop and think about all other DNF's. McNaughton 150s (2x)... 100 miles was plenty. Barkley.. you're not supposed to finish. Slickrock... I got tired of being lost. Leadville '10... It was my third 100 in 3 months and I was worked. McNaughton in Vermont '10... raining to beat the band. Big Horn '12... no real excuse other then no will to go on. I'm disappointed.. and I've truly re-evaluated how I think about ultra-running. I'll return to Big Horn someday.. with a beer in hand named redemption. I'll have to earn it.. and I will.
All in all... Big Horn is one of the top 3 ultra-marathons I've ever attended in this great country. From the Race Directors, to the Volunteers, to the course, to the scenery... everything. It gets an A+ in my book. I'm only sad that I didn't finish, but will have no problems returning for another try.