Road to Redemption
The say you measure a man not by how many times he gets knocked down, but by the number of times he gets back up. I vividly remember sitting at the Footbridge Aid station in 2012. I had slowly peeled my shoes off my feet to look at the maceration, to poke at the blisters, and decide if I wanted to continue. I was looking for someone to tell me it was OK to go home, and my crew had done just that. Normally in races, I make a list of what I'm willing to go through to reach the finish line. For the 2012 race, I didn't make that list. I didn't care. I was tired, worn out and ready to take a break from Ultra Running.. so I did.
After 4 months off in 2012, I rediscovered what Ultra meant to me and the role it played in my life. I got back into the swing of things, lost a ton of weight and strived to keep knocking off the BHAG goals I set for myself. Since 2012, it's been in the back of my mind that I need to return to Bighorn to finish what I started. I needed redemption.. this is that story.
Sick As A Dog
In the days leading up to this years Bighorn 100, my wife had a bout with Food Poisoning. I did everything I could to try and stave it off but it was no use. Thursday morning, the day before the 100, the day I was to drive the 6 hours to Sheridan Wyoming.. I woke up early to puke my brains out. It came out of both ends. My stomach turned and churned all day long and I struggled to keep myself hydrated and fed... and prepared to run 100 miles. Instantly, thoughts of doubt came into my head. I was so sick, I doubted I would make it past the first crew station. I knew I would start, but lasting was hugely in question.
I did everything I could and kept myself in check, I made it through the night, woke up race morning with the runs still and some stomach distress. I ate my normal pre-race breakfast of yogurt with oats, chia and strawberries.. then I went to the preface meeting. Bighorn holds it's pre-race meeting on race morning, then let's the runners simmer in town for a few hours before the race officially starts at 11am. After the meeting, we all slowly head over to Tongue River Road and bake under a very hot sun while we await the start. Runners are looking for shade, I'm just getting used to the heat I know we're going to endure for the next few hours.
We all start to huddle closer together, the mass slowly moves to the starting line.. its time to go. I'm fed, my stomach is churning, I have a headache and I have no idea how this is about to go. But I'm determined to make it to that finish line against whatever odds are thrown a me, and redemption with surely be mine. Go! We're off! I start down the road with some of my fellow Front Rangers.. Hawaiian Shirt Ray, Andrea, Neeraj.. I'm glad to have their company and the conversation quickly turns to finishing so we can have our Hardrock Qualifier. That's all that matters right? I take out the pace chart I had printed out and laminated. I put times down for a sub-24 hour finish.. I must have been high or something because there is no way in hell.. that's where I'll end up. I stuff the chart back in my pack only to have it fall out. I run back on the road, pick it up.. stuff it back in. 5 minutes later.. I've lost it again. No clue where it is.. and my mileages, aid station checks and everything I had planned and put on that card.. is gone.
I'm not wearing a watch, I have normal shoes on, what's the difference if I have a pace card or not? I'm going old school.. when things were simpler. When ultra-runners just showed up and ran the damn race. As we climb out of Tongue River Canyon, I like many others are sucking wind as we climb long and strong out of the valley. The wild flowers are out and everywhere. I team up with Andi Ramer from San Diego and we talk for quite awhile. I really enjoy her company and conversation and we solider on into the first aid station together.
I see something that looks like jello on the aid station table. I ask the volunteers what it is and they tell me "Jello Shots." "Really?" "Yeah" "No... really?" "No." "Well... you have no clue what us runners are like. When I come back through here tomorrow.. I expect jello shots. I'll even chug a beer with you dammit!" I leave and head on up the hill knowing that my crew is waiting for me at the next aid station. As I saunter in, my stomach is still churning, I feel winded and sick.. I'm already tired and I tell Sarah "I forgot how hard this can be." I get what I need and prepare myself for the long journey. My plan was to not bother sending my crew to footbridge, and just have them see me at the turn around. In leaving Dry Fork Aid... I was on my own from miles 13 to 49. God help me now.
I ran alone for quite awhile enjoying what is actually one of my favorite sections of the course. The single track is night now as it winds its way through a thick spruce/pine forest. I'm careful to not trip on any roots or slip on any rocks. It's some tough negotiation, more so than anything we typically run in Colorado yet far easier than most trails in New Hampshire. Maybe I'm just enjoying the run through the scented Christmas Trees. I hit Bear Camp which has a scant amount of aid. There is nothing here that I need other than a hello, so I pass on by without much of a care knowing the river is just down the hill. "Just down the hill" is being easy on it. It's a quad pounder. Nearly straight down for the next few miles.
I finally catch up to Neeraj and ask him how he's doing. I'm shocked to be anywhere near him knowing that his skills and ability far exceed my own. Turns out he hadn't peed for quite a while, so I told him every trick I knew in the book to help him along with that. It finally worked as he squeezed a few drops out. In the meantime, I enjoyed my run down through a hillside littered with yellow and orange flowers. I glanced to the horizon, also known as Montana, and places where the Battle of Little Big Horn took place. Then finally, descended back into the trees until finally hitting the river, crossing Footbridge, and sauntering into the aid station.
I got my drop bag right quick and did a shoe change here before continuing on up the hill. Basically, I traded out my good shoes for a crummy pair of shoes knowing that the mud is what's ahead. My stomach has finally settled down after feeling sick all morning and I'm feeling surprisingly GREAT. The race is finally turning around for me, I'm not feeling sick anymore, my stomach has settled down and I'm ready to settle in for the long haul. I grab some food and start my hike up the hill. I'd spend the majority of the next 6-8 miles alone, as I slog my way up to Moose Swamp. I watch as the sun sets behind the hillsides. I make sure I take some time to enjoy the alpine glow, the silence, the alone time, and the sheer beauty of this moment in time.
Upon arriving at Moose Swamp under increasing darkness, I sit down in a chair and have a sandwich. I ask how many have come through and I'm shocked to learn the number is over 100. This is the kind of information I'm better off not knowing, simply because of what it does to my train of thought. I immediately feel a little demoralized. I could care less about the race.. but it is a race, and my performance is sub par. So I spend a little extra time, licking my wounds, telling jokes, and then deciding to carry on further uphill.
Further up the trail I started to see bright flashes in the distance, and faint rumbles of thunder. I started to count the time between flash and rumble to determine if we were going to be hit. In the distance I could also hear a herd of elk bugling into the night. Incredibly eerie yet surreal. I determined the storm was getting closer and I was assured to get wet. I was to continue uphill, into more open country, maneuvering mud and pond along the way.. I started to think about my options. As I got to the next aid station, I grazed at the food as the rumbles got louder. A young volunteer just stared at me for the few minutes I was there until he stumbled to get a few words out.. "S.. So.. are you like.. crazy?" I looked up at him wide-eyed with a shit eating grin on my face. I ate some reeses' cups, and answered.. "You're the crazy one dude. You're missing out on some of the most incredible shit a human being can do. Train. Come out here next year. LIVE." Then I took off...
Not long out of the aid station, I could hear the rushing sound of the downpour approaching. I stopped to cover up a little bit with my jacket, then continued on up the trail. It poured a frigid rain onto the course. Water was running off of everything from everywhere. The lightning flashed brightly and the thunder cracked loudly. My choices were to sit in the aid station and wait it out, where there was no cover, and a small fire, or keep going. I've been here before.. I kept going. Not much longer up the trail I hit it. "IT" refers to the part of the course where the mud gets sloppier, slipperier, deeper, colder, and leftover drifts of snow from the harsh winter remains. While these drifts look solid and for the most part are, there were times would I would step on the snow to avoid the mud only to sign in up to my knee. The both 1/3rd was below the snow and into frigid muddy waters. This is Bighorn right here, besides the sheer beauty of this course, this is what it's known for.. the muddy turn around.
I made it to Jaws, the 50 mile turn around, where my crew was waiting. The rain had let up and we could see our breath now. I ducked into the aid tent to check in. What a HUGE mistake. I wish checking in OUTSIDE the tent was OK because it was warm in that tent. About 80 people huddled together while runners grazed the table, crews worked on feet and legs, race staff checked us in and out. Medical teams asked questions to check in on mental status. I saw Robbie and Neeraj and knew I didn't want to head down the hill alone, so I waited for them a little bit before walking out of the tent alone. As soon as I stepped outside of the tent, I froze. I started to shiver uncontrollably. The damn tent was so warm that all the time I had spent getting used to the chill in the air was gone. I grabbed my puffy coat from my crew to get warmed up while on the run and I took off alone. On the way out I saw a number of Front Range runners I knew. We all checked in with each other, seeing how the day was going, encouraging each other to continue and I of course warned them about the warmth of the tent.
A few miles out Robbie and Neeraj caught me. I hung onto them and followed them down the mountain. For the most part we all stayed together. There was no doubt that I was moving much slower than Neeraj but for some reason, he didn't seem to mind. It was his first 100, I think he wanted company as much as I even though he had a pacer. At times we all talked, but for the most part, it was a quiet concentration as we maneuvered the mud and muck. At one point, I tried and totally super manned into a mud hole. The entire front of my body was covered with mud. It got into my handheld, only me hands, and there was really no clean way to wash it off.. until the next aid station.
The further down the hill we get the more sleepy I start to get. I can feel Neeraj starting to pick up the pace again as the sun slowly starts to come up on the horizon. Thankfully it's one of the shorter nights of the year. I'm moving pretty well with these guys but find it increasingly more difficult to just keep my eyes open. When we get to the cowboy aid station, I tell Robbie and Neeraj to go on without me as I'm going to take a nap. I just laid down right in the weeds at this aid stop, and feel asleep for 5 minutes. I wouldn't call it "sleep though" it's more of a vegetative state. As I laid there I could here runners come into the station. Some would point at me and say, "What's wrong with that guy" to which a volunteer would say, "I don't know.. just tired I guess." While my body rested as if I was in REM sleep, my brain stayed on, I could hear everything. It really is like a bad dream. After 5 minutes, I pop up and take off running again, heading down to footbridge.
When I get to the Footbridge I see Robbie and Neeraj tending to his feet. I look around and it seems like most everyone is sitting in a chair getting a foot wash and changing socks and shoes for the long road yet to come. This is the spot where I had quit last time. I came in knowing that there was no way in hell I'd get stuck here again. I sat in a chair and immediately start taking my socks and shoes off. I take the footpath in excruciatingly cold water. When I'm done, I put my good socks and shoes back on. I say bye to Robbie and Neeraj, and chill a bit longer munching on an Egg McMuffin... breakfast.
As I leave Footbridge, I'm all smiles knowing that at least I'd gone further than I had last time I took on this race. But I had to make a #2 stop in the woods. I peeled off the trail and into the woods for a break. Did what I had to do and started going again. This is what they say is "The Wall." I don't know how long it is, or how steep.. but I can tell you it's too damn long and too damn steep for having just run 18 miles downhill. I am literally crawling up this hill making my way up to Bear Camp. The sun is out now and it's starting to get warmer. It's humid, and the flowers are out again. One after another, it seems, runners and pacers are passing me by as I slowly slink up the trail. This is one of those places in ultra where ALL of your energy goes into one foot in front of the other. I start doing math in my head, begin worrying about finishing, worrying about my time.. and talking myself out of the cycle.
When I get to Bear Camp, they don't have much for aid, but I do make a point to stop and talk for a bit. I'm still incredibly tired, struggling again to keep my eyes open. About 20 minutes outside the aid station, I stop again. I walk 10 feet off the trail and take another 5 minute nap in the weeds. After 5 minutes.. I get up.. and continue going. Not much longer down the trail, I feel my eyes so heavy I can't keep them open. I'm swaying back and forth from side to side as I continue to fall asleep. I stop again, and crash into the deep ferns. While laying there... every time a runner came by me, they'd wake me up to ask if I was OK. I was irate. I'd be MORE OK if they'd let me sleep.. but I get it. It was the last runner who passed me by, a 50 miler and her pacer, who asked if I was OK. I told them I was just taking a nap. They asked for my bib number so they could report me to the next aid station to let them know I was out here.. I jumped up from my 15 minutes of non-sleep to snap back, "This is damn near my 20th hundred, I'm fine. I just need a god damn nap! Can you let me sleep!" and I laid back down..
After 15 minutes I got back up and started running again. I'd eventually catch that woman and her pacer at Cow Camp. We all sat down for another round of breakfast. I had hash browns and bacon that were on a scale of delicious most humans don't know about yet. I apologized to them for my grumpiness and assured them I was fine. I watched as the cutest little girl was running around filling water bottles, serving food, and just being... you know.. Cute. I'm starting to wonder if I was going to finish and I think about my son... I don't want to disappoint him. So I get up, and head out at a fast hike. I'm still slowing down. I can feel it. I'm out of energy. I'm still tired. Struggling to keep my eyes open. Not far out of Cow Camp, Sheila Huss catches up to me. Her dad is pacing her.. her first question was if I'm OK as she couldn't believe she caught me. I told them about my sleepies, lack of energy.. worrying.. and her dad opens up a zip lock baggy. He hands me a HUGE pill called Red Line (by GNC). It's a caffiene pill. I take it.. asked how long it would last for and the response was, "You won't sleep tonight." "Give it 5 minutes to kick in"
About 10 minutes later I was more alert and ready to run than I had been in the entire race. Whatever that pill was that I just took, saved my race. It's ON. I start heading up the hill into dry fork. Sheila stopped to soak her legs in a frigid stream. I saunter into the aid station looking for Sarah. I'm offered pizza and beer, cheeseburgers.. I eat some lunch, take some fruit, refills, and some ginger ale. I'm wide awake now.. ready to go, and focusing on getting to the finish line with Sarah. I've been running Ultras for 9 years, and in all that time Sarah has paced me once. The 2010 Western States 100 where she ran the last 3 miles with me to the end. Today, she was to take on the final 18 miles of the Bighorn 100. It'll be the further this Type 1 Diabetic has ever run. I helped train her and watched her work the last 4 months to get to this point in helping.. whatever was about to happen.. I was proud of her.
As we leave the aid station, Sheila and he Husband catch Sarah and I. Sheila's done had finished his shift and it was her hubby's turn. How appropriate that it was them two and us two. We hiked uphill a little bit. I stopped to look back and point out to Sarah where I'd been.. it's still pretty impossible to accurately fathom the distance when you aren't out there yourself running each and every step. She tried though. Soon the trail levels out and we just enjoy running through the woods. Our friend Val who was in the 50 Mile caught us just a bit down the trail. She stopped and pulled bacon out of her bra and offered us some. You're damn right we took some before saying bye to Val and promising to see her at the end.. It started to thunder again, and the sun disappeared behind a pitch black sky.
We could see the next big hill which would end up being the last big climb of the race. I knew it was steep and that in wet situations, incredibly slick. I was coaching Sarah into just taking her time, showing here how to duck walk a hill, seeing as every 3 steps forward featured a sliding step back. We were able to get some purchase in the tall grass lining the sides of the single track but after 80+ miles of running, this is some of the last crap you want to deal with. We found ways to laugh about it. We chuckled with other runners. We worked our way every so slowly up the hill. Once we got off the single track, we ended up on a dirt road that led to the top of the hill. Once we crested the top, I took Sarah by the hand, and we walked over into the wild flowers. We sat down.. and just quietly looked out over the course. We could see the line of runners descending back into the canyon below. It was one of the more surreal moments of my ultra career.. mostly because of what Sarah said next.
S: "I get it now."
S: "Why you do this. What you're doing out here. I always thought I had an idea but I really didn't. But today.. today I do. Today.. I get it."
We stood back up and I gave Sarah the lead. She charged down the mountain like a woman on a mission while I struggled to keep up behind her. Sarah felt good and I felt.. well.. terrible. Every downhill step was agony on my quads. I was so done running.. but we still had miles to go. I ended up literally chasing Sarah down the mountain. Our favorite aid station of the while race was the last one on the hill, run by BNSF Engineers who had hiked water and fruit into their spot. We stopped here and I ended up geeking out over trains with one of the retired engineers. So much fun. Then we continued on to the aid station at camp. When we got there, volunteers slathered sun screen on us. We grazed more food and learned about the popsicles just 3 miles down the road.
Ice Cream! Lieutenant Dan!...
We were on a new mission, the mission to get an ice pop. Except it wasn't at 3 miles, 3.25, 4, 4.5... nope.. 5 miles later we finally hit the ice pops after 2 extra miles of discouragement. By now I can smell the finish. I'm trying to pick up the pace while Sarah is finally losing steam. I want to run it in, and Sarah didn't have it in her. So I just kept hiking fast allowing her to walk when she wanted and run when she could. It worked out fine. One of the lead guys of TrailandUltraRunning.com caught up to us. This particular dude said hi to me and not much else. I used to write for them.. and decided not to anymore.. and they never asked why. Sarah had no idea who he was, but it wasn't long after he passed us by that she asked who that "guy was, and what's up his ass?" I got a good chuckle which is always appreciated late in a race. Those who know Sarah know that she is one of the kindest, most compassionate people on earth. There's an issue if she thinks you're an ass. Hehe..
The next morning at the awards breakfast, Sarah was visibly out of it. After we got in the car and began our drive home, I found out why. Not many people knew that we were expecting another child with Sarah being 9 weeks pregnant. Turns out that on her drive up to Wyoming on Friday, she began to miscarry in the car. As if it wasn't tough enough for Sarah to run 18 miles, the longest distance of her life, she did it all the while still miscarrying.. which she continued to due during breakfast on Sunday. Ultimately, this made it difficult to celebrate redemption at Bighorn yet, we found the time to really celebrate the time we spent together on the trail, what we endured together out there, and ultimately that helped us cope with this heartbreaking loss. Life has a funny way of working sometimes... just when you think you've climbed ever mountain.. another appears from the valley you're in. During a 100-Mile Race, it is often that a pacer will say they had no business complaining knowing what the 100 Mile Runner is going through. Sarah had plenty of reason to complain.. yet she didn't. What I endured in Wyoming during this race pales in comparison to all that she endured that weekend.. and beyond. I think as ultra-runner we sometimes forget how hard this stuff is... so to.. in life.
In 2012 I made a short documentary about running Ultras at the Bighorn 100 called "90 Percent", you can see that video here: http://youtu.be/h7aNdSHwx3g
In 2014, I made the sequel.. Redemption: http://youtu.be/SEJQ6a96VPk