June 29, 2014

50 miles of muddy running in the Bighorns

Remnants of a lightning storm that struck on The Haul at the Bighorn Mountain Trail Run

Mud and snow. Sun. Sweat. Thunder, lighting and rain. More mud. Oh, and a lot of junk food.

That about sums up my first 50-mile ultramarathon, the Bighorn Mountain Wild and Scenic Trail Run last weekend in Wyoming. Sure, it was difficult - but it was fun and I'd do it again.

After a couple of months of preparation - and a stop at Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area with Jen - I woke early and drove with friends to the Jaws Trailhead near 8,800 feet in the Bighorn Mountains west of Dayton before sunrise. It was in the high 30s - not as cold as anticipated - so I didn't bother with gloves or a warm hat.

Sunrise at the start of the Bighorn Mountain Trail Run

At first light, and after a brief moose sighting at the trailhead, we were off, starting out on singletrack through forest and meadows, with plenty of mud and short stretches of snow. After about five miles, the terrain was mostly open, descending through grassy slopes and the occasional stand of trees, and crossing several streams. I had to take care not to start too fast as I have done in other races - there was a long day ahead. The canyon closed in around the Little Bighorn River and we returned to the forest before reaching the Footbridge checkpoint at about 18 miles.

After eating, changing my socks and grabbing my trekking poles from a drop bag at Footbrige, I made my way up The Wall, rising from about 4,800 feet to 6,300 feet in three miles. The going was slow, and clearings along the way provided opportunities for brief stops to take in the view of the Little Bighorn drainage below and the surrounding cliffs. Above the Dry Fork of the Little Bighorn, the singletrack continued up and down through forest and meadows for about seven miles. As the day warmed, the trail turned to a double track and opened up, climbing again to the Dry Fork checkpoint at about 34 miles and 7,600 feet.

A meal, sock change and pole drop later, I continued from Dry Fork back up to about 7,900 feet then down the Sheep Creek drainage. Here, the trail returned to singletrack and the last real ascent, a few hundred feet up The Haul at 7,600 feet. On The Haul, clouds moved in, rain fell, and thunder and lighting struck overhead - disconcerting when you're on an open pass, but also cooling in the hot afternoon. Unfortunately, the rain turned the trail to mud again, which stuck to my shoes and made it feel as if I were wearing bricks.

About five steep miles down through open meadows, the singletrack trail reaches forest again and continues along the Tongue River for a couple of miles to a trailhead at the end of Tongue Canyon Road. There, family, friends and others are allowed to follow runners, and Jen arrived on her bike with perfect timing while I was at the final aid station. She rode around me for a bit, falling back and going ahead to take some pictures.

Five more miles brought me back to Dayton and the finish in a park along the river at about 3,900 feet. After passing an encampment of people under a Run Wild Missoula tent on the final stretch, I crossed the line at about 52 miles in 11 hours 33 minutes and 42 seconds, 39th out of 117 runners. Ten feet beyond, I cooled off for a few minutes by sitting in the river.

In the days that followed, I had a few realizations - random and revealed by the information from my GPS:

At the aid stations, I ate a lot more food than during training, some healthy and some I haven't had in at least a decade. In addition to the water and gels I carried and consumed on the trail, here's what I remember eating and drinking:

  • Orange slices (usual favorite)
  • Watermelon slices (perhaps new favorite)
  • Pineapple slices
  • A plum
  • Red grapes
  • Almond-pistachio-dried cherry mix 
  • Green olives with pimentos (surprisingly good)
  • A peanut butter cookie (probably had sometime in the past decade, but don't remember when)
  • Cheez-Its (probably had sometime in the past decade, but don't remember when)
  • Cheetos (don't know the last time had)
  • Fritos (don't know the last time had)
  • Ruffles (probably had sometime in the past decade, but don't remember when)
  • Hummus, vegetarian "pepperoni," sriracha and tortilla wraps (homemade training food packed in drop bags)
  • An American cheese, yellow mustard and tortilla wrap (I like mustard)
  • An American cheese and tortilla wrap (different aid station; out of mustard)
  • A slice of mushroom and spinach pizza (wary of melted cheese, but so good)
  • Heed
  • Sprite (don't know the last time had)
  • 7-Up (don't know the last time had)
  • Ginger ale (probably had sometime in the past decade, but don't remember when)
  • A green apple freeze pop (while running with a couple of miles to go; don't know the last time had, but perfect)

While I feel like I hiked more of the uphill stretches than I did during training, I had less non-moving time than on those same runs. On my longest training runs - 26 and 31 miles - I had about and hour of non-moving time, compared with about 45 minutes during the 52-mile race.

My fastest mile was the last mile, at about 8:45. I had been told the last stretch of road was a grueling march for many, but vowed I would only walk a couple of small hills on it.

And, most of all, Missoula's enthusiastic and supportive running community was reinforced with the large, loud crowd under the Run Wild tent at the end.

On the way home, Jen and I took a couple of days to drive through Yellowstone National Park, so you'll likely see some pictures here. And back in Missoula, I removed the dried clumps of mud from my shoes, socks and compression sleeves using the garden hose with the nozzle on the "jet" setting.

I'm already on the run again and need to start thinking about The Rut 50K in September.