Monday, June 22, 2009

Bighorn 100

I trained hard for this race, harder and more intensely than I have for any other sporting event in my life. Although I came up short on a couple of the goals I set for myself, the weekend will most definitely go down as a resounding success.

The goals I had set were many-fold: get to the start line, finish, avoid getting chick'd (sad but true), win, set course record, beat Karl. I guess three out of six ain't bad. This journey was made all the more special as I was able to share it with my parents, wife and son, in addition to a wonderful group of trail-running friends from Fort Collins and beyond: a true family affair, under the organization of a very close-knit community in Sheridan, Wyoming.

Getting ready for the road trip out

Fort Collins Trail Runners doing the 100: Marie-Helene, Pete and me

We arrived in Sheridan the day before the race under very dark clouds. As we pulled into town, my sense of calm and confidence from the weeks leading up to the race had turned to intense nerves and doubt. Coming into town, the mountains were completely obscured by dense clouds, and the reports at registration of non-stop rain for two weeks prior to race day actually had me in something of a panic. At the medical check-in the nurse took my blood pressure twice before asking me if I was nervous, which I was, as my blood pressure was so high. I needed to get running and stop over-thinking this thing.

We woke up to clear skies and a hot sun on race morning. The mountains looked lush.

There was a definite sense of nervousness among the assembled runners as we shuffled around waiting for the start. I lined up with Bryan Goding, Harry Harcrow and Hank Dart at the start as we made small talk waiting for the off. Finally the months of waiting were reduced to a ten-second count down. And they're off. Boy did it feel good to be running.

Soon after the gun (Photo:Eric Lee)

The course started out with a mile of dirt road to allow runners to gain a comfortable pace and position before hitting the singletrack. Karl and, I think, Phil Shaw took up the early pace with me, Bryan and Harry close behind. We hit the rocky singletrack and I let Harry set the pace as we watched Karl pull away a bit. Phil looked to be taking a very conservative approach, walking some very moderate hills, so we soon passed him, and after watching Karl pull away more than I was comfortable with, I pushed past Harry to sit with the lead for a while to get a feel for the pace and the kind of inclines that Karl was and was not prepared to run.

After the opening two to three miles of moderately ascending singletrack, alongside the charging Tongue River, the course opened up into the expansive and amazingly lush Tongue River Canyon which would lead us 3,500 feet higher over the course of the next six miles. The trail was good, and I was encouraged to find it exceptionally well flagged as I am a past master at getting off course. About half way up the climb, I decided to put my pre-race plan to work and eased into the lead, running a little deeper into the climbs than Karl was prepared to. The plan was fairly simple: build an early lead and try to hold it.

I never really built much of a lead and Karl was soon back on me as we made our way up to the crest of the climb before a steep drop down into the Upper Sheep Creek aid station. I filled my water bottle and Karl didn't - that was pretty much the last I saw of him until the turnaround 40 miles later. Harry and Bryan, running three and four were out of sight behind, and so began my 20 hours of virtual solitude, just me, the moose and the water.

From Upper Sheep (8.5 miles) to the first crew access point at Dry Fork (13.5 miles), it is five miles or so of very runnable dirt road and singletrack. I missed the turn onto the singletrack, but quickly realized my mistake and bushwhacked a bit to get to the orange flag I had spotted on the trail. I wasn't feeling particularly comfortable through this section, and was very worried at how tired I felt. I was ten miles into what on any other day would have been a very easy-paced run. Not a good sensation when you have another 90 miles of rugged mountain trail ahead. I was buoyed, however, by the fact that I would soon be seeing my family, even if only fleetingly. I came into Dry Fork on a gravel road, and my mom had a gel cut into a bit of water waiting for me.

Coming into Dry Fork aid

I scoffed a couple of salted potatoes, gave everyone a quick hug and followed the jeep track down and back up to Cow Camp (19.5). This was a nice easy section of the course, which allowed me to find my rhythm and regain some confidence.

Heading out of Dry Fork

At Cow Camp I quickly shot another diluted gel before getting back onto the singletrack, which through the next section would become increasingly difficult to make out as it was partially obscured by heavy sagebrush. The wildflowers through here were pretty spectacular. Up to this point the trail had been remarkably dry, allowing for comfortable running. I didn't spend much time taking in the scenery, as the trail was so technical, but the one time I did take a look around I saw a moose grazing in a meadow set against a dramatic cliff face. I'm sure I ran past countless other examples of natural beauty, as the Bighorns are unceasingly breathtaking, but the technical nature of the trail would not allow me to take my eyes off the dirt beneath for more than a few seconds at a time.

After a few miles, the trail passed through a wooded section and became increasingly soggy as small brooks crossed the trail or ran with it. The guys at Bear Camp (26.5) were just setting up as I got there, letting me know that Karl had passed through eight minutes earlier. I downed a handful of nuts and set off for the river. I knew the drop down 'The Wall' to the river was going to be fairly sloppy in places, and immediately leaving the aid I was sinking ankle deep in sticky mud, almost losing a shoe a couple of times. The slop was thankfully short lived, but my feet would essentially stay wet for the remainder of the run.

The drop down The Wall was pretty intense, with not a switchback to be found. There was a ton of loose rock and a number of small brook crossings so I had to be very careful with my footing.

At the Footbridge aid station (30), I weighed in at a skinny 139 - six pounds lighter than the day before - picked up my drop bag, taking the time to change my socks and shoes. After eating some potatoes and shooting a gel I had lingered for probably five minutes. Just as I was getting ready to leave - in the wrong direction - third and fourth place cruised into the aid station. I didn't recognize either of them. After being shouted back on course, I started the long 18-mile ascent to the turn at Porcupine.

I ran the 3.5 miles upriver to the Narrows (33.5) aid station pretty hard in a bid to build a solid gap on the guys behind. Narrows looked like a nice place to hang out, and I was kind of envious of the volunteers enjoying their day in the woods around the campfire. A young teenage boy watched me get a shot of gel ready with the kind of expression I have seen kids wear as they watch unfamiliar animals in the wild. I tried to humanize myself by engaging him in a brief conversation, but he remained pretty mystified.

The running up to Spring Marsh (40) through the woods was decent, with perhaps the best and least technical singletrack of the entire race. I was really beginning to find my stride, relishing the fact that I felt strong, mentally alert and ready for more. Coming out of the trees, the course faded to, at best, deer trail. It was marker to marker here for a few miles. The Spring Marsh aid station finally materialized at 40 miles after a long stretch of hiking and running on the 2,500 foot climb. Karl now had a 25-minute lead. From here to Elk Camp (43.5) the trail was either submerged by bogs or rutted by elk hooves - tough running. I got a great cup of noodles at Elk Camp and pushed on to the turn through increasingly marshy sections of meadow. By the woods, a couple of miles before the turn, I had to work through some very deep snow drifts, which at first were nice and cool on the legs but after a while caused me to loose feeling in the lower extremities. I was looking forward to dunking my feet in warm water at the turn.

Karl came storming through the drifts at some point here, bug-eyed and telling me to watch for some very angry moose - apparently he had been charged and kicked twice. Thankfully Karl had done enough to send them on their way for the day, and I didn't catch sight of any moose through the last mile to Porcupine (48).

Dana ran me into Porcupine where I took a seat and set about getting my sopping shoes and socks off. I had a mighty crew working for me here, with Victoria getting me noodles and coffee, Eric handing me caffeine pills, Dana fetching dry shoes and socks, my parents hooking up my lighting and getting out warm clothing, while an aid station volunteer got me a bowl of warm water to quickly soak my feet - bliss! By the time I was ready to go, I had two new pairs of socks on, dry shoes, a warm jacket, lighting and a happy stomach. I felt like a new man. Those assembled gave me a good cheer as I made my way out, approximately 9:30 into the race.

Dana running me into Porcupine at the turn

Heading for the weigh-in

Barking orders

Crew chief at work

Almost ready to get back at it

Back at it

I saw Harry making his way to Porcupine as I climbed back out. He was looking pretty good and was much closer than I thought third would be. I upped my pace. Somehow I completely missed the turn back onto the trail and continued running the ranger station road, finally hitting Devil's Canyon Road in completely the wrong spot. What! How the hell did I manage that? Rather than backtracking, I decided I would try to find the trail intersection by running down Devil's Canyon Road. The problem with this strategy was that I didn't know which way the trail was or if I was even on Devil's Canyon Road. I ran for half a mile in the wrong direction before turning around and running the other way to find the trail, which ultimately I decided wasn't going to work anyway because I would then technically be DQF'able for not following the course. I turned back around again, and headed back to the ranger road towards Porcupine and the VERY WELL MARKED turn onto the trail. This stupidity on my part cost me at least 30 minutes. Doh!

I've been off trail enough times during the course of a trail race that I didn't allow myself to get too flustered, despite being furious with myself. I figured I was now in fourth or fifth as the sun was coming down and I turned my lights on. I asked the next guy coming down the trail how many had passed through, and I was thankful to hear that just Harry had been able to take advantage of my stupidity. I guess the others had made pretty slow progress getting up to Porcupine. With 52 miles to go, I was in no hurry to reel Harry in. The next guy I saw told me that Harry had five minutes on me. The race for first, however, was essentially over.

I picked up Harry's light pretty quickly and we came into Elk Camp (52.5) together. I tried to engage him in conversation to get a read on where he was at mentally and physically. He had nothing for me. Normally, it is close to impossible to get a word in edgewise against Harry. Tonight he was stony quiet. We both ate some broth and noodles. Harry got out a half minute before me. Sloshing through the marsh we leapfrogged in second and third for a bit, losing the trail in places as our eyes adjusted to the moonless dark of night.

Coming to a river crossing, we both looked for the log bridge, which was not immediately obvious. Harry went the right way, I went the wrong way. I caught back up to Harry as he was getting across, and as I tried to catch up my legs gave way under me and I took a spill into the freezing cold river. Thankfully, I was on the upriver side of the bridge, so was able to cling onto it and jump back on. I had submerged up to my waist, not a great place to be at 9,000 feet in the middle of the night. After getting out of the river, I soon took a spill in a marshy spot on the trail. What the hell was going on? What happened to the guy full of confidence coming out of the turn?

Thankfully I was able to regain my senses, slow down, get into a rhythm and concentrate on running a sensible race. On the drop back down to Spring Marsh aid (56), Harry and I were pretty close, but my attempts at conversation still bore no fruit. Screw it, I was going to press on and try to secure second out of the aid station. I had a grip on my senses, my night vision had kicked in and I was ready to roll.

By the time I got back into the woods towards Narrows aid (62.5) there was no sign of Harry's light. I continued to press here taking advantage of the smooth trail. Narrows finally came and I enjoyed a delicious cup of broth and yet another disgusting shot of gel. I was running well and feeling strong despite my earlier comedy of errors.

By the time the descent finally bottomed out at Footbridge (66), I was ready to start climbing, or more accurately, I was ready to stop running and start hiking. I would get my wish with the 3.5 mile, 2,000+ foot climb to Bear Camp (69.5). By the time I finally made it up, the two volunteers were both fast asleep in their sleeping bags. I didn't want to wake them, but I guess I was stumbling around a bit, which roused them. I got a cup of cold broth and headed out on what I knew would be a tough section to Cow Camp (76.5). I was now in the deepest, darkest section of the night; my legs were beginning to scream at me and I still had a 50k to run. Uh!

I could no longer figure out if I was running uphill, downhill or on the flats here; it all felt the same and I couldn't pick out depth in the light of my fading headlamp. I mainly ran at a shuffle, taking a couple of walk breaks when I was sure I was moving uphill. I couldn't take my mind off the fact that I had so far to go and that the sun was still two hours away. The true absurdity of this undertaking was really beginning to sink in. Nothing to do but keep moving.

To add insult to injury, my stomach was beginning to get sloshy, which in the past has meant that a revisit of lunch, dinner or breakfast was not far behind. I stopped drinking and forged ahead.

I was looking for the spring water pipe, which meant two miles to Cow Camp (76.5). It never materialized in the dark of the night, but Head Dunk Tank did, which meant no more than a few minutes to Cow Camp. You beauty! I ate a couple of slices of plain bread in a bid to soak up the excess liquid in my stomach, and ate a bunch of orange slices. Wow, it's amazing what a bit of bread, some human interaction and ten to twelve orange slices will do for you. I was a new man.

I ran the jeep track down to the creek, before hitting the climb back up to Dry Fork (82.5). The birds were coming into full chorus, I barely needed my lights, and I would be seeing my family in a few minutes. Game on. I lingered a bit at Dry Fork, relishing the warm tent and the conversation. I told anyone who would listen that I would never be running one of these ridiculous races ever again.

"100s are absurd"

Harry's wife Gina was there and told me that third was at least 40 minutes back on me, according to radio reports from Cow Camp, although she didn't know if it was Harry. I was pretty sure second was in the bag now with just 17 miles to go. My poor family had slept in the car through the night, just to help me get through Dry Fork. If they could make that sacrifice, I could most definitely push on and get this thing done without making them wait around any longer than they had to. I told my Dad I would be done in three to three and half hours.

My legs had seized up a bit standing around at Dry Fork, but I was able to break out a run up the hill from Dry Fork. I wanted to show strength in case Gina was watching me head out. My legs eased up and I got into a great rhythm on the sweet, sweet singletrack. I was enjoying the run again.

At the top of the final climb before the descent down the Tongue River Canyon I let out a huge scream of triumph. A bit more primal than Julie Andrews, but if you can picture her in a meadow of wildflowers in the high Alps busting out a chorus of The Hills are Alive, you might get the idea. I was still 11 or 12 miles out, but the sun was coming up over the canyon, second was in the bag and I was about to finish up a journey that I had been working towards for months, boy did I feel good.

The steep, steep descent down the canyon hurt, no two ways about it, but I didn't really care. The last four or five miles of dirt road were also torturous, but again the finish line was so close it was just a matter of grinding it out. I thought about walking some of the ups, but just wanted this thing done so pushed on. I finally saw the bridge over the river into Dayton, did the victory lap around the park and crossed the line to the cheers of my hardy family. What an epic journey.

Finishing up with my boy




I didn't quite realize what I was getting myself in for when I signed up for Bighorn. The course looks kind of tame when you compare it elevation-wise to other mountain hundreds, but believe me the technical nature of the trail (when it is there), the bogs and marshes (this course literally leaks water), the snow, and the extended climbs take their toll like no other course I have ever run. When they say this place is wild, they ain't joking with ya.

Sub-24-hour finishers: Karl Meltzer, me, Harry Harcrow, Phil Shaw, Jai Ralls, Bryan Goding


Upper Sheep (8.5): 1:37

Dry Fork (13.5) : 2:24 (46) ................ Dayton (Finish) - 21:29 (3:15)
Cow Camp: (19.5) 3:19 (55) ............... Dry Fork (82.5) - 18:14 - (1:26)
Bear Camp (26.5) - 4:37 (1:17) .......... Cow Camp (76) - 16:48 (1:39)
Footbridge (30) - 5:16 (38) ............... Bear Camp (69.5) - 15:09 (1:22)
Narrows (33.5) - 6:01 (45) ............... Footbridge (66) - 13:46 (41)
Spring Marsh (40) - 7:32 (1:31) ....... Narrows (62.5) - 13:04 (3:28)
Elk Camp (43.5) - 8:26 (54)
Porcupine In (48) - 9:31 (64) ...........
Porcupine Out - 9:36 (5:16)


  1. Awesome race report about an epic run, Nick! WOW. I was starting to feel exhausted just reading it. What a journey! Did you really mean it at Mile 80+ when you said you'd never do something this crazy again? Somehow I think you jest. :) Anyhow, so proud of you bud...

  2. Nick. Fantastic. What an inaugural. Sorry to hear about your going off course. Don't let it take anything away from the great result. Good to meet you in person. Cheers. Hank

  3. Truly an epic adventure. Congrats again!

  4. Nick, once again...congrats. Truly an amazing feat in your first 100. The most impressive part: you wore cargo shorts for 100 miles??? My thighs just chafed thinking about it!


  5. Nick, that was an awesome report. I like the details of when you ate food, changes of clothing, rare moments of experienced beauty on the trail, etc. It's really gotten me inspired for my run tomorrow, and hopefully my first 100 at Bear...

  6. Well done Nick! It sounds like you ran a damn near perfect race. ...not for the lack of challenges or mistakes but how you pulled through despite the circumstances. Congratulations!

  7. Felix - Not sworn off crazy adventures, just 100-mile foot races.

    Hank - Great meeting you too. Shame we didn't have longer to chat. Looks like you had a great run too. Can't wait to read about it.

    Justin - I got a lot of inspiration from reading about the intensity of your training earlier in the year in my preparation for Bighorn, so thanks for that. I hope we get a chance to race sometime this year - I think we'd run each other close.

    Kyle - Cargo shorts and (tight) boxers are the way forward. Tons of pocket space to stuff things. Oh, and knee-high socks - beyond being a serious fashion statement - worked wonders in keeping my lower legs from getting mashed by vegetation.

    Airic - That pacing/crewing offer is still open if you decide to do Bear.

    Pete - Looking forward to getting together soon for a debriefing run. Congrats on your race, too. Great job!

  8. This report is total BS - there's no way you can expect us to believe that Harry was not talking!

    Awesome run and write up, definitely want to try that race out someday.

  9. Wow, that's a story! Great performance. Congrats on 2nd. Considering you didn't know the course, that was a stellar job.
    I heard about Karl's little romp with the moose. I wish he'd leave the wildlife alone - that poor moose.
    So... what's your next 100? Ha!

  10. Nick, I got here from the NY Times. (No, you're not in it, but a commenter linked here.)

    This is a great race report. You might consider writing about these runs on the side, if you don't already.

    I'm going to have to read more of your posts to get a feel for what's going on in your head. It would be really interesting to hear how you just tune out the pain, mile after mile, at such a slow pace. I really would lose patience if this were the situation: "The steep, steep descent down the canyon hurt, no two ways about it, but I didn't really care. The last four or five miles of dirt road were also torturous, but again the finish line was so close it was just a matter of grinding it out. I thought about walking some of the ups, but just wanted this thing done so pushed on."

    Some of this comes from your confidence your body won't give out on you, having done it before. And the rest of the time, is it a matter of focusing on something, or do you just let whatever floats through your head in, and then watch it go on its merry way? How do you keep your mind off the discomfort? How often to you think about your goal?

    Pretty incredible. What a triumph!

  11. Greenlight - thanks for the note and the heads up on the Times piece.

    This was actually my first 100, but I did run a few 50s in preparation, so I had a pretty good idea of where the pain levels might be. Compared to some of the 100-mile war stories I've heard, I would actually say that I had a fairly easy time of it. No major stomach issues, feet held up pretty well and energy levels were, for the most part, pretty good.

    Some of this was my training and being prepared on race day, but some of it comes down to good fortune and my body being willing - on this day - to comply.

    With regards to the mental aspect, 21 hours is a long time to be stuck in your own head. A lot of that time is taken up with monitoring how your body feels and focusing on the trail, but that still leaves plenty of gray matter for other thoughts. The key, for me, was to try to keep those other thoughts as positive as possible and not let doubt sneak in there. The mind is a powerful tool and it can keep you going or shut you down, regardless of what the body is doing.

    It's hard to take your mind totally off the discomfort, but just knowing that in time - if I kept moving forward - the end would come eventually, I found that I could pretty easily overcome it and keep running. These things are tough, sure, but at the end of the day I chose to do it - paying good money for the pleasure - and quite frankly the thought that people are put through much worse the world over through no choosing of their own, made my situation seem pretty trivial.

    Definitely an experience worth doing and one that I would recommend to anyone interested in learning about what the human body is capable of.

  12. Hi Nick,

    I am a follower of your blog and ultra fan in general. I have a gear question for you - the shorts you are wearing here (Bighorn 100) - are then just board shorts or running specific? Did they work out well for that distance? I am looking for some "sport" fabric shorts with lots of pockets for stashing things during ultras but am finding very little. Any thoughts on this?

    Thanks, and good luck at Wasatch next weekend. I bet you will be at the front if you are having a good day.


  13. Tim - I was wearing a pair of cargo shorts over a pair of compression-type jockeys (to prevent chaffing) for Bighorn. I wore those shorts specifically for the reason you mention: pockets. The shorts worked out pretty well, as I remember, but I certainly went a little more streamlined for Western States this year.

    Bighorn was my first go at the 100-mile distance, so it was all a bit experimental. I figured I'd need to stash loads of stuff, so wanted pockets, but I have since transitioned to a less-is-better approach. At WS, I basically went with two handheld water bottles, a gel flask in the zipper pocket of my running shorts, and then electrolyte tabs and other misc stuff crammed into the pockets of my bottle straps.

    I know that Pearl Izumi is working on an ultra-specific pair of shorts with lots of space to stash stuff, but I'm not sure how far along they are with that.

  14. I'm pretty sure this is your best post ever. Thank you for putting so much time into the descriptions of the course, and the off-piste seections as well. This helps with my preperation!

  15. Reading this about 6 weeks prior to my own go at Bighorn 100, which will also be my first attempt at that distance. I like to have a clear-ish picture of what to expect on the course...and off course cause I too tend to run away from the trail markings. The thing I am most antsy about is the trail conditions. I hear it is usually a very sloppy, muddy course. Thank you for the awesome descriptions of the course. And a belated congrats. I plan on making some of your weekend vertial adventures soon when i can escape Boulder for a bit!

    - Rob