Bighorn Wild and Scenic Trail Run 2009

  

Puzzled and surprised…

That's how I feel about my performance at the recent Bighorn Wild and Scenic 50 mile Trail Run.

I was very much looking forward to seeing the Bighorn Mountains again. When we lived in Wyoming, they were among my most favorite places to visit. A well-kept secret, the Bighorns are less popular of a destination than more well-known Wyoming mountain ranges such as the Tetons, Wind Rivers and the Absarokas.  However, the Bighorns have it all: solitude, scenic views, wildlife, wilderness areas, trout streams, meadows of wildflowers, and miles of hiking trails- without the crowds.

We left home Friday morning. At the pre-race registration I was surprised by the number of other runners. This was because there were four races going on that weekend: 100 miles, 50 miles, 50 kilometer and 30 kilometer.

My family and I ate pizza and pasta at Ole’s Pizza house in Sheridan on  Friday evening. It was nice having them along on this trip. When I go to many of my races, I often travel alone. Although I enjoy making new acquaintances and seeing friends, I always miss having my family with me.

The bus from Sheridan to the race start left at 3:15 AM, so there wasn’t much sleep for me that night. Of course, many believe that the sleep you get the night before a race is less important than the sleep you get the week before. As long as you are already well rested, one night of less sleep is not a problem.

I felt optimistic about the race. Over the past few months, I had trained hard, running my long runs in the Black Elk Wilderness and doing intervals up and down Harney Peak in the Black Hills to train for the downhill portions of this race. I wasn’t sick with a cold or bronchitis; the weather was going to be good.  Although the elevation was going to be as high as 9,000 ft, I had done a large amount of my training at 6,000 – 7,000 ft.

My two previous ultras this spring: the 44 miles at the Antelope Island Buffalo Run in March and the Strolling Jim 40 mile run in May, gave me confidence in the depth of endurance to draw from.  However,  I knew that I would need every bit of it. Some say that the Bighorn 50 mile is as tough as some 100 mile races.

I never got to find out but the part I did see was very rugged and beautiful.   

Our bus missed the turnoff for the race start. Even though that resulted in our race starting a few minutes late, it allowed us to see how close we were to the other side; only a couple of miles.

We really were about to run across the Bighorn Mountain range.  

The race started at the Porcupine Ranger station. The Hundred milers had already come through earlier that morning.

For the 50 mile race, we had a final cut-off of 15 hours or an average of 18 minute/mile- which is the same pace as for many 100 mile ultras. Some of the cut-offs were adjusted however based on the terrain. For instance, our first cut-off was 5 hours at the Foot Bridge Aid Station at mile 18, or just over a 16 min/mile pace.

A gentleman sang a nice version of the "Star Spangled Banner" and then we were off at 6:07 AM.

We were only 7 minutes late, despite the bus getting lost. 

 

 

Soon the sun was in our face as we headed east.  We were just under 9,000 ft and there were still patches of snow a couple of feet deep.

We all tried hard to avoid wet marshy and muddy patches but it was an impossible task. 

I tried to jump one stream but miscalculated and found myself thigh-deep in ice-cold water. That woke me up! If only someone had been video-taping the expression on my face as I hesitated a second before jumping out of the water.

Now that I was so baptized, I didn't care about keeping my feet from getting wet.

They were soaked! 

 I ran through the muddy areas kicking up mud all over me and nearby other runners. One girl lost her shoe and scrambled around trying to find it. Soon we all were wet and muddy and laughing at ourselves.

What kind of nut pays to run fifty miles in mountains losing shoes along the way?

We ultrarunners do!

 

Up

I saw a few ultrarunners I had met at previous races. It was good to see them and meet some of their friends.

Ultrarunners are a small, supportive, and tight-knit community. After a while we all get to know each other. If I don't know someone, chances are they know someone I do..

 The Bighorn Runs are run through the wild and scenic Bighorn Mountains. Many of the aid stations are not accessable to vehicles and must be packed in on humans or animals.

At one of the aid stations, the volunteers were still chuckling. They had llamas and the hundred-milers coming in the previous night has asked if they were really there or only a hallucination.

We passed through many mountain meadows- some with log foot bridges- others we had to wade aross- or find stepping stones.

 Slowly we descended into the valley of the Little Bighorn River. I could see the canyons that lie ahead.

These valleys around us are the calving grounds of elk. I saw plenty of sign and tracks but no elk. I'm sure they were watching us from a distance 

The scenery took my breath away and it wasn't the altitude. I love the mountains and the Bighorns especially.

I felt a sense of deep gratitude for the privilege of being able to be here and witness this beauty. 

Soon we came to another aid station.

 The volunteers saw my flute and asked that I play  tune for them which I promptly obliged. 

 

I had taken out my flute a few miles earlier and played a few short songs.

After my experience playing my flute at Javelina Jundred and the postive response from the other runners (and at least one curious coyote), I've decided to make carrying my flute a tradition during my races

I won't ever make a name for myself as a back-of-the-pack runner but I might as well  serenade everyone with my music!

Just call me Kokopelli!

Suddenly, around mile 10, my  lower gut started aching.

The ache became a sharp pain and then a constant knife-like cramp.  With every step, it felt as if that knife was being thrust deeper and harder.

It was excrutiating.

I had never experienced anything like this before. It was not upper GI. I had no nausea and didn't feel like vomiting.

No, this was much lower than that. I had used the bathroom before starting the race that morning. I thought my blowels were empty. Maybe not so I went into the trees with hopes that if I went the bathroom all would be better.

Nothing came so I feebly attempted to run again.

If I walked, I could tolerate the pain- but just barely. It was constant rather than in spasms. Running downhill was the worst of all as my tender insides bounced around, They felt as if they were slapping painfully inside of me with each step.

I thought that perhaps if I ran faster something inside me would loosen, I'd get an urge to go to the bathroom and all would disappear- to no avail.

After gritting my teeth suffering in pain at a faster pace for 30 minutes, all seemed completely  hopeless. I gave up and jog/walked as best as I could bear.

I had no idea what had caused this pain but there seemed to be no way to run through it. .

All around us the meadows were in bloom.

Despite my misery, the beauty around me was not missed. If anything, my forced slower pace allowed me to spend more time observing my surroundings and taking photos.  

I took some photos of the yellow-sunflower-like blooms of the Arrowleaf Balsamroot. 

Afterwards, I saw a tiny baby grasshopper perched on one of the flowers. I took a few close-ups.

Cute!

Had my race been going better, I would have missed much of this as I sped past in a blur. 

The trail was well marked with strips of orange fluorescent tape. Some years, the elk eat much of the tape within 24-48 hours.

The trail marker pictured above was tied to the rib of an elk skeleton. I wonder what type of individual had a sick sense of humor to do such a thing?

He/she must have been another ultrarunner.

 We had several more stream crossings. Slowly the canyons wall narrowed towards us. The rush of the water became louder and the stream became a river.

The temperatures warmed up. I was glad when we entered the trees. 

I kept thinking, "I must be in last place," but just when I was absolutely convinced I was, someone else came up from behind.

One woman thought the cut-off was at 10:30 AM and believed we had already missed it. I told her, "No, it's 11 AM, if you push it you can still make it."

She sprinted off never to be seen by me again. She must've made it because I never saw her at any of the following aid stations.  

.We entered deep pine forest. I appreciated the shade. But my gut still hurt and I just could not pick up the pace.

A guy I met on the bus, Wayne, came up from behind and we jogged together for a while before he too pressed on..

 I caught him again only a short distance from the foot bridge aid station.

We looked at our watches: it was almost 11 AM. Even if we pushed it, there would be no way to make it before cut-off, change into dry socks and shoes, refill our water bottles and be out of there by 11AM.

We decided to take it easy and walk to Foot Bridge..

However, we were very surprised when we found it only a few hundred yards away..

Still, the time was 11:18AM.

We thought we had missed the cut-off by 18 minutes but because we had not factored in the 6:07 AM start, we actually had missed it by only 11 minutes.

Nevertheless, even had I made it to the cut-off and had time to do all I needed to, I'm not sure I would have gone on.

The next vehicular access would have been at mile 34.5. Struggling 16.5 miles with severe GI pain of unknown cause was nothing I looked forward to.

Still, it was embarrassing to stop at mile 18 of a 50 mile race.

However, ultrarunners see the good in all things. There is always a silver lining, if only you know where to look.

I saw Larry whom I had met at Antelope Island 50 mile in March. It was good to see him again although not because he dropped at the same aid station I did.

I got to speak more with Wayne Not Afraid Sr. It turns out that we have run in many of the same races. We both run more for the experience than anything else. I don't know why we haven't met before. He is from Crow Agency, Montana and at 55, is the oldest member of his tribe that's a runner. However, he's gotten his family and others in his community into running.

I hope I get to see him again! 

I called Jeanne and left the following voice mail  on her cell phone:

"I've got some bad news and I've got some good news:

  • The bad news is that I've dropped at mile 18.
  • The good news is that I've dropped at mile 18!

 I'm not tired- so we can all do whatever else we want today- together."

As expected, my symptoms vanished as soon as I stopped running..

The following day, on the way vack to home, we stopped at Devil's Tower National Monument. It was free day so timing could not have been more perfect.

Had I run the full 50 miles, or even struggled on the next aid station at mile 34.5, I doubt I would have had the energy or desire to stop.

But since I had only gone 18 miles, I wasn't tired at all.

Devil's Tower is an igneous intrusion. Hot magma approached the surface- but never erupted. As the surrounding surface crust eroded away, the tower remained.

The site is sacred to indigenous peoples. Their myths of it's creation often involve a giant grizzly bear trying to get at people or children with the earth rising to protect them. The sides were carved by the grizzly bear's claws.

We walked around the base of the tower and later through the prairie dog town.

They barked and whistled at us.     

 

It was nice to spend some extra time with my family. They enjoyed not having to wait until my race was over at 8 or 9PM, then me being tired and grumpy the next day.

As I said- there's always a silver lining…

Once I got home, I thought more about my gut pain and DNF some more:

    • Why did this happen?
    • Is there anything I could have done to prevent it?
    • Will it ever happen again?

What is most worrisone for me is that without knowing why it happened, there's nothing I can do to keep it from occurring again.

Not sure of where to look- I consulted Tim Noakes' bible on all things running: "The Lore of Running."

He spoke of various reasons for lower GI pain and loose stools while running: lactose intolerance, irritable bowel syndrome, fructose consumption. I ate a bite of creamy spinach past the night before but doubt that could be the explanation.

Then there was mention of "cecal slap" where the colon gets irritated on running downhills, especially after running a prolonged and steep uphill. It sure sounded like what I had. The downhills definitely hurt worse than the flats. My bowels did feel as if they were slapping around inside me.

I've raced and trained on uphills and downhills and had never had this happen to me before.Some believe that food in the gut can make this worse. I did eat a breakfast but exactly the same as I normally do. They suggested avoiding breakfast entirely  to see if symptoms improve.

That sounds fine for a 5-k or even a marathon, but I cannot contemplate starting an ultra on an empty stomach. However, if this recurs I may have no choice but to not eat breakfast and instead eat a hearty meal the night before.

Also, anti-spasmodics supposed to help but I'd prefer to avoid meds if possible. There is no way to know for sure how medication will react in a body dehydrated and exhausted from running an ultramarathon.  For example, NSAIDs (ibuprofen and naproxen) are asociated with a higher risk of hyponatremia.

What would an antispasmodic do?  No one knows.

Strange. Whatever this was, I hope it is a one time freak occurrence and I won't have to worry about it ever again.     

The most annoying thing about this all was not that I DNF'd but that I was forced to stop before I was ready. I knew that there were miles of scenery out there I never got to see. I wish I didn't have to wait an entire year before I get another chance.

But I shall be back. This  is a race I will plan on doing again- no matter if I finish or not.

As perplexing as this all is, I don't have too much time to think about it. Lean Horse is coming up in only a couple of months.

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14 responses

  1. Bummer! Sorry to hear about the DNF. Then again next time you attempt this one I should be able to join you.

    June 30, 2009 at 10:30 pm

  2. Great attitude! Beautiful Photos. I'm still working on my first Marathon, so I am in total awe of you.

    July 1, 2009 at 7:32 am

  3. Yeah, it sucks, especially when I don't consider gut pain to normally be a good excuse.
    Gut pain because you're dry heaving, dehydrated and can't walk straight- maybe- but not gut pain alone.
    Oh well.
    I'll be doing this one again. I wish it wasn't a year from now.

    July 1, 2009 at 7:33 pm

  4. Thanks!
    Yes, you CAN do a marathon. Just don't get caught up on your time or pace like so many others do. Run your first one- even run/walk it- but don't race it. Too many worry about what their finish time will be and end up bonking when instead they could have done it easy and had a great time.
    PBs are fine- for later- but for your first 26.2m you should just aim to finish. Once you get one under your belt- er I should say one under your running shoes- you will wonder what the big deal was all about.
    There is nothing impossible, magical or mysterious about the marathon, other than what you make it, it is only 26.2 miles.
    However, I warn you- these can be addicting. Once you do a 26.2m or two, you'll be thinking about trying a 50-k and after that who knows maybe a 50-m and so on.
    Good luck!

    July 1, 2009 at 7:45 pm

  5. Awesome pictures! Sorry about your GI issue, strange that it just cropped up like that. Hopefully that was the first and last experience with it. What's next on the race calendar?

    July 1, 2009 at 7:52 pm

  6. It was even prettier in person, which is why I was so bummed about having to stop so early.
    I really hope that my GI issues were a freak one time thing… if it comes back, I'll be at a complete loss to explain it, and to make whatever changes are needed to prevent it.
    I'm still planning on doing the Lean Horse Hundred again this August.
    I hope 2009 will be the year I go 100 miles!

    July 1, 2009 at 9:16 pm

  7. Absolutely awesome pictures. Thank you. Most of what you did in the early morning, I did in the night. It was nice to see what the snow and mud looked like in the light.

    July 3, 2009 at 2:58 pm

  8. Thanks!
    It is an entirely different experience when running on trails at night instead of day or for that matter in one direction or another. As I ran down the canyon, remember thinking how tough it must have been to run up these trails in the night and then turn around to go back again.
    But I will be back.
    Once I get the Bighorn 50 done, and I do at least one or two other hundred milers, I'd like to try the Bighorn 100 too.

    July 4, 2009 at 9:57 am

  9. Hi Tom,
    Glad to hear you made the best of your trip at Big Horn. We can make plans but we can't plan the results. The important thing is that you were out there trying.
    I am just getting back into the swing of things. I feel like I have recovered fully from a hernia surgery I had a few months ago. I went to Lake Meade NV and ran the Run With The Devil Marathon. It was HOT, 116 degrees is what my thermometer registered but the official race temp was 112.
    Going to Badwater next weekend so it was good heat training for Death Valley.
    Take care and I look forward to reading and seeing your next adventure. Great pictures.

    July 6, 2009 at 2:25 pm

  10. Thanks for your encouraging words. That's great that you did Run With The Devil and are recovered from your surgery.
    Have fun at Badwater- if you see my friends Jarom Thurston or Lisa Nicholls, tell'em "hi" and "wish I was there."
    Hopefully, I'll be able to crew at Badwater next year.

    July 6, 2009 at 6:59 pm

  11. John H. Ashby

    Amazing scenery!! Great photos, and a very interesting account… currently a marathon runner, I am moving on up in the world…. was thinking of centering a holiday around the Bighorn next year, and this was most helpful. Much appreciated – I will look out for the Flute Man!!

    November 9, 2011 at 8:59 pm

    • Thanks for reading and commenting. Indeed, as I contemplate events to run in 2012, I have been considering either Bighorn 50 or Black Hills 100 in June… If you happen to be there and see me, please introduce yourself.

      November 12, 2011 at 12:14 pm

  12. Bill Mcdonald

    Hello I’m doing the 52 miler in june of this year and I would like to hook up with you. I looked through your photos and noticed you play the flute. I am still learning how to play but however I do hand craft the North american Native Spirit flutes and have sold them in the US, Denmark, Germany,Australia and of course Canada. I’m planning on bringing a couple with me. PLease feel free to contact me at wdcreations@shaw.ca

    March 18, 2012 at 8:50 pm

    • Sorry for not replying… it’s been a very busy spring. So which 52 miler are you doing in June? We definitely should try to meet up at an event sometime. I occasionally play one of my smaller flutes during races, especially at night when it can take my mind off what I am doing. I played a Javelina Jundred a couple of years ago and got a lot of positive comments. Of course, I only play while runnning on flat easy trails, I kind of like my teeth and can only imagine what might happen if I tripped and fell on a rocky trail.

      April 22, 2012 at 11:32 am

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