June 20, 2017

2017 Big Horn Trail 100 - Of Slog and Sludge

A total of 437 runners started this year’s Big Horn 100 mile trail race. 175 finished. Rain fell relentlessly for nearly 24 hours during the race. What unfolded was chaos and confusion.

I went into this race thinking weather could be a factor. Just a few days before it snowed in Yellowstone and hail the size of grapefruits slammed through vehicle windshields in southern Wyoming. Were these signals from mother nature?

I thought it odd when a race official told me the day before they were only forecasting a 3% chance of rain on race day. Yahoo Weather was saying 50%.

Any questions about the rain were quickly answered as sprinkles dribbled down upon us during the pre-race briefing before the race. The same race official told us not to bother changing our shoes or socks at the turn around. He said they were going to get wet and muddy near the top of the mountain and dry shoes and socks will just get wet and muddy all over again.

He apparently had no idea of the deluge that was about to occur.

The Bighorn Trail 100 takes place on the eastern slopes of the Big Horn mountains in the state of Wyoming. The course is an out and back and starts at 3,900 feet and ascends to 9,000 feet at the 48 mile turn around. As a Hard Rock qualifier, it ranks high on the difficulty scale in the best of conditions with 18,700 feet of elevation gain and lots of technical single track trail. Throw in incessant rain, cold, and a trail disintegrating into mud, goop and sludge and you have, in my humble opinion, a difficulty rating much like the HC climbing category in the Tour de France, beyond categorization.


She was sitting on the side of the trail. Her nose was broken from a fall when her face hit a rock. We could see it bent to one side. We asked if she needed help. She said no and just sat there.

Big Horn runner Matt Scarlett on an anonymous runner at Big Horn Trail 100, June 17, 2017

As ultra runners, I believe we must take responsibility for what we sign up for, regardless of the conditions we find ourselves in. It was this maxim that I threw out the window somewhere around mile 53 when the trail below me went from murky mud to a frothy goop and rendered running or hiking virtually impossible. At this stage of the race I was descending into a long, desperate trudge through the night with episodes of epileptic-like contortions to maintain balance accompanied by vulgar outbursts. The sequence continued to repeat itself. One moment I was on my feet stepping gingerly down the trail, and the next I was spinning desperately out of control, often ending face first or ass down in the sludge.

I lost count after falling 15 times. My body was taking a beating. My pride was tattered and seeking shelter by the thought of giving up. I just kept hoping I wouldn’t fall on a rock, a stump, or off a ledge. I found myself cursing at the course, the race directors, the rain, the Forrest Service and the mud out loud for letting this happen to me. I tried telling myself the trail would get better, the rain would stop, and things would get back to normal. But that didn’t happen. The rain just kept falling, and the trail, which supposedly was going to be muddy only near the top, got worse as we descended back down the mountain. I vowed never to return to this place again. I vowed to quit the sport. I vowed that I was too old for this crap. And I kept asking myself, why am I out here?

I couldn’t get the negative thoughts out of my head.

Eventually, I came to the realization that it was Me who signed up for this shit show. Me who was blaming everyone and everything. Me who chose this sport. Me who had been in this situation before. And me only who could get me to the finish line.

When I finally arrived at the Dry Fork aid station at mile 82.5, I was waterlogged, beaten down but starting to feel the pull of the finish. The sun was beginning to emerge, and the aid station crew gave me a Macdonald’s cheeseburger. I dumped my lights and ski gloves and headed back out to the trail, burger in hand. It was then I remembered I needed to visit the porta potty. This moment is probably something only my fellow ultra runners can relate to, but sitting down in that porta potty for a couple minutes to relieve myself while munching on a cheeseburger was like, well, nirvana. I know the sun’s rays were shining directly on that porta potty during those precious moments.

One of my favorite things about running 100 milers is talking to the other runners on the same journey. Conversing back and forth during the run, encouraging each other during difficult sections, just being in the elements with other people, it makes the absurdity more bearable. I met runners at Big Horn Trail 100 from Denver, San Antonio, Buffalo, Boston, Sheridan, San Francisco, Minneapolis, and New York City. Every one of them had that undeniable ultra spirit. Some of us made it to the finish, others didn’t. But each of us stepped into the ring with the beast.

Finally, thanks to all the volunteers who braved some downright awful conditions through the night. You deserve a buckle too.

Keep it real runners. 


Unknown said...

Love it! Great write up! So glad I wasn't there�� Sorry. Love you!

Tom said...

Well described. I think our Bighorn reports this year could be 2000 words, but you distilled things down nicely. That was a shit show, but one that I'm glad I suffered through and came out the other side. After my first 100 mile DNF at The Bear 2016 in a similar weather and mud shit show, I always wished I would have pushed myself through it.
To dryer trails!

Sarah Lavender Smith said...

Jesus, that sounds worse than the 2016 The Bear! The DNF rate speaks volumes. Good work!

Sunaad said...

Hey Sarah! I was unfortunate (or fortunate) enough to run the 2016 Bear as well as the 2017 Bighorn last weekend! Weather wise, Bear was at another level-24hrs of straight sleet/snow with temperatures dipping into the 20's. The trail was a mess and we had to hike through snowy slush with frozen feet for several hours. However, the trail conditions at this year's Bighorn were far worse. There was a 40 mile stretch where an average mid-packer could not run for more than 10 steps at a time even on the downhills. The mud was either sucking your shoe or forcing you to slip-n-slide all over the place! The finish rate was definitely worse at Bighorn with people missing the cut offs due to slow moving!

Will Cooper said...

Hey thanks for the comments folks. Does anyone have pictures from race day? Need for UltraRunning mag. Thanks!!

Carol Williams said...

didn't do the 100m but made it through the 52m conditions; conditions were beyond all previous races I've run at BigHorn and my slowest race at BH ever. congrats to all those who toughed it out. This year, the 99cent plastic poncho really paid off in warmth for the first 2 hours...thanks for your great report, Will Cooper. Love the race no matter what...volunteers and organizers always go beyond. On the tail end of the trail I was lucky to meet and chat with Manual Whiteman a Crow runner from Hardin this year! congrats, also, to Manual, and his sister who did the 18m, for completing their races and sustaining the legacy of indigenous long distance running in North America.

SADLOVE said...
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Jill said...

Ahhhhh, nice job Will! Nice, nice, and nice!

I ran the 52-mile there in 2015 and it was a muddy skating rink - and hot. I loved every second of it.

In 2016 I ran the 50k in 100 degrees, puked for 20 miles, the vowed never to return to that nasty heat-ridden trail.

This year, I missed it dearly. Those memories of Bighorn will forever be laminated in the corners of my mind....not because the race was easy and I ran a stellar time; but because of the complete opposite. I met so many people while out there suffering together. I remember meeting a guy from Keokuk, Iowa who did not make the cutoffs the prior year. He was so determined that year, not wanting a repeat of the prior year, and I felt a tinge of guilt when I passed him. I combed the results afterwards and gave a silent cheer that he indeed made it.

I think Bighorn will forever be embedded in my running fibers. But, never the 100 ;). Congrats again! I'd love to see pictures if you get any more.