By Ed Demoney*
It’s hard to believe but septuagenarians face major obstacles in most ultra events. These obstacles are known as “cutoff times.” Many races accomplished easily at a younger age are no longer feasible due to the dreaded time limits imposed by race management. On the other hand, sometimes it is possible for age to be an advantage to counteract age discrimination.
Despite the seemingly liberal 15 hour time limit for the Bighorn Trail 50 Miler (actually 52 miles), the Bighorn course is known as tough and most runners find it even tougher than expected. Guidance was needed before running Bighorn so I contacted Vicki Kendall about my possibilities. Vicki assured me I would have no trouble at all because the course was not rocky and there were no tough ascents or descents considering the rugged Virginia trails we all love and train on. She did allow as how the trail was rather narrow and the scenery gorgeous, these observations definitely accurate. So I confidently approached Bighorn.
Considering the scenic beauty, I went to Wyoming on Monday before the race. This gave me an opportunity to explore the start and finish of the Bighorn 50. There was snow at the start, but the snow didn’t appear to be a problem. It was also obvious that the first 18 miles of the course would be wet and muddy so, as recommended by race management, I had a change of shoes and socks at 18 miles, the first aid station with a cutoff (4.5 hours). My goal was to run that first 18 miles in less than 4 hours, a goal not accomplished.
In fact, I was one of many runners threatened to be stopped at 18 miles. I arrived at 4:26 and was promptly informed that I had to be out of the aid station in four minutes. There were a number of others at the aid station also being informed they only had four minutes before they would be out of the race. Needless to say, there were a lot of terrified runners at the aid station since they were there to see the whole course, not just the first 18 miles. The first 18 miles was basically downhill and we all expected to be able to easily do the distance well before the cutoff time.
Now four minutes is not enough time to fill water bottles, get some food, find your drop bag and change shoes and socks. Fortunately, the timekeeper was gracious enough to allow me to change shoes rather than leave the aid station with wet and muddy shoes that had been trashed the last 18 miles. Some runners left the aid station and took care of their needs outside the aid station rather than risk being stopped. All told, I took seven minutes and left the aid station at 4:33 elapsed time.
The next cutoff was 10 hours, 34.5 miles into the Bighorn 50. That seems generous but it wasn’t because of the tough climb from 18 to 21.5 miles and otherwise generally slow course. I was climbing and running well and passed at least a dozen runners before arriving at 34.5 miles. I knew I would have trouble meeting the 10 hour cutoff.
The 34.5 mile aid station became visible about 30 minutes before the cutoff. We were on a road now, a long winding road through beautiful fields of sunflowers and lupines. As I recalled from the pre-race briefing, the volunteers at the aid station could see the runners for the last three miles before arrival at the aid station. I was dutifully terrified of missing the cutoff because I knew I couldn’t run 10 minute miles for the next half hour. But I was determined to give it my best. Along the way I passed others who had already resigned themselves to not making the cutoff. As I got closer, I could see I still had a chance and arrived at the aid station three minutes over the time limit.
As the volunteers filled my water bottles, I was told I was over the cutoff and needed to stop. While I knew race management considered cutoffs to be very rigid, I pleaded with the station head to be allowed to continue. I recounted how I had been right at the cutoff at 18 miles and had passed a dozen runners. Then I used my trump card, I told them I was 71 years old and would probably never have another chance to do the Bighorn 50. The station head then said maybe I could continue but it was up to the man in charge of search and rescue. My story worked as the search and rescue man pointed to the road and said “get moving.”
I checked my aid station chart and saw I had 90 minutes to run the next five miles. The cutoff was 6 p.m. and I arrived at 5:56 p.m. The volunteers were glad to see me, wanted to know if anyone was behind me and told me I had to be out of the aid station by 6 p.m. I even had time to apply some needed Vaseline before departing at 5:59 p.m.
Now I was faced with an 8 p.m. cutoff in seven miles, 46.5 miles into the Bighorn 50. After a short, sharp climb, it was all downhill. I like gravity in my favor, looked forward to the downhill running and had positive thoughts about the cutoff time. But it was not really easy running because of the narrow trail, sagebrush obstacles sticking into the trail and numerous loose rocks on the surface. It was definitely beautiful and you could see exactly where we were going to the Tongue River Trail Head that I had seen the day before.
It took forever to run that downhill! I wasted no time at the aid station before the cutoff. It became obvious that I would not make the cutoff as 8 p.m. came and went. I continued with maximum effort and tore into the aid station ten minutes over the cutoff. I was well prepared to let them know I was a septuagenarian and wanted to continue.
Glory be! The volunteers cheered as I ran hard into the aid station. They couldn’t have been more cooperative. They filled my water bottles and never said a word about a cutoff. Needless to say, I didn’t ask. I told them what I wanted to drink, that no one was behind me and ran down the road towards the finish. Even though I thought I might be cut, I had rationalized that getting to 46.5 miles was a Pyrrhic victory.
I had one hour and 20 minutes to finish. I had a good chance as the signs said 2.5 miles to the next aid station and 5 miles to go. I checked my aid station chart to verify the distance and discovered it was 5.5 miles to the finish. Terror returned as I moved down the road. I had used about all my running energy on the seven-mile downhill. I could still walk and it was basically flat to the finish so I had a good chance of being an official finisher. Gradually, I was doing some running and got stronger as I neared the finish line.
The sunset was beautiful and unique with blue and red patterns and mountains in the distance. I even had a motorized escort the last five miles, the volunteer who let me leave the aid station at 34.5 miles.
I didn’t realize that the expected penultimate aid station no longer existed. I thought I was moving well and didn’t know I had passed the closed aid station. I just knew there wasn’t much time left to reach the aid station. But I kept going as hard as possible and started seeing the Dayton outskirts. It occurred to me that there wasn’t an interim aid station, and I was getting close to the finish line.
Then a car went by with the driver cheering me on. When asked, he said the finish line was less than a mile away. I checked my watch and saw I had 13 minutes to get there. It was time to run. There was the footbridge to cross, highway 14 and the quick turn to the finish line in the Dayton Park. But it was dark and I missed the last turn before the finish line. Fortunately, VHTRC friends were there waiting for me and quickly corrected my error. There was the duty photo at 14:56:49, more than three minutes before the cutoff. I was glad I had not taken my camera and not even relieved myself the entire race.
Finally, there was great joy in meeting up with my daughter, Lisa, who had finished a few seconds under 14 hours. She was one of the few runners that had pulled away from me as we departed 18 miles. We agreed, it was a wonderful Father’s Day weekend.
* also known as Nova Demoney (male) – full name is Nova Edwin Demoney, Jr.
Daughter Lisa, who finished earlier, crosses the finish line with Ed