By John Prohira
It was big! No doubt about that. Driving from Salt Lake City across Wyoming, mid-June, on our way to the 14th annual Bighorn Mountain Wild and Scenic Trail runs what was obvious was just how big and wide open this part of the country is. The landscape seemed to go on as if forever. The lines dividing one ranch from the next were many miles in between. Big and roughed cattle grazed on land seeming to consist more of sagebrush than anything else. I guess we were home on the range for we saw big bodied mule deer and pronghorn antelope playing off in the distance. My friend Teresa was at the wheel as we moved east from Utah for a couple of hundred miles then due north towards Montana. Our destination was Sheridan, Wyoming. We were on our way to partake of a foot race billed as a public service offering. The Sheridan community uses the Bighorn Trail runs as a means to promote recreation and tourism in their part of the state. The race courses (there are four of them; 30 and 50 kilometers and 50 and 100 miles long) are designed to maximize the exposure of the runner, family, friends and race volunteers to the extremely scenic, wild and primitive Bighorn Mountains. Teresa had signed on for the 50-mile challenge soon after her first run of that distance, the Bull Run Run in Virginia last April. I decided to accompany her after finding myself 65th on this year’s Hardrock 100 wait list and after accepting that I would not have the opportunity to run that race this year. I will say upfront that the Bighorn 100 was one of the most beautiful and challenging runs I’ve ever done and if this report contains the adjective “big” too often I do not apologize.
I drank in the landscape during the nine hour trip to race start. I viewed what lay beyond the car’s windshield and side window with profound wonderment. Everything about the terrain seemed to thrill me, from the snow capped mountains off in the distance to prairie dogs at the highway rest stops to the absolute straightness of the road. I wondered what it would feel like when totally immersed in the enormity of the Wyoming high prairie and mountains the next day.
The 100-mile Endurance Run was in its 5th year. The course is run out and back. The chart below shows the changes in elevations from start to finish.
This 100-mile run is unique in many ways, one being the 11 AM start. Everyone including the “big dog” front-runners would run the entire night and have the opportunity to be lapped by the sun. The pre-race trail briefing was held in a small park that would also serve as the finishing area. No matter where I run an ultra there are always familiar faces, new and old friends to be seen. Besides the usual appearance of a runner from here and there I was pleased to find a “covey” Virginia Happy Trail Running Club members in attendance. Being a “dues paying member” myself of that organization this pleased me very much. I had last seen these folks in May while running their Massanutten Mountain 100 Mile Trail Run. Familiar with the reputation of these VHTRC runners I concluded that their presence heralded big fun to come.
With most of the morning no more than a memory we began. Clear skies and bright sunlight greeted our beginning on the dirt road just before the Tongue River Canyon trailhead. It was about two miles from this start that long distance runner Jim O’Neil from Montana was bitten by a rattlesnake while training the week before. You can read about this on Jim and his wife Sue’s online journal.
The 100-mile runners were invited to traverse the course through and over the Bighorn Mountains for 48 miles to the turn around point at the Porcupine Ranger Station and then return as they had come, continuing on past the start line another four miles to the finish. Immediately after the start I sensed the heat of the day but seemed not to feel any of its consequence. There was the total absence of humidity. I would take extra caution to stay hydrated and maintain my electrolyte balance, eat and see how the race played out. A steady cooling breeze accompanied me all day as I moved cautiously, not knowing what the effects of running at this altitude would be. I loved the sound and the sight of the Tongue River roaring along side as we climbed and it flowed north into Montana. There could not have been a more perfect start to a big time out West.
Soon we were on our way up and out of the canyon, on single-track trail cut through blankets of sagebrush and tall grass. The herbivores inhabiting this part of Wyoming, particularly browsers like pronghorn antelope and mule deer depend on sagebrush for food. The grazers, sheep, cattle and elk prefer grasses. All do well here. I also learned that elk eat trail markings, be they plastic ribbon or chemical glow stick. So parts of the course that had been well marked before the race began would not necessarily remain that way during the entire event. Over and over again I was struck by the immensity of the countryside. The canyons were deep, flanked by the sheer rock faces reaching into the sky. Stopping to catch my breath early in the race I turned around to drink in the spectacle of the landscape that now lay behind and could see runners just beginning their ascent a mile or more away, their silhouettes dwarfed by the canyon walls. In the distance scattered hints of purple, yellow and red seemed to speckle and almost sparkle on the mountainside becoming a brilliant blaze of yellow western sunflowers and purple lupines again as far as the eye could see once viewed up close. In the first 8-½ miles we had climbed 3200 feet, for the most part in the open over the uneven ground covered with tough mountain vegetation. It was slow going and I wondered how those first settlers managed to move through and over this primitive land, by horse, wagon and foot bringing with them everything material for making a new life. A big heart and spirit had to be one of the requirements of those pioneers. Lodge pole pines grow here, tall and straight. This tree helped settlers build the northwestern railroads during the late 19th and early 20th century. Ties for railroad track were fashioned from the pines a top these mountains. In order to get the wood down nearer where it could be used huge “tie plumes” were constructed. These were wooden troughs built above the ground and running down the mountainside. Spring water was channeled into these delivery systems and the logged pines after that. Gravity took over and the rough-cut lumber came flying down the mountain. A trail companion pointed out the skeleton of one of these plumes to me, a still visible reminder of man’s imposition of his will upon the wilderness.
I usually feel at home during a 100-mile race, in my element. Once set into my pace I often take my “head” for a long semi-comfortable ride. Here I felt like a stranger in a strange land, and at a strange time. It wasn’t a bad feeling, just different. The late start had helped skew any sense of pace. The 100-mile races I’ve done to date all started in the wee hours of the morning, often before dawn. I am a “flat-lander” from western New York and the elevation we ran at added to the feeling of being out of place. I never encountered the constant “elevation headache” I’d been warned of but my breathing seemed more labored than normal. I awaited more severe symptoms from breathing this “skinny air” but none came. The first drop bag opportunity came at Dry Fork and 13 ½ miles. This aid station sat off of the Freeze Out Road saddle. The runners arrived there by way of the Horse Creek Ridge, upper Sheep Creek and the Camp Creek Ridge. Teresa, whose race did not start until the next morning met me there with a smile and encouragement. This was a friendly and a very busy place. I’ve learned not to dawdle at aid stations so “thank yous” were given and the run continued by descending the Dry Fork drainage region via a 4-wheel drive road towards Kern’s Cow Camp. I knew that everything that went downhill on the outbound traverse would be up on the return. Like it or not it was part of the bargain so I enjoyed the pull of gravity knowing that I would fight it later in the race. Over the next 17 miles the course would drop 3000 feet in elevation with ten of those miles spent up and down around 7000 feet. I was out of Dry Fork just before 2PM and into a canyon encased in big, rugged and ragged rocks decorated with sunflowers and lupine. I was told that rattlesnakes aren’t often found at these higher elevations. I was still apprehensive. I’ve never seen or heard a live rattlesnake and did not want to. What I did hear and what I reminded myself I was hearing was a kind of rattle or buzzing coming from what I think were grasshoppers in the high grasses along the single-track trail. I will admit that this sound did get my attention and in weaker moments there were irrational scenarios of a rattlesnake encounter playing out in my head. Where had the afternoon gone I wondered? The sun had moved across the sky, headed west. It was after Bear Hunting Camp where the trail cut through tall sagebrush that at times had to be pushed out of the way that we dropped down crossing the Little Bighorn River at the Footbridge. Here at the 30-mile mark I was given the opportunity to pull supplies from another drop bag. I refilled bottles with Ensure, took lamps for the night ahead, ate a sandwich and drank a coke. My watch told me it was 7:30; I had covered those first miles at a blazing speed of 3-½ mph. Time to move. Readied for the night it was time to climb, 4500 feet over the next 16 miles. I could not get the thoughts of “big” out of my mind and figured that “big” would be the concept “bouncing around inside my head” all night. I was right.
The long daylight of early summer illuminated my path until 9:45 that night. Temperatures started to drop with the setting of the sun and I put on my light Patagonia Dragonfly jacket and my headlamp as twilight waned. It was on this section of the course that I came upon “snow bogs”; big mud puddles formed by the recently melted snow. The mud sucked at my feet and my shoes got dirty but I knew that soon the opportunity to wash them off would present itself. The field had spread out as the evening approached and I found myself alone approaching Leaky Mountain (I love these names). On my way towards the 40-mile aid station at Spring Marsh just before entering the station the first front-runner was seen. Since he had a 16-mile lead on me at that point I saw no sense in trying to chase him down. He looked strong and comfortable with the task that lay before him and I wished him the best. On my way out of Spring Marsh I noticed that I could see my exhalations. It really does cool off fast in the mountains. It was about 8 miles to the turn around point with one stream crossing in between. An hour or so later Kerry Owens, VHTRC member and the second woman finisher approached looking strong and capable. She would finish her race hours before me. The sky was big and full of stars. The sight of the Milky Way mesmerized me. Taking the night sky in required stopping because when I took my eyes off the trail while running or walking I tripped. I did not want to fall down. Shortly after midnight the moon appeared three-quarters full. Its light softly bathed the land beneath it as it rose. I imagined that moon as almost shyly peaking over the sharp contrast of the rocky mountain and then emboldened rising in its glory, big in the night sky. I was alone much of the time on my way to the Porcupine station. After Elk Camp the required stream crossing came and I will admit that the water high as mid calf was cold! But now my shoes were clean. More and more runners were now coming back towards me having made it more than halfway. A group of six passed me on their way to the turn around and there was nothing I could do about that but let them go and wish them well. My hands were cold as were my feet and I was very hungry. I was wondering at this point – 1:30 in the morning whether the Bighorn 100 was bigger than I bargained for and more than I could handle
Porcupine ranger station came into view and with it the 48-mile mark. I had taken me almost 15 hours . . . . . . . yikes! I promised myself that I would sit down and change my socks but found that the socks I thought were there were instead in a drop bag miles away. Oh well! I was asked to step on the scale and found to have lost minimal weight. I sat down in the warm ranger station cabin and drank an Ensure and nursed a hot chocolate. I allowed the helpful people working this inside station to refill my bottles and make me a grilled cheese sandwich. I was pleased to find a pair of cloth gloves in my bag. My fingers would appreciate them as temperatures had dropped down near freezing overnight. Runners sat and lay down around me. For some the run was over. For others resurrection was in progress. With my belly a bit filled and hands warm I headed back from where I had come. I had 19 hours to cover 52 miles – should be easy right?
The 50-mile race would begin here at Porcupine at 6AM on Saturday. Those runners would chase us down, their goal being the same finish line as ours. Their race, touted as a challenging 50-miler, was in reality 52 miles long. I returned to the trail leaving the ranger station at 2 AM. I had a four hour lead on the 50-mile pack and wondered where I would see the first front runner from that race. I was now moving towards the finish as others approached the turn around. We spoke. I recognized a few of them. Slow and steady progress was made. The occasional glow stick and yellow ribbon reassured me and I knew I was still on course. The world began to awaken well before it became light. Moving across the open grasslands I listened as birds greeted the dawn. First with tentative chirping and then in full song. Dawn came and before and around me I again saw how big this land was. I was alone as far as my eye could see. But then the 56-mile Spring Marsh aid station came into view. I greeted the volunteers and two VHTRC members, Russ Evans and his pacer Ed Cacciapaglia. It seemed that Russ was struggling. He was a Bighorn veteran but we all know that with each and every race come different challenges. Russ had really embraced the challenge at hand and run very well, strong and fast in the early parts of this event . . . . . perhaps too much so. His pacer was a man who understood the meaning of his task and felt perfectly up to it He was there to encourage Russ, help keep him focused and moving. Although they were always ahead of me over the next 10 miles I could see Russ continue to struggle. But Ed would get him out of the aid station and on the trail, moving forward in a relentless fashion. We arrived at the 66-mile mark and our drop bags before 9AM. At this point in my run the time of day started to become a bit fuzzy. I sat down, ate, refilled bottle and accepted a dry pair of socks from Russ. A 2500 foot of climb waited. That and another 34 miles. It was time to go.
So up we went. The first 50-milers had appeared passing on by. Soon after the ascent I could see that Russ had found the will and the way to finish his race strong and he and Ed were gone, not to be seen again by me until race’s end. It was becoming warm as the sun climbed higher in the sky. The next 10 miles became a blur of rock and sagebrush, wildflowers and narrow cattle path cut into the grass. All of it big, except the cow path. I found running in this section of the course difficult. The rutted nature of the path required a restricted foot placement that fatigued me but running or walking out of the ruts proved more difficult. As the course extracted its toll I set smaller goals for myself. I knew that I had until 9PM that night to reach the finish line. That was the ultimate goal. In order to achieve that I wanted to reach the 82.5-mile mark back at Dry Fork before 3PM. This would have me there one hour before the cutoff. The climb back up to this station was in the company of many others. Some were 100-mile runners; most were partaking of the 50-mile distance. We chatted and tried to maintain and elevate one another’s spirits. At the station Scott Crabb, another VHTRC guy who would finish his 100 miler the following week at Western States came to my assistance. He restocked my supplies, brought me some fruit and drinks and told me he would see me at the finish.
With 17 miles and 6 hours left I ran with others for a bit and then I would find myself alone. Some runners I passed but more passed me. One man who had followed me off and on all day Friday and through the night now moved by having found some reserve of strength. He was Katsuyuki Hatta from Japan. I had tried to converse with him early in the race but he spoke the minimum of English. He did manage to tell me that he had completed this run three times before. His wife, behind him all day and night, also passed me in the final miles of the race. When they passed I wondered – just what do I look like at this moment in time? If they appear to be struggling and suffering and are passing me by what says that for me? No matter for it did not matter. I could almost smell the “barn with its door open”. I hooked up with a man from Bristish Columbia who promised to get us down off the mountain and to the trailhead at 95 miles by 7PM. I placed myself under his direction and we moved, sometimes fast and sometimes not, arriving there at 7:02.
There was the Tongue River once again – 32 hours after race’s start. This last aid station was filled with young people and full of energy. I had been craving a cola for hours and was rewarded with one. All that lay between the finish and me was 5 miles of road. I had been having problems with my feet since leaving Porcupine. The balls on both of them were swollen and blistered and I found it very painful when the bottoms of my feet bent during a “step off”. It was less painful to shuffle or slowly trot along the road towards the finish in a flatfooted fashion than to walk. So that was what I did. The sun was setting. The day’s heat was waning. The day was almost over. 50-mile runners continued to pass speaking words of encouragement. Anstr and Lucia Davidson from Virginia, finishing their 50-mile journey, approached. As they passed they suggested that I turn around. I did and was pleased to see my pretty friend Teresa gaining on me. Her run was nearing its end also. It was such a pleasure to share those last two miles with her and step across that finish line in her company. Our big run in the mountains was over. Our post race celebration came the next morning at the pancake breakfast in Sheridan. There awards and recognition were given to the 100-mile finishers. Trail stories were swapped and we reveled in each other’s endorphin glow. The trip to Wyoming was definitely worth it. I saw and felt things like never before. I attempt to share and keep it by writing of the experience.
I am of the opinion that lessons will be presented in life. It is up to me to acknowledge them and learn from them. Sometimes I do. Often times I have to relearn them again and again. No matter. What was shown me in no small fashion that weekend in Wyoming was the bigness and order of life. When asked what the meaning of life was one of my favorite authors, Kurt Vonnegut replied,” to be the eyes and the ears of the creator of the universe”. I like that. I tried to be just that. And what I saw was my very small part in all of it. That too is a good thing for me to remember, another aspect of the lesson. And from my small vantage point I saw rivers flowing and rock face carved by eons of wind and water. I saw evidence of man’s manipulation of nature’s law in decaying structures built to slide fallen trees down a mountainside. I heard birds bidding goodnight and good morning to the world with song. I watched and was part of an event where the day turned to night and back to day then onward towards another night. I was not surprised to see Jim O’Neil running this race despite being snake bit a week earlier. I witnessed the strength and capabilities of race leaders and the sheer determination of those running closer to me. I shared all of this in the company of others who saw and understood the value in what was being done. I believe the creator of the universe could see some of the best of his creation through my eyes that weekend in June if he chose to.
I close as always with a couple of quotations. The first I’ve used before, probably because it applies so aptly to me and is one of my favorites. The other just because it makes so much sense.
"A man must love a thing very much if he not only practices it without any hope of fame and money, but even practices it without any hope of doing it well."
- G. K. Chesterton
"If one could run without getting tired I don't think one would often want to do anything else." - C.S. Lewis