Sunday, June 24, 2012

Race Report: Bighorn Mountain 50 Miler

What a race! Bighorn may have been both the prettiest and best-executed ultra I've done yet. I finally got my nutrition down and ran a race I was happy with, finishing in 11:51. That's the executive summary. Here's the full version...

The Bighorn Mountains rise dramatically out of the great plains in northern Wyoming and spring to over 13,000 feet seemingly out of no where. They are physically separated from the rest of the Rockies, and Yellowstone and the Tetons, immediately to their west, but are no less spectacular.

Photo from
On offer are 100 mile, 50 mile, 50 km, and 30 km races -- something for everyone. The logistics are arranged such that racers from all four events finish at the same park in Dayton at roughly the same time. The 100 milers start from the finish line and run west across the Bighorns and back; for us 50 milers, a bus takes us on the outbound journey and we run back. Since that bus departed Dayton at 4am, I made a quick campsite at the high school and got the usual spotty pre-race night of sleep.

Cowboy camp style, in honor of the locale.

It's only really dark for about six hours a night in north Wyoming in mid-June. Heading into the mountains at 4am with the sun rising, many of us saw the spectacular geography, flora, and wildlife we'd be traversing through for the first time as dawn broke. It was as magnificent an experience as I've ever had on an overcrowded school bus.

When we arrived at the start line, they gave us exactly as much time as it took for each of us to use the port-o-potties once, then we sang the national anthem and, on its concluding note, we were off!

It was cold at the start, many people were huddled around warmers despite jackets and gloves. However, you warm up really quickly as the sun comes up and you descend: by 40 minutes in, my gloves were off and my jacket tied around my waist. I might skip the jacket and brave the first half hour if I were to do it again.

The first miles, at 9,000 feet, are over snowy, muddy alpine meadows. Don't bother trying to keep your feet dry; it won't happen. I was mud-caked halfway up my calves within the first hour. They told us that many racers like to change socks and shoes at mile 18 -- that's an excellent idea.

With drops at miles 18 and 34, I had mentally divided the race into thirds and my mantra for the day was easy for the first third, steady in the second, put the hammer down in the third and see what you have left. A sentence I had read somewhere kept coming to mind: "Among those ahead of you, there are those that should be, and those who you will catch." True words.

From mile 18 on I was passed by exactly zero runners. Not even one, not ever. I must have passed upward of a hundred people over those eight hours, and I am convinced that is the way to run these races. I've heard that the ideal way to run a 100 is to split 1:1.3 for the first and second 50s, respectively, but I doubt it. People race through their glycogen reserves in the first thirds of ironmans and ultras and end up walking late in the game. It pays to save that fuel.

I also three-way split my hydration system and poles. For the first third of the race, which involves a rolling descent from 9,100' to 4,600', I ran with a handheld water bottle. At mile 18, for the race's big climbs, I picked up my Nathan hydration vest and ultralight hiking poles, which I then dropped off at mile 34, opting for the more-running-than-hiking-oriented handheld for the final third. That worked out really well, allowing me to take some pressure off my legs during the big climbs but charge a little harder on the flats; I think I'll employ a similar strategy at Pine to Palm this fall. 

My other great success of the day was fueling. I struggled with this during my Grand Canyon double crossing and 50k (still to be blogged) a couple weeks earlier, so this time I decided to try just eating whatever sounded good at the time. This included, over the course of the race: trail mix, gu, sports drink, shot blocks, M&Ms, beef jerky, candy bars, turkey wraps, pretzels, crackers, chips, fruit, PB&J, pizza, avocado, espresso-bean brownies, Mountain Dew, and the best Icee pop I've ever had at mile 48. And unlike my last couple long, hot events, my stomach didn't lock up this time. I suspect too little protein and fat in previous events caused my stomach to over-acidify, leading to nausea. By the end of the race, I could feel the jolt of energy that each shot block provided. I will pay a lot of attention to fueling for the 100 miler. I'm coming to appreciate just how much of this sport is managing heat and fuel.

The geology was spectacular throughout, with big cliffs, grand views, and spectacular stream crossings and waterfalls. The wildflowers too--lupine, indian paintbrush, alpine sunflower, and plenty more--were incredible and made an always-nice distraction from the task at hand. Around mile 35 I came upon a bull moose, not 20 yards off the trail. At first I was thrilled, but as he gave me the stink eye as I passed, I got nervous... had he decided to charge, there would have been little I could've done in my exhausted state. He took a few steps in my direction to show me out of his meadow and that was that.

After an aid station around mile 40, there's a big pass to climb, and then a steep descent for five miles. It was here that I really put the hammer down. It hurt, often a lot, but I passed a lot of people on this descent. I had lost my Garmin around mile 19 (some kind ultrarunner picked it up and brought it to lost and found -- thank you!!!), so I kept asking at aid stations for the time, and for the second half of the race, it looked like I was right on the cusp of 12 hours, if I could finish strong. That goal, which emerged during the race, motivated a strong descent out of the canyon.

The last five miles of the course were the only thing I didn't like about this race. Once you exit the canyon, and hence the mountains, you have five miles of flat, exposed dirt road before the finish line. It is hot and grueling. I passed a 100 miler here that was shrieking with every step (and who finished and is now a 100 miler forever -- congrats!).

I was challenged for a pass by one runner, with whom I'd been running off-and-on for the last five miles and discussing the possibility of a sub-12 finish, just 200 yards before the finish line. I heard her coming, and then heard a lady from the crowd yell, "yeah, get him!" And then I turned on the rocket boosters. I was not about to be passed for the first time in 32 miles with the finish line in view. It's amazing the reserves we have when we need them.

Done, still un-passed for 32 miles.

You can see the stream to the right of us in the picture. After the race a bunch of us jumped into that snowmelt to sooth aching joints. It was wonderful and terrible, and I didn't realize until I got out that I had very little thermoregulatory ability left and got really, really cold.

As I was picking up my drop bags, I commented on how good a fellow runner's coconut water looked, and he gave me a can. I love the ultra scene.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent choice of race, and impressively well paced! It has taken me 15 years to learn how to split ultras evenly, and I still get it wrong on a regular basis. Good luck with P2P, and watch out – I hear it is deceptively runnable throughout.