It was race day morning for the Bighorn 50K. The biggest, hardest mountain race I'd taken on. One Lesley and I had started talking about at Palo Duro Trail Run last October. After traveling to Bandera in January, Jeremy was on board to do the 100 mile. And now we were all finally in the land of very little air, big mountains, and giant canyons.
It took me two blog posts just to get us to this start line. One about the 2 days leading up to the race, and how Jeremy and other friends had already started the 100 mile race. And one post about the logistics required for a point-to-point mountain race to even get to the start line.
And now it was our turn. We lined up in the back.
It was time to go, and we saw our friend Luke racing up the mountain at the very front of the pack. For the rest of us HUMANS, everyone quietly powerhiked up the mountain. Compare it to a large road marathon, and it's the quietest, least energetic race start you've ever seen.
It wasn't long before both Lesley and I could feel the impact the altitude had when climbing. I wasn't going to hold it against my Hypoxico altitude tent training I had been doing because climbs like this even at sea level would have had me huffing and puffing.
The line of powerhiking runners turned a bend, and we kept going up. We came up over a hill.... and we kept going up. Into a few trees and back out... and we kept going up. It was about 2 miles of just UP, and some of it decently rocky. This was part of an 8 mile stretch the 50K would do to loop around to rejoin the 100M and 50M course to get our distance. Only the 50K saw this section. We were literally climbing a mountain to run along a ridge before descending to rejoin the other distance runners.
We spent this uphill ridge section picking our times and places to run versus walk as the hills rolled through this terrain, yet still sending us up. "We'll walk at that tree that the light is hitting." "Run again when we hit that patch of sage bushes." Horribly pretty, but for identifying places to run or walk, sometimes you just wished you had a mailbox or lamppost or stop sign for a reference point!
About 3 miles in we came around a bend with pine trees, and in the shade was a 6'x6' pile of SNOW! Lesley laid down and did a snow angel and once she froze her butt doing that, I was not laying down in that! The participants behind us laughed like we were the oddest things they'd ever seen. But when we explained we were from Texas, it all made sense. We definitely a state slogan we could use with all the people who were from the area: "Come Visit Texas. We've Got AIR!"
At 4 miles, we had an "aid station"... of sorts. In a trail race, sometimes your aid station really is just a guy with a Search & Rescue ATV on the side of the trail, with a cooler of water hanging off his tailgate. We refilled our water and were thankful to him. Of course, then we had to drink the water for another 4.2 miles to the next aid station, and it had an "off" not fresh taste that just bugs you when it's your only hydration for miles to go.
Then we passed an older gentleman, and he asks in a surprised voice, "Did you two ladies start the race late?!" We laughed and said, "No, we're just being conservative today!" We told him about being from the land of sea level. He had run the race before.
The altitude didn't really bother me much. Lesley said it didn't bother her, but she was running an easier pace - she's a faster runner than me, for sure. While the ups were hard, they were hard regardless of altitude. On the flats and downs, I felt like I could run the same paces at home. And when I finished, that result would show in my finish time. Seattle friends said the altitude was noticeable to their perceived effort too. 5 weeks in a Hypoxico altitude tent with a handful high altitude treadmill workouts had worked its magic to take the edge off of what was already a hard race.
5 miles in and we note and step over a piece of contractor tape that appears to have blown onto the trail from wherever it was attached, as we continued on this wide ATV trail. There was no one ahead or behind us in view at all. After a quarter of a mile, we noted there weren't any trail markers. As we approached a half mile, we started to really worry we had missed a marked turnoff. At 0.6 miles from where we had ended up going off trail, we hit a deadend in the ATV trail. It literally ended in a turnaround donut. Lucky to get off trail on a place that made it so obvious. Of course before backtracking, we took a "selfie" of us in front of the deadend.
We encountered a couple runners as we headed back. Later we would talk to a few others who called people back from the spot where we went off. As we were heading back to find where we got off course, the older gentleman from before said, "I'm not above bushwhacking down this mountain. Are you up for an adventure?" Uh, no. We'll stay on the trail, thankyaverymuch.
We get back to the contractor tape across the trail. And that's when we finally see that up the hill, through the grass (not a trail!), is a flag. Then another flag. OH! We had done 1.2 miles of bonus miles, or as David Hanenburg would say, we were getting the best value out of our race entry fee that day.
And that path through the grass ended up signifying the trail all the way down the mountain. We went through trees, around downed logs, with soft dark forest soil and numerous muddy or snowmelt brook crossings. A super steep descent at one point through soft soil that gave way mixed with rocks. And the whole time, Lesley keeps saying "This is NOT a trail." Someone had come out with their plow and a weedwhacker and made a way down the mountain it seemed, to make the 50K distance work out. I took a shadowy picture of Lesley in front of some giant boulders. Our friend Rebecca said in her blog that she liked this whole bushwhacking section. I did not. Perhaps it was that now I was on high alert and in front. I was wayfinding for flags and course marking ribbons like it was the difference between life and death. Maybe it was that they had said we would have an aid station at miles 6 and 8.2, and we were at 7 miles without a mile 6 aid station. Was the water cooler at the ATV at mile 4 the actual mile "6" aid station?! Did we miss one? Did they just set up 2 miles earlier on this race day? Welcome to trail racing and its mysteries and unknowns when out on the course. :-/ One cool thing though was that, with a big break in runners thanks to us getting lost, in that time between the runners ahead of us and us coming along, multiple deer had come through, leaving big tracks in the soft soil!
We emerged from the trees into the meadows of the canyon down below. This was our "Heidi" moment or our "Sound of Music" section, where I realized as I sang that I only know the first line to "The Hills Are Alive with the Sound of Music". LOL.
Lesley and I were finally seeing runners once we were in the rolling meadow section. We would exclaim "I See Humans!!" I looked back up at the mountain ridge we had traveled on. I said to Lesley, "Look, there's the boulders I took a picture of you on the other side of." They looked so far away now!
|Up on the mountain. Lesley in front of boulders. (Stupid shadow)|
|That gray horizontal line of rocks in the middle of the picture near the top of the mountain? Yeah, that's where we had come from! Really puts it into perspective.|
We came into Cow Camp Aid Station at mile 8.2. We had heard they take 40 pounds of bacon to this aid station, so we were excited. I ate two pieces of bacon - so crispy, it was delicious! They also had roasted potato slices. Oh my goodness they were still blazing hot, but that didn't really stop Lesley or me from shoving them down because they were so good. Ultrarunners turn stupid in front of food after the miles we put in, so they really should be careful about what temperature the food is they are setting out.
Now we were seeing lots of humans as we had intersected the 50 mile and 100 mile runners. We met a super nice 100M runner from Sweden. He said he could race anywhere in Europe but he had chosen to come here! Very cool! We were all chitchatting as we encountered each other on the trail.
This field segment from miles 8.2 to 14.4 had a dozen snowmelt crossings. Being back of the pack meant that the crossing had been widened too with mud and deep footprints of those before us. My feet got soaked over and over again during this.
Yet we knew we had to go up-up-up to get back to our start line, which would be the Dry Fork Aid Station at mile 14.4. Every time we had a big hill, we would then have downhill. It was maddening because each downhill meant that the uphill was getting shorter and steeper. It was not helped that the canyon's meadows made it that you could see the glint of the cars when you were miles from the aid station. The distance didn't bother me personally because, with my Garmin, I had realistic expectations of how far we still had to go. But knowing the hill was coming was unsettling.
The slog up the hill into the Dry Fork aid station was exactly as terrifying then as we had built it up to be. A big long uphill. Lesley said it made her think of a biblical exodus as the hill was dotted with ultrarunners slow hiking it. I sang from Ferris Bueller, "When Cameron was in Egypt land... let my Cameron GOOOooooOOO!" Yes, I'm a goofball.
Into the Dry Fork aid station, and this was our longest stop. About 7 minutes. I wanted to really catch my breath from that 800 ft ascent we had just made. I had some potatoes with salt, some peanut M&Ms, and some Pepsi. I don't drink soda normally, but love it starting about 13-15 miles into an ultra. But it has always been Coke until this time around. Blech to Pepsi. Overly sweet to me. But it was caffeine and liquid gold in terms of calories, so I downed 2 cups.
Leaving Dry Fork, it was a long uphill on a wide dusty road. Occasionally cars would come roaring down the road making the air thick with dust. Even once we left the road, it was a big uphill section of trail.
Lesley and I had a good rhythm going after that. We almost went off the course another time, seeing a giant creek to cross ahead, before another girl pointed out the flags going through the grassy field higher up the hill. Oops. "NOT a trail!" from Lesley again. But when we followed, the place where we crossed the creek did have a pretty cool, yet unstable, bridge for us!
I chatted with a guy from Arizona who was doing the 100 mile. He was happy for the distraction, and we bombed a downhill together leading up to the mile 19.5 Upper Sheep Creek aid station. Lesley started noticing her knee bothering her on this downhill.
By the way, they totally should have had aid station shirts, even available for purchase, that said "Bighorn Trail Run... Upper Sheep Creek without a Paddle". I sooo would have bought one. It was my own private giggle.
Out of the aid station we soon came to "The Haul". It was about 1000 ft up in a mile or so. BIG up. Lesley is a stronger climber than me, so she was consistently far ahead. She would reach what we thought was the top, disappear, and then I'd hear "It keeps going." And then I'd get around the next bend and yell curses. I took a couple short breaks up this hill.
Lesley had thankfully waited for me, finding she had cell service, she called a friend to say she was on top of a mountain. As we ran through this field, I'm in front watching for rocks, picking my footing, and wayfinding for course markers. Lesley pipes up that she thought she spotted poison ivy by the trail. Oh great, then all I could see when I looked at the trail were the plants on either side. I was sure I was going to take a big tumble and kept having to snap myself out of it. Then at one point I said, "My leg itches. But I'm afraid it could be poison ivy and I don't want to spread it, so I will NOT scratch it!" LOL.
Then, it got exciting as we had to drop 3500 ft in just 2 miles. It was horribly steep, and the trail was narrow with lots of loose rocks and embedded boulders. And it went down right alongside a barb wire fence that just screamed "Tetanus". At this point, Lesley's knee was having a lot of trouble taking the downhill. The distance between us started to widen. I would look back a lot and for a long while I could see her when we'd both have come over one of the hills.
Besides being such a steep drop, we would also then have a small uphill here and there. Watching the relative elevation on my Garmin, I knew how much we still had to drop to get to the aid station at mile 24.5. When I arrived in the aid station at Lower Sheep Creek, I chatted with the aid station volunteers. I talked about being from Texas, which would be great when Lesley came in because they would light a fire in her to hunt me down to finish together when they said another girl from Texas had just come through!!
|How's that for a creek crossing?! Interesting "bridge"|
It was a long 2.2 miles to the next aid station. My feet had been hurting. It was what hurt the most on me, but it was getting progressively worse. I knew I had multiple blisters forming, but I couldn't do much about it now. It was mind over matter.
Lesley caught me a half mile before the Tongue River aid station. We had to scramble over some boulders with a cliff to one side and a mountain wall on the other. I wasn't very talkative with my foot pain at that point, but I was happy to see her.
At the Tongue River aid station, we knew we had 5 miles left ... of awful pebbly gravel road. I turned away from the real food this late in the race and just did a cup of Pepsi and a cup of Ginger ale.
That horrible gravel road that went on forever. In the hot sun with no shade. I was mostly silent, letting Lesley do all the gabbing with an occasional hand gesture thrown in from me. Everything in my energy not to think about how much my feet hurt. I stopped a couple times from the pain but Lesley would say, "No stopping, let's go!" She acted like a pacer, keeping just ahead and to my left so I couldn't smack her or tackle her or strangle her. All things I wanted then. The flat terrain wasn't completely tearing up her knee at this point, so advantage Lesley on that one.
|Set up in someone's yard. The legs spun thanks to drills attached to the back. So cute!|
Cars kept passing us. Unless you were one of the few who lived on that road or you were going to or from the aid station, they'd made it clear that crews were NOT supposed to drive on the road. They would kick up tons of dust, and they would throw us off our path. Because we would pick the flattest most worn down pebbled section of the road and run on that. Deviating off to a more gravelly section hurt terribly. At one point I tried to muster a bigger run and after saying for a half mile that I wasn't going to cry, I started crying on that run and then hyperventilating, and we had to slow up while I breathed.
Two miles out, I suddenly stopped. Lesley said, "Let's go!" I said, "Wait." A blister on my right heel had exploded and a searing hot fire shot through my body, and I sobbed for a second. So incredibly painful. Then we got moving again. A couple hanging out by their Jeep cheered us on, but, while I normally get out a Thank you, I had nothing for them. Lesley said, "Let's go!" about a mile out, and I suddenly yelled, "I'm going as fast as I can!!!" Seconds later I added, "I'm really happy you are here on this trip and that we're going to finish together". It wasn't personal, she knew it, but I was beyond grumpy.
We crossed a bridge into town with about 0.4 miles to go. A woman cheered, "You're Almost There!" I said," NO! No, we're not. Stop saying that." She said, "Ok." And I actually said, "Thank you." It was that moment where unless that finish line was 20 feet in front of me, I was nowhere near almost there, and I couldn't take it. I imagined how ripped up my feet had to be, how many blisters I must have, because my feet were on fire.
We came into the park, and people were cheering. Nice small group of lovely spectators. The park gravel got terribly rutted and Lesley's knee barked at her... hard. Suddenly after 5 miles of pacing me, it turned around into me pushing the pace and telling her, "Just a few more steps" for that tenth of a mile.
We crossed the finish line spent. And we were shocked that Rebecca, Luke, and Courtney were all right there waiting for us. Rebecca got a picture of us crossing the finish line. And Luke and Courtney had finished their races and collected their awards hours ago, so we were so touched and surprised that they really had waited for us! I couldn't speak. Then Lesley was crying to Becca. I started to walk a little towards where Luke and Courtney had staked out a spot, and Becca was asking me what I needed. That's when I cried that my feet hurt so bad. She steered me straight over to medical.
It turns out I had feet maceration. All the wet creek crossings had done a toll, and I was told I basically had pulverized them into "hamburger". The entire bottoms of both feet looked smashed, flattened, and the skin was white, paper thin, like pruny fingers to 100x the magnitude you've seen. My right blister that had exploded they cleaned up with antiseptic. And I had a handful of other various big and small blisters, but after reviewing, it was agreed I should leave them alone for now. I was told to walk around the race site and hang out barefoot. My feet basically needed to dry out so the skin could firm back up and stop folding over itself to make blisters or potentially ripping. It was so painful.
But back to the results.... With 5000 gain in elevation and 8700 loss, with altitude thrown in, and technical terrain, and a bonus 1.2 miles, and we had finished in 9:30. I had set myself a goal that I wanted to finish faster than the rocky, yet low altitude, Bandera 50K I had run back in January, where I finished in a 9:52. So I was really pleased with my time.
Afterwards I sat with my lovely friends for quite a while. Luke offered me one of their camp chairs, and eventually, even though I'm not a big beer drinker, I did finally accept his offer and drink one of theirs. I needed the calories. Nothing in me wanted to eat and wouldn't for hours after.
Then, we saw our friend Jaime coming around the corner of the park. And we cheered him in. He was worn out.
15 minutes later, Jenn crossed the finish line, with a nosebleed.
2 minutes after that, Jeremy came in and completed his 6th 100 miler in 33 hours, 15 minutes.
Bighorn 50K was definitely the hardest race I had ever done. Yes, harder than the other 8 50Ks I had completed previously. Yes, even harder than the 2 50 mile races I'd completed. And it was so worth it!
New and old friends, a strong personal challenge, absolutely gorgeous views, what a fantastic race weekend!