by Lynn Ballard
June 15, 2007
Running through picture postcards…that’s what the Bighorn races are like. In fact, the scenery alone is enough to pull me along for miles…but how many miles? Well, over the course of the thirty-four hours time allotted for this race, I was going to find out.
Pre-race build-up was not all that different than any ultra, but yet, this was different. I came into this race with little conflict, little apprehension, and little enthusiasm. This attitude puzzled me for weeks…FOUR weeks, to be exact. Training for Bighorn took on a life of it’s own for me. I didn’t agonize over hill work, altitude training, technical trails, I just took what the schedule gave me. I did exercise the typical “race to train for racing” strategy that worked for me in my first hundred, Rocky Raccoon back in 2006. Bandera, Cross Timbers, 3 Days of Syllamo, Leona Divide…all proved I was capable of covering some good miles in challenging terrain. Beginning in March, I pushed weekly mileage on any terrain I could find to build a base and was feeling great going into the last week of training before tapering. My youngest son’s wedding fell on the weekend 4 weeks before Bighorn and was sure to cut into my training time, no problem, I’ll just push the mileage early in the week to make sure I have a full week…”CLUNK” (to borrow a phrase from Ed, one of my favorite CanadiaNorthTexans) went my left hip. Oh, no big deal, I can push through this…”CLUNK, CLUNK!” my hip told me “Oh, no you can’t”. A forced four week taper would have to do, I told myself (not really believing it) and made a doctor’s appointment. Several sessions later, with NO running for over a week, hip is feeling better and I am confused with my complacency. Of course, everyone is saying “the rest will do you good, better under-trained than over-trained” (…not really believing it). I’ll never understand the apathy I felt about the fact that my hip problem may keep me from giving Bighorn a good shot…oh well, maybe this will be in a future episode of “Unsolved Mysteries”.
Time comes to leave for Billings, where I am to meet Stuart Skeeter, my roommate for the weekend. Timing is perfect, as we arrive at the airport in Montana amid an invasion of Texans, an all out assault on the Big Sky country. Smoothing out a few technical difficulties with the car reservation, Stuart and I head for Sheridan and race check in. We visit with Joe and Joyce Prusaitis and Robert and Dianna Heynen as we sort through and label our drop bags…OK, if we’ve made a critical drop bag mistake, no turning back now! Off to a fun pasta dinner at a restaurant overrun with runners of all ages and abilities and an excessive amount of nervous energy. “Hey Lynn”, I hear from a corner, there is a table of runners I remember from the 3 Days of Sylamo race, including Paul Schoenlaub. “There’s Horton”, someone points out. I look over and in my line of sight, I see Hans-Dieter Weisshaar, another ultra legend… I spy “Ed-bill and the Canadians”, who had once again ventured to America, grinning like possums, just waiting for me to notice them…Ed, Larry, Terry all primed and ready…fate would have only one of them reach the finish, but all were basking in the “ultraesque” of the event. A large table of Texans is assembled and we efficiently take up the task of loading up on much-needed carbohydrates for the challenge ahead of us. Stuart and I retire to our posh hotel, The Apple Tree Inn, joined by the Canadian trio mentioned above. We sit outside and review race strategies, training successes, injuries, etc. It was a special time.
Race morning feels strange. We wake up before the alarm, not due to pre-race jitters and worrying about missing the start, but because the alarm was set for 7 am and the sun was already fairly high above the horizon… a strange thing for race day. Breakfast of eggs, bacon, pancakes and hash browns, coffee juice…all at a leisurely pace…don’t have to be at the pre-race briefing until 9 am…that’s just weird! We return to the hotel to “suit up”, taking care to put all the right stuff in all the right places…and head out for Scott Park in Dayton, Wyoming, the object of our quest, the finish line. Pre-race briefings are a good thing, really. They are important because somewhere in there the briefers will say something that we briefees will need to know. I visit with other runners throughout the briefing, counting on others to hear that important tidbit…”What’s that? McDonalds cheeseburgers at Porcupine and Footbridge (two major aid stations)?”, I hear. OK, not only is it not important, it didn’t even happen!
We scramble to catch a ride the four miles between our briefing location and the starting line. The format of this run is 48 miles out to the Porcupine Ranger Station and 52 miles back to Scott Park, logistically a challenge, but not a problem as there are plenty of ways for the nervous runners to get to the start. Yes, I said nervous runners, finally, I am starting to feel “normal” (which is nervous at this point) about this race. More visiting at the starting line, many busy snapping pictures, some just sitting on rocks or car hoods waiting the GO! Minutes before 11 am, the race director announces someone who will lead us in the Star Spangled Banner, during which I am sure I heard at least one “O’Canada”… Following the song, David Horton was introduced to lead us in the invocation…nice touch! Finally we hear GO! OK, the moment of truth. I join in with Amanda and Ricky from Baton Rouge, closely followed by my friend from North Texas Matt Crownover. The four of us will remain close all the way to Upper Sheep Creek, close to eight miles into the race. During the climb out of the river canyon, we begin to see what the Bighorns have planned for us. There are multiple streams of water running down the side of the mountain that are uncontained by stream banks…that is, there is just runoff that must be negotiated. This section of the course takes us from the Tongue River Canyon up to the Horse Creek Ridge, climbing almost 3,200 feet in about 6 miles. I notice Ricky pick a path that seems to work nicely across one of the wet sections…so I follow…apparently not to the letter, as I find myself laying in a ankle-deep water not far from Fence Spring. I was informed later that this smooth move got me the “first to go face down in water” award!
We arrive at the 8 mile point and Upper Sheep Creek Aid station where we partake of the normal ultra fare, fruit, Cheetos, shrimp…wait, are you kidding me? I find my self stuffing large shrimp in my face, others stopping to take pictures. Without thinking, I hear myself ask for red sauce… We move on over rolling ups and downs and the beauty of the high country continues to tickle our senses, wildflowers aplenty, vistas, sweeping ridges…our eyes are wide as we top out at Camp Creek Ridge, almost 8,000 feet. Labored breathing gives way to whoops and hollers as we begin the short descent and before I realize it, we are approaching Dry Fork Ridge at mile 13.5 and another fantastic aid station. The volunteers happily receive wave after wave of smiling runners. This is the first crew-accessed aid station and subsequently teeming with activity. Drop bags are ravaged for the necessary items following the climb from the start at a little over 4,000 feet to this point at 7,480 feet. I choose only to change my wet socks out for dry ones, a routine I would repeat several times during the race, to provide a short break from wet feet. As I am leaving, I say hello to Stuart, who is beginning his drop bag routine, clearly on mission.
Leaving Dry Fork, I meet up with Henry Hobbs and we run together most of the way to Cow Camp. This section is mainly a heavily rutted 4-wheel drive road that keeps us hopping back and forth to find the best footing. This section also comes with a fair share of water, most of which is too deep and wide to manage without dunking our feet at least ankle deep. I make note of the signs of a powerful storm that swept though the canyon on the previous weekend, accompanied by high winds and dumping eight inches of late spring snowfall, mostly gone from this part of the course. Clearly some mighty winds filled this vast canyon, laying down thousands of trees. Mostly downhill, we manage a good deal of running, closing the gap to the 19.5 mile point in relatively short order. I also get to run part of this section with Slammin’ Sammy Voltaggio from the Hill Country Trail Runners group.
Out of Cow Camp, we travel on the east face of the Dry Fork canyon over rolling single track, taking a nice break for a face wash at one of the cold-water springs situated nicely between aid stations. I find myself with runners here that I don’t know, but we are moving well, making good time. We reach Bear Camp at the marathon mark (6,800 feet) in good spirits. This is the first of the aid stations where volunteers haul everything in either on foot or by horse or mule. As a result, there are not a lot of choices, but the basic needs are covered. It’s not far to the next major aid station, so I push through with only a water refill, eager to attack the downhill of The Wall.
Making good time on the screaming downhill despite the fact that there is a torrent of water also making good time on the screaming downhill, I reacquire the familiar backside of Matt Crownover in the distance. Matt acknowledges my appearance without turning around (how does he know?) and moves aside, observing my downhill pace is determined. I hadn’t seen Matt in the last 18 miles or so, so we exchanged greetings briefly before I continued my test of the law of gravity, and barreled down the remainder of The Wall into Footbridge at mile 30 at just under 4,600 feet. This is by far the busiest stop thus far, as it is teaming with volunteers, crew and runners in varied state of dress. I assume my position on a rock next to Dianna H, who was finishing up what I was about to start. She got up to leave, proclaiming it was after 7 and she was supposed to be gone from Footbridge by then. I wouldn’t see her again until almost 2 AM at Porcupine. The dilemma here is knowing that we are heading into darkness, as it’s close to 7 pm, not knowing what the weather holds for us, particularly as we make the climb back out of the Little Bighorn Canyon…decisions, decisions… I strapped my Marmot Precip jacket to my waist pack, changed to dry socks and filled water bottles and started to check out. But not before grabbing a handful of grapes and a delicious bean and cheese burrito prepared by the Chef of Footbridge. This was a longer stop than I wanted, but who can argue with a volunteer crew who display a sign stating that “If we don’t have it, you don’t need it”?
Again, I settle in with a train of runners I don’t know, but find pleasant conversation as we weave our way through the single track up the canyon, sometimes laying just under the surface of the Little Bighorn River…and leaving us with wet, cold feet! The 3.5 miles to Narrows went smoothly, with only one stop to adjust the firmness of my shoelaces to slow me down. In an out of Narrows efficiently and then the long trek (7 miles) to Spring Marsh became what seemed like 10 miles as darkness fell. I finally turn my handheld light on at about 9:50 pm and set in for a long night. The night was without event, save for the questions…always the questions. What am I doing here? Can I really do this? Will my wet feet hold up? The answers elude me and this is troublesome, however, it helps pass the time. I am alone now, so I chase the answers up the canyon to higher ground.
Spring Marsh comes then Elk Camp and the footing is quite bad, sloppy mud and snow melt that has become unavoidable. Somewhere in this section, I find myself back in the company of Matt Crownover. He is pondering aloud the existential value of the Bighorn pursuit. For a few minutes I am confused, however, I soon realize this is the most positive negative talk to befall my tired ears and attempt to point out the virtue of the quest… Of course the ever polite Matt ponders my response, but seems unfazed at my weak attempt to convince him that somewhere beyond the turnaround, value for the runner is to be had! I move on and am soon alone.
As I reach some of the highest elevation on the course sometime near 1:00 am, I realize the moonless night still offers a healthy portion of wonderment overhead. I fumble to douse my waist light and extinguish my hand torch. The terrain forces me to a halt, as it is unsafe to move forward while my eyes remain fixed upon the stars…more and brighter stars than I have ever seen… Almost enough light coming from the Milky Way, shamelessly undulating overhead, to create shadows! I breathe yet another prayer of thanksgiving and re-light to resume my upward trek. I top out near 9,000 feet at Devil’s Canyon Road and begin the short, but snowy descent into Porcupine at 48 miles.
This aid station was alive with energy. A local high school cross country team provided wonderful support of the weary runners…I get a choice seat inside and begin to fumble with my rather ample drop bag. A young lady recites the culinary offerings of Porcupine and I settle on a grilled cheese sandwich…hot off the grill and delicious, so good, in fact that I settle on another. I chased these down with a Mountain Dew, my favorite ultra refreshment! I didn’t want to stay too long here, partially motivated by the runner sitting next to me holding a large container in a manner that suggested he was in imminent danger of involuntarily emptying the contents of his stomach! I move to the outer room and Dianna H is finishing up her aid station routine and we leave Porcupine together at about 2 am.
We carefully navigate the snowfields above Devil’s Canyon Road. Not long after we begin to drop elevation we overtake Joe P and the three of us make a merry trio for the trek to Elk Camp. We greet runners still climbing to Porcupine, noting the progress of many and catching up on all the news of who has dropped and who is still in it. I am happy to see Henry H and Stuart S only a few miles out of the turnaround. We pull into Elk Camp and Joe gives me a tip on his secret weapon of a 50/50 blend of coffee and hot chocolate as he plants himself on a log near the campfire. We sit for a minute enjoying our beverage and realize Dianna H has already left the aid station. We push on down toward Spring Marsh in search of Dianna, but the sloppy footing continues to be quite challenging in the dark, making it a slow downhill. I smile as I think about the advice I have given the 50 mile runners, Dave, Mark and Fred. I had been here in 2004 to run the 50 mile event, so I felt compelled to give these greenhorns a little advice from a veteran. Just before I started my quest, I told to push pretty hard on this section, as it was very runnable…(they would be crossing this mess in their first 10 miles in a few hours). I was sure my name would come up as they realized just how bad it was!
Joe and I finally recapture Dianna and our threesome is again complete. We find good footing and I begin to push the pace below Elk Camp. Once again, I am alone, contemplating the morning and what lies ahead…more questions. It is nearing 4:30 am and there is good light in the sky ahead…the stars in that part of the sky appear to melt away. Just before good light, I am in Spring Marsh. It is filled with weary, but very helpful volunteers and I sit for a cup of tasty soup as Joe P arrives. I pull out before Joe, but sense he is ready to get serious. Not much time passes before I begin to lose focus and the terrain, while uneven, was runnable. But I was not running! I knew this section would be a challenge and also knew I should be making better time here, I just didn’t care. Joe overtakes me and moves on after a brief exchange. This 7 mile stretch felt like 10 on the outbound and it felt like 12 on the return!
More sleepy volunteers push themselves to assist me at Narrows…but I spend very little time and push on to Footbridge, still moving much more slowly than I should be. I knew this might prove costly, but couldn’t help it. I lost even more focus. As I drop down near the Little Bighorn River, I notice a very large, very black house cat next to the trail ahead of me. For some reason, I didn’t find this strange…a house cat this far out in the wild seemed totally OK. What did concern me, however, was the cat, sitting so still on the side of the trail, would surely be startled as I approached and perhaps even attack me (remember it was a very large cat!). I was certain it would scratch my legs quite a bit. As I crossed the point I was certain the cat would react, it turned in to a burned out stump and I realized I just had my first ultra hallucination! I pressed on to Footbridge.
Once I reached Footbridge, I regained some focus, as the night was well behind. I made some mistakes here, and am noting now that this would have been a good place to have some crew support. The volunteers, while very positive and supportive, were little help as I searched for my drop bag, found a seat and proceeded to change socks. I think I gave up on getting much help and, growing a little frustrated, threw dry socks on without treating my feet to the magic Blister Shield powder that had helped me get this far with no blister problems. I charged out of the aid station and attacked The Wall… I overtake several runners in this section including Joe P and Hans Dieter W, both very experienced ultrarunners that consistently perform at levels which I believe are out of my reach. I press on up the most challenging climb the Bighorn race throws at it’s runners, making good time for now. Into Bear Camp again, and I realize the biggest mistake I made at Footbridge…I had not taken in the calories I would need to get to Cow Camp and beyond and Bear Camp did not have enough of what I needed. I began a major bonk!…Bonk! BONK! I reached the Stock Tank Spring and take a minute to re-charge my water bottles with the icy cold water piped right out of the side of the mountain. I douse my head, washing my face thoroughly hoping to rub some energy or clear thinking in there! It feels great, but I know it is temporary at best. The trail from here is quite rough, very uneven footing that seems to siphon energy directly from my legs and will directly from my spirit. I find myself staggering on the trail, both uphill and down. I am panting on very slight inclines. I conclude that I am done and believe I have my answers… It’s 10:00 am, I am almost 10 miles from Dry Fork Ridge and a 4 pm cut-off. Six hours to go 10 miles, no way I can make it in time! (How’s that for clear thinking?) I find a nice shade in which I determine I will complete my crash.
Several 50 mile front runners come by and I sit, much like a spectator and cheer them on. Leaning back on my elbows, I close my eyes and, not sure how much later, find Allen W sitting beside me. Dianna H is standing over me and they address me not as a heaping pile of wasted runner, but rather greet me as if this is a perfectly normal tactic for a race. Allen says “I’m just going to sit here until Joe gets here.” I look up and see Joe P about 70 yards below us, moving our direction. As Joe reaches our position, he plops down on the other side of me and announces “You know how to pick a nice shade.” Again, it seems they think I’m just going to jump back up and resume the race. “I’m done!” I announce, and immediately wonder if I actually said it out loud, as there was no response to my statement, or even acknowledgement that I had said anything at all. Dianna moves up the trail for some ‘privacy’, so it’s just the three of us, enjoying a respite from the sun next to the trail.
After a very short while, Joe pulls himself to his feet, looking strikingly similar to a puppet being pulled up by its strings and announces, “Well, you can’t drop here so you might as well fall in with us.” Not sure why, I obey, bringing up the rear of our little Texas train. We’ve not gone over a mile together when I take up my case with Joe. “I can’t make a fist, my hands are so swollen, I’ve never had a problem with swelling”, I plead to Judge Joe. Without hesitation, Joe responded with words that probably saved my race…”I know how to fix that”, he states glibly. “Oh really, how?” I ask. “Finish the damn thing! THAT will fix all of your problems.” I have no response.
Before I know it, we are approaching the Cow Camp aid station, preceded by a stream crossing that was quite refreshing. Allen has pulled out of site, but Joe, Dianna and I pause in the stream to let our feet cool and to douse our heads with the soothing snowmelt…lifting our energy for the short climb to the waiting volunteers of Cow Camp. We are seated and waited on by smiling folks with plates brimming with fruit and bacon. Mmmmmm, bacon! I wolf down three pieces of nasty-salty God-sent bacon and think of absolutely nothing else. Joe and Dianna exit and I am still sitting, but finally escape the grasp of the lounge chair. Exit Cow Camp, 76.5 miles.
Joe, Dianna and I make our way up the climb toward Dry Fork with absolutely no cover from the sun and the temp is rising…we douse ourselves in the water crossings, which thankfully, are plentiful. Dianna pulls away and Joe and I plod onward and upward with little conversation. We soon begin to see the mirage of Dry Fork, always above us, but never really seeming to get closer. And finally, we begin to see spectators who have wondered down into the drain up which we are struggling to catch that first glimpse of their runner, a good sign we are nearing the aid station. We struggle on. The last half mile is an eternity, but we eventually find ourselves in the company of many friendly faces, some from crews, some who were beside us in our quest just a few hours ago, having stopped their particular quest at Porcupine.
What happened in Dry Fork was magical, nothing else can describe it. I had come from the pit and now was on the mountaintop, made to feel like a hero for having come this far by my friends Matt and Paula. I was treated like royalty, my every need attended to. Finding myself embarrassed at all the attention, I haltingly comply with the commands…”Sit here, put your feet up. I’m going to wash your feet.”, I hear Matt say. I protest this is too much, that I can manage, but Matt will hear none of it. Paula has left my side only momentarily to fetch fresh fruit, glorious calories for me to take in. As if I am under a spell, I sit quietly and compliantly as Matt Crownover, Paula Billman and Teresa Bone breath life back into my spent shell. Thanks, you guys, you don’t know how much this meant to me at that particular point in the race. After a quick weigh in, I hear something that sounds like my voice say #742 OUT! The voices of my friends fade behind me and I am now confident I will finish the 17.5 remaining miles of Bighorn. I chase Joe and Dianna and another Austin runner, Santhosh (from the 50 mile event). Not fully recovered, I resolve to let them go and just a minute later, Mark Blenden, another North Texan in the 50 mile event comes up behind me and we fall in together. I insist he go on, not having much confidence I would be able to run a lot more, but Mark matches my pace. We catch up on each others’ experience thus far and settle into a good rhythm and before I know it, we reacquire Joe, Dianna and Santhosh before we get to Upper Sheep at 87.5 miles.
From here it is a good pitch up “The Haul”, a steep climb up to the top of the drain back down to the start in Dayton. We all gear up for the pounding downhill, dropping about 3,000 feet in the next 8-10 miles and pick up the pace in the “Joe Prusaitis” downhill style of running I have come to love (well maybe not so much right then). It’s great to have company on this part of the course. In 2004, I remember covering this part alone and it was a lot more fun sharing the pain with friends. Time passes and we reach Lower Sheep at mile 92.5 and seem to take forever to reach the trailhead and the start of the gravel road back to the finish. At the Tounge River Trailhead aid station, I move through quickly and push on down the road. I felt I had been struggling to keep up with this group and I needed to push on to have a chance of staying with them to the end. As it turns out, I wouldn’t see Joe and Dianna again until they crossed the finish line. Mark and I press on, speedwalking the slight hills and running when I can muster the energy. I look up so to see Matt Crownover approaching us on a bicycle (man, he was everywhere), checking on our progress. He continues on to check with Joe and Dianna and then Fred Thompson, another 50 mile Texan comes up from behind us. I encourage Mark to continue on with Fred and they leave me alone at the Homestretch aid station, just 2 miles from the finish. I find legs again and am surprised to find myself running more than walking, covering the gravel road section much faster than I anticipated… entering Dayton, then the park, then the finish line at 32:34! Wow, lots of folks cheering for me and calling my name…a great feeling. Joyce Prusaitis is at the finish line and I try to tell her how her husband saved my race, but the words are choked back by my tears, so she just gave me a big, knowing hug before I find a place in the river to soak from the waist down. Shortly Joe and Dianna come in and we manage a good visit, a bite to eat and Stuart and I are off to the hotel to clean up and hit the bed.
bighorn2007_lballard2The award breakfast on Sunday morning was quite festive. Both the men’s and the women’s course records fell despite the course conditions. Having such a large contingent of Texans there made it a special time, kind of like having an extra large number of fans show up at an away game… Joe Prusaitis grabbed my attention once more by saying…”you know this was a Hardrock qualifier, don’t you?” Doh!