Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Bighorn 100 (29:49:09)

After finishing the San Juan Solstice 50 one year ago, I decided to make the next step to the 100. The Bighorn 100 sounded appealing to me due to its accessibility from Fort Collins, the ease of getting into the race (no lottery), no really high altitude to manage, and the abundance of beautiful mountain singletrack. This certainly wasn't the easiest course to attempt my first 100, but neither were the San Juan Mountains for my first 50.

I made the trip up to Dayton on Thursday with a full crew and two pacers. My parents had driven cross-country from Maine with a camper in tow while my two older sisters and nephew flew in to Denver on Wednesday. My friend Kevin from Fort Collins would be pacing me from Footbridge to Dry Fork (miles 66 to 82.5) and sister Regina would join me from Dry Fork to the finish (at least that was the plan).

After delivering drop bags and getting through the medical check in Sheridan, we set up camp at the Foothills Campground in Dayton, which couldn't be any more convenient as it was right next to the finish line. I then recognize some of the race favorites setting up camp right next to us (so I guess we were at the right place). It was nice chatting with Jeff Browning, Yassine Diboun, and Joe Grant who would all be vying for the win, and also Geoff Donovan who was shooting for sub 24hr (which he would get along with a top 10 finish). With Karl Meltzer not running this year and most of the big dogs running at Western States next week, this race may lack some star power but I think it is Bighorn's deepest and most competitive field yet.

After a little walk around Dayton, I run into Brownie on his way to the Crazy Woman Saloon. Bighorn is his first step to the Rocky Slam this year so his plan is to go for a conservative 29 hour effort (he would end up getting it done). I figure if I see Brownie's signature boonie hat out on the course then I am pacing myself about right.

Sister Robin at the Crazy Woman Saloon in Dayton.

The morning of the race brought clear skies and fairly warm temps. It was going to be a beautiful day. The 11am start seems to take forever to come, but I still prefer it to the very early starts that are typical for these races.

Walking to the starting line in the Tongue River Canyon.

My plan was to do a fair amount of running through the first 30 miles to Footbridge without completely burning myself out. I figured that there would be a lot less runnable stuff from Footbridge to Porucupine with snow, mud, and darkness and that would give me the chance to really go slow and conserve for Day 2. As it turned out the Tongue River Canyon was even more runnable than I expected. Once we left the canyon and the trail opened up to the vast meadows of wildflowers, we were in for a long uphill grind. It was a grind but I felt good that my hiking pace was keeping up with the few guys around me that were actually still running. After we summitted Horse Creek Ridge and got back to some more runnable trail and forest roads, I could hear Geoff's English accent chattering behind me. I knew he was gunning for sub 24hr and I also knew last year's womens winner Ashley Nordell was still behind me. Maybe I was going too fast? Soon after I was then following Geoff, we were screaming down a nice downhill and completely ignored the well marked flags indicating that the trail went back from the road to the singletrack. As we saw racers on the ridge above us, including Ashley, we realized we had to climb all the way back up that hill we just flew down. Not a big deal. As it would turn out, I would arrive at the Dry Fork Aid Station (mile 13.5) in 2hr46min with Geoff and just ahead of Ashley (my goal was 3hrs). According to my crew I was running 18th coming in. I was a little slower at the aid station than the others, staying about 5 minutes. I would never see Geoff and Ashley again until they were headed back from Porcupine on their way to very successful races.

Approaching Dry Fork on the heels of Geoff Donovan.

The next stage (in my mental organization) was 16.5 miles from Dry Fork to Footbridge. As I am descending from Dry Fork I meet Bryan Goding slowly hiking back up the hill. Not sure what went wrong, but this was a quick exit for one of our top Fort Collins entrants. He was sub 24hr last year. I was still going pretty strong through this section but was feeling the afternoon heat. I was much favoring the shady sections through the forest than the open meadows. I finished up this section with some strong downhill running, down the "Wall", and came into Footbridge (30 miles) at 6hrs8min. I was almost one hour ahead of my goal of 7 hours here and I couldn't believe that my feet were still dry. I was still questioning myself whether I was going too fast, but I felt good and my plan was to now step off the gas. Kevin met me at the Footbridge aid station and had my Nathan pack ready for me. I commented that I was now switching from a "runner" to a "hiker" and to expect me back at Footbridge (mile 66) in about 12 hours. This was also the first medical check and I was down only a couple of pounds from my starting weight of 180.

It was leaving Footbridge that I believe I made two of my biggest mistakes. So far I had been fueling with about 20 ounces of HEED and a GU packet per hour. I had also eaten a couple of salted boiled potatoes at some previous aid stations along with one protein bar that I had in my bag at Dry Fork. A cup of Coke at each station was also hitting the spot. Leaving Footbridge, I grabbed one blueberry breakfast bar that looked good but I was never able to eat it. My appetite for GUs was also fading. Climbing up the hot canyon of the Little Bighorn River my stomach was starting to get upset and I was approaching my first "low" of the race. I knew these "lows" would occur and that I would just have to slow down and overcome them, but it was hard to imagine that I still had almost 70 miles to go. I was able to get down a couple more GUs but was feeling as though I really needed some real food (there were plenty of good food choices at Footbridge that I passed on). As it turned out, it would be a long way to the next well-stocked aid station (Spring Marsh at mile 40).

I arrived at Spring Marsh at 9hrs14min, a slow 10 miles from Footbridge that also included another slight deviation from the not-so-well marked trail this time. I had a cup of chicken noodle soup and some Coke and was feeling a bit better. I spent some time here getting fueled up and lifting my spirits. Brownie passed through looking good and barely stopped at the station. It was after 8pm now and the air was cooling off. No worries about the heat until tomorrow.

Not long after leaving Spring Marsh, the race leader Mike Wolfe came flying by on his way to a course record. It was almost Elk Camp before I met Joe Grant and Jeff Browning running a close 2nd and 3rd, at least an hour behind Mike. I was in full hiking mode now just trying to make steady progress and looking forward to Porcupine where I would have crew waiting. Just before Elk Camp I met Yassine who stopped and offered me some high-spirited encouragement. It meant a lot to me to have one of the front runners take the time to do that. Yassine went on to a 4th place finish and I look forward to following his accomplishments at future races. Elk Camp (43.5 miles) finally arrived at 10hrs34min in almost complete darkness. I put on my headlamp and warmed by the fire a bit. I loved this spot and was a little jealous of the volunteers who got to hang out there for the night, but off to Porcupine I had to go.

The second mistake I made at Footbridge was leaving behind hat and gloves. I had most of my cold weather gear at Porcupine but the hat and gloves at Footbridge probably would have saved me from what was about to occur. Above Elk Camp the trail got really sloppy. Now the feet were soaked and cold and my hands were freezing. We had to scale many snowdrifts but they really were not that bad, plus they rerouted the course slightly to avoid the worst of the snow. After topping the ridge just before Porcupine I got very nauseous and a bit out of sorts. I came into the Ranger Station at Porcupine in 12hrs14min but was letting my crew know that I may be riding home with them.

Inside the Ranger Station it was evident that I was hypothermic. I shivered for over an hour trying to warm back up. I wasn't making any quick decisions to pull from the race but also really did not want to go back out there. The veteran ultra runner seated next to me and overhearing my desires to pull from the race emphatically commented to me that I am just over 12 hours in and have plenty of time to get myself right again before heading back out, almost 5 hours in fact. "Do not pull from this race". So after an 86 minute pit stop, I was all bundled up, warmed up, fed, and ready to go for a long hike through the night with my sister Regina. She came prepared to pace me from Porcupine and I'm glad she did. Ironically, I later found out that the man telling me not to pull from the race had to pull out at Footbridge (mile 66) after hurting himself in the night. We left Porcupine at 13hrs40min to a "Tarzan call" from my sister Robin.

The hike through the night was quite fun and I was back in good spirits. We pulled into Elk Camp (15hrs5min) and Regina's face was covered with mud. That's what she gets for following too closely behind me. Anyway, she refused to wipe it off as it was sort of her version of war paint.

Elk Camp in the middle of the night with my muddy-face sister Regina.

I'm glad this stream crossing had ropes because the log bridge was icy.

The skies lightened to an early dawn as we were approaching the descent down the Little Bighorn Canyon to Footbridge. I asked Regina if she felt like running as I felt like giving it a try. I took off and ended up running strong, flying by several other racers, all the way too Footbridge (mile 66), arriving at 19hrs22min. This was about 13 hours after I left Kevin yesterday, only an hour longer than what I told him to expect. I filled him in on the events of the night as we waited for Regina to arrive (I put a few minutes on her). Now Kevin and I were off to do some serious climbing back up the "Wall".

Good morning Kevin. Now take me to Dry Fork.

My energy levels, stomach, and spirits were all good on Saturday morning. I had somehow tricked my body into thinking that I was starting a whole new trek and that the last 66 miles really did not just happen. Kevin is a fast hiker and my approach to this section back to Dry Fork was to hike fast and conserve enough to run the downhills after Dry Fork to the finish. The approach seemed to be a good one as we were passing several people on the climbs. I was still trying to maintain my GU intake but was liking little candy bars better, especially Twix. I was planning on some campfire-cooked bacon at Cow Camp (mile 76.5).

When we got to Cow Camp we met up with the 50k racers (their encouragement was great) and the bacon was as good as I had been imagining all morning. There was actually a lot more runnable stuff after Cow Camp and before the last climb up to Dry Fork than I expected. We conservatively ran some of these sections and the legs were still holding up. The clouds were also sticking around making Saturday much cooler than Friday, which was nice. We finished up with a strong power hike up to Dry Fork (mile 82.5) and arrived at the aid station at 25hrs5min.

Topping out the climb back to Dry Fork.

The last 17.5 miles to the finish were supposed to be with Regina, but now were on my own. I am glad we did it that way as now I knew that I was going to finish this thing. I left my supportive and enthusiastic crew to another "Tarzan call" from Robin and set out on my way. After making it over the additional climbing after Dry Fork, it was time to test those running legs. They did not respond. On what should have been the easiest running terrain yet, a slight downhill on a forest road, I could not do it. The legs were just shot and it looked like I would be hiking this thing in. The hike up the "Haul" over Horse Creek Ridge, the last tough climb, was actually easier and less painful than anything downhill. As I reached the steep, downhill singletrack, I was really struggling just to stay upright. It was tough stepping out of the way of the fast 50-milers who were now passing me by (although they were all very supportive and did their best to get around me).

With about 10 miles to go a 50K racer was pacing along behind me. Tom from Conifer, Colorado said this was probably his last ultra as he had a degenerative hip. He had completed 21 100-milers and gave me kudos for just finishing this thing on my first try (he started 0 for 3). Then Tom asked if I had taken any medications. He offered me 2 Aleve and said that this had worked for him. Soon after, I tried to run. It was quite painful at first, but then I took off like a shot. Thanks Tom!

From about 8 miles to go, just above the Lower Sheep Creek aid station, I was running hard. I realized that a sub 30hr was still a possibility but I had to run as much as I possibly could. I hit the Tongue Canyon Trailhead in just under 29 hours. I passed at least 20 racers from the various races and was passed only once I think by a 50-miler. I had 5.25 miles to go. The gravel road made for an easy running surface but I did not have too much left in the tank. As I got to the starting line (4 miles to go) I saw Kevin who was ready to pace me in. I told him we have 52 minutes to go 4 miles. Let's go! We did about a mile of speed walking until we hit some downhill grade and then took off again. I kept telling myself that this was what all those mornings being the first one to the trailhead in the dark and cold was for. We pushed probably a sub 8 minute mile to the last Homestretch aid station. We hit the station at 29hrs30min and only 1.8 miles to go. This is where the celebration began as I sucked down the best popsicle I ever tasted, it started to rain, and life was good. I picked the running pace back up after the popsicle was gone and ran in strong to the finish at 29hrs 49min 9sec.

Arriving in Dayton in the rain with Kevin.

The newest member of the "100 mile club".

This is a race I hope to do again someday. I know some rookie mistakes probably cost me a couple of hours and I look forward to going into one of these 100-milers now with some experience under my belt. What an adventure! This is a just a great event in some beautiful country with lots of wonderful people. What else can you ask for?

Race summary: 157 started, 95 finished

Men's Winner: Mike Wolfe (18:43 Course Record)

Women's Winner: Ashley Nordell (23:49)

Fort Collins Finishers: Corey Hanson (22:47, 7th), Rob Erskine (29:49, 51st), Michelle Schwartz (30:34, 54th), Marie-Helene Faurie (32:44, 78th), Michael Thomas (33:03, 83rd), Robert Broomfield (33:36, 91st)


  1. Great to meet you out there! And helluva run, I didn't know that was your first. I'll hafta get my ass up to Fort Collins soon to collect on that beer...

  2. Great job, thanks for representing the Fort, writing it up and sharing!

  3. Great effort, Rob! I had to laugh when I read you missed that early turn back onto the singletrack, as I did exactly the same thing last year. Tough course in some tough, but beautiful, country. Congrats!

  4. Brownie
    Your welcome up here in FoCo anytime. Complete that Slam and I'll make it a 12-pack (your beer is cheap).

    It was that Crosier Mountain Triple that turned me into a climbing machine.

    Go get em' this weekend. Be smart, run your race, and you are going to be right there.

  5. Congrats on finishing Big Horn...and for running it in at the end of a hell of a long day(s)! Great report.