The best thing about failing to finish the Bighorn100 is:
a) you realize that your love of mountain running does not depend on being a successful mountain racer
b) your inescapable tendency towards being overly pompous gets postponed for at least a few more weeks
c) you now know one race that will be on your 2017 calendar
d) you avoided hyperthermia, congratulations!
e) there are no good things about failing in a race; it’s a trick question
The Bighorn100 route
I got started pretty well, running up most of the first climb with Jon Davis and Josh Addison at what I thought was a very sustainable pace. We avoided being bitten by the big angry rattlesnake we passed. I swallowed a few sickly-sweet sports chews without feeling sick. I kept cool. I got into the Dry Fork aid station feeling good and got a face lick from my dog, Pele. Adam Chapman and Guy Love got me squared away with food and fresh shoes and I left feeling fine.
Physically things would never be really good again.
By the time I’d gotten to the bacon aid station my stomach was not cooperating with my running efforts any more. It had decided that all goos, chews, and gels were a disgusting product of the devil, and that they were no longer acceptable under any circumstances. It simultaneously decided that the branded athletic sports drink freely available at every aid station was a personally insulting affront to basic decency and would not be tolerated any more, for any reason. Bacon? Sure, that’ll be fine. Coke? Sure, whatever. Water was still OK but only barely.
I watched Doug Oatis and Matt Shaw run by looking good and headed out of the aid station with the plan to run with them for a little while. Nope. Though I saw Matt briefly, he soon ran away from me, as did Erin Shaw soon afterward. I tried to push a few times but every time I tried I immediately got profoundly nauseated and felt feeble as hell. This led to the already pseudo-famous lying-down-next-to-the-pipe episode, the knowledge of which preceded me into the Footbridge aid station where I arrived at early dusk at the runt-end of the field but still – surprisingly – in very good spirits. Rush cheered me in and sat me down for a brief rest. After getting the “eat and drink no matter what” talking-to by a very helpful aid-station person who was of course entirely correct, and after tanking up on palatable things (broth, Coke) at Footbridge I started the climb to up to Jaws, eighteen miles away. This was my favorite part of the race.
Objectively I was going reasonably well for most (some?) of this climb, but my performance had nothing to do with why I loved this section. The experience of running past the sunset, following the pale little glow sticks hanging from the trees, in the light of the full moon without a headlamp, as the bobbing lights of the headlamps ahead of me marked a snaking path up the quiet, dark mountain, was ethereal. It actually renewed my faith in humanity. That we humans would organize a footrace through the summer mountains without any extraneous bullshit was, at the time and still now, amazing to me as a certified misanthrope. If you’ve ever read the Lord of the Rings you’ll know what I mean when I say it was downright elvish.
My RMR homies heading down the mountain on their way home shouted encouragement to me as Jaws approached, and this, too was incredibly beautiful. (I may have cried with joy because of this; I can’t remember.)
My own mini-Bighorn100 elevation profile
Inevitably, though, my eating and drinking problems were catching up with me, and the Footbridge boost didn’t last all the way to Jaws. By the time I went through the flattish forested parts in the four miles before the turnaround, I was wiped out. I remember Greg Salvesen and Ryan Smith taking the time to give me good advice as they made their way downhill doing pacing duty for Jon and Erin, and after dropping a few F-bombs about how Jaws either didn’t actually exist or was interminably far away, I finally got to the turnaround.
There, I saw some true suffering. People on cots, shivering, cramping, looking like they needed to be in the hospital. I am thankful I did not feel like that. After taking plenty of time to eat and put on some layers of clothing I got back up and left. It was about 2:30 in the morning.
I didn’t get a running boost from Jaws, unfortunately. The downhill back to Footbridge was, from a race perspective, a disaster. Not particularly epic or painful, just. too. damned. slow. Arriving back at Footbridge at 11am, doing 20-minute miles at best in the cool morning air on the downhill, facing a long uphill in mid-day heat that objectively made 20-minute miles look like wishful thinking, I pulled a Jeb Bush, a Marco Rubio, a Bobby Jindal. I suspended my campaign. To put it another way, I DNF-ed, threw in the towel, quit, dropped, stopped running. 66.8 miles in 24 hours.
Too. Damned. Slow.
So what went wrong? I didn’t eat or drink enough. I underappreciated the true loathing I have for goos, chews, and gels, which are a product of the devil. I think that’s mostly it.
Many other things would have helped, but only at the margins. I wasn’t going to arrive at that race in substantially better fitness than I did, and in the end I’m sure I was fit enough to finish in a decent time had I been able to consume more calories. I didn’t make my usual mistake of going out too hard (see, e.g. the 2015 Power of Four 50K). Was I under experienced? Yes! But I had help from experienced people and newbies finish their very first hundreds all the time. I even personally know many who did this at Bighorn. 🙂
Now, what went right? I started and gave it my best shot. I suffered and kept going. I ran for 24 hours, all through the night, which was my number-one reason for entering this race in the first place. My feet and legs were fine. I spent a fabulous weekend with fabulous people and I can’t wait to do it again.
Don’t get me wrong, this DNF sucked, and I’m pissed off about it. It’s been tough to balance emotions. The feeling that I’m a shitty mountain runner vs my satisfaction with doing something that most runners never do – going for 66 miles and 24 hours is, after all, objectively pretty cool. I think focusing exclusively on either end of this range is stupid, but I tend to oscillate between them. That’s OK though. The one will temper the other and keep me honest.
Bighorn was so beautiful I’d probably do it again next year no matter what my performance had been this year. If I’d had a really good race I might have participated by pacing or crewing, but because I laid an egg this year I’m afraid I’m gonna have to race again next year because I’m stubborn. Some things in life aren’t worth it, but this one is. The chances I’ll do much better are very high: I have a whole year to work on fixing the nutrition problem. Heidi and I have already hammered out a great game plan for that.
But who can ever know for sure? There’s a chance that I’ll have a WORSE race next year. There’s always that chance. That’s a risk you always take, and it’s never guaranteed that you’ll get to redeem yourself like John Knotts did this year. When you succeed at something as tough as Bighorn, people congratulate you for a reason. There’s always a real risk that you’ll fail, and that’s why the congratulations are so well-deserved.
So congratulations to all who ran, and especially to the first-time 100-mile finishers: Doug, Erin, and Matt. You set a great example! Congratulations to John for avenging a DNF which is my plan now.
Gathering at the start line.
Starting in good spirits.
Meeting up with Pele and Adam at Dry Fork outbound.
Taking time for face licks at Dry Fork.
The RMR team! I’m proud to be a part of it, and very proud of all of you.
Thank you to all the Rocky Mountain Runners who ran and crewed and paced this year, because you all helped me in some way. Particular thanks to Colleen for the contact lens fluid that kept my eyes feeling good on race day. Thanks to Adam and Guy and Rush who helped me out in the aid stations. Thanks to Greg and Ryan Smith for the middle-of-the-night advice that helped me get out of Jaws. Only two or three sentences, but they made a difference. Thanks to Matt and Emily for taking my poles to Jaws and leaving them in good company. Thanks to Jon and Josh for sharing the very early miles. Thanks to Silke for arranging housing and doing logistics even though you were racing yourself. Thanks to Ryan Lassen for the beer and for being in front at Dry Fork out. Thanks to Chris for the conversation even though your 50-miler was going pear-shaped. Thanks to Heidi for coming to Wyoming with me after so much recent travel, and for scheming over next year’s nutrition solutions.
I love this mountain running thing.
Heidi reminds me that I have neglected to thank my omnipresent training partner, my comrade-in-trailrunning, my mountain friend. I wouldn’t be anywhere near the runner I am without you, Pele. Thanks for being my dog.
Pele at Dry Fork, Bighorn Mountains
Staying cool in the Bighorns
Throwing back a few beers at the finish line