Getting the jump on Kaburaki
Jeff and Denny drove Ben, Tim Parr, and another of their friends and I to the start. We'd had a quick prerace meeting at 9AM, then followed the caravan 4 miles up the Tongue River Canyon to the start. We got to hang out here for about an hour in the hot sun before being prompted to queue up. I like to start a couple rows back from the start, but for some reason, Ben and I found ourselves at the very front, ahead of eventual winner Tsuyoshi Kaburaki. He also used to be the masters record holder at Western States. Yeah...we were letting him go by. After the national anthem the 160 or so starters were sent on our way for a full day and night in the mountains.
I settled in with Ben for the mile of road before we hit the single-track. The field spread out nicely and I got into a nice steady rhythm. I liked it when the lead pack finally got out of sight so I didn't feel that pressure to keep up. It didn't take much running before we were at Lower Sheep Camp, which we breezed through after I dumped out their freshly cut pineapple on the ground. Then the real climbing started. Nearly four miles of steady upward ascent with precious little running to be had. It was beautiful though, huge vistas of alpine meadow and runners winding off into the distance both ahead and behind. Ben was climbing pretty strong and I just hung on. I could feel the altitude and was worried about the toll it was going to take on me. Here I was only 5 miles into it and my legs felt heavy. That feeling never really progressed much, but I was to feel down nearly the whole way up to Jaws.
Eventually cresting the top of this big climb there was a steep downhill into Upper Sheep Camp, then a fair amount of traversing the hillside to the road which lead to the first big aid station, Dry Fork. I was just behind Ben, the lead gal, and another guy as we pulled in. Jeff and Denny were here with all my stuff layed out for me. Jeff filled my water bottles while Denny got my gels squared away with me, and I was off down the road. They helped Ben out and he was soon off behind me. The road to Cow Camp was runnable the whole way, and as Ben slowly caught up I chatted with a guy from Missouri. Cow Camp, we had been told, had packed in 40 lbs of Bacon, and I could smell it from a mile out. Getting there I quickly filled water and walked out with a couple of pieces of that smoked goodness.
Here we had a beautiful 7 miles to Bear Camp. Much of this section was running through big fields of Wild Flowers which were simply stunning. Mostly yellow, but also with brilliant patches of blue lupine. I'm really glad I got to see this, since it was dark coming back. Ben and I cruised this section and rolled into Bear which was a horse packed in Aid Station in a beautiful setting. From here it was just 3.5 miles to the next big AS, Foot Bridge, but also 2600 feet of decent. We'd take the down hill pretty easy, running, but not bombing, as we had been the others. I could run them a lot faster, but was being careful to save the quads for the trip back, particularly for that final downhill to the road which was a good 5 miles long. In any case, this was a fast decent and we were crossing the bridge to cheers. The AS crew here were on the spot and had our drop bags to us quickly. It was still early, but we'd need headlamps, just in case (our next bags were 18 miles away), and jackets. After a quick weigh in we were off on what was essentially a 4200' 18 mile long climb.
Ascent to Jaws
The next 18 miles were pretty much a persistent uphill. Most of it was a gentle grade and just runnable enough to make you question whether or not you should be walking. A lot of this I was really hating life. It was beautiful out, clear skies, nice scenery, warm enough, but I just felt gassed and struggling. There were times here where I was questioning whether I had the mental strength to do the whole thing. It really helped having Ben near (he was going through his own issues). We spent a lot of quiet time for the hours it took to climb, sometimes me in the lead with him struggling along behind and other times flipped around. Hitting Elk Camp, the last AS before Jaws was kind of a turn around point. It got really muddy, unavoidably so, and the mental challenge of getting through it took my mind off my discomfort with the altitude. Upward we pushed until finally we got onto some level ground in time to see the leader charging back towards us, then 10 minutes later Kaburaki following.
Finally after 10:10 on the go...Jaws. The tent was heated and I was ushered inside and presented with my drop bag by eager volunteers from the local cross country team. These kids were amped and really fun to have there. One girl asked me how it felt to be halfway done...I told her half way was closer to 70 miles. I had three different medical people ask me if I'd gone to the bathroom recently and all were concerned that it had been a couple hours, but I assured them this wasn't my first time at the rodeo and I was solid. Lights and jacket on and I was out the door.
Going down down down down
Now was an awesome 18 mile downhill back to Foot Bridge. This was fun in part because it was easy, no more sucking wind, and a very pleasant grade, but I got to see a lot of people coming up the hill. Ben and I picked up the pace and started cruising down the hill making good time. Everyone coming up was awesome and stepped out of the trail to let us through. There were plenty of 'good jobs' for everyone going up and for us too. I was really surprised at the number of folks without headlamps since it got dark shortly after we left Jaws. That was going to seriously slow down those folks, but a good learning experience I suppose. Otherwise this long decent was pretty uneventful, other than Ben's headlamp not working (2 for 2 on that now with running with him, I'll bring a third for him next time).
We rocked into Foot Bridge and spent about 10 minutes cleaning our feet and changing shoes. It was about 2 AM and we definitely took too much time poking around here in our middle of the night lethargy. There was some carnage here too, I saw four people in chairs, wrapped in blankets and catatonic. I didn't want to be near that. So after getting suited up again, I was getting cold fast, we crossed the bridge and hit the wall. OK not literally, the wall is what the locals call the upcoming 2600 foot climb in about 2.5 miles, with another mile of level ground to Bear Camp. Just before starting the climb Ben jammed his toe and sat down to deal with it. We were both a little punchy and he told me to go on and run my race and I just left. Fortunately he caught up to me a ways up the climb and we were able to go on together. On the way up the climb, still by myself, I caught the lead woman who looked really bad, and should probably have turned around.
Well, after Ben caught up we went through bear camp, in about 1:15 from Foot Bridge, and through those awesome, but now dark meadows. I kept talking to him about going under 24 and we just had to keep under 15 minute miles, but Ben was having nothing to do with it. Too much climbing left, he said, too far. But we had the same race plan, run everything flat and downhill, no matter how much it sucks. Hell, we were still able to run gentle uphills. We got close to Cow Camp (bacon central) and could see the lights of Dry Fork way off in the distance. Now, too, the East sky was not quite so dark. Clearing Cow Camp we were on jeep road and ran nearly everything on it, for the 7 miles, except the steeper uphills, including the last one leading to Dry Fork, which was a big long hill. It was really cold out, below freezing (all the plants were frosted up) with a wind right in our faces.
Hitting Dry Fork I was frozen and really tired. We stood still for a five minutes swapping gear, and I'm glad the AS guys didn't see how woozy I was. I felt punch drunk leaving. Ben was starting to smell the barn (17.5 miles away) but was now thinking about that sub 24 which was looking really good. We marched up the road, with a few folks closing behind us, and got into some traversing ground and started banging out 10 minute miles on the way to upper sheep. There were only two more climbs and they were both steep, but not really long. Having a fire lit under us we cruised through upper sheep, just refilling water crossed a small bridge and did the last climb. Bam, just like that we had miles and miles of downhilling.
It seemed like for everyone we passed we got passed by someone else. Some of these guys we climbed faster than, but they nikked us on the downs. But we hammered it out, running for time (besides, they were all younger than us, and no AG threat). It seemed like forever, but we hit Lower Sheep and pretty much ran right through it, with them telling us 2.2 to the road and 5 more to the end. Yee-haw. Now we ran everything no matter how sucky it was. After about 20 minutes we popped out on the road, through the last AS and started beating it out. Right as we left, Denny came up on his bike and rode in with us. That was awesome, having him there.
We all chatted the whole way in, which seemed forever. I thought the road would have some down on it, but it was dead flat or uphill, and even at 8:30 AM was pretty warm. I can't imagine what it was going to be like in a few hours. Ben's feet were hurting, so I just chatted up a storm and we kept running. At long last we saw the turn onto the highway, which meant about a 1/4 mile to go. So Denny road on ahead to the finish and Ben and I amped it up cruising through the park and finally across the line. 22:23:50 after starting it off together we finished with the same time, tied for 9th and 2nd in the Masters division. Yes it was:
Bighorn is a great race, very well organized and avid volunteers. There was a post race barbeque with free food and live music, which I unfortunately missed a lot of, and the awards pancake breakfast in Sheridan was simply awesome. If the Hardrock and Western lottos don't pan out for me next year, I will definitely go back.