|Courtesy of Mark H.|
"First in the age group is Kenneth Swab of Bethesda." The announcer at Sunday's pancake breakfast calls out my name as the winner in the male 50-59 category for the Bighorn Trail Run 50 Mile run. This is exactly what I had dreamed of when I signed up for the race, figuring that there would not be too many people in my age group and that I would be able to win a rock for finishing in one of the top three positions. And maybe there would be no one else in my age group and I would finish in first place.
When I get to the announcer I lean in and say, "I'd love to take the rock but I don't qualify because of two things. First, I'm 60. And secondly, and more importantly, yesterday I switched to the 30K."
Chicken Fried Steak
Barry, Emaad and I arrive in Billings, MT, early Thursday afternoon. After some misadventure getting our rental car from Thrifty (I foolishly tried to save a few bucks rather than get my usual rental from Avis) - which turns out to be a Grand Caravan minivan - we check into our hotel. For sentimental reasons Barry requests that we get a bite to eat at Perkins. I spy chicken fried steak on the menu and decide that it will be a switch from the usual. I scrape most of the thick white gravy off of it but finish the steak, corn and side salad.
We then head off to sample some of the local beers. Billings is the microbrew capital of Montana. After a stop at the Railyard Ale House ("we're not open yet, but since you're here, what will you have?") we go to the adjacent Carter's Brewery and Tap Room, a small brewery next to the train tracks.
Friday morning we meet up with Rebecca and An, and Jennifer and Clay. With the exception of An who is not running, they, along with Barry and Emaad are planning to run the Bighorn 50K. All seven of us pile in the Grand Caravan for breakfast at Stella's, where the pancakes are enormous and Emaad gets a free giant cinnamon bun with a candle because it is his birthday.
After breakfast Rebecca and An and Jennifer and Clay pick up their rental cars and we caravan down the road headed for Sheridan, WY. On the way we stop at the Little Bighorn Battlefield where Custer and 263 of his soldiers of the Seventh Cavalry were killed in a battle against Lakota and Cheyenne warriors.
After touring the battlefield we stop for a lunch. I'm not feeling hungry and while the others eat, I drink an iced tea.
We drive south for another hour to Sheridan, WY, check into our hotel and go to registration for the Saturday's races. I chat with one of the volunteers about the condition of the course, which has been altered due to large snowfalls over the winter. With the exception of the 30K, the courses for the 100-mile, 50-mile and 50K races have been changed, mainly to eliminate the higher altitude parts of the course which still have significant snow or water due to melting snow.
My stomach continues to deteriorate as the day goes on, and by the time of the pasta dinner I can only pick at a spoonful of spaghetti and a small piece of pizza. Rebecca has bought a small pie for Emaad's birthday and I reluctantly forego having a slice.
I periodically have stomach problems (see my Groundhog 50K report) so I turn in early, hoping that my stomach will do what it usually does, which is to be painfully bloated for several hours and then recover. But not tonight. After a couple of hours nausea overcomes me and I vomit what little food is in my stomach. The evening is a restless one, with trips to the toilet and little sleep.
A Favor to Ask
The alarm goes off at 2:50 a.m. and I realize that I'm in no shape to run 50 miles. But maybe if I recover some over the next few hours, I could try the 50K or the 30K, which start two hours and four hours, respectively, after the start of the 50 miler.
I drive the twenty miles to Dayton, WY, which is where all the races finish, and the buses take runners on a 90 minute bus ride up into the Bighorn Mountains for the start of the races. The bus for the 6:00 a.m. start of the 50 mile run leaves at 4:00 a.m.and at about 3:30 I'm walking around the parking lot looking for a race official. I find co-race director Michelle and explain my situation.
"We've never had anyone want to change races on the day of the race," she says, "but I suppose we should learn how. I can't do it here, but I'll send a text to [co-race director] Cheryl on the mountain and ask her. Of course, she may be getting some sleep or she may not get the message, so you may just have to go up and ask her in person."
"Thanks," I say, "I realize that you don't have to let me switch as all, so I really appreciate it." With that, I head to the porta-potties and then back to the van to try to get a couple of hours of rest.
Around 5:30 I wake up. I still don't feel so well, and know that I can't do the 50K. I tell Michelle that I'll wait and see how I feel for the the 30K. She hasn't heard anything from Cheryl. Just then, Emaad, Barry, Rebecca, Jennifer and Clay show up for the 50K bus and are surprised to see me. I explain what's going on and head back to the van to get some more rest. With me gone, they lobby Michelle to allow me to switch to the 30K.
Shortly after their bus leaves at 6:00 a.m. I exit the van and vomit again. Then I go back to sleep and wake up close to 8:00, just in time for the bus to the start of the 30K.
Michelle still hasn't heard from Cheryl, but I figure that I may as well go up and see if I get in the 30K. It has a generous eleven hour time limit to cover just under 18 miles, and I figure that I can make it, even if I have to walk the entire way.
Change You Can Count On
On the way to the start I sit next to a woman from Sheridan who is doing the 30K for the seventh time. She's just planning to walk it, and assures me that it can be walked in about five hours. On the way up the mountain she points out various local sites and alerts me for things to look for while out on the course.
I wait until Cheryl has checked in all the other runners before explaining my situation to her. There is also another runner who wants to change to the 30K as he apparently missed the bus for his race. The change is done smoothly and quickly, as she takes my 50 mile bib and gives me a 30K bib. Each race has color coded bibs and a different range of numbers, both for search and rescue purposes and for finisher prizes.
A Most Beautiful Course
At 10:30, about a half hour after the scheduled start time, we get the 'GO' command, and we are off. The course starts at about 7500 feet in elevation and heads up hill right away. It's not steep, but the footing is a bit soggy and there are patches of snow to traverse. The course is through flowered meadows with sagebrush and scattered patches of forest on either side.
|Courtesy of Mark H.|
After about five miles we get to the first aid station at Upper Sheep Creek. I usually eat cookies, potato chips and candy at aid stations, but today I don't have much of an appetite. I manage to nibble on a cookie or two, but more out of a sense that I need to eat than from having an appetite.
Shortly after the aid station the course drops down a bit to a two log bridge over a small stream. On the other side of the stream is "The Haul," a fairly steep climb of about 500 feet to the top of Horse Creek Ridge at maybe 7600 feet elevation. A six-time veteran of the race told me on the bus ride to the start that it took about 25 minutes to get to the top. But the climb is less than a mile in length and I get to the top without stopping in about 15 minutes.
|Courtesy of Mark H.|
We go past some bleached boards, the remains of a flume constructed in the early 20th century to carry logs down to the Tongue River in Dayton. The same woman who advised me about The Haul had told me that the loggers would attach a red flag to the last log of the week to let the "women of easy virtue" in Dayton know that the loggers would soon be coming to town themselves.
|Courtesy of Mark H.|
During this stretch the first of the 50 mile and 50K runners start to pass me. I step aside for them as they bound pass. I see a few 100 milers as well throughout the day. They tend to fall into two categories. Some look a bit like zombies; not surprising given that they have been at it for more than 24 hours. Others look so remarkably fresh that it is hard to imagine that they have already run more than 85 miles or 90 miles.
As we descend, the vistas start to shrink and the canyon begins to narrow. After the aid station at Lower Sheep Creek, around mile 10, the canyon becomes even narrower. In some places the canyon walls and surrounding mountains are easily 1500 feet high. Temperatures in the canyon climb as the day goes on. The Tongue River, fed by the snowmelt is high and its roar is nonstop as we make our way down the single track path. At one point there has been a rockslide and the trail is covered with large gravel that had slid down from the canyon wall.
At about mile 12.5 the Tongue River Canyon Trailhead Aid station offers water filtered from the river and a selection of fresh fruit. I sit down in a chair to eat some grapes and drink some water. Leaving the aid station I leapfrog the four members of the Not Afraid family. Three generations from Crow Agency, MT are running the 30K together, ranging in age from 57 to 14. They have been passing me on the course, but I'm quicker through the aid stations.
Leaving the aid station the course continues on a dirt road alongside the river. After a bit a jeep goes by with a dog in the front and a runner who has dropped from the race sitting in the back. A little ahead of me the jeep stops and the dog gets out to run alongside the jeep.
The road passes occasional houses. We are out of the Bighorns now, having descended about 3200 feet from where the race began. The fields are green and the river has widened out and slowed, but it is still high. We start to pass signs urging us to run and be strong. The last sign says "No more annoying signs."
Around mile 15.5 is the last aid station, called Homestretch. It is at someone's driveway, and a volunteer has a large mister that she uses to cool off runners so inclined. Despite some misgivings that the mister may be used at other times to apply herbicides or pesticides, I elect for the cooling effect. I also get a freeze pop, a tradition at this aid station.
In addition to the Not Afraids, there are a surprising number of parent-child duos in the race. I come across John J. and his 14-year old son Michael. They are from Dayton, and since we are on the outskirts of the town, Michael's younger sister has ridden out to accompany them.
They go on, and I fall in with Dale B. from Casper, WY. This is his first trail run. I comment on how beautiful Wyoming is (this is my first visit to the state) and he jokes how the state routed I-80 through the southern part of the state so that casual travelers wouldn't find out about the scenic northern part. We are mostly walking through Dayton now even though the streets are flat. As we walk into the park I tell Dale that protocol requires that we run to the finish. He goes along with it and we trot the last 50 yards or so to the finish line. I finish in 4:46:27. After crossing the line we are awarded with our 30K finisher's fleece vest.
|Fleece vest, shirt, socks, sack and bib.|
Rebecca and Clay finish about 23 minutes later and Emaad and Barry a bit later. To make me feel better about not being able to run the race I had planned, they all assure me that I ran the most beautiful portion of the course.
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Thanks to Mark H., some of whose pictures I've used. Read his report on the 50K, it's excellent and well illustrated.