Otter, Jay and I waited for the start of the race under a cloudless sky. The mountains of Wyoming stretched out infinitely ahead of us, with little indication as to where exactly the Bighorn Wild and Scenic Trail Run 50k would take us. Marla would be here an hour later to tackle the race’s 30k. A steep ascent over a red dirt trail loomed ominously ahead of us. After asking a few friendly strangers, we learned that we’d be tackling that wall before anything else. As I looked past the giant hill and the unknown challenges to come, I had still not shaken the insouciant confidence that would eventually doom me during this race.
(left to right): Otter, Marla, Jay, me
“I don’t think I’m properly nervous for this,” I had told Otter two weeks prior. “Yeah, it’s a trail race; I’ll just take it easy. I’ll be fine. Very little trepidation, which is worrying me.”
“I reckon you’ll be fine,” he said reassuringly, but the enigmatic “haha” he issued beforehand wasn’t so comforting. I would later learn that he was appropriately aware of the punishment to come and had prepared with much more diligence. He had run the Kettle Moraine 50k two weeks prior to haze himself into trail shape and had fastidiously studied the Bighorn course maps like a sailor attempting to navigate the Straits of Magellan. As race day approached, he asked me more than once if I was ready to run the hardest race of my life.
I should have listened to him much earlier.
For though the first four miles were beautiful testaments to the natural high of trail running, I very quickly found myself in the depths of perdition. I could write pages about the distant snow-capped mountains holding onto the last patches of a brutal winter, or the white and purple wildflowers seasoned throughout sylvan clearings. But those moments of beauty and transcendence were like the sweet cherry on top of a cake made of lead and dirt.
By the fifth mile we had stopped climbing and there were no more easy rolling hills. Instead, the path all but disappeared into a precipitous drop, the steepest I had ever run. It was like shimmying down a black diamond ski slope but with loose dirt and rocks to slow you down. I watched as experienced trail runners marched downward confidently while I took each step carefully, knowing very well that lost balance would lead to a treacherous fall. I hammered my legs on the slope like a typewriter, stomping down with little ease, speed or grace. It wasn’t long before my quads began to ache.
Five miles in, I thought, and already my quads are shot. This race is going to suck.
That last sentence I may have said out loud. The woods responded quietly, indifferently.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. Despite ramping up my mileage considerably in April and May, which included running almost 40 race miles in one weekend, I had done absolutely no hill workouts beyond whatever hills happened to crop up during races. I had done no strength training, hadn’t done any stairs or even completed a mile on a bike. It was a case of pure hubris, of a haughty runner who prematurely thought he had perfected endurance and become master of his body.
What an idiot.
Mile 3 – Delightful, flat terrain
The first real aid station welcomed me at mile 8 with the smell of crackling bacon. Though appetizing, I took the time to stop running and eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a few ruffled potato chips instead. Runners that had passed me long ago were still there, mingling and enjoying the camaraderie and breathtaking scenery all around us. I capitalized on my quads no longer hurting by quickly refilling my pack with water and continuing the race.
The next six miles were a gradual uphill. I looked up at the road ahead and very high above, I saw the reflective glints of several vans and cars. It was the next aid station, the start of the race, and the end of our 20k loop. I wished I hadn’t seen it because it looked so impossibly far away. Have you ever walked toward a distant beacon, and been completely aware as you walk that it is not getting perceptibly closer? I liken it to walking in a city toward a skyscraper. If you look at it for even five minutes, it doesn’t seem to get any nearer.
That’s how I felt for about an hour.
Mile 11 – If you click and zoom in, you can see the reflection off the vans.
I kept climbing, alternating an efficient shuffle with power hiking, pushing dirt behind me to the tune of labored breathing, but every time I’d look up, the camp was still a day’s hike away. Six miles is an eternity when the end is always in sight. There was a silver lining in all of this though. By this point I had noticed that running slightly uphill was not painful at all but surprisingly easy because it didn’t require that I slam my quads down. Perhaps I’d be able to put that downhill battering behind me.
Mile 16-17 – The climb continues
Finally at the aid station, after a lot of hiking, I took a little break. I downed some grapes, a cup of chicken broth and another handful of chips. The climb wasn’t over, there would be another mile of it, but at least I had reached somewhere. The rest of the race would be a point-to-point winding path ending in Dayton, Wyoming, where we had parked our car about five hours prior. The next six miles were beautiful and easy. I locked in step with a female runner ahead of me and scampered over dirt, flowers and the occasional stream. I was tired but the downhill pains weren’t too bad, allowing me to cover much distance with few grimaces.
And then it all went to hell at Horse Creek Ridge.
Perhaps I should have learned that those early aid stations were there not intended to just replenish your energy stores, but also to prepare you for an incoming gauntlet of pain. Just past that third aid station, where I filled up on fruits, I reached a creek. I walked shakily over the makeshift log bridge, steadying myself with a thin rope. A thin dirt trail snaked over the thick grass ahead. I could see several runners ahead hiking the path, which cut to the right, behind a group of trees and out of sight.
Mile 19 – This was right before the Haul. I couldn’t take the camera out for the actual climb because it was too steep.
Those trees, I would soon discover, were hiding a mountain. A short, but almost vertical mountain that the organizers call “the Haul.” No one ahead of me was running or even power-hiking this section. Everyone was pulling themselves upward, with their arms either resting on their hips or pushing off their legs. I don’t think my heels ever touched the dirt during this climb. A desire to rest taught me a harsh lesson: don’t stop. A break in the rhythm sent a flood of pain into my legs. I would have stiffened up completely and possibly fallen backward had I not snapped myself back into upward motion.
Heave, gasp, heave, gasp.
Once at the top of Horse Creek Ridge, something changed. The climb had sapped every last bit of strength I had, conspiring with the thin air at 8,000 feet to rob me of all remaining vitality. Every step from that point was painful, every single one. To make matters worse, the Tongue River Canyon opened up below me, interminably downhill. And there were 12 miles left to run. All downhill.
It wasn’t the race that changed – it was still the same brutal, unfeeling and uncaring event that I had found and decided to run. It continued to deny me any respite from the ever-growing acid in my quads or burning in my lungs. The mountains wouldn’t rearrange themselves and the path had no intention to suddenly pave itself to make way for someone who didn’t treat the distance with the proper respect. But even with this harsh lesson learned, and with every positive mantra I could muster at the time, I couldn’t help but slump.
Mile 20 – It would be all downhill from here. Painfully, agonizingly downhill.
A runner’s quiver is full of motivational tools and positive thoughts. You have to overcome the bodily pain and ignore the struggle to get to the finish. I’d like to say that I overcame the challenges and stomped through the brick walls separating me from the finish. But that’d be a lie. In the moment, as it happened, I was not enjoying myself and really, desperately, wanted this race to end. Had there been a drop station, I am afraid to say that I would have seriously considered it.
The Tongue River Canyon was a gorgeous expanse of greens, lavenders, and yellows. Wild grass exploded out of the ground in enormous tufts, trees covered the exposed layers of rock in distant mountains like ancient mildew. It was truly a magnificent part of the country, the perfect place to embody the very reason why trail running is fun and in some cases, spiritual. But in the moment, as it happened, no part of me was enjoying it.
I winced with every step I took. If my quads weren’t searing in pain, then my toes were being bludgeoned against the front of my shoe. I did this for about four miles, stopping only to let faster runners zip by me. This was eternity, captured in an agonizing, yet beautiful stretch of slowed time. Each individual step did nothing to bring the mountains closer, but somehow, because each one had to lead me somewhere, I made progress. I was eventually thrilled to hear the heavenly sound of the Tongue River roaring through the canyon. I had reached the bottom.
Mile 23-24 — In the middle of Tongue River Canyon
Replying to the young volunteer who offered to refill my water bottle and pack was a struggle. Whenever I spoke, I could hear my voice echoed in my head, as if a fishbowl were surrounding it, which threw off my balance and concentration. I tried to equalize my ears by cracking my jaw around but that didn’t help. Instead, I ate a handful of grapes, clipped my pack around my chest, strapped the bottle to my hand, and kept shuffling onwards with the worst of the race behind me. What lay ahead was a slow, defeated march.
Now almost completely flat, the course had spilled out of its single-track, rocky confines and onto a wide, two-lane dirt road. Cars and locals on bikes would show up on occasion, but I had no leftover energy to say hi or even look at them. The sun, a fixture of the day, had hidden behind large storm clouds, allowing for longer bursts of running (though my definition of “running” during these last five miles left a lot to be desired). Normally in a long race, I laugh at the idea of being just four miles away from the finish line. On that soon-to-be-rainy Saturday, though, that felt like another exercise in forever.
Mile 25 – Alongside the Tongue River, lots of uneven terrain
The race was no longer divided into sections of ups and downs, but instead a single stretch of road that went on and on. Aside from one aid station and the advent of storm clouds, there was little I noticed. On occasion, runners would pass me, some of them on their way to a fifty-mile finish. One runner strode by me with a pacer, and another pulled ahead with trekking poles. I felt pathetic by comparison. These guys were most likely finishing Bighorn’s 100-mile race, which had started the day before, and here I was, sputtering like a lemon after running under a third of that distance.
I crossed a bridge and made it to the tiny city of Dayton. Under normal circumstances, Dayton is a city that you’ll miss if you blink and barely registers on a map unless you’re viewing it with a microscope. But as my feet hit pavement, it became a bastion of civilization, the Emerald City, Roland’s Dark Tower and Mount Doom all in one. I had never been so happy for a race to be over, and I could practically smell the finish line over the scent of my own disgusting state.
I entered Scott Bicentennial Park, a recreational area next to the river with a baseball diamond, playgrounds and picnic tables. There were crowds gathered, cheering for each new haggard face. I heard Marla yelling my name but from both exhaustion and perhaps shame, I couldn’t turn my head to look for her. I simply threw a brittle index finger in the air and kept running, possibly signaling the number of minutes I could tolerate before collapsing. I saw Jay directly ahead of me in his green rain jacket, having finished almost two hours prior. He made an arching motion with his thumb, pointing to the finish line.
Mile 27 – No more climbing or descending, just flat road.
I could have finished this race happy. I could tell you that I found a deep well of wisdom in that last mile and siphoned out a reason to smile. But I did neither of those things. I dragged myself under the finishing banner and had just enough self-awareness left to turn off my Garmin, which read just under seven and a half hours. I could have forced a smile then, but my ego was too bruised. Over the years I’ve tried to cultivate an image of a runner with perseverance and strength, an image of someone constantly facing huge challenges with a cool confidence. Every time someone calls me crazy for the amount I run, I soak it in as a deserved compliment.
But fifty kilometers over the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming had taken that sturdy effigy and dragged it through the dirt. All the years I had spent becoming a competitive runner seemed to mean absolutely nothing anymore. I didn’t feel good having completed this run in what I considered a disgraceful way. It wasn’t the result itself that stung me, but the fact that I came face to face with a lesson I didn’t think I’d have to re-learn:
It’s such a stupid thing to have to tell someone, let alone someone like me who has done these things before. The mountains don’t care about your road half marathon PR, or what your most recent 5K time was. The thin air beyond 8,000 feet won’t cut you any slack if you don’t change your training routine to face it. Rocky soil and uneven dirt paths won’t catch you if every mile you log is on a perfectly groomed city path.
Mile 29 — Why won’t this end?
And I knew these things. I knew all of them. But I had the arrogance to think that I had reached an echelon of fitness where I was somehow exempt from all of them. Though I was lucky to leave this race without injury, I paid dearly for that attitude and couldn’t quite feel proud. Looking later at a map, the distance we had covered looked absolutely dizzying from above. How could I have taken such a blasé approach to it? Was it symptomatic of runners’ general overconfidence towards health? Was I not cut out for ultra distances?
I struggled with these questions as I lay on the cool grass, trying to fix the hollowness I felt in my head. Experience and training were everything. Jay had run a 50k PR and didn’t seem the least bit shattered by the experience, while Marla, who had moved to Colorado just three months ago, had run the 30k distance, saying it was the toughest race of her life. Otter crossed the finish line not long after me, looking like a kid busting through the gates at a theme park. He was talking like an auctioneer, rattling off his race experience to all of us at an electrifying pace. Though his body was certainly pretty beat, his attitude could have probably turned around and done the whole thing again.
Finishers! And I look like a madman!
Now that I’ve had time to recover from the experience, a deranged part of me is looking forward to the next intense, body-mangling experience. As I writhed in pain on the damp Dayton grass, I swore I would never run another ultra, ever again. But that promise was tainted by a poor performance, begot by being a pompous idiot. It didn’t have to be this way. It will be different next time. Next time, I won’t be an idiot. Next time, my plan will be smart and simple, summarized by one word that means both the steady improvement of the body through stress, and a sturdy, robust machine seemingly impossible to stop.
Forty states down – the final stretch has begun!