State 40: Wyoming (2014 Bighorn Trail 50k)

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

(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.

2014 Bighorn Wild & Scenic Trail 50k Google Earth Rendering of the First 14 miles

2014 Bighorn Wild & Scenic Trail 50k Google Earth Rendering of the First 14 miles

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.

Mile 0

Mile 0

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

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.

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

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.

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.

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

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

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.

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?

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!

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!

Marathon_Map 050 (WY)

About Dan
Running a marathon in all 50 states because there's no better way to explore the world around you than on your own two feet, for as long as you can, until you hate yourself and everything around you. Then you stop, get a medal, and start over.

27 Responses to State 40: Wyoming (2014 Bighorn Trail 50k)

  1. Hey. You did it. At least the suffering was in beautiful surroundings. 🙂 I recently signed up for my first Ultra~ The VT50 and I needed to read this post. Train. One word. I know it. You know it. All runners know it. But thank you for saying it again.

    I really needed to hear it.


    • Dan says:

      That is a definite silver lining — at least I was surrounded by the majesty of nature and not slogging through an industrial park. But still, even when I gave myself a few seconds to take it all in, I would be brought back to reality by the all-consuming sting in my legs. Oh well. Time to start squats I guess …

      Thanks for reading!

  2. That looks so beautiful! Great running by all of you from the sounds of it, well done! 😀

    • Dan says:

      Thanks, though I’d say only the first four miles were “great” by anyone’s standards. Appreciate the support!

  3. Natalie Cobb says:

    I think we’ve all been over confident in our “training”. Don’t let it eat at you. Fun to see Otter wearing his Shamrock Shuffle shirt for another ultra race. He realizes that’s a 5, not a 5-0, shirt… right? 😉

    • Dan says:

      Ha, he did that on purpose. He wore that same shirt to the North Country 50-Miler as some sort of ironic gesture — hey, I can run an 8k, so this should be no big deal right? I find it funny and want him to run a 1-mile race that offers a t-shirt so he go even “farther” with the joke.

    • Dan says:

      Upon re-reading your comment, it becomes apparent that I just repeated what you said. My bad. Thanks for reading!

  4. Cynthia says:

    What an amazing race. Wow. I can’t even imagine being able to do that! But i wish I could 🙂 Congratulations on finishing!!

    • Dan says:

      Thanks! Finishing wasn’t easy or glamorous, but at the very least I made it through with no real injuries. Just a few bruised toenails.

  5. Pingback: Race Schedule & Results | Dan's Marathon

  6. MedalSlut says:

    Though I agree that race-specific training is generally a given, there’s also something to be admired about throwing yourself into races with reckless abandon, and, upon realizing it’ll be a total suck-fest, grimacing all the way to the finish line. I mean, Jeez, from MILE ZERO I’d be thinking to myself ‘really?’ and cursing the race director under my breath (or out loud).

    Also – you weren’t the only one who felt casual about this race. I was fully expecting to read yet another tale of triumph after your recent tidal wave of success in races. Still, 40 states down has to feel good. Hopefully better than knowing you have ‘only’ 4 miles left of a 50k that’s got you suffering. Are you going for a sprint finish, or are you going to savour the final 10?

    ALSO also – I’m glad Otter’s not dead.

    • Dan says:

      Ha, your second paragraph sort of encapsulates why this race was such an ego-buster for me. The fact that you just expect me to knock out races like it’s no thang is precisely my “endgame” – to just BE a runner that can tear it up, no problem. But this race showed that I wasn’t there, probably few people ever are, and that I still need to hunker down and do the hard work first. It stared me down from the beginning and said “No shortcuts, bitch.”

      Not sure I’ll be able to savor the final 10 since most of them are states that I’m not to thrilled to visit (West Virginia?). But then again, that’s what I said about Arkansas, South Dakota and Delaware and they all ended up being super fun. So who knows, there is likely a lot of fun left in this journey.

      Thanks for the support, as always 🙂

  7. True Grit. While the race may not have gone your way this time, you’ll be doubly prepared next time. As in life, progress in running is rarely linear and all of us have moments of great triumph and moments of much disappointment. Attitude is everything. Happy training!

    • Dan says:

      I suppose the best lessons (or the most enduring ones anyway) are those learned the harsh way. So if this is what it took to get me to put in the pain for the next go-around, then perhaps Wyoming DID give something valuable to bring home with me. Thanks for the encouragement, Krishna. Best of luck with your own gauntlet of races!

  8. Amy says:

    The Imogene Pass Run issues a warning to runners on the race website: “The reality is that despite whatever emotions we may have for the mountains and their environment, they are in fact unfeeling objects and they follow the natural rules of physics which are not always benevolent toward living creatures, great or small.”

    While I don’t disagree that some course specific training would have made those 7 hours of your life less miserable, I think EVERYONE has a hard time with mountainous trail races (except for the freakish mountain people who actually live up there and train on those trails everyday). I guess sometimes you just have to be ok with the fact that you finished, didn’t actually die (because that does happen to people sometimes), and you got a pretty sweet hoodie. The mountain will probably still be there when you decide to take on the challenge again. ON TO THE NEXT!

    • Dan says:

      Though there’s little I could have done about the elevation aside from taking two weeks off and showing up dastardly early, I COULD have gone and done some more trail runs, or downhills or strength exercises … but instead I just coasted like I had nothing to lose. That’s the last time I do that. And that hoodie is totally awesome and well worth the lack of a medal. Whoa, I didn’t even mention that in the recap, THAT’S how cool that shirt is.

      And Jay mentioned the Imogene Pass Run over the weekend (he’s run it several times, including last year), citing it as tougher than this 50k. Intense. Though I do like that disclaimer — it almost reads like an atheist manifesto.

  9. I knew at the finish that you were beat and hadn’t had a great time, but didn’t realize until this recap exactly how torturous it was. Sorry it was such an asskicker of a day.

    The training thing is always tough. I feel like as I’ve become a more seasoned runner, I’m both more in tune with my training and lazier about certain aspects of it. That balance of “have I trained enough” vs. “have I overtrained” is always in the back of my mind, and I’m usually at the start line terrified that I haven’t done exactly the right mix that will prevent me from blowing up mid-race. Usually it’s fine, but it’s more art than science, and sometimes you don’t get it right.

    Regardless, I’m glad that it didn’t permanently sour you on the mountain/ultra experience – I was worried about that last weekend. Anytime you want to train and/or race in the mountains, you’re more than welcome here!

    What’s the ultra expedition going to be next year?

    • Dan says:

      You are a beast among men, Jayworth, and this race was a testament to your savagery. You did precisely what I had HOPED to accomplish — knock out at 50k with minimal damage to your body. You looked like you had just come from a leisurely picnic at the finish line while the rest of us creaked, groaned and jerked our way to and fro.

      Though I may have said it at the finish line, I’m not done with ultras. That was the pain talking — now that I’ve had time to come down from that, I’m sure I’ll eventually want to go back for a redemptive run, though maybe somewhere else. We’ll see where the journey takes me. Thanks again for joining me on yet another backbreaking adventure — maybe it’s YOU that does this to me.

  10. Congratulations on the race, even though it proved to be an incredible challenge. Even with the struggles your accomplishment is no less impressive. Nice job knocking off another state on your quest. Best of luck as you continue!

    • Dan says:

      Thanks for the kind words, Suz — I look forward to my further adventures, but hopefully with less quad-gouging pain. Fortunately there aren’t many mountainous states left, so I might get lucky in that regard!

  11. Mark Smidt says:

    Congratulations on completing a difficult course.

  12. Mike says:

    “Miserable is memorable” was the first lesson I learned on day one of my Ultramarathoning 101 class. The painful scenario you describe sounds awfully familiar, and admittedly I felt alternating pangs of envy and empathy shoot through me while reading along. Sounds like the altitude of Wyoming did to you what the heat of Mt. Diablo and Saddleback did to me, and yes… it’s mind-blowing how far four miles can be when your legs feel like lead and your will is all but gone.

    Sure it was rough, sure it was a full-on ass-kicking at 8,000ft… and it sounds like a matter of time until someone renames Horse Creek “SoulCrusher Ridge”. But you did it. Huge congrats on an admirable effort in staying the course no matter how tough the going got. You finished the race with organs intact, lessons learned and an awesome story to tell, and at the end of the day that’s what really matters.

    Wyoming will undoubtedly hold a special place in your runner’s psyche for a long time, and it sounds like you’d barely left the state before the inexplicable runner’s nostalgia began to kick in.

    BTW, if you’re ever looking for an epic quad-challenging descent, I’d recommend a detour to Seward and the Mt. Marathon course when you make it up to Alaska. Just take your time and don’t plan to show up on July 4 (race day)… unless you’re looking to make your first trip up and down the mountain the miserably memorable kind.

    Onward, upward, downward… whatever it takes!

    • Dan says:

      There were many silver linings that I didn’t talk about, though some have been mentioned in my replies to the comments above. One that I just remembered from your comment is that at several points during the run, I would hear other runners carp about how hot it was getting. I remember thinking to myself, hot? Not one bit.

      In other words, the bone-thin air did me that one favor … while crushing my soul at the same time. I will definitely submit that moniker to the Wyoming Parks Department. Because damn, it really was quite demoralizing.

      I did find myself thinking, if Mike had written this post, there would have been some reference to the misleading quote “it’s all downhill from here.” I’ll be happy if I don’t run a downhill course for a good year after this one. Bring on the climbs!

      Thanks for the support, good sir.

  13. We can just as easily remind ourselves to “respect the terrain” as well as the distance. Looks like you learned your lesson. Guess there will be lots of parking garage climbs in your future if you wish to tackle another race like Bighorn one of these days. Congrats on toughing it out! That’s an impressive finish. Only 10 states to go! Woo hoo! Looking forward to you touching them all!

    • Dan says:

      “Respect the terrain” would have been very useful prior to this race. I guess it’s something Otter knew but I was too stubborn to listen. And the idea of parking garage climbs sounds … awful. It just sounds awful. I’d rather go to that “hill” in between McCormick Place and Soldier Field and climb that 100 times than run up a spiral drive. Yeesh.

      Thanks for reading, Jeff.

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