Monday, June 20, 2011

Bighorn 50 Mile Trail Run - A FCTR spectacular

On Friday, I headed up to Sheridan, WY with the family for my 3rd Bighorn 50.  I love this race for the beautiful course, the great organization, the fact that it falls right around my birthday and the summer solstice, and this year more than 30 of my Fort Collins and Boulder trail running friends signed up to run one of the four races (30K, 50K, 50 mile and 100 mile).
We packed the car Thursday night and left Friday morning for the 6 hour drive through WY.  We stopped in Sheridan to pick up our race packets and leave my drop bags.  At packet pick-up, we met up with Mary, Brian, Scott, Kiwi Rob, Michelle, Debi, Alex, and Eddie.  From Sheridan, we continued another 20 miles north to Dayton and set up camp with the Walters, Mary, Scott, and Rob.

photos by Ean May
The campground was great, mostly because it is located right next to Scott Park where all the races finish.  This meant that Saturday morning I was able to sleep in until 3:00 am before crawling out of the tent to eat, get ready and head over to get on the 4:00 am bus up to the start line at Dry Fork for the 6:00 am start.
After setting up camp, Brian, Scott, Ean, Mary and I went for an easy 2.5 mile run out on the course to stretch out our legs.  It was a pleasant afternoon and we all were feeling good about the next day's race.
Bridge over the Tongue River in the last 1/4 mile of the course
We made pasta and enjoyed a relaxed camp dinner together.  Ean, Scott and I went for a nice walk through Dayton and then we headed off for a short night's sleep.
Saturday morning went smoothly.  We made some coffee, I ate a PB&J and some yogurt and we got on the bus.  The course was changed this year due to record amounts of snow on the higher parts of the course.  This meant we started at the usual course's 35 mile mark (Dry Fork) and ran backwards to the bottom of "The Wall" to the Foot Bridge aid station (mile 16.5) and then turned around and ran back through Dry Fork and down to Dayton.  I had a feeling this change would make for a faster course, but there were also reports of very muddy conditions that could slow things down a lot, so I wasn't quite sure what to aim for or expect.  I ran the traditional course last year in 11:31 and ran it in 2009 in 11:30.  I was quite certain that I was much better prepared and in much better shape this year, so I figured if all went well I should be able to run under 11 hours and maybe even 10:30.  I made a couple of drafts of pace goals and ended up with this one that set me up for a 10:20 finish which I thought was probably a bit ambitious, but I figured if I kept my times close to this I would be doing well.

The race started off well and I made it a whole mile before the first creek crossing which was the beginning of running with wet feet that continued for most of the day.  My first miles were a bit fast, but the trail was wide and mostly downhill so I didn't worry about it.  It was great to see many friendly faces of 100 mile runners and their pacers on this part of the course.  I saw Kari and Chris looking very strong with Victoria and Pete not far behind.  Cat and Dan came running up the trail soon after and then Kristel and Steph toughing it out back up to Dry Fork.  I got in to Cow Camp (mile 6) in about 55 minutes, grabbed a couple Fritos and some melon and kept going.  One of my goals for this race was to run it more like a race and less like a casual long run on the trails so I worked remind myself of this and push the pace as much as I could.  I ran with Kiwi Rob off and on through this section and we were able to work together and have some laughs.  I got to Bear Camp Aid (mile 13) in about 2:12.  I drank some Heed, ate some pretzels and started down the wall.  In the 3.5 miles from Bear Camp to Foot Bridge, the trail drops over 2000 feet and much of the trail is steep, muddy and beautiful.  There are breathtaking views of the valley and surrounding cliffs and the trail is lined with bunches of wild flowers in brilliant purples and yellows.
photo by Pete Stevenson
Downhill running is an area I need to work on, but I made it down to Footbridge with out too much trouble in about 2:55.  I decided not to change shoes here, so I just got my hydration pack filled, grabbed some  Gu's from my drop bag and was heading back up the hill in about 2 minutes.  One nice thing about an out and back course, is seeing all the other runners.  I passed Scott and Sam on my way down to Footbridge.  They were a couple miles ahead of me, working together and doing great.  Scott went on to finish his first 50 in a remarkable 9:02 and Sam, also running his first 50, finished in 9:12.  I saw Jenn, Alex, Michelle, Mary, and Brian on my way back up.  Crossing paths with each of these great people gave me a boost as I trudged up the hill.  It was mostly a hike back up the wall, but I set a goal to try and pass 10 people on the up so that I would work on pushing the pace.  The climb went pretty well even though I only passed 7.  I made it back to Bear Camp in under an hour, drank some more Heed and pushed on.  I had a bit of a rough patch on the way back to Cow Camp as I have on this section in the past two years.  It didn't last too long and I mostly kept up the pace.  I was glad to get Cow Camp (mile 27 and still ahead of schedule) and smell the bacon cooking (even though I couldn't quite stand the thought of eating any).  I had my hydration pack filled again here, having drank much more over the last 9 miles than I had on the way out.  I ate a bit and  kept moving to cover the 6 miles back to Dry Fork.  Most of this section went really well and I continued to run a steady pace and pass other runners.  It was during this part of the race that I began to think that I could possibly make a sub 10 hour finish.  9:xx sounded really good, so I pushed pretty hard and tried to figure out what it would take to get it done.  It was going well, but the mud, climbing and miles started to catch up with me and I slowed and lost some time in the last miles up to Dry Fork (mile 33), but I got there in 6:42 feeling pretty good.
Climbing back up to Dry Fork       photo by Mindy Clarke
Chris and Mindy were at the aid station cheering and crewing and I was glad to see them.  I traded my pack for a hand bottle (which Mindy filled for me) and grabbed some Gu and salt tablets from my drop bag (with some help from Chris).  I got some updates about other runners from Mindy and Chris: some drops and some great performances.  I spent a good 5 minutes at Dry Fork which was probably a couple minutes longer than necessary, but much better than the 15+ minutes that I spent there last year.  I grabbed some food and hiked out of the aid station knowing that I would need to cover the final 17 miles in 3:13 to make a 10 hour finish.  A little mental calculation told me that it would take a better than 12 min/mile average to do this and I doubted that was possible.  I was still ahead of my 10:20 goal and so I kept moving.  I got to Upper Sheep Creek (mile 38) still feeling good and looking forward to getting over "The Haul" which was the last real climb of the course.  It was definitely a hike but I felt good and passed many 50K runners along the way and it was nice to give and get encouragement up this short but impossibly steep climb.  At the top of the haul, the view opens up to the Tongue River Valley and the long down hill leading to the finish.  There are only 11 miles to go from here and although I was pretty certain that 10 hours was out, I was confident that I could finish strong.  There is a long, steep, narrow, rocky downhill in this section that I had a really hard time with.  I couldn't keep up any kind of steady pace and instead felt like I was fumbling along slowly picking through each cautious step.  I was frustrated because I was slow and I just couldn't get any good running in.  I was passed by 4 other 50 mile runners here and watched as they each went by and then faded in to the distance down the trail ahead of me.  I was relieved to get to the Lower Sheep Creek aid station (mile 43) because I knew the 2 miles of trail from here to the road was much more runnable.  I filled my bottle and enjoyed the feeling of running again over smoother trail and more level ground along the river.  I got in to the Tongue River Aid station (mile 45) in 9:25 with exactly 5 miles to go.  I knew I wasn't going to run 7 minute miles in to the finish, but I though that if I could manage sub 9 minute pace, I would finish in under 10:10.  It felt really good to be running on the smooth dirt road beside the river and I settled in to a reasonably comfortable 8:30-9:00 minute pace.  I almost skipped the popsicle at the Home Stretch Aid (mile 48.1), but gladly accepted a pink one and enjoyed it as I ran.  With just over a mile to go, I saw Pete running up from the finish and was glad to have his company as he turned around to run me in.  Pete filled me in on the other events of the day as we moved steadily closer to the finish.  After a couple minutes, Pete says, "So Alex, are you just going to jog it in or do you want to run?"  I was pretty floored by this question since I was feeling like the 8:30 pace that I was running was pretty darn fast after 10+ hours and 49 miles.  Pete didn't agree and started pushing the pace faster and faster.  With a half mile to go, we were running 7:30 pace and then coming around the corner to the park we were doing 6:50.  Pete wished me well as I entered the park where Maddie jumped in to run me in to the finish.
I finished in 10:07:09 and was very happy.  It was by far the best ultra I have ever run and it gave me a lot of confidence in my fitness and readiness for the bigger race that is coming in August.  I know that I need to work more on my downhill running and keep putting in the miles over the next 6 weeks, but I feel like I will be ready to have a good race in Leadville.  I spent the rest of the afternoon in the grass along the finishing stretch with my family and friends cheering for all the other finishers including many heroic finishes by other Fort Collins and Bolder trail runners, several of whom were finishing their first 50 mile race.  It was great to see Ean and hear about her amazing race in the 30K where she beat her goal by over 2 hours.  She also decided along with Mindy and Celeste to run the 50 mile race next year.  So it looks like we will be going back to Bighorn in 2012 and I can't wait.

Here is the link to my splits and other GPS data if you're in to that.


  1. If I had left a little earlier and met you further up the canyon, I'm sure we could have found that extra 7 minutes:-) Congrats on your PR. It sounds like you had a great race out there. You're going to be in great shape for Leadville.

  2. I got a pink popsicle too! Of course mine only got me running 10:00 or so pace afterward, not sub-7 or even sub-9...must've been defective. Great report and great race, really strong finish! Congrats! I thought to look for you at the breakfast, but then I realized I had no clue exactly who I was looking for, so it was kind of a lost cause. Good luck at Leadville!

  3. Congratulations, Alex! What an awesome run. Great work!

  4. Alex-What a smart race you ran. I am very proud of you. You just get trudging along and getting better and better. Keep up all the hard work you are doing. It seems to be working!! See you on the trails and maybe in Bighorn next summer.

  5. Great race Alex! Those photos bring back good memories. There's no way you can pass up the popsicle at Home Stretch. So running Dry Fork to Footbridge gives you a taste of the 100 course (hint, hint). Congrats to Ean as well!

  6. You were amazing out there this wekend. CONGRATULATIONS!
    It will be an honor to pace you at Leadville....better start training so I can keep up! :)

  7. Hey, I hope to try and keep up with you for Leadville 50.