Let me start off with an apology. This is going to be a very long race report. You’ve been warned.
Bighorn 2019 was a race that almost didn’t happen for me. On the morning of June 13th (the day before the race) I woke up with the sun, walked the dog and began the last part of our drive down towards Sheridan. We had spent the night sleeping in our van at a rest stop, and Matt was still sleeping in the back of the van when I drove around the corner and came face to face with what is quickly becoming my least favourite animal. The deer was standing in the oncoming traffic lane and I had a brief second of hope that it would stay where it was before the young buck stepped in front of the van. I didn’t swerve, I barely had a chance to brake, and in an instant our van was demolished and the deer was lying in a heap on the side of the road.
In shock, I pulled the van off to the side of the road and stepped outside to survey the damage. The front end was crumpled from the impact and leaking radiator fluid was steaming in the cool morning air. I sat down on the road and began to cry. We only had liability insurance on the van and we were in a foreign country. At the time I wasn’t sure of what the ramifications were of getting into an accident in the US vs Canada, but I was pretty sure we were headed into a logistical and financial nightmare.
Matt came out of the van, took one look at the damage, and asked me what we were going to do. I normally like to be in control and have the answers, but I had no clue. A truck came driving by and I waved them down. They immediately came to a stop and offered to drive me to an area with cell phone coverage so I could phone for a tow truck and report the incident to the police. My phone wasn’t working so they kindly let me use their phone as I arranged to get help. Then they dropped me off back at the van where Matt and Moxie were so we could wait for help to arrive.
We waited and waited, 2hrs later a police officer eventually showed up. When I had reported the incident, I’d said that we were at about mile marker 10, but we were actually at mile marker 9. The officer had been looking for us for an hour. The waiting game continued and the tow truck still failed to show. The officer drove me to cell range where I was able to contact AMA to ask them what was up. It turns out they had sent the tow truck to the wrong location, about 500km away from where the accident took place.
3.5hrs after that initial phone call, the tow truck finally arrived and we were on our way back to Great Falls, Montana. The tow truck driver suggested that we look on Montana Auto Trader on Facebook to see if there were any cheap cars for sale. A 2001 Ford Focus had just been posted 10 minutes earlier for $1200. I sent a message to the seller.
At the junk yard, Matt dealt with the vehicle while I made endless phone calls hoping that we might be covered at least partially by insurance. Insurance was a dead end, so then I called Enterprise hoping to find a reasonably priced rental vehicle that could fit all our stuff and get us back across the border. There was nothing available. I tried to get a vehicle that could take us from Great Falls to Sheridan, in the hopes that I could ask our Calgarian friends in Sheridan to drive us home after the race. Enterprise quoted me $600 USD, it would be cheaper for one of us to fly home and then drive back with our other car. At this point I was ready to give up hope. I got back in contact with Jeremy, the guy who was selling the Ford Focus, and arranged to meet up. He showed up at the tow truck shop, and Matt gave the car a short test drive. I contacted my insurance company and they told me I could swap the insurance on the van with the insurance on the car. I would have 14 days to get the car registered in Alberta. Things were starting to look up! Matt bargained the price down a little, and then Jeremy and I went off to the bank to wire him the money. We didn’t realize that you can’t wire money from Canadian to US banks while you’re in the US, I would have needed to initiate the process from my bank in Canada. I won’t bore you with all the details, but eventually we found a solution at an ATM which allowed me to make multiple withdrawals of $300. We signed over the wreck of our van to the junkyard and finally we were off to Wyoming!
We had been planning to sleep in our van for the weekend, but now that we were without a van our friend Leo invited us to stay with him at his Air BnB. Leo also spoke with the Bighorn RDs on my behalf since I had missed the mandatory pre-race meeting. His help was key in lowering our stress load to something a bit more manageable. Having missed the pre-race meeting, I wasn’t able to set up drop bags. It is essential to have crew or a drop bag at the Footbridge aid station, but Matt would not be able to make it there without a high clearance vehicle. Thankfully another friend from Calgary, Jamie, offered to shuttle a drop bag to Footbridge for me. Everything was set, now all I had to do was run.
The snow level on course was reported to be higher than normal, with some of the minor aid stations being inaccessible to the volunteers. As a result, the race start was moved up an hour (giving us an extra hour to finish), and mandatory gear was instituted from Footbridge to Jaws. Matt planned to meet me at the Dry Fork and Jaws aid stations, and I would have access to my drop bag at Footbridge. However, I knew from experience that none of these scenarios were certain and it was very possible that our junker of a car would break down somewhere on the highway, or that Jamie would not be able to access Footbridge. As a result, I decided to carry all of the mandatory gear with me from the start, as well as a couple of headlamps. Knowing I was running with extra weight and that I had depleted my mental energy with the effort of just getting to the start line, I forced myself to give up on my competitive goals and lined up in the back half of the pack. I knew that the trail would bottleneck, but I thought the forced slow pace would enable me to let go and just enjoy the adventure. Leo joined me, and we ran together at a relaxed pace for the first several hours. Along the way we met some friends including Beat and Stephen, two seasoned ultra–veterans. The energy in the group was fantastic, and I enjoyed learning about the other runners’ goals and past exploits. Beat introduced us to the concept of the“Freedom Step”. Early in the race we were carefully tip-toeing around puddles and muddy patches, trying to keep our feet dry. We knew there would come a time when wet feet would be unavoidable. That moment, when your socks and shoes become fully saturated and you no longer have to worry about avoiding the water, that is the Freedom Step.
Long stream of runners
We came into Dry Fork (13 miles) well back in the pack and Matt commented that I really was taking things slow. I wasn’t concerned. I was feeling good and I wasn’t near the cutoffs. Our group splintered at Dry Fork as we all stopped to take care of our individual needs, and when I left the aid station I was on my own. I normally enjoy running on my own, but I quickly discovered that on this particularly day I was craving social interaction. Oh well. I got into a rhythm and the brief pang of loneliness quickly dissipated. Eventually I caught back up to Beat, and then to Leo, but I was now running at my own pace and I found I wanted to go ahead a bit. I kept the pace easy, but I seemed to be handling the muddy sections much better than the other runners and I began to move up the field. The trail got muddier as I got closer to Footbridge, and at one point I lost a shoe in a deep bog and had to fish it out. I wasn’t upset or frustrated, I just thought it was hilarious. Freedom!
The fields of wildflowers on the descent to Footbridge were as spectacular as I’ve ever seen them. Sadly, I don’t have photos because I had put my phone away earlier in the run to protect it from the intermittent thunderstorms. The descent was very eroded with alternating mud bogs and rock steps. I passed several runners. I wasn’t running hard but I was running with a heart full of joy.
Photo Credit – Mile 90
Photo Credit – Mile 90
At Footbridge (30 miles) I took the time to wash my feet, re-lube, and change into my Goretex Icebug Oribis. Jamie had successfully delivered my drop bag and I was very happy to have the fresh shoes and socks. The upcoming trail was supposedly muddy and snow-covered and I thought the studded shoes would help my traction. I also ate a napkin full of pretzels and drank some Ginger-ale. I was so proud of myself for actually taking the time to take care of myself!
I left Footbridge feeling optimistic. My legs still felt great and I was happy. The trail was quite rocky, but the studs on my Icebugs did not bother me at all and I found I was once again passing runners. I didn’t bother filling any water at the next aid station and instead ran straight through. I was on a roll. Shortly after the aid station I caught up to Colleen and Enrique. This was Colleen’s first 100 and Enrique was pacing her until she could get up to Jaws and pick up her actual pacer. They were moving very well and I stayed with them for quite awhile, enjoying the conversation.
At some point I decided to move ahead. We had been walking the flats, and my legs felt like they wanted to jog so I decided to listen to my legs. 2 miles out from the next aid station I ran out of water. Every time I run out of water, I wind up with GI issues and I gave myself a mental reprimand, I should have filled up at the last aid station. I caught up to a few other runners, they were out of water as well. Eventually I made it to the next aid station and I was pleasantly surprised to see that they had lots of goodies in addition to water. Apparently, the aid stations were more accessible than expected! I filled up my water and enjoyed a few pieces of beef jerky before continuing up the trail. Up to this point the trail had not been particularly muddy and there was no snow, I was beginning to wonder if I was wearing studded shoes for no reason!
As a result of my dehydration, I was now feeling a bit nauseous. I lowered my effort level and continued my steady hike. I could see other runners were suffering on the climb as I slowly reeled them in, even at my reduced effort. The next aid station was fully stocked and I enjoyed a couple of pickles and a cup of ginger ale. As I ate, I gazed across the valley at the most amazing rainbow I’ve ever seen. What a spectacular day! I was truly loving this experience.
I was now only 5 miles away from the turn–around point at the Jaws aid station (48 miles). The mud began to become more consistent and soon I found myself wading through deep puddles. I was in a good mood and I truly didn’t care. About a mile or two outside of Jaws I saw the first lady on her way back. She warned me that conditions ahead were really bad, but I wondered how bad could they really be? That’s when the snow started.
To be honest, I didn’t find the snow particularly terrible. I post-holed in a few sections and the water flowing underneath was very cold, but there was no sustained post-holing. It was much better than I had mentally prepared myself for. I reached the road and shuffled towards the Jaws aid station. It was getting dark, but I had managed to make it there without a headlamp. I gave myself a mental pat on the back.
I knew from experience that I had to get in and out of Jaws as quickly as possible. The temperature drops very quickly up there, and the possibility of hypothermia is likely. I started shivering as soon as I sat down in the tent next to the heater. Matt got me coffee and broth while I put on Goretex pants and a jacket. Then I switched out for an even warmer jacket. I was freezing.
Toque on, headlamp on, gloves on. I did a quick interview with the medical staff so they could determine that I was coherent and paid a quick visit to the bathroom before heading back down the trail. A storm had moved in and it was raining steadily. My energy level had dropped but my spirits were high. I was still fighting waves of nausea but I tried to trickle in calories. Back on the snow field, I crossed paths with Leo, Derrick and Beat. They seemed to be doing well.
Leaving Jaws in the pouring rain. It was cold. Photo credit – Mile 90
The snow was much more difficult to navigate in the dark and I felt bad for the people who were still on their way up, it is definitely an advantage to get to Jaws in the daylight. As the rain poured down the mud got worse. I continued to view it more as comedic relief than as something to get frustrated about. The studs in my shoes provided excellent traction and I only slipped twice in the entire race.
I made it back down to the Elk Camp aid station and enjoyed some hot broth, ginger ale and more pickles. I noticed that broth seemed to have an almost instant effect on my nausea. Also, ginger ale was continuing to go down very easily. I continued on my journey, mostly on my own but occasionally seeing other runners. I was not moving particularly quickly, but at least I was moving. I was peeing a lot, which was weird because I wasn’t drinking a ton and I normally don’t pee more than once every 8hrs during races. I got back down below treeline and I was overcome with a deep fatigue. I had made it through the exposed portion of the course in one piece and now I could relax. All the stress of the last two days hit me at once and it was all I could do to resist the urge to curl up in a ball on the side of the trail and sleep. I don’t think I have ever felt so sleepy in a race.
Still feeling a bit nauseous, I carefully monitored my effort on the uphills, not wanting to push too hard. The next aid station had broth and I allowed myself to have a seat by the fire and enjoy a cup. The broth worked its magic and I decided to push a little harder on the uphills to see what would happen. Magically the nausea did not increase, and by the time I made it back to Footbridge (68miles) it was almost gone.
I washed my feet, re-lubed and changed my socks. The only pair of clean socks I had were wool so I put those on. Something triggered in the back of my mind that this might not be a good idea. But my brain was foggy so I ignored the dull warning signal. I drank a cup of ginger ale and filled my bottle up with more ginger ale to-go. I was still feeling really sleepy and not looking forward to the steep climb out of Footbridge, but the sun began to rise as I climbed and the sleepiness slowly subsided. The wildflowers illuminated by the dawn light were spectacular and this time I took the time to get out my phone a capture a photo.
Moving slowly, a group of us were hobbling down the trail. We didn’t say much to each other, united in fatigue. The mud was extremely slippery and was of a shoe/pole sucking consistency. I snapped my pole when I tried to pull it out of the suction. It seemed that a lot of people were breaking their poles. My wool socks came back to haunt me and my feet began to hurt. I kept moving but I couldn’t bring myself to run. I continued to have to pee frequently, but it was tough to find anywhere out of sight in the open meadows. I was surrounded by guys and I was unreasonably jealous of their ability to pee standing up.
I realize that my last paragraph sound quite negative, but overall I am super happy with my attitude during my slow crawl towards Dryfork. I was moving slowly and I was uncomfortable, but I was still grateful for the experience and I didn’t feel any of the bitterness that had consumed me during this same section at Bighorn 2017.
Eventually I made it to Dryfork. What a relief! Matt was there and we were able to change my socks and shoes. My feet were a mess and we debated what to do with them. In the end we decided to clean and lube them, but in retrospect I think we should have attempted to drain some blisters and bandage the ones that wouldn’t drain. Learnings for next time. I decided to wear my Altra Escalantes for the remaining 18 miles to the finish line. I thought my feet might appreciate the extra cushion and space. Now that the sun was up, the trails had dried and I wasn’t concerned about traction on the mud.
My feet at Dryfork
My feet 24hrs after the race, still blisters but thankfully no real trench foot
The final 18 miles took me more than 6 hours. At first I could run a little bit, but my feet became progressively more sore and my hobble more pronounced. Runners were streaming passed me; a combination of 50 milers, 50km runners, 18 milers and the occasional 100 miler. There were far too many runners for me to step aside, so I opted to own the trail and make everyone run around me. 98% of the runners understood what I was doing, but a couple of runners were quite demanding that I get out of their way. I had to fight hard to contain my frustration.
The last downhill was unbelievably steep, it seemed to have transformed overnight. My feet were screaming at me, and I was unable to compartmentalize the pain. I sat down beside the trail and tried to apply more lube, but it didn’t help and the tears started flowing. I had almost had a puke-free, tear-free race, but I guess crying is my thing. Maybe it was good to let some of that emotion out, or maybe I’m a wimp. I’m still not sure.
I made it to Lower Sheep Creek (7 miles from the end), re-applied sunscreen and loaded up on apricots, plums and ginger ale. Beat caught back up to me as I hobbled towards the Homestretch. He was followed closely by Leo. Leo opted to stay with me as he had, “nothing better to do.” He helped me to search for solutions to my sad foot situation, rather than just giving into it as something that was unchangeable. We soaked my feet in some piss-warm water (it didn’t work) and then took time at the Homestretch aid station to get some treatment from an EMT. The EMT attempted to lance my blisters, but my skin was too tough to be punctured by either needles or safety pins so she bandaged up my feet instead. I didn’t think the bandages would make much difference, but they seemed to help.
The long slog 5 miles down the road to the finish line was not so bad. With Leo’s coaxing I slowly began to run more and walk less. We found a friend and I enjoyed listening to his stories, I was actually kind of enjoying myself. A blister suddenly formed beneath my middle toe and shooting pain went through the ball of my foot. In an instant I was slowed back down to a walk. Once again Leo coached me to find a different way to run, slightly pigeon-toed this time, and we were able to pick up the pace. Amazingly, we ran the last kilometre to the finish line. The finishing chute was lined with spectators cheering for us as though we were winning the race. We crossed the line together, smiles on our faces, happy to be done.
Despite the tears and blisters, I am very happy with how this race went. It wasn’t fast and it wasn’t pretty, but I ran happy for about 80% of the race, in zombie mode for about 15%, and was only unhappy for about 5%. That is an excellent ratio.
I did not get to scratch my competitive itch, so I am now more motivated than ever to have a strong run at WAM.
I should probably get a pedicure.
The people of Montana are extremely kind and helpful.
I am retired from Bighorn … I think.
The next 3 months are dedicated to mountain adventures and chasing my 1 million feet of vert. I couldn’t be more excited!