Bighorn Haiku: A Report From The 2017 Bighorn Trail 100
Posted Jun 23, 2017, 5:52 PM by Matthew Anderson [Updated Jun 24, 2017, 7:45 AM]
Run past glade and mount...
Rain starts to fall and temps drop,
Return clad in mud.
If the 2017 Bighorn Trail Run could be reduced to a haiku I’ll say with confidence the juxtaposition would be that of mountains and mud. The course is absolutely breathtaking with its vivid wildflowers, thundering rivers, and high mountains valleys that overwhelm you with their grandeur; there were moments when the beauty had me choked up. But thirteen hours of rain during the race turned forty miles the course into a winding ribbon of greasy, pudding consistency mud and it was an experience I’ll never forget.
I knew this race had a reputation for being hot but it became apparent a few days before the race that this year was going to be different; the weather forecast was calling for temperatures in the low 40s at night with a 60% chance for rain. My friends John and Tessa, Tessa’s son Charlie, and I departed Denver on Thursday morning June 15th to pick-up my race packet in Sheridan and then we continued on to Burgess Junction to meet my parents at the Elk View Inn. It was definitely jacket weather when we got out of the car at 8,300 feet and after checking-in we drove a few minutes to the Bear Lodge Resort for dinner. The next morning had me up early for the 45 minute drive back down to Dayton for breakfast and the mandatory pre-race briefing. The weather was cloudy and cool and on the way to town we saw about 30 deer and exactly six moose which had me a little nervous; I don’t like stumbling across moose when I’m out running. It sprinkled a bit during the briefing and then all the runners piled into shuttle buses to the start line along Tongue River Canyon Road.
The race started promptly at 10:00 AM with 1.25 miles of road to allow runners to spread out before pinching down to singletrack at the Tongue River Trailhead. The trail through the canyon along the Tongue River was beautiful and then the 2,500 foot climb from Lower Sheep Creek to Horse Creek Ridge and Upper Sheep Creek was breathtaking both in its incline and in its beauty. I meet my whole crew at Dry Fork at 1:36 PM about fifteen minutes ahead of schedule and it was great to see their smiling faces. The descent to Cow Camp was on runnable 4WD road and from there proceeded along beautiful, runnable singletrack to Bear Camp. The course then descended “The Wall” to Sally’s Footbridge at mile 30 where I got my first glimpse of the Little Bighorn River thundering through the canyon. The aid station is wedged into a narrow little canyon with 500 foot vertical walls rising to either side!
Rain started falling at approximately 6:00 PM as I departed Sally’s Footbridge and by mile 35 between Cathedral Rock and Spring Marsh the trail started deteriorating into the slipperiest mud I’ve ever seen. It was the consistency of pudding and it was relentless; every step had you slipping, sliding, and gyrating to maintain balance. My aluminum Black Diamond Z-Poles and Salomon Speedcross 4s with their large lugs were lifesavers; I saw two runners without poles down on their hands and knees using roots to pull themselves up one of the steeper sections of trail. I arrived at Jaws Trailhead at 12:33 AM about a half hour behind schedule where I meet my crew and first pacer John. When John said he hadn’t heard much about the mud, not sure how that was possible but whatever, the runner next to me and I both looked at him and started laughing maniacally. The aid station was very cramped with muddy emotionally crushed runners so things took a bit longer than planned but after layering up with some running tights, changing socks, and grabbing a quick bite to eat John and I headed back out into the mud for the return trip.
Sadly slipping and sliding downhill in those conditions proved even more difficult than slipping and sliding uphill. John fell about a dozen times on the way back down from Jaws, I fell four times, and I witnessed a poor woman in front of me hit the ground like a rag doll and proceed to slide of the side of the trail. At Cathedral Rock I asked one of the volunteers what makes the mud in these mountains so slippery. He didn’t know cause but said “It’s well known in these parts that your truck is likely to get stuck if you piss behind the tire.”
My race plan had me setting a good pace on the long steady downhill returning from Jaws but I ended up losing another 90 minutes in the mud now putting me two hours behind schedule. John refused to let me throw myself a pity party and after 13½ hours it finally stopped raining at 7:30 AM as we arrived back at Sally’s Footbridge. I was nervous because I had now used all my contingency time and we were only at mile 66. To squeak in under the finish line cut-off I would have to hit all my planned splits for the next 34 miles which would be unlikely if the mud didn’t let-up soon. While changing shoes and socks my pacer and I spoke with two women who were waiting for their runner; this was his first 100 mile race and I told them to assure him they’re not all like this.
John and I got back on the trail with homemade Egg McMuffins in hand thanks to the amazing volunteers working the aid station kitchen and conditions did start improving as we climbed The Wall back toward Bear Camp. As we continued climbing the sun showed itself for the first time during the race and my attitude, along with the trail, continued getting better. I snarfed down some fried potatoes and bacon at Cow Camp and as we approached Dry Fork John ran ahead to let my crew know I would be arriving shortly. I arrived at 1:35 PM still about two hours behind schedule and because there was no time to lose my second pacer Tessa and I were back on the trail within a couple minutes. To save time I passed on changing into a fresh pair of socks and by the end of the race I would come to regret that decision.
Much of the next five miles from Dry Fork to Upper Sheep Creek is on gravel road which was drying out more quickly than the trails so I was able to finally start making up some time and Tessa was a hydration and nutrition taskmaster. I knew we would be back on steep technical trail from Upper Sheep Creek back down to Lower Sheep Creek and I was worried the course would get muddy again but shortly after cresting Horse Creek Ridge and starting down the valley it became apparent the trail was in great shape and we continued making up time on the long relentless descent. Because forty miles of mud stymied my attempts to run earlier in the race my quads were in good shape but as we continued descending I could feel the blisters starting to form on the bottoms of my feet. Note to self, saving a couple minutes at an aid station by passing on fresh socks is a foolish trade. The last five miles from the Tongue River Trailhead to the finish line at Scott Park in Dayton will ensure I never skip a pair of fresh socks again. I ended up making up about an hour in the final 17.5 miles and crossed the finish line in 32 hours 52 minutes 23 seconds.
Much thanks goes out to my mom Joan Anderson, dad Roger Anderson, friends John Karels and Tessa Crume, and Tessa’s son Charlie who kept me on my feet and moving forward; I couldn’t have done it without you! Additionally, I want to thank the race organizers and volunteers who endured cold, wet, challenging conditions. The aid stations were welcoming respites and the course was very well marked; never for even a moment did I feel lost of off course.
Sadly I didn’t take any photos during the race because I was too worried about making up time and getting to the finish line before the final cut-off. My only photo is of mud covered shoes as I unpacked them back at home. I guess that means I’ll have to go back again someday and bring home some photos.