Tracy Dahl

Bighorn 52-Mile: “Your Wife Fell Down Again”

Forty-five or so VHTRC members headed out west to take on varying distances in the Bighorn mountains, and I think we all underestimated how tough the courses would be. My trek was my first mountain 50-miler, and damn, was this thing hard.

The 52-mile race is the second half the out-and-back 100, with the benefit of running the entire course during the day and starting at the highest point of the 100. Whereas the 100 started around lunchtime on Friday, my 50-mile journey began at the ungodly hour of 4 a.m. Saturday with a 90-minute school bus ride to the trailhead. The sun began to rise as the bus tootled up to the start at the Jaws trailhead at 8,800 feet, and our driver pointed out a trio of moose on the way.

On paper, the first 18 miles of the race look like a sweet, continuous downhill. I expected to gently float down them and let gravity do most of the work as I conserved energy for the latter part of the race. Instead, I fell down — hard — three or four times in the space of 10 miles on the very narrow, shrub-overgrown technical singletrack that alternated between dry, gorgeous meadow and boggy mud field. Still, the views as we descended into the Little Bighorn Canyon as the sun headed the opposite direction were the stuff of trail runners’ dreams. I was glad to be leap-frogging on the trail with Quatro to share the experience and take a few pictures.

After I fell on my face yet again, the woman running behind me relayed to Quatro up ahead that “your wife fell down again.” (No word on whether he corrected her.) He waited for me to catch up to be sure I was OK, and after that, Q, my bruises and I ran the rest of the race together. This was unplanned but really fun, especially as we’d done a lot of training together. I also stopped falling on my face.

The aid stations during this first part of the course offered slim pickings. Everything had to be hauled in by packhorse — which race management warned us about — so I wasn’t expecting MMT-style French toast, but I was surprised to see empty paper bowls coated with telltale Cheetos dust. Are Cheetos really that heavy to haul in? Or were we really that far back in the field?

Yep. As we moved toward the first aid station that had a cut-off time, Sally’s Footbridge (18 miles, 4,600 feet), it became fearfully clear just how conservatively I had taken that downhill: We arrived at the aid station with about 10 minutes to spare. Here, I had the fear of God in me — and a drop bag with dry socks I was too frenzied to change into. Q and I fueled up, left the aid station, and settled into a groove as we began our work up “the Wall,” the longest climb on the course.

I was relieved to be fast-hiking up the climb. It felt much more controlled than the earlier downhill running, which had scared me into a timidity that became obvious only after I understood how close I was to the cut-off. The reality of the clock motivated me to push uphill. I enjoy climbing and hoped my newfound footing and adrenaline would let me pick up some time that I’d lost. I fixed my mind on reaching the Dry Fork aid station, mile 34, and seeing my father-in-law and cousin there. After the Wall came some nice rollers, and Q and moved along the trail at a decent clip. It felt good to pass other runners.

I’d been warned that you can see the Dry Fork aid station for miles before you get there. Others have found this demoralizing (it’s all uphill) but I thought it encouraging: progress! By the time we arrived, we’d made up several minutes in relation to the cut-off time. It was so nice to see family here, and finally putting on a dry pair of socks was refreshing.

I ate on the steady fire-road climb out of Dry Fork, passing other runners and taking in the big sky above. The course diverts back onto lovely, runnable trail, and the biggest frustration Q and I had here was finding cover to use the bathroom.

Then came “the Haul,” a section of course named for its brutally steep but relatively short ascent. I loved it — it was my favorite part of the whole race. I was moving well, and we were in the middle of a vast slope of wildflowers. I was astonished to see great swells of bluebells, taller than the ones we see at Hemlock but bluebells nonetheless, which gave way to at least a dozen other types of flowers as far as the eye could see: alpine forget-me-nots, paintbrush, the ever-present lupine, columbine, little pink shooting stars, and more. It was spectacular, and my body felt great.

Things changed quickly after topping out. To reach the next aid station at Lower Sheep Creek, we needed to drop about 3,000 feet in four miles. This is extremely steep. There are rocks. And it goes on. And on. Forever. Parts of this were too steep to run, so I walked, and when things turned runnable again, I wasn’t motived to move any faster. I knew I was racing the clock but I couldn’t get it together to haul during this section. Mentally, I was leaning hard on the final stretch of the race, which I knew would be very runnable trail and then dirt road, and I was excited to actually race at that point.

But when we finally bottomed out to run along the roaring Tongue River, the back of my left knee felt tweaky, the result of an extremely tight calf. Stretching at the well-stocked and very friendly Lower Sheep Creek aid station didn’t help. We headed out on the final trail portion of the course, encouraging the 100-milers we’d been coming across.

By the time we reached the second-to-last aid station, the volunteers were beginning to pack up. Now I was finally facing the gravel road I’d been longing for, and although my energy was good and my stomach was behaving, I couldn’t run for my knee. I muddled through an unintended Galloway-method run-walk, coaxed on by Quatro, for the length of the exposed road. Faster runners complain of the heat here, but we had arrived so late in the day that the heat wasn’t an issue. Gauging distance by a fun sign that a neighbor put out on the road, Q and I both thought the final aid station — the adorably named Homestrech — had already packed up, so we were surprised to see it when we did … and to thereby learn that we still had two miles to go.

But with that final clue about our position on the course, we started to run and kept it up to the finish. (Q thinks it’s the longest continuous stretch we ran all day.) We knew town was just around the corner when we hit blacktop, and we crossed the Tongue River over a bridge to enter Dayton. The race finishes in a park, and Q and I agreed to showboat a little for the VHTRC crowd by sprinting it in.

We finished together in 14:24, placing 122 and 123 out of 128 finishers. (I’d been expecting to wrap up in about 13 hours. The cut-off was 15. I’ve never cut a race so close.)

Bighorn kicked my tuckus, though I’m grateful that I had no stomach problems all day and that I hurt only toward the very end. It was a good lesson in trying to set a conservative pace at the beginning, though I think I was too cautious and probably got more rattled by falling than I realized.

The club met back up Sunday morning for the race-sponsored pancake breakfast. It’s held in a pedestrian plaza in the middle of Sheridan and doubles as a droning awards ceremony. From there, many of us scattered to points further west, kicking off cowboy vacations.

The Bighorn races bill themselves as “wild and scenic,” and they don’t disappoint. I highly recommend them as a means of seeing some gorgeous, remote places few humans will ever trod.