The national anthem, sung a capella, along with a prayer of gratitude and togetherness sets us on our way down a short stretch of dusty dirt road leading us into the heart of the Big Horn mountains. Before long, the world of motorized vehicles is left behind, giving way to perfect rolling singletrack, lined with cottonwood trees, flowing alongside the Tongue river.I lead the already strung out pack out of the woods into the wide open prairie and start tip-toeing my way up the fairly steep goat trail that stretches ahead as far as the eye can see. On this long, exposed, gradual climb, we are greeted with a series of short false summits along with a strong headwind, which despite keeping the temperature quite pleasant makes forward progression feel painfully slow.
Mike soon catches up to me and we settle into a conversational pace, chatting about a variety of things, especially UTMB, which he is also running this year. I enjoy his company and the relaxed vibe makes the race feel more like a long training run, which in some respect it is. This is only my second hundred mile race, and since my debut at Mt Blanc basically shredded me to pieces last year, I wanted to get another experience before going back for a second attempt.. Hundred mile races feel like a totally different sport to me. I remember thinking at the finish of the Where's Waldo 100k a few years back that I would need to be feeling a hell of a lot better than I was then to run an extra 40 miles. Well 62 miles into UTMB, I was feeling a whole lot worse and proceeded to somehow drag my body round the last section of the course. Needless to say, that I'm not too keen on revisiting that experience and figure that by heavily focusing on my mental preparation, I should over time understand how to run these things well.
Just over the half marathon mark, we leave the Dry Fork aid station, for a 6 mile stretch of gently rolling dirt road, made frustratingly uneven by deep jeep and ATV tracks. I find myself zigzagging in and out of the small trenches looking for the best line along the berms, trying to open up my stride, but with little success. It's a choppy mess of a trail, constantly jerking me left and right, making me readjust my cadence and cutting out any sort of fluidity in my running form. My hips are already tightening and I have no spring in my step. As we transition through the Cow Camp aid station, I feel as if I'm drifting along on a raft on a tranquil river and Mike just caught a rapid out in front of me. He sails away, 10, 20, 30 feet and soon disappears into the woods ahead. I perceive no distinct change in pace and don't feel like pressing to catch up, so I settle back into my own head. The loud neigh of a horse startles me as I approach Bear Camp and I come upon a peculiar scene where a cowboy has strung a tarp up from the trees and is going about preparing a fire for his night shift assisting runners. He offers me some beef jerky which I decline (or maybe I just made that up as it seems so fitting) but I do snag some water and push on down to the Footbridge. This is my first resupply point, 30 miles in, where a very helpful group of volunteers fetch my drop bag and have me in and out of the aid station like they are my own crew.
While studying the map before the race, I figured that the 18 mile gradual climb from the Footbridge to the Porcupine Ranger Station turnaround would be the crux of the race. Being a third of the way done, I knew I'd be feeling the first onsets of fatigue, the climb would be long, slow going and would probably mess with my mind a little as there is still a lot racing to be done. Knowing this, I'd purposely focused on wanting to run this stretch well, to reach Porcupine with plenty of confidence relishing in the fact that I could reward myself by indulging in gravity all the way back down to the bridge. As I take my first few steps out of the aid station, I can tell immediately that my prediction was right and that this would indeed be the hardest part of race for me. Unfortunately, I'm not really feeling the whole part about "wanting to run this stretch well". I'm forced into a powerhike at any slight steepening of the trail (although the word "power" seems to be awfully unfitting given my speed). I don't feel particularly bad by any means, just flat. My thoughts reflect this as I feel overcome by a slight wave of depression and a willingness to just stop the rush up this hill and sit down. While it sounds inviting, I instead choose to hunker down inside myself, deciding not to walk anymore, finding a rhythm (even slow) that I can focus on and just grind out for the rest of day. All I have to do is be patient and things will come back. My spirits are lifted, as the slight reroute of course due to snow, takes us off trail across some boggy and marshy ground covered with short alpine grass that reminds me of the British fells. At this point, Mike comes barreling across the plains looking very strong and I'm reminded for a moment that I am actually trying to catch this guy.
At Porcupine, Ashley Nordell's husband Josh helps me not lose any time by filling up my water and stuffing my pockets with gels. He sends me on my way with words of encouragement and just as I'm leaving Jeff Browning comes flying in, followed closely by Duncan Callahan and then Yassine who tells me that his feet are destroyed. Not a good sign 48 miles in!
I decide it's time to let loose on the downhill and put a good gap on those guys and maybe try to make some time up on Mike. But again my efforts are futile. I still have no pep in my legs and just try to maintain a cruising pace through Elk Camp. I'm further slowed on this section as I foolishly hold off as long as I can before switching on my headlamp as I hope to conserve batteries so as not to have to switch them out later in the night. I stop briefly at Spring Marsh to drink a cup of soup and here comes Jeff right on my tail! This ruffles my ego a little as I just don't want anyone catching me on the downhill so I leave the aid station and decide it's to time to hammer. Suddenly, everything in my mind changes and I feel careless and carefree just wanting to get to the Footbridge as quick as possible. The course unfolds ahead of me and starts to feel easy. I can map out the next moves; powerhike up to Bear Camp, run along the road to Dry Fork, pop over the ridge and then it's all downhill to the end.
At the Footbridge, I'm informed that Mike is now an hour ahead. I give up on trying to catch him and I don't really care anymore. I feel stripped down to a very elemental sense of being. Elated, I run most of the climb to Bear Camp, salute the cowboy and keep a steady pace along the road to Dry Fork. Half way there, my batteries die and I sit for a minute to change them tactilely in the dark. As I start up again, I notice sets of eyes looking at me from the bushes. Just deer probably, but I don't hang around to find out. I've hit a sweet spot, feeling comfortably numb. I go in and out of Dry Fork in a blur, barely recognizing Jeff's dad who is chatting to me and I'm wondering why the volunteer is asking me if I'm cold. I feel nothing. Just compelled to move forward and revel in the present moment. This blissful state accompanies me, along with the sunrise, all the way back down the steep goat trails to the Lower Sheep aid station which is last one if I remember correctly. I ask the gentleman sitting there how far I still have to go to which he replies two and half miles. My smile broadens and I quicken the pace along that perfect rolling single track along the Tongue river that we started up some 18 hours ago.
Before long, I cross paths with a guy riding his bike up the trail towards me, just for another little boost, I ask him how far still to go…he replies seven miles. SEVEN MILES!! What? I start to remember the road section and something about adding some miles on at the end since we turned around at mile 48. I finally come to the road and a woman tells me, I'm nearly there, only 5 miles to go. FIVE! Are you serious? On this road? The bliss is gone, all I feel now is hurt. I want to sit down. I want to hitch a ride. I'm over it. A photographer snaps a shot of me.."how far to go?" I ask. "Oh maybe 8 or 9 miles" he says. NO WAY, I tell him. You're wrong! I must sound pissed because he starts apologizing and saying he misspoke. I keep on crawling along; feel like I'm running in sand. My thoughts are negative. Damn right he misspoke! I feel bad for being so negative. The fatigue has taken over and I think of The End by the Doors…the wilderness of pain. The end does come, over the asphalt road in Dayton, past the campground and into the park. I see the finish line and Mike is sitting on a chair, wrapped in a blanket. He looks fresh after running a fantastic race. Michelle, the RD, hugs and congratulates me and asks me what I want for breakfast. English muffins, French Toast, eggs, etc. Really? That sounds wonderful. Soon after Jeff comes in, finishing strong despite having the flu, followed shortly by Yassine, who despite his recked feet, put in a warrior effort and kept it together to the end. My friend Geoffrey Donovan, gets a solid sub 24 hour finish and adds his good humor to the pleasant post race barbecue. All in all this is a superbly run event and I can't thank the volunteers enough for all their efforts.
In a state a semi post race delirium, I decide that I'm well enough to drive Yassine and I back to Boulder that day…after about 3 hours of driving we see a sign that says "Spearfish SD – 22 miles". South Dakota??? But that's a story for another time.
Gear note: As per usual, I wore the Inov-8 x-talon 212 thinking that the course was going to be very muddy and wet. This wasn't really case and I would have preferred to wear the 230s for all the dry pack but I didn't get a single blister and my feet felt great the entire way, so I can't complain.
For lighting, I used the Petzel MYO RXP which is really bright but has limited battery life on full blast.
Finally, my trusted Patagonia Houdini kept me warm and shielded me from the wind at night.