Hard to believe a year has already passed since I ran the Bighorn 100. But, as they say, time flies when you're having fun and here we are in mid-June again. Bighorn is one of my favorite events; beautiful trails and a great post-race BBQ make for an overall awesome experience and the fact that it's a mere three hour drive away doesn't hurt either. I've been running there since 2009. I was just getting started in ultrarunning back then and the Bighorn 50K was just my second ultra. I returned the next year for the 50M and subsequently was handed my first ever DNF. 2011 brought redemption in the 50M and then I finished my 2nd 100 miler there last year. That left just one race distance at Bighorn that I had never covered: the 30K. While technically not an ultra, it is a trail run and seemed like a good chance to stretch the legs and really race a race for a change, as opposed to just slogging through a longer distance with an eye more on finishing than finishing fast. My mission at Bighorn this year was definitely to finish fast.
As I've mentioned on here before, one aspect of my Leadville training this year is the goal to drop some extra weight before the big race in August. I'm still not sure how much I want to lose, I just know I need to lose some. When I weighed myself back in March before I started my training, I tipped the scales at 209. Definitely not ideal weight for an ultrarunner, although I had been making do for a few years at or near that weight. By the time Quad Rock rolled around in early May, I was down to about 190 and was hoping to see some obvious benefit of that weight loss at QR. That didn't come to fruition as the previously documented digestive issues drove me off the course after just one 25 mile loop. On the day before Bighorn, I weighed in at 183. There's gotta be a benefit to carrying around 26 fewer pounds, right? I was really hoping to find out.
Obviously, since I'm training for Leadville, I didn't necessarily train specifically for this race....it was just kind of jammed into the schedule and the plan was to basically train through it. Good evidence of that was my fairly heavy weekend the week before Bighorn, which left my legs feeling heavy and sluggish all the way through Wednesday of the following week. I "tapered" for Bighorn with very slow, very easy, very flat runs of 6 and 4.5 miles on Thursday and Friday. By the end of the week my legs felt better, but I still wasn't sure just how much kick I would have on Saturday morning and was wondering if maybe the Crow Peak Quad was a bit foolhardy just six days before Bighorn. Only one way to find out...
The race starts at the Dry Fork aid station along the Bighorn 100 course. Although labeled a 30K, which would be 18 miles, it's actually closer to 17 or 17.5 depending on who you ask. And although the route includes the steepest incline (The Haul) along the Bighorn 100 course, it is overall a VERY downhill course. From about 7600 feet at Dry Fork, the route ascends and then descends a bit to the first aid station (Upper Sheep Cr) at 7300 ft. Right after that is The Haul, which is short but steep and takes you to the high point of the course at around 8000 ft. And then the "fun" begins in the form of an absolutely quad killing bombing run of a downhill to the Lower Sheep Cr. aid station at 5000 ft....3000 ft of descent in a few miles. After that, the course continues losing elevation, but along much more gradual, somewhat rolling, trails and gravel roads to the finish in Dayton. If you've still got the legs left, you can really hammer the last 5 miles on the road and make up some time. Of course, if your legs are shot, it's the longest damn 5 miles of your life.
Since the 50K, 50M and 100M all cover the 30K course, I've actually run this course three times before. But, I had never run it on fresh legs, so I was curious to see what I could do without several hours on my legs already. Based on past results, including the results of several local Black Hills runners who I'm familiar with, I was expecting that a top 10 finish was very doable and that, depending on how things shook out, I might even have a shot at a top 5 and an age group award. I pegged 2:20-2:25, which worked out to 8:00-8:15 pace, as a good goal for a finishing time.
Since it's a point to point route, they bus you to the start and I rode in the back (like the cool kids in high school) with Ryan, who was going for a sub-2 and a new CR, and a few other Black Hills runners. After a fairly long ride, we finally arrived at Dry Fork just in time to see the 50Kers start at 8:00. Because of the popularity of the 30K, they split the race into two waves this year, with the "competitive" wave starting at 9:00 and the "family and friends" wave at 10:00. This meant we had an hour to hang out and talk and basically just mill around. It actually passed fairly quickly and, thankfully, it was a little warmer than it usually is at Dry Fork, so we weren't numb and shivering by the time the race started. I knocked out about a mile warmup run up the road just before the start and the legs felt okay, not great, but the heaviness from early in the week seemed mostly gone. After the national anthem, we were lined up and ready to go.
Immediately after the start, Ryan and last year's winner took off in the front of the pack. I settled into the top 10 or 15 and tried to find a groove. The first mile or so is a gradual uphill, first on a dirt road and then onto some singletrack. As we neared the top of this uphill I started to find the groove a bit and get my breathing/striding in sync and was in about 7th or 8th when we topped out and started the mostly gradual downhill to the first aid station. Along this trail section I started feeling pretty good and was cranking out the miles fairly consistently. And then the first fall happened. The trail through this section is fairly narrow and infringed upon by large sagebrush. As I was cruising along, my foot and/or shoelace caught on a sagebrush branch and before I knew it, I was down. I managed to catch myself a bit, but not all the way. I bounced up and started running again immediately, but lost a position in the process. I realized quickly that my left shoelace had been pulled loose in the fall, so just before a short but steep uphill I pulled aside and re-tied it, losing another few positions. But, pretty much all of those guys walked that uphill and I threw it into low gear and ran it, so picked the positions back up in short order. Immediately after the hill was the first aid station at Upper Sheep Cr., which I ran through (I didn't use any aid stations all day, as I was carrying a single handheld and had two gels with me).
Right after Upper Sheep Cr. is The Haul, which seemingly took me about 2 hours to climb last year in the 100 (it wasn't that bad, but it was a slow process of walk ten steps, rest, repeat). This year, I started off back in low gear, with aspirations of maybe running the whole thing. That quickly revealed itself to be a foolhardy strategy, so I started power hiking like everyone else and continued until the grade leveled out a bit near the top, where I started running again. I lost another position on The Haul, but also drew closer to a guy who was in front of me. After the shoe-tying and then subsequently passing one or two guys through the aid station, I had kind of lost track of where I was in the field, but thought it was around 7th or 8th. At the top, I glanced at my Garmin and my average pace up to that point was exactly 8:15, at the low end of my goal for the day, but virtually all of the uphill was now behind me.
And now the fun begins. The downhill after The Haul is just brutal. It's not smooth, it's not easy and it's not really all that much fun. It's a narrow, sometimes rocky, sometimes rutted out, mostly steep, singletrack that will absolutely obliterate your quads and seems to go on forever. The plan was to run it hard, and I did. Probably harder than I've allowed myself to run downhill in quite some time. That was partly because I was in lockstep with a guy right in front of me (the guy who had passed me on The Haul) and another guy right on my heels. About halfway down, the guy in front of my took a pretty good spill and after asking if he was okay (he was), me and the guy behind me took off ahead of him. Up ahead was another runner and we started gaining on him as we continued dive bombing down the hill. After awhile, it was apparent that the guy behind me was better at this downhill stuff than I am and he bounced around me and was quickly around the next guy and gone. And then it happened again. As I was pounding down the narrow trail, my right foot got caught in the loop of my shoelace on my left foot and I hit the turf. Hard. I took most of the impact on my left knee, which was already bleeding from my first fall, and my right hand, which was holding my hand held bottle. I hit hard enough that the plastic strap that secure the bottle to the carrier snapped, rendering the carrier basically useless. I jumped back up again, picked up the bottle and considered just leaving the useless, broken carrier there until I remembered my car keys were in the pocket. Might need those later. So then I was running down the trail with the bottle loose in one hand the and the carrier in the other. I knew that my left knee/shin were sore and bloody, but it didn't appear as though anything was truly injured. And no one passed me, so no big deal, right?
Until it happened yet again. Not much later I again bit it, the foot in the shoe lace again the culprit. Sonofabitch! (I actually yelled out a different word in the moment). Again, I took most of the impact on my left leg, which didn't really help things. Frustration setting in, I took a few moments to re-tie my shoes again in an attempt to alleviate the problem (which has never been a problem with these shoes before, although I'd never run this fast downhill on a narrow trail in these shoes either). While doing this, one guy passed me and the other guy I had been gaining on pulled further ahead. I quickly regained my lost position though as he slowed going through the Lower Sheep Cr. aid station, which was just up ahead. At that point, the worst of the downhill was, thankfully, over and the trail leveled out considerably and even included a few short stretches of rolling uphill. By this point, my left shin and knee were pretty sore and my legs were feeling pretty beat up from the downhill. It felt like I was suddenly running at a snail's pace without gravity helping me anymore, but my Garmin told me I was still doing just fine and had cut my average pace down to 8:00, at the high end of my goal range. Would I actually be able to come in under 2:20? If I could hold it together for 6 more miles...
I was fairly astounded that I had already managed to bite it three times in one race, which is far and away a new record for me. But I wasn't done yet. Not long after Lower Sheep Cr. I took one last swan dive. This one had to resemble a baseball player sliding headfirst into home place, as I landed on my chest with my hands/arms stretched out in front of me and then managed to bounce my chin off the trail to finish it off. I reached up to my chin to feel for blood, but found none, although I now had a bit of a headache to add to the sore knee and shin. I finally decided at this point that I needed to remedy the situation before I did some serious damage to myself and took a few moments to tuck my shoelace loops into my shoes, which, of course, would've been a brilliant move after the first fall. No positions lost, so I was thinking I was in 6th or 7th at that point and I knew I had at least one guy not too terribly far ahead of me, although I wasn't sure how far as the curving, rolling trail didn't offer much in the way of sight distance. Well, turns out it wasn't actually that far at all as not much later I came around a curve in the trail and saw him hiking a short uphill right in front of me. I ran up and over and passed him quickly. Not long after that, I ran past some mountain bikers and I thought I heard one of them say I was in 4th, but that didn't seem right based on who I knew to be ahead of me, so I guesstimated that 5th or 6th was more likely.
By this time, the trail running was done and the final 5 mile stretch of dirt road to the finish had begun. This stretch of road took ffffffooooorrrrreeeevvvvveeeeeerrrrrr last year in the 100M as I ended up walking 90% of it. Although my legs were tired by this point and my left leg was sore from the extra abuse it had taken, I was still cranking out what I thought was a pretty decent pace for that point in the race, around 7:30 miles. The road is mostly flat with a few gradual ups and downs along the way and I could not see anyone ahead of me within range, so I wasn't really expecting to gain any positions in the final miles. As far as I knew, no one was hot on my heels either, so I was thinking that I was probably locked in position-wise, it was just a question of what my time would be. So, of course, I begin thinking not only about my overall position, but also about where I sat in my age group. I knew Ryan was older, but I suspected that at least two, possibly three, of the other guys I knew for sure to be ahead of me might be in their 30s. So I was right on the brink, possibly outside looking in already. And then I heard footsteps. When this happens toward the end of, say, a marathon, you immediately begin to hope it's just a relay runner. Well, no such luck here. I was running the shortest/fastest distance....seemed highly unlikely that a 100 miler was suddenly running sub-7 miles and about to overtake me. Indeed, it turned out to be the guy who had fallen right in front of me on the downhill. He had recovered nicely and was cruising the road at a good clip, much better than I could maintain at that point. He passed me and was gone in short order, despite the fact that I had dropped my pace into the 7:20s. Not much longer after that, it happened again; footsteps right behind me, a quick "good job" and gone. This was a guy I hadn't seen all day but he had apparently been lingering back in the pack and waiting for the final push. Again, although I felt like I was running well for that point in the race, I just didn't have the speed to keep up at that point.
By then we were past the last aid station, Homestretch, with only two miles to the finish. I risked a few glances behind me when the road offered a long view and didn't see anyone else sneaking up, so now it really did seem as though I was locked into my current position, whatever it was. It also seemed certain I was definitely outside the age group hardware now, but nothing I could do about that anymore. So I just kept chugging along and in no time was coming into Dayton with the park and finish line just ahead (amazing how much faster that road stretch goes by when you actually run it). For the first time all day I switched the screen on my Garmin to display my total elapsed time and saw it just clicking over to 2:10. Sonofabitch! Of course, that's much faster than I expected to run, but I immediately started thinking about where I could've shaved time (by, say, not falling four times) and come in under 2:10. But, again, nothing to do about it at this point so I continued pushing to the finish. As I came into the park I immediately saw/heard Ryan and his four daughters cheering for me and pushed across the line in 2:11:49. Final check of the results put me at 7th overall and 5th in my age group. Being in your 30s sucks sometimes!
Okay, so I won't lie and say I'm not disappointed that I didn't get to bring home one of those big ass Bighorn river rock age group awards, but you can't really complain too much about coming in 9 minutes under your stretch goal time. Other than getting up close and personal with the trail more times than I would've liked, the race really couldn't have gone much better for me. I feel like, for the first time, I've really experienced what it's like to race with less weight. I'm fairly convinced that there is no way I could've run this race this fast 26 pounds ago. I'm happy with how things went and even more excited now about the rest of my Leadville training.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention Ryan's race here briefly. As mentioned before, he was gunning for the course record, which was 1:59. Ryan is in phenomenal shape this year and I suspected he'd give it a run for its money. Well, he did that and more, finishing in 1:57. But, turns out last year's winner was in phenomenal shape too as he ran a 1:56. Sonofabitch! It was a fast day at the Bighorn 30K!