Mountain 100s are no joke. You can get away with making a lot of mistakes in a 50-miler and even a 100k but every mistake you make in a 100-miler will get exponentially worse the longer you ignore the problem. I had targeted a finish time somewhere around 27-28 hours based on what some runners I knew told me to expect for someone with my (limited) skill set.
I woke up super early (5:30 am) on race day, the sun streaming into my tent window, pitched behind the Tongue River High School’s grounds, and drove over to the mini-mart in downtown Dayton for a cup of coffee and a breakfast burrito. I then decided to drive up into the Bighorn Mountains on route 14 and eat breakfast at elevation, maybe enjoy a nice view- I ended up driving up to a nice little alpine pond called Sibley Lake and just sat in awe of the pristine silence.
Sibley Lake, high up and deep into the Bighorn range
Before a really tough race I always think of the Lakota chief Crazy Horse’s quote “today is a good day to die”, which is fitting since I actually drove by the battlefield where he was said to have uttered that phrase.
Okay, to be fair I’d definitely quit the race before I died but c’mon- that is some poetic shit.
It’s not not pretty.
So at the pre-race meeting the guy that designed the course, Wendell, came clean and admitted what people have known for years- this is actually a little bit longer than 100 miles, it’s 101, maybe 101.5. Okay, no big deal. More miles is more fun, right?
Settling into the staring blocks. I would lead this race for the first .000001 seconds. Photo courtesy of Chip Tilden
Race starts Friday at 11 am and it’s already in the high 70s in the Tongue River Canyon, the temps rose as we ascended so it was probably in the mid-80s during the long climb (eight miles and about 3500 feet), but since this course is very exposed the sun was basically just roasting away on me, the only mild respite being a nice little tailwind.
And they’re off! Seriously I started walking right after. Photo: Chip Tilden
It felt hotter than normal to me since I am spoiled living in the friendly confines of the Bay Area- anything over 75 is too hot and anything under 50 is too cold, so I wasn’t exactly comfortable until dropping down to the Footbridge aid station- named for the actual footbridge over the raging Little Bighorn River, so there were spots of shade along the first 30 miles, but they were few and far between.
Feelin’ alright! photo: WJ Wagner
Just gonna leave these here. Try to not sign up for this race, I dare you…
I ran for a long time with that Tom Petty ‘Wildflowers’ song stuck in my head. Which was weird because I only know like one line from it…
First eight hours I felt so great, didn’t push myself at all. Power hiked all the climbs, ran the flats and downs very conservatively. Got to the Footbridge aid station at 6 pm and readied myself for the long climb up to Jaws at 9000 feet.
Those canyons tho
Here’s where I made my first mistake- not putting my jacket and gloves in this drop bag. It stayed warm up until close to 8000 feet when we got hit with a quick little thunderstorm, pretty minor, maybe five minutes. Enough to get me wet, so not having my rain shell was mistake #1. Okay, I can deal with this one…
Nature. Biggest show-off on Earth.
Then the sun sets just as I get to about 8000 feet. Temps start dropping rapidly, luckily the next two aid stations (Spring Marsh and Elk Camp) had roaring fires. All I’m wearing now is a knit beanie hat, racing singlet and arm warmers, it’s probably in the high 40s/low 50s.
Then we get up close to 9000 feet, I’m doing a great job keeping my feet dry but there was one point where you just had to get your feet wet.
Then I caught a chill, highest point of the race (slightly over 9k). This chill would stay with me for the next four hours.
Got to Jaws at mile 48 about two hours later than I thought I would. My drop bag comes over to me and I got my thermal long sleeve, tech tee, neck warmer, gloves, ate some soup, changed socks- mistake #2!
I should have brought them with me and changed them at the next aid because my feet would get wet again like 20 minutes later at the same point they got wet the first time inbound.
I also realized I had a slight headache at this point… altitude sickness? I started in on the ginger chews because I read a few years ago before I went up Mt. Whitney that ginger was good for altitude sickness. Seriously though, is there anything ginger isn’t good for?
Well, I’m 50 miles in now, it’s 12:30 am so I’m already into day two- so everything I do from here on out at every aid station had to be geared toward Official Damage Control mode- possible altitude sickness with some low grade hypothermia on the side.
Because I really planned on getting my money’s worth in Wyoming!
But I still had pretty solid energy since starting, mental attitude was great and was still being pretty conservative- almost too conservative, and here’s where I think I ran into trouble next (mistake #3)- since I wasn’t technically running that fast but still eating and drinking like I thought I was I think I started to overload my stomach.
I was pretty much doing something every 30-45 minutes, either 100 to 200 calories of gels, UCan or Tailwind PLUS eating at aid stations; every aid I hit coming back down the mountain was the same deal: broth, ginger ale, beef jerky, pickles, coffee, Reese’s cups, you name it.
I would post up next to the fire, there’d always be some poor soul still headed up the mountain, basically racing the cutoffs at this point and I’d sit next to them, try to get them laughing, lie about how bad the coming climb was: “seriously, it’s not that bad, like not even two miles and 600, maybe 700 feet” when it was more like three miles and probably 1200 feet.
They say “beware the chair” during ultras but after being on your feet going on 14, 15, 16 hours I say fuck those people. Enjoy the chair. Take care of yourself, get your heart rate down, really sit and think about the next section or what you need to do between now and the next problem; the next stubbed toe (I had like 40 of these already), the next mini-bonk, the next negative thought spiral. What do I need to do to keep going?
I think staying positive was the thing that has saved my ass time and time again not only in this race but life in general. Not really knowing what to do but being open to ideas that come from outside of my brain is what I needed to remember.
I enjoyed the hell out of hearing the guys at Elk Camp aid station talk about actual elk hunting- these guys not only run the aid station here, they camp here a few times a year and go elk hunting up there.
Here it was at 2 am and their 10-year old kids were wide awake, whacked on too much Mountain Dew and candy, cooking up a huge pot of soup for us and telling us they caught fourteen trout that day as their dads were setting up the aid station. Then they cooked the trout and ate them for dinner.
I left that aid station nice and warm and happy. Maybe five minutes out, the chill came back. It stayed with me until the next aid station, Spring Marsh and their accommodating fire. Another twenty minute hangout here, same deal. Five minutes after leaving, that chill comes back.
Luckily it only stayed with me for a little bit as I turned a canyon corner and was basically blasted with warm air. The first strands of sunlight were starting to peek out from the west, it being almost 5 am now. I started sweating once again- it had been maybe eight hours since I was warm enough to actually sweat, so I peeled off a layer of clothes. Back down under 7000 feet now, it kept getting warmer and warmer as I started dropping in elevation. I feel like I dodged a bullet there.
It had also been the weirdest last hour- I was literally peeing every ten minutes. Then I took a mean dump, wiped myself with arrowleaf, those yellow wildflowers that grow all over the Rockies- best natural TP ever. Went through Cathedral Rock aid, same deal again with the food but except for coffee I had some Mello Yello. By now the sun was pretty much up, it was about 5:30. Another sunrise, another day, and I still had like 37 miles to go.
The next hour got even weirder, was peeing now like every seven minutes. I started thinking I had hyponatremia, the only thing I knew about it was that basically I’m not retaining any of the water I’ve been drinking because my sodium levels are too low and it’s bad news, if you’re peeing more than seven times an hour it’s supposed to trouble. This was the first time I had the thought of dropping, I thought I was going to be done and get airlifted to a hospital with some kidney problems.
Took another dump, kept moving down the mountain. Now my stomach felt weird, like it had taken in so much food (because it had) and was trying to just get rid of it. No nausea at all, just felt like the day after Thanksgiving. Now I was going on just about three hours of peeing every 5-10 minutes.
I ran into Footbridge aid station (mile 66) and asked to talk to the head medical person. She came over and was like, “what’s going on?” I told her about what was happening, and the first thing she asks is “what color is your pee?” Clear. “Does it hurt?” I fought back a laugh thinking of the Frank Zappa song.
“Do your kidneys or lower back hurt?” No, I’m totally good, just have this sudden urge to pee like every five minutes and it’s really slowing me down.
So after she figured out that nothing was physically wrong with me except that I might be over-hydrating and I wasn’t retaining it because I just needed to take in more salt, which is weird because I was taking 2 salt pills per hour in addition to all that salty food, she said from here on out take four to six pills an hour. She then revealed to me that she was actually a sports psychologist and that my problem might be mental. “This can be a pretty scary course and you just ran through an entire night by yourself, it might just be that you want to drop. Do you want to drop?” She and the other volunteers assisting her waited for me to answer.
Aww hell no!
Well, kind of.
No, wait… I would like to finish this damn race. I think I needed to hear someone else say the D word out loud to fully put it in perspective for me. The idea that this race would continue without me in it was unfathomable. For whatever reason, at this moment- I suddenly felt important, and finishing this race became more important.
Then we had a good laugh that I was about to turn 40 so it might just be prostate issues. Some good “finger in the butt” jokes, they told me I wasn’t allowed to drop because my mind was still super sharp and I was in a totally ebullient and effervescent mood.
People at this point were dropping like flies, they told me there were probably only about 200 people left in the race (about 120 drops already). So, I got my lone blister fixed up, changed socks, ate a delicious bootleg Egg McMuffin and left Footbridge at almost 8 AM.
Huge climb up to Bear Camp, this is the section called The Wall (a lot more fun to come down) and it was already getting hot, parts of that climb had coverage but when it was exposed it was just roasty balls hot. Great! I thought, it’s only like 9:30 in the morning.
Just then the 50-mile leaders flew through, they were at mile 21 and three hours in, we were at mile 69 and 22 hours in, oof.
Best not to think about that sort of shit- part of me wanted to throw my GPS watch into the woods at this point.
Chip caught me at Bear Camp! Good times! I look higher than Pauly Shore. photo: Chip Tilden
Left Bear Camp for the seven-mile stretch to Cow Camp- the famous bacon aid station!
Look at this trail…
It was along this point where I hit the lowest point of my race- the urge to drop was so damn strong here. I just started to cry, mentally just completely lost it, so not having fun anymore, a total meltdown. I wanted to call Allyson and tell her I was okay but not really and could she maybe come pick me up?
A full 24 hours into this race and all I wanted to do was lay down on the side of the trail and just go the fuck to sleep. I prayed that a mountain lion was stalking me and this was his chance to end it for me. That’s how bad it was, hoping I’d be some apex predator’s brunch.
Then I opened up my phone and looked at pictures of my kid. This beautiful, happy, healthy 8-month old that I absolutely adore. What would he think of his daddy being a quitter?
“Why’d you quit, Dad?” I imagined him asking me one day. Because I was tired and didn’t feel so good. Because I missed you and your mom. “But you know you can see us again later?” I imagined him saying. Yes, I know that. But I just wanted to stop.
No, not a good enough answer. Not a reason to give up.
So then I just made a decision- start running. Just run right now, run until you can’t, then wait until the next aid station to make a decision to drop if that’s what I need to do. I knew it would be harder to quit once I was around people, and if any of those fuckers tries to get me to laugh then dammit, I’ll just have to stay in this stupid race and finish it.
So I put headphones on, cranked up the Talking Heads, ate two salted caramel gels in quick succession and started running like it was the start of a 5k. My legs suddenly felt light, I started passing runners. I started singing while I was running. I felt great. I might not have to drop after all!
Came up to the spring four miles before the next aid, filled my water bottle, doused my head, and just kept going. I aggressively power hiked the ups, passing even more runners here in this section.
I pulled into Cow Camp, got ice in my bottle, ice in my hydration bladder, ate like five pieces of bacon, took a few Gu’s for the road and was out. There’s another ice cold mountain spring coming up in a few miles they said then Dry Fork aid was in six miles.
I could drop there if I wanted to, get a quick ride back to the finish and be done with it.
No, fuck that noise. I’m going to finish this race.
This next stretch was almost entirely exposed, it was noon so there was no hiding from the sun and it was probably already 90 degrees. Coupled with the low humidity and altitude my sinuses were super dry so I had blood boogers galore! It was also around this time I taught myself how to pee on the run, just like the elite Kenyan marathoners.
You can’t run an entire 2:05 marathon without peeing, those Kenyan bros piss all over themselves while running 4:45 pace at mile 18, so I thought I’d give it a try. Except I was running like 12 min pace, but whatever. I also took every opportunity to lay down in every single creek crossing at this point, there were probably at least 25.
Rolled into Dry Fork, had my drop bag handed to me- another sock change, and oh, holy shiiiiiiiiit… my feet literally exploded as I took my socks off. So many blisters- I’ve never been blister prone so it was pretty alarming. Luckily they had boss blister workers there, so this young lady Hannah took care of me. She popped then bandaged then duct taped them. It made me feel better when she said she’s worked on worse today, but that if I didn’t keep them dry they were going to get much worse.
Hannah saved my life…
Got my bandanna filled with ice, more ice in my hydration bladder, ice in my pockets (seriously) and left there at about 2 pm, I ended up being there for about 35 minutes- most runners were coming in, grabbing their drop bag and going. Us poor blister folks were like, “bye, have fun!” No, not really, since the mercury was up to like 96 degrees now.
I’m thinking this: my feet are basically being held together with duct tape now and I was instructed to keep them dry. Yeah, that’s not gonna happen. Every toe off of the right foot was like getting stabbed right between the ball of my foot and my big toe. Imagine running with that feeling for 18 miles.
This sport is for people that are either very tough or very dumb, or some combination of the two.
Big climb here, last big one. Made it to the top and told myself it was once again “gut check” time. I made a deal with myself: keep on power hiking all the little ups, even the little rollersand try to shuffle the flats and then when it came time, to just hammer the downs, let it all go.
This next section was basically rolling red dirt jeep roads, I thought I was moving pretty well here but a look at my GPS file says otherwise.
Still, 12 min pace after 28 hours on your feet feels really fast.
It took me almost two hours to do this seven mile section and finishing at this pace would put me some where around 32 to 33 hours, and with the cutoff firmly at 34 hours that felt too close for comfort.
So I put on some Mastodon to psyche myself up for the last 13 miles. I pulled into Upper Sheep Creek aid to hoots and hollers and yelled DO YOU ALL LIKE METAL?
The volunteers there were awesome, we talked about Iron Maiden and Metallica and some newer stuff like Russian Circles and Electric Wizard. They told me to check out this band Power Wolf as I ate as much watermelon as I could, put ice in my bandanna around my neck, got more ice in the hydration bladder and handheld and pounded a few cups of ice cold ginger ales and was off.
I can run a half marathon! That’s all that’s left now, I can totally do this, I do that shit all the time.
An all downhill half, too. I’m at 28 and a half hours now, can I run it under three hours? Can I do it while dropping 3500 feet in 95 degree heat? Oh, yeah… this is gonna hurt really bad.
One tiny little, maybe 300 foot super steep climb and I crested the ridge and looked into the Tongue River Canyon. Here we go… I passed a few haggard 50-milers and yelled “I’m sick of being out here!” I think I must’ve scared the shit out of them as I flew past, they mumbled something but it was hard to hear because I didn’t care.
To be honest- the next six miles are a total blur. I was in so much pain hammering that steep downhill single track and passing so many runners I focused solely on repeating my stock mantras over and over:
Yes, it hurts this bad for everyone else right now
Yes, it’s hot, but it’s this hot for everyone else, too
Breathe, relax, swing your arms, focus on your foot strike
Dude, you came here to run 100 miles
And you already know that suffering is a huge part of this
SUPERSONIC HIGH FIVE photo: Chip Tilden
My new buddy Chip snapped a pic of me and said something, probably something encouraging but I couldn’t hear him over the music and agony of my shredded feet. I got down to Lower Sheep Creek, heard “runner 289 in” and instantly got a whole bucket of ice water dumped on me, amazing! Got two gels, a fill up of ice in my handheld and yelled “runner 289 out!”
This next 2.5 mile stretch was the hottest of the course, the heat just radiated off the white limestone walls of the canyon and up from the floor, with absolutely no shade- it was as if the sun had moved into the canyon and decided it lived there now and wasn’t going to pay rent, just squatting on me with its damned oppressive ultravioletness.
Aid station at the trail head, same drill: bucket of water dumped on my head, ice in my handheld, gone. All flat road out to the finish.
So, so hot.
I got handed a Pepsi cup full of ice by a lady in a car a mile later, I just put that down my pants, because why not?
Still passing even more runners here, glancing over to see what distance they were running. People looked like death, deep set hollow eyes with dark circles… It was actually pretty terrifying to run in this kind of heat and people that do Badwater on purpose are just silly. That race is just some silly masochistic shit.
Last aid, Homestretch- the popsicle and lawn sprinkler aid station, TWO MORE MILES they said. I grabbed a popsicle, a hand full of ice cold watermelon cubes and was out. There were four more houses on this stretch of paved road that had dragged their sprinkler hoses all the way out in the street, I stopped at every one and just stood on top of them and stayed wet.
On the final straightaway, just before turning on to the bridge over the Tongue River I had another little tear-fest, but this was all JOY, pure, unadulterated joy. Tears (and snot) streamed down my face as I was guided into the park to cheers and clapping, reduced to a blubbering fool.
I got my shit together right before the last right hand turn into the finishing chute, wiped my cheeks off so I could have a nice finisher’s photo, finally crossing the line in 31 hours and 14 minutes.
It was by far the hardest race I’ve ever done and there’s no question that I not only learned more about how damn difficult 100 milers are (especially in the mountains) but how damn difficult life can be sometimes.
I don’t think I’ll ever do this again without my family; on the one hand I enjoyed not running with a pacer but dammit, a crew is necessary- if only for emotional support. Just to say “remember that thing we did together that time? That was fun, we should do that thing again…” I missed having that so much.
Emotion is such a powerful thing, I think I tried to draw from it time and time again to get something (anything) out of me to just keep relentlessly moving forward. But there’s only so many times I can keep going back to that well before it’s dry, so it’s probably best not to tempt fate again…
…because as I get older these things are only going to get harder, and I’m going to need all the help I can get.