Sunday, June 24, 2012

Battle in the Bighorns 2012

It is difficult to know where to start to best capture my experience at the Bighorn 100.  The race itself was tougher than I expected and the altitude took such a toll on me I can’t help but feel disappointed at my finish.  That said, there are many positives to say about the race, lessons learned and thankfulness for the people who helped me reach the finish line.  

Signing up for the Bighorn 100 meant an opportunity to visit my best friend in Jackson Hole.  She’s lived there for almost 7 years and I (cringe) had yet to visit her.  So we scheduled our family vacation around the race and planned to visit Jackson Hole for close to a week before I needed to leave for the race.  I figured this would let me acclimate for a few days at 6000 feet, and hoped this would help me during the race.  Ten days before the race, I caught a cold and sinus infection.  I resisted all drugs and opted to take a more drastic taper than usual. 

The family road trip was pretty uneventful, aside from one thing that stands out in my mind.  Somewhere in Montana I was driving along gazing at a beautiful snow-covered mountain range to the south.  I wondered how high the peaks were and looked in the atlas to find out.  They were just a shade over 10,000 feet high.  It hit me pretty hard at that moment that I was going to RUN that high in a few short days.  I was quiet for a while after that.  

The drive to Jackson was beautiful and I really enjoyed the wide open feel of the landscape.  But when we arrived in Jackson it felt like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.  What an amazing town!  The Tetons took my breath away the moment I saw them and I spent any chance I had while there staring at them in awe.  I saw a sign in town that said “The Mountains are Calling.  And I Must Go.”  It’s my new motto, I love the mountains and feel a constant pull towards them.  

Wednesday marked the end of denial and the reality of the race really hit me.  I started packing my drop bags and preparing to leave for Sheridan the following day.  I was excited for my pacer, Josh, to arrive and to get the show on the trail!  But things start to feel awfully real when your pacer arrives.  The time was near.  I felt ready and excited, although a little scared and nervous of what lied ahead.  Josh calmed my fears and his energy helped me focus on the fun we would have and put the unknown out of mind.  

Josh and I left Thursday morning to make the 7 hour drive to Sheridan.  Josh drove most of the way and still managed to play me some excellent songs to get psyched up.  We enjoyed the scenery and stopped often, sometimes because of road construction and needing to navigate through roads that had been torn up!  We arrived in Sheridan about 3:30pm and headed straight to check-in.  I was there about 2 minutes and they’d weighed me, gotten my medical history and checked my blood pressure.  I activated my “chip” for timing and we picked up Josh’s Pacer bib.  Everything went quickly, until I was lured into browsing extra clothing from prior years they had on sale.  I escaped without buying anything, but it wasn’t easy.  

After check-in, we drove around the block to where drop bags were being collected.  I had 3 drop bags (Dry Fork, Footbridge and Porcupine) and after a final gear check and some items for Josh added in, I turned them in to the race officials.  We spent some time meeting new friends and stopping at Safeway for some sandwich supplies.  Then we went on to the hotel.  

The evening at the hotel was happily uneventful.  I kept my feet up, drank lots of water and ate a ton of food.  I’m not kidding – I ate 3 loaded peanut butter and jelly sandwiches!  I got messages from a lot of people wishing me luck and talked to a few people on the phone.  It made me feel very lucky to know so many people who were thinking about me.  I got a call from a friend who happened to be driving across the country and within striking distance from Sheridan.  He graciously offered to pick up Josh from the start and drive him to the turnaround, where he would pace me the last 50 miles.  I never saw John, but his help was an unbelievable form of trail magic and I can’t wait to thank him in person for his help.  

With a race start of 11am, the morning was not rushed and we arrived in plenty of time for the pre-race meeting at 9am.  I met up with Gwen before the meeting and got some last minute comfort and advice.  The meeting was useful, but I got very nervous when they started going mile-by-mile through the course.  I tasked Josh to listen, with a special ear to where I would encounter substantial unavoidable water, and I slinked away to the car.  I hitched a ride with Gwen to the start line 5 miles away, and tried to stay calm before the start. 

We started promptly at 11, and the sun was already high and hot in the sky.  We snaked through the canyon and began the long climb to the ridge.  In approximately 5 miles, the course climbs about 3,000 feet.  This climb is long and steep in sections.  Further, it’s entirely exposed to the sun and feels very hot.  I am a strong climber and I made a continuous effort to take it easy here.  I felt like I was way behind the leaders and I was surprised how quickly many people climbed this section.  One of the thorns of this course revealed itself in this section – the fact that you can see for MILES, both ahead and behind you.  I also began to see some of the poison ivy they warned about. 

Once we finished the ascent, the course follows a rolling ridge for many miles.  The ridge is also exposed and rarely flat.  The course in general isn’t flat, you are climbing or descending all the time.  Along this ridge, at mile 13, I came to the first major aid station, Dry Fork.  It is also the first drop bag location.  I arrived at approximately 2pm and was in and out of the aid station quickly.  I restocked my gels from my drop bag and grabbed a PB&J wrap before heading out.  

Coming out of Dry Fork, the course follows a jeep road for several miles.  In theory this sounds like an easier surface, but I found it a somewhat difficult surface on which to find consistent footing.  Many 4x4’s went by along this stretch, which kicked up a lot of dust as they went by.  Along this section, the skies clouded up and it began to look like rain was coming.

 Before I came into the Cow Camp Aid Station, it started to rain lightly.  It was a nice rain, light and cooling.  I had a brief side stitch but generally felt good along this section.  I saw one of the race directors before descending into Footbridge and was uplifted by her complimenting my bright pink outfit.  The descent into Footbridge proved once again that I need to work on my descending skills.  I got passed by at least 2 women on this section.  I was content with my overall pace and I knew I would catch them again on the climb to Porcupine. 

I arrived at Footbridge (mile 30) around 6pm.  I gathered up my lights and night clothing and switched hydration packs.  I was frustrated because all my gear wouldn’t fit easily into my pack and I was still too warm to wear any extra clothes.  I eventually got most of it into my pack and reluctantly put on the arm warmers that wouldn’t fit.  I knew the climb to Porcupine would get cold and I didn’t want to leave warm clothes behind.  

The climb to Porcupine is a long gradual climb.  In a normal training run, this climb is completely runnable.  I started out well on the climb but felt myself losing some steam as the climb progressed.  I took it easy because I knew the climb was long and I didn’t want to reach the turnaround having used too much of my energy.  My legs felt strong and my nutrition was spot-on, so I power hiked a lot of the climb knowing I’d save my legs that way.  The temperature dropped continuously along this climb and by the time I fished my lights out of my bag I’d donned all the extra clothing I’d brought along.  Lights were needed around 9:30pm.  I enjoyed seeing the leaders coming down the climb – I saw a few of the lead men before I even had to turn on my light – and I cheered for everyone who was coming the other way.  The last few miles of the climb got really messy.  The trail turned to more of a marsh and at times it seemed like we were striking across a field instead of following an actual trail.  Small pockets of snow were still under foot, requiring a climb-over in many spots.  I post-holed through several of them, which plunged my foot into a nice ice bath waiting below the snow.  

The trail dumps onto a small dirt road just shy of a mile from the aid station.  I saw a cheerful Gwen along this section, which gave me great encouragement that I wasn’t as slow as I’d feared up this climb.  I wished her well and told her I’d see her at the finish.  I arrived at Porcupine at 11:30am.  The aid station was crowded and warm.  The medical staff had difficulty getting my pulse oxygen level because my hands were so cold.  I also had trouble finding Josh and my drop bag.  Eventually I found everything and found Josh and left the aid station with a quesadilla and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich at 11:40am.  

Coming out of this building and back into the cold night was tough.  I started shivering uncontrollably and almost dropped my food on the ground.  It took about 10 minutes of movement and Josh trying to help warm me up before I could function again.  We started hiking back down the climb as I ate my food and continued to warm up.  There was a steady stream of runners coming the other way and we exchanged encouragement with each one.  At one point in this section, we came to a small stream crossing and to the right side of the trail was a runner standing without his lights on.  He spoke to us as we approached and it scared me to death.  It was one of those spooks where you feel like you were in a movie.  Josh was just as startled, so I know it wasn’t just me. 

Spirits were high as we motored down from Porcupine.  I was happy to have company and Josh was happy to be moving instead of waiting around!  I lost the trail several times down this climb – there are many times the trail splits and I took the wrong one on more times than I can remember.  Josh had a keen eye for the glow sticks and if we got off course we’d either backtrack or strike off across the grass to find the right trail again.  Another great bonus of a fresh and awake pacer – they notice the glow sticks aren’t getting closer but further away!  

Along this descent I began to realize that my pace was dropping off.  And I was feeling less energetic than before.  In hindsight I’m not sure if it was the fatigue of the race, the darkness or the beginnings of the problems I was about to experience.  I hoped to make it to Footbridge (mile 66) in the dark but by the time we arrived it had just gotten light enough to turn off our headlamps (it was 5am when lights could be turned off).  Being able to kill the lights was a small blessing at this point because I had a drop bag ready and waiting and it was easy to leave most warm clothes and lights in my drop bag. 

The climb out of Footbridge was a turning point for me, and unfortunately in the wrong direction.  I started to feel as though I couldn’t get enough air in my lungs on this climb.  My climbing power seemed to be lost and I struggled to put one foot in front of the other.  Mentally I was struggling as well, knowing there were over 50k to go until the finish.  I hoped things would turn around because I’d never experienced this lack of power before on a climb. 

From this point on in the race, things got tough.  Real tough.  My physical state deteriorated constantly for the rest of the race – I began wheezing on any incline whatsoever and I struggled to get more than a few minutes of running in before I had to stop and walk again.  It truly became a race of survival.  I wasn’t about to quit, but I had to let all competitive goals go in order to just finish the race.  It was demoralizing and I kept thinking about all the people rooting me on – not the least of which was Josh – who I was progressively letting down every minute.  I started coughing as well as wheezing and that’s when I really started to wonder if I was going to make it.  Josh later told me he was watching for me to cough up blood.  It was that bad.  I could do little more than walk, and anytime the trail turned upward I struggled to just put one foot in front of the other.  

Eventually the trail turned downward – down the long climb we ascended at the beginning.  This was a long and hot section and people racing the 50k kept blowing by me along with many 100 mile runners.  I knew I could make it to the finish but I had a really hard time not being able to run.  (In the picture below you can see the flatland way down below - that's how far down the descent goes)

The race ends with a 5 mile section along a winding dirt road.  This seemed like the longest 5 miles of my life.  Josh was very patient with me and supportive even though running this section would have helped us get out of the hot sun sooner.  I just couldn’t run and breathe.  

Scott Park and the finish line eventually came into sight.  I used everything I had left to run the few hundred yards to the finish – so many people were cheering I got tears in my eyes.  There were times along the trail I really wondered if I would see the finish line.  I was very happy to have made it and I crossed the line in 29:46.  

Running a 100 is a soul-revealing and soul-changing event.  Both of my 100’s so far have uncovered reserves and an ability to withstand incredible amounts of pain.  Cascade Crest seemed to be my limit at the time, but Bighorn showed me I have a capacity for far more than I knew.  I am disappointed in my finish time at Bighorn mainly because the breathing problems I encountered weren’t something I could just “run through” like most else.  The harder I pushed, the worse it got.  I had to let all time goals go just to hang on to the ability to finish.  That was very tough for me.  In hindsight I'm pretty sure the virus I was fighting allowed the altitude to have a large impact on me.  The exertion and lack of oxygen sent my lungs into spasms and constricted my airway.

I am very fortunate to have a dedicated group of friends and family who like to follow my races.  Each of these people reached out to me before the race and it made a huge difference along the course when times got tough.  I heard my co-workers were wearing hot pink in my honor on the day of the start and it made me realize how lucky I am to have people who support me in my passions.  

I don’t even know where to begin in recognizing Josh for his help.  I’ve known Josh for about a year and he’s always been a favorite running buddy because of his boundless energy.  I was thrilled when he agreed to come pace me at Bighorn.  Josh flew into Jackson Hole to help me make the 7 hour drive to Sheridan and I felt bad he’d subjected himself to so much extra travel.  As soon as he arrived, I felt more at ease.  I knew he would help see me through this race and it calmed my pre-race fears.  Josh was so much more than a Pacer to me during this whole weekend.  Words cannot begin to describe how grateful I am to him for putting up with my gripes and seeing me at my worst – all the while with a smile on his face.  It takes a special person to do that, and I know how special he is.  Sometimes people in your life step up to help you in a time of need.  You realize how much they mean to you and how your life is better because they are in it.  I never doubted Josh was a good friend but after our battle in the Bighorns I count my blessings that he is in my life.  I couldn’t be more excited to help him one step at a time at the Wasatch 100 this year. 

 (Josh took a self portrait so I surmise that is an invitation to include it in my race report!)

Will I return to Bighorn?  YOU BET.  I’m already planning my redemption.  Until then, onwards and upwards to my two remaining 100’s in 2012. 


  1. Jen-thank you so much for sharing. Another vivid account that makes me feel as if I was there-and someday I absolutely will be! Congratulations again on another amazing accomplishment. You are fantastic!

  2. Hey Jen,
    Big Horn is a BEAST! It's amazingly beautiful and amazingly an ass kicker. Good job toughing it out, I had a similar experience there and also feel as though I want to return to battle better in the Big Horns! Hope you are recovering well!

  3. You are incredible! Even when things got tough, you didn't quit! Way to go!