Back on a warm sunny morning in June of 2012, I vividly remember sitting in the wide, artsy alley just off of Sheridan’s main drag at the post-Bighorn Trail Run pancake breakfast, listening to Mike Foote talk about his big win in the 100-mile race. I was in awe, totally inspired, and amazed that someone could run a mountain one-hundred mile race in the manner that he did—just cruising through the terrain like he was a part of it. The day before I had just run the Bighorn 52 mile event, which was my first ultra marathon race, and completely got my ass kicked in every way possible. The gulf between my running ability and Mike’s talent couldn’t have hardly been wider, but in my mind, his level of running was where I put the bar.
Fast forward to June 2018—my life is very different now. My daughter who was just over a month old back at that pancake breakfast in 2012 is now 6, and I have a 2-year old as well. I’d already won one 100-mile race earlier this year and still have another scheduled for September. I had an unusually productive spring training block leading into the 2018 Bighorn 100 and was in great shape—but one significant problem in that I had sprained my ankle hard a mere five days before the race. I had more nerves before this 100-mile race than I can recall before as I wasn’t sure if I was going to knock it out of the park or completely capitulate after a few miles; either result was totally plausible given my health and fitness.
My floppy and weak right ankle seems to become an issue only on technical downhills, so I made the conscious decision to take the first half of Bighorn 100 on the aggressive side as that is where most of the climbing is. After running the first mile of the race on a dirt road, the course continues with a solid 3,500 feet of climbing up the stunning Tongue River Canyon. Runners quickly climbed into a layer of cloud and fog that looked more like coastal mountain weather than June in the Rockies. Everything was a mixture of grey and green with splashes of color dotting the mountain sides as the wildflowers were in full bloom. I was leading the race out and after an hour finally took a peek below me on a switchback and was surprised that only one runner was right behind me and no one else was even in sight. I was relaxed and comfortable with my pace, but already slightly bothered by some compensation pain from running with a sub-par ankle. Even on uphills I was having to adjust my normal gait to protect my ankle, and on flats and downhills it was far worse.
Turns out the other runner rolling along with me was Jake Lawrence from Saint Paul, Minnesota. We chatted a bit as we made our way down to the Dry Fork Ridge aid station at mile 13, but truthfully I was really frustrated and in a pretty bad mental place already. My confidence from the stellar spring training had crumbled away, and I wasn’t really convinced I could run 87 more miles. There had only been a few short downhill sections in the race so far, and I had practically hopped down them on one foot trying to protect my ankle. Muscle fatigue and pain was already sneaking into my legs in unusual spots from so much running gait compensation. I was happy to see my crew at Dry Fork Ridge, but after leaving and knowing I wouldn’t see them for another 6 or 7 hours I was disappointed in myself for not being more cheerful. My parents, my wife, and my daughters were all there to be a part of a great race too, and I made the conscious decision that it was definitely time for me to giddyup and make the most of it.
Jake got a couple minutes ahead of me after Dry Fork and I decided to just totally let him go. I got my brain semi-out of race mode and just focused on taking care of myself—after all there was still a lot of time for this running party to sort it’s self out. I gingerly ran along for a couple of hours through the cloudy afternoon until the day’s first thunderstorm struck. Huge thunder claps and biting hail lashed out as I began the steep descent down to the Footbridge aid station, at about mile 30. The mostly dirt trail quickly turned to a slimy and slick mud that would be treacherous for two healthy ankles. But it was nice to have something else to focus on, so I threw on my Arc’teryx Norvan SL rain jacket and slipped, slid, and ran down to Footbridge. I was surprised to find Jake still at the aid-station, and after eating a quick PB&J and restocking on Honey Stinger Waffles and Skratch Drink Mix I took off behind him.
I felt surprisingly much better after the hail and rain let up and was able to run with a little more joy. I quickly passed Jake after Footbridge and began the long grind of a climb to the Jaws aid station which is the high point of the course. Reaching Jaws, at mile 48, was hands down the highlight of the race for me. The area is spectacularly beautiful and it’s basically the half way point, but most of all my girls were waiting for me on the dirt road near the aid station and I couldn’t have been more ecstatic to see them. I just about started crying as my 6-year old, Ella, came running to me making a racket with her cowbell. She paced me into the aid station (as she always does) where Jenny was waiting for me with more food, warm clothes, and gear for the night. I left the aid station refreshed, rejuvenated, and full of joy.
Jenny started her 18-mile section pacing me on the long and gorgeous descent from Jaws back to Footbridge. Bighorn 100 is an out-and-back course, so we exchanged greetings with Jake only a few minutes after I left Jaws as he came into the aid station. I sort of ran like a baby on all of the wet and rocky single track—scared of every rock and mud puddle attacking my weak ankle and ending my day. But, we had a great time running together for basically the first time in months. This part of the course was also super fun because I got to pass all the other one-hundred mile runners on their way to Jaws. There were lots of high fives, giddyups, and support. Maybe five miles or so from Footbridge, Jake and his pacer came charging past Jenny and I, seemingly in full-on race mode. It was still not even quite mile 60 yet and there was nothing to panic about. We upped our pace just a smidge to stay within sight of Jake, but otherwise continued down the trail laughing, letting out a few yeeeeehaws, and generally having a good time. I was pleasantly surprised that my ankle was feeling more normal and that I was able to run with a more even stride. I wasn’t pushing hard at all and still managed to leapfrog Jake about three miles before Footbridge.
It was just after dark when Jenny and I met my parents at Footbridge. The plan was for Jenny to be done pacing there for the night, but I persuaded her into joining me at Dry Fork again for the final descent. I refueled with some Mountain Dew and Green Tea Skratch before heading off into the cloudy darkness on my own. Jake came into the aid-station a couple minutes behind me, and I was on my way out shortly thereafter. The trail climbs steeply after Footbridge up what folks call “The Wall” for obvious reasons. Fortunately I enjoy hiking up steep terrain, so I took this as my chance to make a bit of a move on Jake and give my running legs a break. The hike started fine enough, but the afternoon hail and rain storms had turned the next 6 miles of trail into an absolute muddy mess. Not like stick on your shoes mud, but like “where did my feet go?” mud as they completely disappeared into calf deep slop. Any time goals I had for Bighorn 100 quickly went out the window as at moments I was almost unable to get enough traction to even make it uphill—even gentle inclines turned into a heart thumping epic battle just to reach the top.
I finally arrived back to Dry Fork Ridge, mile 83, pretty exhausted and spent from the mud-fest. I’d lost my appetite by this point as well, and was feeling generally low on energy from not eating much, and that it was about 3AM. I pulled myself together and galloped out of Dry Fork and set off into the thick fog towards the Tongue River Canyon. Turns out I put about a 30 minute gap on Jake through the muddy section from Footbridge to Dry Fork, which would turn out to be a wise move later on. Following some of the winding single-track after Dry Fork proved to be very difficult with the impossibly dense fog. Our headlamps reflected back into our faces and we couldn’t see more than a step or two in front of us. Fortunately I had Jenny’s eyes with me again and we both knew these trails fairly well, as Jenny took 3rd in the Bighorn 52 last year. We moved pretty slowly for a while, slopping our way through the still muddy trails looking for course markers. We made it to the top of the Tongue River Canyon and began the 3,500 foot technical descent, which I’d been dreading all day.
My ankle was feeling much better and I figured I could at least limp to the finish at this point, but I still was disappointingly slow coming down the canyon. The trail was slick as snot and at times Jenny and I skied down the single track like it was a snowfield. My quads and leg muscles were pretty pissed at the bottom, but the last section was only about 5 miles of relatively flat dirt road running. I had given Jenny strict instructions to show no mercy to me on the road and drag me into the finish. Not surprisingly, I quickly regretted those directions. My energy level was rock bottom from minimal eating, and of course 95 miles of running. I walked most of the road back in 2012, and the plan for this time around was to run every single step, and even keeping my pace at a 10:00/min mile would mean finishing under 21 hours. In reality, I can bluntly say running that entire road was one of the hardest things I have ever done. Over and over I wanted to beg Jenny to let me walk for just 30 seconds, but I knew what her answer would be so I just kept my mouth shut. It was an agonizing, almost dreamlike slog down the road; Jenny did her best to inspire me and I tried to distract myself by saying “howdy” to the horses along the way. Finally we were just about to Dayton when one of the race directors drove by in a four-wheeler and told us that we were probably fine, but don’t slow down because Jake was hunting me. Jenny and I were both a bit surprised, but the race was basically over and we just kept grinding into Dayton. I was thrilled to cross the finish line in 1st place for my second 100-mile win of the year and to become the first male Wyoming based runner to win Bighorn 100—accomplishments I could barely dream of back in 2012.
I feel overwhelmingly fortunate to have even finished Bighorn 100, much less with the win. It was far from my smoothest or best race, but I’m proud of how I kept it together. Of course, I would have been undoubtedly toast if it wasn’t for the support of a lot of folks. First and foremost thank you to my wife, Jenny, as she was especially instrumental at dragging me across the finish line and putting up with all my ankle drama. Thank you to my parents for taking such good care of my daughters and supporting me through the race, as well as all the great photos. Courtney Hansen at Fremont Therapy helped me get the perfect ankle wrap to survive 100-miles and Ty Draney once again got me in bangin’ shape for another big mountain run—thank you so much. Honey Stinger and Skratch Labs provided me with the best fuel around to get me from start to finish, and Arc’teryx and Salomon supported me with a race kit that is second to none. Thanks, too, to Julbo Eyewear and Suunto for the great running gear. So many kind volunteers, spectators, and friends cheered me on along the way as well, and I am forever grateful to all of you. Lastly, thank you to Mike Foote; hopefully I can pass that inspiration along to another runner.
Now it’s on to some race directing at the Sinks Canyon Rough and Tumble Trail Runs, some Wind River Mountain running, and then the end of the 2018 100-mile trifecta with Wasatch 100 in September. Thanks so much for reading.