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The Bighorn 100 Mile Trail Run

by Joe Prusaitis (jprusaitis@austin.rr.com) Dayton, WY 17 June 2005 Alone and thoroughly used up, I stumble towards the water tank, drop my water bottles, and roll my upper body into the water. The water is so refreshingly cold. It’s hot and I’m badly overheated. Lifeless, I remain this way for as long as I can, my head and torso submerged. When I come up for air, it’s only for a moment, and then repeat a few more times. Then I lay down on my back in the grass near the tank and cover my face with my shirt. I don’t know that I’ve ever felt this abused. I have run further and longer, but the sum total of my mistakes, the altitude, and the heat have laid waste to me today. I get up one more time and start down the trail. The next rise offers up a pastoral mountain view of the Cow Camp aid station. Sluggish and awkward, I slowly descend to the creek, followed by an even slower rise from the depth, a slow slog up the canted road to a level road on top. I’m already dry from my recent dunking. It’s not that far, but my current state makes even this an epic journey. They watch me come with blank stares, studying my progress, forming their opinions, and making their prognosis. Eventually I present my body for their judgment and disposal. Some questions find a way through my struggling synapses. ‘Give you a ride out of here?’ one of them says. ‘Wan’t to get out of the sun for a bit?’ ‘Lay down on a cot for awhile?’ I stare, non-communicative, then sit in a chair, sweat running down my face, dripping off my nose. Someone hands me a tub with scraps of watermelon in it. I slowly eat them. They offer some orange slices. I eat those also, then a slice of bacon. My attentive helpers console me, a patient in need, a tired old man. With knowing smiles and friendly advice, they touch my shoulder to let me know they are here to help. I tell them what they already know, that I am trashed, in bad need of calories, and maybe some relief from the heat. I think I said that and wonder if I did. I check my chart. I have to get to Dry Fork by 4pm. It’s 6 miles away and I have 3 hours. It’s not so much, but in my current state, impossible! And 6 miles in these mountains is a long way. I’m confused, incapable of processing a thought. Strobe mode now: images and memories flashing from one thought to the next, happy one moment, sad the next, hungry, then hurt. Pain sensors are firing all over my body, and even those are slow to arrive. Somebody steps on my foot and apologizes before I feel it. My face, hanging on my skull without much life, and only my eyes respond. In a time warp, begging for a good hallucination, and finding only pain. Their eyes are so sad. They must feel bad for me, trying to read me and finding nothing. They give me a few minutes to sit alone while I eat. There is no shade. Some of the 50 milers run through, then John DeWalt and his pacer, Mike Price. John asks me what I’m doing sitting here. Mike stays for a moment, says a few kind words, then runs off to try and catch John. ‘You’ll do what is right’, Mike says as he parts. John might make it. He looks good, lots of energy. But me, no way in hell will I get there in time. In turmoil, I know I have to go on. I get up and walk out. The road bends round a corner just out of sight of the station, a single tree at the bend offering the only shade for miles. I sit in the middle of the road in the shade of the one tree and try to reason it out. I don’t know what to do. I cannot make it to the next cut, so I am done. Why should I go on? I get up and start walking back to the station. I can see them again and they can see me. I stop and look at them while they look at me. I can’t do this. I cannot quit. I turn around. Again, I stop at the shade tree, waffling. This is no good, so stupid. Who am I kidding? I cannot get there in time so why bother. I start back to the station again, stop again at the same place. How many times have I gone back and forth now? I lose track. I sit down for good right there in the shade, silently singing the Cow Camp Blues, a lament to my retched body. A woman shuffles by still in the 100mile race, mumbling something about Dry Fork. A concerned young man stops to offer help. I cannot quit. I have to go until they tell me I am done. I just can’t do what makes the most sense and stop. I slowly start back up again and finally I get past the shade tree. I will continue! The road rolls on and the heat remains, but the wind does occasionally offers some wonderful coolness now and again. I am moving forward, but so slow that anyone watching would think I was standing still. Trying desperately to wake the dead, I raise my arms and shake my water bottle vigorously. I start yelling at myself, cussing, hollering military cadence, punching myself in the chest: None of it any good. But slowly, all the calories I consumed back at Cow Camp start to work its way into my system. I find a short downhill and get a bit more leg speed to the bottom. Each uphill takes forever, drag a leg, settle my balance, and repeat. Stutter stepping to the top. Each downhill brings back a little more life. I catch the woman and pass her, which makes me sad. I realize that if I’m not going to make the cutoff, she probably won’t either. Not knowing what to say, we don’t even look at each other. Cresting a rise, an ATV and driver is there. He points out the aid station to me a mile or more down the road, up on a ridge. I check my watch. I have less than an hour. Maybe! It is the faintest of hope but it is more than I had though possible. The faint hope feeds a growing fire that chases the Cow Camp Blues out of my attic and sends me hurtling down the hill, actually running. I cannot believe that I’m actually running. Down the road and cross the creek to the base, then start up the long steep hill. On a short leash with a long climb, I start to run uphill for the first time in many miles. I am sure that anyone else would say I was walking, but I know for fact that this is running. I start yelling silently in my mind, screaming, trying to fuel the desire to make the cutoff. And I do. I roll into the station with minutes to spare. The medical staff must have got word of my less than perfect condition. They swarm, asking questions that I struggle to answer. Onto a scale and into a chair, they bring my drop bag and pour a basin for me to wash my feet. I don’t want to take my shoes off until I’m done. I felt 2 blisters pop and have no desire to see the damage right now. I lean over and dunk my head into the water basin instead. The medical person gets up to attend somebody else for a moment, my opportunity to escape, so I get up and flee. I look back as I walk out in time to see another runner dunk his head into his foot wash. And then I am gone. I made it. The impossible cutoff is behind me. I start to cry, and shake my head, amazed and completely out of control with my emotions. As I walk and run up the road, my smile grows larger as my stride lengthens, back from the dead yet again. So many times, I have felt the exhilaration of this transformation. It is unexplainable how this makes you feel, but felt once and never forgotten. Never never ever quit, because you just never know what will happen if you allow an event to run its natural course. I was so low, as low as I can remember being for a very long time. I was singing the blues silently to the world but very loud in my mind. Overwhelmed, unstable emotionally and physically, and now I’m running up and down the trails. A convoy of 50 milers carries me along until the dirt roads become single tracks. The track carries round a sweeping wide turn in a field full of flowers. Feeling the power, I move uphill with a rapid power walk, take the turn and roll down into the Upper Sheep aid station. They call the last big climb, ‘The Haul’. I attack it and put it behind me quickly, stopping on this last summit to check my watch. I have 3 hours left to the final cutoff. It might be close but I got my mojo back. I start to run and keep running until I hit the bottom at Lower Sheep. Matt is there waiting for me. He’s doing the 50k, but really he’s just hanging out and running with friends as they come through. I guess he saved me for last, as I may be one of the last ones to finish, so it’s time for him to get on in as well. We pass through the lower canyon to the rock ledge that hangs above the Tongue River. We romp through a phenomenal setting of majestic rock walls and a frolicking snowmelt river. Our run is halted now and again to just look and listen. It is hard to compare this setting to anything else near as beautiful. We find the trails end at the road where I sit for a moment for a coke and a few gummy bears. 5 miles of road remains. I hate road. I run a bit and then walk a bit, the walking breaks becoming less, and the running getting faster. The siren call of the finish beacons and my body answers. An amazing thing happens. I start to run faster and faster. Unable to walk just 30 miles ago, I have reached a new plain. We quickly put a lot of road behind us. A half-mile out, I decide to end it now. I pick it up and increase my pace, taking the final section of road, across the bridge, highway 14, past the moose statue, into the park, onto the footpath, and round the park. My emotions wash over and though, my pace increases, and then I cross the finish … right behind John DeWalt again. ———- And now back to the beginning… We park our car at the finish line in Dayton to wait for the race briefing at 9:30am. We hoteled in Ranchester and took breakfast there before arriving. 100 runners loitered about, waiting. Our drop bags were done yesterday in Sheridan. Soon as the briefing is done, we all shuttle 3 miles up Tongue River Road to the start. A final prayer and then we begin at 11am. Initially I hook up with Carey Jung and Robert King for the 2mile road. We leave the road after it crosses the river and jump the rock ledge trail overhanging the river. With sheer cliffs rising on both sides of the Tongue River, the trail hangs precariously above the raging river. The trail rises in bits and starts ever so slowly as it wraps round the inner walls and reaches the Lower Sheep Canyon. Out of the cliff walls and into the wide-open canyon that bends generously uphill. This is where I climb off the train. I step off the trail to allow those following to pass, including Carey and Robert. Many more file by and I step aside as each climber reaches my back. I continue to climb, but at a much slower pace than is the norm on this hot sunny afternoon. I reach the water pipe running out of the mountain, stop to refill. I’ve been drinking equally from both water bottles so they’re both half full. The water’s refreshingly cold and clear. Into a field, we circle along a barbwire fenceline to a point, then turn right and start a new arc rising even higher. Over the top, we fall quickly to a creek and a bridge over it. A grassy hump leads quickly round to the Upper Sheep aid station. A small group comes in from a different angle, having missed the creek turnoff. A slight rise up and out that we turn left on and drop quickly. We leave the road on the right side. Entering a slight track of a grass trail. It’s well marked but again we spy a runner well below who has missed the turn. We yell at him and he yells at us but keeps going. A lot of the high country here is barren of trees: plenty of grass, scrub, and flowers, but not much for trees. It’s wide open with endless views. These tracks we ride, traversing the mountainside, intersect other tracks, each meandering in the same general direction but nonparallel with each other. Even the road below with the stray runner eventually feeds him back into us such that he pops back just in front of me. ‘Bonus miles’, I ask him? He’s not too happy with the additional distance but lucked out with his decision to follow it through. The wandering trails finally pop onto a rough road, which rolls along for a ways in the high country. And then this too drops into a basin with a gravel road that descends quickly down a long sweeping curve into the Dry Fork aid station. My first major reference point and drop bag location. Arne Espe and I have been playing cat and mouse with each other up to this point, but I spend very little time there and the road leading out is decidedly downhill for a bit. After all the uphill and rolling terrain, this is the first big downhill, so I release the breaks and let her roll to the bottom, well below. I focus on a big group well ahead of me and then slowly pull them in. As I get close to them, they split up such that I pass them in ones and twos right up to the Cow Camp aid station. I get refills here, one water and one PowerAde. A runner sits in a chair at the edge of the group, exhausted. The heat is taking its toll. I leave on the heels of 4 others. Down a road, around a log cabin, cross a creek, then up a grassy single track over a high ridge that sees forever. Dropping down from there, the group in front stops at a water tank. A large 2 foot deep and 6 foot diameter horse tub that has a pipe draining into it and overflowing wonderfully fresh and very cold water. We each dunk our heads into the tub and then get going again. In the process, I find myself in front of all but one of this group and he turns out to be a local that has run the course a few times already. He and I get acquainted while we roll though high meadows filled with more flowers than I’ve ever seen in one place: purples, blues, and yellows. Tiny little splashed of tear drop sizes yellow flowers on single stalks, big palm sized windblown floppy yellow daisy looking guys, blue columbines, and something looking strangely like the Texas Bluebonnets which are really purple and not really bluebonnets either. The backdrop of cliff walls and high meadows reaching upwards away from us with enough real estate to open a hundred flower shops is so pleasant to our senses that each of us slows now and again just to say ‘Wow’ or ‘ check that out’. Our meandering single track cuts right through the middle of one after another breathtaking setting. This mountain bouquet would best be described with large color glossy prints. As the trail bends downhill, I lose my new friend and hook up with two others, Walter from Seattle and Philip Stark. Walter reaches Bear Camp before I do and is gone before I arrive. The Bear Camp crew carried everything up from the river, so it is very minimalistic, but under cover of some very tall trees and very comfortably shady. Philip and I start down thru a very cool and comfortable shady grove of tall trees. I’d not realized that I’ve been out in the open for most of the day until I slip into the comfort of these trees and feel its coolness. I want so badly to stop and sit for a while. It crosses my mind. But it only makes me run faster. And then it opens into the most beautiful setting of the entire course. Every direction offers a different and equally beautiful view. Acres of flowers going up, a low valley with a river running though it down below, A high ridge, with imposing walls towering overhead directly in front, mesas and buttes on the left leading giant sizes steps off into the distance. The trail leads down into a playground that grows increasingly steep. This is ‘The Wall’. It drops off the mountain into an idyllic valley. We lean forward and scream down right to the Little Bighorn River and the Footbridge aid station: my 2nd major stop and drop bags. Long before I started, I had made some rough guesses on when I’d arrive here at this 30-mile point. I was not even close; arriving many hours behind what I thought was reasonable. Carey was there and ready to start up the next climb. I told him not to wait, so he and Philip start up. I need a break, so I take my time. Night is coming soon, so I prepare my pack for the night, drop my water bottles, and try to get down some food. All I can find that appeals to me are eggs. This is not good and just the beginning of the nutritional pit I’m diving into. Others come and go, but I try to relax so I can get some calories, ignoring the procession. Eventually, I escape and start up alone. Quite a bit of the initial miles are very runnable but I have no energy for it. Not a good sign after just leaving a major station. Still, I wander forward and slowly upward. I follow another who looks as bad as I am. The Narrows arrive sooner than I expect. The next station at 6 miles distance might be even further than posted. They have some chicken soup so I drink down a cup, which tastes wonderful and will help tremendously. Kevin Griffin pulls up with me just before dark. He’s moving much better than I but backs off and waits on me as I drag my buns up the mountain. 18 miles from Footbridge to Porcupine and most of it is up. None of it is very steep, but it does seem endless in the dark. A big bright moon rises above the mountains, lighting the outer edges of the clouds between us. We catch its reflection on a waterfall and then through some trees on a mountain pond. We cross a few bridges of logs tied together inches above very dangerous screaming snowmelt streams. Kris Franqui, having a problem with his stomach, hooks up with our train, walking up hill as quickly as possible. His steady up hill roll leads us to the next station and though it. He stops once to avoid a large rodent that is not bothered by our presence on the trail. Is it a hamster, a rat, a mole? It is gone. From here to the top is all marsh he says. We cross another log bridge and then on onto messy ground. Each of us tries to avoid the mud suck holes but we cannot dodge them all. Each of us eventually goes knee deep in the mud and muck. Even the snow banks are just disguises for the shoe sucking mud. I post hole through the shallow top cover and pull out a muddy foot. A short muddy slide throws me backwards into a death stump, stabbing my back and butt, punching holes into the fleshy meat. It doesn’t hurt, but I know that is not always good. No time and wrong place for inspection, so we keep moving. Finally on top after miles of muck, an open field with large pools of snowmelt that the flags pass right though. The big moon reflects off the pools surface, hiding their depth. We wander left of the flags, avoiding the pools, keeping our eyes and feet pointing in the correct general direction. A few cars sit on the road ahead, providing the landmark we search for. Now it’s just a short trip down the road though a little more mud and snow. The building used as the Porcupine Ranger Station is lit up, a beacon pulling us in. Carey is coming out as we go in. I wish him well and then step into the Ranger Station. The heat is on and the room is full of people all abuzz with activity: cooking, weighing, checking numbers, and waiting on all the runners huddled onto separate chairs. The place is packed. They escort me and my drop bag to a cooler behind the cook, which is very comfortable and affords me a little more room than the others. With all the mud that I have to go back though as soon as I leave, I see no reason to change into clean socks or anything else. I have a grilled cheese sandwich and some soup, then waste more time than should. Heading back out into the dark, I immediately start to shake. So we step back in to put on jackets before restarting again. It’s 3am. A couple miles of muck and then a lot more downhill after that, but first the muck. Arne Espe is coming in as we leave, then we pass quite a few others we know, each of them trying to reach Porcupine before the 5am cutoff. It’s about 3:45 when we see Robert, Diana, and Chris and it fills me with joy to see them. So they are still in the game, but just barely. I want to visit with them, but we all need to keep moving, to stay warm, and to beat the cutoffs. Our thoughts turn to deadlines and DNFs. I get in front and charge strait down the trail, through the mud holes, swamps, snow banks, and anything else that happens be in our way. We’re so muddy now that it makes no sense to dodge anything. Once we quit jockeying for position, our pace picks up and we gallop strait away down into Elk Camp. Kris tells me this station might have some bratwurst if I ask for it, which I do, and am rewarded. It’s the best food I have since I started, the first food in many hours I don’t have to gag down. It practically melts in my mouth. Soon after, I feel the urge to really run, so I bust loose and let fly for a long stretch. When I stop to check, I’m surprised to find Kris right there with me. So you can downhill too, hey? We get going again, hauling away until I come up on Carey, walking. I pull up immediately, letting Kris go. Carey’s feet are killing him, reducing him to a walk, so I walk with him into the next station at Spring Marsh. Carey tells me to go. He’s going to keep walking and I need to run. I seem to be bouncing around Hans and Walter near onto the narrows. My pace finally slows as the trail is no longer a strong descent but more rolling hills now. We bounce round each other for miles with each of us passing each other but with nobody running exactly the same. The sun is up and now I can see the bladder hose coming from my Camelback. It appears to be filled up with pasty white goop! Funny how I can’t taste it until I see it. What the heck is it? It takes a while but I finally figure it out. My wife likes to put paper towels in our camelback bladders to soak up the water and help dry them out after we use them. The paper must have still been in the bladder when I packed it for this trip. I put the camelback in my Footbridge drop bag. When I arrived, I asked Gabe to fill it for me. He had no idea it was in there. Must have taken a few hours of bouncing around on my back for the paper to dissolve into this cloudy white paste that now fills it up. Pretty nasty. At the narrows aid station, one of the volunteers offers to clean and rinse it out for me. It is a bit too much for me to explain in my limited mental capacity at the moment, so I just shake my head, and mumble I don’t know. Fresh clean water squirts into my mouth for the first time in hours and now I notice the difference. I’m so excited about the clean water that I almost step on the snake side winding across the trail. He might be 2 feet long if he were stretched out, but gone too quick to get a more accurate estimation. Matt Watts comes by while I’m standing there thinking about it. I try to hook on and get going again, but I can’t match his consistent pace right now. I can hear Hans behind me, clicking and buzzing. He has his alarm set at short intervals to remind him to drink. Also, his walking sticks click along on the ground when he climbs, then he tucks them under his arms to run on the flats and downhills. The sound of him creates an image of a sand crab chasing me down the hill, which motivates me to go faster. No visions or hallucinations, just an eerie feeling that actually gets me moving pretty good again. As I near the lower end of the canyon and approach the footbridge, the roar of the Little Bighorn River fills my mind. Completely under tree cover again, the coolness and comfort feels so good and relaxing. I roll on into the aid station at 8:30am. I need to do a lot of repair so I expect to be here for a while. First: Kimwipes, a washcloth, the Desiten, and my shorts go with me to the portojon. I strip down, clean myself off, apply a large quantity of Desiten, and then put on the new shorts. Next: a chair and a washtub where I wash my mud covered feet and legs. I check my feet and they look fine. My Vasque Velocities are unrecognizable under a coat of sticky mud. I trade them in for my soft and comfortable lightweight Montrail Maras and a fresh set of Injinji tsocs. Then: a fresh Patagonia Capilene shirt and a clean mesh hat. After getting down a few pancakes and an avocado, I feel like a new man. I have 2 water bottles ready to go when the house mom of the aid station insists I take my camelback. She knows that it’s hot and is worried that I’ll run out of water. She’s very nice and I don’t have the mental capacity to argue my point so I put it on, but refuse to fill it just yet. She’s happy and I can leave. The climb out of here is real nasty and I want no more weight than I absolutely have to carry. Two water bottles in hand and an empty camelback on my back, I cross the Little Bighorn River on the footbridge at 9:00am. 30 minutes I killed back there and well worth it, I think. They call this ‘The Wall’. 3.5 miles of up. The toughest climb on the course. A 2000 ft climb with no cover and another hot day to burn my legs. The uphill grind starts to wear me down fast. The 50milers started at 6am this morning from Porcupine, and the first of many start to run past us uphill. The contrast between the 100milers and the 50milers on ‘The Wall’ is startling: highway traffic buzzing past pedestrians on the interstate. Only hassle is trying to get out of their way at some of the bottlenecks. Generous with compliments and self-effacing, it’s hard to get angry even when I fall over while escaping their line of ascent. Sure is hot. The first nasty climb nets another, with a few somewhat level shelves to traverse. The mud bogs are dried up into clods of miss-shaped ankle twisters. Another long climb brings me into the Bear Hunt Camp aid station. They have water but it’s not cold. My water is fine, so I only fill one bottle. I don’t want to drink it unless I have to. I lie down on my back for a minute then leave as a group comes in. The long climb has deflated me. I’m slowing down again, due the heat, the climb, the miles, and the altitude. Steve Peterson is at the stock tank when I show up. It’s just a pipe but the water from it is so refreshingly cold. I dump both bottles and fill them both, then pour one entirely into my mouth and the other on my head. I refill again and then sit with Steve for a moment. What a sweet spot on the mountain: a fresh water spring, a shady spot. It’s hard to leave. The beauty of this place is surprising. Flowers everywhere, rabbits on the trail, picture postcard vistas in every direction. Still, the heat continues to beat me up. Reduced to a walk again and feeling even slower as one after another 50 miler blows by, it takes forever to find the next aid station. In open country again on high rolling hills, once again I find the big horse tub water tank. I’m close to Cow Camp, but badly overheated and under nourished. I feel so empty but the only thought in my mind is to submerge my head in the cold-water tank.
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