Never Again? Bighorn 100 mile trail run

I hurt so badly, and in places I didn’t even know I could feel, as I slowly rounded the corner near the bronzed elk in Dayton, Wyoming. My feet an absolute wreck, my left ankle swollen so badly it was hard to discern. The date was the 18th of June, 2016. At that point I’d been running, or at least making some sort of forward progress, for the past 32 hours in hopes of completing the infamous 100 mile ‘wild and scenic’ Bighorn Mountain Trail Run.  My goal was simple, I wanted to see if I could actually run that far, you know, kind of test my body’s limits. And, with a steady stream of encouragement, I limped my way to ‘victory’ and promptly collapsed after crossing the finish line. My crew gently laid me on a cot, covered me in a blanket and let me moan the night away. The only thing I remember with extreme clarity was my insistent repeating of the words… Never Again!

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Fast forward a couple months to the end of August. It was opening day for archery elk in Idaho and I had made a last minute decision to head there solo and chase elk for a few days before Montana opened. My life long obsession is bow hunting elk and if I could swing a double header, I was all in. I hiked into the backcountry at dark, climbed the highest peak and waited anxiously for first light. Soon after I looked and saw two nice 6 point bulls walking up a trail towards a saddle. If I could drop in the backside of the canyon, run really fast, perhaps I could be anchored at full draw at the moment they crested the top. I dropped in, ran, slid into the tree and quickly pulled my bow back with mere seconds to spare. As the view in my peep came into focus, I realized the first bull was now standing broadside a mere 20 yards away. And just like that, I had my first opening morning bull in 30 years!

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After a short blood trail, I had a beautiful bull and a years’ worth of wild protein laying before me on the ground. I gave thanks for the harvest and quickly got to work processing the many hundreds of pounds of meat, carefully removing it from the bone, bagging it and hanging it in trees to cool. It was going to be hot day and I knew I needed to work really fast to make sure nothing went to waste. I loaded a front quarter on my already full and heavy pack and made the trek back down the mountain. It was a little over 3 miles one way. After emptying my pack and hanging the quarter in a nice cool draw, I jogged back up to mountain, grabbed another load and returned back to the truck. I repeated this sequence for a total of 5 round trips and ended up headed for home just as the sun was beginning to set on the first day of bow season. As I was driving home reflecting on the day and my good fortune, it hit me like a ton of bricks. I hadn’t just harvested and elk today, I also just completed a 50K (30 mile) ultra-marathon as well… and half was under heavy load! How was I still functioning at this point? This was amazing to me, and it was right then and there that I reneged on my Never Again pledge and decided that I was going to run the 100 mile Bighorn again in 2017!

I had a month to think about my decision before registration opened and I spent much of it spending that hard earned fitness on incredible elk hunts. It was surreal and I was loving every minute of it. As September gave way to October, the registration opened up and I immediately pulled the trigger. My wife and I had a heart to heart discussion as she knew just how hard I had trained and how bad I hurt for several weeks after last year’s event. She was very supportive but much more practical and suggested that I seek the help of a professional coach to train properly for such an extreme event.

We are fortunate to live in Bozeman, MT where world renowned ultrarunner and fitness guru Nikki Kimball lives and trains. I figured it was a long shot, but sent her a message anyway asking if there was any way she would consider helping coach me for the 2017 Big Horn 100 mile event. My finger hit send just before I took off on my flight to Denver and when I touched down I was so surprised to see I had a message back that said- Absolutely… and your training starts tomorrow! I then quickly sent texts to my good buddies Blaise Allen, Dave Kascht and Joe Fidel, and asked if they would be also willing to help crew/pace again and within 30 minutes I had affirmatives in the positive from all of them. This was incredible, now the only thing to do was meet with my new coach, get a training plan, order several more pairs of shoes and get to work.

After my first meeting with Nikki, I realized just how little I actually knew about extreme endurance training, conditioning, and running in general. She carefully listened to my goals, understood my somewhat crazy and unpredictable work schedule and devised a customized plan to get me started. The type of training looked intimidating, seemed kind of ‘hard core’ and to be honest, kind of scared me… and that was just the first 3 week block! I tried to focus only on the present day and after a week or two, I realized that in a twisted kind of way, I was going to dig the extreme mental and physical challenge. I remember one time happily mentioning that I was so excited for my workout the next day because I felt I was making so much progress and the last time I did it, I wasn’t even that sore. Well, that night I got a note informing me that my workout tomorrow had just been revised! In addition to running I was also focusing a lot of time on core and other cross-training activities. It was truly great and instead of training being a burden to my regular life’s routine, it became an integrated part of it for the past 6 months!

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As my final taper arrived, I couldn’t be more excited for the big event. I was feeling really good physically, and mentally I could envision success through the entire event. To make it even sweeter was the fact that I had the world’s best team by my side! First off, I had my awesome wife there for day 1 as she wouldn’t be running until the next day when she did the 32 mile run, my 8 year old son mason was coming to cheer and would be waiting to ‘pace’ me in the last few miles.

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Nikki Kimball along with her boyfriend Carlos would help coach and crew me, my good friends and training partners Gibb Kentz and Dave Kascht were going to pace me and Blaise Allen and his newly engaged fiancée Emma where going to help crew up the Jaws and Dry Fork stations. HOW GREAT A TEAM IS THAT? We had a nice camp that night across from the finish and even surprised Gibb with a ‘pre’-birthday cake as he would be celebrating his birthday in the middle of the next night on our trot.

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The weather for this year had been looking perfect (cool and dry) up until the forecast started to deteriorate a day prior. If you were to believe it, the current prediction called for scattered showers, somewhat cooler temps, and significant wind. I thought ‘whatever’ as I had trained in far worse, or so I thought. Melissa made the team a final breakfast and we all headed to the start line.

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I really had no butterflies or second guesses, just ready to get this race started. My good friend and colleague Martin Lowenfish from DC was also in town to run the event and we decided to stick together for the first 8 or so miles and ensure that neither of us went out too fast as we climbed from 4000 feet to the first summit at 7500 feet (note- This race climbs more than 21,500 feet and descends another 22,000). The gun finally went off and we enjoyed a picture perfect start to the day. The scenery was incredible, flowers were in full bloom and the company was pleasurable… this is going to be the best race ever- I just knew it.

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I focused on maintaining a heart rate in my correct zone, consuming consistent calories and just remembering to soak it up at every turn. I was right on target, near the back of the pack, but feeling very fresh. I just kept thinking about how my chill pace now was akin to putting something in the bank, as no doubt I’ll be making serious withdrawals before long. As I trotted into the first major aid station in Dry Fork (mile 13) I was ecstatic to see my son sprinting up the road to meet me jumping high as we exchanged Five’s. He was so pumped to see his dad and it was contagious. I didn’t realize then how important this mental image would soon become. Soon after I saw Mason, I noticed my entire team waiting. However, I didn’t see them long as they were like a well-oiled NASCAR pit stop and had me refueled and back on the trail in a single minute. I was off alone on the trail once again.

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This next section started out great and I was again running it right on pace and smiling the entire time. I was focusing on the consumption of real food (good stuff too like bacon and PBJ) and staying hydrated and was really feeling like I was ‘nailing’ the plan. I was chatting it up with other runners and so looking forward to the technical downhill that awaited me shortly. It finally arrived and after 27 miles of ‘jogging’ I finally cut loose a bit and bombed the technical portion for several miles, passing 25-30 people in the process. Although my HR climbed a bit, I never really overdid it and couldn’t help but smile a little more after passing each runner.

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At the end of the downhill section I crossed the little Bighorn River and trotted into the Footbridge aid station at mile 32 and 4500 feet. This was a critical stop as it would be the last real place to grab gear needed for the 18 mile uphill trek to the halfway turnaround point at Jaws (9,000 feet) and I also needed to be prepared for nightfall. It wasn’t cold or raining and I was feeling so good, I decided to only take a very lightweight windbreaker, light gloves and my headlight. Again, Nikki and the crew really worked their magic here and I was fueled, loaded and on the trail in no time. It was here that I also picked up my running buddy Gibb who would be pacing me for the next 50 miles. We were all smiles and jokes as we left and headed up the hill.

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It wasn’t but a couple miles out of Footbridge when conditions started to change, and they changed rather quickly. The light cloud covered skies turned black, the temperature stated to plummet and the rain started to seep from the clouds. Although we were still in great spirits and moving well, we both could tell it was going to get western before long. Another half hour and the early steady rain had now soaked into the trail causing mud to cling to our shoes with each passing step. It was more of an annoyance than a serious hindrance and we even dared the big man upstairs with something like, ‘”What, you thought we were looking for an easy trot? Well, not even. Is this all you got? Bring it on”! In hind sight, we probably shouldn’t have done that.

Not even halfway up to Jaws and we were now in a torrential downpour, temps were falling steadily, and, as if the big man actually listened to us, substantial wind started to be introduced as a new variable. We were now slipping and sliding everywhere, experiencing ankle deep mud that made one step forward and half step back the new norm. Although it was really tough work, we were still pounding it and kept laughing to try to maintain a positive outlook on the situation. We finally made it to the last aid stop prior to Jaws and I remember looking over at a pack horse they used to pack in the station. The poor old mare was just standing there, in the bright green meadow, soaking wet from the sustained downpour. She looked so miserable and cold that she didn’t even want to eat those fabulous new green grasses right in front of her. It never did occur to me until now, that this was likely the very same thought running through the aid station volunteers when they looked at our wet and sorry faces.

The last uphill push until Jaws ensured that we got every penny out of this race. The rain had still not let up, the headlights were on, the mud kept getting deeper and the temperatures were now getting bone-chilling cold. No joke, but you would have been so thankful to have a pair of chest waders and a down jacket for this section… that’s how ridiculously wet, muddy and cold it was. It was also funny how those of us heading up the hill here were not too talkative anymore and certainly weren’t laughing or joking around. We just wanted to get to Jaws and conserve as much energy as possible! It was also in this section that we started to run into several of the faster runners that were now on their return trip down the mountain. Everyone we passed was so happy, complimentary, almost ‘drunk’ on good vibes. Gibb and I weren’t quite sure what they were serving at the Jaws aid station but knew it had to be pretty darn good. That served as our motivation to speed our pace and get there quickly. About a mile out the wind really picked up and I was freezing cold and shaking. I stopped, turned and shined my light in Gibbs face and saw that we was almost white as a ghost. Turn out he was freezing cold as well, although he never let me know simply because he didn’t want me to worry about him. Let that one soak in for a minute. He and I both knew we were in a bad way and needed to get warm and fast. We trotted hurriedly into the tent at mile 48, Jaws.

Blaise is a special kind of stud as he was waiting solo for us in the rain/sleet/snow during the middle of the night. As soon as he saw us coming, he grabbed us and led us to a magical place that had chairs surrounding a big heater. It was sooooo nice. He and the exceptional volunteers helped pull our wet clothes off, provided us with heating pads and wrapped us in warm blankets while they grabbed us hot broth and coffee. Now we knew what those folks heading down the mountain were so happy for! We were finally warm again, could feel our fingers and exchanged our soaking wet shirts, jackets and gloves for dry ones. Somehow, I had lost my stocking cap and without hesitation Blaise gave me the one right off his head. Best part, was as we were leaving Blaise told me we only wasted 7-8 minutes total at the stop… I know now he’s full of it- but I love him for helping keep me pumped when I needed it most!

I was so excited about starting the second half in such great time that I made a war cry before leaving the tent, a cry that generated a ton of positive response from several other folks in there. This fired us up and we left the tent running and everyone outside in the dark was now yelling as well, cheering us on I assumed. They kept those ‘cheers’ up until one guy caught up to us and told us we were heading the wrong way… oops.

Back on course we decided the power hike the first mile through a big swamp and then once we hit the crest of the hill, we were gonna pound it for 18 miles back to Footbridge. Well, once we hit the top, we indeed started to run and it didn’t take but 20 yards before we were lying in the mud face forward. This downhill was insane and was perhaps going to be even more difficult than the uphill climb. We kept at it, running every step possible, falling multiple times but still having fun. We were also amazed how many runners we were passing on our way down that were still on their way to the top and tried to share the positive mojo those before us gave to us. It was a steady stream of headlamps for miles and somewhere in here Gibb said to me, “Timmy, I know you’re going to finish this race but I honestly don’t think many people are. These conditions are just too insane.” I thought about that for a while and couldn’t agree more. Any time goal for this particular race was meaningless and at this point, I simply vowed to be one of the minority that finishes tomorrow in Dayton. Deep down, I actually really liked and embraced the new challenge.

Between the first and second aid stations (and yes, it’s still raining) my stomach and legs were feeling great, although I was starting to feel tired. Fighting the extreme elements this long was starting to take its toll and I am so thankful Gibb was by my side. His mind was a bit sharper than mine at this point and he did a fabulous job reminding me to eat, hydrate, salt and provided constant positive feedback no matter the new challenge we faced. Heck, I honestly believe that if he needed to fend off a mountain lion or grizzly bear because he was threatening me from finishing, he wouldn’t have even hesitated. This was OUR race and we were in this sucker together. We were real partners you know… you can therefore imagine my extreme disappointment when I begged my partener for a quick 5 minute nap and he said no. The deal we finally struck was that once we hit Footbridge in 3.5 miles that I could ask Nikki and if she said ok, then it was fine.

I couldn’t wait to hit Footbridge and ask Nikki if it would be ok to take just a small little cat nap. We ran/walked and shuffled until we finally arrived as the sun was getting ready to awake. She and Carlos were ready for us! They wasted no time and set me in a special chair by a fire and Nikki listened as I tried to explain what I needed to her. After my first sentence with the word nap in it, she cut me off, said absolutely not and started barking orders to Gibb and Carlos about getting me the things she knew I really did need. In a minute or less I had quickly consumed caffeinated gels, salts, hot broth, PBJ roll up, sandwich, bananas, and a beautiful cup of coffee Carlos brought for me. She exchanged my gloves for dry ones, removed the lights from my head and pack and after a few minutes had me completely recharged and ready to roll. She said that the sun would be up very soon as I would feel brand new again. Now get the heck out of here!

We were now leaving mile 66 and heading straight up the section of the course they affectionately refer to as ‘the Wall’. This is one steep cookie that doesn’t let us for a full 3.5 miles. Honestly, given how tired I was going in to Footbridge, I wasn’t sure how the climb was going to go. But Nikki was right (it’s like she knows what she’s doing or something) and as a result of all the caloric intake and sunlight starting to creep in, I was killing it! Gibb and I maintained a very respectable pace for the entire face and never stopped a single second to catch our breath. My second life had been born and I was feeling great, now at mile 70.

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Somewhere in this next section the rain finally let up completely, although the trail was still a muddy mess. It was a beautiful rolling single track and we were having a ball. Talking, joking, making funny pictures and just looking forward to an eventual finish today! Everything was going great except when I got behind on my real food consumption and started to down power as we neared Cow Camp.  I knew I needed real food or I would throw up for sure and the nearest food was 2 miles away. I decided to hike easily and we pledged to horde a baggie of real food once we arrived to prevent this from happening again.

As we approached Cow Camp, I could see runners hauling butt down the hill in front of me descending into the aid station we were about to share. They were moving so fast and it finally hit me that this was the 32 mile bunch and they had only 9 miles on their legs so far. I called them a bad word under my breath and Gibb couldn’t stop from laughing. We finally made it there and I perched on a chair as Gibb rounded up some slop. I was honestly feeling like crap at this point but kept having the image of my son waiting for me pop in my head. There was no way I could let him down, no way would I quit on him. Powerful motivation that ensured I would absolutely finish this race! Note- picture below is from start of 30 miler race on county road. You can guess what dirt trails looked like- too bad our phones were too wet to take pics!

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Gibb soon brought me back the best food ever, a diverse bowl filled with bacon, watermelon, potato chips, and fried potatoes. It was pure heaven and I could feel my batteries charging once again and the image playing on repeat in my head. Apparently, if you’re not me and can’t see and feel the rebound going on inside, I must of looked pretty rough. Two other buddies of mine, Eric and Josh, were running the 32 miler and saw me and tried to console me. They spoke positive words but I could tell by the genuine look on their faces they figured I was a gonna and there was no way this guy was gonna finish. I knew better, the only problem was that I was too tired to make a smile and show them.

After a few more minutes, we decided to leave and just hike the last few uphill miles to Dry Fork at mile 82. I must of still looked pathetic because I had several young ladies running the 32 miler stop, give me a hug and tell me how inspiring I was. That just doesn’t happen to me ever and Gibb just laughed and kept his usual positive accolades going. Every time there was a flat or downhill I would try and run it and when I did he would complement me on the great work… I loved it!

Dry Fork finally came and with it, a refreshed outlook on the race. It was here I got to Mason, relieve Gibb of his exceptional pacing detail, welcome Dave as the closer for pacing duties and chat it up with Blaise and Emma in the tent. All while downing some delicious food, sharing horror stories and getting the green light from the medical staff to continue. Just as I was about to leave, as if on cue, my lovely wife walks into the tent. I couldn’t believe it! She had just finished her first 14 mile loop of her 32 mile run and was now preparing to finish her race. She decided that she would slow her pace and just trot in the final 18 in together. I thought that was an excellent idea and off we went.

 

I told Melissa and Dave right after we started that I could easily run the entire 18 miles to the finish (kind of a white lie). However, I also informed them in as equally assertive tone that I wouldn’t be doing that. When they asked me why I said it was because I simply didn’t want to and that I was really tired (that’s the God honest truth). I figured that I only had to finish the race in 34 hours and knew I could easily do that if I just power hiked it in. Because I was forced to basically crawl down the huge downhill single track the year before, I really wanted to run that section and figured if I saved my energy by hiking the dumb roads, I’d be able to do so. Therefore, off we went on a nice, beautiful hike with the sun shining and the roads dry. Heck, you wouldn’t have known how muddy it was except for the fact that my legs and shoes still carried 5 pounds of dried mud and muck on them!

We hiked until we reached the top of the last hill and could see down the Tounge River canyon, what a beautiful sight. It took a couple steps to get a rhythm going but once I did it felt great and I was doing it. I was finally running this technical downhill at mile 90 in the race. I had dreamed about this section for a long while and was so proud of myself. It wasn’t until I was halfway down that I realized that my sweet wife was chatting up a storm behind me the whole way down without missing a breath. It finally dawned on me that although I was technically running (and felt like I was really moving fast), there’s no way I was going too fast. I thought about it for a minute, laughed, and said outloud, “Who cares at this point”. Relentless forward progress was being made and I was stoked!

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Finally the moment came when we exited that beautiful canyon and started down the dreaded, extremely hot and hard surfaced Tounge River Road. I knew this last 5 miles was gonna suck and it didn’t disappoint. After running the single track I remained true to my pledge and simply power hiked the road, trying mentally to be somewhere else. As Dave and Melissa chatted and offered nothing but positive encouragement, I was increasingly frustrated that nobody had the EXACT mileage to the finish. I was also very concerned about Mason, where was he. I thought he was going to join us the last 3 miles. Surely I have not only gone 2. Finally, we turned a corner and there he was. He was so excited and hiked with us until finally, the dirt road gave way to pavement and I decided to get off my lazy butt and run this baby home!

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Perhaps the best part of the entire race was when Dave lined up on my left side, Mason sided on my right, and together we did the 100 mile shuffle across the bridge and across the road into Dayton while the flaggers stopped traffic. I remember looking into the windshield of the stopped car to see a nice older lady that I have never met clapping vigorously for me with a tear in her eye. I can recall my unbelievable wife who had jogged ahead, squatted in position behind the bronze elk, camera at the ready just to capture the moment when we RAN by the bull unlike the year previous when I so badly limped.

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And as we entered the park, I will never forget the sight of the many people lined up clapping, whooping and cheering us on.  The ear to ear smiles on both Dave and my sons face will always be remembered. And just as we neared the Finish line Gibb jumped in the chute and joined us as we crossed the line, together as one team… it was BAD ASS!

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Although I didn’t come in first place, far, far from it actually; I really do feel like I won! Just finishing this adventure on this particular year was a major accomplishment in and of itself as more than 200 of the 379 that attempted it were forced to drop along the way. People for many years will refer back to this particular race as the gold standard of ‘horrible and unthinkable running conditions’. And although I’ll never forget the crazy amount of rain that soaked us for over a day, the surreal mud pit that we ran through for more than 2 back-to back marathons, or the extreme temperature drops in the middle of the night that brought us one degree from hypothermia, it is the overwhelming and selfless love and support that so many other people showed to me that I’ll never forget. That particular feeling and experience was priceless! After this journey, I guarantee you I will not repeat the ill spoken words of last year, Never Again.

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Special thank you to my incredible wife Melissa and 2 awesome kids (Madison and Mason) who supported me from day one, my world class coach and friend Nikki Kimball who inspired me daily to push myself beyond limits, to my unparalleled pacers and good friends Gibb and Dave, to my first rate crew of Blaise, Emma and Carlos, you guys ROCK, and to all my running and training partners who have helped me along the way. I am so thankful for each of your friendship and support. I’m forever indebted to each of you! I’d also like to send special thanks to Corey Jacobson and ELK 101.com for the awesome one of a kind race shirts… that are simply that cool!

Until our next Adventure!

 

 

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