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Sunday, June 26, 2016

Bighorn 2016

I approach the Bighorn 100 having run only a couple times in the previous three weeks due to nursing a bad knee. Maybe that rest was good. I have an itch from poison ivy on both legs. And I'm intimidated by this race--I dropped at the turnaround last year. But I have a great base of winter miles, many of them hill intensive. However I'm a flatlander from Minnesota. No matter how many hills I run, I don't know elevation. Simple fact.

The first 8 miles of the course are constant climbing. It starts in the Tongue River Canyon surrounded by rock cliffs and the higher we climb the more the canyon opens up into wildflower-filled meadows. Throughout this climb I visit with Scott and Holly Huston and Shawn Severson, fellow Minnesotans. A long line of runners strings out in front of us and behind us.
I yelled "Woo!" and scared this lady in front of me.

My goal is to play it safe and conservative, to get to the end. I know from last year that this initial climb can take a lot out of me. Play it safe. Do no harm. Enjoy the views. Enjoy the company.

Following Shawn as we work this climb together.

Tongue River Canyon below
The higher we get the more the views open up. The wildflowers are like fireworks exploding in my eyes. Finally, things level off (it's relative) and there are even short downhill sections we can run.

With about a quarter mile to go before hitting the first major aid station, Dry Fork at mile 13, I yell "Woo!" Someone immediately answers from the forest on my left. It's me. I've found an echo. I do it again. What a fun conversation with myself!

It's extra nice to see Lisa here because I don't see her often in this race. The next time will be at the turnaround. Most of the aid stations are hard to get to. Volunteers either backpack or ride horses into them. Maria and Doug Barton are here--Maria's running the 50 mile the next day. They have my gorilla mask! I switch water bladders and shove a handful of food into my face. I pocket chunks of crystallized ginger and leave.

Dry Fork aid station with my honey. Photo credit Maria Barton.
After all that climbing, it's fun to see more runnable course. The next 12 miles are rolling. I try to be careful, smart, conservative. I eat a handful of bacon at an aid station. I see Jordan Hanlon, another Minnesotan, on the trail. He's moving well and wise ahead of me.

I dip my hat and buff into every stream I cross to help against the afternoon heat.

The peace of the mountains and the immediacy of the wildflowers settle into me.

Eric Nordgren's sitting in tall grass beside the trail. He rolls over to stand and follow me.

"I can't stop puking," he says.

"That happened to me last year," I say. "It really sucks. Do you need anything? Salt? Water? Ginger?"

"I've tried everything."

"Let's work this together. Let me know if you're going to puke some more. I've got a camera."

Before I finish my sentence he's hurling.

I find the sound of vomit hilarious. 

"Dude," I say. "I just told you to warn me." I click a couple pictures. "Does that feel better?" I ask. 

He responds by hurling more. He just keeps spewing. His tap is wide open. Like a total dick, I laugh. I can't help it. The sound of vomit always does this to me. He's in trouble though. I'm looking into a mirror of my race last year, and I worry it could happen to me now too. There isn't much I can do for him. Shawn can't be far behind and she's a doctor. I offer some words of sympathy and apologize for my laughter and move on, although I recommend to the radio operator at the next aid station that they send help.

Finally I hit the steep drop down into the Little Bighorn Canyon. It's a 3-4 mile drop and when I surrender to gravity the running and pounding get violent. The cattle prints in dried mud slow me in spots. I'm grateful the mud is dry.

The views along this section are dramatic as I enter the canyon.

Top of The Wall

Footbridge crossing of the Little Bighorn River

The Footbridge aid station is a machine. Spotters have radioed in my number and someone greets me with my dropbag in hand. I take a seat under a shade tarp. It's hot. The afternoon has beat me down, although the breeze has been kind today. I drink lots of water here and eat plenty of melon. I try soup. I realize both the people sitting under this tarp with me are named Jordan, though one is a dude from Minnesota (Hanlon) and the other is a lady from Sheridan who has already asked what I'll do when I fall apart from the altitude. I try to think through my needs and address them. I dig warm clothes from my drop bag and put them in my pack. I change into a dry shirt. I load up on salt pills. The next 18 miles will be a steady climb of more than 4000 feet. It's where my race fell apart last year.

Little Bighorn
A couple miles out of Footbridge aid station I remember my headlamp. I remember that I forgot it. It's still in my drop bag at Footbridge. There's nothing to do but turn around and head back. On the way back, runners seem to think I'm leading the race. They cheer me on. I can't help but laugh. I say no. I shake my head. I say I forgot something. Some are kind enough to offer their extras, but I can't do that. A part of running ultras is about accepting the kindness of strangers, but I can't do something that could put someone else's race in jeopardy. Running ultras is also about self-sufficiency, about correcting mistakes so they don't spin out of control. I get my light. I start the climb again. I've lost an hour on this detour. I've added almost four miles to my run. It deflates me, and I've lost that racing sense of urgency, but the scenery is lovely. I love running through these lodgepole pines with the sound of the Little Bighorn rushing below.

This long climb is big in my head, but the reward is that I'll get to see my honey at the top, and then run downhill for 18 miles. For the most part, the climb is relatively gradual, but the air gets the thinner the higher we go, and it will end at the highest point of the race.

Photo credit Lisa Langton

Just before dark a brief rain falls, only enough to make me pull out my shell, put it on, then take it off five minutes later. Enough to take some humidity from the air. After it moves on, we are left with a lovely lightning show. Once it clears, the solstice moon appears and stays with me the rest of the climb. It feels like someone is running behind me, shining a light over my shoulder. The moon glistens in the river and the streams feeding it. It shines off rocks walls. It's everywhere.

Photo by Lisa Langton

Mice scamper along the trail ahead of me. In the morning, on the way down, I'll notice many of them have been flattened by runners.

Somewhere nausea takes hold. I recognize this as the same area where I fell apart last year. I drink Tailwind and eat gels and try to move through it. Beck's song "Nausea" comes into my head and stays with me for hours. I sit on a rock for a few minutes and wonder if it's the same rock I sat on and heaved uncontrollably on last year. I get up and move on.

I hear a high pitched sound. Maybe it's a rabbit, or a coyote, or an elk. I hear it again. I have no idea what it is, but it seems to move with me, over to my left, on a ridge in the trees.

A few minutes later I pull off my pack and put my warm clothes on. I'm struggling. Runners are passing both ways. Shawn comes by and offers some encouragement and tells me to follow her. By the time I get fully dressed she is a distant moving light but something to chase. She's moving well, her light crossing the landscape quickly.

By the time I get to the next aid station Shawn's ready for a nap. We both sit by the fire briefly. I have to move on, I tell her. I have to get to the top.

The higher I climb the more mud I find.

My watch has fooled me. When I tell a runner I'm passing that I'm worried about cut-offs, he asks what time it is. When I tell him 4:10, he freaks out. From behind, he corrects me and says it's only 2:10. I apologize. Trail math is never a good thing, always unreliable, but my mind is off tonight.

A red light shines from a mountain above the turnaround aid station. It's like a compass point. The light is from the satellite station near Medicine Wheel. I had a strange and mystifying experience at Medicine Wheel a couple years ago. The energy there is ancient and strong. I let it pull me towards the Jaws aid station.

Runners coming downhill give encouragement. They say I'll love it when I turn around. Their lights guide my way.

At the Jaws aid station, runners sleep in sleeping bags on the ground, between cars, and out in the open. Bodies are spread out everywhere.

I find Lisa asleep in her car and tap on the window and wait for her inside the tent. I eat watermelon. Runners are laid out on cots underneath space blankets. Runners are hunched over in chairs. They come in and out. EMT's scuttle around. Lisa covers me in her Mecca Tattoo sweatshirt and a blanket.  She rubs my neck and shoulders.

Just a couple minutes more.
I've been here too long. I stand to leave and my legs lock up. Every muscle seizes. Even the muscles between my ribs. I fall back into my chair and ask Lisa for salt tablets. As soon as I eat them I know they're headed back up. This time I stand with more control and ask an EMT to point me toward a good place to throw up. She hands me a plastic bin with regurgitated ramen in it. One look at that and I'm headed out the tent and retching on my knees. Lisa's behind me, laughing and telling me the lighting sucks for pictures. I spew so much water and watermelon. It feels good. I think I'm laughing too. A couple feet away a body is sleeping on the ground. Or trying to.

I decide to sit a few more minutes. Let things settle. Jordan Schmidt's in there now and I sit beside him. Lisa hands me hot chocolate but my hands are shaking and it's hard to hold. The EMT's suggest I sit under the heat lamp but I'm having too much fun with Jordan. They're draining his blisters and cleaning his feet. He tells them he's ticklish. Shawn is in now and napping under a blanket.

I tell Lisa maybe I should drop. I'm doing bad math again and figuring out my time to Footbridge. It's way off in my head. If I drop, I tell her, we don't ever have to come back here. The idea of a hotel sounds lovely. Sleep. Rest.

But a couple minutes later I'm standing, rallying. Eighteen miles of downhill running is such a pure and fun thing. Why would I ever consider anything else?

Leaving Jaws
I greet the cowboys at the first aid station on the way down with a loud woo! Am I really already here? I ask.

I barely stop, just grab some fruit and keep moving. I pass people and throw out encouragement along the way.

At Jaws when I put my head in my lap, I had hit the button on my watch and it stopped. Now I've decided to just shut it off. There is liberation in running watchless, especially during a race. Let the miles flow out minus the constraints of time and cutoff worries. Let the legs do their thing. Let the body tumble forward.

The sun creeps up. This is why we do these things. We do it for the loneliness and beauty of the night running, for the bottomless lows and for the resurrection of the dawn. We do it for the people we meet along the way, the shared suffering with runners and the kindness of strangers. We do it for the pure pointlessness of it. All I can say is that it's a lovely morning, slightly warm, and the light sneaks over the mountaintops and plays in the flowers and grasses and streams. It might just be the most beautiful morning ever. As they all are. As this one is.

The slide down the mountain is a sacred blur and then I'm staring at the volunteer at Footbridge aid station at mile 66. She's offering me an Egg Mcmuffin. From McDonald's.

Maybe a quarter of one, I say.

I'll hold the rest of it if you want it, she says. She has angel wings. I take off my pack and ditch my light and my warm clothes in my drop bag. I refill on gels.

I'm intimidated by this next section. It's called The Wall for a reason. I lean into my poles. I lean into the discomfort of the climb. There is little shade here and the sun is doing its thing on me too. This climb takes place one simple and slow step at a time. Fifty milers come by. They're running up this. I stop and breathe and allow my heart rate to drop. I wonder if I should go back to Footbridge and pull out. That's ridiculous. The only way is forward. And up. Survive this climb, I tell myself. There is nothing else. There is only this climb. These steps.

The cold spring water at the aid station is wonderful. I sit and drink. Perhaps sitting is a mistake. The legs feel it when I stand.

I move on and there is still climbing to be done. It's not as steep. But things are happening inside me. This is why I'm here. To see where the legs will take me. To play with limits and boundaries. I'm tapping on walls now. Listening to what might be on the other side.

I'm slowing down. The heat is messing with me. It's tough to eat. I've ditched my Tailwind for straight water. I douse myself at every spring and creek to regulate the body temps.

An aid station has pop tarts crumbled in a bowl and I shove them in my mouth. The sugar hits my blood in a cool rush.

I'm having fun, but moving forward is difficult. Dust is kicked up with every footstep and it all seems to settle in my mouth. The kindness of strangers at aid stations moves me forward.

I run with a lady named Reilly. No, we're power walking. We both admit how happy we'll be to see our partners at Dry Fork. It's been forever since I've seen Lisa. Let's try to run the downs, Reilly says. I take a few steps, but it's not happening for me. She moves ahead, and gets smaller and smaller in the distance.

A lady's sitting in a creek. It looks like a great idea. I sit down slowly. My legs tighten. My ribs and hands cramp. I'm not able to keep up with all the salt leaving my body. The lady's gone and I'm alone in the stream. Another lady comes by and asks if I need help getting up. I do. We struggle together but then I'm up, moving forward, slowly, walking.

Search and rescue guys on ATVs are a regular sight now, rolling past with runners loaded on the back. Their dust settles in my mouth.

I want a ride.

It feels like I'm walking backwards.

Rocks sparkle and I pick them up and put them in my pockets. Later, I'll look at them and wonder what it was about them that made me want to keep them.

Dry Fork aid station comes into view, in the far distance, high above. By the time I see it, I know it will be my final stop. I'm content with that. I'm happy about that. I can't wait to be done. Although I've been having a blast. I'm just done. I don't know how else to say it. There is nothing in me that wants to move on to the finish, not in my legs, not in my head. I can't find whatever it is that will move me forward, and I'm okay with that. I'm in a beautiful place. I'm really really happy. But it will take me an hour to reach Dry Fork. I'm so grateful and happy to see Lisa when I arrive. She's pink from so much sun.

View from Dry Fork aid station. Photo by Lisa Langton

I try not to use my running as a measure of self-worth or ego-stroking. I try to run for the pleasure of running. I've gotten to do a lot of that in this run. Sometimes we can beat ourselves bloody with a DNF, but for me, it's a part of ultrarunning. The beauty of this stuff is that there are no guarantees, especially for a finish, not in hundreds. That's why we do these. Among other reasons. Sometimes a race drop is a great reminder to run for the pleasure of running and no other reason. Because it's what we are made to do. Because we don't need reasons. Because it's pointless anyway.

I celebrate ten years of continuous sobriety at this writing. I'm grateful I get to do these things. Some days I'm surprised I'm alive, much less able to run ultras. Yes, I'm alive. I'm breathing. I'm still here.


  1. Kevin,
    Thanks for the wonderful accounting of your adventure! The course looks beautiful and your recounting of your experience provided a brief glimpse into the ultra-racing community and what it takes to accomplish such an arduous journey!
    Tom Woodside

  2. You inspire the hell out of me. Thank you!