This is the first time I’ve written anything after running a race. I tend to internalize everyt hing that happened pre/ post-race and share it with a chosen few. But this experience has left me with a need to summarize the race and reflect out loud. For starters, this is my first time running a straight hundred miles. I am an obstacle course racer, not an ultra-marathoner and I’m under no illusions of grandeur in the world of ultra-marathons even with a 2nd place finish. Had a few more guys like Seth Swanson showed up, I probably would have finished somewhere else. The cold, rain, mud, and rocks were my friends that day because bad conditions are the bread and butter for obstacle course racers. We spend our days training for the worst-case scenario and it paid off at Big Horn. So, let’s get into what led me to this race and how it all shook out.
I signed up for this race after talking aboikut goals with my friend and training partner Anthony Kunkel, we discussed trying something new and Hard Rock 100 has always been something I wanted to try since I live so close to Silverton, Co. After finding out that there are qualifying requirements, I looked at the list of races and Big Horn 100 seemed like the perfect match. It was a rugged, remote, and scenic race on the border of Wyoming and Montana, and as it turns out another friend in our circle was going to run it as well, so there was built-in accountability for training with Will Mitchell. I spent the next six-month training as usual, blending running with OCR specific training ,AKA tons of functional strength training, tire drags, grip and upper body work through Yancy Camp. After countless early morning training sessions, hours upon hours of running, and lots of trash talking for morale with Will, race day had finally arrived.
It was uncomfortably hot and humid on race day, the complete opposite of pretty much every training day. Durango tends to be dry regardless of how hot or cold it is. I was extremely nervous when I looked down at my heart rate monitor minute by minute before the and realized it was consistently 30 beats above normal. On top of that I had forgotten half of my calories back at the dorm where I stayed, and was without crew or pacers to go back and get it. I wouldn’t have my own nutrition until the turn around at JAWS. Things were not looking good, but as mentioned above, obstacle course racers train for the worst-case scenario. So, I just reassured myself, not sure what else to think as the announcer counted down to the start.
The pack moved uncomfortably fast for my abnormally high heart rate as we made our way through Tongue River Canyon trail. We were teetering between a seven to eight-minute mile pace with my chest feeling tight as heart the rate monitor read 162. I decided to just ignore it and told myself it was race jitters, I wasn’t going to let this dictate the next 100 miles just because my body was a little uncomfortable. I decided to focus on the race instead, taking in the views, the energy, and the terrain. The canyon was roaring with water from the river as we made our ascent out to Horse Creek Ridge, finally things began to feel a little more comfortable now that we were above 7,000 ft even with the blistering sun beating down on us. At this point, I had lost Will somewhere along the trail and the run was going to become a lonely road for the rest of the day.
I rolled through the next couple of aid stations just taking water, a few gels, and thanking volunteers along the way. It’s truly remarkable to see just how many people have come out to work these aid stations, some of them were packed out on foot and horseback. Without these thankless volunteers the race would have been infinitely more difficult. As I continued to climb I realized I had no idea what place I was in or how deep we were into the mountains until the descent into Dry Fork aid station. I felt like I was being lifted out of a haze as I ran into this staging area with the sound of people cheering, the sight of warm smiles, and then someone letting me know I was in the top 10 began to kindle a fire that wouldn’t stop burning for hours. I made way out from dry fork clueless to just how bad I was going to suffer the next marathon worth of miles to Sally’s Footbridge. This section of the race was almost exclusively single track, turns out that more than 70 miles of Big Horn is single track covered with rocks, roots, and unforgiving drop offs. As I trekked through the creeks and camps I finally found some reprieve from the heat and humidity thanks to all the tree cover but I started to get passed by others as my legs struggled to move in the heat. I slowed down the pace and focused on the course layout knowing that there would be a three mile descent to Sally’s to let my legs catch some “rest”.
The descent to Sally’s came screaming through. It was wet, rocky and steep. As I made my way down towards the Little Big Horn River I couldn’t help but think just how bad of a climb this was going to be that evening. Again, as my spirit began to wane in the life-sapping humidity, I heard the clicking of a camera from the Mile 90 photographer; this meant the bottom had to be close as the river became deafeningly loud. Again, the sound of cheers and cowbells lifted me from the pain cave. I came into Sally’s in 5th place, lubed my feet, refilled my water, grabbed my mandatory gear for the climb and headed out. After almost 30 miles I knew that there might be a chance to finish the race as my legs became accustomed to the dull soreness and maybe, just maybe, I could start to catch some others as left the footbridge and began the next 18 miles of climbing.
Ascending the canyon was simultaneously jaw-dropping and terrifying. The trail snaked along the river banks as it began to blend into the talus laden switchbacks and single track where one misstep could end your race if not your life. Eventually this beautiful canyon opens into mountain meadows and even longer stretches of running between aid stations. Again, I am eternally grateful to these volunteers for keeping us hydrated and nourished throughout our trek. I ended up running into 4th place somewhere along this stretch before I broke off. We shared some heart to heart moments and I hope that you found your why Michael, and thank you for your service…I never got a chance to say that as we ran together. At Elk Camp it was the first time during the race that I wanted to stop and hang out, these folks knew how to have a good time you could feel the fun electrify the air but the race was far from over so I kept running through the thickest muddiest meadows the mountains can offer.
As the climbing continued snowmelt started to appear and then snow and just before I crested the Big Horn Mountain Divide, first place was making his way back down the mountain. Seth Swanson gave me hope as I saw him effortlessly bound through the muck. I knew that the others wouldn’t be too far behind so I picked up the pace until I hit a snow melted bog and giant drifts to post hole through but I never saw 2nd or 3rd place until I was arriving at JAWS and the turn around after 10 hours. I knew they were only minutes ahead of me. I finally had my own calories and nutrition to get me through the rest of the race and time was of the essence. I grabbed my CARBOPRO gels that I had made the night before, took a couple packets of BEET ELITE with me and grabbed my MOTIVATOR capsules for the nocturnal portion of the race since it would be getting dark in a few hours. The fire that was kindled hours before was starting to burn hot, I knew that I could at least try and catch 3rd place as people kept saying he was only 20 minutes ahead, then 10 minutes, then 5…until I saw him looking back past Cathedral Rock.
For the last six months whether I was working out at 4AM with Bret Rein or 6PM with Dan Rohde every workout started with the same mantra “I can, I will, I must”. The same words that Eric Thomas had repeated over and over through my headphones during workouts began to sing loudly in my mind until I couldn’t contain them. I started to repeat them out loud and I wouldn’t stop for the next 40 or so miles. I suddenly found myself running recklessly fast towards him, and then past him. Telling him good job and asking how far was 2nd “only a couple of minutes” as I kept running down trying to beat the sunset. As I continued the descent back through the meadow and into the canyon, darkness began to settle into the mountains and soon after the sky opened up and rain began to fall hard. During my run in the sunset I prayed to God for the chance to prove myself, to test my resolve, and to be given conditions worthy of exhaustion. My prayers were answered in the darkness. I found myself running into a much quieter Sally’s footbridge. As I checked in with medical, an aid station volunteer asked what I needed. I just asked her kindly for water and I helped myself to a cup of hot broth before I’d continue running since I stressed to her that I was trying to catch up to 2nd place.
The volunteers looked at one another then to my left, and said “he’s right there”. We looked at one another; I asked how he was doing and wished him a good race as I ran off into the darkness and up the nastiest ascent yet. Although my body was cold, my feet were throbbing, and I struggled for sure footing in a raincloud that wouldn’t leave me until the first light, as there was a raging fire burning in me.
Somehow, I made it into 2nd place with 40 miles to go. I felt accomplished but also worried in that moment. How was I going to hold this placement with 40 miles to go against a guy who was clearly a stronger and more experienced runner? I went back to my mantra, and pushed hard through the darkness, the mud, and the rocks that beat my feet and my body after falling over and over again. Regardless, the mantra continued, now screaming in my head so I kept running since his headlamp was always visible in the distance.
Finally, day break came. The sun was starting to warm my body after 22 miles of rolling through the darkness, and I found myself only meters ahead, running out of CarboPro, Metasalt tablets and water. I stopped one last time for water before the crazy descent ahead. I knew I had one choice. Put away my trekking poles and let my legs run lose. Win, lose, or draw, if he caught me then he wanted it more than me. I found myself at the very last aid station just 5 miles from the finish line but 3rd place was nowhere to be found. I thought it was a trick, so I grabbed a gel and took off. As I trekked one last time through a canyon letting the sun warm my skin until I hit a dirt road, then hard pavement, and eventually the sound of cheers and cowbells, I saw the finish line. I looked back one last time, didn’t see my competition, and proceeded to complete my first 100 miler- exhausted, happy, and relieved.