2021 Bighorn Trail Run

I officially declare that big time trail running events are back. It was the big time last weekend at the Bighorn Wild and Scenic Trail Run in Dayton, Wyoming. By my count, more than 1,100 runners started one of the four events, which makes this a large race. It looks like there were 174 finishers in the marquis 100 mile distance, out of about 274 starters. There were 101 finishers in the 52 miler, 231 finishers in the 32 miler, and 357 finishers in the 18 milers.

This was Debbie’s first 100 since the Cascade Crest 100 Mile Endurance Run in August 2017. That was the same year that she ran the Hardrock Endurance Run. 2017 was a big year for her running exploits. Those two races were the toppers, but she also ran Traprock 50K, Manitou’s Revenge Ultra, several shorter races, and some non-race mountain adventures. In 2018, she ran six ultras including Vermont 100K and Ultra-Trail Hurricana (125K) but no hundreds. In 2019, she repeated Traprock 50K and Manitou’s Revenge, and then ran Never Summer 100K for the first time.

She was supposed to run Bighorn in 2020, but everyone reading this should know that the race was cancelled. Some ultras were held last year, but she only did one. That was the Blue2Blue Ultra, a rugged 50K. In addition to that race, she put all of her endurance sports energy into FKT’s, which was a welcome diversion. I joined her on many of these adventures. There were several notable ones, but our New England Trail Adventure was the toughest and best. So, she has certainly been active, but she hadn’t attempted a 100. In the end, Bighorn became her 11th one attempted and 9th one finished.

In her build up to this big 2021 event, once again, she ran Traprock 50K. She followed that with 71 miles at Run Ragged three weeks prior to Bighorn. In addition to these races, her preparation included some solid training in the first half of 2021 including several more FKT’s. There were even some shorter events as things started to open up.

Speaking of “opening up,” prior to our Wyoming trip, our last flight was in February 2020 when we took a trip to Utah with the kids. From the time that we returned from that trip, it’s been a wild ride for us and most everyone in the world. So, as we approached June of this year, we were excited to do something both difficult and fun with a group of people.

The Bighorn website is a great resource. Check it out for the race’s mission, the history, the sponsors, and specific details about the course. However, this summary is worth sharing as an introduction to this year’s race: 

The Bighorn Mountain Trail 100 is an epic mountain endurance adventure crossing through Little Bighorn and Tongue River areas of the Bighorn National Forest. Participants have 34 hours to navigate this remote, technical out-and-back course (average 2.94 mph). Mother Nature provides over 20,500 feet of ascent and 20,750 feet of descent testing the most seasoned ultra-runners with 76 miles of technical single-track trail, 16 miles of rugged 2-track jeep trail road, and 8 miles of gravel road. The Bighorn 100 is one of the classics, demanding you to reach deep down to your core of mental and physical fortitude.

 
Our event is truly remote. Stretches of 18-mile technical trail will serve as your only way in and out of the backcountry. Have no fear; we have a family of trail crew volunteers that are crazier than you. They’ve been on the trail for weeks leading up to this event preparing the trails for the adversity you are about to experience. 

On Thursday we did a short run on the outskirts of town and got a look at the bigger mountains where we were headed for the race. Thursday also included a welcome reception at a local coffee shop, race registration, and a pre-race meeting. Sheridan also hosted its first Thursday night street festival and farmers’ market. 

On Friday morning we drove to Dayton for the start of the race. Runners and spectators took school buses from the finish line at Scott Bicentennial Park to the start four miles away. The course is an out (48 miles) and back (52 miles). 

Bighorn is a very difficult race to crew. We were warned about the challenges. I ended up driving about 450 miles while Debbie ran 100 miles. With the mountainous terrain and road layout, you had to drive back to Dayton when going from aid station to aid station. This is an odd quirk of the race, but that’s how it goes.

In addition to the start and finish, you can only get to three aid stations and see your runner up to five times. For the average runner, this means there are large gaps between seeing their crews. Debbie didn’t use any drop bags as she counted on me making it to the aid stations and opted to be self-sufficient in between. 

I made it to these aid stations:

Mile 13.5, Dry Fork Ridge Aid Station: early in the race, I saw Debbie at this lovely spot around noon. It was a lively gathering and I got to see a lot of runners come in.

Mile 30, Sally’s Footbridge Aid Station: I actually didn’t see her. I missed her at this one because I got there 10 minutes after she departed a little after 3:00 P.M. I was too slow to leave Dry Fork, I stopped to take pictures of a moose, I stopped to post on social media (where I had a good signal), and I made a wrong turn. Those factors cause me to blow it and miss her. That was a bad mistake that should never have happened. I was warned making it there was hard, but I made it even harder with my errors. It had taken me nearly three hours to drive there. This aid station had the worst roads with the last 2.5 miles extremely rough. That section included three shallow creek crossings (no bridges).

Mile 48, Jaws Trailhead Aid Station: this was the high point on the course (8,800 feet) and the turn around. It was also the start of the 52 miler on Saturday. I saw saw more moose on the drive. I waited quite a while for her to arrive a little before 9:00 P.M. I enjoyed the photography here and had great light in the golden hour. When Debbie arrived, she was hurting. She took about 20 minutes to recover in the aid tent. I helped her by refilling her pack, rubbing her legs, and getting her food. She tried to take an amino acid capsule, but it caused her to vomit all of her food. That kind of sucked and she was at a low point. She rallied, got moving, and I ran with her for 1/2 mile or so until the trail went back into the woods.

Mile 66, Sally’s Footbridge Aid Station: she didn’t want me to return to Footbridge, but I wanted to go. Since darkness had fallen, it took her a while to cover the 18 miles even though it was all downhill. I decided to park the car a few miles from the aid station and run the last bit to avoid any risk with the rough roads. I couldn’t afford to get stuck or get a flat. I ran it almost as fast as I could drive it. I didn’t carry any of her gear, but I packed some energy food in case she wanted any.

She planned to rely on the aid station and wasn’t expecting me anyway. Thankfully, I packed gloves, a hat, and a warm jacket. It was freezing as I was there for several hours between midnight and 3:15 A.M. when she arrived, she was in decent spirits and was happy to see me. I had spent several hours trying to stay warm by a fire. The temperature had dipped to the low 40’s Fahrenheit. That made a 35+ degree swing from the afternoon highs. That can make for challenging running conditions. I saw a skunk on the drive.

Mile 82, Dry Fork Ridge Aid Station: I returned to Dry Fork and also waited for several hours for her to arrive around 9:15 A.M. I saw a spectacular sunrise on the drive back up the mountain and then another moose on the way back down. Her quadriceps were sore after a wicked climb that lasted a long time, but she was lively, and motivated to finish. I helped her freshen up, change her socks, and change up her pack.

Throughout the race, she used her UltrAspire Zygos and her UltraSpire Spry. She used her UltrAspire lights on her waist and head. She used Altra Olympus shoes with both Injinji and Darn Tough socks. She wore a Patagonia Capilene shirt and running shorts. For part of the race she used XO Skin calf sleeves. She alternated between her Patagonia hat and a Buff. Her jacket was a Patagonia Houdini, her sunglasses from Julbo, and her poles from Black Diamond. She tracked the race with her Garmin Fenix 6s. Her only “sponsor” is UltrAspire (we have a fondness for the company and more importantly the people behind it/associated with it), but its always worth mentioning the other gear when it works well.

All of the dirt roads were rough and very dusty. They were so rough that my rearview mirror kept falling off of the windshield. I had to stop several times to reattach it. It would hold for a while and then fall off again. I’m glad I was driving a rental (Nissan Rogue). Dust was a challenge for the runners too as it made for poor air quality. They were covered head to toe in dust and were forced to breathe it in.

We didn’t know too many people at the race, but met some new friends. One old friend who was there was Bogie Dumitrescu. Debbie and Bogie got to run many miles together and he had a strong run in preparation for Hardrock next month. Bogie is an accomplished ultra runner. He has one Hardrock finish from 2015 and it was epic.  Several years ago, Bogie was in Connecticut, so he came to visit us.

I can’t recall if he came for a race, but he took the bus to Hartford. He felt bad about calling for a ride from the station (we didn’t know this), so he walked the 14 miles to Bolton. I was running an errand while we were waiting for him to arrive and drove by him a few miles from my house. He had a backpack and was walking on the side of the road. I took a double take as I went past and then told my son who was in the back seat that we had just gone by Bogie. We turned back and sure enough, it was him. We loaded him in the car and took him the rest of the way home.

So, it was great to see Bogie at Bighorn. We last crossed paths at Never Summer in 2019.

After Debbie left Dry Fork for the second time, I drove back to Dayton for the 8th time in 24 hours. That’s crazy. The parking lot at Bicentennial Park was full, so I left the car at the post office. I’ve used that technique many times over the years. It’s federal property and my thinking is they won’t tow you or bother you. This was even used to great effect during Spring Break 1994 when I drove from Boston to Key West and had nowhere to stay. We just “camped” at the post office.

Anyway, I parked the car, donned a pack full of water, and ran backwards on the course until I ran into Debbie. This allowed me to see lots of finishers. By this point around mid-day on Saturday, the 50K and 18 milers were mixed in with the 100 mile finishers. This made for an interesting and joyous combination with an eclectic mix of runners. It was blazing hot again and the five miles of dirt road leading back into Tongue River Canyon was a harsh surface to run.

The whole race has incredible views and the canyon is no exception. On my hour-long run towards Debbie, I passed all of the leading women. When I reached her, I had just passed the 5th place women and knew that Debbie would be able to run her down. She was already pushing hard by the time I reached her and it didn’t take much to get her to pick the pace up even more. That last section of trail along the river was very rocky and steep (downhill headed towards the finish).

We hooked up and I paced her the final five and half miles back to the finish. She was really strong on the dirt road. It was mostly flat, but there were a few ups and she had to walk a little. Even with that, she averaged a 10 minute mile, which is fantastic after 95 miles.

The sun was beating down and she picked up some ice at the last aid station with two miles to go. She savored the final stretch and was excited to enter the park. The finish line was at the back of the park along the river. She crossed to loud cheers and within minutes, was soaking her legs in the cool creek.

I fetched our stuff from the car, we rinsed off in the water, and we lounged all afternoon in the park as other finishers arrived. It was an awesome party and the biggest and best event we had attended since the pandemic started. That’s why I said this was a big time race.

There were some amazing performances. In recent years, wet weather and slippery trails slowed some runners, but this year’s event was dry. The heat was a factor and the altitude is always a factor, but generally folks ran fast. The top three men were Tyler Fox, David Ayala, and Seth Wealing. The top three women were Maria Sylte, Sarah Riordan, and Kristina Pattison. They had a great battle. With 18 miles to go, the top two were together and third was less than 15 minutes behind. At the finish, the three of them were all within 23 minutes and it was Maria who came out on top. In addition to the overall women and men, there were many age group athletes who had fantastic runs.

This race has some amazing volunteers. It’s rare that I criticize anything at an ultra of this magnitude because we have so much appreciation for the effort it takes to produce and event like this. Also, the trail running community is caring and supportive so the odds of having an issue are low. There was nothing of the sort as this was a true community race with support from many local sponsors. With such a long history, Bighorn is part of the fabric of Wyoming. Even the wait staff at our hotel were wearing Bighorn t-shirts. All of the interactions were thoughtfully scheduled. If you love trail running and appreciate stunning beauty, this is a race to attend. You have the shorter mileage options, or you can go for the 100.

Debbie was pleased with her race. She finished in 27 hours and 54 minutes. She put 11 minutes into the woman competitor who she passed with five miles to go, and finished 6th overall (2nd in the 40+ age group).

We lingered at the park late into the afternoon before driving back to Dayton where we rented a hotel room for the night. On Sunday morning, we returned to Dayton to a local coffee shop for breakfast and to mingle with some other (sore) runners. That was our final Bighorn event and it was a fitting end to a fantastic event.

Race Results

Race Photos (Mile 90 Photography)

Race Photos (my SmugMug Gallery)

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Cross Country is in full swing! Panther Fest was the second meet for the Bolton Center School Bulldogs. More to come. #xc #crosscountry #trailrunning #running
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We finally had some fantastic weather conditions for a weeknight race. The third #laketerramuggus #triathlon of 2021 was a blast. It was my first Lake T since 2017. @trailrunningmom did her first road tri in a long time (ever?) and @laurab_312 was her biggest cheerleader. There were a LOT of competitors. @missionfitnessglastonbury did a fine job with race production. Our friends from @bicycleseastct supported the racers. Congrats to all. #teamhorstsports #hartfordextendedareatriathletes @horstcycling
#windingtrails #triathlon
@trailrunningmom scorched the final 10 miles. I made the 90 minute drive back to the finish and then ran out to meet her with six or so to go. We hammered the final rocky descent and then accelerated on the infernal five miles of dirt road that led to the finish. Time was about 27h54m @bighorn100 @bighorntrailrun #bighorn100 #shenipsitstriders #teamhorstsports @ultraspire #ultraspire #trailrunning #ultrarunning

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