Let’s jump right in…the first couple miles up the canyon were runnable and we quickly spotted the famous race arch as we turned the corner. I always love getting a few easy miles out of the way early and there was a great buzz in the air. It was sort of unbelievable that the race was finally here after being cancelled (like everything else) because of COVID last year. I was surprised to not feel more nervous early, but there is really no reason to panic early in such a massive endeavor; at least that is what I used to think…
Before I knew it, I started to have trouble breathing and came to a dead stop as waves of runners marched by in groups of five or ten at a time. I hunched over and shook my head staring at my feet. I cursed to myself and let another group pass as I angrily took a picture.
The race was moving on without me; people continued to talk, laugh, and appeared to not hate life in that moment. I expected to have some low points creep in; I did not expect my lowest point to be around mile 7! I couldn’t understand what the hell was going on; this climb was brutal, but it was like I had never hiked up a hill before. The first major climb of the day was unrelenting and sent my heart rate skyrocketing out of control. Several days later and I question if it was some form of panic attack.
My race strategy (as usual) was just to keep on moving no matter what; so I was devastated to be stopping so much already. Thoughts spiraled: “What the hell am I doing out here?!”; “Am I really this out of shape?”; “Did that guy just talk about doing a few 100-mile training weeks?”; “I don’t belong out here.”; “This is fucking pathetic…everyone drove like 7-hours and I don’t even know if I’ll make it to my first pacer.”
Then I heard another voice: “Hey, is that Matt Anderson…I knew it was you. Are you struggling?”; “Yeah, my stomach…I’m just out of shape…I don’t even know…”; “Aw man, I was hoping you weren’t going to say stomach…long way to go; you know.” I hadn’t seen Aaron in maybe a year, but seeing a familiar face broke my trance of self-loathing and I realized pretty quickly after that point that I didn’t have to worry about my DNF at High Lonesome about 693 days prior anymore. I had to worry about the DNF right in front of me, which was an incredible gift.
It may sound odd but realizing this was an entirely new challenge was freeing. I didn’t feel any more confident, but I thought briefly about the misery of dragging myself to like 80 miles on a bum ankle at High Lonesome. Things got a little dark in my head: “Are you gonna fucking quit already? Why did you even show up?” I asked myself if I was ok accepting another DNF today and found my answer was “not yet.” That “not yet” took several more hours to shift to a firm “no.”
“I can handle this…”
The terrain started to mellow out a little and I knew I had Elizabeth and my crew at the Dry Fork aid station at mile 13.5. I started to run a little bit as the trail crossed a road and I saw downhill! I determined early on in this race that my mood was pretty directly tied to the elevation profile, which is not a great place to be mentally. I told my crew about my alarming struggle to begin the race, but tried not to dwell too much.
After Dry Fork, the downhill miles into Footbridge (Mile 30 aid station) gave me a chance to compose myself. I reflected a lot during this stretch about the hex I allowed my DNF to place on me. The best I can summarize my conclusion is this: It doesn’t matter if I was injured or just chose to DNF; I’m very lucky to get to choose this pain today. The fact that I get a choice of whether or not to experience pain is pretty incredible and a privilege; the least I can do is give it a shot.
As the day progressed, I found myself in awe of how beautiful and remote the course was. I never would’ve seen any of this splendor without this crazy ass race.
The final few miles into Footbridge are pretty steep and I had made up a lot of time over the previous stretch. I didn’t do any math or anything, but a quick look at my average pace showed that I was right back in the race and could even get a really solid finish time.
I arrived to Footbridge at around 5:30pm and my average pace was back down to the low 17’s per mile, so I was back in business. As I left my crew at Footbridge (Mile 30), I felt a sense of hope and realized that I was actually in the position I had originally expected. The heat and sun had been annoying the shit out of me for most of the day, so I was relieved to realize that only a few hours of sun remained in the day. For the first time in the race, I was able to divide the race up into smaller segments mentally, which was a vital adjustment.
Trekking Poles (Mile 30 to sundown):
At the aid station, I had to have Scott remind me how to use my trekking poles because I had so seldom used them. I watched other competitors for ideas on how to most efficiently use them and discovered that they were super helpful. I felt like an idiot for not having them on the initial climb, but thankfully I’d never have to do the climb again! Between the raging river, towering rock walls, & fading sun; I was starting to find some traction and even enjoy myself. *I almost forgot that I was doing the race for “fun”*
Sundown to Jaws (Mile 48):
I switched to a long sleeve shirt, gloves, and a thin winter hat to flatten the potential impact of the temperature swing. It stays light pretty late this time of year and that far north in Wyoming (within miles of Montana), so thankfully I didn’t have to log too many miles via headlamp before getting to my pacer.
I’d made it about halfway and it was time to reset! I updated my crew as I headed to the aid tent for some food. I was greeted by a friendly volunteer who asked me what I needed and gave me an brief/informal medical eval. I was offered a chair several times, but was able to keep repeating “no thanks, I just need to get out of here to my crew.” I didn’t make eye contact with anyone in the tent, but my peripheral vision picked up on lots of chairs and cots. I escaped the tent pretty quickly and was relieved to rejoin my crew out in the darkness. I heard a rumor of a fire as I walked back, but Gary and Allen’s voices blocked that thought from registering fully.
On the one hand, I was denying myself comfort; but on the other hand I had all the comfort in the world with Elizabeth, Bekah, & Matt getting me reloaded for some downhill. I switched socks, shoes, and to my hand torch instead of headlamp.
Jaws (48) to Footbridge (66):
Matt’s enthusiasm for pacing during the middle of the night was awesome. I knew it was a good size downhill back to Footbridge having just gone the other way. I was definitely behind on calories to start out, so we started out fairly slow I think. Honestly, I don’t remember a ton from this stretch; but here’s a list: the starry sky was stunning, being on the verge of vomiting, stubbing my toe on rocks, plopping in occasional mud, following a mouse with our lights down the trail, possibly stepping on another (gross), an ankle/shin deep river crossing, some laughs, a whole lot of quiet, and going to the bathroom a billion times. TMI perhaps, but my pee was completely clear and I wasn’t retaining water properly. This wasn’t a great sign, but I remember thinking it was awesome that I was even paying attention at that point.
Matt kept me moving at a reasonable pace as I worked to get my body on track with food and water. I had been dreading the impending climb out of Footbridge starting at Mile 66 for hours and hours, so I wanted to make sure I was recharged as much as possible. The night stretch took a lot out of me, but I was 2/3 of the way through!
Footbridge (66) to Dry Fork (82):
I was well aware of the steepness of the initial climb out since we stormed down the section some 36 miles earlier. Nothing is ever guaranteed at these things, but I flagged this climb as a critical threat to reaching the finish. As I sat at the aid station, I watched Matt update Elizabeth on the last stretch. My crew reloaded my pack and tried to convince me to eat. The local McDonalds supports the race and I’m not sure I’ll ever enjoy an egg McMuffin as much as I did then.
My friend Rob (a Bighorn veteran) helped me mentally prepare for the climb as we recharged to venture on. I remember him telling me it was just like Mt. Morrison, which was really helpful. I’ve never crushed Mt. Morrison exactly, but I felt like it was gonna take a lot more than that to shutdown my pursuit. I’m not sure if I really believed Rob, but his comment allowed me to shrink the hills ahead in my mind.
It was Scott’s turn to take over pacing and off we went! I planted my trekking poles evenly at my sides into the hill and tilted downward before pushing off for each step. Maybe my description is lacking, but let’s just say it was a very slow and energy conserving approach. It seemed to take forever, but it felt infinitely better than the misery I felt some 60 miles earlier on the first major climb.
Remember a few paragraphs ago when I said it was gonna take a lot more to shut me down….well, there was a lot more. I started to get really hot again, inches of dust were caked all over the trail, and new hills spontaneously appeared at every turn. I was about 2/3 of the way through and I was feeling determined to suck it up and deal with any obstacle ahead.
Scott provided encouragement and kept an eye out on our pace. I felt like I really only had one gear, so I likely turned down most of his challenges to push more. I knew Dry Fork was in a meadowy area and found myself gently closing my eyes to visualize the happiest day of my life. I thought about being in the field across from Mt. Crested Butte with Elizabeth. I thought about Archie’s goofy smile perfectly captured by our wedding photographers.
Some of this feels melodramatic as I look back, but I needed something positive. Mentally (and physically) I was just trying to hang on until Dry Fork where the promise of prolonged downhill offered hope to make up some time. I’ve referred to Bighorn as a ‘race’ throughout this write-up, but ‘endurance pursuit’ or some other term is how a mere mortal such as myself would describe it.
Dry Fork (Mile 82.5):
I was so hot, so tired, and pretty much only liquid appealed to me as the race wore on. Bekah filled my hat with ice, Elizabeth ran ice cubes on neck, and they poured me a cup of my beloved Wild Cherry Pepsi. I was feeling beat down and kept grumbling that only Pepsi sounded good. I reluctantly accepted some watermelon to try to satisfy my crew’s attempt to make me eat solid food. I was on the verge of tears as I mumbled “I just can’t fucking do it anymore.”
Thankfully my comment was ridiculously about eating watermelon rather than dropping from the race. Even at that time, I thought back on the despair I felt at mile 7 the day before and realized I would never be asked to return to that moment. I ditched my trekking poles and thought about how good it felt to accept the painful downhill during the final miles of the Georgia Death Race a few years back. I wanted the pain of finishing and I sure as hell got it!
I started to “run” a little more as a I shuffled my feet trying not to trip. Odd side note, I don’t think I tripped a single time today. Scott asked if I wanted some ultra math feedback and I said “not really, I just need to finish. I only need to know if I’m not gonna make it.” He reported back that we were starting to bank a few minutes per mile and chimed in with occasional challenges to pick it up. I was mildly worried that we were still talking about cut-off, but I wasn’t about to jet off running in response.
My left meniscus and IT band had been barking for hours and hours. I was accumulating a lot of damage already and then the arch of my left foot flared up. I attempted to exaggerate my full attention on my right foot hitting the ground to feel my left leg just a little bit less. I’m proud/thankful to say that I wasn’t taking on more mental damage though; I knew I couldn’t handle not reaching the finish at that point. It sort of worked for a bit or at least distracted me until we reached the five-mile out point!
Tongue River Trailhead to Finish:
My left leg was feeling totally wrecked as I tried to muster some more shuffling. I vaguely remember Scott confidently declaring around that point, “hey Matt, I think you’re gonna finish.” To be 100% honest, I eased up a little bit after this comment. Although, I don’t judge my effort and I know I was doing everything I could. As the terrain flattened out, I couldn’t hold back the physical pain quite as well. I knew I still had to move, but I probably lost another gear around then (I guess I already said that I only had one gear left, so…).
I continued to hobble for another mile or so before we spotted Matt on his bike. He filled us in that he dropped Elizabeth off at the finish and she was hiking up to meet us. He asked me if I wanted to tell Elizabeth anything as he biked back to her. “Sure, just tell her I’m working on it…I guess that I love her too.”
The final few miles with Elizabeth, Scott, and Matt seemed to go on forever. The road was dead flat and an odd mix of asphalt over dirt. My left leg reached an entirely new level of pain, which they tried to encourage me through. I tried to push down with my hand on my left hip and quad with each step to mute the pain just a bit. They were all excited and joking around; I was…well, probably a bit prickly.
As we entered the road into the finish at the park, I summoned some form of shuffle again. My feet were still barely getting off the ground, but I tried to drain any remaining energy out of my glutes and hamstrings.
It was over! 100 miles, 20,500 feet of gain over the course of 34 hours, 37 minutes, and 36 seconds.
Mercifully, I crossed the finish line with Elizabeth by my side and took a sharp left turn to collapse onto the grass. I had told Elizabeth that I wanted to give her a huge hug at the finish, but I got a little dizzy and went for a crash landing. I laid on my back peacefully staring up at the sky and a nearby tree. Wow, I definitely got my money’s worth. What an incredible feeling! It took a lot of belief in myself to make it, but this promptly shifted to disbelief as my body shut down.
People often ask me “Why?” or “Why run ultras?”, which I’ve asked myself countless time as well.
My best answer: “We don’t find the answers. We lose the questions.” -Zen Proverb
Thank you team!
Important Side Notes:
The race only announced moving the cutoff to 35 hours from 34 hours a couple weeks ago. I didn’t even add pace information to my race spreadsheet because I wasn’t 100% sure which number was correct as we drove up to the race. I don’t know why the cutoff changed, but I don’t know if I would’ve made it in under 34 hours. I’d like to think I could’ve gutted out a 34-hour finish if forced to, but I’ll never know. Regardless of the reason, I can honestly say that I 100% earned that buckle!
Also, it is worth noting that this year’s Bighorn was notably drier than typical. This race has a reputation for having super gnarly and deep mud, which I avoided completely given the conditions. Race day(s) was quite hot, but I was very thankful for the lack of mud. There were many parts of the course with massive sections of dried mud, which could’ve made this race a whole other beast in other years. In a bad mud year, this course could be absolutely miserable and trust me I learned a thing or two about misery on course already!
Other race notes for those interested in the race: Overall, it was an absolutely unbelievable event! The course was as rugged, wild, and remote as advertised and even more beautiful than promised. The logistics of putting on an event like this are amazing, including volunteers setting up aid stations in the middle of nowhere via horseback. The amount of support and the commitment of all the volunteers was tremendous. I’ll admit that I missed quesadillas and coffee, but I wasn’t exactly roughing it with mac n’ cheese, grilled cheese, and warm egg McMuffins. They ran out of coke and a few different things at aid stations, but always had water, Tailwind, and at least a few options. All of the volunteers were incredibly nice and in good spirits at all hours of the night.
The course markings were immaculate with an abundance of ribbons, reflectors, and glow sticks guiding the way. Navigation was never a challenge, which is all you can ask for. Solid swag bags with good tech shirt, sticker, etc. and great merch options to purchase.
My only real complaint would be the overall lack of communication and confusion from the race about important details like what time the race starts and the cut-off time. For example, course description on the race website still lists a 34-hour cut-off and I only found out about the change to 35-hours from scouring comments on the race’s Facebook page. They clearly announced 35-hours at the pre-race meeting the evening before the race and that the race started at 9am, but it was sort of stressful to not have these details clearly in place a few weeks out from the race. As far as I know, the race never sent an e-mail to runners in the weeks leading up to the race. The race website stated that the schedule was still being finalized less than two weeks from the event, which was not ideal. Anyway, I’m nitpicking for sure…I just know that my overall experience would’ve been better if the website and communication were clearer.
If you’re looking for a crazy adventure and have good trail running experience; I highly recommend this event! As you might have picked up on, this race is very challenging so be prepared for a long day (or day and a half) at the office. I’m not sure I would’ve made it through this one if I was able to draw on my prior ultra experience, so maybe not a ideal first 100. Then again, you’re gonna get worked by whatever race you choose, so just train as best as you can and go for it!
Trail running/running is a pretty simple sport, but the right gear can sand off a few rough edges. I don’t do any ambassador programs or anything currently, so just my opinions. In case anyone is curious (or I want to look back later):
Nutrition: Clif Bloks and Tailwind saved my race! Tailwind was on course, which was a huge bonus! I usually like Huma gels a lot too, but only had like 5 gels overall today. Larabars and Clif Bars were mixed in as well. The heat definitely impacted my ability to manage food. Anything remotely dry was very difficulty to accept. My stomach was very much on the edge for most of the day, but I made at least acceptable adjustments and never threw up.
“Nutrition”: Wild Cherry Pepsi, Peach-O’s, Gummi worms, etc.. Don’t overthink it and just get some sugars flowing! I think there is merit to sports nutrition products, but it is hard to get enthusiastic about eating another damn gel sometimes. Again, I really, really wanted a quesadilla! The aid stations had warm broth and mac n’ cheese to help me along the way as well.
Shoes: 1) New Balance Hierro 6’s (Mile 0.0 to 48): Best new balance shoe I’ve ever run in and fits like a glove. New Balance make trail shoes in widths, which is rare and essential for me. 2) Altra Olympus 4.0 (Mile 48 to Finish): My max-cushion heavy hitters; I gave up running in my zero-drop Altras for a lot of training to help my ankle/calves, but glad I worked these back in. The Olympus 4.0 is the best version yet as far as I’m concerned.
Insoles: My feet had been alarmingly sore in the final month plus of training, so I got a fresh pair of Currex Support STP insoles. Insoles can seem like a totally unnecessary expense, but they are pretty essential for my foot/arch type (again, sand the edges). Currex are more flexible than a Superfeet and Powerstep so work much better for me on runs. I have a backup pair of Powersteps with my crew just in case my arch really gave out, but they are almost like wearing a rigid splint. As I type this, I wonder if I should’ve used them for the final 20 miles.
Shorts/Shirt/Socks/Hats: I wore my BOA brand Colorado flag shorts for the entire race and they were amazing! For shirts, I think I used mostly Brooks brand and maybe a North Face long-sleeve or something. No need to overthink shirts for me as long as they are tech and I’ve done long runs in them without major chafing before. I used Feetures and Balega brand socks and left my value pack socks at home. I still got a ton of blisters, but I think good socks help a little at least. Adidas and Nike make nice tech hats; I wore an Adidas today.
Trekking Poles: Black Diamond Distance Z Poles (might be more technical specs). Lightweight, don’t collapse unexpectedly and fold up very nicely.
Packs: Ultimate Direction Mountain Vest (4.0?): Great pack with convenient pockets, a larger inside, and bottle on the front design. I tried a bladder design for a while last year and it was too hard for me to pay attention to my water intake. Also, refilling a bladder at aid stations always annoys me.
GPS Watch: Garmin Fenix 6…my battery last for almost 94 miles, which is pretty incredible! Great watch and I’ve pretty much only used Garmin honestly. I considered buying a Coros last time around to save some money and I’ve heard they are pretty good. I just believe in Garmin and am used to them. Side note, I could probably stand to look at my watch a little bit less during long events like this. Particularly early on, I was getting really discouraged at my pace and lack of progress. I stopped looking at it in the middle of the event though.
Lights: Nathan brand hand torch is my choice for sure! I get headaches with headlamps for too long and my light doesn’t bounce as much without my bobblehead. I think I used a Petzl headlamp for a bit and that was cool too. Also, I saw a lot of people out there with light-bars on their chests which was interesting (expensive, but maybe something to consider in the future if I need to use trekking poles more seriously during a night section).
Recovery: Oofos brand sandals/slides are pretty much the only thing I’ve been able to wear recovering over the past week. I used to make fun of these when they asked us to aggressively hawk them while I worked at the running store, but I really do love them.