2009 Big Horn 50k

JUNE 20, 2009: First Ultra

Bid me run, and I will strive with things impossible. –Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

My first ultramarathon was everything I thought it WOULD be, but better, and none of the horrible things I thought it COULD be. I have struggled much over the last months with how to write this story – the race was so good, and seemingly so uneventful. What is there to tell? But really, there is much more to this race than the third of a day I actually spent running. This race report really starts back in September of 2006, three months after I gave birth to Little M.

I was taking a requisite non-fiction writing class at BSU. Writing about my feelings or my bad childhood like everyone else either bored me or didn’t apply to me. I was fat and out of shape and I didn’t like it. A coming to Jesus meeting was forthcoming. Now that I was done having kids, what was I going to do with the rest of my life? This six-year phase of childbirth and nursing was about to come to an end, and then what?
I used my writing projects to help me sort out these questions, turning to what I knew and had sometimes loved, writing these words to start out one of my essays:

I’m a runner. At least that’s how I perceive myself in athletic terms. Since my sophomore year in high school, I have nurtured a love-hate relationship with running. When I’m running, I hate it. When I’m not, I love it. Lately, I have become obsessed with this conundrum. I truly aspire to be a runner, not just someone who thinks about it a lot.

Having two babies in the last five years has been a detour to my running success. I’m a slug, yet I still have the desire to be a serious runner, and I am slowly getting back into it. But to some extent, running is my fantasy – I do a lot of running in my dreams. Still, I had to begin somewhere. In order not to shock my system with too much exercise right off the bat, I started with the mild step of reading about running. In doing so, I discovered ultramarathoning.

And that’s how it started. With Dean Karnazes’ Ultramarathon Man and Pam Reed’s The Extra Mile. The reality was the elephant in the room, though. You wanna’ be a runner, lady? THEN YOU HAVE TO RUN! And so my ultra journey began.

Map of Big Horn Wild and Scenic Trail Run 50k (~31-32 miles):

The race start, complete with flag and the National Anthem:

See you in 30 miles!

The race started right out with a crazy climb that lasted about a mile to the ridgeline. As you can see, I started right in the back, just ahead of the people who started out walking. Most of us were soon hiking.
Somewhere around mile five or six before dropping down into the Kearns Cow Camp aid station in the valley. Thanks to Laurel of New Hampshire for taking this picture of me and for pacing with me those first six or seven miles.

On top of the world.

Loved this gnarly trail section at mile 7 or so dropping down into the first aid station.

Mile 9, Kearns Cow Camp AS: Looking back at the aid station, famous for its bacon on the grill, as I was leaving with a handful of potato chips and best wishes on the six mile climb back out of the canyon up to the start of the race.

At the tail-end of the six-mile climb back up into the start area after the first 14-mile loop.

Mile 14, Head of Dry Fork: As I came into the main aid station after completing the first 14-mile loop three and a half hours later, I asked my dad and John for the extra socks out of my drop bag. They both looked at each other. Do you have her bag? No, didn’t you get it? Turns out, they had been back up to the van, but they had both forgotten to grab my drop bag – they HAD gotten themselves snacks and changes of shoes and socks, however. Hahaha. Good thing I wasn’t really desperate for anything in there. I had some bandaids in my Camelbak which I put on my big toes in what turned out to be a futile attempt to prevent blisters under my callouses, refilled my Camelbak with water, took a potty break, grabbed some snacks, and I was back on my way, into the wild unknown of the next ~18 miles.

Along the run, I talked to a number of people who said this was their first ultra. I also talked to a few people who were more experienced – as I left the Dry Creek AS, I took a break from running up the hill out of the station to walk with a couple of “seasoned” ultra-men. After learning where I was from, they suggested that I come up to their neck of the woods to run Le Grizz 50, near Kalispell, MT. About the easiest 50 you’ll ever find, they promised. Hmmmm, seriously considering it. 🙂 Turns out, my dad DID do this one, running a very impressive 10:22 in 0 degree temperatures on October 11, 2009. It’s on my list for next year…

Here is the road leading UP out of the 14 mile Dry Creek aid station:

I think this was about 18-20 miles or so, just before the big descent into the Tongue River river bottom. A nice man offered to take this picture of me. You could not have asked for a nicer day. The skies were clear and the temperatures were moderate (a little hot at the end down in the canyon). One of the most spectacular days imaginable in a race where one of the hallmarks are the scenic vistas.

Not too long after that picture was taken, coming down from Upper Sheep Creek (Mile 19) to Lower Sheep Creek (Mile 24), I gave up all hope of completing under my pre-race goal eight hours. I gave that time up as completely unrealistic and unattainable. My pace slowed to a stutter. I was doing 20-25 minute miles going DOWN! On a descent of at least 15% grade, it was all I could do to keep my legs moving one in front of the other. There weren’t too many people around me through this section. Well, I should say that I did see a number of other people, but my encounters were brief as they careened past me like I was standing still. I was actually catching up to one other person, an older man who was in about the same boat as I was. At the point where he was about 20 feet below me, his legs failed him and he took a nasty, dust-boiling fall. I got to him as fast as I could, which took about an eternity considering how my legs were failing me also, and he had managed to stand up by the time I reached him. Luckily he was fine, and I kept going ahead of him, slightly comforted by the fact that I wasn’t the worst off of all people on this blasted mountain.
Mile 24, Lower Sheep Creek AS: I was never so happy to come in contact with other human beings as I was at the moment in time when I spotted pieces of color through the trees and heard cowbells and cheering voices as I neared the Lower Sheep Creek aid station. When I actually ran into the station and realized the cheering was for me, I nearly had a breakdown. I was so relieved that I had made it down those miles of descent, I was on the verge of tears. But I willed myself to pull it together. People who run aid stations at ultras are literally like angels. They are selfless, happy to see you, incredibly helpful, supportive, encouraging, and they tell you that you can keep going even when you doubt the veracity of their words. I handed my Camelbak to a guy right when I walked in and went to peruse the food they had laid out on a tarp. I decided that I could live without food at the moment – nothing really sounded good – and I had a GU packet that I decided to down instead. The lovely people there advised me to soak my bandanna in the river crossing just beyond the aid station, because I was at nearly the lowest point in the course now, and it would be hot heading into the canyon just above the river. There weren’t any spots to actually access the river except for that point right there at the aid station. Even though I had been using my bandanna as a hankie for most of the race, I heeded their advice, knowing they knew a lot more than I did. I washed out the bandanna in the river and tied it around my neck. Ahhhh, heaven!
This was the view coming down into the river bottom.

Leaving the Lower Sheep Creek aid station, I realized that I felt completely rejuvenated. After the terrible lows I had felt the previous five miles, I now felt 100 percent better. I had cold water on the bandana around my neck, I had been cheered into the aid station like I was the only runner on the course, I had been informed that there were only about 7.5 miles left in the race – what! in my addled brain, I thought there were, like, at least twice that! – and that horrible downhill section was over. I could do this!
Mile 26, Tongue River AS: I wandered into the food tent looking bewildered. The girl behind the table asked me what sounded good. I don’t even know, I replied. Watermelon, she said. Watermelon with salt. That’s what they are eating right now. Apparently I looked like a “they” because she salted up two slices of juicy watermelon and handed me one for each hand, sending me on my way. I was dubious, but figured she knew more than I at that point, so I headed out, slurping down the salty melon.

Rolling out of the Tongue River aid station at 6:55 (or so) on the race clock, with approximately five miles to go, I realized that maybe, just maybe, I DID have a chance to come in under eight hours. For me to do it, though, I definitely could NOT just walk it in. I’d have to give those five miles everything I had. At this point averaging a 12 min/mile pace felt like a 7 min/mile pace on fresh legs. I told myself I had to run five miles in an hour. That’s it – just one more hour. I truly didn’t know if I would make it, but I had tentative hope. At least it was plausible.

The salty watermelon wasn’t half bad. Eating something juicy and cold was pure heaven at that point. I knew I had a tough five miles left to go, and I still needed a lot of fuel, fluids, and salt to keep me going. Up until this point, the course had traveled mainly on forest service roads, ATV roads, and single track trail. Now we were getting close to Dayton, and this was where we met up with civilization. The last five miles was essentially a hot, dusty, straight shot to the finish, and we had to contend with cars to boot.

The next three miles were all about patience. And putting one foot in front of the other. And getting passed by guys who started two hours earlier than I did and literally sprinted past me on their way to finishing 50 MILES, not kilometers.

Mile 29, Homestretch AS: This aid station was like an oasis in the desert. The kind people asked if I wanted an Otter Pop, and I practically said “DUH!” It tasted really good at first, when it was all frozen, but as it thawed, it started getting really sugary and warm and didn’t taste good whatsoever. But it really hit the spot for a few minutes. From my obsessive pre-race map studying, I wanted to think that the Homestretch aid station was only about two or three miles from the finish, but I would not believe it until I heard it. For the second time that day, I was surprised and relieved to learn that I had fewer miles to go than I had anticipated. They said there were only 1.8 miles to the finish! Aaaaagh. I could “smell the barn,” as the ultrarunners say.

However, the road just kept going and going. It was seemingly interminable, just folding out in front of me like a never-ending dusty treadmill. I willed myself to keep running at a good clip, allowing for walk breaks through shady spots, and whenever I’d run enough that I felt a walk was warranted. The last five miles of the race basically looked like this:

Shortly past that last aid station, I caught up with a guy who was walking, looking like he was in no hurry to finish. His running was done. As I passed I said, Come on! Let’s go… He was like, You want me to run? I said YES, we’re too close to the finish to slow down now! Come on!

I was grasping at straws. I felt that if I motivated this guy, I would not be so focused on my own pain. He reluctantly started running. We talked a bit – I found out he was from Alberta, CA, and that this was his first 50k too. I pushed the pace, glad that I was not doing this all by myself anymore. Finally, he said he was done. He needed to walk. With about a half-mile to go, I left him behind and kicked it in, running solo to the finish, blowing past this walker who had toasted me on that killer downhill section between miles 21-26.

As I rounded the corner into the park entrance, I was greeted by John taking my picture. He snapped a few of me, and then turned to run to the finish. “RUN” I hollered at the top of my lungs. I could have beat him too, if I could have taken the same shortcut he did. 🙂 John said he knew I was feeling good because I had enough energy to yell at him and joke even as I was still finishing.

He was right. I had an awesome race. My execution of my first trail ultra left nothing to be desired. I had set the perfect goal – challenging enough so that I would have to push to achieve it, but not one that was so challenging I would never have a chance at it, leaving myself without any goal and mentally defeated when the unrealistic time came and went.

You don’t know what your body is capable of until you test it, said Nikki Kimball on her rocky 5th-place finish at the Western States 100 this year. (It was the first 100-miler she entered that she did not win.) And after 7 hours, 55 minutes, and 24 seconds of hiking and running, covering some of the most beautiful country on this planet, I knew what I was capable of on that day.

I remember finishing through a giant cloud of greasy smoke from the hamburger BBQ right by the finishing chute, which you can’t really see in these pictures, but it was there, and it made me want to hurl. But nothing could dampen the sense of satisfaction I felt at that time. To this day, I have no regrets about this race. There’s only one first, and what an unforgettable first it was.

As you can see from this picture, I was finding it hard to stand.
But I forced myself to not collapse on the ground and lay there comatose for the rest of the day as I felt inclined. Instead, I made my way over to the riverbank a few feet from the finish to soak my toasted feet.
That was like heaven on earth right there, and it revived me a little bit.

At one point a while after the race, I was talking to a couple of people, and I’m sure they were nice people and very interesting, but I had to excuse myself because the world was getting dark and warm and narrow, and I couldn’t stand up straight for fear of passing out right then and there. Doubled over, I staggered over to one picnic spot and laid down flat in the cool grass while the spinning stopped and the blood flow returned to my head. It was probably 45 minutes to an hour after the race before I could eat anything, and then only in small increments. But I knew I needed to keep the fuel and liquid coming in. I forced myself to get through some of the pasta salad and hamburger from the post-race picnic.

I had no regrets about the race in general, but I do actually have one little regret – that I was so self-consumed after the race with all my nausea and lightheadedness, I did not remember to go over and watch for and cheer for Laurel from New Hampshire as she finished. I noticed later that she finished in around 9:18, a great time, considering she had only run one marathon, back in 2005, and this was her first 50k also, at age 52. Good job Laurel. I’m sorry I didn’t come and run you in like I had wanted to!

To quote a line from a writer in Ultrarunner magazine: Fast and short is for the birds. I’m hooked on ultras or at least wild and scenic trails.Amen, sista’. For me, once you go trails, you never go back. My first ultra was everything I could have asked for or expected, but 100 times better. The people were nicer, the views grander, my mentality stronger, my time faster, the downhills more painful… Here’s a list of stuff I perceived as remarkable from the race:

  • I never once fell, even though I did witness other people fall.
  • I ran strong to the finish.
  • The stunning views from the top of the world.
  • Running 30+ miles through some of the most beautiful of God’s creation.
  • The blisters under the calluses on my toes.
  • Amazingly friendly, helpful, encouraging, decisive, and efficient aid station volunteers.
  • The ultrarunning community. Ultrarunning is a sport where the slow-packers can mingle with and absorb vibe and wisdom from the fast dudes, super-experienced runners, and even the elites.
  • I got passed by some speedy 50-milers in the last five miles (the 50-milers had started two hours and 18 miles ahead of the 50k-ers), and probably before that, but those last five miles is where it became painfully evident.

From being involved in the ultra community through the Ultra List email group for almost three years, I have heard from many runners that ultrarunning is unique and special because of the people. So it was not surprising to find out at Big Horn that this was so true.

One of the highlights of the entire race was meeting the Heaphys, a beautiful couple from NW Montana who were down to use the Big Horn 50k and 50M as a training run for the Hardrock 100, possibly the toughest 100 miler out there – run July 11 -12, 2009. The Heaphys are ultrarunners extraordinaire, having finished the Hardrock 100 ~10 times each, and of course a zillion other impressive ultras. Margaret was running the 50k race on a bum knee as an easy training run to test out how her knee would hold up for Hardrock, and I led her for about half the race, but once we got to the five mile descent from the top of the mountains down into the river bottom, she schooled me on the downhill running. Man. I have a lot to learn. Margaret finished a couple of minutes ahead of me, so I think I was running a little stronger on the flat section at the end, but it was on the downhill where she just blew me out of the water. Here I am at the end of the run with Margaret, a true class act.

From an email by Mark Heaphy to my dad post-Hardrock: Well, Margaret and I both finished Hardrock again. It was Margaret’s 9th and my 11th. Margaret’s goal has always been ten…so if she does it next year we may not do the run anymore….we’ll see. Margaret had probably the most suspenseful run of the entire field. She finished with about two minutes to spare. We ran the first twenty or so miles together and then we split up. She was very sick and vomiting. She barely made the cut-offs but toughed it out (it has always been like this for her). In order to finish under the 48 hour cut-off she had to run the last leg in the dark in a time that most of the top finishers do…and she did. Everyone was amazed. She did great and was so excited to just finish.

My essay in September of 2006 ended this way:
The ultramarathon culture is fascinating. My research has given me graphic insight into the elements necessary to train for and run ultramarathons. Here I sit, in front of the television, thinking that I want to be, that I should be out running. So why, when I can hardly muster the gusto to shuffle three miles, do I dream about running 30-plus miles? The short answer: I don’t know. Here’s what I do know: I have to start somewhere.

I start slowly. I escape the house without my kids and run three miles, winning a small victory when I can do it without walking. And it’s a treat to run alone. The extra exertion required to push a jogging stroller is amazing. Recently, I ran a 5k (3.1 mile) “race” in Boise with my son and daughter. From this experience, I determined that pushing 60 pounds of stroller and kid three miles is a really good workout, and I have a long way to go before I will be able to run 10 miles, let alone an ultramarathon.

For me, though, running an ultramarathon isn’t the goal. My mind conjures much less grandiose requirements for my body and my time. Run today, just today. Don’t think about tomorrow. Don’t even think about the next mile. Put one foot in front of the other and simply run.
So, in January of 2007, six-months postpartum, I started running. I completed a marathon in October 2008 on my 30th birthday and the Big Horn 50k two and a half years later in June of 2009. However, my ultra-journey doesn’t end here. It’s only just beginning. I knew even as I struggled to the finish that I would enter another of these, and then another. Which one would it be? I was planning even before I finished. The conclusion of that race was merely a door opening to a huge new world of personal challenge and adventure. It wasn’t really a finish line. It was a portal. It was just the beginning.


What’s next: I want to challenge any of you reading this to join me May 29, 2010 in Pocatello, Idaho for the Pocatello 50. I plan to make this my first 50-miler. The race also offers 2- or 3-person relay events that cover the same 50-mile course, with legs from 16-19 miles each. Signup starts January 1, 2010.


The Pocatello 50 was indeed the first 50 miler at which I toed the line. But it wasn’t my first finish. Read a report of the race in which I have some comments by iRunfar.com here.
Margaret Heaphy finished her 10th Hardrock a year later in 2010 (and it was Mark Heaphy’s 11th)! Wow.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *