Saturday, July 2, 2016

Bighorn Mountain Wild and Scenic Trail Run 50k

The ridge behind us was the first six miles of a beautiful course
Photo credit Rob Finley
Wyoming is one of the last states bordering Colorado that I needed to run on my way to running a marathon in all 50 states. Perhaps it was being around enough of Boulder’s ultra trail-running crowd or my wife’s encouragement, but I decided that my Wyoming “marathon” would be a trail ultra. While Alita actually found the Bighorn races, my decision to go for this one was solidified by some glowing reviews of the race by fellow Boulder runners.


Since I felt I knew marathon training reasonably well and a 50k was only five miles longer, I decided to follow my usual marathon training approach of 50 – 70 miles a week with long runs starting around 1h 45m and progressing to 2h 30m – 3hrs. I started the long runs in February and was able to get in one 20-miler. I would have preferred to do one or two more (20 milers) but the Bolder Boulder and Army drills precluded that. I also got in 3 – 4 decent speedworks with the Boulder Track Club most months. Once the trails were clear and somewhat dry I added two to three hour-long runs per weeks featuring about a 1,000 feet of elevation gain. My favorite loop for this is the SkunkCanyon – Mesa Trail – Bear Canyon Loop. This was actually a pretty reasonable approximation of course conditions to boot.

Lodging & Packet Pick-up

The packet pick-up was efficient and the staff there was very helpful. Aside from the usual fliers for other races I was pleased to see a nice cotton t-shirt and some electrolyte tablets. My friend and I went into town to pick up our free water bottle and then went to get dinner.

Sheridan is the nearest town of appreciable size and has plenty of good lodging options if you are not up for camping. When I was planning the race we were still thinking of taking the family and so we opted to stay at the Holiday  Lodge Motel. A nice bonus of this place was that it was within walking distance of the pre-race official pasta dinner – a decent $12 all-you-could eat pasta and pizza buffet at Ole Pizza.

From our hotel there was a nice bikepath along the river. My friend and I used this for a short shakedown run to loosen our legs after the six-hour drive from Boulder. There was a massive mayfly hatch happening which kinda made we wish I had brought a rod.

Race-day logistics

I would recommend getting a bus ticket from the Dayton Community Center. Since I was either going solo or not going to make my family share my wee-hours-of-the-morning fun this was a good deal for me. We drove to the community center in Dayton (about 30 min from Sheridan) and got on the buses with about 5 – 10 minutes to spare. The drive to the start at Dry Fork was a beautiful winding uphill road that forecasted the quad-pounding downhills that we would be enduring.


It was around 60 °F at the start but the forecast was calling for things to crack 90 °F. My train-up constraints (and personal preferences) had put most of my training in the morning and I was worried about the heat. I decided to go against conventional wisdom and try some electrolyte tablets that came in the race packet for the first time on race-day (which turned out to be a good call). From having run in Colorado I knew the high desert summer could make it hard to appreciate how much you had sweated and lost in salts.

The 50k course started with a 500-ft / mile climb which I planned to take easy. I would push on the ridgeline and then try to survive the descent back into the valley. From there I hoped to use my strength in hill climbing after the dry fork aid station. Then I would once again try to survive the even longer downhill. The last 5 miles were on a comparably level dirt road which I planned to reserve enough energy to make a hard push on. I had trained with Gu gels which happened to be what they stocked at aid stations. I planned to have a gel at each and then maybe some salty foods in the second half. It was never more than six miles between aid stations so I decided to go with one 12-oz hand-held water bottle.

Elevation Profile from Strava
Race Description

I managed to stick fairly closely to my race strategy. The climb up to the ridgeline was non-trivial but it was early in the race and we all took things fairly easy. I was in fourth place by the time we made the top and held site of 2nd and 3rd as we went along the ridgeline. There were nice alternating patches of open meadows with beautiful views and welcomed patches of shady trees.

Photo courtesy of Rob Finley
A little before six miles we came to the first aid station. One of the volunteers asked if I had done this course before. When he learned I hadn’t he warned me of the upcoming descent. As I expected I was passed by four other runners as I navigated the descent. It was not technical (like going to down a rock-strewn boulder field) but at times the trail was spotty and sometimes across open meadow marked only by flagging. I most often got lost when a runner would pass me and I would mental relax a bit and follow them. Fortunately, none of the of “trail” adventures were too far and we eventually rejoined a service road or well-worn trails for the rest of the way.

Some typical service roads
Photo courtesy of Rob Finley
At the bottom of the first ridge we joined the course with the 50 and 100-milers. These weary souls were easy to recognize and inspiring in their determination. It put my minor aches rather in perspective. While it made it easy to loose site of my 50k competitors, the company was more than adequate compensation.

After a slow but steady uphill I made it back to the 50k (and 30k) start at Dry Fork. By this point I had caught up to three of the runners that passed me on the downhill. After some Gu, water, Gu-water and two of the four electrolyte tablets, I started on the slow ascent up the second ridge.

On the way here I got to know Dan and Monty – two of the runners who passed me on the downhill. We walked one of the steeper inclines and then Dan and Monty starting pulling away. I kept plodding along and eventually saw Dan off to the side working on a cramp. I gave him my last two electrolyte tablets and some encouragement before going on my way.

At this point I started running into some of the 30k runners. We were in the high meadows and, as promised in the course description, there were wildflowers everywhere. Somewhere around mile 18 I got the feeling that I was going to make this and maybe even finish in good form.

The much promised meadows of wildflowers
After the meadows we began our descent into the canyon. The day was bringing its full heat to bear. Perhaps all the good downhill runners who were going to pass me had already done so or maybe the previous 20 miles had taken their toll on everyone, but no one passed me the rest of the race as I made my way down the canyon. Occasionally I was able to mentally step back from the pain in my quads and appreciate what a beautiful site the canyon was.

Starting the descent
Photo credit: Rob Finley
As we got to the bottom I saw the rock arch that adorned every race shirt and many a memorabilia of the Bighorn Wilderness. This presaged the final aid station and the last five miles of dirt road. While parts of this last stretch of road were tough I found my training left me up to the task and I was able (at least mentally if not noticeably) to push the pace. At some point along the way I passed my friend Monty to move into fifth place.

The iconic rock arch
Photo credit: Rob Finley
Scott Bicentenial Park was a beautiful site. When I was waiting for my friend to finish I saw a lady scanning folks’ bibs as they came in. I never noticed her, but at that point the finish line sign was the only thing I noticed. She could have been doing jumping jacks and back flips while scanning my number and I wouldn’t have noticed.

My feet and lips were buzzing after I finished and I sat for about a half-hour recovering. The volunteers brought me various fluids and wet towels. The home stretch parallels a beautiful river and I joined several other runners in sitting down in it. It was the perfect depth and temperature.

Aid stations

Aid Station Distances and Elevation Gain from my watch & Garmin Connect
The aid station volunteers and aid stations themselves were great. All of the volunteers were encouraging and imparted great energy to all the runners as they went through. The aid stations that were near the river had pitchers of river water that they would dump on you (fortunately they were held by volunteers or I probably would have accidentally filled my water bottle with one of them). While I went for the Gu, Gu-drink and salty chips there was a nice assortment of fruit (grapes, water mellon and oranges) as well as sweets.

For the course rules I had been worried about missing a check-in, but the volunteers were great about catching your number as you went through.


There was a nice standard fare of picnic food with hamburgers, hot dogs, potato salad, cole slaw, water mellon, oranges and chips. I took my food and found a good spot in the shade to watch for my friend and the other runners. It was inspiring to see the range of 100 milers and 30k runners who competed on this hot and beautiful course.

When my friend finished we took the race shuttle back to our vehicles at the community center. It was still open and we were able to use the showers before getting on the road. Definitely bring some shower gear.

Parting Thoughts

It was a challenging and beautiful course and one that I would recommend to anyone looking to do their first ultra. A marathon training program prepared me well although a bit more training on technical descents would have served me well.

16 states down, 34 to go.

Map courtesy of EPG soft