Friday, July 3, 2015

Bighorn 52 Mile: Running Happy and Content In The Shining Mountains

The first sublime miles of the Bighorn 52
When I ran my first ultra at Holiday Lake in 2002, my children were 9, 7, and 4. Over the years my ultra career mirrored the ebbs and flows of their lives, and our life as a family. The "early" years were somewhat easy, in that the kids had not quite gotten into travel athletics or other activities that would demand my attendance each and every weekend. I actually did fairly well during these years and even won a race or two! Later, especially as our older son took to travel lacrosse and our younger kids got into summer swim team, I went to fewer races, and almost never in the spring and summer months. This was a win-win for all of us, as I loved watching my children thrive in their chosen endeavors, and in return I found myself feeling fresh and chomping at the bit to race once the cooler fall weather arrived. More often than not, I was able to steadily improve my races times at both Mountain Masochist 50 and Hellgate 100k for about six years...that is, until 2014.

For a variety of reasons, my performances at both Masochist and Hellgate in 2014 were disappointing. I came into Masochist a bit under-trained after dealing with a late summer piriformis injury, and at Hellgate, I totally screwed up with a variety of rookie mistakes. I was discouraged and often wondered if my "best" years were behind me. As 2015 arrived, I looked forward to my first summer ultra in years: the Bighorn 52. I needed a new challenge, a new-to-me race. But most importantly, I wanted to run a race and feel like I did  in "the old days" -- when I ran smart, was injury-free, and was well-prepared. So, after recovering from a late winter calf strain, I plunged into a 12-week training cycle that incorporated a few new workouts and a renewed emphasis on strength and heat acclimation (since running in the heat is a huge weakness of mine). I also worked hard on my technical downhill running (another huge weakness, one that gets harder to improve with age!).

The VHTRC gang just before the 52 mile start. It was cold!

 The entire race is on beautiful, runnable, rocky single track in the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming (called the "Shining Mountains" by the Sioux-- I love that!). The 52 mile race started at 6:00am on Saturday, the day after the 100 milers started, to maximize finishing together on Saturday afternoon. The weather was cold (40s) at the start and warmed up nicely throughout the day, until it felt oppressively hot with the late afternoon sun beating down into the canyons. Once in awhile we had some dirt roads and double track to rest our minds and be brain dead for just a moment...but for the 12 hours that I was running, I was forced to focus my energy on navigating the twisty, grass-covered, muddy, narrow single track trail that wound itself from 8800 feet at the 100-miler turnaround to the finish line at 4000 feet along the Tongue River. My finishing time of 11:59 was my slowest 50+ mile time ever, but I feel incredibly proud of how I prepared for, trained, and executed on race day.

The Dryfork Aid Station, mile 13/83 for the 100 and mile 34 for the 52

My previous blog post outlined my Bighorn training cycle, and looking back post-race, I wouldn't have changed much of anything. My time in the sauna prepared me well for the heat, which was a good thing given that the temps were among the hottest in race history (high 80s and low 90s). I was not drastically affected by the altitude, except during the highest pitches of the three short climbs we had (I wish there had been more climbing, to be honest!). And I had practiced racing hard on technical downhill in a few trail 5Ks as well as running downhill hard during hill repeats. I also spent a good amount of time in the gym working on core, glute, quad, and hip flexor strength. As a result, I had very little quad soreness during and post-race. Hmmm...that makes me think I could have pushed the downhill pace more, but until I feel more confident with my technical downhill turnover, it is what it is!

I was very happy with my nutrition. I made a concerted effort to take in about 240 calories an hour, and this came in the form of Perpetuem Cafe Latte, EFS shots, Hammergel, Clif Shot Bloks, and Justins Almond Butter. I took nothing from the aid stations except water and the contents of my drop bags I carried my Ultraspire hydration pack and used a handheld bottle drinking to thirst, and felt good all day long, with the only time I had a rough patch was when I was baking in the heat of the Tongue River canyon around 5:00pm at about mile 47. Here the final 5-mile gravel road section (finally!) meets the end of the technical trail, and for me, this road could not come soon enough. I was able to pass two women who had run by me earlier to inch closer to the top-10 (which I missed by one spot--the 9th-13th place females were separated by about 6 minutes!). Many folks complain about the tedious nature of this flat road, but I loved stretching my legs out and seeing how hard I could work in the final miles.I think I was able to lay down a few sub-8:00 miles. Woop!

Feeling good at the Bighorn 52 finish line

 As good as I felt throughout the race, Bighorn was definitely harder for me than the Hellgate 100K. Once out of the comfy surroundings of my local ultra communities and familiar trails, I had to adjust to bigger mountains, less oxygen, tougher terrain, and more competition. There were women in front of me and behind me all day long, so we were constantly jockeying for position and very much aware of one another, which was mentally draining --- but I  very much enjoyed competing with so many more women than I see in our races back East! The downhill trail forced me to run and there very few opportunities to climb and re-group, which I always enjoy and look forward to. The terrain was ever-changing and always challenging to navigate, and the heat and altitude made it harder for someone like me who runs well in sub-freezing weather and conditions. In short, the Bighorn 52 kicked my butt and was exactly the challenge I had been seeking.

 As I came into the finish area, I immediately saw Annie (who had dropped from the 100 earlier in the day). I started to weep ---tears of sadness for her disappointing race as well as tears of relief that my race was over and that I could sit down!  As soon as I finished and was off my feet, I talked to Annie and cooled off my legs in the Tongue River. She was characteristically upbeat and philosophical about her tough day, but I could tell she was really hurting inside. It is hard to train 3 months with a friend, and know how hard they worked to get to the start line, only to have the race blow up in a matter of hours. When we come back out to Bighorn, Annie has unfinished business to attend to, and I know she will take care of it!

The VHTRC had a huge group representing in the 100, 52, 50K and 18 mile Bighorn races, and it was a blast sharing the trail together, crewing for one another, and spending time together throughout the weekend. These various race distances, along with the very low key, "old school" vibe and community enthusiasm for the event, make Bighorn a perfect destination ultra for groups of friends, non-runner spouses, and families with children. My hubby rented a mountain bike at the Billings Spoke Shop and was able to ride on parts of the course with Annie's husband, Jimmy. Annie's three children were able to play non-stop for hours at the finish line park, and our VHTRC crew celebrated our races and the Summer Solstice until dusk on Saturday evening, sharing cold beverages and enjoying the post-race cook-out. On Sunday morning, we gathered again in Sheridan for a pancake breakfast awards ceremony before saying farewell and heading to points north and west: Cody, Yellowstone, Glacier, Tetons, and beyond. Bighorn is a perfect summer vacation race!

Annie and I were thrilled to represent Crozet Running in Wyoming!
 I absolutely loved running in the beautiful Bighorn Mountains. It reminded me of the Dolly Sods Wilderness in West Virginia, only with 8,000 foot mountains on either side. The event was incredibly well-run given the sheer numbers of runners, family, and crew (over 1,000 total) in the small town of Dayton, and the volunteers were terrific---very helpful at aid stations and sincerely interested in making it an unforgettable race weekend. When it was all over, as we were driving west towards Cody and Yellowstone for some rest and relaxation on Sunday afternoon, I kept asking my husband, "How much fun was that?" We were both on a huge post-race high.

Around mile 22...I took photos all day long

 A few days before leaving for Wyoming, I had read a race report from the San Diego 100 beautifully written by John Trent. John is in his early 50s (like me) and he has been in the sport a bit longer than I. And, like me, he considers Scotty Mills, the RD for San Diego, one of his mentors. Scotty is a longtime VHTRC member and leader. He was the RD for the Bull Run Run 50 for many years and one of the first people I met when I was an ultra newbie. He was, in fact, the same age that I am right now (52) when I started running ultras, and he helped me immensely at Promise Land 50K and at The Ring (where he ran over Kern's Mountain with me and gave me tips on how to run over the Massanutten rocks). In short, Scotty took the time to show me the ropes, encourage me, and teach me a few things about running ultras that I have used over and over in the years since. As I have gotten older (and slower), I have thought a lot about the lessons I have learned as an ultrarunner, about the person I am now compared to that newbie in 2002, and how I will adjust to aging and the inevitable decline in speed and agility. So, I found it serendipitous when I came upon John's reflections on his ultra career and read about his own reverence for Scotty Mills.

In John's San Diego report, he reflected on the runner he was eight years ago, before a knee injury sidelined him. He wrote, "Make no mistake, though. I like the runner I am now. The runner I am now is more helpful, more concerned for others and less worried about himself. The runner I am now takes time to hug and to listen. The runner I am now tries to contribute to our community. The runner I am now, I think, has taken memory and made it plural, collecting and sharing it with others...if anything, the past eight years has taught me that the simple act of running is a miraculous thing, a gift really, and to take it for granted or cloud it with too harsh judgments or negative thoughts based on placing or finish time is simply a fool's errand. And so I run today, happy and content with who I've become as a runner, and as a person."

This is a beautifully written meditation on the trans-formative nature of our sport. Ultrarunning has the power to simply make us better -- better people, partners, friends, mothers, fathers. Knowing this inspires me as I look forward to what the years ahead offer. I read John's words many times before heading to Bighorn, and decided that my mantras on race day would be, "take time to listen" and  "run happy and content."

And, I did.

Coming up: Daring Greatly At The Big Dance