“I found that when I’m ground down to a fine dust physically, my mental excitement and passion for running dwindles,” – Mike Wolfe, professional ultra runner and former Bighorn 100 record holder, quoted in “Running on Empty”
The Bighorn 100 is a classic mountain ultra race that takes place in the Bighorn Mountains of north central Wyoming. The course is an out-and-back, meaning you run roughly 48 miles out to a certain point, then turn around and re-trace your steps all the way to the beginning, and add a few miles of running down a dirt road to land you in the town park where the finish line and festivities are, as well as round out the number of miles run at exactly 100. The course is rugged and remote. The vast majority of aid stations along the route have to be packed in by horse, as there is no road access. Although it is not designated as wilderness, the areas run through are waaaay out there. And while the course profile doesn’t make it look quite as hard as many other famous mountain ultras, the roughness of the track along the way more than makes up for its apparent lack of vertical.
I found myself toeing the start line of the 2015 running of the Bighorn 100 for basically one single reason: to gain a qualifier for the Hardrock Hundred, another ultra adventure that happens to take place around my home in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado. The Bighorn 100 is one of the few races tough enough to be included on the list of qualifiers that an aspirant must complete in order to gain access to the lottery for entry into Hardrock. All that said, I was dreading the painful experience that I knew was to come, while trying to tell myself I was up for the challenge.
The race began at 11:00 am on a Friday morning in the blazing sun of the hottest day yet this year. The roughly 330 runners and their attending friends, family, crews, pacers, etc. all huddled in massive piles of humanity beneath the few shade trees near the start as the sun beat down on the dry earth around us. Nervous, bubbly anticipation coursed through just about everyone’s veins. Strategies were discussed, the plea for the race to just start already was often heard, and worries about the hot weather were frequently expressed. Eventually the time to start had come, and we all lined up and began our respective individual adventures, all in each other’s wonderful company.
There is really no need for me to give a blow-by-blow of what happened to me each mile I was out there. My plan was simple: go very slow, as easy as I could at all times, and reach the turn-around at mile 48 with plenty of energy and minus the terrible pain, allowing me to continue on to the finish. All aspirations of competing in any way were thrown out the window, as were preconditioned notions of how I should or shouldn’t be doing at any given moment in the race. All I wanted was to go slow enough so that I could sustain myself to the finish. I intended to run the slowest 50 mile time I had ever run with the belief that if I did so I would feel better than I usually do after 50 miles, and be able to carry on. I planned to do this by not running all that much, in fact I planned to walk a large percentage of the way, and only run when the terrain was flat or downhill.
As we climbed up the first major climb out of the Tongue river canyon, I walked along, content to stare at the insane bounty of limestone cliffs that surrounded me in every direction, and of course I felt good traveling so lightly and easily. Coming into the first major crew point at Dry Fork, mile 13.5, I had barely run five miles to that point and felt pretty much fine, although it was hot and there was no tree cover, leaving everyone exposed to the brutal sun. Everything was going exactly to plan, so I carried on.
For the next 18 or so miles I jogged as easily as I could, wasting no energy on anything. Even the slightest uphill bump, even if it only took one single step to overcome, I would stop jogging and walk. The terrain was continuously rolling, so that I would jog for about 20 seconds, then walk for a minute, and repeat endlessly. We crossed countless streams that I would stop to dip my hat in, watering my body in coolness to preserve its freshness. I found myself in the company of a group of roughly five other runners. We would pass each other back and forth endlessly as one would stop to pee, one would run a hill where another walked, one was slightly faster on downhills, etc. and the company was nice. I was enjoying myself and sticking to the plan – patience, go easy, be happy.
All day I would repeat mantras to myself in order to stay in the right mind space for the effort. I usually do this every time I run, in order to drown out my thoughts and shift my awareness to the present moment. Sometimes when I talk to people about ultra-running they say, “You must have so many interesting thoughts while you are out running that long.” Personally, I do my best to have no thoughts at all. When it works best I can cruise along for hours with the rhythm of my body and running cadence perfectly in time with the mantra I am chanting in my head. At times like these I am often shocked by how much time passes so quickly. In these moments, thoughts will indeed eventually pop up in my mind. But I find they are usually the pearls of wisdom that I need in my life at that moment, cosmic inspiration if you will, and this way of “intuitive thinking” seems to serve me much better than spending my runs attempting to puzzle out my problems in a logical manner.
The reason why slipping into a deep meditation on long runs is important to me, especially, is that after a lot of miles my body really starts to hurt, and with the pain come loops of negative thoughts. Ironman Triathlete Mark Allen referred to this situation by saying, “no thoughts are better than negative ones.” I strive to empty my mind of thoughts well in advance of the pain, so when it does come I am already in a good groove of meditative movement. The idea is that the pain will come, but that doesn’t mean I need to react to it. All I have to do is roll with it till the race is over, and then it will eventually subside.
But for this run, the Bighorn 100, I started the day afraid of the pain. Most of my fear came from my last race merely three weeks previous, the Jemez 50 mile, where I was severely humbled by a very big dose of the pain cave. The experience was fresh on my mind. I had gone into that race lacking that necessary preparation, and I had the sneaking suspicion I was also setting myself up for another big dose during this 100. I did my best to prepare myself psychologically – by knowing it was coming, putting my mental focus on the correct perspectives for the experience, and by meditating.
Coming down the large hill into the Footbridge aid station at mile 30, a feature termed “the wall” as it is the steepest hill on the course, I had been following my plan and still felt good. But I wanted to run, rather than just slowly pick my way down the hill. Running is fun; always telling myself to not run was getting old. Just as I convinced myself to open up the legs a bit and have some fun, the women’s leader at that time, who was right behind me with a group of other guys, let us all know that she was going to take it easy to save her quads for later in the race, and go slow down the wall (she eventually dropped). I took this as smart advice, a reminder to take it easy as well, so I did, and just picked my way down slowly and easily, just like the rest of the course.
After being resupplied by Elizabeth at the Footbridge I now faced an 18 mile uphill to the turn-around point at the Jaws aid station, mile 48. I was exactly on pace, the slow pace I had set for myself to succeed, and so felt good. The course followed the Little Bighorn River, which streamed by next to us in the canyon, and the evening light on the peaks and meadows that surrounded us was sublime. I was still in the company of the same friends, mostly from Montana, that I had met today and been running with on and off for over 30 miles. Jog for a minute, walk for another, jog a couple more, walk a few more, on it went.
The earlier chatter within the group was largely subsiding, as we were all growing tired, and night was approaching. I was eager to reach the turn-around and be past the halfway point, but time started to really speed up, or we all started to really slow down. “Where is the aid station?” “What mile are we at?” The runners with GPS watches behind me were growing as weary of the never ending uphill as I was, and kept trying to figure out how far we had to go. I knew that wouldn’t help, and just trudged onwards.
The aid stations seemingly never came when we expected them to. Time kept passing and night was approaching. I was losing ground on my planned pace. Even though I had been going slower than I ever had, it wasn’t leaving me with a bounty of energy, I felt just as tired as I usually do at 40 miles. But more disturbing to me was the fact that the pain was mounting. Despite feeling good all day, suddenly I seemed to hit a wall and everything hurt. My hip flexors and glutes especially, but also my knees and ankles were throbbing. My lower back stiffened up, as did my neck. I assessed my nutrition, but I had been forcing down food all day, drinking a ton, peeing as much as I needed to. There didn’t seem to be any holes in my strategy, except that my body was slowly failing anyway.
As night came and I had to pull out my headlamp all of my new friends were gone ahead of me. I was left stumbling along, the pain growing all the time, everything growing so tight I could hardly move. Running was out of the question, I was struggling to keep walking. Inexplicably my plan hadn’t worked at all. Despite going easier than ever, I was in just as much pain and was quickly growing unable to keep going. Finally, shivering and distressed, I walked my way into the 48 mile turn-around point after 11.5 hours of movement.
I knew the moment I arrived that I was going to drop. I had a plan in place to avoid this exact situation from happening, but it hadn’t worked at all. I ran slower and easier than I ever had for this distance and felt just as awful as the worst times. There was no way I was going to stagger back out into the night and destroy my body so badly that I might not be able to recover. It simply wasn’t worth it. Although I was sad that my day was over and I had failed again to run 100 miles, it was the easiest decision to drop I have yet experienced. I stayed in the tent awhile eating soup and bacon, chatting with Elizabeth and watching other runners in varying states of dismemberment, warmed up by the heater, washed the mud off my legs and feet, and then went back to the van and went to sleep for the night.
A few days later I still have no regrets. I have had a lot of time to think about my decision and what it means, and am whole-heartedly happy that I made the choice that I did.
I have friends (whom I admire) that have gutted out tough 100 mile finishes who would tell me (and have before) that of course its going to be super painful, of course you’re going to want to quit, but in order to finish you just have to will yourself on, never giving up till you are done. The broken bodies I saw stagger down the street and across the finish line in the park the next morning seemed to attest to this fact, something I knew before I started. But I know what toll it would have taken to finish, and I know how badly wrecked I would have been. And while some may see overcoming that as the point of the whole 100 mile endeavor, for me it would be a failure to ignore the signs it was telling me.
For me, the only way running is a positive influence in my life is if it leads to greater health and growth both physically and as a human being and makes me happier in the process. I know that finishing would have severely impacted my physical health, and that alone made going on not worth it. But I also am not sure what the gain for my psychological health could have possibly been? As I see it, 100 miles is not about running, its about suffering. A very select few people are capable of running for 100 miles the way that I wish that I could, but for most people 100 mile races are actually more like long walks than long runs. Long walking sufferfests.
Some people need to prove to themselves (or others) that they are capable of mind over matter, that they can will themselves through the physical pain, and that overcoming the natural desire to quit is worth the damage incured. For me there was nothing to be gained by proving I have the willpower to physically destroy myself. Will power is an incredibly useful skill to cultivate, but only if used within the natural flow of life. I spent a number of years of my life struggling against all outside pressures or perspectives and willing myself into the material comforts that I wanted. But to do so I fought relentlessly against the natural flow, and in the end it cost me some very valuable relationships, with a price-tag far larger than what I had gained.
I like to think I am capable of learning from my past mistakes, and I thought about these things as I neared the Jaws turn-around. I considered my option to exercise my willpower to go on and attempt to finish, but also had the realization that to do so might cost me far more than it was worth, like it has in the past.
Ironically I read an article on the way home called “Running on Empty,” that expressed a lot of what I was thinking about the physical costs of 100-mile races. It talks about over-training syndrome (OTS), and how it has effectively ruined an entire generation of the top ultra-runners, the large majority of which have had debilitating health problems, sometimes for years on end and totally un-diagnosable, from the physical stresses that racing hard 100 milers puts on their bodies. Some of the people described are my friends, and without doubt these professionals are the role models who the entire world of ultra-running looks up to, idolizes, and attempts to emulate.
The act of suffering a bad race but then soldiering on anyway, through unfathomable hardship and over distances that are frankly incomprehensible, for tens of hours or even days, to finish no matter what, is the most heroically lauded feat in the ultra-running world. Professional runners are often lambasted and belittled on social forums for failing to perform this heroic act which many claim is the essence of ultra-running, and it is not uncommon to hear runners around a start or finish line bragging about how they have never had a DNF. Sadly, I feel this is the most misguided of notions, and attempting to live up to this false standard does a dis-service to the lives and efforts of the amazing people who practice this sport.
Jeremy Humphries, the race director of the IMTUF 100, which I attempted last fall but ended up dropping from at mile 87, told me afterwards that a person only gets a couple of “death-marches” in his/her life before it eats them up. He cited examples of numerous runners he knew who underwent crazy depletion to finish 100 mile races that he said were never the same runners afterwards. The article listed above cites countless more examples of top runners who have exhausted themselves and never felt the same again. Frankly, I think that the heroic 100 mile, finish-no-matter-what, mind-over-matter death march does indeed have potentially severe health consequences.
But, I’m not going to say that 100 mile races are bad. Or that there aren’t people out there who can run them every weekend and still feel fine (there are). Or that I will never attempt one again (I might). What I’m saying is that for me, right now, they are not fun. Running is one of the things I enjoy the most in this life, and I want it to stay that way. Every time I go running I have fun, it makes me feel so good that I can’t really describe it. Except when I’m in horrible pain attempting to run 100 miles. So why subject myself to it? Maybe I simply need to be willing to accept that there are races in the world that are incredibly badass, the finishers of which I think are badass and totally respect, but which I will never compete in. I eventually learned the same lesson from climbing, after many years, that I simply wasn’t going to climb everything badass in the world, and that’s simply ok. I can’t run every rad race, and that’s ok too. At least for now, I’m going to focus on the distances that are fun.
I don’t really know whether I was simply not prepared (likely), or if my body just can’t handle running more than 50 miles (quite possibly). I don’t know if it really matters. All I know is that running makes me feel happy and free, that I am blessed to be able to run up and down mountains and through beautiful and hard to reach places. I like running fast, and I like feeling free. But for me, right now, 100 mile races are neither. Maybe one day I will run Hardrock and UTMB, but maybe they will be on my own time, broken up into smaller pieces. Or maybe I simply need a few more years of running until I’m ready. Who knows? All I know is that if I don’t enjoy it, and don’t feel as if I need to prove anything to myself, then why do it? I got to see 48 miles of beautiful wilderness, most of which was while having fun, and I am happy about that. And so now I will focus on shorter efforts and doing what I enjoy, with no regrets! One Love!