Bighorn 100 (48)

The first climb up out of the Tongue River Canyon, and the heat, on the Bighorn 100.

The first climb up out of the Tongue River Canyon, and the heat, on the Bighorn 100.

 “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.

The awesome single track in the Tongue River Canyon.

The awesome single track in the Tongue River Canyon.

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Jemez Mountain 50

Mile 10ish of the Jemez Mountain 50 mile course. Still feeling good... Elizabeth Riley photo.

Mile 10ish of the Jemez Mountain 50 mile course. Still feeling good… Elizabeth Riley photo.

“Go toward your fears.”Dean Potter

“The essence of warriorship, or the essence of human bravery, is refusing to give up on anyone or anything.” – Chogyam Trungpa, Shambhala

After twenty miles of technical, rocky trail running at the Jemez Mountain 50 mile race in Los Alamos, New Mexico, this past Memorial Day weekend, I realized that this race was probably not going to end the way that I wanted it to. Although at that time I still felt relatively good, I was obviously slowing down. This fact wasn’t observed by marking split times on my watch, but instead by the steady stream of runners passing me one-by-one and slowly pulling away into the distance. For the first four hours I had run fast and strong near the front of the pack, but with my position continually declining and over 30 miles of running left to go, I could see that this race had all the makings of a classic death-march.

A “Death-March” in an ultra-running race is the very unpleasant effect of having not correctly paced yourself for the distance you are trying to cover, and thus reaching a point of physical degeneration that is exquisitely painful and can seem to persist just about forever. It is a condition from which there is no recovery, until you choose to quit moving and sit down, that is. Running long distances inevitably causes muscular damage, and running faster causes the damage to happen sooner. Muscles break down and begin to tighten up. Tight muscles cause limited mobility, ruining proper running form. A heap of accumulated miles induces pain – in the joints, in the connective tissue, and in the muscles themselves if they start to cramp. Add the pain and the limited mobility together and you get an ever-decreasing running speed, until running stops being an option and you are simply walking. But even at a walk the pain doesn’t leave, it persists as strongly as ever, and the amount of time you must endure to the finish only increases as your pace gets slower and slower. Staring down a trail that is twenty miles long, that will take a seeming eternity to finish, with jolts of pain at every step and smarter runners jogging past making you look silly… This is the Death-March.

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Black Canyon Ascent

Near the start of the Black Canyon Ascent. Elizabeth Riley photo.

Near the start of the Black Canyon Ascent. Elizabeth Riley photo.

As the dense grey clouds slowly lowered over the rim of the Black Canyon, signaling immanent rain on a quiet Saturday morning, Jan Peart, face adorned with a gigantic smile, began banging on a giant round gong. The peace now sufficiently disturbed and the few people milling about alerted to the arrival of the first runner, the way was paved for Peter Maksimow to come sprinting across the finish line to win the 2015 Black Canyon Ascent.

Sitting inside around frosty beer mugs and a blazing warm fire on the evening before while the rain and intermittent snow dumped down outside, Elizabeth and I wondered what we should do the following day. The forecast called for more of the same dreary weather that had kept us inside and restless with pent-up energy for the last week. The prospect of another Saturday spent trying to get in a long run through freezing rain was not inspiring. Hungry for more writing and photography opportunities, and figuring the worst-case scenario was we would meet some new people, we came up with the idea to check out the Black Canyon Ascent race outside of Montrose the next morning. Our plan was to take some photos and write an article and see if we couldn’t find a place to get them published. So the next morning found us scouting locations to take photos and watch the race on the road up to the Black Canyon.

This year marked the 40th running of the Black Canyon Ascent, making it one of the oldest running races in Colorado, and the second oldest on the Western Slope (the Imogene Pass Run is in its 41st year in 2015). It starts at the corner of US 50, just outside of Montrose, and the East Rim Road, which climbs for six miles to the entrance to the Black Canyon National Park. The road is paved the entire way, but the climb is continuous and rises over 2,000 vertical feet to the finish. Only in the last half mile, once inside the national park, does the road dip slightly on its way to the first parking lot where the finish line is located.

On this Saturday morning the light was perfect and so were the running conditions. The rain had ceased, but low lying clouds and fog hanging in all the nearby valleys made for quite an impressive scene. Although more rain was in the forecast, the sun decided to peek out from behind the clouds at just the moment that the race started, enhancing the already perfect setting. The runners quickly dispersed into a long line of very brightly clad dots along the road as they all settled into their own pace for the climb.

Peter Maksimow after his successful race. Elizabeth Riley photo.

Peter Maksimow after his successful race. Elizabeth Riley photo.

Immediately gapping the rest of the field were two Colorado Springs mountain runners Peter Maksimow and Simon Gutierrez. Maksimow was looking to defend his title from the previous year and hoping to challenge the course record, while Gutierrez was also a former champion. They were running neck and neck by us at our first photo perch roughly one mile up the road. Continue reading