by Carrie Haderlie
Red mud. Gray mud. Slippery mud, sticky mud, wet mud. Dry mud—yes, dry mud. Black mud, rocky mud, thick mud, and thin mud.
Rain, snow, sleet, hail, clouds, and searing sunshine.
A special kind of insanity drives a person to sign up for one of the four Bighorn Mountain Trail Run distances, and only the most steadfast come from around the country to tackle the 100-mile endurance run.
This spring, after running road races for almost a decade, I decided to try the 50k distance—32 measly miles—and was in for an experience I couldn’t have imagined, nor trained for, even after six months and more than 550 miles.
And yet, my race, June 17, was nothing compared to the muddy hell that was the 100-mile run.
In reality, what was happening in the dark of night at the 50-mile Jaws aid station was worse than what I could have imagined. Runners were trudging through unbelievably muddy, wet and cold conditions, some almost crawling to the check-in just to drop out of the race.
“I do know we started 323 (runners) in the 100 mile distance, and finished (with) 154,” Race Director Michelle Maneval Powers said. “Conditions were muddy. This held many runners back, and kept them from the elusive finish line. … We always have a significant amount of drops. This race is tough, rugged, and in mountain conditions, so finishing often takes participants more than one (attempt) to complete.”
Despite the conditions and amount of 100-mile drop outs, the 25th anniversary story is one of triumph. It is a story of a runners’ brotherhood, for something happened June 17 that rarely—if ever—happens in competitive ultra-marathoning.
The top four male finishers of the 100 mile distance stopped competing, opting to finish the race together.
Instead of jockeying for first place over the rugged terrain for miles, as has always happened in the past, Andrew Skurka of Boulder, Colo.; Alex Ho of San Francisco, Calif.; Brian Oestrike of New Paltz, NY; and Erik Lipuma of Boulder, Colo. met on the trail, some of the men joining at mile 50, others later in the race.
Then instead of competing, the four decided to finish together on Saturday. The conditions were just that intense.
Saturday morning, around mile eight of my own 32-mile trek, I encountered my first 100-mile runner. His white numbered race bib was smeared brown, as were his legs, his shorts and even his upper body. I told him I’d been thinking of him throughout the night.
“Well, it’s your thoughts that are going to get me to the finish line,” he said—and I couldn’t tell if he was being facetious or appreciated my mental dance to the rain gods.
Perhaps after the night he had, he didn’t know if he believed in the power of prayer or not either.
According to the race description, the Bighorn Mountain Trail Run is located in the “beautiful Bighorn Mountains just outside of Dayton,” offering four distances over two days. The 2017 event marked the 25th annual Bighorn Mountain Wild and Scenic Trail Runs. The 100-mile runners began at 10 a.m. on Friday, June 16. All other runners, including the 52 mile, 32 mile and 18 mile competitors, began June 17.
The runs largely continue as a “public service by trail running enthusiasts and volunteers in the Sheridan community, who promote recreation and tourism in the area.”
The courses are designed to maximize the exposure of the participants, their families, and race volunteers to an extremely scenic, wild, and primitive area of geologically unique Bighorn Mountains, according to the course description.
“Although it is a very difficult course, it has been a great success and participants have encouraged its continuation,” the course description reads. “This race is extremely challenging due to the rugged terrain of the Bighorn Mountains, and has become a favorite among avid trail runners. The course, an out-and-back, is at elevations of up to 10,000 feet, among fields of wildflowers and breathtaking scenery. The majority of the course is on rugged mountain trails and 4-wheel drive roads.”
Powers Maneval said that there were runners in the 100-mile and the 50-mile who were “literally crawling on all fours to make it through sections of the course.
“They couldn’t even walk, and they had to dig so deep just to get a finish out of this,” she said. “A lot of the stories that touched me were of people who had never finished before. This was their first 100, and they were able to finish it, and I think it was because they didn’t have anything to compare it to. They just kept running.”
To combat low sodium levels, the volunteers on the course offered a variety of snacks and refreshments. At mile 26, I myself grabbed what I thought was Gatorade, grateful for a swig of cold juice.
The cup was actually full of sour pickle juice—though the heat wasn’t an issue as much as the mud, I probably needed the salt.
Heat or mud; rain, snow or sunshine: You never know what you are going to get.
“We’re talking about mountain conditions in mountain weather. It can change within 24 hours, so often we are dealing with extreme heat and extreme cold in the same 24-hour period,” Powers Maneval said. “Maybe there is dryness, and you are slipping on the trail because of how dry it is. Maybe you are slipping because of severe mud.”
Extreme conditions are common in trail running. It’s part of the draw.
Andrew Skurka, one of the four top finishers, said that despite the awe-inspiring group finish, of which he made up one-quarter, there really isn’t much to the story.
For those watching the race online, the final results were likely difficult to decipher.
“It looked as if four runners had sprinted to the line, finishing within a second of each other after 100 miles,” Skurka said. “In fact, we all finished together, holding hands, in a four-way tie for first. Indeed, misery is more fun with company.”
Powers Maneval said the race organizers were completely unprepared for this kind of finish.
“You can watch the race results coming in at the end and it is so exciting,” she said. “You get no sleep, because the lead runner just got passed by someone in second place, and then — nope, the other guy is in the lead … it is jockeying for first place, but this year, that didn’t happen.
“We called it a brotherhood—they just built this brotherhood along the trail, and decided they were going to finish together instead of racing it out to the finish because it was … hell,” she said.
“We had to go back and make special awards and gifts for them, because they donated their cash winnings that the first place winner would have gotten back to search and rescue,” Powers Maneval explained.
Usually, the frontrunners in a competitive ultramarathon don’t form a bond.
“They don’t communicate. They race, and they race hard,” Powers Maneval said. “They are sponsored runners who are out there to earn money. That is why it was so uncommon that they built this bond out there and said, ‘The four of us are going to finish together.’ We weren’t prepared for it, and we had never even come close to having a tie.”
Runners in the middle to back of the pack will often form bonds on the trail, but in the top 10, the runners are usually in a full-out race. But this year, because of the drop-dead-or-die-trying conditions, Skurka, Lipuma, Ho, and Oestrike decided to finish together.
“Oh, it definitely had to do with the conditions—they all decided that this was the way it had to end,” Maneval Powers said. “It was an experience that was totally unexpected. We probably won’t see that again, ever.”
Each year, the race reputation grows, but the number of runners does not. The event has filled to capacity for 10 years, meeting a limit set by the Bighorn National Forest.
“We are not allowed to grow it because of the Forest Service permit, and we don’t want to grow it,” Maneval Powers said. “One of the reasons people come back is because of the size. We are able to treat everyone as a runner and a person, and not a number.
“We take pride in making sure that every runner has an experience in Wyoming and the friendliness of the area,” Maneval Powers said.
When online registration opens in January each year, the 18 and 32 mile distances fill within two minutes.
“The race just has a great reputation. People want to come to Wyoming, people want to see the Bighorns,” Maneval Powers said. “We pretty much have all the kinks and issues lined out, and people love to come back because we offer a finisher award to all the finishers. Back-of-the-packers are as important as front-of-the-packers. We are able to award everyone, and our trail markers are the best in the business.”
And so, the legend of the Bighorn Mountain Trail Run continues to grow, with a story of mud, brotherhood, and unity in its 25th year.