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Around-the-Clock Footrace Embraces Rugged Landscape
By KIRK JOHNSON
Published: June 27, 2009
DAYTON, Wyo. — A tiny ranger station cabin at 1:30 a.m. — with cold, muddy feet and sore muscles after 48 miles of rugged mountain trail running, and 52 miles still to go when you head back out into the chilly darkness at 9,000 feet — may seem like a strange place to find bliss.
About 600 runners competed in four distance events along the wilderness trails of the Bighorn Mountains in Wyoming.
And a grilled cheese sandwich may seem like the least likely of bliss-inducers. But there it was, handed to me by an aid-station volunteer. After one bite, I sincerely felt that that sandwich, probably quite ordinary in the real world I had left behind more than 13 hours earlier, on a sunny Friday morning in Dayton at the start of the Bighorn Trail 100, was perhaps the best thing I’d ever tasted. I savored every greasy crumb.
Intensity of experience — from giddy joy to bleak gloom and back again — was the signature stamp of my participation in a 100-mile race through the mountains of northeastern Wyoming last weekend. Like the rolling green landscape itself, there was no flat, no lukewarm and no moderation , the 107 runners climbing 17,500 feet and descending about the same on mostly narrow single-track trails.
Anything, especially later in the race as mentally fatigued runners neared the 34-hour cutoff, could break through to overwhelm the senses with its power. It might be a sound. That cracking noise in the woods — what was it? Or a sight — how immense the orange crescent moon seemed, rising as you headed down the trail alone with your headlamp and thoughts at 4 a.m. Or a taste — how something as simple as a sandwich could make you swoon when your body was screaming for calories.
The result, for a plodding midpack runner whose only hope was to finish, was not triumph but awe.
And a few humbling realizations: That the Bighorn Mountains could not be conquered by a mere human being on foot. That shoe-sucking mud and thigh-deep snow banks, and steep climbs that sometimes felt as if they would never end, were things that at best could be fought only to a draw, and even then only with luck. And that as tough as you think you are, there is always somebody tougher and faster, and that the course itself, in the end, would always be tougher still.
This year’s winner, Karl Meltzer, 41, of Sandy, Utah, broke the course record, in 19 hours 15 minutes 26 seconds. His run included an encounter with an annoyed moose in the middle of the night that he said forced him to dive into the woods and hide behind a tree. Meltzer also held the previous course record, 20:12:58, set in 2007.
By the standards of a road marathon or a 10-kilometer race, that is absurdly slow — about 5.2 miles per hour, even taking into account nocturnal moose entanglements. But one of the lessons of the Bighorn, to this first-time participant at least, was that going 5.2 miles per hour around the clock in this terrain might as well be the same thing as sprouting wings — unimaginable and beyond understanding.
Averaging such a pace (I mustered just under 3 m.p.h. in finishing at 32:25:14 and was left spent in every way I could think of) meant running very fast in the places where a person could run at all to compensate for the miles where the terrain was too steep, or the trail too rutted, rough and rocky to allow anything but hiking — or for participants like me, a slow grinding crawl. No one before this year had ever broken 20 hours.
Bighorn, like most long trail races, gives each runner autonomy on how the goal may best be accomplished. The trail was well marked, and the aid stations — four to six miles apart — were stocked with food and water. But there were no scheduled breaks, only the continual ticking of the 34-hour cut-off clock in the backdrop as a goading reminder that every pause came with a price. Seventy-two people, from all over the country and a few from Canada, got through in time.
But like so many pieces of the modern West, there was also a great backstory at the Bighorn 100 about the relationship of people and the landscape.
In the late 1980s, a hydroelectric project was proposed that would have flooded some areas near Dayton and torn up the canyons. A group of residents had the idea, unlikely as it sounds, of starting a wilderness foot race (initially 30K, 50K and 50-mile distances, only extending to the 100-mile in 2002) as a way of fighting back.
The notion was that by exposing more people to the valleys and passes of the Bighorn Range, environmental defenders might be sprouted who would fall in love and write letters opposing the project and the harm it would do to the Indian burial grounds and the elk caving ranges along the Dry Fork and Little Bighorn Rivers, where much of the course unfolds. “It was wild and scenic, and we wanted to keep it that way,” the race director, Michelle Maneval, said.
Whether runner enthusiasm played a role, the electricity plan was eventually shelved, Maneval said. By then, the race, begun in 1993, had taken on its own life. Always held around the summer solstice, it requires around 370 volunteers to pull off, including 120 on the search-and-rescue squad, with 600 runners competing in four distance events.
And it all ends in a park in downtown Dayton that feels like small-town summer Saturday night distilled to its essence of lawn chairs and barbecue smoke. By then, it is hard not to feel, if only from the mud you wear and the deep-tissue ache of long distance, that you are different from what you were before. And there is a bittersweet feeling to that. You have touched the boundary of something bigger than yourself, but also lost something too, in the certainty that a grilled cheese sandwich, in all likelihood, will never again taste so sweet.