The Battle of The Bighorn 100

By John Dodds

John DoddsOn June 25, 1876, George Armstrong Custer and many of his men died at the Battle of the Little Bighorn River. On June 20-21, 2003, I ran the Bighorn 100 and fared better than Custer - barely. It took over a week for my left leg to return to its normal size. I saw the orthopedic surgeon four days after the race. Unfortunately, he said I hadn't done any permanent damage and I'd be able to run again in several weeks. I think I need a doctor that recommends no more running-ever.

Why this run? I liked the web site. When I checked last year's runners, I was surprised to learn that Jean Heishman had run it. I contacted her and she said she was going to run it again this year. She really liked the run, and while I was recovering at Skyland Lodge after MMT100, I looked at the photographs she took out there. Through several emails, she encouraged me to sign up for this run. Even as I write this, I am mature enough not to hold any grudges against her.

Getting there. The run begins 3.5 miles west of Dayton, WY. Dayton is about 20 miles north of Sheridan, WY on I-90. Until I looked at a map, I had no idea where all this was. Actually, it's pretty easy to get to. I flew to Billings, MT and rented a car-it's about a 2-hour drive to Sheridan (speed limit is 75 MPH). I rented a motel room in Sheridan with Karl Knipling who was running the 50K race on Saturday. I stayed there Thursday night, Karl stayed there Friday night, and we both stayed there Saturday night.

How many runs? This was a big weekend in Dayton. The 100-miler starts at 11 a.m. on Friday; the 50-miler starts at 6:00 a.m. on Saturday, the 50K starts at 8:30 a.m. on Saturday, and the 30K starts at 11:00 on Saturday. I believe the time limit was the same for all-9 p.m. Saturday night. The starting points varied, but the finishing point was the same: a small park in Dayton. I'm not sure I liked the 11:00 a.m. start. It was great that morning since you didn't have to get up so early. But when the nighttime came, you had to realize that you weren't so far along as you normally would be. And nighttime is still nighttime, and you still get tired even though you've run five-six hours less than you would have in other races. And it meant a full day of running the second day-something I've not done before. I finished at 7:40 p.m. on Saturday.

The course. The course is an out and back. We started in the Tongue River Canyon about 3.5 miles west of Dayton. Beginning elevation is at 4,200 and at mile 7.5 it is 8,100. Then we come down to 6,500 at mile19.5 and continue for about 7 miles at this elevation, and then a big drop of 3.5 miles down to the Little Bighorn River at 4,000. Then it's a 17-mile climb to the top of a ridge at 9,100 and then 1 mile to the ranger station which is the turnaround point (el. 8,800). The only difference on the way back is that we run past the start back into town and finish in a park. The elevation gain is over 17,000 feet (not too bad actually), and the cutoff time was 34 hours.

This run is known as a western mountain run. I believed (and still believe) that this is a great course to transition from 36-hour runs like MMT100 and Superior 100 to a western mountain run without having to bite off something like, say, Wasatch. I encourage everybody to sign up for this run.

The scenery. Was absolutely spectacular from the moment we started. We started up the Tongue River canyon for several miles and then climbed out of that for the first long ascent. The bluffs, buttes, whatever you want to call them were amazing. Even though we were in Wyoming, this was big sky country. The wild flowers were stunning, and that is a gross understatement. They were so abundant and vivid-blues, pinks, yellows, purples, reds, and whites. One would have guessed that a florist had planted them there. I am absolutely convinced that Gary would have DNFed there. He wouldn't have made it up the first climb in time he would have been gawking so much. After the race, Sue Donnelly said there were about 80 different kinds of wildflowers and we had gone through several ecosystems. I think she overstated the number of wildflowers a bit and as far as the ecosystems, I counted three: limbo, purgatory, and hell.

Drop bags. There were 3 places for drop bags: 13.5 (and 82 on the way back), 30 (and 66 on the way back), and the turnaround at 48. I wasn't sure what the weather was going to be and how cold it would be at the higher elevations, especially at night. I packed everything I could.

Weather. We actually had pleasant weather. The first day was in the low 80s with some cloud cover. Based on the previous day's forecast, I had expected 90 degrees and a bright, sunny day. We were supposed to have afternoon showers, but we didn't. A key point in the course is mile 30 which is where we crossed the Little Bighorn River and where we began the long ascent to the turnaround point at mile 48. This is the place to pick up your tights, long sleeve shirt, jacket, knit cap and flashlight. In a normal race, you are at mile 30 well before noon. Here it was about 6-7 p.m. I wore a 2-bottle fanny pack (and carried a 3rd bottle) but changed to a Camelbak at mile 30. This was so I could carry what I might need in the way of clothes (plus flashlights) over the next 18 miles which could take 6-7 hours to cover.

I made it to the ridge at 9,110 feet (mile 47) with just shorts and a short-sleeve shirt. On this ridge (after midnight), it got cold, the wind started to blow, and it began raining. I was shivering trying to get my vest and trashbag liner (i.e., poncho) on. I held off on the tights and long sleeve shirt because I knew I was only a mile from the ranger station at mile 48. At the ranger station, I changed into dry clothes and put on tights, long-sleeve shirt, and a lightweight jacket. At this higher elevation, we actually crossed small mounds of snow on the trail. I changed back into shorts and a short-sleeve shirt after I had made the long descent back to the Little Bighorn River at mile 66 (around 8:30 a.m.).

The second day was a bright, sunny day. And warm. However, when clouds would go over, it would get cool, especially if it rained. I only remember it raining once on the second day, but it got windy and cool. I put on my trashbag liner until the sun came out again. In summary, I think we lucked out with the weather. It wasn't really hot, it didn't rain as much as I had expected, and, frankly, it wasn't as cold on the ridge as I had expected. I debated about using suntan lotion and didn't. I thought sweating would just wash it off. But since the humidity is so low, I didn't seem to sweat as much (I think it just evaporates quickly). Anyway, I got a mild sunburn, mainly from the second day. My face, ears, neck, arms and hands peeled over the next 10 days.

Getting lost. No race report of mine would be complete without a section on me getting lost, and this run was no different. I lost about 10 minutes early in the first day when I missed a turn. The costly mistake occurred after the turnaround at mile 48. I had changed into dry clothes and was actually in pretty good spirits as I headed out in the rain. The course at this point is a jeep road and at some point there is a turn to the left up a trail. I missed it and continued along the road until it teed at a major cross road. I continued across that road and out into a field but couldn't find any glowsticks (not to mention that I hadn't seen any for awhile which should have been my first clue). As I started to head back down the road, I saw two flashlights approaching. I waited until those two runners arrived, and we spent some time exploring for the trail. Then we all three headed back down the road until we saw the glowsticks we had missed earlier.

Since there is so much open country, there are places where there is nothing on which to hang a ribbon or glowstick. This race uses little metal flags in the ground at those points. I missed the flags at this point at night, mainly because I was so focused on the road. Had I been looking around, I would have seen the glowsticks in the distance angling up to the left. It was a metal flag I had missed earlier in the morning as well. There were only 3 of 44 runners who missed this turn; however, I did talk to a couple other runners who had to stop at this point and talk it over where to turn. Don't get the wrong impression here; this course all along is very well marked. My guess is that I lost about 40 minutes during this little excursion. A number of people passed me whom I would not see again.

I don't think it's fair to be critical of race officials for not marking a course as well as one would want it to be unless one can give some constructive ideas. Two nights later, I woke up in the middle of the night in my motel room in Billings and was trying to think of a sport where the athletes didn't get lost. And then it hit me - the bobsled. I've never heard of bobsledders losing their way. Even if they crash, they still come sliding across the finish line. So, my idea is that both sides of a the trail could be lined with a 2-foot high portable fence that would guide and contain runners. Since this race is an out-and-back, you would only need 100 miles of fencing. It couldn't cost more than $100,000 for materials and would only take about 3-4 weeks to set up and another 2 weeks to take down. Plus you need a place to store it for the next year. Even I couldn't get lost on such a course. The increased entry fee ($3,294.72) would be well worth it.

Injuries. Let me cut to the chase here: when it rains it pours. I have to caution the reader who has never run a 100-miler and wants to do so - the next few paragraphs will, shall we say, dim your enthusiasm somewhat. But then you're probably stupid enough to think this can't happen to you. That naive thought has allowed me to sign up for and finish seven 100-milers.

Vertigo. I've had this since February. The balance test I had about a month ago showed some "abnormality" according to the neurologist. I was supposed to have a brain MRI to see if it's a brain or inner ear problem. I had problems making an appointment to have one done and then it got so close to the race, I didn't want to learn something that would cause me to rethink about doing the race. Besides, this problem only affects me when I'm crossing streams on rocks; crossing streams on logs; and running on a narrow trails, especially at night (for example, if the trail is a path with grass on either side, I can't keep consistently on the path). Other than that, I'm ok.

Heel pain: I think I pulled my left Achilles tendon slightly in the HUMP run in Delaware several weeks before Bighorn. It is very low on the heel. It didn't really seem to bother me all that much, but in the two weeks before Bighorn I only ran twice for a total of 6 miles in the hope that it would go away. I thought it did. Until we climbed out of the Tongue River canyon a couple miles into the race. After that, it was just a dull ache in my heel for many, many miles. After my serious knee problem developed at mile 66, I didn't even notice the heel any more.

Blisters. I decided before the race that I would take care of any developing blisters promptly. I had four major foot repairs during this race. Like every race, I started out with compeed on the inside part of my foot just behind the big toe. That usually prevents blisters in this area and worked well. As I was making the long climb (17 miles) up from the Little Bighorn River, I noticed some discomfort in my right heel. It wasn't too bad really, and when I got to the ranger station at mile 48, I decided I would take off my shoe just to see what was going on. The heel of my sock (normally brown) was all red. As it turned out, I had two blisters on my heel that were bleeding, so I used bandaids and some duct tape. As I came back down the trail, I noticed a blister developing on the bottom of my right heel. I decided I would fix it at the next aid station (mile 63), even though it was less than three miles beyond that aid station to where I had my drop bag at the Little Bighorn River, which would involve some time anyway because I would change clothes. So, I stopped and one of the volunteers taped up my heel with duct tape. Three miles later at the big aid station (mile 66), I changed shoes and socks and reapplied all the bandaids and duct tape. That worked for a while but then I developed another blister. This one was on the ball of my foot underneath the compeed, which I had in one of my earlier foot repairs had since covered with duct tape. At about mile 80 along a stretch of a jeep road, I decided to deal with this blister. I tried to take the duct tape anc compeed off, but it just ripped the skin. So I put more compeed on over the duct tape and then more duct tape over that. I had no more blister problems after that. Mainly because I was barely running by that time.

Popliteus. Is a small muscle behind the knee that can be excruciatingly painful when properly abused. I started noticing soreness behind my knee as I made the long descent into the Little Bighorn River aid station (mile 66). By the time I got there (around 8:30 a.m.), I knew I had a major problem. By the time I fixed my foot, changed clothes, got rid of all my night stuff, etc. I was ready to head out a little before 9 a.m. This was a busy aid station; in addition to all the things I was doing, this is where the first 50-milers came bombing by. I had 12 hours to finish only 34 miles, but I wasn't sure I could do it. This was the first of several times that I actually considered not going on. The first thing you do as you cross the river is go straight up for 3.5 miles. At least, it seems like it's straight up. They call it "the wall." It was very tough. What got me through this section was that I would stop periodically, turn around and look back because the scenery was spectacular. (I learned later that JJ Rochelle and Sue Donnelly did this section with Wendell, one of the RDs, although JJ did not know who he was. It was during this climb that JJ asked, "What f------ asshole put this section in the course?") As for pain management, I had decided before the race that I would try not to take any ibuprofen since there are stories about getting kidney failure. Since my sodium content usually goes down about 12-14 hours into a race (indicated by swelling in my fingers) and this one was no different, I didn't want to take excessive amounts of ibuprofen that might interfere with my fluids (although I've never had a problem before). I finally broke down and took ibuprofen on two occasions.

At mile 66 I was an hour and a half ahead of the cutoff. I finally made it (2:30 p.m.) to the last major aid station (mile 82) with the same margin. I sat down on a chair and ate a turkey wrap and some soup. When I got up, I could barely walk out of the aid station. That's when I decided that I would not sit down again at the later aid stations. I sort of walked and shuffled from there to the finish. After one more not-very-long climb (but it's a good one), the finish of the race is very favorable as it includes a major downhill and then a long road stretch to the finish. I linked up with JJ, Sue and Hans about 2 miles from the finish. We made a solemn pact that we would walk together to the finish. And that's why the results show a four-place tie.

Queasiness: I never got real queasy during this race, although my stomach didn't feel all that great during the first day. Once I started eating soup at night and thereafter, my stomach was much better. Even though I walked a good portion of the last part of the course and felt fine stomach-wise, as soon as I crossed the finish line and stopped moving, I got very queasy. I tried to keep on walking, but frankly, I was tired of moving. I was about to get down on all fours and throw up when I realized I had crystallized ginger with me. I nibbled on a small piece of that and was cured immediately. I was then able to eat hamburgers, beans, and potato salad that was on hand.

Butt: Five days later as I was taking a shower at the athletic club, the guy next to me said, "Hey, did you tangle with a wildcat?" I said no and asked why. He said I had a big bruise on my butt. I then remembered that I had fallen in the race. I was walking very carefully down a short (maybe 10 feet) steep slope with loose rocks when my feet when out from underneath me, and I fell on my butt. It hurt pretty good, mainly because I landed on one of my water bottles. Once I got up and got going, I forgot about it. Until the shower. As I walked out of the shower, I thanked the other guy for taking such a keen interest in the pathology of my butt. And then I found the closest mirror, and sure enough, there was a big bruise that looked like a giant paw print. Pretty interesting, frankly.

Toenails. Who needs them anyway? When I went to see the doctor several days later, the first thing he noticed were my toenails. All five on the foot he was looking at were in varying shades of black and burgundy. The other five were the same. Today (2 weeks after the race), one of my big toenails fell off. For some reason, they didn't bother me at all during the race.

Mental: And you might be wondering what my mind was doing through all of this. Your mind is thinking about so many things: the scenery, the ascents and descents, the trail conditions, weather, talking to people from time to time, your ongoing physical ailments, whether you're meeting your time goals, whether you should quit or not, and on and on and on. Frankly, I can't describe the mental aspects of running a 100 where so many things happen. You're just going to have to experience it yourself. Then you'll know.

Karl. Karl was a big help to me at the finish, getting me something to eat and drink and collecting my drop bags. He had finished his 50K hours earlier in a PR time. Our motel shared a parking lot with a Texaco station that had a food mart: Boogie's Food Mart. We were on the second floor and since I couldn't really walk when we got back to the motel, I would ask Karl: "Could you go over to Boogie's and get me a coke and some chocolate zingers?" He would come back with the goods, and I'd say, "Could you go get me some ice for my leg?" It was great. He can even be entertaining. The next day, I moved my drop bags from his SUV to my rental car while he was taking a nap. I locked his SUV and went over to Boogie's to get a Mountain Dew and read the paper. I heard a car alarm go off. I walked out into the parking lot and saw Karl. He had unlocked his SUV by reaching through an open window and opening the door; that's what set off the alarm. He got in the SUV but couldn't find out how to turn it off. After several minutes, it went off by itself. He then climbed out through the driver's window since he didn't want to open the door and set off the alarm again. I looked over at the people sitting on the outside bench at Boogie's, and I just shrugged my shoulders. They were all grins. While I was reading the owner's manual, Karl called his sister in Colorado. She has the same SUV and talked him through the steps to disengage the alarm. Karl, of course, was all embarrassed at this, and I thought to myself that there is no way I'm not going to put this episode in my report. As Karl drove off, I bet the people at Boogie's were wondering what "VHTRC" meant on the decal on his rear window.

Finish awards. These were real nice. We all will have mailed to us stained glass artwork with our names and times on it. And we received very nice embroidered jackets. I told Karl if he had a 100-miler jacket like that, he would attract all the babes (just as women finishers likewise attract all the alpha males). Well, wouldn't you know it, but Karl somehow ended up taking my jacket back to Colorado. He's probably wearing it and strutting the streets of Silverton as I write this (he's visiting Gary and Keith out there). The plan is that Karl will give it to Gary who will bring it back to me, which I'm sure by that time Mike Bur will have paid me my $22.

Volunteers. This was the second year for the 100, but these people have been putting on other races for over 10 years. In short, they know what they're doing. I can't remember anybody in any of my prior races as helpful as some of these people were. They were just incredible.

The tourist. On Sunday I drove back to Billings, stopping at the Little Bighorn battlefield which is just off I-90. I saw the new Indian memorial which would be dedicated three days later. The next morning I drove out from Billings to Pompey's Pillar which is part of the Lewis & Clark trail. This is a big rock formation where Clark carved his name. This was kind of neat for me because I lived in Montana for three years as a kid, and my elementary school was Lewis & Clark. As I stood on top of Pompey's Pillar, which is next to the Yellowstone River, I looked down on several white pelicans flying up the river and then landing on rocks in the river. It was very peaceful and a nice end to my trip as I then headed to the Billings airport.

Recommendation. Despite my problems, this is a great run. I would encourage anybody who wants to break into the western 100s to run this one. (Except for Kerry. While Kerry would do very well in this run, she won't be able to do it in less than 24 hours.) And if you've already run a western 100 before, you will still like this one. This would be a good one for a group of VHTRCers to head out and try. As for me, you can email me to let me know how you all did.

Happy Trails!

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