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  • Writer's pictureEmily Hutchins

Bighorn 52 Race Report

Updated: Jun 27, 2019

Jeremy, Huck and I arrived to Sheridan, WY on Thursday afternoon and headed to the Tongue River Community Center, our base camp for the weekend. For the two days leading up to the race, we heard all kinds of talk about the “conditions” out there on the course. The race directors decided to alter the 50M route because the planned start location was inaccessible by the shuttle buses due to the snow and mud, making the actual race distance 52M. Trail volunteers reported waist-high snow drifts at the start and that the famous Bighorn mud was in fact “the worst they’ve ever had” because of all the snow-melt. They also issued an update that all racers must carry mandatory winter gear because below freezing temps at the higher elevations were to be expected. To make things real fun, the race start time was moved to even earlier at 4:30 a.m. to allow for more time to complete the race before the cutoff at 8:00 p.m.

All of this led to a lot of anxiety, nerves, dread, fear of getting hurt, not being prepared …you name it. I felt like I was biting off a bit more than I could chew. What was I doing out here getting ready to run a race with crazy conditions just 6 months after brain surgery? I knew I had to at least attempt this thing. I had put so much hard training in over the last several months and we had planned our whole summer vacation around this race.

Early Saturday morning, my alarm went off at 1:55 a.m. Gina showed up and we boarded the buses at 2:45 a.m. for the hour and some change ride up to the Jaws trailhead. The bus was very quiet and Gina and I ate her peanut butter power balls in anxious silence. We got off the buses and the National anthem began to play.

The bullhorn sounded and we descended down a dirt road to the trails. Our feet and legs were immediately soaked as we tromped through the slushy snow that covered up gigantic icy mud pits. In some sections, we post holed through the snow and sank into frigid mud up past our calves. This section was extremely muddy, but on a positive note, the snow was not waist high. Just over 2 miles in, we reached the muddy hill where Gina broke her leg two years ago. She made it through and left some quick tears behind on that muddy hill.

These first 18 miles were fast and we felt strong. Gina and I fell into a natural rhythm and we clicked through the first three aid stations, Elk Camp, Spring Marsh and Cathedral Rock.

These volunteers had to access these areas and haul in supplies by horseback. I wished I could have spent more time here as they all had big campfires going and looked really cozy. The landscapes we ran through were indescribably surreal. We ran with the rising sun through high alpine meadows, past the rushing whitewater of the Little Bighorn river and descended down into the Little Bighorn canyon.

At the first drop bag station at Sally’s Footbridge, we changed into shorts, fresh socks and dumped some of our heavier gear. Marianna, who traveled from CO to help crew Josh and Gina, was waiting here with a huge smile on her face. She was so incredibly helpful and was the ultimate support crew, feeding us Egg McMuffins and refilling our hydration bladders.

The next section of miles 20 - 30 were slow and excruciatingly hard. We began to climb a huge mountain with never-ending steep sections. The beautiful canyon walls to our right followed us as we gained elevation. All I remember is steep climbs … the kind of climbs that make your legs and lungs scream, and sections of the bighorn mud-holes that tried to suck our shoes off.

This section was full wildflower meadows and weary 100M racers, such as the woman we saw sitting on the edge of the trail with a ghost-white face, despondent to everything around her. When asked if she was ok, and she looked at us with blank eyes and replied, “I’m not in a very good place right now”.

I fondly remember the Bear Camp aid station, where the volunteers had packed in the best snacks, like huge green olives.

The volunteers assured us that it was “downhill” from here, but I think they were just trying to give us hope because we continued to descend and ascend for miles. Gina smacked her head on a tree. We finally made our way from mile 29 and into 30 and whooped in glee. We questioned each other hopefully, “maybe miles 30 - 40 will be better”? I remember running fast down through a meadow and saw the next aid station, Cow Camp off in the distance. Cow Camp had Fritos and sunscreen!

The next four miles were so tough. It felt like it was 100 degrees as our hearts thumped out of our chests. We could see Dry Fork Camp way off in the distance and knew that it was still miles away. Gina pulled me through this difficult section. Every time she ran, I ran, even though all I wanted to do was collapse in the grass and wait for an ATV to come collect my body. We knew Marianna, Jeremy and Huck were waiting for us at Dry Fork and that’s what kept us going. Dry Fork is situated at the top of a one mile steep climb, where I really thought I might die. Gina shared later that she almost threw up on this hill.

We met our internal goal of reaching Dry Fork in under 10 hours. Jeremy and Marianna rushed over to us and made us sit down in the tent while they brought us food and refilled our water bladders. This aid station was off the hook legit and I could have spent a lot of time here. They even had a pickle juice station (that Jeremy had to try because he’s addicted to the stuff) and soda machine that Gina was gushing over. I remember a young volunteer shoving a pizza in my direction and I almost ralphed at the sight of it. The only thing my stomach could handle was cold fruit, pickles, ginger ale and tailwind.

Gina and I begrudgingly got out of our chairs and started out to finish the last 16 miles left of the race. These 16 miles were a serious pain train. There were several more hills, with one of them being so steep that all of the racers were cursing under their breath. We finally made our way to the top of the last canyon and began the long descent down. We began to talk about all the things we wanted to do once we crossed the finish line.

Every step I took felt like knives piercing into my quads. I remember soaking in the expansive landscape before me and thinking how grateful I am to be out here to be in these beautiful mountains. I’m so fortunate that my body is able to run 52 miles through this terrain. I had seen everything today: snow-capped mountains, raging whitewater, sun-baked canyon walls, alpine meadows bursting with wildflowers, dense pine forests covered with moss, aspen groves with their white flaky bark shimmering in the sun and every trail condition imaginable ... snow, ice, mud, rocks, and dust. I grinned ear to ear as this phrase repeated through my mind, “just smile and flow”.

Gina and I started to get a little concerned about chasing cut off times. I slurped down an expresso GU and said, “Gina, if there’s one thing we can do, it’s to make it to the next aid station before the cut off. We’ve worked too hard to not finish this thing. Let’s do this!” We kicked it into high gear as we started running through upper and lower Sheep Creek, picking off runners left and right. We had one goal on our minds: make it to the road before 6:00 p.m. We squealed into the Tongue River trailhead aid station with 45 minutes to spare before the cut off and we had 1.5 hours to run the last 5 miles of road to the finish line at Scott Park in Dayton. 5 miles seemed so far and I told Gina, “just think about all the times that you’ve gone out for an hour run at home. That’s all we have to do now. We got this.”

We forced our legs to move, one step, two step. I passed a nice lady handing out freezie pops. Off in the distance, I saw Jeremy on his bike, with Huck trotting by his side. He gave us words of encouragement. At this point, we only had 2 miles left to the finish. We started to hear cowbells and see the town of Dayton.

The finish line seemed so far away since we still had to run around the entirety of Scott Park. Gina saw Josh (who was looking sprightly for just running 100M) and Marianna and she started to cry happy tears. I spotted the finish line in the distance and we ran past all the spectators cheering and clapping.

This was probably one of the happiest moments in my life. Gina and I started the race together and crossed the line together. I kissed Jeremy and we stumbled over to claim our finisher prize ... the coveted hooded vest and yellow bighorn socks that we talked about the whole race.

We sat down and I peeled my shoes and socks off to soak my feet in the river. Jeremy brought me hot dogs and pasta salad. Blisters had formed around my right big and second toe, so I headed off to the medical tent to get their assessment. They drained my blisters while I watched in horror as the 100M racer next to me screamed in pain as the medical staff removed his shoes and I saw “trench foot” for the first time in my life. I couldn’t peel my eyes away.

I’m so grateful that I got to experience this adventure with a new friend and running partner. Gina helped me pull through some tough sections when I needed it most, and I did the same for her when she was struggling. There were miles where we ran in silence, soaking in the views, and other miles where we chatted about anything and everything. Burps and toots kept us laughing throughout the whole race. It’s incredible the bond you build when you persevere through a big challenge and accomplish your goals together.

Bighorn challenged every fiber in my body and I’m still high from the experience. This race is of the highest caliber and the volunteers and community take so much pride in Bighorn and providing the most authentic Wyoming mountain running experience. We later found out that both the 52M and 100M had a 62% finish rate. I’m pretty damn proud that all of us Virginians are part of that percentage.

My body has never been this sore in my entire life. Muscles hurt in my legs, shins and calves that I didn’t even know existed. My quads would not cooperate and I struggled to get in and out of our van, which was frustrating since it was the beginning of our western vacation road trip. Day four post race is the first time where I could walk somewhat normal.

All of this pain is worth it. These racing endeavors continue to teach me so many things about myself and I can honestly say that age 36 is the best I’ve ever felt in my life. Trail running truly makes me happy and I believe these physical and mental challenges help us navigate many other issues that we face in life. I am so grateful for this strength, endurance and grit.

Now it’s time for a proper recovery until the next goal … Iron Mountain 50M in Damascus August 31st!

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Jul 04, 2019

Thank you for sharing your race experience. I loved the pictures - running the 100, I didn't get so see some of the most beautiful parts of the course because it was dark (and raining buckets). Also loved how you bonded with Gina. Ultras really transform strangers into lifelong friends. Keep running, and keep writing! Katrin

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