Professor Greg Redding’s passion for the exercise most coaches use for punishment led him to the Bighorn Mountains and the 100-mile race of his life.
As a lifelong runner of distances from 5K to 50 miles, I had begun to feel that there were few unknowns left in running. Last June I went to the Big-horn Mountains of Wyoming looking for something different—something primal and intense.
My racing partner, Andrew Place, and I had the “un-known” in mind when we chose the the Bighorn Mountain Wild and Scenic Trail Run as our first 100-mile race: It’s an epic distance, so by our logic you should run it in an epic place. A magazine review highly recommended the race; only later did I read another review that discouraged first-timers from entering due to the extreme nature of the course.
The race’s sponsors warned: “Runners must be prepared for temperatures exceeding 100 degrees in the day in the canyons and well below freezing at night in the mountains. The course traverses territory inhabited by elk, deer, moose, bears, cougars, and rattlesnakes with the potential for wildlife encounters with runners.”
But Andrew and I knew soon after the race began that we’d made the right choice.
We ran over rocks, clambered up canyon switchbacks, then padded silently over carpets of pine needles in groves of Ponderosa pine.
We jogged through meadows where wildflowers were blooming: mountain bluebells and carpets of lupine.
As the sun went down, the air was heavy with the scent of mountain sage. I grabbed handfuls of the stuff and sniffed it like smelling salts as we ran down the rocky trail. The intense odor cleansed my thoughts, not to mention my sinuses.
The setting sun reflecting off the Bighorns created a vista so alluring I almost forgot to focus on the trail and my footing in the fading light. The striations on the mountains glistened in fine detail, the scene changing with the seconds. We have beautiful sunsets in Indiana, but this was something on a grand scale, immense and almost overwhelming.
The display distracted me from the realization that I was struggling to keep up with Andrew. I was alone on this section of the trail, my racing partner now well ahead of me and pulling away. When we had planned the run, my greatest worry had been running alone at night. As tired as I’d be, would I make wise decisions? Would I lose the trail?
I had run many marathons, including five 50-milers. There were always low points, emotionally and physically, when I was balancing the pain of finishing with the shame of quitting. Would the beauty of the Bighorns and the promise of this first day of a 30-plus-hour run disappear in the darkness?
In Why We Run: a Natural History, biologist Bernd Heinrich gets at the notion that we were born to run—that bipedalism owes more to running than to walking. He argues that we didn’t get up on two feet just to get from point A to point B, but to run down an antelope or to get to a dead animal before the lions or hyenas did.
It’s all speculation, but there is something so primal in that impulse to run; I thought about that many times during the Bighorn race. It took me back to the joy I experienced running as a boy over Indiana fields, long before my days in cross country at Wabash and the 18 pavement-pounding marathons since. It’s so simple—just you and the mountain.
Yet I also felt a relentless drive to get to the next point. I dropped steeply to Footbridge aid station in the canyon of the Little Bighorn River, followed the river for a few miles, then passed through Spring Marsh and Elk Camp on the long, unrelenting ascent to the turnaround point. The Bighorn 100 forces runners to climb more than 17,500 feet with almost 18,000 feet of descent. In that endless up and down my brain was monitoring my body like the dashboard of a car, with gauges for quadriceps, hamstring, and calf muscles; hydration; heart rate; pace.
At 1 a.m. the trail crested at about 9,000 feet and sloped gently to the Porcupine Ranger Station, where I would turn around and retrace my steps back to the finish line in Dayton, now 52 miles away. I spotted a cluster of lights ahead of me and picked up the pace, eager to reach this important psychological milestone.
After hours of running in darkness and solitude, it felt strange to encounter the warmth and activity of the aid station, the 10th of 22 along the course. A doctor quickly checked my weight and mental alertness, and a volunteer steered me to a chair where she had already placed a drop bag that I had stocked with extra gear.
I sat down to pull on dry socks and shoes and looked around the crowded room. Runners who had reached the station ahead of me sat nearby in various stages of distress. One told me he had lost too many pounds since the last medical check and was being held until he ate and drank enough to continue. Others were ashen and silent. They sat wrapped in blankets, staring at the floor, no doubt trying to decide if they should push on or withdraw from the race.
My volunteer noticed my shirt from the Goofy Challenge at Disneyworld, a two-day marathon event I’d run earlier in the year; she said she’d run half of it, asked me about my experience—small talk to distract me from my own sense of fatigue. She need not have bothered. I was tired, of course, but my spirits were still high. I felt like I had much more to give. I ate a hot grilled cheese sandwich, drank a Pepsi, and headed back out into the night then as a man announced my departure by shouting “Number 843 out,” and the hard-working volunteers applauded my effort.
By now the 107 runners were strung out in a thin line over dozens of miles. I ran for long stretches without encountering another soul. It was a moonless night, the mountain air clear and cloudless. Several times I took off my headlamp just to look up and admire the Milky Way stretching across the sky, an immense glittering tapestry brighter and packed with so many more stars than I had ever seen. It was compellingly beautiful, but my world was defined by the small circle of light at my feet. The rugged trail demanded my attention as I navigated around lingering snowdrifts, splashed through standing water, and picked my way across rocks and roots.
Then, as I traversed down a hill, I noticed a different light in the distance. It looked like a signal fire—as though someone had lit this massive blaze on top of one of the mountains. I’d glance up every few steps, wondering what it was, until it rose high enough over the ridge that I realized my raging signal fire was the bright pumpkin orange crescent moon.
It occurred to me around this time that I had now raced farther than I ever had before and was extending my longest run with every step. But the thought struck me as a mere curiosity and was quickly forgotten. I was no longer thinking about how far I had come or how far I had to go. I was living in this moment. I was having fun, almost giddy with the realization that my pre-race concerns about running all night were proving to be unfounded. I had worried about becoming fatigued to the point of despair, but instead I was alert and hopeful. The night I’d feared had contained the most unforgettable moment of the race, the solitude not a burden, but a blessing. I caught occasional glimpses of other headlamps bobbing like far-off fireflies in the blackness, but mostly I ran alone in my own small cone of light with my thoughts as my only company.
As I left the next aid station I thought, “Just 34 miles to go!” It sounds absurd, but I had reason for good cheer. The sun was coming up, and all of the unknowns of the course were behind me. The trail ahead was familiar from the day before. I had taken the course’s best shots, and I was still going.
I passed 70 miles, then 75. I was finding it harder to maintain my pace now, even on easier sections of the trail. I slogged along from aid station to aid station with grim determination, grabbing whatever food seemed most appetizing at the time. No high tech gels or energy bars for me. I filled up instead on peanut butter sandwiches, diced peaches, beef jerky, dried fruit, potato chips, and M&Ms. At one stop I gulped down fried potatoes and bacon that burned my fingers but satisfied a craving for fats and carbohydrates. I could have eaten them all morning.
The day got hotter and hotter and I ran slower and slower, but something inside me had changed. On the outbound route I had worried about the pace, about a nagging injury to my calf, and about the altitude, about all things that could go wrong over 100 miles. But now, well along the inbound route, I felt confident and relaxed.
I still had 20 miles to run before the final “drop bag” station, where my wife and kids would cheer me on. Soon after I would catch sight of another runner and the Bighorn would become a race again—I’d be determined not to let him pass. My feet and quadriceps aching, I would curse and cringe my way down a cruel downhill segment that dropped 3,700 feet. After 31 hours I would drag myself down the final five miles of flat, monotonous, scorching hot road to finish that race to the cheers of strangers and family gathered on picnic tables and lawn chairs to support their loved ones in this mad endeavor.
But even at this moment, still more than 20 miles out, I knew I would make it. My senses were sharpened, my focus intense. I began to savor things I had vaguely acknowledged when I’d run by them the day before: the smell of the ponderosa pine, a photogenic stand of aspens, a single lupine standing out among thousands blanketing the meadow.
A young mule deer crashed out of the brush in front of me. I’ve since seen depictions of ancient pictographs of runners chasing antelope down the savannah, the historical record of that hunting impulse Heinrich believes raised us up on two legs long ago and drives us still. But there was no such image in my mind that day, that moment. The deer and I stood, frozen, contemplating each other. Then she disappeared with a flick of her tail. I could hear her plunging through the brush parallel to me, impatient for me to move on or slow down so she could take this cleared path. I listened to her hoof beats and the crackle of brush as I ran down the trail through the Bighorns, feeling with every breath the essence of what we are as a species, and alive as a man can be.
Greg Redding is Associate Professor of Modern Languages and Literatures and teaches German and German-American studies at Wabash. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
And, yes, he’s planning to run the Bighorn 100 again in 2010!