Sunday, August 14, 2011

Horning in on the Bighorns

"We too had lively times.”
Mattie Ross, True Grit

“What was your favorite part of the trip?”, I’ve been asked. I have tried to answer by referring to some of the most magnificent views from the beautiful Bighorn 50K trail run. But that doesn’t quite do it. If there’s one thing better than having a great experience in a marathon or ultra, it’s sharing the good times with a gang of your friends. So I think back about the jokes along the trail, the falls into the mud, the laughs at dinner. It was all part of one memorable experience.

I didn’t know it would turn out that way when I first started thinking about running the “Bighorn Mountain Wild and Scenic Trail Run,” about a year ago. I just knew it would be another fine race coupled with a visit to some of my many favorite spots in Montana. But when I mentioned the race at a party last fall in Bethesda, things started to happen. The next thing I knew there was a group of seven of us making our plans for Sheridan, WY, for the June 18 race. For the next several months we studied maps, trained on hills, and scheduled races as training runs. In my case, there was some step-back time as I nursed various sore extremities, particularly an aggravated tendon in my foot. But in sum, we did all the things runners usually do, albeit with a goal of preparing to handle 50K in decent fashion in altitudes up to 8,000 feet. It seemed a daunting task when you’re accustomed to the low altitudes of suburban D.C., but everybody was up for it.

One of my training races was the well-staged Salt Lake City Marathon in April, running at around 3,000-4,000 feet. This trip doubled as an excuse to visit my old childhood friend Dan, and his wife Marcia and his mother Marge, to experience their great hospitality and the best four days of home cooking you could hope for in any bed-and-breakfast. Maybe it was all due to that good eatin’ and pampering, but that race convinced me that I had nothing physically holding me back for Bighorn, so upon my return I resumed training as much as I sensibly could. And so it went.

We flew into Billings, MT, June 16, two days before the race -- Ken, Emaad, and I arriving on a noon flight, and Jennifer, Clay, Rebecca, and An arriving at midnight after stopping in Denver for storm delays. By then, we Three Amigos had already sampled some of Billings’ finest brews, and then had had supper with my high school classmate, Janet, enjoying the golf course view from her patio as golfers kept pounding the side of the house with wayward shots. (“Did I hit your house?” one golfer queried. “No,” Ken replied. “But this isn’t my house.”) On June 17 it was on to Sheridan, with a stop at Custer’s Last Stand at the Little Bighorn National Battlefield. This mysterious ground has had me spell-bound since I first visited it about 15 years ago, and I was delighted to see the Maryland gang take it in with interest. Ken had not only read up on this battle, but on Crazy Horse and several other battles of the Indian Wars in this area, and we had developed a list of about 10 potential sites to visit.

Post-race, some of us visited the site of the Fetterman Massacre and part of the old Bozeman Trail, but Ken’s energy level was down after spending two or three days with rather severe intestinal problems. He still managed to complete the 30K course, even in his electrolyte-depleted state. His excellent write-up in his blog describing the course and many of the other events is a must read. You can bet that he’s thinking he’s got to go back soon and do the 50 miler as originally planned.

I can never do justice to the scenery of this course through mere words, or mere digital photos. I would have to include somehow the sounds of the countless trickling and raging streams, fed by record-amounts of snow melt. But I could hardly describe the buttes, the forested hills, the view from the climb up The Haul, the fields of wildflowers, the trek through the field of birch trees, and craggy cliffs that looked like Easter Island figures and castles. Truly, I could scarcely blink for fear I would miss something. I was reminded of Meriwether Lewis’ journal entries about passing the White Cliffs of the Missouri Breaks of Montana: “As we passed on it seemed as if those seens of visionary enchantment would never have and end . . . .” Well, there was an end, and after 4,000 feet of descent the last five miles of flat road was a welcome relief for my tired legs and feet.

Dinner that night at a steakhouse was a major treat. With spent legs and reeling from exhaustion, we giddily exchanged stories from the race, as Jennifer and An ate their giant steaks that looked like they had come from the flanks of a Brontosaurus. Emaad and I talked about the many interesting characters running the 100-mile course, including "Yosemite Sam" and others who looked like they had just emerged from the Old Dutchman mine, and the two elven spirits, a pair of six-foot-tall women who we were convinced had just arrived from Middle Earth as they glided along the ground in their effortless trek to the end. Jennifer told us about the woman who unleashed a barrage of profanities when asked “Aren’t you glad we’re almost done.” Or the woman who was picking out her “next boyfriend” among the guys passing her on the trail.

Post-race, the Three Amigos spent time in Billings at Janet’s house, while the two couples went on to Yellowstone. Ken and I explored the sights of Billings, including the Pictograph Caves State Park. Janet arranged a nice happy hour gathering with several of our classmates from the great class of ‘70, and Ken was surprised that some women were still willing to admit having dated me back in the day. We had to put an end to that talk when we left to go to the Mustangs’ minor league baseball game, putting a fit end to a great trip. What’s next? I’m certainly wondering when I’ll be able to do this race again. I have a few more marathons in the next few months close by, the Disney World in January, and maybe work on another Maniac star next spring (requiring 3 states in 9 days). Next summer my priority will probably be to go back to the Missoula Marathon, and along the way catch a group 60th birthday celebration with my classmates now living in Billings. To be sure, I won’t be forgetting Bighorn for a long time, and I probably won’t be satisfied until I get back there. For now, many thanks to the gang for sharing this great trip with me.


  1. Barry, this was a great trip and you are owed a round of thanks (and of beer) for coming up with the idea as well as a big hand in Bighorn logistics of when to fly and where to stay. And for spotting the bull snakes at Pictograph State Park.

  2. Barry, great report. Let's start planning the next one.