Sunday, July 23, 2006
There is a story about the Tour de France that the founder, Henri Desgrange,
wanted to make the tour so demanding that there would be one lone finisher,
I went to the Big Horn in 2006 with the idea that I needed to be better
prepared and have a faster horse than last year. Frank, my best horse, 2003
Big Horn winner and BC horse, would be my teammate on the trails this year.
2004 and 2005 were not particularly good years for me and in 2006 I stepped
up my running, worked to regain some focus, and get my head back on the
trail. I wanted to be able to run or walk all of the significant downhill
trail sections if necessary. Frank and I can put together a pretty strong
"power walk" on the downhill but he can kick my butt on the uphill sections.
Frank and I had planned to follow Big Horn with Tevis, but only if the Big
Horn outcome was satisfactory.
We left SW Idaho early on Wednesday morning and followed a cold front across
the desert and mountains of Idaho east to Wyoming. We had cool showery
weather for our trip from the Boise area to the rodeo grounds in Dubois
Wyoming. We passed by the Tetons shrouded in clouds, climbed and descended
Togwotee Pass to Dubois Wyoming. On Thursday we got up early, left Dubois,
and arrived at the Trapper Creek Ranch campsite around noon.
Immediately I made contact with some old friends, Tracy Blue and Max
Merlich. I met Saula and Tom Sherwood and Dave Rabe at the camp, along with
Steph Teeter, Bev Grey, Chris Yost, Kara Yost, Lucky and her beautiful
Appaloosa stud, and many others. Tracy, Max and I formed a pact and decided
that we would ride together and that we would run a conservative ride with
the focus on completing with two sound horses and one sound mule. The
weather forecast was for hot dry weather; the type of weather that could
dehydrate a horse in only a few miles. Again, my brother Willi came up from
Colorado and he, Lisa, and Dan coordinated the crew activities which saved
our horses as we traversed the Big Horn trails. A crew is not necessary at
most endurance rides, but a crew is critical at Big Horn. Just like Tevis,
the Big Horn ride managers do not have the ability to ferry your equipment
from place to place and you will have to arrange for your own supplies.
We knew that there would be some trail changes on the portion from Antelope
Butte to Jacks Creek but we were confident that the changes would be
consistent with the six miles of trail along Shell Creek that had been
I was up at 2:45 in the morning, I prepared a grain mash for Frank, met with
Max and Tracy, and the three of us saddled up and headed to the start.
Frank and I had trained for this ride and I arranged a two-week taper for
him prior to starting. Frank was beside himself dancing and turning with
untamed energy at the start. The other horses took off and Frank remembered
that his place on the Big Horn trail was at the front of the herd. It took
some walking, but we got everything under control and headed on up the
We set a steady quick pace across the desert badlands. The leaders were
nowhere to be seen. Our group talked that the day was already hot and we
were worried that the leaders might be setting too fast of a pace and
pulling others along. Our pace was just slightly off my splits from 2003
and 2004 and we were planning on a 1:00 AM to 2:30 AM finish for the 100.
Early on we joined with Teresa VanHowe and the four of us rode together for
We arrived at Hudson Falls around 7:45; a 3:45 25-mile run. The Big Horn is
a tough course and we hoped to build a little time cushion in the first 25
miles. I had a great breakfast of yogurt, fruit, and granola that Willi
made, Frank and the others ate hay and grain, Frank polished off a Powerbar,
and we were off after a 45 minute hold.
The next 15 miles are a tough trip through the canyons. We headed up the
Dugway trail bypassing one of my favorite sections along Cedar Canyon. At
the top of the Dugway the markings were not too distinct. I knew the trail
and my horse knows the trail, but I wanted to test him anyway. For the last
100 yards to the trail junction I set the reins across the saddle and just
let Frank choose his own route. Sure enough, we came to the trail junction
and he turned right with no hesitation. The horse memory is amazing and he
led us into the canyons.
The canyons are my favorite section of the Big Horn Trail. Actually, my
favorite section is the 80 or so miles from the creek below Hudson Falls to
just after Jack Creek, or even the entire 100 miles, but the canyons are
especially nice. The flies were troublesome but our group just kept on
trucking up and down through the canyons and across the saddles.
We arrived at Horse Creek and we saw the first evidence that some of the
horses may have been going too fast. One horse showed signs of colic at the
Horse Creek vet check. Riders and vets got the horse up and standing.
Later I heard that a dose on Banamine led the horse to a quick recovery.
Two other horses were not so fortunate.
>From Horse Creek we followed Dave Rabe and Tom and Saula Sherwood across the
swales and onto to Antelope Butte. The high alpine area was dry this year
and I deeply missed seeing the small blue forget-me-nots in the high
meadows. Those flowers have special meaning for me. The hot dry weather
continued and I was consuming almost all of the water in my 70-ounce
Camelback between every vet check.
We had an hour hold at Antelope Butte and our out-time was scheduled to be
about 3:45. We were still on schedule and I took the time at Antelope Butte
to unsaddle Frank and hose him off. I also had a very nice conversation
with Bob and Nance, an older couple from Greybull who owned Frank at one
point in his past. A big part of returning to the Big Horn 100 is renewing
friendships with people like Bob and Nance and others like Kathy Arnold that
I only see once a year. I took the opportunity to have a hamburger and talk
with some of the other riders. Kara Yost's horse was pulled from lameness
and Chris would be joining us for the last fifty miles of the ride.
We set off from Antelope Butte at about 3:45. The trail climbs back to the
Big Horn Plateau and then descends to Shell Creek. We walked the descent to
Shell Creek and stopped to look for access to the creek water but the bank
was too steep. Usually the trail heads east at Shell Creek for about six
miles to Adelaide Lake but this year the trail climbed out of Shell Creek to
almost 10,000 feet, then descended and climbed through a series of saddles
and passes to Shell Reservoir, and then climbed back to Adelaide Lake where
it joins with the historical trail. As we climbed out of Shell Creek we
passed one rider whose horse had given up. Later we caught two other riders
who were slowing down and considering their options. We continued on
through Snowshoe Junction and then descended down to Shell Reservoir. Frank
has done three other Big Horn 100s and he was confused on this section. I
could feel his concern that we were not on the right trail. Still, he kept
on, trusting that I knew where we were going. The new trail section took
considerably longer than the traditional six-mile trail to Adelaide Lake and
the new section had considerably more elevation gain and loss. It did not
look like we were going get to Jack Creek before dark like I had planned.
Leaving Jack Creek before full darkness is a key milestone leading to a
successful Big Horn 100.
At the creek crossings after Adelaide Lake we decided to give the animals a
fifteen-minute rest stop. They had been out all day and it had been a long
time since the Antelope Butte vet check. The four horses were just mowing
grass at the creek crossing. Reluctantly we took them away from the grass
and headed on up the trail in the rapidly diminishing twilight. It was just
about full darkness when we reached the top and began our descent on the
Shag Nasty. Trail markings were scarce and we made a slight mistake and
began to head west down the wrong trail. We quickly corrected that mistake
and headed across the valley to the correct trails on the south ridge. It
was very dark. I had my GPS with the tracklogs from the previous years as
well as my knowledge of the track. Heading across to the trail I commented
that my companions must really trust me because there was no trail and no
trail markers and no discussion and it was dark. They responded; "We have
no other choice." I carry a red LED light which is good enough to adjust
tack and read trail signs but not quite bright enough to see the trail. I
was leading Frank at the time and usually I could feel the trail surface
with my feet or barely see it in the dark. At times I would call out to
Tracy for a "trail scan" with her flashlight so we could be sure that we
were on the trail. Every so often we would come to a wall of impenetrable
black trees. In the daylight it would be easy to see the trail, but at
night it looked like a dark thicket. Tracy would shine her flashlight and
we would find a way through. I was leading Frank and the others were
mounted and the tree branches and limbs were a real hazard to both riders
and horses. Both Max and Tracy took some real stabs and I could tell that
Tracy's hurt by the tone in her voice. We saw no trail markers and went
quite slow on this section because of the hazards. Max Merlich estimates
that the Shag Nasty section cost us at least two extra hours. We came out
exactly where we should on the road and trotted the two miles or so into
At Jack Creek, there was concern about the riders still out on the trail.
Looking at the ride records it appeared that there were two, or perhaps
three, riders still out on the trail. It was obvious that they would be
spending a night out in the woods and we hoped all was ok. We focused on
taking care of our horses. Tracy Blue decided that she had enough for one
day and encouraged us to go on without her. Max and I were disappointed
because we had ridden with Tracy from the start and we wanted to ride back
into camp with her later in the day.
Chris, Max, and I made our preparations to go. We knew that we were over
time and we could see no real reason to hurry. We lost our time in the dark
on the Shag Nasty and from here on in to camp we decided to take it slow and
preserve the animals. We walked and led down to camp. We passed the creek
and the two water holes. Our horses were famished and they were searching
and stretching for every blade of dry grass on the trail. We stopped at
each of the water crossings to let them drink and graze for a few minutes.
The day had been hot and we were no longer in any real hurry. We were
confident that we would finish and that the finish time would exceed
The sky was getting light by the time we reached Black Mountain. We passed
the rock ledges, continued down through the dust, did the final dogleg trail
section and ambled on in to the finish. About 100 feet before the finish
Max's mule Junior picked up a stone in one of his horseshoes and Max made a
final stop just shy of the finish line to remove the stone. We met Patti at
the finish and we let the horses and the mule graze on some Flitner grass
after a long 100 miles on the trail. Even though we were overtime, we
finished the whole trail with sound horses that were ready, willing, and
able to continue, and Max mentioned the AERC motto.
Looking back, I rode the 2006 Big Horn 100 with three of the toughest
individuals that I have ever met - Tracy Blue, Max Merlich, and Chris Yost.
Tracy, Max, and I made a commitment to ride together at camp on Thursday and
we followed through with that commitment on Saturday. Through my various
adventures I have met a number of tough people. If I am ever in trouble and
I need to cross some rough trail in a difficult situation, then I can think
of no others who would be better companions and no better horses and a mule
that would get us through. At a gas station in SE Idaho on my way to Shell
Wyoming, I heard a Tom Petty song and the lyrics of that song come to mind
when I think of my trail companions last week: "You can stand me up at the
gates of hell but I won't back down." Thoughts of my companions, thoughts
of their horses, and the memories of our experiences on the Big Horn trails
still bring a tear to my eyes. Sitting here at work, I wish that I could be
back out on the Big Horn trails with Frank and my friends.
Friday, July 21, 2006
Well since you asked...here's the whole story.
For those of you that do not know me, let me preface this tome with a little background. Two years ago I was a happy Ultrarunner who thought my wife's horses were very nice and yes I would feed them if she couldn't but who otherwise did not have a lot of use for a horse. Then while taking a little stroll through the hills of Vermont lo and behold here come horses riding the same course as I was running and surprise the riders and horses were also having fun. Well I finished that little stroll in the woods, went home and informed my wife that I had finally found a use for a horse, that you could wear running clothes, that I wanted to learn how to ride and needed to buy myself some horses and that I was going back to Vermont to ride the course.
My wife is the most wonderful person on this planet and has to be one of the most understanding people I know, but even she was not quite prepared for that announcement. After the shock had subsided and she realized that like many of my crazy undertakings, I was serious about this she wholeheartedly agreed to help me. I of course had no idea what I was in for, I mean after all you get on the horse and ride, just like running they say go, you put one foot in front of the other for 100 miles and someone tells you to stop and you fall down, moan in pain and proclaim how much fun it all is! Needless to say it was not quite that simple...first I had to learn how to ride...a painful endeavor if there ever was one. Then I had to buy a horse, again my gratitude to my wife for knowing which horse I really needed, instead of which horse I thought I needed! Then the riding had to proceed...enter here the numerous and wonderful people of CTR/Endurance...how can I thank you all for what you have given? Irving, Tom, Kathy, Janet, Sharon, Traci, Liz the list goes on and on. Not only did you all suffer from my numerous questions, laugh at my feeble attempts to stay on the horse, but you encouraged and supported and realized that I had a goal and was committed.
So two short years later here I was back on the ground in Vermont, surrounded by all my running friends (who while insane...figured I was really insane for being on a horse). Along side were Kathy, Liz on Darby and a host of others I have had the pleasure of meeting over the last two years and most importantly of all, my beautiful wife smiling and wishing me a good ride! Trails open and Liz and I were off, not dead last but definitely back of the pack...a nice leisurely start and a good beginning. The sun was painting the eastern sky and the birds were singing, the horses were having so much fun, I think I was the only one worried...after all 100 miles is a 100 miles. Soon enough the lady's horse in front of me tripped and over the reins she went..no harm and she jumped right back on, both Liz and I were impressed to say the least. Away she sped...and we too picked up the pace a little as our first fly by was at 10 miles and we only had 1 hour and 45 minutes to get there.
Now one good thing about running a course is you get to know it REAL well, I mean in intimate detail. So I was able to describe to Liz when we could go fast and where the runner's aid stations would be and how soon we would catch the runners (they get a one hour head start). And right on the predictions we came to the aid stations and caught the back of the pack runners. We also came to the second runner's station at mile 10.1 and looked everywhere for the fly by. Oh no, we missed it or did we and where in the heck is it if not at 10 miles? Keep going, but if we do we will cross the river and then will be at 12.7 miles and time was running out...we had planned to take at least 1 hour and 30 minutes and had only 15 minutes to spare. Time to go a little faster Summer you magnificent goober! By the aid station and around the bend, there is Stephanie smiling and waving and yes the fly by but at mile 13 not 10, still made 1 hour and 45 minutes but wow!
Eat Summer, drink Summer, have an electrolyte Summer, we are outta' here...first hold still down the road but now the time was going to work in our favor providing the mileage was right (and it was). We continued to trot up the hills and down. Liz and Darby were having fun and Summer and I continued our dance with them. So many runners and all having fun and telling me to give them a lift and what was I doing up on that horse...you runners are so awesome, how well I remember the climb that just keeps going up and the drive to keep moving...somehow on Summer it was surreal and yet so real. Hey Liz just up here we get to a clear cut be sure and look back over your shoulder...what a view...fantastic, and yes that is Mt. Ascutney...we will be down there later today. Into the first hold and both Summer and Darby sail though...cleared back on trail. Yippee we get to pass the runners again. How is it going all? Yep good day, life is good, yes I love my horse and no you cannot be towed :-) River coming up, take the ford but Liz, we go slow by the next aid station (the famous chocolate chip runners station). Hi, I know we are not runners but will you kindly share a couple of your cookies with us riders? You will, my thanks to you all! Yum yum were they good...of course the photographer is just ahead and both Liz and I had a mouth full of cookies when he said smile!
On to the second hold, the miles are starting to add up and the day is getting hotter and more humid, but right on schedule there it is and so is Steph...what a joy to see her smiling face and know Summer was going to be taken care of so well. Once again Summer and Darby sail through...how can one ever thank the vets and volunteers enough? Back on course and now the famous back loop out of Camp 10 Bear and the also famous climb from hell, two actually, first it is Agony Hill (Summer agreed) and then the real climb from hell it just never ends! But yes it does end after all and the view back over one's shoulder is worth the price of admission! Third hold coming up...pulse is good, but Doug our good vet says, that horse is going a little funny, come back when you are tacked up. Time to panic..is Summer off or is he being Summer (this boy travels funny for sure). Tack up and trot down and back...here's your card, Summer has all A's for metabolics is eating and drinking and peeing up a storm so you can proceed. Back down to 10 Bear then up the gulch from hell (I always hated that climb when afoot especially since it was always dark when afoot). Finally the top and Liz comments on the beautiful home on the right...told her I had never seen it in the daylight before! Into the hold and Summer does well. Meg Sleeper gives Summer a good going over and clears us onward...yippee 70 miles gone and even though we are in last place Liz and I can proceed. Ah the best laid plans of mice and men! Poor Liz is not feeling well and pulls herself...Summer and Darby look at each other and nod, Liz's health is more important. Well Summer looks like it is going to be you and me. Say what? You crazy human all the other horses are gone, it is getting dark and why are you putting on running shoes? Lani and Kathy, Summer says next time please wait or at least leave your horses behind! Steph looks at me and says, well you have been here before, you know what you have to do your horse knows what he has to do so go out and do it! Got it!
Out of the hold and the daylight is fading fast. Good some runners ahead we are still on course and still moving. Soon enough it is dark, and I mean DARK. Now everyone told me to not blind the horse, so I put a couple glow sticks on his breast collar and they are blinding me. I was using my red LED but that was just about worthless. Guess I will trust the horse even more. And so the miles were slipping by. Look Summer another glow stick ahead lets go that way and yes those are runners do not run over them. Kept getting nice comments...wow a horse, haven't seen one of those for hours...thanks! Keep moving, what is that noise? Screeching...the hair is standing up on the back of my neck and Summer is saying no damn way! Come on buddy lets go, it won't hurt us...I still do not know what was up in those trees nor do I want to! More screeching only this time it is a peacock...go back to sleep it is only Summer and I. Another pit stop and there is Steph, still smiling and still crewing...we both owe her so much! Eat up Summer miles to go before we sleep. About 7 miles to next and final hold, okay be there in a while. Back into the darkness and once again all alone, no runners, no horses just Summer and I. Down behind Rojeks house and all of sudden we are crashing through the woods. Whoa Summer, what is going on? I am turning on my light I need to see what is the problem...holy moly they have jumps set up out here...good boy I am glad you went around that instead of over it! Guess I will leave the light on for a while! Lets go! The miles continue to pass, thank goodness for runners aid stations as they have mile markers and good food too! Shouldn't be too far to the hold, couple of miles time to run big guy so on the ground I go and don't you know, at this point I am faster than Summer. Crazy humans he thinks! We jog right to the hold, surprise no other horses but he vets immediately...trot a little funny, what's that? Major pee...oh he had to pee, great color, you been on foot? Yep. Doug says we are both fit to continue see you at the end. Thanks. Okay Steph, only 12 miles to go, can you meet us one more time? Good we are off. Ride a ways then back on my feet too..need to climb these darn hills faster and without my weight he can.
Time starts to drag and we are all alone, haven't seen a runner in an hour. Summer starts to question his rider's mentality...you must be going the wrong way, there is no one out here. How about this farm they have horses, we can stop here! Finally two runners coming, look Summer lets follow them. Okay Dad! Not to worry runners we are going to drag off of you for a while, Summer needs a guide dog! Pace actually picks up as they are shooting for sub 24 hours running and we only have a few miles to go. Up ahead Steph's smiling face once again! Tom is there too...what a great group they all are. Eat up Summer, 4.7 miles to go. Steph meet us at the end and skip the last pit crew stop we are coming home! Two more runners racing the 4 AM time cutoff for 24 hours. Nice guys, one older than the other. He is tired, very tired, Summer is getting excited as we had ridden part of this course on Friday. The runner keeps asking how are we doing? I tell him he can do it, get in front of the horse and keep moving, we have to climb Blood Hill (twice actually) and then the final shoot. 3:45 AM how far he says, I tell him he can make it but he needs to push and push hard...I know the struggle going on...he has been running for 23 hours and 45 minutes, his brain is screaming go, go, go, and his body is yelling make it stop please! I get off the horse and start chasing them on foot...Summer says huh?
Down the final shoot, there is the finish line. Damn 4:06 AM, he finished but missed the cutoff (a plaque not a buckle)...but such is the life of an ultra runner or rider! He comes over as I am untacking Summer and shakes my hand and says thanks for letting him go first and for the wonderful horse pushing him onward. Our pleasure I reply. Steph takes my vet card and goes into the almost empty tent and announces 106 arriving! Nick and Meg are waiting, pins and needles time. Is Summer okay, is he a little stiff, I know damn well he is tired, but he has been so magnificent what else can I say. Meg and Nick confer and Meg turns to me and says Completion. What? Completion! Yahoo, a big hug from Meg a handshake from Nick, Lani comes in and gives us all bear hugs. I hug Summer and Steph. It is over, we had done it! What can one say? As we headed up the hill it was getting light in the east once again. The runners were still coming in and the world was good. A quick nap and then up again to make sure Summer was okay...feed me he said, so I did! Awards ceremony...everyone keeps asking did you make it! The smile alone told the story! Sue calls out the 50 mile finishers and then gets to the 100s. Yep Turbo Turtle for sure..we paid for 24 hours and by golly we got 24 hours. Art King shakes my hand and his head...Sue shakes my hand as do countless others...it is like a dream. I sit back down holding that buckle in my hand and can't stop smiling...guess I need to buy a belt! Kathy gets her buckle too! So many are there, Irving, Tom, Kathy, Steph and so many others.
Sorry this is so long but it had to be told. If I did not make it clear from the beginning I owe so much to my wonderful wife Stephanie and to my fabulous horse Summer (thanks Nancy and Julie for selling him to me). Dreams and goals are such a part of a persons life and the ability to go after one's dreams are so important. My thanks to any and all that shared our journey, we will see you on the trails for sure.
And if you are wondering, yes it is much easier to run 100 miles (maybe physically tougher) than it is to ride 100 miles, but I must say riding a wonderful horse is pretty close to bliss! Bill and Summer