2006 ULTRA RUNNING ADVENTURES

   
 
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OFF THE BEATEN PATH:
LITTLE BIGHORN CANYON & FOOTBRIDGE
  
MONDAY, JUNE 12
 
 
". . . Proceed through the cattle guard, taking this primitive road into the mouth of the Little Bighorn River Canyon. You will ford a creek at 0.45 miles, ford a second creek at 0.6 miles, reenter Wyoming at a primitive sign noting that you are at 45 Degrees Latitude, and cross the Little Bighorn River on a bridge at 1.5 miles . . ."
 
- partial directions from the Bighorn Mountain Wild & Scenic Trail Runs website 
for access to the Footbridge Aid Station
 
 
 

Those sound like directions for the runners in this rugged mountain race, right? We do have to cross numerous cattle guards that progressively test our balance as the race proceeds. There are several creeks to be forded, their depth  dependent on snowmelt and rainfall. Sometimes we are lucky enough to cross streams on foot or vehicular bridges.

Not sure about the 45th Parallel, however. Don't remember seeing that sign on the runner's course, only on roads as we've driven by.

Well guess what? Those directions are for the crews of runners in the 52- and 100-mile races. Those are driving directions over cattle guards and really rough little dirt and rock roads, through creeks with water in them, deep ruts, and one really narrow bridge.

To enhance the experience, Jim and I found a very scenic little dirt road on the long route between Dayton and this aid station that will add even further to your adventure if you can make the trip during daylight hours.

Note: I can't imagine driving the more primitive road in the quote above in the dark - I'd rather run it.

FINDING FOOTBRIDGE

The Footbridge Aid Station in the Little Bighorn River Canyon is one of only three full-service aid stations with drop bags and crew access during the Bighorn 52- and 100-mile races. Hundred-milers go through twice, 52-milers once. The 50K and 30K runners are not this far out on the course. The aid station is located at 30 miles and 66 miles in the 100-miler (18 miles into the 52-mile race) and is one of the lowest elevations during the race at just under 4,600 feet. Fortunately, it is shaded by trees and the canyon walls.

You can see the location of the aid station and footbridge over the boisterous Little Bighorn River in Russ Evans' elevation profile below. I added arrows to show the location:

It takes real effort for folks to get to the Footbridge Aid Station, especially during the race. Jim and I did it at our leisure for another "visualization" experience and short hike, so there was no time pressure. You think runners are the only ones who have time deadlines during races? Well, so do crews who have to maneuver long distances between the aid stations in this race if they want to go to Footbridge. If they go only to Porcupine, Dry Fork, and the finish, it's a piece of cake. But getting to Footbridge once or twice is a logistical nightmare. More about that later . . .

I've been through this aid station only twice, in 2000 and 2003. Jim's been through it seven times in the races and on a previous training run. His memory of the site is better than mine, but he wanted to see it again, too. It helps us to know what landmarks are near the aid stations so we'll know when we're getting close. It also helps our efficiency while we're in the aid station. We both run close enough to cut-offs in 100s that every minute, no second, that we can save increases our odds of getting to the finish line.

It was another hot, sunny day in Dayton. We weren't going up in elevation much, so it was another hot, sunny day in the canyon, too. Getting there was half the fun. I'll go into that shortly. (That's the "Off the Beaten Path" part.)

We took the dogs and carefully watched for rattlers after parking the truck 3/4 mile from the aid station location. This is where crews are instructed to park during the race. Volunteers take smaller, high-clearance vehicles like Jeeps all the way back to the footbridge, but our truck was too big to maneuver past a sharp turn and projecting rock wall just beyond our pull-off.

 

This is the view 100-milers have of the footbridge, river, and far canyon wall as they close in on the aid station at 30 miles:

 

On the outbound, the aid station will be located across the footbridge. After restocking, 100-milers proceed northwest toward the Porcupine Aid Station on this trail along the river, climbing to about 9,100 feet in seventeen miles (Porcupine is a little farther, and lower).

 

In this photo, Jim's looking up at the other canyon wall. Runners in the 52-miler and on the return trip of the 100-miler cross the bridge and then begin a tough climb out of the canyon on their way to Dry Fork. It doesn't go straight up that wall, but it feels like it does!

The trail goes from 4,590 feet to 6,800 feet (at Bear Hunting Camp) in only three miles, a major climb 66 miles into the race. Heck, that was tough at 18 miles into the shorter race!

We are grateful to the volunteers who brave the rough roads to get into this canyon, which lies close to the northern border of the Bighorn National Forest. They have to be in place for many hours during the day and night Saturday and Sunday. Not only do they have to haul in all the supplies for the aid station, but also runners' drop bags.

And those volunteers have it easier than some of the even more remote aid station volunteers who have to pack in their supplies! Aid is much more limited at many of the other aid stations along this course, and some are just unmanned locations for only water. Thank you, race management and volunteers, for all the hard work and time you devote to making this run possible for us!

CREWING NIGHTMARE

As I mentioned, this is a difficult race to crew unless crews go only to the start, Dry Fork and Porcupine aid stations, and the finish. If they want to access the Little Bighorn Canyon, too, they're in for an adventure.

Here's the problem:

This is a largely inaccessible wilderness race that zig-zags from west to east (essentially) through the far northern section of the very big Bighorn National Forest. There are numerous trails in the one million-plus acre forest, but few roads. (You can see the course layout on the Bighorn website. The link is to the top left on every page of our journal.)

To get to the first aid station in the 100-miler, Dry Fork, crews must drive about 38 miles west from Dayton (42 miles from the start line of the 100-miler) on mountainous paved and dirt roads. There are several turns, but it's pretty easy to find. It takes an hour or more if you drive at a reasonable speed.

If crews want to see their runners at the next crew point, Footbridge, they have to drive all the way back east to Dayton (38 miles), then north and west around the mountain range, up into Montana, back into Wyoming, and south into the Little Bighorn Canyon on difficult roads (at least another 34 miles, some at 5 MPH). Oh, and then they have to walk in 3/4 mile to the aid station! The runners have to go "only" 18 miles, and fast ones can beat their crews to this aid station, especially outbound, which is early in the race and a net downhill (see profile above).

Remember the description of the primitive road into the canyon at the beginning of this entry? This is the second creek ford:

It's been very dry around here this month, so the water was pretty low. There are much deeper ruts and "holes" to maneuver on this road, and plenty of big rocks that you can't see here. I'm not joking about going only 5 MPH in places. We didn't need to use our 4WD feature, but a high-clearance vehicle is mandatory (yes, even if you're in a rental car!). Allow at least an hour for this drive, plus the time it takes to walk 3/4 mile carrying stuff for the runner and crew.

Back to logistics. If the crew gets there in time to help their runner, they have to walk back 3/4 mile to their vehicle, return to Dayton (34 miles), and drive back up into the mountains another 55 miles (with a 5,000-foot elevation gain) to the Porcupine Aid Station, the turn-around point in the 100-miler. I'm guessing that would take almost three hours, barring any stops, and many crews will be doing it in the dark. They'll probably beat their runner, though, because it's a tough, mostly uphill 18-mile grind for the runners, especially after the sun goes down.

Now reverse the process when the runner turns around and goes back down the course to Dayton. (I'm chuckling, thinking of all the uphills on the downhill return.) Arriving at Footbridge is more of a challenge this time because the runner has a significant net downhill (on very rough footing, however). Finding Footbridge again in the dark can't be very easy on these roads, even if the crew found it earlier. And then they'll probably miss their runner at Dry Fork.

Bottom line: if I was crewing someone on this course by myself, I wouldn't go to Footbridge. It's doable with two crew vehicles, one going to Porcupine and Dry Fork, the other tackling Footbridge (and preferably just staying there until the runner returns).

This is an interesting drive if you're doing it on a training run with no time pressure. You must have a high-clearance vehicle for the last two miles into the canyon to the place crews must park. Four-wheel drive isn't necessary, although it would help if it's really muddy or under snow.

ENHANCING THE ADVENTURE

We have a recommendation if you're aiming for this aid station during the daylight. It's a little detour, sixteen miles of smooth dirt road that cuts a tangent between Wyoming Hwy. 345 and the Littlehorn Road back into Wyoming.

As you're driving northwest on 345, take a left when you reach County Road 144. It will take you through very beautiful foothills on the north side of the Bighorn Range past large, handsome cattle ranches, tall wildflowers, and angry bulls:

 

 

 

A little past this scene, there is a 45th Parallel sign on the state line between WY and MT. Then you come to the four-way intersection at the cattle guard mentioned in the website directions above. Go left there and you're on the primitive road into the canyon. Continue following the Bighorn website directions.

CR144 is shorter but took us the same amount of time as going a longer distance on 345 and Littlehorn Rd. We guarantee you that on a pretty summer day, it is considerably more interesting than the paved roads through the valleys of the Crow Agency. If it's raining, go the official route that uses more paved roads.

DINNER WITH FRIENDS

Soon after we arrived in Dayton over two weeks ago we met a friendly local runner, Pat Shiling, and his wife, Mary, and their young daughter. They have lived in the Sheridan area for about nine years. They moved into a vintage home on a beautiful piece of land on the Tongue River Road near Dayton last fall. The story of their serendipitous discovery of the farm is very interesting (they went to an estate auction looking for some old books, and ended up "buying the ranch").

Pat is running the Bighorn 30K, his longest race to date, and Mary is captaining the Homestretch Aid Station near their home on race day. (Thank you, Mary!!) We hope we get that far to see them on Saturday.

Pat invited us to come out to see their place and have dinner this evening. Not only was the shrimp pasta great, but we loved seeing their beautiful homestead. Here are a couple of the very old buildings on the property and their spectacular view of the Bighorn Mountains:

The couple has done an incredible amount of work to tear down some of the decrepit outbuildings and restore the others, which are over 100 years old. They are living in a hastily-remodeled little house behind the "Big House" while they are restoring and expanding it. In addition, they are cultivating flower and vegetable gardens, fine-tuning the irrigation system, working in Sheridan, raising their little girl, being involved in their community, and living the dream of many urban families who would love to escape the madding crowd.

You can do that in Wyoming.

Happy trails,

Sue
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody, and Tater

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2006 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil