2007 ULTRA RUNNING ADVENTURES

 

   
 
Runtrails' Rocky Mountain Journal
 
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  WEATHERING THE BIGHORNS  

FRIDAY, JUNE 8

 
"No matter how well you know the course, no matter how well you may have done in a given race in the past, you never know for certain what lies ahead on the day you stand at the starting line waiting to test yourself once again. If you did know, it would not be a test, and there would be no reason for being there."
 
- Dan Baglione, ultra running friend from California 
 

 

Weather is a big factor in an ultra marathon, especially a 100-miler. In mountainous territory, at altitude, it is a HUGE factor for everyone involved -- runners, crews, volunteers. The higher the race, the more varied the possible weather conditions.

Approaching storm near Coney Summit on Colorado Trail Seg. 22 (2006)

The Bighorn Wild and Scenic Trail Run course tops out at about 9,100 feet approximately halfway into the 100-mile race and near the beginning of the 52-mile race. The 50K goes a little over 8,000 feet three times. This isn't nearly as high as 100-milers like Leadville or Hardrock, or 50-milers like Lake City, that cross mountain summits and passes at 12,000, 13,000, even 14,000 feet. But Bighorn is still remote and plenty can happen weather-wise. Temperatures during the race can top out over 100 degrees Fahrenheit during the day in the hot canyons and dip well below freezing at night.

Last year's race conditions were about the best since the 100-miler began in 2002 (the 52-miler, 50K, and 30K have been going on longer). The Bighorn Range had less snow than usual during the winter and spring of 2006, temperatures were higher earlier in the spring, the course was drier, and the flowers were the best we've ever seen here that early in the year.

Bighorn course in Sheep Creek Ridge area, June, 2006

And in 2006 the 100-mile race had its highest finish rate, in large part because of the weather. This year may be a different story with more weather-related challenges, but hopefully everyone will still have a lot of fun out there despite the wet conditions and possible remaining snow.

A SCARY NIGHT

Wednesday afternoon, night, and Thursday morning saw Mother Nature dump three to four inches of rain on the area, causing even more runoff in the mountains and flooding down in the valleys. In addition, up to eight inches of snow fell at elevations over 5,000-6,000 feet.

Storm clouds gather over the "fallen city" on Hwy. 14 west of Dayton, WY on June 6

We didn't get much sleep Wednesday night. Our heads are only about three feet from the roof of the bedroom slide-out in our camper. Heavy rain fell steadily all night, so loud we couldn't escape the  noise with earplugs. We could hear the wind howling and feel the camper shake from the worst gusts. We felt a great deal of sympathy for the folks in the one tent in the campground. (There have been only a few other folks camping here so far.)

You know how fears are sometimes magnified when you're lying awake in the dark? My imagination was working overtime because I couldn't see what was going on outside. I worried the most about that humongous tree six feet from our camper. Even a branch from it could kill us if it landed just right. We measured it chest high at 18 feet!

Or what if a gust of wind blew the camper on its side? Would the river flood the entire campground and we'd have to evacuate in the middle of the night? What if no one knew it was rising that high in the darkness and we ended up stuck in a lake of water?

I was very relieved when the sun came up Thursday and the worst I could see from the windows were small branches and leaves on the ground. The two campsites next to us had some standing water in low spots, but our grassy, more level site looked fine, just wet. The tent folks had packed up and gone.

It was noon Thursday before the rain ended and I explored the campground. I headed straight for the tent sites next to the Tongue River and realized I'd already missed "high tide." Water was still pooled up at the low end of the tent area, but I could see matted grass where the river had extended even farther into the campground.

The water was only a few inches below the banks, by far the highest we've ever seen it here. And it was flowing very fast. There isn't any way I'd want to cross that river except on a sturdy bridge. I don't think it's very deep through Dayton, but the velocity was something to behold compared to its normal placid pace.

About fifteen of the tent sites are right next to the river:

Notice how bright green the grass is from all the recent rains. Last year Marshall had to water the grass frequently during the summer because it was very dry. Now he's having trouble keeping up with the mowing because the grass is growing so fast! 

Later, Jim and I took a walk with the dogs in the city park adjacent to our campground. We followed  the path that several hundred runners will use next Saturday as they finish the Bighorn races at the shelter just a few feet from the river. We could tell that part of that path had been under water earlier that morning. Farther on we had to detour because the trail was still under water.

WHAT ABOUT THE TONGUE RIVER CANYON??

While it was raining and flooding in the valleys east of the Bighorns, the mountains were getting doused with a late-season snowfall. We could see snow at about 6,000 feet from the campground:

Predictions had been for twelve to eighteen inches of new snow in the Bighorns, but apparently the deepest was "only" eight inches. We were more than curious about conditions higher up and wanted to do more training at either Dry Fork or Porcupine, but Hwy. 14 was closed until Friday around noon. So we had to content ourselves with exploring the course at lower elevations.

We still had no desire to drive all the way to Footbridge, so we decided to drive five miles out the Tongue River Canyon Road to see what the river looked like upstream.

Jim and I have mixed feelings about this dirt road. The good thing is that when we come down the long trail from Horse Creek Ridge through the canyon and arrive at the last major aid station in the parking lot at the trailhead, we have only five more miles to get to the finish in Dayton. The bad thing is, we're usually too fried by then to run much of the most runnable surface of the race!

From the road we could see the snow up in the mountains a little better:

We passed the starting line for the 100-mile race (a bit over a mile before the trail head) and soon had to dodge this boulder that had fallen onto the road during the storm.

Beware of falling rocks, indeed! That's the "Eye of Needle" in the background.

In the parking area where volunteers man the Tongue River Canyon aid station, we could see debris that marked the river's high water level:

The river always looks and sounds more ferocious in the canyon than at the campground despite having less volume five miles upstream. It drops faster through the more narrow walls, splashing over boulders and echoing off the canyon walls. The water was just wild on Wednesday, brown and furious in its rush downstream. It was also higher. Even if you've never seen this river at normal levels, you can tell it's high in these photos taken from the canyon trail:

There's the Needle again, from the other direction

We've had warnings about rattlesnakes being out already on the canyon trail, so we didn't go in very far. Once bitten and all that . . .

LUSH COUNTRYSIDE

Not only is Dayton green from all the rain this spring, so is most of eastern Wyoming and Montana. We couldn't believe how green it was when we drove up here from Denver, and it was the same this morning as we headed north to Billings, Montana to run errands and visit friends and family. We enjoyed the ninety-minute drive on I-90 through hilly rangeland more than when it's dry and brown. A radio commentator described this drive as "looking like Ireland" because it is so emerald green -- not the pale green or brown to which people have become accustomed out here after years of drought, even in the springtime.

I lived with Jim in Billings from 1999 to 2004. They were five very dry years with considerably less than normal snow AND rain. It was interesting to live in a totally different landscape but I missed all the green I'd lived with for fifty years in southern Ohio and northern Georgia. Well, right now this area of the West looks as lush as anything in the eastern half of the country!

Here's a shot of the rangeland that I took through the windshield at 70 MPH (don't worry, Jim was driving):

Unfortunately for some ranchers and townspeople along the region's rivers, there has been so MUCH rain that flooding has been a problem this week. We saw some flooded buildings on a ranch along the Little Bighorn River as we drove up to Billings. And creeks and rivers will remain high for a while as the snow melts in the mountains. Many more people are affected by getting too much water than just those of us in the Bighorn races next week! Yes, we'll have special challenges this year, but at least our homes aren't flooded.

LET'S GO SEE THE SNOW!!

Jim has been talking to Rich Garrison this week about helping clear the race course near Porcupine. Rich and Karen Powers had plans to mark and survey the trail on both Thursday and Friday, but couldn't get up there because Hwys. 14 and 14A were closed. Now that the roads have been plowed and re-opened, the plan is for a small group of volunteers to meet at the ranger station in the morning and hike in on the course. We plan to meet them out on the trail to help them clear trees, etc. for a few hours. We can use some exercise (without overdoing it this close to the race), we're curious as all get out about the snow, and volunteering is FUN.

Sleeping better now,

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

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2007 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil

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