2009 ULTRA RUNNING ADVENTURES

 

   
 
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  RUNNING IN THE LITTLE BIGHORN CANYON:
TIME TO COPE WITH ADVERSITY HEAD-ON

MONDAY, JUNE 8

 
". . . I've also come to believe that it is in the face of adversity that one's true character,
or lack thereof, is revealed. Adversity, while not pleasant or expected, gives us the choice
to either sit and cower in a squalid cesspool of anger and self pity and give up,
or we can dare to step outside our comfort zones and use the challenges adversity brings
to us as a tool of transformation met with silent and composed resiliency."
 
- Anita Fromm, ultrarunner

  

 
Time to get back on the Bighorn course, rain and snow notwithstanding. We have races to train for.

Instead of the sub-freezing temperatures that were predicted for this morning, we awoke to 38F. and sunshine. The forecast high is 61 in Sheridan and the mid-50s for Dayton. We know it will be cooler in the mountains but rain isn't predicted until later this afternoon . . . so let's take advantage of this window of opportunity to get in a good run/hike on the course before the sky opens up again.

Today's destination: the area southwest of the Footbridge aid station in the Little Bighorn Canyon. We'll go out (and up) as many miles as we can, then come back down.. Jim will hit this section 30 miles into the 100-miler in the outbound direction; it's the beginning of an 18-mile climb from a little over 4,000 feet to 9,100 feet near the turnaround point, and he'll probably be running/hiking most of it in the dark.


Beautiful view on the drive to the Little Bighorn Canyon

Although this section is not on my 50K course, I was game for some variety. It's not dissimilar to parts of the course I'll be running: it has rocks, roots, mud, climbing, and descending. It may be prime rattlesnake territory through the lower canyon, but we've never seen any snakes there. So Cody will go with us today. He's got cabin fever, too.

The worst part of running or crewing this section is accessing the trailhead. It involves an hour's drive north of Dayton, into Montana, and back into Wyoming. Most of the miles are on good paved roads that afford scenic views of the eastern and northern edges of the Bighorn Range. It's the last bone-jarring miles that make us swear every time that we will never, ever drive out here again.

But we usually do. Selective memory rules.

Even paved Littlehorn Road was a pain today. The pavement was removed in about 25 places for drainage pipes or something, making for a slower, rougher ride.

As we got closer and closer to the canyon we could see just how low the snow was still on the ground from yesterday's storm:

The final dirt roads were atrocious from all the rain and lack of grading in recent months or years. The holes, puddles, and mud were deeper, the rocks more exposed than previous trips back to the canyon. We also encountered a fenced cattle "gate" across the road for the first time. It was heavy and it took us a few minutes each direction to open and close it:

When we reached the area where crews park on race day, we still had 3/4 mile to walk to the aid station location near the footbridge across the river. That end of the road is too rough for our 2WD truck so we ran/hiked it in and out.

JUST DO IT

Before reaching the bridge we met a young woman who's staying in one of the cabins along the river and was returning from a training run the other direction from the aid station. She's running the 50-miler. She confirmed the course, especially the steep climb right above the bridge, was a royal mess but we continued on. This should be good training for the race itself, we kept telling ourselves. 

Her report about the steep climb made me reassess my plan for the day. I originally thought I'd go each direction from the bridge out one hour and back, for a four-hour run plus the 1 miles on the rocky access road. I revised that to a two-hour out in the same SW direction Jim was going, and back. He wanted to go about ten miles to Spring Marsh, then turn and come back.


Trail through the lower part of the canyon

Our day on the trail turned out to be mostly cloudy with some sun in the morning and a bit of rain on the way back in the afternoon. Temperatures in the 40s and 50s were pleasant for running.

The trail follows the Little Bighorn River closely for a couple miles, then rises high above it into the forest and open meadows. The river was so full and loud that it sounded like a freight train in some parts of the high-walled canyon. It was not a suitable source of water for Cody until we got higher up the trail where it was a little more calm.

Trail conditions were challenging, even through the rockier sections at the lower elevations above the bridge. Open areas were just as muddy as wooded sections because of the recent rain and snow. We began seeing snow along the trail at about the 4,800-foot level. Above 5,000 feet, there was some recent snow ON the trail in shady spots.

 

 

 

 


Following Jim's footprints in the snow

On the return I could tell that some of the snow had already melted on and near the trails just in the time we were out there today. We noticed the same thing when we drove back to the campground; there was noticeably less snow at the lower elevations than we saw this morning.

Some of the flowers appeared to have been matted down by the wet, heavy snow. The flattened areas looked to me to be too large to have been places where deer and elk bedded down.

Mountain flowers are remarkably resilient at all altitudes. Although there aren't a lot of flowers in bloom right now in this section, the ones we saw were quite pretty and made an interesting visual and mental contrast to  the snow.

 

 

We didn't see any large wildlife today. Jim was running ahead of Cody and me, so it wasn't just Cody's presence that may have kept elk and deer in hiding.

Above the boulder-filled canyon area the river is flatter and calmer. Sometimes the trail follows the river quite closely; other times it climbs higher above the water until it finally disappears into the forest.

 

 

I recognized the location of the Narrows aid station even though I hadn't been on this part of the trail for several years:

The trail undulates through this section between Footbridge and Spring Marsh but is definitely a net uphill on the outbound. After the Narrows it leaves sight of the river and passes through rocky areas full of tall trees and moss. The trail is very runnable through here, though.

 

This section looked more like winter than spring:

Jim ended up turning around after 5 miles and 5,869 feet elevation. The footing became too difficult and he "just wasn't having any fun." We both got past the location of the Narrows aid station but not as far as Spring Marsh. I was about 4 miles in when I saw Jim coming back toward me. The elevation there was 5,531 feet. After following his scent for almost two hours, Cody was happy to finally "catch up to" Jim:

Cody and I turned around and followed Jim back to the footbridge. The remaining photos show the direction in which the 50-milers run their race and the way the 100-milers head back to the Footbridge AS at mile 66. We were both able to run more on the return because it was a net downhill. We still had to tread carefully through the rocky and muddy areas though.

 

 

 

 

 

 


We got some rain through here.

 

 

 

 


Cody inspects he Footbridge AS location

At the end of the run we went down to the footbridge that crosses the Little Bighorn River. The trail continues up a steep hill on the other side. Jim will save that for race day. This is where he dropped out two years ago (mile 66) and he's determined to get past it this time.

 


Looking upstream

Jim ended up with about 12 miles today and I had about 10 miles total. Although our mileage wasn't high, we got a strenuous workout in 4+ hours on the course. That was enough adversity for one day.

Oh, but we weren't done.

After the wet, bumpy drive back out to the highway, we swore "never again" -- again!  But we'll probably find ourselves heading for that trailhead again the next time we're here for the Bighorn races. It's important that we run as much of the course as possible before race day. Specificity, familiarization, and all that . . .

Next entry: let's try the Riley Loop again

Happy trails,

Sue
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, and Cody the Ultra Lab

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2009 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil

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