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"Nature punishes any neglect of prudence."
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
Since there is a high probability of snow at elevations above 7,500 feet in the Bighorn Mountains right now, we chose the lowest and closest trailhead for our first training run on the race course: the Tongue River Canyon, only five miles from our campground.

This is also the "scariest" section for us to run and hike after Jim's Big Adventure three years ago with a rattlesnake bite. The canyon area and the rocky meadows above it are rife with rattlers starting about now, when the sun warms up the boulders and bare trails they so love during daylight hours.

Jim and I have health insurance that will cover any future snake bites; Cody doesn't, so he got to snooze in the camper while we headed for enemy territory. He can go anywhere on the course with us except here.

The ride out Tongue Canyon Road was pleasant but it brought back some unpleasant memories of previous races when we've trudged through the last five miles of the various distances of the Bighorn races that end with this road section. We didn't see much snow on the far slopes today, a good omen:

I always enjoy running and hiking on the dry, gritty trail above the river for the first couple of miles. There is such power in the water as it crashes over boulders and thunders downstream through its narrow channel. I'm always amazed at how much calmer the river appears in the miles between the trailhead and Foothills Campground, where the terrain is barely sloped..

Despite high 40-degree F. temperatures in the morning at our campsite in Dayton (elev. about 4,000 feet), the canyon area quickly warms up on a sunny day like today and retains heat in its massive rock walls. By the time we got above tree line (about 7,000 feet elevation) around lunchtime, we were toasty warm. Even Horse Creek Ridge (8,000 feet) felt balmy today. By mid-afternoon it was in the mid-70s in Dayton, quite pleasant for late May.

Jim and I hung fairly close together through Rattler Territory (i.e., where we thought was the highest probability of encountering one of the beasties), then he went on ahead after about three miles for the rest of the climb. He's in much better climbing/altitude/running shape than I am right now. He should be; he's done a lot more training and racing miles on hilly terrain than I have because he's training for the 100-mile race here in four weeks. I'm training for "only" the 50K race and I've been less than a slave to any type of running schedule lately.

Jim, in his white sun shirt, runs ahead.

The rocks and 3,000 feet of climb (and equal descent) that I did today were tough on me. I had plenty of time on the trail today, almost five hours, to realize that I haven't done anything this strenuous for almost two years! On the climb up through the canyon and meadows my calves, quads, hamstrings, and Achilles all became sore. I took the opportunity several times to stop to get my breath, rest my legs, and take photos of the gorgeous scenery and early spring flowers along the trail.

My running isn't worth a darn any more, so I may as well enjoy the journey!


I was happy to see how green and lush the meadows are above the canyon, since this is the earliest we've arrived before the Bighorn races. The flowers were beautiful but not as profuse as they should be in two or three weeks.

I forgot to bring my Rocky Mountain wildflower book with me on this trip and I can't remember all the names of the flowers I saw today, but they included deep violet monkshood; blue lupines, penstemon, harebells, forget-me-nots, western Pasque flowers, and mountain bluebells; blue and white phlox; white bear grass; pink shooting stars and wild geraniums; yellow violets, arrow-leaf balsamroot, mountain avens, alpine sunflowers, arnica, and those pervasive dandelions. There are other species I can't identify without further research.



It's obvious that winter hasn't completely lost its grip at the higher altitudes, however. There aren't any leaves on the aspens and some of the other deciduous trees and shrubs at about 7,000 feet in elevation,

and on the way up through the canyon we could see some remnants of snow banks on slopes between 7,000-8,000 feet that don't receive very many hours of sun:

At Fence Spring, just before reaching the signature barbed wire fence line that runners follow for about a mile during the races in this section, snow covered the mouth of the spring:

Jim was able to get fresh water from the creek flowing beneath the snow. He was running "lighter" than me today (he usually does) and needed to refill his water and/or Heed bottle. I wore my Camelbak HAWG with about 90 ounces of water in the bladder and hand-carried concentrated Perp in a 20-oz. bottle. We both carried flasks of Hammergel, too.

The only other place we encountered mud and snow today was in the drainage area along the fence line, below the ridge. You can see this whole area in the next picture. In the original photo I can see Jim about a quarter mile ahead of me, to the right of the fence and just before he reached the snow bank:

We could either detour around this snow bank or slip and slide up/down it. We both chose to climb up it. Twenty feet through the snow seemed like a better idea than a couple hundred feet around it. In the next photo you can see that Jim (the little white speck on the left) is just on the other side of the snow. On the return I butt-slid down to prevent an accidental fall that could wreck my knees. My only regret was that my Inner Child didn't get to enjoy a much longer slide down the snow!

You can see why this part of the trail stays wet for several weeks during snowmelt; look at all the little fingers of snow in shallow gullies on the side of the ridge. This is a good illustration of "drainage area."

In stark contrast, in some places the trail was so dry today that the soil was cracked. Apparently it hasn't rained in this area recently. The Bighorn race course is notorious for its mud at the higher elevations. We'll have to see what the weather brings us in the next month. The downside to a dry June is fewer flowers.

Jim hiked the 6 miles from 4,250 feet at the canyon trailhead to 8,000 feet at the top of Horse Creek Ridge, shown below, in about 2:30 hours and spent a few minutes acclimating, eating a sandwich, and enjoying the magnificent views back down into the canyon.

It took me the same amount of time to cover a little under six miles. I stopped just short of the steep pitch below the ridge (est. 7,500 feet). Going up wasn't the issue; coming back down was. Steep descents like that are murder on my knees. That's OK. My views were almost as good as Jim's were.

When I saw Jim start to descend, I turned around, too. With that head start, it took him several miles to catch up to me:

The long descent back to the trailhead was tough on my knees. I was able to do some steady running downhill on the return until they rebelled. I'm really out of shape for mountain running and need to improve before race day. The 50K has two serious descents. This is one of them. The other is a steep drop from Riley Point to Cow Camp earlier in the race. One thing I apparently did well today was drinking enough fluids and consuming enough electrolytes to have no leg cramps.

I continued taking pictures all the way down, of course, which partially explains why it took two hours for me to get back to the truck. My rationale? The quick stops helped to rest my knees [she grinned].


We considered our run/hike a success in several regards, most notably for its absence of rattlers.

I caught up to Jim shortly after he'd left me in his dust about halfway up the canyon when he stopped to talk to Rich Garrison, one of our running friends from the Sheridan area. He and a buddy were also out for a training run on the course today. Neither had spotted any rattlesnakes yet, but Rich warned us that he's seen at least one on a previous run this month.

Our rattlesnake antennae couldn't have been any higher whether Rich had just seen a rattler two minutes ago or had never seen one. We knew they were out there lying in wait for us suckers to step on them!

A few minutes later the guy in the next photo went zipping past me on his way up the mountain. I was envious of his ability to run uphill so effortlessly at altitude when I could barely maintain a steady walking pace. He was nice enough to stop for a few seconds to say hi before running on ahead toward Jim.

I caught up with him talking to Jim a couple minutes later. He is a local runner training for the Bighorn 30K race. He's not just any fella, though.

Jim thought he recognized the young man and asked his name: Levi Dominguez. Ah, ha! He asked Levi if he remembered the guy who got the snake bite three years ago. Levi did, and then he remembered why Jim looked familiar!

What an interesting coincidence. Levi was a high school senior that summer, volunteering with the Dayton EMS department. He was in the first of two ambulances (ambuli?) that transported Jim to the hospital in Sheridan. Now Levi is employed full time with the Sheridan Fire and Rescue Department. He and Jim had a brief but interesting conversation, then both continued climbing up toward Horse Creek Ridge at their own paces, remembering snippets of that fateful day.

[I would end up seeing Levi two more times when he and his fellow EMTs/firemen were working out at the Sheridan YMCA. He greeted me enthusiastically each time.]

Jim and I lucked out today, seeing no rattlesnakes. Will our luck hold on subsequent runs up and down this canyon??

Next entries: more training runs on the Bighorn course

Happy trails,

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

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2009 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil