Race Report: Bridger Ridge Run

Bridger Ridge Run, Bozeman, MT – August 11, 2012

As stated before, I decided to try to raise some money for the Child’s Play charity. I discovered that summer is peak charity drive season, and that I felt like a greedy heel trying to do *second* fundraiser in one summer. Oops.

Despite these difficulties, my generous family, friends, and coworkers donated a total of $350. Awesome!

We set out for Bozeman on Thursday (the 9th), but actually went right past it to Billings, to visit some of Alida‘s family, which was fun and only slightly terrifying. While driving through Bozeman on I-90 (and stuck in construction traffic), I snapped a quick pic of the freaking mountain range I’d be running along less than 48 hours later:

craaaaaaaaap

On Friday, we headed back to Bozeman, checked in to the Super 8, and went to the pre-race meeting. The rather kooky but friendly race director went over the plan for the next morning, including safety tips should there be lightning (“get off the ridge”).

We found a vegan friendly Thai place to have dinner, and were utterly blown away by the Drunken Noodles. If you’re ever in Bozeman, you simply have to go to the Sweet Chile Asian Bistro. You will not be sorry.

   

We had an early bedtime of 7:30 or so, as I wanted to get up early enough to have a pre-race warmup jog, and to allow breakfast to digest before go time. That meant getting up at 3:30am and wearing a reflective vest and headlamp for the jog. All that went fine and we left the motel at 5am.

The way to the start of the race at the Fairy Lake trailhead goes past the finish line at the M, where solo runners park and stand at the side of the road to get a ride with someone else. We stopped and picked up three dudes whose names I’m totally forgetting, and whose  faces I never got a good look at because it was pitch black out there. One was from North Carolina, though, another from Virginia, and the third, though Russian by birth, was a local.

Alida did a fantastic job of driving us to the trailhead, which included 6 miles of treacherous off-roading. Later in the day I took a couple pics of the epic dirt that accumulated on the car:

     

At the start, I collected my bib number and Alida touched up the names I was wearing (of those who’d contributed $50 or more to the fundraiser):

   

And of course, my racing stripes:

I was ready to go, but just a wee bit apprehensive. Reality was setting in, and it was a damn cliff.

   

As we all collected at the trail-head and lined up at the one restroom and several port-o-johns, it was requested that we let Wave 1 people cut ahead so they wouldn’t miss their start. Everyone did so, of course, because pretty much everyone we met in Bozeman was altogether awesome.

The first couple waves took off up the mountain, and then it was my turn. I’d trained as best as I could in the time I had, and now I’d find out if it was enough.

   

The start was rather crowded, of course, but thinned a bit as people settled in to whatever pace they were comfortable with. Within a quarter-mile it got so steep that I was reduced to a fast hike anyway. The first two miles go up 2,000 feet, you see.

About halfway up there was a bagpiper in a full kilt and everything, which was impressive, as that takes a lot of air, and I felt like someone had removed it all! The altitude was definitely having an effect, but it was manageable.

Near the top was a lady with a couple of great big huskies (one black/grey/white, one all white), which she would coax to howl for us as we went by. I howled right back.

When I finally reached the top of the that first peak (Sacagawea, or “Sac”) there was a volunteer reading bib numbers and shouting them out to another, who wrote them all down. They don’t hand out the numbers until you get to the trail head, and then they write down every person who passes each aid station / checkpoint. That way they know exactly who started, who is missing, and where they were last seen.

Oh, we also had this really useful map, which I don’t think I looked at once the entire race:

The last 20 feet to the top were more like rock climbing than running or hiking, but I made it! First major hurdle complete. At the top the wind was blowing at around 50mph, and a couple people nearly lost their hats. As we started to come down from the peak, I finally realized why I saw so many people wearing gloves… those rocks were sharp! I had my first slip here and cut the heel of my hand a bit. Nothing major, no worries.

My ankles were already aching. The trail is so rocky and uneven that every step was at some weird angle, which my 6 training runs had left me woefully unprepared for. I was struggling to keep a slow jog going, let alone the all out run that the elites were surely maintaining.

credit: runtrailsboz

A little ways past having cut my hand I realized I had gloves in my pack. Doh! I paused to fish them out and put them on. Oh, and now my hands weren’t freezing in the wind and things got a lot more comfortable. Funny, that.

credit: Chris McIntosh

I was already far behind schedule, but the views were so spectacular I had to stop every now and then to snap a pic with the disposable camera I’d brought (out of fear of dropping my iPhone down a ravine). Those shots are still being developed and will appear in a later post. Hopefully they do the views justice.

I kept running what I could and fast hiking the really steep parts. I chatted for a bit with a gal behind me from Colorado (Roberta), who said I was keeping a good pace. She also said she had a sharp something poking her between the toes, and that it was likely a plastic hangar thing from the new pair of socks she was wearing. I suggest she might want to stop to take care of that, but she said she was waiting until she made it to the Bridger Pass checkpoint (10mi). As long as you make the time cutoff there (about 4 hours), they’ll let you finish no matter what, as the only way down from that point is the finish line.

I had a few people ask me about the Ironman tattoo, asking which one I did, saying congrats, and such, or their neighbor or brother just did one last year, etc etc. One guy, though, while passing me on an uphill, said, “let’s go Ironman!”  I couldn’t tell if he was mocking me or encouraging me, but it was probably the latter. Nice people, trail runners.

I made it to Bridger Pass with 30 minutes to spare, and paused for a few orange slices before continuing. Now that I’d made the cutoff, my ankles decided they’d had enough. The pain that had been building all day now reached agony levels. I was OK on flats and up hills, but the rocky downhill sections were awful, and I was reduced to a slow walk. In many places I was supporting myself on the cliff wall to make it down 1 foot drops because I didn’t trust my ankles not to give out if I hopped down.

credit: Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez / Bozeman Daily Chronicle

The above photo ended up in a local article, which has some great details on the elite runners (who had already finished long before this picture was taken). I recall sniping at the photographer “Yes, please take pictures of me gingerly walking down the trail.” Then we laughed at my pain.

I kept trudging along, occasionally having to reassure people passing me that I was OK. I sometimes got to prove that by passing those same people back on the uphills. I now knew that my initial time estimate (5:30) was fantastically optimistic, but that was based on the website’s suggestion of adding a third to your best marathon time. I was now just hoping I’d finish under 8 hours, all the while mentally apologizing to Alida for making her worry (which helped me speed up every now and then, as I would get angry at myself for being so slow).

Every time I reached a peak I got a view of the remaining peaks left to climb, and every time it seemed impossible. If I squinted, though, I could usually see a couple specs of color making their way up, and I was reassured… sort of.

I discovered that this “trail run” had very little in common with the trails back home. I was used to dirt trails surrounded by lush forests and flowers. Although the Bridger trail has a couple of sections like that, they are few and far between. Most of it is barren and rocky, where a misstep will leave you with bloody gashes or broken limbs (both of which happened to other runners). Even the dirt sections are troublesome, as they’re sloped to one side or the other, so your ankles just never get a break.

Somewhere between Bridger and Baldy, I was running and chatting with another guy (Ken?) when suddenly the trail stopped. We’d apparently missed some turn. While we were paused and looking around, a couple gals came up and said they’d been following us. Oops. Someone on the actual trail above heard us and shouted down “It’s up here!”

Crap.

Rather than backtrack we chose to scramble up a nearly vertical wall of slippery rocks to get back to the trail, at which point I saw a neat looking hole in the cliff side and chose to take a picture of it… not because I was exhausted and in horrible pain and needed a break, oh no. It was just a really neat looking hole. Really!

Not really.

I could see the Baldy aid station (14.8mi) long before I reached it, and I could even hear the volunteers there cheering runners as they approached. I was desperately wishing I could just transport myself over there, but I was still a couple of miles away.

Once I reached Baldy, I unloaded the couple handfuls of trash I’d picked up. There were apparently quite a few litter bugs in the race this year. I don’t care how close you are to a PR or even a win; if you drop something, pick it up. Respect the mountain, people! I refilled my pack’s water bladder and ate a few more orange slices, then got moving again.

It was pretty much “all downhill from here,” except for the few parts it wasn’t, and downhills were what hurt the most anyway. I kept mincing along as best I could, occasionally glancing back and noticing a young woman (Carrie, I later learned) that was having just as much trouble as I was.

At the last aid station, the “emergency aid station,” I finally gave up any hopes of running and downed two waters and two gatorades, plus several orange slices. I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to beat 8 hours by this point, and my brain had decided that there was an 8 hour finish line cutoff. I asked the volunteers about that and they said “Nope! You can take as long as you want from here!”

I then considered taking a nap.

From this point things got even more seriously downhill, to the point that my ankles stopped hurting because all my weight was going into my toes. I did a good job of forcing myself to lean further forward than seemed natural, to keep my weight over my shoes, which allows them to stay grippy. One’s instinct is to lean back, away from the vertical drop in front of you, but then you’re sure to slip and fall on your ass.

I felt like I was moving an inch at a time, but it was all I could do. My quads were fried from all the downhill, I was on edge from being in pain for 8 hours straight, and I was annoyed at how long the descent was taking. I almost cried twice, but held it together.

Somewhere in the middle of the course I had decided I never wanted to do this race again. It just wasn’t my kind of “trail.” Now I was pissed, and wanted to hurry up and finish so I could heal and get back to training so I could come back next year and actually run the damn thing.

I finally made it to the M (top left corner in the below pic), and could actually SEE the finish line! The trail went out a bit then switched back to the base of the M, at which point each runner makes a choice: take the longer, easier route and add a mile to the journey, or go nearly straight down on some super slippery dirt. I opted for the more painful, but hopefully faster, route.

I could see the car from here, so I knew that Alida had at least made it back down from the trail head, and was likely still waiting for me (or maybe napping in the shade?). As I rounded the second to last corner I heard a loud Texan holler ring out, and saw her waiting at the line.

credit: Alida

Shortly thereafter I crossed the finish line, officially taking 8:24:21. A bit longer than planned, but I made it. And now I have a time to beat for next year!

credit: Alida

After I finished, I lounged in the shade for a bit and chatted with Ken(?) some more, posing for the requisite victory and injury shots.

           

We then headed back to the motel so I could get cleaned up, then went to the award ceremony / potluck. I broke from my veganism to enjoy a few slices of veggie pizza, because HOLY CRAP what a long damn day. That was seriously tougher than Ironman (which says a hell of a lot about the difference between fitness and specificity of training).

For dinner we decided to go to the same Thai place again, where I indulged in some delicious Sake. There may or may not have also been some ice cream.

OK, yeah, there was. And it was GLORIOUS.

Results:

19.65 miles in 8:24:21

57th out of 58 men aged 30-39

221st out of 231 finishers (270 or so started)

 

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