|Heading toward the Bighorn Trail Run 50K finish line, Jesse Zentz gives friend Bridget Gerleman a thumbs up, despite feeling a little worse for wear. – Credit: Bridget Gerleman.|
I heard the iPhone alarm chime at 4:15 a.m. Saturday, June 20 and I bounded out of bed like a spooked deer, fully charged up to take on my first 50K.
I’ve previously run four marathons and a couple shorter trail races – the Don’t Fence Me In 30K and HURL Elkhorn 23K near Helena – but I knew the Bighorn Wild and Scenic Trail Run 50K would offer an entirely new and exciting challenge. Was I nervous? Sure, I always experience some butterflies on race day. But whenever I started wondering why I signed up for this damned race, I forced myself to think about those poor souls running the 100-miler, who started their trek 17 hours before my iPhone coaxed me out of bed.
On our drive up to the starting line, we received word that 19-year-old Andrew Miller from Corvallis, Ore., won the 100-miler in a record-setting 18 hours, 29 minutes, 37 seconds – more than 7 minutes faster than the previous standard established by Missoula’s Mike Foote in 2012.
Impressed as I was by Miller’s feat, my respect for the 50- and 100-milers grew exponentially as my “short” race unfolded in the stunning mountains to the west of Sheridan, Wyo.
At the start of the 50K – 7,650 feet high in the Bighorns near the Dry Fork Ridge aid station – no one seemed eager to toe the starting line. But once we were given the go-ahead to begin our trek to Scott Park at 3,904 feet in Dayton, we charged down a short section on a dirt road as a prelude to the first climb of the day.
During that first climb we gained about 1,200 feet in the first 5 miles, before descending 1,700 feet in a short span of 2 miles to Kern’s Cow Camp aid station. From there, we made our way back up to the Dry Fork Ridge aid station to complete a 14-mile loop.
I arrived at Dry Fork Ridge with Billings’ Justin Svec averaging about 8 minutes per mile, which was better than I expected after a fair amount of climbing under our belts. Helping me take the final few steps up to the aid station was good friend Anders Brooker, of Missoula, who shouted, “GO, JESSE ZENTZ,” as I approached. That personal touch provided me with a huge boost of unexpected energy and I quickly resumed my journey after filling my water bottle. Svec, who I ran with for the first 14 miles, hung back at the aid station a little longer.
At this point I was feeling confident and full of energy, and comfortably navigated the next five miles to Upper Sheep Creek aid station – about 19.4 miles into the race. I kept telling myself what many seasoned ultramarathoners had told me, “Whatever you do, don’t think of a 50K as a marathon, plus a few extra miles. It’s an entirely different race.”
I was beginning to believe them when I reached a steep uphill section at mile 20 that greets competitors before they drop into Tongue River Canyon. After a short descent out of Upper Sheep Creek, the trail kicks up what some locals call, “The Wall.” In a half-mile section, the trail climbs about 500 feet, when your legs are already screaming.
I tried talking to my legs like cyclist Jens Voigt, saying, “Shut up legs,” but they just kept screaming over the top and through the equally grueling descent.
Atop The Wall, I had a substantial lead on Svec. Six miles into the run down into the canyon I was begging for an uphill section as my knees began to wobble from the jarring terrain, but instead, I was greeted with a relatively flat road that meandered 5 miles to the finish line.
At this point, I saw the writing on the wall. My pace had slowed so much, I knew Svec had to be gaining on me. Sure enough, shortly after leaving the Tongue River Trailhead aid station, Svec eased past me. From a spectator’s perspective, it probably looked more like a turtle passing a snail as we both had slowed substantially since our moments of glory at Dry Fork Ridge.
I tried to continue running, but I mixed in short walks to make sure I arrived at the finish line. With about 2 miles to go, some friendly volunteers at the Home Stretch aid station threw a lifeline in the form of an Otter Pop.
In that last couple miles, I also was greeted by family friend and Sheridan resident Bridget Gerleman, who along with her husband Shaun, provided food and lodging for my weekend adventure. She checked to make sure my head was still in the game, and after I gave her the thumbs up, I fought on as Svec faded into the distance.
Finally, I arrived at Scott Park, where I again heard Brooker and some of his friends from Run Wild Missoula and Bozeman Running Company ringing cowbells and cheering my name. With a shot of energy, I picked up the pace – or at last I thought I did – for the final 200 meters and crossed the finish line in 4:21:16. Svec finished in 4:18:17, and was a deserving and gracious winner.
Jeremy Duncan of Carbondale, Colo., finished third in 4:32:54 and Casey Jermyn, a friend from Bozeman, was fourth in 4:45:40. Like me, Jermyn was a first-time 50K competitor. Katie Steinberg, of Jackson, Wyo., led the women’s field in 4:48:55 and was fifth overall.
As I wandered aimlessly around Scott Park sipping on a beer provided by Brooker, all I could think was, “I am glad this is over,” and, “I can’t wait to run the Bighorn again.”
This 50K thing might stick. And it’s certainly not a marathon, plus a few miles. It’s much more than that.