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Wednesday, June 30, 2004


Four ultra-runners meet the Bighorn challenge

Trail run in Wyoming

Express Staff Writer

Four Wood River Valley ultra-marathoners completed the 12th Bighorn Mountain Wild & Scenic Trail Run in the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming near Sheridan June 19.

Randy Gehrke, ultra-marathoner. Express photo by David N. Seelig

The locals ran distances ranging from 17.5 miles to 50 miles on a cool, overcast day. Running alone through the mountains much of the time, they followed an orange ribbon that marked the trail course.

For three of the Wood River runners, it was their first ultra-marathon. For another, Randy Gehrke, the Wyoming race was about his 40th ultra—in fact, it was a 50-mile training run for another 100-mile run in July.

"It was a real long training run," said Gehrke, a retired 22-year police officer for the King County Sheriff’s office in Washington who is now part owner of Sun Valley Chauffeur.

The runners who did the Bighorn trail run were Randy Gehrke, 46, of Picabo; Nancy Higgins, 44, of Hailey; Joe Yelda, 56, of Hailey; and Jennett Zimmerman, 29, of Hailey. They paid $85 entry fees to attempt the trail run.

They met through Blaine County Fitness Center in Hailey and trained together prior to the June 19 event, many times doing a 13-mile loop run out Greenhorn Gulch in training.

Winning the 52-mile Bighorn run was Erik Solof, 37, of Denver, Colo. in 8.17:28. Randy Gehrke was 43rd overall of 84 runners at the 52-mile distance with a final time of 12 hours, 29 minutes and 22 seconds.

At the 50-kilometer or 32.5-mile distance, Nancy Higgins was the 25th woman overall with a time of 7.11:49. Joe Yelda finished in 8.39:15.

And, on the 30k or 17.5-mile course, Jennett Zimmerman came to the finish in 3.53:45.

They staged an 100-mile endurance run for the third straight year as part of the Bighorn Trail Run event, and Charles Hubbard, 42, of Bloomington, Minn. won that arduous test in 22 hours, 51 minutes and 48 seconds.

The 100-milers started Friday morning about 11 a.m. and finished Saturday, while the 50-milers went off at 6 a.m. Saturday, the 32.5-milers at 8:30 a.m. Saturday and the 17.5-milers at 11 a.m. Saturday. There were about 400 runners, 200 in the 32.5 miler.

The turnaround time of three weeks is relatively short for Gehrke, who plans to run twice the distance at a higher elevation in Colorado in July.

Gehrke is one of 120 accepted runners in the Hard Rock 100-mile Endurance Run July 9 in the San Juan Mountains near Silverton, Colo. Average elevation there is 11,186 feet.

He was going to do 100 miles in the Bighorn Trail Run before learning he was accepted into the Hard Rock. So, he elected to do 50 miles at Bighorn as a training run. Gehrke said he’s done about 15 100-milers since starting ultra-marathons in 1995.

One year, he did four 100-milers. "I run for fun. I run because I love running in the mountains," said Gehrke, who runs every day and tries to do a long run of eight to 25 miles on the weekend for his training.

"Really, it’s not that big of a deal to run 100 miles," he added. "Through experience you learn what works. So much of it is mental because, after 50 miles, you’re always hurting. Some of the best thinking I’ve ever done has been in the mountains on long trail runs. You do a lot of contemplation."

It wasn’t surprising to the others that Nancy Higgins did so well in her first ultra-marathon, Gehrke said. "She is a strong runner," he said.

Higgins has run a half-marathon on pavement and 20 miles on trails, but she had never gone 32.5 miles before. In the Bighorn, she said, "I found my pace and stayed with it, and found it worked real well for me.

"It was amazing. I felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment. It’s a different mentality than road racing—you’re out there by yourself, and you have to have the confidence level to be out in the elements, in the woods, by yourself. But the other runners are very supportive of each other, too."

She recovered fairly well and quickly from the challenging test. Her training consisted of three 12-mile trail runs a week, reaching a point where she did 45 to 50 miles when the weather cleared this spring. Plus, Higgins teaches three to five spin classes each week, and water aerobics.

Higgins said, "I never hit that wall during the race, and I think that has a lot to do with how you recover afterwards. I was just a little tired for a couple of days."

She added, "I can’t wait to do another one and actually look forward to doing a 50-miler by the end of the year." Higgins next plans to do the 16.5-mile Elephant’s Perch Backcountry Run on Saturday, July 17—and possibly another 50k ultra in August.

For appliance repairman Joe Yelda, the 32.5-mile race was quite an increase in distance from his previous longest runs—half-marathons in Boise and Montana last year.

"I was definitely one of the old timers in the race," said Yelda, who has been running for 11 years and did his first 10-mile Elephant’s Perch Backcountry Run six years ago, at 50.

"Some of the elevation gains were from 4,800 to 8,400 feet. Hills were so steep at some points that all you could do was walk up. The downhills were so muddy from the rain the day before that you slid down. I had to walk the last two miles but I managed to run across the finish line," said Yelda.

Yelda found it impossible to concentrate on the concept of running 32.5 miles, so he focused on running from aid station to aid station. Completing the test was quite an accomplishment, he said. "I was on a high for two or three days after. You just can’t believe you finished," he said.

Yelda said he wants to do another 50k in the fall, after he finishes the Elephant’s Perch 16.5-miler in July.

Plenty of ultras are in Gehrke’s future, too. He is race director and course designer of the Cascade Crest 100-mile Aug. 28-29 in Washington State. He did his first ultra, the Pacific Crest Trail 70-mile fundraising trail run, back in 1995 in that area.

He thinks staging an ultra-marathon in the Wood River Valley is a natural. "You have to remember that the average age of an ultra-marathoner is over 40," he said. "And there are some incredible athletes in the valley."

Gehrke’s dream course would be from the Lost River Range through the Pioneer Mountains. Logistically, however, he said it might be easier to run a 100-kilometer (62.2-mile) route from Fairfield to Hailey through the Smoky Mountain chain.


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