SHERIDAN — Last summer, the Bighorn Mountain Wild and Scenic Trail Run featured some of the worst weather in its 26-year history. Never before had race director Michelle Maneval seen such consistent rain causing mud along the majority of the trail. Fortunately for Maneval and her crew, several factors contributed to quick and positive rehabilitation of the prehistoric trail routes.
The annual Bighorn Trail Run features four races winding through the Bighorn National Forest and spanning 18, 32, 52 and 100 miles. Each race ends in the Tongue River Canyon.
Michael Horner, who participated in his third Bighorn Trail Run last year, added a 52-mile did-not-finish to his record due to the weather. For a trail runner who traverses parts of the Bighorn course year-round, Horner felt the impact of the muddy trails.
“It had rained all night, so as soon as you hit that single-track trail, it was like, ‘Holy crap, this is going to be: survive,’” Horner said.
Last year’s races featured everything from a slight drizzle to an absolute downpour, followed by snow and sleet.
The hearty trails Horner knew by heart became nearly unsurpassable, causing some runners to deviate from the single-track trail, creating new trails. Even the veering felt unsafe, though.
“As we ran the race, you would try to get off the trail but then you were hitting this slippery grass and now it’s got that sleet-y stuff to it, so that wasn’t any good,” Horner said. “The best thing was to try and stay in that single track and just survive the glop.”
Nine- and 10-minute miles for Horner turned into 17- and 18-minute miles.
“You’re just sitting there thinking, ‘How am I going to recover?’” Horner said. “There was no way to stay upright.”
Three weeks after his DNF, Horner returned to the course to finish what he started. When he arrived to what was described as the “mudpocalypse,” he found the trails nearly perfectly rehabilitated. A couple paths showed sign of runners’ attempts to escape the “glop,” but the trail bounced back into its original condition from before the race.
Sara Evans Kirol, a U.S. Forest Service trails and special use employee in Sheridan, said she and district ranger Amy Ormseth walked the trails a few weeks after the race, and while the trails showed some wear and tear, they were mostly rehabilitated.
Maneval and her coordination staff work year-round to rehabilitate, maintain and improve the routes run by nearly 1,200 runners every June. Evans Kirol, Maneval and Horner all agreed that even with the large amount of traffic occurring on the course, hosting the Bighorn Trail Run proves more beneficial for the environment than not. The trails, which date back to the 1800s, see traffic from livestock, wildlife and hunters throughout the year as well. Evans Kirol said even the normal wear and tear on the resilient trails cannot be directly correlated with the race.
Volunteer crews of around 30 people help clear down timber, build bridges on water crossings, haul out trash from other users and remove poison ivy from the trails. During and after the race, aid stations help eliminate waste by providing receptacles every five to eight miles.
Maneval said the “Leave No Trace” principles are often practiced by ultra runners anyway, but to help decrease the little waste they have, the trail run staff will start implementing its three-year initiative to go green and become a no-waste race. They will implement the first initiative this year with collapsible cups for each runner. The cups are made of silicon and will nearly eliminate cup waste on the mountain and at aid stations, many of which are pack-in checkpoints in roadless areas of the forest.
Within the next three years, Maneval said they plan to compost fruit and vegetable waste and improve recycling efforts.
Much like the runners utilizing them, the Bighorn’s trails are resilient, and with the help of dedicated volunteers and USFS employees, the wild and scenic trails will be ready for the masses in June.