SHERIDAN — This weekend’s 21st annual Bighorn Mountain Wild and Scenic Run is the culmination of months or even years of training by runners. However, the running of the race is also the culmination of hundreds of hours of work by hundreds of volunteers.
Michelle Maneval, who is co-director of the run, said each year, 180 to 220 volunteers are needed for the event. In addition, Dayton Fire Rescue and Search and Rescue of Sheridan County crews work the event, bringing the number of volunteers to about 300.
“This could not happen without them,” Maneval said about the volunteers and search and rescue crews.
Maneval said preparation for the race began two weeks ago with initial supplies of water being taken up Tongue River Canyon Trail and stockpiled. In addition, crews have been working to clear the trail of debris, including 27 downed trees near the turnaround point for the 50-mile race.
One of the biggest projects is supplying the 13 aid stations with food, drinks, medical equipment, tables, chairs, tents, microwaves, cookware, stoves, propane bottles and much more.
“There are about six that are backpack-in only, so they are very remote,” Maneval said about the stations. “Then there are some that are drivable and some that are easily accessible so there is something for everybody.”
Each aid station has its own smorgasbord of energy-supplying food items, from various soups and chocolate covered coffee beans to McDonald’s cheeseburgers and pizzas.
In addition to food and drinks that are supplied to all the racers, most racers have their own stash of personal supplies in “drop bags” which are placed at chosen aid stations.
Each racer personalizes his or her drop bag with items they may need along the way, including extra shoes and socks, jackets, Vaseline for blisters on their feet, medications, favorite foods, flashlights and batteries for navigating at night and any other item they may want in their hours of running.
The supplies and drop bags are transported to the scattered aid stations through a variety of means — by two feet, four feet and four wheels.
“Some use ATVs, some use pack mules, some have horses and some backpack in,” Maneval said. “We rent five trailers to pull in drop bags and a 26-foot moving truck to carry supplies to the finish line.”
During this week, volunteers, including Karen Powers who is Mandeval’s mother and an original founder of the race, have been traversing the trail putting up flags to guide the racers.
“My mom, who is in her 60s, puts on at least 100 miles in the week before the race,” Maneval said. “She’s been out four days on the trail from daylight to evening (putting up flags). She puts in two races in the two weeks before!”
Unfortunately, sometimes repeat visits are needed due to the curiosity of local wildlife.
“The elk love to eat our flags,” Maneval added, noting they have tried soaking the flags in bitter liquids, to no avail. “They’ll eat it right out of the tree. Then we have to go back and fix the flagging.”
In addition to the flagging, glow sticks are put out along the trail and because they only glow for 12 hours, Powers and other volunteers begin hiking the race route snapping the glow sticks and activating them before 9 p.m. Friday night.
Of course, everything that goes in must come out, and volunteers continue their efforts long after the racers have taken their prizes and tired bodies home. Volunteer crews walk every mile of the race trail and remove all trash they find, whether it was left by racers or not.
“We are very careful about taking out whatever trash we find,” Maneval said. “This is a very environmentally conscious group and we really love our Bighorns so we are very careful about leaving it more pristine than we found it. We try to get our cleanup done within three days of the race. They (volunteers) come out with full packs of garbage. They clean up whatever garbage they see no matter what it is or where it came from. Anywhere this race touches, it is immaculate.”
Surprisingly, Maneval said it is not too difficult to find volunteers to assist with the event. In fact, many volunteers return year after year.
“We do a lot of runs ourselves so this is our way of giving back,” said volunteer Linda Schwamb, who along with her husband, Curt, have volunteered for 18 years at the Spring Marsh aid station. “Plus, it is an inspiration. You are up for 36 hours; you are watching people traipse around in the middle of the night. Every year it is hard for us to get into our aid station because the road is still snowed shut. It is a challenge, but we love doing it.”
“I think it is the camaraderie really,” added 21-year volunteer Marian Eccles, who works at the Dry Fork aid station with many members of her family. “My kids have been up there every year since they were born. They are now 10 and 12. I told my boys, you will know what to do when a lot of grownups don’t and if you see something that needs to be done, do it!”
Because the first race, the 100-miler, begins Friday at 11 a.m., volunteers must man their aid stations for almost 36 hours until the final racers come through.
“Once someone volunteers they always want to come back because they love it and it is such a fun event,” Maneval said. “It is very rewarding for these people. We are helping them (the runners) achieve a dream they have had for a very long time and trained hard for, but it takes a lot of behind the scenes support from volunteers and people who want to see them reach these goals. Every year we are dead tired afterward, but when you think back on the stories and the tiredness wears off, you say ‘okay, I can do it another year.’”