Running into a bison in the dark is not most people’s idea of fun.
It is noon on a blustery and snowy Friday in March. One man is rubbing anti-perspirant on his feet in a tent to help stave off blisters. Surrounding him are runners, looking rather nonchalant about what is about to happen.
“I go back and forth from being super intrigued and excited, and then just wanting to throw up and go home and go back to bed,” said Stephanie Gardner, of Roy.
Moments later, 88 people run past the scene of a human-bison altercation to begin the Antelope Island Buffalo Run 100. That is about 3.817 marathons. A little over two hours later, the first tiny specks appear on the distant scree field. They aren’t even 18 miles into their first marathon.
The Antelope Island Buffalo Run is in its eighth year, though the 100-mile race has only been a part of the event for the last three. Race coordinator Jim Skaggs, who is also a volunteer for the Antelope Island trail patrol, chose the island as a way to showcase its animals and unique features. “I wanted to start an event for the local runners here and anybody that wanted to show up, that would showcase the island,” said Skaggs.
The race, which offers 25K, 50K, 50-mile and 100-mile distances, started small with a limit of 150 runners. The park service has since eased restrictions and allows as many racers as are willing to participate. This year there were 808 individuals registered.
Davy Crockett, of Saratoga Springs, Utah, helped Skaggs test out the logistics of a 100-mile race. “So what I did three years ago was kind of test it out for him,” said Crockett. “I timed it so I could do the second 50 with the race in the morning.”
To help combat the darkness and isolation of running at night, Crockett holds a second light in his hand for a lower angle that provides better shadows. Though the lights help a little, they only reach so far. “Here on the island it is very different, because you’ll find a buffalo right in the middle of the trail at night and you don’t see them from very far away. So that’s pretty freaky,” said Crockett. “It makes your heart start pumping.”
“I get through the nights. I like the days much better,” Tom Jackson of Moses Lake, Washington said. “It’s always nice to see that next glowstick. It’s pretty reassuring,” he said of knowing that someone else was out there with him.
Even though the racers spend many hours running by themselves in the light and the dark, the community is very close-knit and most would be willing to help someone on the trail.
“If there is ever anyone along the way that is struggling or lost or needs something, everybody will stop and help,” said Jackson. “I’ve seen people give clothes away, their food away, their water bottles, their flashlights, everything.”
Many of the racers started with a passion for hiking, being outside and enjoying their time on the trails.
“I never did marathons,” said Crockett. “I started as a long-distance hiker and I kept going further and further.”
If you look at the field of participants, you will notice that most are older than forty. In fact, there were more finishers in their sixties than those in their twenties.
“This sport is kind of an old guy’s sport,” said Crockett. “You look around and see some young guys, but a lot of older guys, too.”
The sport is beginning to draw more 20-somethings. The event was the first 100-mile race for local Stephanie Gardner, 29. She had previously participated in 50-mile events and decided to take the next step. Gardner was drawn in by the community.
“I think that is a huge reason I like doing them,” said Gardner. “I think I keep coming back because of the community.”
“It’s crazy. we just pulled in and we walk in and I immediately see 20 people I know,” she said.
“I found this oddball family out in the world with open arms,” said Leon Lutz, of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, who was in Utah visiting friends who recently moved to Ogden. “I got to be my screwball self and I was another screwball instead of the screwball.”
While most participants are competing to simply finish, the event is still tough on their bodies. Nearly half of the competitors will drop out before completing the race. Most runners cross the finish line in 20 to 30 hours, which gives them plenty of time to think, and suffer, as they run.
To help pass the time, Lutz keeps a paraphrased line from a television show in his head, “The world ends when you’re dead. Until then you’ve got more punishment in store. So take it like a man and give some back.”
“Just keep picking up your feet,” was Lutz’s advice for finishing a race.
The difficulties of such an undertaking aren’t lost on the participants.
“A lot of it is mental. You have to be mental first of all,” joked Skaggs about running such a distance. “At 80 miles I think, ‘wow, I have less than a marathon to go’.”
“The last five is survival. It’s usually a death march towards the end,” said Crockett.
For their efforts, runners are treated to a stew made with buffalo meat and a medley of canned vegetables brought by the participants. Karl Meltzer, a renowned ultra-runner, was the first competitor to reach the finish line for a bowl of stew. Meltzer finished in 14 hours, 34 minutes, breaking the record of 15 hours, 31 minutes set last year.
The Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run can lay claim to being the world’s oldest 100-mile trail race, but the Buffalo Run offers an experience unlike anywhere else.