In trail racing, it is unusual, but not unheard of, for two people to tie for a win. Most notably, last summer, Kilian Jornet and Jason Schlarb tied for first in the 2016 Hardrock 100.
But at the 2017 Bighorn Trail 100, in June, an even more unusual finish result took place: a four-way tie. Most years, at the Wyoming race, runners experience 100-degree temperatures during the day and below-freezing temperatures at night. This year, however, rain, not heat, was the main issue. After 12 hours of torrential downpour, Eric LiPuma, Andrew Skurka, Alex Ho and Brian Oestrike crossed the finish line holding hands in just over 21:30, all four taking first place.
The Big Horn Boys
Skurka, LiPuma, Ho and Oestrike never planned on finishing the race side-by-side.
Skurka, 36, of Boulder, Colorado, is a seasoned trail athlete. He first appeared on the trail-running radar in 2008, when he pulled off a second place at Leadville Trail 100 having only registered a couple of months before the race and having never run farther than 42 miles.
Skurka, whose main pursuit is long-distance trekking—he completed the 7,775-mile Sea-to-Sea Route from Quebec to Washington—only does a few ultras each year. But he runs them fast.
LiPuma, 24, works as a graphic artist and marketer, and fell in love with running in high school. Bighorn Trail Run was to be his first 100-miler. He showed up to the start line wearing shoes borrowed from a friend (he didn’t have the money for his own pair), and a rain shell borrowed from Skurka.
Ho, 33, of San Francisco, California, is a personal trainer, coach and owner of the outdoor training business Revision Athletics. He started running in 2006 and has placed top-10 in all four 100-milers he has run.
Oestrike, 37, is originally a climber and mountain guide, and happened upon ultrarunning as cross-training for sub-24 hour attempts on Aconcagua and Denali.
Skurka and LiPuma knew one another from their hometown of Boulder, Colorado. Ho and Oestrike were strangers before they met in the muddy final miles of the race.
An Unexpected Alliance
Race day started out pleasant, with cloud cover—a little hot, but no rain. Before long Skurka, Ho and LiPuma were comfortably running in the lead pack.
“I figured [Andrew] was a good dude to follow, because I had no idea what I was doing,” says Li Puma. “I [stuck] with him, and we [were] one-two for about three miles. Then I decided I should probably back off a bit because it [was] my first 100-mile race.”
Seven hours in, the rain started. It would continue for the rest of the race. Along with the rain came the mud.
“Race organizers had warned us about pockets of ‘shoe-sucking mud’ where the ground was still saturated with snowmelt,” says Skurka. “But I was never told that the course would become an ultra-distance slip-and-slide with enough rainfall.”
After 35 miles of heat, Oestrike was happy to see the rain. He had packed two jackets and extra gloves, having learnt from a similarly cold, muddy experience at last year’s Bear 100.
“You would run in the singletrack for a while and then your feet would get caked in mud,” he says. “You would have to run in the brush to clean your shoes off.”
Says Skurka, “It was ‘greasy, slick-as-snot mud.’”
Shivering and soaked, but still in first place, Skurka pulled into the turnaround-point aid station (the race is an out-and-back) at Jaws Trailhead, mile 48. Volunteers Steve and Martha ushered him into the tent.
“My split to Jaws was 8:24, an amazing 39 minutes ahead of goal pace,” says Skurka. “If I could stay on that trendline, I was looking at low- to mid-18 hours. The course record is held by [2016 Western States 100 champ] Andrew Miller, in 18:29.”
However, desperately in need of warmth, Skurka had to sacrifice some time for hot broth and dry clothes.
“Steve graciously exchanged his rain jacket for mine, which had wet through,” says Skurka. “And Martha wrapped a space blanket around my waist, covered me in a disposable poncho and inserted [hand warmers] into my gloves.”
Twenty-five minutes later he was back on course. Trail conditions were quickly deteriorating, and Skurka slipped back into second place on the 4,000-foot descent toward the mile-66 aid station.
Between mile 66 and 69.5, racers face “the wall,” a 2,300-foot ascent to Bear-Hunting-Camp aid station. Here, Skurka started to fall apart. “I stumbled up the climb, sometimes with my eyes shut,” he says. “I had checked out and was no longer as engaged. [I thought] my blood sugar might be low […] I wondered, too, if the mild hypothermia from earlier was catching up with me.”
Exhausted, he took a 15-minute nap by a warm fire. LiPuma caught up.
“The hill [from mile 48 to 66] was just destroyed at this point,” LiPuma says. “Any traction that you had going up was now gone. So you were kind of ice skating down the hill in the mud.”
Motivated from seeing a familiar face, Skurka decided it was as good a time as any to head out in the elements. The two took off together.
When they reached the mile-76.5 aid station, word was that Bob Shebest was suffering. “Andrew [Skurka] is a much more experienced runner than I am […] and I encouraged him to go try to catch up with Bob and win the race,” says LiPuma, who needed a few extra minutes to eat potato chips and M&Ms.
Within a few minutes, Skurka found Shebest walking slowly down the road, and passed him. When LiPuma and his pacer Casey Peckio ran through just a few minutes later, they found him asleep on the side of the road.
“We found him [lying] in the mud, wrapped in a space blanket,” says LiPuma. “My pacer made sure he was OK and convinced him to go to [the mile-76.5] aid station and drop out.”
Shebest wasn’t the only competitor to fall victim to the harsh conditions. The mud and cold caused record numbers of runners to drop out from the race, due to hypothermia and fall injuries. Andy Jones-Wilkins, who has finished top-10 at the Western States 100 seven times, was among the suffering. Falling headfirst onto a rock, Jones-Wilkins incurred a concussion, but preserved to the finish line in 31:07:33, placing 98th.
LiPuma caught back up to Skurka at mile 82.5, and the pair decided to battle through the mud together. “He was not really mentally in it anymore, so we got to talking and decided to finish the race together, first and second place,” says LiPuma.
Meanwhile, Ho was slip-sliding his way in an attempt to catch the leaders. “In order to keep my spirits up, I had to repeat the scene from Seinfeld where Kramer talks about race horses saying, ‘His father was a mudder. His mother was a mudder. He’s a mudder!,’” says Ho.
At mile 87, Ho caught LiPuma and Skurka. “They asked if I was down to join them and run in together,” says Ho. “I thought about it for a moment, but knowing that we still had 13 miles of mud, rain and darkness ahead, the decision wasn’t too hard. I think they both could have upped their pace and ground out the rest of [the race] if need be. Instead of suffering alone, it was way more fun to suffer together.”
Then, just five miles from the finish line, Oestrike and his pacer caught sight of Ho, Sturka and LiPuma.
Mentally drained, Oestrike dreaded having to race to the finish. At the mile-96 aid station, the other three frontrunners stopped to refuel. Not needing any food himself, Oestrike kept moving. Thinking he was trying to pull ahead for the win, Skurka, LiPuma and Ho caught him about a hundred yards down the trail.
Oestrike agreed to join the Bighorn Boys for the last four miles down the flat road, and all four crossed the finish line together, holding hands.
“The race director was joking that we all have to send Christmas cards to each other now for the rest of our lives,” says LiPuma.
“It is really a testament to the type of people who do these ultramarathons, that four of us could set our egos aside and help each other get to the finish line,” says Ho. “Overall I think we share a connection with everyone who finished that race because the conditions were so rough. It’s truly a special community to be a part of.”
Instead of splitting the $150 prize four ways, the four winners donated the money to the local search-and-rescue organization.