The pain cave: Ultra-runner faces the elements to compete in the 100-mile Bighorn Mountain Trail Run

Posted 6/20/24

Eighteen miles from the end of his training run from the Ishawooa Trail to the North Fork Highway, Garrett Burbank had entered the pain cave — a place ultra marathon runners know well. …

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The pain cave: Ultra-runner faces the elements to compete in the 100-mile Bighorn Mountain Trail Run


Eighteen miles from the end of his training run from the Ishawooa Trail to the North Fork Highway, Garrett Burbank had entered the pain cave — a place ultra marathon runners know well. It’s a point where the body tells long distance runners “no more,” but their mind forces the body to keep moving.

Burbank's bones in his right foot were dislocated and his toes were black after a severe ankle sprain he suffered while crossing the highest point on the route in the mountains overlooking the Yellowstone Ecosystem. He had to make it home to his wife and two children, so there was no choice but to keep going.

“I started getting stupid,” Burbank admitted, while running through wilderness known to be thick with grizzly and black bears.

He’s typically vocal around corners, in thick brush and while going through areas with signs of predators, yelling “hey bear” over and over as he moves through suspect areas. But not only was Burbank running on a bad ankle, he was also bonking.

Bonking is exercise-induced hypoglycemia or low blood sugar. Burbank had used up all the carbohydrates in his muscles and his body started to use fat for energy instead. A runner who bonks can experience an inability to continue, marked by nausea, extreme physical weakness and poor coordination, according to experts in the field.

He stopped worrying about bears and just moved as fast as he could to meet his wife Becky at the highway. He had seen bears from a distance many times during training missions. This time was different. He was running through the bottoms near a creek when he suddenly came to a stop.

“There was a cub about 5 feet away from me on the right side of the trail,” he said.

He backed away, knowing its mom would be near. He was right. The angry sow was on his left about 5 feet below the trail in tall grass.

“I thought I was gonna get mauled,” he said.

He grabbed his bear spray and turned on the video app on his smart phone. Only one of those two things was a smart move, a result Burbank said was due to his diminished capacity.

After a few moments he peaked out from around the bush and there was the sow. She had moved and was snapping her jaws.

“When I came out around the bush, she was above me,” he said, reliving the moment while telling the story. “We had a little talk about going our own separate ways. And then afterwards, because I was in such a bonked state, I started talking to the camera in third person.”

He showed the video to Becky. He was embarrassed by what followed as adrenaline coursed through his veins.

“Are we awake yet? Yes, we are,” he said on the video.



Burbank had been training for a year at that point, all in an effort to prepare for the 100-mile Bighorn Mountain Trail Run.

The race is an epic mountain endurance adventure crossing through the valleys of the Little Bighorn and Tongue rivers of the Bighorn National Forest. Participants have 35 hours to navigate a remote, technical out-and-back course, while Mother Nature provides over 20,500 feet of ascent and 20,750 feet of descent testing the most seasoned ultra-runners with 76 miles of technical single-track trail, 16 miles of rugged two-track jeep trail road and 8 miles of gravel road. The Bighorn 100 is one of the classics, demanding you to reach deep down to your core of mental and physical fortitude, according to race organizers.

They had to share the trail with wildlife and at least one runner had been attacked by a cow moose protecting her calf.

“We are guests in God’s country so expect to share this course with elk, deer, moose, black bear, mountain lions, and rattlesnakes in the lower elevations,” the race program says.

However, when Burbank got home from the training run between the South and North forks of the Shoshone River, he learned he had to stop training while his body healed. He didn’t know if he’d ever run again. He was heartbroken.

Burbank has always pushed himself; not for the accolades, but rather to calm his soul.

“Sometimes I feel like it's a deep, profound insecurity that I'm not enough, and I have something to prove,” he said.

He first found the healing powers of the wilderness while growing up in a rough situation marked with abuse. Then, after years of spending as much time as he could in nature, he decided to run — despite not really enjoying it as a sport.

“I don't want to train. I don't want to run 100 miles. But I found that most things I don't want to do are the things I should do,” he said.

“Once he sets a goal, nothing can stop him from reaching it,” Becky said.



It took two years for his ankle and foot to heal. But he never stopped thinking about the race. The Big Horn Mountain Trail Run, which first started in 2002 by trail runners interested in preserving and protecting the Dry Fork and Little Bighorn River canyons from a planned pump storage hydroelectric project and other development, has races of 18, 32, 52 and 100 miles. Many local runners participate in the different races, but only the 100-mile race interested Burbank.

Since his recovery — which he gives much of the credit to Dr. Jason Frei in Cody — he returned to his training. Burbank ran more than 2,000 miles and trained for more than 400 hours in the past six months leading up to the week before the 2024 race. He was confident and looking forward to all of it. He was ready, knowing he had come a long way.

“When I started I couldn’t even run a mile without walking,” he said.


Getting to the start line

Through it all, his family has been there. It hasn’t been easy for anyone. The training required meant sacrifice. It meant time away from his children while running and expensive preparation.

“The grocery bill was huge,” Becky said of the amount of food Garrett was consuming while he trained.

He had also lined up three pacers, who all donated their time to travel to the start line in Dayton on the northeast foothills to the Bighorns to help him through the race. It was a major undertaking.

The week of the race the Burbank’s children, Nova and Lincoln, came down with Norovirus, which causes vomiting and diarrhea. The next day, just a days before the race, the virus hit Garrett hard.

He tried to shake it. He felt a range of emotions, from heartbreak to guilt; for all he had put his friends and family through for the past four years just to get to the start line.

He was out of it for four days, spending much of it in the restroom and the rest of the time sleeping as fever and cold sweats consumed him. He even slept in the truck all the way to the race, Becky said. She was worried.

“I’m so nervous. It's been bad,” she said after kissing her husband good luck and heading down the trail for a good view of racers as they passed through the canyon. “I’ve never seen him that sick. But he really kind of likes to suffer, so I'm hoping that he's just going to tap into that.”

The race started and Garrett was in the middle of the pack. As he passed Becky, he flashed a broad smile while she took a photo with her cellphone. But she was anxious and literally shaking from nerves.

Sick with worry, she didn’t have time to doddle. Her task was to ferry the three pacers into place and be prepared to drive mountain roads through the night. She has stood steadfast beside her husband through all his efforts to conquer this mountain trail and his demons — her own marathon.


The race

Garrett felt good after his pre-race nap while Becky crossed the Bighorns, but he hadn't been eating or drinking. After the adrenaline wore off from the start, Burbank’s heart rate was climbing.

“I couldn't control it, it was up to 165 and 170 [beats per minute],” he said.

Normally his heart rate was in the 140s, even when ascending. Not far from the starting line he had to ascend more than 6,000 feet.

“I knew I was in pretty big trouble there. I quickly got to where I couldn't hold down any water or food and I was vomiting,” he said. “It was one of the more painful things I’ve ever been through.”

He moved as quickly as possible through the first 16 miles to the Dry Fork aid station. There he met enthusiastic volunteers and, after drinking some Coca Cola, he headed back out on the trail. The next aid station at Sally’s footbridge was another 16 miles out.

The cola helped stabilize Garrett's stomach, but he soon realized that he would never be able to make the full 100 miles if he couldn’t hold down food. No matter how much determination a person has, the body needs fuel for a fete like this.

“I didn't know if I could even get to Sally's footbridge without having catastrophic body failure,” he said.

As he ran, the guilt hit him hard. By the time he arrived at the next aid station his legs were cramping and giving out. Becky was there and he called it quits.

“It was only a matter of time while transitioning into a climb before I would be in the fetal position and require help to move. I didn't want to put anyone in that position. So yeah, that was my race.”

Burbank had run more than 30 miles on an empty tank before collapsing into his wife’s arms. But even then he wished he had pushed until he dropped. It was only out of concern for everyone else that convinced him to stop.


The end

The couple didn’t want to just leave, despite Garrett feeling horrible. They stayed through the end of the race to support runners as they crossed the finish line the following day. Through all of his training and planning, he hadn’t planned on the collective energy of families and volunteers at the race.

“I think that many of the runners are strong enough to do it all by themselves. But because of the collective energy of all the all the people supporting at the aid stations and all the different crews, there was just this uplifting and inspiring feeling,” he said. “There is power in the collective.”

Garrett and Becky watched runners who fought through with broken feet, broken toes and only able to walk across the finish line.

“People had run in these walls even 50 miles away from the finish. There were runners who were vomiting and in the fetal position at Jaws [the halfway mark], so they still have 52 miles to go. Thanks in part to the support at the aid station, they turned around and did the next 52 miles over the next 20 hours,” he said.

Seeing the immense willpower that some of these runners had, and that willpower coming from not just the individual, but coming from the collective was an unexpected lesson for Garrett.

“I think that you can take that lesson into all facets of life, whether it's work, whether it's through a tragedy or raising a family. If you can sacrifice some of your pride and ego to go through it by accepting help from a group, your potential is hyperbolic at that point,” he said.

His training for the 2025 race will start as soon as he recovers. Burbank isn’t the sort to leave a goal on the table.

“I guess it wasn't supposed to happen this week. But I will accomplish my goal before I die,” he said. “I won’t give up until I finish.”


Coming soon

More than 1,000 runners, many from Powell and the Big Horn Basin, participated in the different lengths of races. More than 200 signed up for the 100-mile race, with 195 finishing before the required 35-hour mark.

The finishers will be honored in an upcoming story in the Tribune’s Sports section.