It has taken me a while to gather my memories, thoughts, and photos for a post race report, and now finally, by popular demand, here it is...
When I hopped aboard my flight to Texas early Thursday morning, I was so thrilled and excited to finally be getting away, I almost forgot that I had that little race to run on Saturday. I really had no expectations for the race, really just considered myself on board for the ride and the excitement of it all, with the sole determination to have a number next to my name when I left my debut 100K. I made sure I was well rested in the week leading up to Bandera, in part because my ITB was nagging me a bit, and another probably smaller part my willingness to actually rest up. But sometimes little injuries work in mysterious ways for me and I came into the race feeling ripe and ready to go, but with a bit of concern of how my knee would feel while traversing those rocks. The went smoothly, aside from my bag being grilled and practically turned inside-out at security. Apparently Gus, gel, and anti-chafe powder pose a bomb threat, and swabs from my bag and the palms of my hands underwent chemical testing for radioactive substances. The downside to traveling at a time when NO ONE else is at the airport. Still, we survived and made it into Bandera, a cute little cowboy town just an hour drive from San Antonio. We were immediately greeted by cowboy hats and the Texas heat in Dallas, and I was immediately sweating in my jacket. We rented a sweet drug-dealer mansion house that may have been a little haunted, but kept us on our toes. On Friday night, the whole team was there…me, Mike, Trent, Matt, Alex and Gori. A good meal on Friday night of charcoaled eggplant (J), grilled shrimp and chicken with pasta and salad. An early bed and an early rise found us down some single lane Texas backcountry road that eventually turning into a winding dusty dirt path leading back to the lodge where the race would start.
Our 38 acre ranch!
Mike and Trent infront of our mansion.
I was as ready as I was going to be as I stood at the starting line at 7:30 on Saturday morning. The air had a little chill to it, but it was obvious that the mid day sun to come would heat things up. Of course I represented my state, wearing my new Delaware Running Co racing singlet, just given to me by the location in Newark, and JMU triathlon shorts, along with my Salomon trails and Salomon sleeves. I wore out my Saucony arm warmers and a pair of light running gloves for the slight morning chill, which was probably overkill based on the conditions. Within the first two miles I would be sweating through the things. So the gun went off and off went the pack. Apparently the lead guys went out really fast, although I couldn’t really see, but I would see the leader later in the second loop when he dropped out. I started somewhere in the middle/sidish with Matt and Alex. We saw Mike and the start, but after the gun went off, he was off and not to be seen. During the initial mile, I thought back to my plan. Oh wait, I didn’t have one. Really, I had nothing. I was just going based solely on feel today, with a goal of not blowing up before the end. When asked about my times beforehand, I had said that the only thing I really wanted was to finish the second lap of the two 50K loop course within one hour of my first. Apparently, this is harder to do that is seems. Last year, only four men out of the entire field finished their 2nd loop within 40 minutes of their first, hinting at the potential damage that one loop of this course could really do. Even course record holder Dave Mackey finished with a second lap an hour and a half slower than the first! I mean, it is inevitable that I am going to be hurting out there at some point in time, but I decided that today I wanted to race smart, keep my composure, and to not fall apart at any point before the finish line. This was too long of a race on unfamiliar territory to gamble with pace.
Somewhere near the beginning of the race. Photo by Enduro Photo (too obvious?).
So at the start, I played it conservatively. Matt and Alex stayed with me and we talked for a while. Both of them were expecting some rough miles to come, as they admitted they hadn’t really been training in over a month. I wasn’t going to let anyone set my pace, but the three of us seemed to be comfortable at the same pace. Actually, a couple of times in the first few miles, the two of them pulled ahead a bit and I thought I’d lost them, only to find them waiting at the top of the next hill for me. They told me they were ready to help me win this thing…throwing elbows and scorpions at other chick --whatever it took! Great guysJ
Course photo of me and Alex, obviously courtesy of Enduro photo. Really hoping that my few and only readers (mom, dad and family) do not report me if this is illegal use of this image!)
I had tried to do as much research as I could beforehand, so I would not be surprised by any part of this course, and I had heard about the rocky nature of the trail and blah blah. But holy crap! These rocks were nothing like I had ever seen before. I had tried to prepare myself, going out on a few Appalachian trail runs in some of the toughest sections with large sharp jagged rocks that stick up out of the path. The rocks in Texas however, were more like moon rocks; loose round rocks with craters and anywhere from the size of my fist to the size of a basketball, with fewer large fixed ones. I found these types of rocks were way more difficult to run because there was no real way to getting good footing on them, especially going up those short steep hills that essentially made up the entire course. There was no way that my hill workouts on a steep gravelly path could have prepared me for this. Speaking of the short steep hills, there were plenty of good power-walk opportunities on some of those hills, and I tried to take advantage of whichever seemed reasonable. The downhills were probably even harder with the rocks. I started getting the hang of running on the stuff, or so I thought, but the race situation is not the ideal time to do this type of learning, so I did the best I could without being risky enough to chance a potentially fatal fall. There were also these prickly long stemmed grass plants that were all over the trail and they scratched up our thighs when we were forced to run through them, which was pretty often. For a while I wished I had worn some kind of longer tights as the race reports had advised, to cover my legs until the mid-day sun came out and I was once again happy with my choice.
By the second aid station, I was hot and ready to shed some layers. The Texas sun was out and shining on the crystal clear day. And although warmer than expected, the temperature felt comfortable for now, and I settled in, hoping, skipping, jumping, lunging over the rocks. Running with Matt and Alex was entertaining and made the miles tick by pretty quickly. Before I knew it we had passed through the third and fourth aid stations. We had traversed through some pretty technical sections and now the trail was finally opening up to some smoother sections where we could pick up our speed.
One of many rocky hills. This one is pretty tame. Photo from http://www.tejastrails.com.
But just about that time, we all started to feel our legs. And when I looked at my watch and read that we had just hit the 3 hour mark, I knew we’d be in for a long day ahead. It wasn’t the pace, it was just inevitably going to happen to any legs, even trained ultrarunning ones, that were not conditioned for this type of terrain. Still, we were excited to be out of the technical stuff for the next few miles and we picked things up a bit. During this stretch we passed a “FO” (USATF Female Open) woman. She looked pretty good, but I guess we were just a bit faster. When we were back to the rocky stuff, I could tell my legs did not have quite the same reflexive quickness rebounding from rocks that they’d had in the first few hours. And so the next time my foot caught on a rock, down I went…landing pretty hard on my left knee and FOOSH! (fallen on outstretched hand). A cloud of dust puffed up around me from the bone dry dirt in the Texas drought. And just as Matt was saying we would take a couple of minutes and walk it off, I was already back up and running down the trail again, brushing the dirt and blood off my hands. I shook it off pretty quickly, but that one did leave a couple nice bruises and cuts.
Our trio held together for the rest of the 50K loop. There were a few times when a guy would come blowing by us from behind, and the first time we were worried that we had drastically slowed down until we realized that these were the lead 50Kers. We only did see maybe 3 or 4 of them, which was interesting as we thought we’d be seeing more. After five aid stations, we knew the next one would be back at the start. I had been doing pretty well with keeping myself hydrated and energized for not having a crew. I found that not having a crew in a race this long definitely made aid station stops more challenging. If you have ever seen me race then you know that I don’t spend much time at aid stations, if any. I like grabbing what I need while still on the run and going with it, not breaking stride. I usually will know what I need and when I need it and don’t like stopping for any reason because sometimes it’s harder to start running again than it would be if I had never stopped at all. During JFK, I ate only gels and other electrolyte gummies and found myself feeling sick and nauseated for the last few hours, which I attributed to racing on a stomach too empty. So for Bandera I knew I wanted some real food of substance in my system throughout, but I really did not know what they would have at the aid stations and so when I entered one, it was always this game of…Okayyyy, now what do I want? I took a square of a PB&J and usually a Dixie cup or two of Coke or Mountain Dew and maybe some animal crackers or pretzels to-go. All seemed to agree with me and there was never a point when I bonked. However, I did probably spend a few minutes at every aid-station, which was a change for me and I don’t think that I liked that. And the time spent there at 11 aid stations on the course undoubtedly added up. And like I expected, it was always hard to start running again afterwards, especially in the later miles.
Beautiful scenery, with some spiky grass leaves to cut up our legs. Photo from http://www.tejastrails.com.
After we hit the fifth aid station, I realized that I had just run almost 30 miles and I wasn’t even feeling tired. (Well maybe a little, but apparently arthritic Tylenol can work wonders J ) I think this attributed to my almost sudden surge of energy in the last few miles to close in the loop. I held back a bit because experience has taught me that this feeling wouldn’t last forever and I wanted to keep it going for as long as I could. Still, I couldn’t wait to close up the loop so I could start on the second! This was exactly how I had dreamed I’d feel going into the second lap. The last few miles brought some pretty technical rocky downhill, but it seemed like I was flying down it right now, almost uncontrollably at times. Unfortunately, Matt did not feel the same way and he started slowing down around the same time I was speeding up. Alex hung with me though. When we came into halfway, I hit the porta while Alex went to the aid station. When I came out and crossed the timing mat at 5:41, people were cheering me on and both Matt and Alex were at the station. I made one last trip to my backpack to get a couple more caffeine gels, bid the boys farewell and was on my way. I had a feeling that I wouldn’t be seeing them during this second loop.
Someplace after Crossroads.
Starting out on my second loop I felt motivated and energized and better than I had all day. When I set out, I thought that if this feeling held up, I’d be able to run my second loop just as fast, if not faster than the first. And I was in huntress mode—a lioness on the hunt and out for the kill…what fun! I felt like I kid all over again, racing through the trails, blowing through the grasses, chasing the bodies in the distance ahead of me. (I am a little crazy and might need psychiatric help, I know…J ) I was passing lots of people now, but only guys. I knew there were other chicks up ahead to catch and I might have a chance, aside from the extreme elites, and even though I had no way of knowing exactly how far ahead they were and how many there would be, I was determined to catch as many as I could now.
View from the top of one of the first hills. Photo from http://www.tejastrails.com.
And so within a few minutes of starting that second lap, the chicking of the boys had begun. I probably passed 5 or 6 guys in the first 3-4 miles. Just your typical and expected went-out-too-hard-and-now-paying-fot-it guys. And then when I finally saw a girl on top of the hill I was climbing just ahead, I got really excited. She was still moving pretty well and it took me a few minutes to catch her, but when I finally did we ran together for a few minutes. She was nice and told me I was looking good and strong. I passed her just before hitting the first aid station, where I found another woman looking much less thrilled to see me. When I ran in and was refilling my water, I thought that she might have actually glared at me…Yikes! I was out of there pretty quickly.
After that first aid station, my energy started to dwindle and my first real low point of the day came on. I was starting to remember my legs and feet hurting and all the miles and hours and rocks I had left to go. Plus, I was starting to get kind of lonely. This would have probably been the point where I would have put in my earphones and turned on some music if I hadn’t signed up with USATF. I appreciated the company I had had in the first lap now more than ever. Now I was pretty much running by myself over lots and lots of rocks and endless hills. I would exchange a few words with the guys I was still passing, but even as I could tell my pace was slowing, they were still all running too slow to start any kind of companionship. And I knew I was feeling kind of crappy when I was walking up some of the hills that I knew I had run over in the first lap. When I came to the second aid station, I will admit that I probably spent almost 4 minutes there trying to regroup and shake out my legs. I left the station walking while sipping on some Coke, telling myself I had to start running again when my drink was finished. The second to third aid station didn’t feel much better. But I knew the third and fourth aid stations was Crossroads when I had my pack, and something about that thought I think picked me up right before I got there.
Yayy! Only flat section of the entire course, just before Crossroads. Photo from http://www.tejastrails.com.
I almost missed him when I came through Crossroads, but someone said hey or something to me and when I looked up and there was Mike. Mike! I was so happy to see him! And I almost forgot for a moment that my seeing him right now probably meant that he was in a world of pain at the moment. But it was the first familiar face I’d seen in hours and it was really uplifting to set off again with a close training buddy by my side. As we started running we filled each other in on our races. He had been running with the elite women at one point and had seen them and their crews. He also guessed that there couldn’t be more than 4 or 5 women ahead of me now. Really??? I thought I might have fought my way towards top 10 in the second lap, but never thought I was that high up. He also told me he wasn’t feeling great. He crossed the 50K mark at sub 5 hours and things started going downhill from there.. and that he’d probably been at that aid station for 10 minutes before I got there. We stayed together for a few miles and I really wanted to share with him some of the good feelings and energy he had just given me so we could finish this thing together, but when we hit a the flatter non-rocky section again, I started picking it up and he wasn’t feeling it.
So there I was again, by myself, but feeling ten times better. I came into the second Crossroads station, probably spent less than 20 seconds there, grabbed my headlamp from my drop bag and was on my way. I knew I should probably eat something more, but I was getting to that inevitable point of the start of the battle with the stomach. I felt nauseated at the thought of anything sweet, so the only thing I thought I could keep down were a couple of pretzels. It hadn’t felt like I was sweating too much, but everytime I reached up to wipe my brow or neck, my hand would come back covered with dry grainy white salt, so I know I was at least losing plenty of electrolytes. It was dusk now, but still light. My watch read 10:08. Less than 10 miles to go. The distance didn’t seem so daunting, just the thought of traversing those rocks in the darkness that was soon approaching. The sun would probably set completely before I got to the final aid station, but there was a chance I could finish in under 12 hours and I kept that thought in my head as motivation for holding the pace on tired sore legs. I also tried not to think about how this was the longest amount of time I had ever run in one running, and it wasn’t even over. Soon the sun did set, and things were darker within the trees and bushes so I had to turn on my headlamp. It was around this time when I was in a rhythm and trying to watch my footing very closely and so wasn’t looking out too far ahead of me. Suddenly I saw a long dark twisted figure a few feet ahead in the middle of the path. Snake! Aggghhhh!!! And then just after my heart skipped a few beats and I had just about jumped out of my skin and fallen backwards, I realized my deadly snake was just one of those long Texas tree roots, dying of thirst and growing out into the path as far as it could in attempt to suck in more nonexistent water. Welp, the sympathetic nervous system is still in-tact! It never ceases to amaze me that no matter how dead tired the body is, it will still react in whatever way it can to protect you from deadly killer creatures…or tree rootsJ
But my encounters with the Texas night wildlife wasn’t quite over. A couple of minutes after I turned on my headlamp, I heard coyotes howling on the hill next to me at the full bright and glowing moon that was now out in full shine. Seriously??!!! I think that’s when I finally faced the reality of the situation; I was running through the desert in the middle of nowhere Texas by myself and helpless with no protection and coyotes could eat me alive. And that’s about the time when I forgot about my legs and just started running faster. I tried to convince myself that the howling was really just people at the next aid station probably goofing off. Then I saw another runner headlamp ahead of me in the distance and I told myself that even if those were real coyotes, he would cross their path before I would and so they’d attack him before me. And then I almost didn’t want to pass him, but I did anyways, and told myself that as long as I could outrun the slowest runner (him) I would be safe.
And then finally, the 5th and LAST aid station!! I knew I needed some kind of calories in my system and fast, as I could feel my empty stomach churning. But the thought of anything sweet, even the jelly of the PB&J, made me sick. As I came in they started cheering. Someone asked if they could get me anything “…a cup of soup?”
“No, but a shot of that tequila would be great right now.” I had remembered from the first lap that this station announced they’d be serving the stuff after sun down, and now it was about that time. They cheered again even louder. I think I was probably the first person of the night to ask for it, and definitely wouldn’t be the last. He filled a Dixie cup up almost to the brim. Not only was it the best shot of tequila I’ve had in my life, but this was honestly the best thing I’d tasted in hours. No lime, no salt, no chaser. The pungent bitterness seemed to cleanse my mouth. Just a couple straight gulps of the warm stuff, a few animal crackers, and a small cup of mountain dew to-go and I was outta there. No wasting time at that one. I started running and felt it burning all the way down until I literally felt it hit my empty gut. And a few minutes later when I started ascending the next rocky hill, I claimed it the best decision of the day!
When I set off from the last aid station, I saw that I had about 58 minutes to run a little less than 6 miles. Which was totally do-able, even with hills the way I was feeling right now…if it weren’t for the army of rocks standing between me and the finish line. And the darkness wasn’t going to help much here. So the technicality of the section ahead made my sub-12 goal a little less realistic, but I kept up with a pace that was as quick as I could given the situation, the rocks in the darkness now the limiting factor, as I was feeling good again. And I was still passing guys. I don’t think I have ever seen so much carnage in one race before. The little boost of tequila in my system probably helped me feel better and definitely made me less paranoid about the possibility of coyote attack. I tried to run too fast for my own skill down some of the technical rocky downhill because the next thing I knew, I was face down in the dirt as I bashed my right knee against some rocks and scraped up my hands some more. As I looked up from my fall and my lamp cast light over the ground in front of me, there was a scorpion the size of my finger just inches away from my hands. Eeekkkk!! I scrambled up, searing knee pain and all and got the hell away from there. My knee was hurting pretty badly so I lightly tiptoed over rocks for the next two minutes until it subsided enough to continue running. But from then on, I cautiously edged my way down the steep rocky sections, probably losing more time than I’d like to. And just when I thought the trail might open up enough for me to gain some speed, there were some more piles of rocks there to greet me. As the 12 hour mark came closer and closer, minute by minute, I was growing more and more eager to see the shed that I knew marked the half-a-mile-to-go, now half stumbling over rocks and through cactuses.
When I did finally see that shed up ahead and the trail open up on a smooth dirt path, I threw down everything I had. I was probably more excited for the end of the rocks than I was for the actual finish line. I was actually pretty surprised with how much I had left in me. I probably ran in that last part at a well under sub 7 minute mile (although I guess anything could have felt fast for me at that point). When I came flying out of the woods and through the finish line at 12:08, I felt like I could go on like that for another few miles (although FELT like and COULD have are two different things). The RD greeted me with a 5th place USATF medal and said “Gosh dang girl, how long you been runnin like that?!” Obviously not very long.
My miniature cowgirl boot trophy, USATF medal and very FIRST belt buckle. The morning after, back at the race site to claim our drop bags. Hard to imagine people still out there almost 24 hours later trying to make the time cut-off!
Though it was farthest I’d ever run, not to mention certainly the longest time I’d ever been running at one time, it really didn’t feel like it. I guess that I can largely attribute that to my average pace hahah but the whole race was just fun! Well, at least most of it. And it reminded me of why I actually sign myself up for stuff like this. And racing through the dark like that was definitely one of the most exciting experiences I’ve had, as many times as I may have feared for my lifeJ I was loving my first 100K so much that one of the first things that crossed my mind after the finish was the thought of my debut 100 miler. And theeeeennnnn the painfully stiff and sore post-ultra legs set in that wouldn’t begin to alleviate till two days later and I quickly put out that idea for anytime in the near future.
Mike finished about 30 minutes after me, and we waited for Matt and Alex, who came in together and with a new friend a couple hours later. They’d had a long second loop, but were back to smiling now (after threatening to kill us for talking them into it).
An ice bath, a shower and a meal later, I felt like a new woman, ready for the next adventure! Okay…so I was walking around like a cowgirl for about two days afterwards too, but mentally I was ready to get back out and hit the trails for more J
San Antonio the night after for some good Mexican and salty Margaritas.
Bandera was a really awesome experience and placing in the top 5 women in a USATF National Championship event is certainly an honor in itself (even if the winners were hours ahead of me hahah) Actually, checking the results, I am listed as 4th place so I think some woman may have been disqualified? I just might have to etch it into my medal. I am also glad that I did sign up with the USATF, because I felt like it gave me something to strive for in the race. I would love to come back to Bandera and do it all over again, and plan on doing so. After lots of hill training and lots and lots more rock training.