Cactus Rose 100 caught me, hook, line and sinker last fall. I was training for Brazos and the idea of this race shook me to my core. I was unable to get it out of my mind: running the rugged Hill Country trails at Hill Country State Natural Area in Bandera; unsupported, no less. This race was a representation of the type of ultra runner that I hoped I could become. The timing wasn’t right, so I had to be patient. (You can all stop laughing now.) Through a series of events that no one really wants to read about, I registered for Cactus Rose 100 roughly eight weeks ago, as a part of my prep for Ouray 50, 2019. My sole focus from now until July 2019 is preparing myself to go back and finish that beast. This race was to be the first pit stop toward that goal. I committed to myself not to think about my performance. I committed to myself not to cloud my mind with where I might place. I refrained from discussing the race on social media and only discussed with a handful of my closest running buddies. I needed to be able to just show up and run, unencumbered with all the mental baggage that I typically tend to pack for these types of events.
A couple of weeks before the race, the Texas Hill Country was slammed with flooding. So much so, that the race couldn’t be held at the normal location and was moved to Camp Eagle, about two hours West. I was oddly excited about the change, because I knew that it meant a more difficult race. A more difficult race meant more growth opportunity. Again, I reminded myself that my goal was not to have my best race ever or place high in the field. My goal was to get stronger for Ouray.
I was fully prepared to run this race solo, without a crew or pacer. I knew it would be even more difficult without people there to help me. What it means when I say this race was unsupported is there would be no volunteers and the “aid stations” were merely water containers, coolers of ice and a spiral notebook on which to log the time you passed through. BUT, my Possum’s Revenge buddy, Tommy, VOLUNTEERED to crew and pace. I’m not sure what I did to be the recipient of such generosity, but I was grateful before the race even began.
Loop 1 – Easy, but not too easy.
Race morning, the minutes ticked off the clock and before I could blink, we were off! I started at the back to avoid my usual mistake of starting out too fast. I lingered at the end of the conga line until I felt sufficiently warmed up, became bored and decided to pass enough people that I could run my comfortable pace.
The race was 4 loops of 25 miles, but each loop was divided into basically 3 sections. A “Yellow” section at the beginning, then “Loop A” and “Loop B”. The end of Yellow section and beginning/end of A/B loop shared an aid station appropriately named “Crossroads”. Tommy was planning to meet me there between A/B loops, then I would see him again at start/finish. The loops shared another aid station, “Windmill”, but it was more difficult to get to, so I would be on my own until I could make it back around each loop.
Loop 1 mantra was “easy but not too easy”. I was running comfortably, but didn’t feel 100%. Sometimes it just takes me a while to get completely warmed up and the humidity didn’t help. However, I was incredibly grateful for the cloud cover and hoped that the inevitable clearing would happen later, rather than sooner.
This course was difficult, don’t get me wrong. But in the midst of it and even looking back, it really doesn’t seem that bad. Something changed when I was in Ouray that I didn’t even realize until this race. I may have only gone halfway on that course, but my brain doesn’t process things now the way it did before. I tackled this course one climb, one descent, one section, one loop at a time. I don’t look at a climbs in the same way I did before. To quote Scott Jurek, “sometimes you just do things!” Whatever was ahead, I just had to work through. The rocks were my biggest enemy. As if rocks in the Hill Country weren’t bad enough, the floods had washed many more out onto the trail. And just when I found myself in a less rocky, more runnable section, the trail would be over taken by mud, which presented its own challenges in this race.
Tommy poured so much effort into creating a pace chart, and I felt bad that I hadn’t done much more than skim it…my brain couldn’t handle it at the time. Yeah…looked great, but I went in with the intention to run on feel. By some miracle, I came in pretty much on target for the first loop. However, the skies had long since cleared and the heat was rising.
Loop 2 – Keeping the inner vamp at bay
I joke, often, that I am a vampire. I self-destruct in the sun and running at night is my favorite. What additional proof does one need??
The heat quickly got to me on the second loop. However, I was still right on target with my fueling and I continued to take in food on my schedule. I made it through the yellow section and was relieved to see Tommy there. I shared with him that I was hot and trying to manage my effort. I kept on pushing, but the next section through mile 38 would be mostly exposed. The saving grace that got me through the hot, afternoon sun was a cool, sporadic, breeze. I finally made it back to Crossroads and Tommy was ready and waiting to address the heat issues. I felt completely reset when I left the aid station at mile 38, plus I had a nice, smooth, albeit muddy, run under tree cover. The relief was short-lived as I found myself under the beating sun once again. When I got to the Windmill aid station, Loop B side, I began to realize that I was slightly behind on hydration. I wasn’t about to let my race derail over hydration, so I became hyper focused on taking in water more regularly. Luckily, I was able to turn that situation around. Not long after, I noticed the sun was beginning to drop in the sky and I knew that relief would soon come in the form of darkness. When I finally made it back to the start/finish area, I was running strong and feeling like a million bucks. Running the remainder of that loop in the dark felt just amazing. I remember Tommy telling me that I fell a bit behind pace overall, but I can’t recall how much, or if he even said. The best thing about being done with loop 2 wasn’t that I was halfway done. It meant that I could pick up my pacer!
Loop 3 – Chasing rabbits, I mean Tommy
After restocking, taking in a bit of solid food and making sure we both had all the gear we needed for a night loop, Tommy and I were off. Have I mentioned how excited I was to have someone with me?!? I was running pretty well at that point, even though the bottoms of my feet had started to bother me. (I would later realize that it was due to the friction from my feet kicking rocks and doing somersaults in my shoe running over all the dang rocks.) I figured that I just had some debris in my shoe, so we stopped at Crossroads and I changed socks. Welllllll…..I had effectively knocked one toe nail loose. Another was on its way and my big toe was just beat up. We won’t even discuss the bottoms of my feet. I taped the toe that had the wonky nail, changed socks, put my shoes back on and we were on our way to Loop A. The rocky sections (read: basically the entire course) were increasingly painful and more difficult for me to navigate. Honestly, I felt like knives were being stabbed into the bottom of my foot with each step. But I had to keep up with Tommy, so I kept trudging along and tried not to whimper too often. The toughest part of the course, as far as I was concerned, was this creek bed that we had to run on – for a really, long ass time. Getting across the initial body of water required stepping on stones carefully placed in a line. I promptly slipped into the creek….with both feet. The water was NOT good for the feet AT ALL. The remainder of the creek bed was basically one big pile of rocks to traverse (meaning, murder for my feet) and was littered with false exits that we had to take to circumvent something impassable. I felt trapped and as if I would never get out EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. And I could tell Tommy loved it, the way he was LITERALLY skipping up ahead. The fact that he liked it completely pissed me off! Funny, how you’re basically reduced to acting like a toddler during these events.
Loop 4 – Last loop – YEEHAW!
We finally made our way back around to the start/finish area and checked off mile 75….Tommy wouldn’t tell me how much behind schedule we were, but I could tell it was A LOT. I think it really stressed him out. I couldn’t figure out why he was so obsessed with keeping to my 30 hour goal. I have to pause to admit one of my shortcomings: before the race I had hoped that I could get close to 30 hours. But I never really believed that I could go sub-30 and when the course was changed, my mind kind of tossed that goal out the window, as I knew the course would be more difficult. Tommy was clearly focused on us making up time, but my brain was just in grind-it-out mode. I did feel badly about putting us behind schedule. Here Tommy was, pouring everything he had into getting us to the finish line and I was making us late.
Schedule aside, the real issue at hand was what we could do extend the life of my feet. I wasn’t going to be making up any time if my foot condition didn’t improve. My shoes and socks were soaked from my slip into the creek. I planned to change my socks, but if I put them back into my wet Speedgoats, how would that help? I brought my Torrents, but had worn them a total of 15 miles. In the end, Tommy and I both felt that a dry shoe was more important and I changed into the Torrents. Sometimes you have to gamble a little with these matters.
My feet did indeed feel much better!! But at some point during the yellow loop, I was overcome with fatigue – exhaustion, really. I tried to run, but didn’t run as much as I wanted and Tommy would end up far ahead having to wait on me. I kept wondering what was taking so long to finish this little loop?? Once, when we slowed for me to take in some fuel, I asked Tommy if I should take a NoDoz. He thought best for us to make it to the aid so I could have some Coke. He changed his mind when I saw him walk into an aid station that wasn’t there. LOL!!! The NoDoz didn’t work as well as I had hoped, but the sunrise breathed new life into me. As soon as Tommy realized this, we went to work. He started running and I was simply trying to keep up with him. Apparently we ran some ridiculous paces downhill and with some pretty decent clips up lower grade hills, even at mile 85 and after. My legs felt great with just a hint of fatigue. My damn feet, though….. The pain was returning as my feet got wetter with sweat. I had to focus on being grateful that I got 10+ good miles in before things went South again, and I truly was grateful for that.
The sun was now rising higher in the sky with every passing moment and Sunday’s weather didn’t give the benefit of early cloud cover. Heat would increasingly be an issue, but we kept trudging forward. We worked our way to Windmill (Loop B, I believe). Tommy put ice in my bladder and into a baggie that we stuffed in the front pocket of my vest. We headed out again for the last segment of the race. I was SO READY to be DONE. The foot pain increased with each and every step. The heat was draining my energy and I began to feel extreme fatigue. It seemed as if I was always kicking a rocks and the sad thing was that I never even saw them. I felt more defeated each time I kicked a rock or tripped. I ran when I could but I know it was super slow. Eventually, around mile 95, I tripped and fell down. The fall wasn’t bad at all, but I was so tired. I told Tommy that I was done. I was just so tired that all I could think about was closing my eyes and taking a nap right there in the middle of the trail. Tommy didn’t accept that and made me get up. I didn’t intend to stay there – I just wanted to stay there. Once I was on my feet again, I slowly began getting another wind and we started running again as much as I could handle. At that point, I seriously thought that I had given everything that I had. Yet somehow, I mustered the strength to run a bit more…and the thing is that I wanted to run. That is the exact thing that I have been trying to achieve since I started running ultras. Coming in dead last wouldn’t have mattered – this breakthrough was THE THING!
We made our way through the last section of trail, which seemed to pass much more quickly than any loop prior. We were so close I could taste it. All I could think about was the finish, my chair and a beer.
We decided to carry our aid station bags down from Crossroads, because neither of us had the energy to walk back up there to retrieve them after the race. Tommy told me to go ahead and he would be right behind me after he set our stuff down. Honestly, I wish I would have waited. What does one minute matter over 30 hours? But instead, I ran on ahead and crossed the finish line threshold without the guy that got me there.
When I finished, Chris McWatters walked up with my buckle and something else in his hand. It was one of the Rose trophies for the podium finishers. I looked at him, puzzled. I was told that I placed 2nd female. I was in complete shock and DID NOT believe it! Then I turned to Tommy and said – DID YOU KNOW ABOUT THIS?? He simply nodded his head and grinned. I had not considered, even for a second, that I would be in a position to place. During the race, I squashed immediately any questions regarding my place within the field. I couldn’t allow myself to entertain any of those thoughts.
I’ve spent this entire week trying to process this whole experience.
This is the first time I have ever walked away from a race feeling like I truly “raced” it.
This is the first time I walked away being able to say that I left everything out on the course.
This is the first time I walked away being able to say that I hit my breaking point AND I found a way to dig deeper to continue.
I hope that I can unlock that awesomeness going forward. I’m not sure I can do it on my own, just yet. But now I know it’s in there and that completely changes everything.
But for now, I’m satisfied. I’m getting closer to the runner that I want to be.
Now, for the sappy stuff
I can’t close without thanking a few people.
First, to my husband, Bobby: I couldn’t do this crazy endurance thing without your support. Thank you for only giving me only the crazy looks and not saying what I know you’re thinking in your head when I tell you the next thing I want to do.
To my coach, Greg: Thank you for taking me on as on of your athletes. In six short months, you have completely changed my running for the better. You’ve made me stronger, in more ways than one. And thank you for the calm reassurance and tolerance during my mini-freak out moments that inevitably come each and every training cycle.
To the bestest buddy ever, Tommy: I could go on for days, but I won’t. I don’t even know how to say thank you. But, thank you. Thank you for believing in me enough to push me to the edge and not giving me an inch once I got there. You can never know how much that means to me.