Bandera: My First 100k

Most of all, the ultra distance leaves you alone with your thoughts to an excrutiating extent. Whatever song you have in your head had better be a good one. Whatever story you are telling yourself had better be a story about going on. There is no room for negativity. The reason most people quit has nothing to do with their body” ~Scott Jurek

I’ll let you in on a little secret: leading up to Bandera, I didn’t completely trust my training.  My lack of trust had absolutely nothing to do with the plan that my coach had laid out for me.  My lack of trust rested solely on ME, and it had become a raging fire, fueled from the guilt and regret of missing workouts.  Yes, I managed to get the majority of my workouts in, but I did miss some strength and mobility and I did miss some mid-week runs. I felt like a complete and total failure. I felt that I had let myself down, my coach down and my team down.  Plus, it was just scary to race after a year of nothing.  Did I still have a competitive spirit? Could I still run that far? It’s just crazy where the mind will go if you let it.

A lot of people dread taper, but I don’t.  There’s a point during the week when the nerves melt away and I am forced to accept the reality that what is to come is what is to come.  I cease to fret about performance or pain or fatigue or results. Taper is when you have reached the point of no turning back.  In other words, you no longer have the time to train in order to change the outcome. Or, you have no more time in which to screw it up. I find an eerie comfort in that. Taper week, for me, is accepting my fate then tying up loose mental ends so that I can race in the best mental shape.

Going into the race, I had a few goals:

  • Complete the race in 15 hours (Greg thought I could run in 14:30 – I thought he was insane)
  • First and second loop splits with no more than an hour difference. (Also thought that I would not be able to pull this off.)
  • Remember that racing is a celebration, not a test
  • RACE, not run

Due to COVID protocols (Tejas Trails did an EXCELLENT job, by the way!), the race started in a wave format.  I was in first wave, which was 6:30-7:00AM.  The wave start is awesome, becuase there is no pressure to arrive at a fixed moment in time.  We were heading to the start and I decided that I wanted to change shorts, so I went back and changed shorts! That level of chill could never have happened in a mass race start. I started around 6:42AM.  The weather was PERFECT!  It was in the 30s but there was virtually no wind and not a cloud in the sky.  The forecast was upper 50s, cloudy in the afternoon and low 40s that night.  It just doesn’t get any better! Most of the first wave had started at 6:30, so I was by myself, except for a few people that I caught and passed early on.  The wave start worked really well for me because I didn’t get caught up in what everyone else was running and I could focus on maintaining the level of effort that I wanted.  When the faster runners in the group behind me started catching up, it wasn’t that mental blow that you sometimes get  because I knew those people would have been far ahead of me if we had all started together.  Plus, if I had 30 minutes on them and they caught me – it’s not like burning matches to keep them from passing would have done any good….because they already made up 30 minutes on me!  I did miss trying to chase down women to better my position, though. Chasing people can be fun.

Everything was clicking along really well, until I got to the Lollipop.  I ended up somehow getting a cactus needle jammed through my shoe into my second left toe.  I tried to pull it out of my shoe, but needed tweezers.  I wasn’t about to waste time pulling off my shoe for one stupid cactus needle, so I carried on and decided that if the poking became unbearable, I would address it at that point.  Around this same point, I started feeling a sharp pain in my left ankle. Just one mile prior, I had been thinking about how much stronger my ankles were compared to the last time I ran in the Hill Country.  Wow.  What in the world could have happened?  I realized fairly quickly that the pain in my ankle started at exactly the same time as the cactus needle in my toe, but it seemed unlikely that would have caused the issue.  Again, I decided not to think about it until I needed to think about it.  Even then I was resolved to keep moving, however that might look. Luckily, I only felt it off and on for the next 5 miles or so, then nothing! (By the way, it ended up being a large cactus needle stuck in my ankle.  I suspect that it punctured a vein, which caused the pain and the large bruise afterward.)

Bobby had come to crew and Baha to pace.  They went for breakfast after the start, then met me at Equestrian, which was the second aid station.  I shed my long sleeve shirt and headlamp, traded water bottles and was off again.  My goal was to trade water bottles at most aid stations, restocking food at Nachos (mid-point of the loop) and start/finish. Efficiency was a must, especially during the first loop.  I made it to Nachos quickly and easily enough and restocked nutrition pretty quickly.  I knew I was ahead of the pace chart I had prepared, but couldn’t tell exactly because I refused to take the time to pull the pace chart out of the pouch out in my belt.  Since I wasn’t exactly sure how the wave start was going to work, I had based the whole thing on a 7AM start, so I had to account for that 18 minutes as well. Run math….smh.

When I made it to Chapas, I was feeling good, but a little tired.  Having the Big Ass Runner crew cheer for me as I ran through the barn gave me a nice shot of adrenaline so I had some energy going into the flatter, more runnable section of the course.  This is where faith in your training pays off.  Even though I didn’t have a lot of faith in ME for the overall race, I knew that I could get through these runnable sections.  Greg structured my training around keeping my leg turnover for those flatter areas and I knew I was prepared for it.  I made it to YaYa, tired, but still moving. Bobby and Baha didn’t make that aid because they had gone to grab lunch, but all I needed was water anyway.  Now it was just a few miles to the start/finish where I would be half way done AND would pick Baha up to pace.  I rolled into the start finish with a first loop time of 6:27, which was about 30 minutes faster than I had planned for the first loop!

It seemed like I spent A LOT of time at the start/finish before heading out on the loop, but the difference in Baha’s Strava for the loop and my chip time for the loop was only 6 minutes.  If that’s the case, I’m really happy with that. Baha’s friend, Brian, started the loop with us and stayed with us until we arrived at Boyles. He certainly kept the conversation going! I needed Coke, so we stopped.  Gah, I hate to waste time at aid stations but I was in a low spot.  I told Baha that I was tired.  I would have been happy to lay on that rocky ground and take a nap!  No time for napping in a race, though, so off we went again. Stopping for Coke was a good decision because I did get an energy boost.  Sometimes taking a little bit of time now of time pays big dividends later. I was feeling pretty good at this point, but had been doing run math in my head. (I realize how dangerous it is for me to attempt run math while running, but I threw caution to the wind and did it anyway.) If I was right and we could maintain just under a 15 minute average pace, it seemed like a 14 hour finish was possible.  I asked Baha if I was correct in my thinking and he agreed that it was completely within reach.  I told him that it would be pretty sweet if we could come in at 13:58 or 13:59.  13 just sounds better than 14, right??  That’s all I had to say – from then on, he had a new goal for me….sub-14.

Bobby was ready and waiting for us at Equestrian.  This stop took longer than it should have….I feel this may become a theme. I had planned to arrive here at 4:30, which would have been just an hour prior to the sun setting, so I had also planned to put on a long sleeve, vest, headlamp and gloves.  It was still “warm”, so I only put on the long sleeve and headlamp, stuffed the gloves in my belt and grabbed more nutrition.  At this point in the race, I only had 22 miles left. So short, yet so far. I had fueled well in the first part of the race, but that stuff gets hard to stomach. I transitioned to getting most of my calories at aid stops through Tailwind Rebuild and Coke – which was my plan from the beginning. I’m going to keep doing it in all my races until it doesn’t work anymore! LOL!!

Heading out after what seemed an eternity, the miles started clicking away and it really didn’t seem to take us a long time to get to Nachos, even though it was 7 miles. In my mind this stop went really well – Baha might beg to differ.  Baha stopped to use the port-o-potty and I downed my Coke and Tailwind and was waiting on him when he was done. Thats a win, right?? In my pace chart, I had anticipated making it Nachos around 6:15PM, which would have been close to the time that headlamps needed to be turned on.  We rolled into Nachos at 5:15PM!  Now the immediate goal in my head became making it to Chapas before turning on my headlamp.  Of course, this was a very arbitrary goal, but sometimes all you need are a few mind games to keep you motivated in those last miles.

We rolled into Chapas at 6:22PM. At this point, I was sliding down into another low and I had difficulty getting all that shit down my throat fast enough for Baha’s liking.  I haven’t a clue how long we were there, but regardless, it was too long! While we were there, Bobby said to me for the first time: “just run faster”.  I thought, “Dear God, he has spent WAY too much time around Baha!”  But he went on to say that we were gaining about 5 minutes between each aid station and that “all I had to do” was keep that up to come in at 14 hours! LOL!! Of course! No problem whatsoever! I finally got my ass up off we went.  But a few steps later, we were running through the barn and saw the Big Ass Runners AGAIN!!!  I can’t even begin to express what a pick-me-up that was! I was a little sidetracked by all the fanfare and Baha practiaclly had to shove me out the barn door to get moving again.  We might have been 100-200 yards down the trail, which, by the way, was some of the smoothest and flattest this course had to offer, AND I TRIPPED AND FELL. (We all knew it had to happen!)  I’ve never hopped up so quickly because we had NO time to waste and of even more importance: I only had ONE aid station in between me and that finish line!

This section went pretty well besides me being dog-ass tired. But we made it at least a mile or two in before headlamps were needed, and that excited me.  My body was tired but my brain was still in it. I still hadn’t pulled that pace chart out of my pouch and was going off memory.  Anyone who knows the brain fog of an ultra knows how stupid that was.  I thought YaYa was 5 miles from Chapas at 57 miles, but it was actually almost 6 miles from Chapas at a hair over 58.  I kept thinking we had to almost be there, but we never seemed to get there! More exhausted by the minute, I refused to give into the fatigue. I couldn’t let myself down. I couldn’t let Baha down. I couldn’t let Bobby down. I couldn’t let Greg down.  Baha kept encouraging me by saying that all he wanted was for me to give myself a chance – a chance to meet this goal that I didn’t know was within my reach until this day.  I didn’t fully believe in my mind that we could make it.  We had this big climb at the end and by my superior run math calculations, I thought we were going to roll into the finish between 14:15 – 14:30. But Greg’s training had prepared me for this very section and this was where we HAD to bank time, if we were to make it. We blazed through that section, even if it did seem like an eternity.

We made it to YaYa at 7:40.  With less than 5 miles to go, there was no reason to load up on calories. Plus, yuck. I drank some Coke, put my head on Bobby’s shoulder for 5 seconds (yes, Baha counted) and we were headed to the finish, baby!!!

I thought the distance between YaYa and the finish was 5ish miles, but it was actually 4.  (Why did I carry that chart??) I really needed to go to the bathroom. And I really tried to pee while I was running. And I really didn’t want to admit to Baha that I needed to stop.  Eventually, Mother Nature won the battle and I had to stop. Baha continued telling me that we were right there, but I still thought we were tracking a 14:15 finish. Suddenly, we were making our way up that gnarly climb and descent that was at the end….how were we already here??  We made our way through that – cautiously, because steep, rocky descents are my Achille’s Heel – and finally, the home stretch!  My watch rolled over to 14:00 and I thought that we had a mile or so left to run.  Well, guess what?  We didn’t. We were literally THERE! We crossed the line at 14:02.

I am really proud of this effort.  I wasn’t sure what to expect, not having raced a 100k before.  I feel like my pacing was pretty even.  My second loop was just a hair over an hour longer, and I’m really proud of that.  A lot of that is due to race management by Bobby and Baha not letting me linger longer than needed.  A lot of it is knowing that you have to keep moving and the knowledge that not walking is slower than walking and that walking is slower than the ultra shuffle.  For me, it’s also important to know when to hike.  There were several inclines I was able to run, but at some point the energy expenditure outweighs the benefits of attempting to run up something and hiking actually becomes faster. The catch is: you have to run again as soon as you are at the top.  That becomes a mind over matter thing when you’re tired.

I can’t begin to express my gratitude to Bobby, for coming to the race and crewing for me.  Having loved ones at aid stations is such a pick me up. Knowing they will be there gives you the will to keep moving through the rough spots so that you can see them sooner, rather than later.  And I can’t express my gratitude to Baha for believing in me and getting me there. I cherish the memories that we have made on these adventures! And finally, thank you to Greg, for preparing me to tackle this course and helping me navigate the rough patches during training.

More adventures await, but for now, I’m going to rest and relax a couple of days and play Taps for my two big toenails.  Guess I kicked one too many rocks out there….

Pushing Boundaries: Cactus Rose 100

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.

img_0703
Pre-race.  Not really nervous.  OK maybe just a little.

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.

img_0723
🙂 pc: Tracy Almazan
img_0721
Just some of the rocks.  pc: Tracy Almazan

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.

img_0722
The EVIL creek! pc: Tracy Almazan

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.

img_0692
We make a pretty good team. 🙂

Counting blessings

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.