Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Let's Try This Again

About this time last year I decided to start a blog as a way to share my running experiences with friends and family. Unfortunately, sometimes life gets in the way. I never really got things off the ground, so I am going to try again to start this up. As a History major in college, I have always enjoyed writing, so this blog is good for me as a vehicle to continue writing and sharing my experiences on the trail (and sometimes, reluctantly, the road). Here goes nothing...

Bandera 100K - The 2011 Edition

2010 was an up and down year for me, both personally and in my running. Things started great at Bandera (2010), but I had a sub par race due to sickness in the Jemez Mountains in May and had to drop at mile 65+ in Oregon at the Pine To Palm 100 in September due to wet feet (running in the rain for 19 hours will make your feet look like ground meat). Sprinkle in a few other races in 2010, and I honestly didn’t k now what to expect at this year’s Bandera 100K. My training had been sporadic, but at least I was tapered and rested (thanks in large part to low ceilings in the fitness center of a hotel). I had originally hoped to go under 13 hours, but I wasn’t sure I was prepared for it. Either way, I was excited just to get out on the trails for 12+ hours with great friends and to make new friends along the way.

After a great night of sleep (I prefer to sleep in my own bed the night before a race, even if that means getting up earlier race morning), most of our group met at Exxon at 5AM to make the drive to Bandera. Once we got there I noticed one big difference from previous years – the “parking lot” was packed! Joe P has done a great job with this race, and numbers were at an all time high this year. Josh (one of my cross country runners) and I grabbed our race packets and checked in, then headed back to the car to get ready. After a quick picture with some friends (Tom must have been hanging out with his new elite running buddies, Geoff and Dave), we were off, headed down the road towards our first climb of the day.

(Most of our group before the start. Where's Tom?)

My plan was to run the first loop in 6 hours, allowing an extra hour for the second loop and a total time of 13 hours. To do this, I intended to take the first 2 climbs (Sky Island and Ice Cream Hill) easy, then run most of the way into Nachos aid station. Since I was carrying 2 handheld bottles and a pocket full of gels, I could blow right through the aid station without stopping. This seemed to work well, as I settled into a long line of folks making the climb up Sky Island. I knew my pace would be slower early on, but I wasn’t worried since we had 2 big climbs early, followed by some very runnable terrain. Once we hit the top of Ice Cream Hill, I started jogging down the backside to Trail 1. Things are a bit deceiving here, as you can hear the music coming from Bill Gardner at Nachos, but you still have about a mile before you actually hit the aid station. 10 minutes later, I was through Nachos and headed up Trail 7, one of Chris Russell’s favorites (he calls it the “longest 2+ miles of trail out here).

The stretch from Nachos to Chapas was fairly uneventful, although I had forgotten how much of an incline there was from park headquarters up Trail 8. I had planned on running most of this but ended up power hiking portions. I cruised into Chapas feeling ok, changed out water bottles, grabbed more gels, and took off on what is probably the most runnable sections of trail at Hill Country State Natural Area. I was now under goal pace, but my breathing felt labored and my heart rate seemed higher than it should have been. I began feeling low as I headed into Crossroads aid station, definitely not as fresh as I had hoped. I know I was probably pretty grumpy when I came into Crossroads, so I’d like to apologize to anyone I saw. Re-filled water bottles and headed out for the inner Sisters loop.

(Leaving Chapas Aid Station - Mile 11)

This was the beginning of a very bad patch of miles for me. For anyone who has run ultras, you know that inevitably you will experience some lows during a race, but usually these will pass. Sometimes it takes a matter of minutes, other times it may take a number of miles. In my case, it took 15 miles. As soon as I started climbing the first of the 3 Sisters, I knew something was wrong. Up to that point I had fueled (so I thought) properly, taking in gels and plenty of fluids. Despite this, I had ZERO energy. My legs weren’t dead or flat in the sense that they were tired from accumulated miles. Instead, I just had no energy. Climbing the Sisters is not easy under the best of circumstances, but doing so with a zapped body makes for rough going. To top it all off (again, fellow ultrarunners can relate), my mental state of mind was quickly going down the drain. All sorts of thoughts started creeping into my head. Why am I doing this? I’ll never run this far again. I’m going to quit when I get back to the next aid station. I WILL NEVER RUN THE BANDERA 100K AGAIN!!! These were the things that went through my head, along with all kinds of self doubt. Since gels didn’t sound good anymore, I tried some solid food (peanut butter crackers), but still no energy. On this stretch, I was passed by numerous runners, including Chris, Tony, Tanya, and Tom, all of whom gave me words of encouragement (thanks guys). When I got back to Crossroads, I threw my bottles to the ground and took a knee. I was toast. Since nothing else was working, I decided to fill my bottles with Gatorade and make the 10 mile walk (since running was no longer an option) to the Lodge (mile 31), where I planned to drop.

(Coming into Crossroads From the Sisters Loop - Mile 21)

The next stretch of trail leading to Lucky Peak was another I had planned on running, but today I was relegated to a slow hike. I desperately tried different types of food, but nothing seemed to snap me out of my funk. I felt terrible. I was passed by lots of runners on this stretch, including many in the 50K. I saw several friends (Denver, John F., Larry), all of whom were having great races, but I just couldn’t talk myself out of dropping. I was ready to get to the Lodge so I could hand in my race bib, change into dry clothes, and watch the other racers. Up and over Lucky Peak and down the other side. This is where my race started to change. I looked back and saw Jason scrambling down the rocky backside of Lucky (who named this thing anyway???). He asked how I was doing, and I explained that it just wasn’t my day and that I was pretty sure I was done. He was having none of that. Running his first ever 100K, Jason was determined to finish, regardless of how long it took. He encouraged me to run a bit with him, and we soon pulled into Last Chance aid station, roughly 26 miles into the race and just under 5 miles from the Lodge.

After a quick bite to eat and some food, I trudged off behind Jason. Somewhere up on Cairns Climb, I told Jason to go ahead and that I would see him at the Lodge. He looked back and told me that I wasn’t going to quit and that we were going to finish this thing. His words stuck with me and would help me continue on. During the next few miles I would meet several people, and we would exchange stories, some about running, others about random topics. To me, this is why I run these crazy races. Sure, I get a huge sense of accomplishment by finishing a long race, but I truly enjoy just being out on the trail, seeing beautiful sights, meeting interesting people. These conversations helped take my mind off my own maladies (most of these folks were hurting too) and before I knew it I was at the bottom of Boyle’s Bump, making the turn onto the jeep road that leads to the Lodge. I decided now would be a good time to resume running (after nearly 15 miles of walking), and I trudged towards the start/finish area, where I would loop around and do the same thing all over again. Despite all the walking I had done, my first loop was a respectable 6:50 (although much slower than the 6 hour loop I had hoped to run).

(Heading into the Lodge at the end of my first loop - Mile 31)

Once determined to drop, I was now seriously considering at least heading out for my second loop and seeing how far I could go. I had come this far, so I might as well tough it out. Besides, I had friends out there, and I didn’t want to be the only one who didn’t finish. I saw Jason at the aid station, having someone attend to his sore IT band. I told him I was going to start the next loop, and he gave me a thumbs up and said he’d see me out there. After tying a jacket around my waist (the breeze was picking up and clouds were rolling in), I grabbed more Gatorade and a turkey wrapped and headed off for another 31 miles of rocky fun. John Palmer mentioned that Chris and Tanya had left about 20 minutes earlier, so I set the goal of trying to stay close to them on the second loop.

Although I was starting to feel better, I still wasn’t moving too quickly. I was able to jog about a mile to the bottom of Big Nasty and then the climb up Sky Island. On top of Sky Island, I stopped and sat on a bench. Admiring the beautiful views of the park, I ate the rest of my turkey wrap and tried to re-focus. Jason ran by, and I tucked in behind him. Down Sky Island and over to Trail 1, headed to Ice Cream Hill. I think at some point I mentioned to Jason that I was content knowing that I was going to finish this race, even if it took me 18 hours. Once on Trail 1, I bumped into Amy, who had been given the highly skilled duty of setting out glowsticks. We chatted and walked for 10-15 minutes, eventually seeing Tom, who was himself going through a rough spell. Making the right turn to Ice Cream Hill, I said goodbye to Amy and asked Tom if he needed anything. He said no, so I wished him luck and jogged on ahead. At this point I felt like a switch turned on. It was as if my race had ended and a new one begun. I had renewed energy, fresh legs, and a positive mental frame of mind. I charged up Ice Cream Hill and over the top, where I ran down with Diana Heynan, chatting about races she and her husband Robert had done and about our favorite breweries in South Texas.

(Feeling Much Better at Chapas on Loop #2 - Mile 42)

I could go on and on about the rest of the race, but this report is already WAY too long, and I can really sum it up in one word – fantastic. I was able to run most of the last 25 miles of the race, passing at least 25-30 people along the way. Never once did my legs feel sore or flat. Only once did my stomach get grumpy (I’m good for one good puke per race, which happened before my second attempt at the Sisters). Hopefully I was much nicer to my crew and people at the aid stations. It was as if I had come back from the dead and had new life. Not only was I going to finish, but it might not take 18 hours! In fact, I looked at my watch coming down the sisters and realized I could even get in under 14 hours if I really pushed it. Through Crossroads I went, over Lucky Peak (really fun in the dark), up and down Cairns Climb, and finally to my favorite section of trail at the park – Boyle’s Bump. I knew I had to push hard, so I turned on my handheld light (had been using only headlamp up to that point) and sprinted (well, it felt like I was sprinting) down the loose rock and into the Lodge. I looked at my watch – 13:58!

If you had told me before the race started that I would run a 13:58, I would have been mildly upset, but content to break 14 hours. Considering how much of my first loop played out, I was ecstatic with my time. This was easily the most satisfying race I have ever completed. Ultrarunning is a funny sport, but one that teaches us that the human body and mind is capable of so much more than we think. By pushing ourselves to the limit and beyond, we often find out a lot about what we are made of. I know I sure did.

Not long after I finished, Tanya came through the finish line, followed by Chris, Tony, Tom, and Jason (both of whom finished their first ever 100K). What an amazing day for our group. Larry and Domingo ran great 50K races. Oh, and I think I failed to mention that Liza ran the race too, breaking the course record by an hour and claiming the 100K national championship, some spending cash, and a coveted spot to Western States. Anabel ran an amazing race as well (she says she won’t be back, but we’ve all said that), placing 6th female overall. Days like these make me proud to be a trail runner, proud to have such beautiful trails on which to run, and proud to have such a great group of people I can call friends.