Sunday, January 27, 2013

A Tale of Sweat and Mud - Bandera 100K Race Report

I had hopes of breaking 13 hours at this year’s Bandera 100k, but those hopes were quickly dashed with one glance at the weather forecast.  Temps would be in the mid 60s and humid at the start, and rain was a possibility.  Add to that the storms that dumped inches of rain on the course a few days prior, and I knew this race would be a slugfest, a battle of attrition.  Within a few minutes I was totally drenched, and my shoes were squishing with sweat.  I ran with friends Rachel and Travis for a bit, up and down Sky Island (no views today as the fog was thick and wet), over to Ice Cream Hill (ask Chris how it got its name), and into Nachos aid station where my Rockhopper friends and family would be waiting.  My goal was to consume one bottle of Carbo Pro between each aid station for as long as I could (or until my stash of Carbo Pro ran out), so I dumped a baggie of powder in my bottle and had Nacho Libre Bowling filled it with water. 
            I followed Rachel out of Nachos, and we ran together most of the way to Chapas (mile 11).  My legs felt good, but my breathing was labored (probably due to the warmer than normal temps and high humidity), so I tried to walk some of the uphills.  I was already behind schedule (not surprising given the conditions), so I focused on doing what I could to stave off the inevitable death slog that was sure to come later in the race.  I arrived at Chapas and quickly changed out my empty bottle for a fresh one filled with Carbo Pro and set off for my least favorite section of the course.  I knew this stretch would be muddy and fairly flat, making for some painful running.  I ran where I could and hiked where I needed to, and shortly was passed by Tim Olson, who ended up winning the 50k.  I knew Joe had shortened the field section and replaced the mileage with a “new hill”, so I was excited to see what he had in store for us.  The field section wasn’t filled with shoe-sucking mud like I expected.  Instead, it was softer mud that stuck to your shoes and made you feel like you were running on platform shoes with 5 pound ankle weights attached to your feet.  Not what I would call fun.  I decided it was better for me to hike (sounds tougher than walk) this section (even the slight downhills), as I figured running would only speed muscle fatigue and end up costing me more time later in the race.  So I hiked through the muck, cursing the rain and the humidity.  As we crossed over the park road, we veered left instead of right.  So this was the section Joe had changed.  Much to my delight, he added an extra hill, meaning less mud and more fun.  Up and over and then into Crossroads for the first of four stops at this aid station during the race.  

(Running down Trail 8 - photo by Brian Kuhn)
  At Crossroads I quickly changed out my empty handheld for a fresh bottle of Carbo Pro, but I also made sure to suck down an extra 10-15 ounces of plain water, something I would repeat for the remainder of the race.  As I was leaving I noticed Travis was still there, taping up one of his toes.  He quickly caught up to me, and we ran together for a bit before bumping into our friend Josh, who was having some stomach issues.  I had intended to run much of this section, but the 3 Sisters were not in a good mood this morning and would force us to trudge up and jog down them.  I felt the humidity sucking the energy right out of me, but I knew this would pass once the sun went down and the temps cooled off.  Soon the 3 of us were heading down the final descent into Crossroads, where I would once again grab a fresh bottle and guzzle extra water.  

(Heading into Crossroads with Josh Bart at mile 21)          
 I was dreading the next few miles, as I knew they would be muddy since much of this section is in the trees.  My reward for enduring the mud would be a climb up Lucky’s Peak, a short but nasty hill that is a signature of any Bandera race.  I was expecting mud, and this section did not disappoint.  After slogging through 2+ miles of sticky slop, I climbed up and over Lucky and made a stop at Last Chance (mile 26).  My friend Roger was in charge of this aid station, and we chatted briefly before I was gone again, this time with a bottle of plain water (I was out of Carbo Pro).  My plan had been to switch to a higher fat fuel once I was out of Carbo Pro, and I’d be using Pocket Fuel for the next stretch.  Pocket Fuel is a mixture of various nut butters (peanut, hazelnut, or almond) with some fruit flavoring thrown in.  I loved them!  I was surprised (not in a good way) to find Cairn’s and Boyle’s (last 5 miles of loop) very muddy, probably the wettest mud I’d seen all day.  I had hoped the rocks would be a welcome change, but they were slick and muddy too.  Instead of making up some time on this section as I’d hoped, I had to pick my way through the mud and try to stay upright.  It didn’t help that the sun was starting to peak through the clouds and warm up the day.  After slowly making my way up and over these two climbs, I hit the short stretch of flat jeep road that would take me to the Lodge (mile 31) and turnaround point.  I saw several friends hanging out when I ran in, and part of me wished I would drop so I could hang out too.  I came in around 6:35 for my first loop, roughly 45 minutes slower than I had hoped (before the mud and humidity entered the picture).  The thought of running another 31 miles in these conditions didn’t thrill me, but I wasn’t about to drop now. 
            I grabbed more Pocket Fuel out of my drop bag, said hello to a few friends, and ran out with Joe Tamarro (he had run the 50K and wanted to get a few more miles in) for a bit.  Soon I was climbing up to the top of Sky Island, which was even muddier now than the first time we had come through.  If every section was muddier than before, this was going to be a very long loop.  Somewhere between Sky Island and Nachos aid station (probably after I summited Ice Cream Hill), the heat and humidity began to take its toll.  This was by far the worst stretch of the race for me, but I knew it wasn’t anything I could control.  I needed to continue to drink fluids, put calories in my gut, and just keep moving.  I arrived at Nachos to a warm greeting from my Rockhopper friends, who filled my bottle with ice cold water, which I sucked down and immediately re-filled.  After collecting myself for a couple minutes, I trudged off, not wanting to get too comfortable by sitting at the aid station too long. 
Historically, this stretch of the race is usually when things begin to turn around for me.  The sun starts to go down, and the temps cool off.  Although still a long way from finishing, you begin to see (dim) light at the end of the tunnel.  This year was no different.  I steadily made my way from Nachos, past the park headquarters, and onto Trail 8.  Somewhere along this section I passed a girl who had been in front of me the past few miles.  I really wasn’t moving any faster than she was, but she decided she needed to stop for a quick break, and this was just the mental boost I needed.  Passing people in the later stages of a race always lifts my spirits and seemingly breathes new life into my body.  Once I passed her I tried to pick up the pace a bit, not wanting her to pass me up when she started feeling better.  So I ran.  When I did, I noticed that my legs felt better than they had in hours, and I was actually able to move without too much discomfort.  I convinced myself to try doing this until I had to stop.  I ended up running the rest of the way to Chapas (mile 42), where I stopped to assess my growing blisters (my socks had slipped down, causing the dirt and mud to rub directly against the bare skin on my heels.  Convinced I would have some nasty blisters the next day but nothing that would end my race, I ran off, merging onto Trail 9.
I knew the next section would be muddy as heck, so I told myself I would run until I hit the bad mud, which I assumed would be less than a mile away.  Apparently the cooler temps had been dropped on us by a strong northerly wind, which also served to significantly dry out (there was still some mud) many sections of the course.  Combined with the music coming from my iPod (mixture of bluegrass and jam bands), I began to feel great.  I looked down at my Garmin and was shocked to see I was running sub 9 minute miles, not fast but good for me this late in a race.  I even found myself playing “air banjo” a few times as I scooted down the trail.  Yep, I’m both a hillbilly and not afraid to look stupid.  At this point I was mixing my Pocket Fuel with the occasional peanut butter Gu, a strategy that seemed to be working well.  My stomach felt fine, and my energy was as good as it had been all day.  I passed several people on my way to Crossroads, which I hit just as it was getting dark.   
Larry and Jean saw me come into Crossroads and quickly helped re-fill my bottles and send me on my way.  I ran all the way down Trail 1 (about a mile) before I turned my headlamp on.  I felt better than I had since the start of the race, so I picked up the pace, even managing to run up two of the 3 Sisters, a feat I hadn’t been able to accomplish on this section 31 miles prior.  I passed more people here and soon found myself at Crossroads (mile 52) for the final time.  I chatted with Chris Russell, who was about to start the loop I had just completed, with the help of his daughter.
 At this point I knew I would finish, but I was still uncertain about my time.  I felt good now, but surely that would change at some point, right?  After doing some mental math in my head, I decided to run as hard as I could and let the chips fall where they may.  The tree-covered section leading to Lucky’s Peak was drier than before, which allowed me to cover this section quicker than I had the first time.  Up and over Lucky I went, back to Roger and his crew at Last Chance.  After refusing all the offerings Roger had cooked (I was adamant about sticking to the nutrition plan that had worked splendidly thus far), I grabbed a cup of chicken noodle soup and bid farewell to the last aid station I would see before the finish (5 miles away).  I quickly downed the soup and started jogging.  Not 10 seconds later I felt that all too familiar feeling in my gut.  I stopped, not wanting to ruin the first perfect 50+ mile race I had ever experienced in terms of nutrition.   One more step and I knew it was not to be.  I pulled off the trail and proceeded to throw up everything I had eaten over the previous few hours.  It was fast but violent.  While I was upset that I wasn’t going to make it through this race without puking (nothing new for me), I knew I had done everything right the previous 57 miles and would be fine without ingesting any more fuel over the final 5 miles of the race.  Up and over Cairn’s, same with Boyle’s, and soon I was back on that glorious stretch of jeep road that leads to the finish.  I crossed the line in 14:13, the slowest of my 4 Bandera finishes, but in some ways my most satisfying.  Joe P was there to hand me my buckle, and soon I was warming up in the tent the way every ultra runner should – surrounded by friends and family while sipping on a good home brew.
While my 2013 Bandera experience didn’t produce the fastest time, I was very pleased with my overall performance.  I actually ran (albeit slowly) more of the second loop than I had the first.  My climbing felt better than it ever has before, giving me a tremendous mental boost for the upcoming year.  As always, my Brooks Cascadias were the perfect shoe.  I never once was bother by the rocks, nor did I ever feel the need to change shoes during the race.  My nutrition was the best it’s ever been at an ultra.  I will definitely be using the Carbo Pro/Pocket Fuel combo in the future.  I also feel my general nutrition heading into the race was great, as I’ve really tried to clean up my diet (will write more about that soon), a change that has helped me shed 15 pounds in the past few months.  Finally, in what can only be described as a miracle, I had ZERO CHAFING!  Given the high humidity and unseasonably warm temps, this was nothing short of shocking for me.  I am really excited about the upcoming year and can’t wait to get back out on the trail for another adventure.  My sub 13 Bandera finish will just have to wait another year.
(This year's buckle)