All day long, I'd been hearing about the Western States qualifying time, and all day long, I don't give a damn. It seems as if everybody out here but me is chasing this time. So, when I leave the final aid station, just five miles from the finish, one of the aid station workers tells me I have one hour and 30 minutes to beat it. He laughs when I tell him I couldn't care less, and Joyce laughs because she knows, and she knows that he doesn't. All in all, it's an inside joke sort of funny. Eli, who I've been running with for the last few hours does care. It is most certainly his goal, and he skips strait through the aid station. We had talked about it and I suggested he not waste time, when I was not as concerned about it. A few others do as well. Eventually, I get going, moving surprisingly well with the 57-miles under my feet, and I use Eli once again to motivate me. I don't expect to catch him, but I use the thought to keep me moving. I'm tired, bone tired, and just want to be done, so I use another old motivational trick my wife taught me many years ago: I plant the seed to go faster to get done sooner. Its dark under the trees, my light is on dim, and there's nobody but me for the moment. A few dips and rolls, and many turns, and then I'm heading up Texas Trail one last time. I love this section. It's my favorite kind of trail, skinny single-track, rock wall on one side, drop on the other, dodging through a narrow slot of trees and rocks, hopping roots, and skimming rocks. The final 180 degree switchback at one end and then again at the other, surfing a series of big rock plates, and then over the ridge to the clear open top. Another 180 turn and then I catch Eli on a descent, with just 3 miles to done. I yell his name as I approach, tell him to come along, but he says he's dawdling now, and does not hook on as I flit past him. There's another person just in front of him though, who I realize is an older man, and likely in my age group, and he does come along. I didn’t know it at the time, but Eli was confident at this point that he’d get the time he wants, and had slowed to wait for me. So when I blow by, he tries to pick up and catch me, but it’s downhill now and I have so much momentum going.
Anyway, now that it's a descent, and I have some momentum, I continue to push myself. Figure I'll just hold this edge until the unwanted anchor lets go, and he does not. I don’t even know Eli is just behind him trying to catch me too. The ground is full of rocks and it would be foolish to turn and look, so I don't. I just keep on as I am, and I can hear the other right on me, and I’m pretty sure it's not Eli. It's funny ya know. All day, I couldn't care less, just doing my thing, but now that I am almost done, last thing I want is to give up anything to anybody. It's silly, I tell myself, and then increase my speed again. Now, I'm positively humming, and it blows my mind that I can make myself go faster, when I was so used-up just a short time ago. Texas Trail ends with a few intersections and sharp switchbacks where I can see the other shadow just 30 yards back. Another turn, then down to the barn and open field down to and across the road, jump the rail, and then the river. The river shelf is one big huge rock sheet that is anything but flat. It requires a bit of bob and weave to avoid tripping, and constant attention to make certain to stay upright. I take a peek behind me as I leave the rock ledge behind and turn onto the narrow muddy singletrack at the other end. Yep, he's still there! Just around the corner, I sink one foot and then the other into a mud hole, and laugh because I'd avoided this damned mud hole so well every other time I was here today. Leaving the river front, I turn up towards the last steep climb under the suspension bridge. It's the last bit of 'In Your Face' climb and it doesn't last all that long, but it does slow me to a walk. My new friend closes on me quickly as I walk up and can only assume he's running. I think it’s the old guy, but it’s probably Eli. I top out just before he catches me and I take off running hard again just ahead of him. I increase my effort once more and then again, Maybe because I know this trail so well, I slowly pull ahead. I know where to turn before the turn, where to hop before the root, and so on and on, such that after a few turns, I have him once more some 30 yards back. And now I'm passing more runners. All are dragging it in a lot slower than I'm going, until I pass another old boy who sees my face as I pass him. I swear he's taking tiny steps until I go by and immediately he changes gears and hops onto my back, tracking on me, same as the other guy. Now there are two old-timers tracking on me. What the fuck? Who says these old guys can't get serious and race. What have I thrown into all of a sudden? So, hell yes, I increase speed, and again, and now I'm worried about tripping on one of the rockier and more rugged sections of the course, with just a half mile to done. So there is no back-off or relax at the end of this one. I swear I'm going as fast as I can. Wiped out and exhausted as I am, I am all in. I can't look back for fear of falling, but there's so many turns, I get a sense of my friends tracking on me as we fly by all the others who are walking... all the others who I never saw until right now within a quarter mile of the finish. Out of the woods, I dodge wide around a couple, barely avoid running into one of them. Up the road, I pass a few others, and then the turn up the boulder field cut through. I slip between a few others in a group of five or six, running uphill now, make the turn, cross the road, and now finally on the grassy approach to the finish. There are plenty of signs, but I lose track of them. None have reflectors, and I head off in the wrong direction. Somebody calls me back, so I turn and head left, and almost trip over something, not sure what, then get back on the proper approach, and fling myself towards what I think is the finish. I swear I can't see the route, and I can't tell where to go, but it has to be within 100 yards. I swing right, then left, and then I see it, and cross just in front of a dozen others. A good many may be pacers or friends, I can't tell, but the finish is sure busy when I roll over and stop. My two new friends come in very soon after, and so does Eli, with his WS qualifying time.
--------------------- six days earlier...
The weather forecast for Wednesday looks really bad, freezing cold and rain, so we decide to leave on Tuesday, New Year's Day, Jan 1st, just to avoid the worst of it. It's still damned cold, but at least it isn't raining. The long drive down Hackberry Road to Camp Eagle is eight miles of dirt and mud, and we're pulling a huge trailer, so it's slow but tolerable, but dark by the time we arrive. We have a pretty good idea for most of the 31-mile course, but there is just a bit that remains to be worked out, so its good that Rob and Bruce are already here and ready to work. I know the area where the extra distance needs to be worked out, but we need to go out with the measuring wheel to make certain exactly how it plays. And so Chris and Rob go to do this, but there's no need for all four of us to think through this, so I take Bruce with me to mark the first five-mile section of course. We get done just before midnight and find the others in Chris' room when we arrive. They have the route worked out and so there it is, we have a course. The storm does indeed roll in the next day, so we spend the entire day in the freezing cold and rain, marking course, or at least the major parts of it. We get done after dark and are all off to an early bed. Thursday's more comfortable even if it is still fairly cool, and then we finish the course on Friday, which is mostly just the ins & outs of each aid station. The chutes require a bit of brainstorming and I move a bunch of big rocks into the creek crossing on the road up to CrossRoads just to make it a bit more drivable. This may have been the first time ever that we carried McClouds and Loppers with us to clear course while we marked. We had some heavy work on the Armadillo Trail, which is the creek bed full of rock and debris. Could not move all the rocks, but we do clear a path.
The rest of this circus starts rolling in around midday Friday and I put on my jammies so Chris won't ask me to do anything else. My legs feel great, but I am a bit tired from being on my feet so much these last few days. I manage the TTCS (Texas Trail Championship Series) awards presentation at 5:30pm, and soon after, Henry and Joyce arrive. They'd both been stuck in the line of cars waiting to check in for 30-minutes or more, and so we haul in their gear just as it gets dark. Early dinner and bed, and then fireworks go off as I nod in and out of sleep.
I put out my drop bags just prior to 8:00 AM when 353 of us start the 100k. It's a cool 29 degrees, with frost on the grass, which I have not seen here in many years. It's the biggest start pack I've joined since Bandera last year, so I remind myself to chill down and relax as we smash into the single-track bottleneck and start walking. We walk a lot, run a little, until we get down to the river. After the river and back up to the trees, we again smash back into a walking single file. We aren't walking as much as earlier, but few are running as much as we'd like. The huge pack spreads out and runs when it opens up here and there, but it doesn't really open completely until we reach the Cross Roads aid station at mile five.
Cross Roads is one big beast of an aid station, which we hit three times per loop. The Rockhopper Trail Runners are driving the station, and there could not be a better group of people to do so. They know what they're doing and that's key for such an important station. Because of the cold start, I’d started with gloves and a long-sleeved shirt over a short-sleeve, so I ditch the gloves and LS-shirt. Elizabeth promises to shove them in my drop bag (#64) and thats the entirety of my stop. I keep on.
I leave Cross Roads going UP a slow sweeping curve of a steep, rutted jeep road full of rocks. But, that is the dominant feature today - the ROCKS. It amazes me to watch some of the trapped runners finally breaking free and RUNNING up this beast. I'm sure I say DAMN out loud, watching them run past me, as I slowly hike up. Actually I may be the slowest person HIKING up as large groups of runners spill past me, in various speeds of faster than me. It's a solid half-mile of UP. I hook in next to two others who's topic of conversation is comparing Ultras to Ironmans, of which I have no knowledge, so I listen in as I drift into their wake. The next little piece of artful trail-work was created a few years ago by Joyce and I, along with a few friends, and it's called the Bear. It's one of my favorite trails and I like to attack it, but once again, I find myself backed up behind a line of terrified and timid trail runners who are NOT going after it as I would prefer. It's only a half-mile long and when we dump out onto the perimeter jump road at the bottom, we finally reach the final sorting out of everybody into their proper pecking order of speed and place. We’ll be on jeep road for the next few miles, and it's enough for everybody to decide who they want to be. It starts with two dipsies, which are names I use for drop-downs and climb-ups. After the second one, we start the long uphill climb. Surprisingly, this is where we see the leaders already coming back at us, having completed the A-Loop. Must be five miles ahead of us already and hauling ass. But now they have to plow through all the runners behind us going opposite direction on the Bear. This should be awkward.
Once on top, and right at the split, it's a generous drop into the back valley. The jeep road we're on snakes down past the prospector cabin, dropping over ledges, and crossing a washed out dry creek. It was just a month ago when all of this was flooded, bringing tons of baby-head rocks into the field and making it difficult to run. The jeep road and the dry creek cross each other four or five times… and the flooding, left behind a deep flow of rocks that tends to shift and move when I put my weight on it, so each crossing is awkward. The wide open pasture is minus any trees or shade, but the jeep track is relatively straight and easy to follow. We arrive in the far back corner of the camp property, and the only option is to turn left at the 12-foot fence and cross the last and widest section of dry rocky creek. Escape from the back valley follows the fenceline straight up a narrow shady slot of rock ledges and downed trees, so I shift into granny gear. One slow step after another, sometime pushing myself up over a ledge, and sometimes pulling. This little twisted bitch requires some readjusting to get up and a bit more once on top, as it continues up the fenceline. I suppose this was once cleared for fence access, but little has been done since. Its become a graveyard of rock and cactus with just a trace of trail. Some more significant scrub has grown up here and there, which forces the trail to weave in and out, but for the most part, the fence rises strait away from us. It goes on much longer than I expect, with one false ending after another, until I quit looking, and it arrives unannounced. The Windmill turn precedes Windmill Aid by a couple hundred yards. This station is hit twice per loop, with less than three-miles back to Cross Roads, and another three-miles right back here, so in just a bit over five-miles, I'll be right back here again. Peter Vroljik is working the station, and he helps me with my drop bag and some aid station fare. It's just a few moments and I'm back on the road again.
The road leading out, like all the other roads here, rocky, but maybe just a little easier, and with a slight down tilt, it just screams to be run, so I do. I get my motor spun up, and roll on down to the split, past the next split as well, and then the road turns down a much steeper and longer descent. The same one we came up just an hour ago, watching the 100k leaders blow by. We're on our way back to Cross Roads, over the dipsies, and UP the road runner eating Bear. The Bear is so nasty, it requires the same effort going up as it does coming down, but once on top, it's a quick turn back to Cross Roads. Joyce is waiting for me, but I'm still feeling good, so I'm in and out quickly.
This section is an easy ride that does roll a bit, but not enough to slow me down. At its end, we turn onto Zip Line, which rises gently as it rolls in and out of each fold in the land. A good ways up, we turn left onto a flat bit of soft and muddy trail, and this dumps us onto Antenna Hill. It doesn't look like a trail belongs here, but the flags lead us through an area that contains the remains of a large overturned radio tower. Beyond the dead tower, we descend the Slope of Nastiness which makes no pretense of ever wanting to be a trail. Its all loose rock debris for 100-yards of crap, before rediscovering a real trail again, the old Wagon Trail. The leaders go flying past me in the opposite again, and I attempt some quick math to figure they're just six or seven miles shy of finishing the first loop. If I can trust my math, which I should not, I'm shocked how fast they're moving. At the end of Wagon, we dump onto Windmill Hill Road going up, and I mean UP. I crawl up alongside a handful of others all moving at the same miserable pace. Behind me, I can see the river, but in front, my nose is in the ground. Once we top the steepest part, the road is much faster and easier, even though it does continue going up. After the Zip-Line tower, we soon roll into the Windmill Aid, where once again, Peter helps me out.
If the course and I can reach some sort of compromise: to agree to disagree, then all would be perfect. The next section would be the best… if not for the rocks, so I need to learn how to coexist. The fenceline trail is mostly down, and even if it is full of rock, I can rock this downhill. And at the bottom, way down low, on the multi-tiered long switchbacks of Armadillo Trail, it begins with a creek bed of rocks made worse by last month's flood. There used to be a track, but it's gone. Used to be a visible path, it's gone too, and what is left now is an awkward and difficult route marked with flagging to offer a general idea, and not much more. This used to be a sweet ride that was easy to rock, but now… the creek bed rocks will kick my ass regardless what mind games I play. My ability to run any of it is all about dexterity and constant scanning to find the best track, and the best place to end my next stride. It's a problem to solve that is manageable only during the daylight. Next loop, in the dark, this will not go nearly as well… and I'm not saying this loop goes well. At the end of the creek, a 180 turns us slightly just above where we were in the creek, but on a much more runable trail, going back the way we came. And at the end of this trail, we again make another 180, and just slightly above the previous trail, we go back the way we had just come. Below us, and not all that far either, I can see people going in both directions. At the end of this trail, we make another 180, up and again back the opposite direction, until finally we escape the Armadillo onto the main road on top by the big cross. We pass the overlook, go another 100 yards, then turn around one last time, now riding the edge of the cliff overlooking the river. There is no further we can go without running on air, so we now head down along the cliff's edge, until we reach the main camp road (Hackberry Road) under the overlook and cross directly into the Wall Aid.
Up to this point, I had not thought much about it, but the temp has been rising quicker than the sun. We had started at 29 degrees, and now its 69 degrees. After a short break, I walk out, and quickly realize, so is everyone else... walking. We're out in the open now, next to the river, minus the shade. Along the Nueces River, up the kayak launch site, around a few buildings, a copse of trees, and then into the open again, and I don't run a step. Across Hackberry again, and back into the soothing coolness of the trees. The trail changes directions every 20 feet, but its all in the shade and the coolness of it allows me to at least walk well. Once on top and back under the sun, it's a short hike over to Lise Lane, then down it, through the mine, and back up again, past Mi Casa, another old unshaded road (the old Wagon Trail) right back to Lisa Lane, but without actually going onto it. This is where we turn right up a rock scramble that was never a trail until today. It's only 30 yards up until we once again connect onto the new Wagon Trail, heading back to Cross Roads. This is where we saw the leaders a few hours ago running back at us. Back to Antenna Hill, the soft shady mud trail, and then Zip Line down into the cool shade, and eventually back to the Cross Roads aid, where Joyce once again waits. Joyce administers her TLC and I'm once more quickly out again. I'm only five-miles from ending loop one, and in a hurry to bag it, so I rush my exit, but unfortunately, can't get myself going much faster. And so I waddle on, doing the best I can with a mix walk/run. I pretty much suck right now, but I want to get this part done and back to the end loop, so I can get the recycle process started. Up and over Texas, seeing quite a few others already heading back out, and wishing it was me. I try to put on a happy face, but suspect my phony persona is more scary than friendly. Down to the river, back up the suspension bridge chute, and then finally into the compound and done with the first loop.
Direct to my room, just 30 yards away, I dispose of shoes and clothes, remove my GPS and hook it up to charge, and immediately into the cold shower, where I soak while Joyce hands me an ice cold smoothie. Out of the shower and dried off, I put on a clean set of clothes, and Joyce re-patches my toes and heels with the Kinesio Tape, then I reapply the Desiten underarm and elsewhere. I eat some avocado and potato while I finish the smoothie, lace up the same shoes. Last thing I do, is grab the lone trekking pole and head out. I'm almost gone when I realize I've forgotten my race bib, so go back to get it, then reset and restart.
Loop two begins much slower and less crowded than loop one. It's still way hot, and I'm still walking, even though I have plenty of room to run whatever the hell I like. Thing is, my legs are jelly. I figure I'll take it easy until the temp drops a bit, and hope to resurrect my energy. Besides one young woman who blows by me with external speakers blasting, I don't see anyone else going in my direction. I know there are plenty of others in front and behind, but iI'm in an empty pocket all by myself right now, moving slow, and seeing nobody. Into the trees, down the chute, along the river, back into the trees, and up over Texas, I see quite a few others heading to the finish, including Henry, Laura, and Jennifer. Joyce is waiting for me at Cross Roads, so I take the time to reload. I figure to be back here again in another hour or two, so I ask Joyce if she can walk back to our room to make me a smoothie, and also to bring the cooler full of cold drinks, as well as my camelback. I'll take the pack with me after dark just to carry an extra headlight, gloves, and jacket. I'm fine with the single water bottle and suspect I'll be fine for the duration.
Out for my second and final A-Loop, up into the beast one more time, I take my headlamp and a jacket wrapped round my waist. Somewhere along here, I hook up with somebody I don't know and we carry on for a ways. After the Bear, another guy hooks onto us as we march up the long hill while the sun begins to drop. We're marching along rather well now that the air is slowly beginning to cool. At the split, we turn right and I learn that I can run again, so I do. We all do. To the back valley and down into it, for the first time since this morning, I can feel the air cooling as we turn our lights on. We manage to stick close together across the valley, and up to the climb, but once the climb starts, I get dropped. The others rise quickly and even another comes along and passes me to take my place as I completely fall off. When I do top out, they're well ahead, but the sun is down, and the cool is back. I can run again, so I push to get my mojo rolling. Doesn't matter if I ever see these guys again, but I use them now for motivation, to get the blood pumping once more, and slowly I pull them back in, and then pass them. They of course, hook on and stay clicked into me as we make the final turn and roll into Windmill Aid. Now that I have my motor revved, I don't want to stop, so I drink a coke and head on out, and lose the others.
I start running immediately and then somebody pulls even with me. I think its one of them I was with, but not certain and never do find out, but Eli and I run side by side past the intersection and on down to the Bear. I already know how this goes and tell him to go ahead. I plan on dragging my ass up slowly, so he does lead, but I stay with him and we emerge on top together. And so we continue around the topside jeep trail and down into Cross Roads. I tell Eli to go on, as I plan to take some time with Joyce. She’ll be back with the things I asked for, and I need to make ready for the rest of the run in the dark. And she does have everything, so I suck on an ice cold smoothie while I put on my jacket for the first time. She loads my pack with an extra light and the gloves, which is all I need it for. I want to keep it very light, only what I need, and no more. Eli has gone on while I relaxed, but when I get up to go, I have the juice to do it.