I doubt there's another here who knows the course better: every turn and rock, up and down, where the trails used to be, plus every wet or dry creek bed. 15 years, I've marked this course, and trained here as well, but I've never run the race. I'm told I'm big for a runner, and at 220 lbs, I cant argue the point. I'd really rather be a thinner me, but the years have stacked on more than they have removed. This amount of mass in motion generates more heat, so you have to know I suck in any sort of heat and humidity. When I saw the forcaste for the race day weather, I begun to get a bit excited. Freezing temps and NO rain. NO rain at a Bandera race is a big deal. If you have ever run here during rain, you'll know its a lousy experience. A hot & humid day here is almost as bad, but rain trumps all other conditions at this locale. Granted, sub-freezing temps require a bit more care, but a cold and rainless day is perfectly awesome.
I'm a shorts and T-shirt guy most of the time, so wrapping a jumbo sized pair of tights around my ass is not my idea of fun. Its not the cold so much as my concern for a wind-burned chafe on my inner legs. Most everything else is simply a problem of layers: long sleeve under short sleeve under jacket, thick gloves, buffs over ears and neck, thick socks and my rock solid Akasha trail shoes. No pack or pole, just a single water bottle, pocket loaded with food. I wear glasses all the time, except when I run, but I've experimented recently with a pair of Julbo sport glasses and wear them today.
Walking through the crowd to my proper place at the back of the pack, in my run disguise, a few recognize me and wish me a good day, a handshake, a pat on the back. The pre-race jollies moments before the start is infectious, smiles, and laughs, a reunion of sorts. Its 17 degrees, and everyone is toffed head to toe in multi-variable layers and colors, trying desperately to keep the cold beast at bay. More than a few sport packs and trekking poles, and I have them too, but chose to delay their use til tonight. Dont think I'll need them for awhile, wanting to stay as light as possible for as long as possible.
Properly placed, a person could run the first mile on a wide track just to get ahead of the bubble, but I'm not of that mind. I prefer to use the mob to keep me from getting sucked into a too-fast start. Buried in the crowd, forced to walk each bottleneck, and even stop dead cold a few times as people sort themselves out now and again. The first of those is Big Nasty, and again above the saddle leading to Sky Island. Chris is standing here to make sure everyone follows the correct route, yells something at me, but the wind snatches it away. The lead pack is coming back down the rock bed chute as the bubble is going up, so they aren't too happy. On top, my heavy breathing fogs my glasses at about the same moment the sunrise sprays a billion lumens of light into my eyes, and I'm blind, more blind than I usually am. I stumble once, a rock I never saw, and the glasses come off. I feel good, better than good, I feel as I must have a dozen years ago. This cold snap is working its magic on me and I plan to go with it, knowing full well I wont be feeling this good the entire day.
The descent off Sky Island is a good long downhill romp over a skinny rock filled chute that can be fun if you've a mind to cut loose and sprint. Still merged within the bubble, I'm a bit surprised I've enough gap to sprint down this lovely beast's back. It just so happens that every time I come up on another pack, there is enough room to scoot around, or maybe they hear this huge rock rolling at them and they make room for me to pass. One way or the other, I am not entirely sure how, I roll top to bottom without stop, popping onto the main big wide and flat T1 jeep road that runs through the park backcountry. I hate flat boring trail, and suspect, because I hate them, I run poorly on them. I slow, walk a bit, and more than a few pass, running hard what I do not. We're all on different wavelengths, what we like, what we run. They can have the flats. I donate all to them. I'll take the rocks and hills, which this course has plenty of.
T1 turns up T6, a wonderful rock and roll, traversing under Sky Island and its saddle back round and into the first of the many aid stations. The sun is in my eyes again, blinding, tripping, I bring my hand up for enough shade to allow me to see. This part of T6 has a good mix of rock, hill, and sotol to keep me engaged. At Equestrian, all I need is a topper of water and gone out the other side, down a mile and a half of T1's wide flat jeep road. I try to run as much as I can, but can barely stand it, so I walk now and again. T1 turns onto T6 again, but in the opposite direction this time, less climb this side but more rocks. Lots of rocks, big and little, none of them stable enough to step on and remain upright. Constantly turning the trail drops off ledges, curves up chutes, generous with rocks, under thick cover of scrub trees typical of Texas, short and full of thorns. Staying on trail is imperative, to hold course, and avoid all the little stabbers: prickly pear, mesquite, sotol, hell.... just everything. The sotol will have their little stabs and there is nothing you can do about it, but the desire is to avoid any additional damage.
The Devil's Intersection is not much to look at, but for us old hands, its a key point, a place easy to get lost and confused. T6 points in three directions: strait, right, and back the way we came. The park's signpost has three 6s on it: 666! Right we go onto a docile single-track, terminating into a switching yard of sorts. Caution tape blocks some of the trails, creating a chute turning right. Another chute on the other side shows we'll be back. Up the first Sister strait-away like most of the climbs here, minus switchbacks, rock on rock, and easy to slide out. Odd how so much of this reminds me of climbing in snow: lean to far forward and slide out, lift one foot without the other having a good solid balance, and slide out. Of course, all similarity ends when you hit the ground. Turn right on top of the 1st Sister, drop into the saddle loaded with nasty surprises, climb the 2nd Sister, and repeat again for the 3rd, each climb a slow-march, each descent a free-fall. Coming off the final Sister, I see Lise sitting on the ground tying a shoelace. She'll talk about this later, me passing her, but its laughable: she's up and past me in seconds and not seen again. Back on the wide T1 jeep road once again, past Wilderness Camp back to the switching yard at the base of the Sisters.
Ice Cream Hill is not one hill, but a series of big ground swells. It begins with a rough scramble on all fours over a big ledge, then down the next wave and up another, and once more for the final ripple which is the beginning of the actual Ice Cream Hill. Strait up, one ledge after another along the fenceline, leaving me exhausted and excited to be in the saddle. The rock field downslope is a minefield of ankle breakers I've learned to sprint full out. If I go slow, I slip, so I run instead, and a full sprint carries me on a bit longer after the bottom from the blood energy pumping in my veins. Only a mile more to Nachos and none of it hilly, but it does have more rock obstacles requiring constant attention.
Nachos is a good place for adjustments. I have a drop bag here to dump my glasses and buffs, pick up more Tailwind, Gu, and coconut. I also hook up Rebecca Gartrell. She's much quicker than me, especially on the flats, and we're just now rolling into the flats, when she lines up next to me and starts talking. This must be her A section and its certainly my F section, so I wonder what she's thinking. T6 is a creek in disguise without water, a bed of rocks meandering amongst the trees, two road crossings to park headquarters. We cross the road to Tarpley and begin our journey on the long lonely Roman road, known as T8. At first glance, it appears to be a field of grass, but the difficulty lies hidden. To be more specific, its a field of rocks with grass. Awkward to run, impossible to keep a strait line, an open area in many places, including the powerline cut and a surprising descent through huge rocks for 50 yards of playful running which Ts into an backcountry intersection of water troughs and an old gate. We're introduced to a rolling jeep road that can be run, not entirely free of rocks, but a far cry from the grass and rock minefield, and it stays this way all the way to Chapas.
Keith crews for Rebecca, I go into the tent to top-off, and two minutes max, we're on the 9s. I still feel as if Rebecca's taking the edge off her run to hang with me and I tell he about it. She says she's good. Maybe she's trying to keep from going too fast on the first loop. The 9s are boring! Its mostly single-track, but there's no vistas, no climbs, nothing to take me out of myself. Thankfully, Rebecca's still running with me, so we entertain ourselves with conversation as time slowly thaws. At one point, we both trip over the exact same root at the same time. The field is no better, including the one-mile racetrack loop just before YaYa. I'm so glad to finally be here, with the last 2 sections behind me, and more hills coming. Keith meets Rebecca with both hands full as we come in, offers me the cup his wife doesn't want. I have another drop bag here, so I remove another layer, and get another bag of Tailwind, Gu, and coconut.
Rebecca is surging. I can see it in her every movement, so I tell her to cut loose of me, her anchor, and go. She says she just had some coffee and finally agrees to get going. As fast as she separates from me, I am amazed she stayed with me as long as she did. Soon after she's out of sight, I'm passed by a few fast friends in the 50km who are, by the lay of the course, actually 5 miles in front of me. Rachel sprints past me to win first female, then Tyler, and others. I'm not running alone after all. The trail gets a bit more entertaining after the creek: quick turns, slight rises and drops, and roots of all things, as we're in the trees again. My energy starts to rise, reflecting my joy of this area. I pick up the pace, push myself round to and up Lucky Peak. A moment to collect myself and cut loose, full of energy, slinging myself down the ledges and rocks, passing a few others who are descending much more carefully. You're insane, I hear, and I'm gone, keeping the surge down to the deep creek cut. I clamber out the other side, catch my breath and continue pushing to the Butterfly Springs jeep road. I slow a bit, maintain a sensible ramble on into Last Chance.
Roger manages this station and a great guy he is, so its a pleasure to visit for a moment, before I resume. Lodge Loop, the last 5 miles is called, which includes the last 2 big hills: Cairns Climb and Boyles Bump. Cairn's is first, ascending a single huge rock dusted with smaller rocks. Up slowly, hands on hips, heels on ground, achilles stretching, trying to control my breathing, forcing hard exhales, and trying not to look up. I dont want to know I'm not near the top until I'm on top. It comes to a point where it's not as hard, but it does continue to climb gently for a bit longer. The trail turns left into some trees, then again, and again onto a long flat track along a ledge. From here it remains flat for a bit, then drops down a series of ledges, flat again, more ledges, and drop over boulders down to the main track. Cairns is done. Boyles is next!
The route to Boyles is a rolling affair, fun and easy. Up the final climb I fix myself into a fast walking rhythm I manage to hold better than I expect. I pass a few people going up, which is rare for me. On top, a long sweeping jeep road beacons and i cant ignore, so start running as it wraps around a sweeping curve, offering a nice panoramic. I seem to have my wind up, so I keep on pushing, and a bit surprised at how well this is going. With the end of the first 50km loop about done, I can say without a doubt: I rocked the hilly sections and sucked ass on the flats. I can only hope to do the same thing on loop two. I catch Rebecca at the summit, surprising both of us. You been waiting for me? She laughs at me, telling me she fully expected me to catch her in the hills. Hell, she may have, but I didn't. That lady can run! But, for now, I have a long downhill and plan to run it, and after a bit, realize Rebecca means to stay with me on down. Its an easy descent, and then it drops off, and I get my wheels rollin. I keep it just like so til I reach Boyles' house at the bottom, where I back-off and start walking. I'll run the last bit, but from here to the gate, I'll take it easy. I see Keith again, with his video camera going as Rebecca sprints past me, and then slows. She hammered the downhill to catch me and we run the final bit to cross the timing mat together.
I walk to our RV to make ready for loop two. A few cold Izzes, turkey sandwich, and chips, A heavy coat of Desiten is applied to all the chafed and wind-burnt places of importance. Long tights and sleeves are replaced by shorts and a T, and lastly take my pack before heading out. The entire process seems so simple, but takes 25 minutes. Because of where the RV is, nobody sees me head out, and I find out later, Joyce finished the 50km 30 yards away as I walked out.
I feel great, like I'm just starting, which is fantastic. Maybe its due to less clothes, just having ate, or being on the final loop. Funny how this psychological edge, this feeling goes up and down like the hills. My pack is very light, a pound or two, a trekking pole and some food. I forget I have it on. Its 3pm now, dark is 6pm, so I have 3 hours to get to my next drop bag at Nachos: 10 miles from here. Gambling just a bit right now. I've been layered in so much clothes all day, I'm looking forward to running with just the minimum for a bit. Once the sun drops, it'll get much colder and I'll need lights too, so I must be there before sunset. I should be good, but shit happens. I've been removing layers all day and at Nachos this trend reverses and start putting back on. So everything keys on Nachos, my pack, and 6pm, where I'll move the clothing I need from my drop bag to my pack.
Everything seems to be in order, no worries, no cares, time for autopilot. I take time ascending Big Nasty and Sky Island too. Was hoping to see Chris, but not surprised to find him gone. I'll see him somewhere else if only to remind me how slow I'm going. Thats where I see Rebecca for the last time, descending as I ascend. She took less time than me at Lodge, has already done the Sky-loop, and as the course goes, is a good distance in front of me. We had a nice bit of cat-n-mouse for many miles, it was fun, but I am so glad she is doing well and moving on. Of course, I'll use the idea of her to keep me going, but it aint going to happen again. I'm still hammering the downhills with abandon, getting around and down to Equestrian well enough. Out onto T1 jeep road, I run more than I thought I could, take the rugged T6 over to the Devil's Intersection, and then up onto the Sisters. I find a new target here, a new motivation to keep pushing as I top out: a guy with a bright neon jacket on the summit of Sister two. I surge downhill and up the next, only to top out and see the Jacket on top of Sister three. Down I go with some effort and cross to the third Sister, only to see the Jacket down on the T1 jeep road. He's running the flippin jeep road, the dog. Damn! I haul on down, take the turn, and head up T1. I cut through Wilderness Camp and wave at two guys sitting there at a picnic table watching me as I go by. I come up on the switching yard, turn down Ice Cream Hill trail, passing two others as I do. The Jacket must have passed them. The rock and roll hills that lead up Ice Cream are probably the toughest combination of tricks this course lays out, and it certainly slows my body down. As easy as I take it, I pass a few more on the hills and one more climbing the final ascent. I realize when we top out, the last guy is a pacer. I forgot you could have pacers, never even thought about all the sets of runners I've seen, who were matched as such. Joyce and I talked about this, I told her not to waste her time, go run the 50km, which she did. I stop to recover my wind for a moment, then bomb the last descent I'll see for awhile. The final bit over into Nachos are just a blur, except I finally catch the jacket.
I plan to take my time at Nachos, get cold weather clothes into my pack, lights, and food. John and Gina are there when I come in and they help me sort things out. I put on a long sleeve shirt and gloves, shove a jacket and buffs in my pack, then get on with it. Dusk is upon us, so its getting dim, but I like night running and plan to go a ways before I use my light. There's a 3/4 moon up and bright enough to light my path for a ways. These next 2 sections are once again my least favorite dogs in this pound, and I have a hard time getting motivated. Its a walk/run section for me, walking for a bit, running a bit, and hard to know exactly when I get the urge to do one or the other. You'd think I could run it more just to get it done, but I just cant get the motor running. T7 is the creek trail leading back to park HQ, then cross the road to Tarpley onto T8. I hook up behind another guy through here without thinking about it, I suppose its natural to not want to be alone in the dark, and It is finally full on dark.
He turns his light on for a moment, then off, and repeats, leaving it off way more than on, but eventually leaves it on. At this point, I reach into my pack to fetch my good light, and its gone! My favorite big lumen bike light is not where I put it and I'm shocked. I do have a spare headlamp, so its not all bad, but still, damn - my best light! Together we struggle through the grass covered minefield of rocks, like 2 drunks heading home late from the pub. Every step is watched, every moment checked, I dont realize right away the other guy is gone and I'm alone again. Not sure what happened or where he went, but I cross over the powerline cut and drop to the fast and easy jeep road. Checking behind me a few times, I'm surprised to see no light or any other sign, can only assume he stopped for a break of some sort. Not sure why, but my disappearing friend has me buzzed, so I start running and keep on til I get to Chapas.
Joyce is there when I cross the bridge just before the station. Her race has been done for hours and she just cant stand not checking on me, so she's there in the dark asking how I'm doing. Well, I'm surprisingly in great spirits and tell her so. I have everything I need, just need to keep rolling. I get some ramen, a sip of coke, and get out. Theres nobody near, no lights, no reference, just the spot my secondhand headlamp makes on the trail in front of me. My energy begins to fade a bit, but I do what I can to keep moving well. I so much dislike that tunnel-vision feeling, and even with the light in my hand, it persists. Despite the temps being in the teens today, I've been fine so far because my energy has been high. But there's not a hill in sight to help raise my heat level or boost my blood flow. It seems to take forever to circumnavigate the 9s, cross the main park road, and get to the fields. The one mile race track is so nauseatingly boring, I walk the entire loop. I am so happy to finally get done with this section, and twice pleased to see Joyce again when I walk into YaYa. I find a chair in the tent under the heater, knowing my time is limited here. The longer I stay, the colder I''l be when I leave, so I feel rushed as soon as I sit down. Joyce hands me my drop bag and a grill cheese sandwich that she has made to my exacting grill cheese standards: raison bread with butter and swiss melted into the bread. That and a hot cocoa do me so right. I put on another jacket, long pants, and take my fresh set of flashlights before heading out.
I begin to cross paths with more than a few who all seem to be hell-bent on a sub-17 hour Western States qualifying time. I knew Bandera was a qualifier, but never gave much thought to the time. They're all walking, but I'd like to think I won't walk all of the final 10 miles. Once I get back in the trees again, I begin to run. Not a continuos all together thing, but in spurts: 30 yards, then 100. I run for a bit, then walk. I meet more guys chasing the WS qualifier. Getting to Lucky is a highlight for me. Its the end of flat-world. I've been looking forward to hills for a long time, but first, I need to get to the top. Rushing myself a bit, I trip and fall, landing on my water bottle, blowing out whats left of the water, but saving my hand. I really dont care about the water right now, so its no big deal. Starting the climb, one of my feet slide out and I end up on my face, but its not much worse than laying down slowly in a bed of rocks. Once again, I escape without any blood. Completely exhausted now and just below the summit, I trip yet again, going down into a 3-point stance. But, I'm on top and after a moment, I head back down. I know I cant be moving nearly as fast or clean as I had been earlier, but from my perspective, I feel like I'm flying down the hill.
I'm again talking to Roger at Last Chance, the last aid station before the finals. I take a seat, while Roger hands me a slice of bacon to chew on. Its all I care to take time for. The last hurrah: the final two hills, and I'm on my way, pushing hard, and moving slow. Still, I'm on task, with nothing less than a finish on my mind. I have on a gps watch but its buried under the layers and I have no idea what time of day it is or my projected finish time. I know I should be under 17 hours because all those guys awhile back thought they were on track to make it and I think I'm still in front of them. Not so sure I care about the time at this point. I'll take what I get. I just want to be done. I'm thinking about a shower, brushing my teeth, and crawling into a warm bed. How I'd love to sit down right now. I start up Cairns, being careful after the 3 falls I had on Lucky not all that long ago. It goes slow but without issue. I catch and stick behind another who's walking quickly, but after a bit, I ask to get by. He stays close til the first set of down ledges, then the 2nd set makes his light disappear. Alone again, I hurry down to the main track. I'm starting to get a buzz on, knowing the last hill is close. I hurry to it and start up. One of the odd phenomenons here is you can hear everyone within a mile of this climb, a natural amphitheater. I am so glad I already know this, because I start to hear a lot of voices, and if I didn't know better, I'd think a lot of people were very close and getting rapidly closer. Not that any of that makes any difference, its still un-nerving get passed so close to the finish. Up I go slowly til I reach the long semi-flat jeep road on top. I start to run again, pass by the overlook bench, and one false summit after another, til it begins to bend down. I really get excited and start to move quicker, mixing the energy of the downhill with the smell of the barn into one big smile on my face. No more thinking, processing, wondering about times, or how bad I feel. I just need to run, and so I do. I take the turn at Boyles house and head for home on the final stretch, feeling so relieved. I'm just about to the gate when I pass a guy, who says to me as I pass: You mind if I run in with you? Come on man, lets get this done. So, he starts to run, pulls up next to me and we run it in together.