It was my hope, mind you, nothing major, just a simple desire... to be able to run well for 20 miles of the 50 mile course. Figured I could walk the rest of it with a strong conviction and a very wide cutoff. I have not run well for awhile, at least, from my own expectations and memories that cant feel any of the pain. Funny that, I can still feel all the warm buzz from finishing, but the agony has all washed away and gone, like it never occurred. The sprit in me still thinks I can run what I ran 20 years ago. The disconnect between my reality and my 60 year old imagined expectations is huge. Sure, I know! I really do know what to expect now-a-days, but my dreams are not about reality. I still visualize the highest levels of what I used to do. Even during my prime years, this was so. But, you never know. As my buddy Kuss tells me, 'Even a blind squirrel finds a nut now and again'. So, I went out blindly searching.
Oh what a glorious morning! Sub-50 degree temps, no rain, and a bit of wind. It would not last long, but it was cool enough that many of us, me included, scrambled round for an extra long-sleeved shirt. I had spent the last few days marking the course, so being part of the work staff, Joyce & I had our RV within 30 feet of the start/finish line: a convenient advantage offset by the days of marking course.
Ultra-Run race starts are somewhat surprising in that the crowd usually moves away from the start line, leaving room for anyone who wants the line. Our group of 150 was no different this morning at 5am. I had to push through more than a few just to get to the rear end of the pack.
Having created then directed Cactus Rose for the past 10 years, it is funny that I have never run the race, yet I know every turn and rock. There is no one with more knowledge of this course that I. Understand, I do not think of this as an advantage. This course is brutal tough, so I selected the most rugged heavy-duty shoes I could find to run in today. I know I will trip many times, kick more than a few rocks, and most likely hit the ground with my body a time or two. On the other hand, I have no concerns about going the wrong way or getting lost. I also know where every bathroom and stream crossing is, as well as the exact locations of the stepping stones over each.
I go out easy, comfortable and relaxed, near the back side of the herd. Its dark, so most have their lights on, headlamps and hand torches. Having been to this dance a few times, I know the chatter and small talk tends to have many people blinding each other, so I leave my head-lamp off for a bit. I also have a hand torch pointed at the ground, that I expect to dump in my drop bag at YaYa. The herd shuffles like a deck of cards every so often, such that I'm with somebody different before each conversation gets past introductions and hellos. The leading mile is pretty convenient in that we are all together on a double-track jeep road, long enough for us to sort each other out, where we belong in the pace line.
Luckily, I have the good fortune to sort into the deck between Tom Bowling and Julie Koepke from Lucky to YaYa. I have no idea how I'm doing and not too worried about it either, as I feel great and can't be working too very hard yet. I do need to stop at YaYa (mile 5) though, so I pull out of line to dump my hand light and refill my water bottle. I pour TailWind into my water, and it strikes me funny that I am the only person who stops here. The entire group looks to be a steady stream of light going past as I take care of my business. I'm sure I know more than a few behind the lights, but all I see are is the light stream. The next pack is still out of sight behind us, so that when I head back out, I am alone, behind the fading lights, between packs. I cant tell if they are going faster now, or if I am going slower. I feel the same, but they certainly leave me well behind and gone.
Mother Nature calls and a bathroom is not far ahead, so I pick up pace a bit and pass Axel. With 2 breaks inside the first 7 miles, I do believe I am comfortably in control of my laid back strategy and damn happy with it. Another creek crossing soon after my break and I hook up with Cris Strong for just a bit. I dont realize at first, she's in the relay, which reminds me I have no idea who is running what race. We have all started as one, all on the same course, and even if we were not in the dark, I'm still too blind to focus on any runner's bib number.
The sequence of the aid stations are: Yaya(5), Nachos(10), Equestrian(15), Boyles(20), and Lodge(25), and this is a rough rounding of distances just so its easier for me to recall, as my logical thinking devolves to emotional mush. We start in cw direction, and then reverse to ccw for loop two. The 100 milers double up, but never mind that, as I've explained to any who dared ask: I am not dumb enough at this time to run the 100.
The creek paralleling the road to Nachos is a typical Texas creek, with more rocks that water, and the trail that winds in and out of the creek is all dust, rock, and cactus. it's too bad really! The water being softer than rock would be preferable. Alone again, I roll along easy enough, crossing the road and dropping into the 10mi station at Nachos. These aid stations are more simply landmarks where we have placed our own boxes and coolers for self-support. Cactus is like that: with no aid station volunteers and well stocked tables. They do provide water & ice, and for the average old veteran, its all they really need. Most prefer to use their own nutrition. And, the self placed drop bags means you always know exactly what is available exactly where you need it. Unless you make a mistake and put your crap in the wrong place.
All my drop bags are soft 6-pack size lunch coolers that I have S-clipped to the crossbar of each aid station tent. Most of us put our drop bags out the night before, and with the local critters having an entire night to choose, I figured I'd make it a bit more work for mine than all the other bags on the ground. Ants are bad here also, and that helped me decide on this method. The bags dont have much space, so the contents are basic and minimal. I'm running past each one twice: once on the 25mi cw loop, then reverse for the 25mi ccw loop. They're all pretty much the same: shorts, shirt, socks, bandana, buff, gloves, gatorade, coke, empty water bottle, 2 packs of tailwind, 2 cliff bloks, 2 scratch gels, 2 coconut bars. I figured I'd not use much of the clothes on the initial 25mi loop, but if I did need anything, I'd have it. On the return trip, I'd have most all of it to change as need be. For nutrition, I had 2 sets of everything, one going out and the other coming back. I started with 2 lights, with plans to leave 1 at 5mi YaYa and the other at 10mi Nachos. Regardless how slow I was coming back around, I'd haver a light at 5mi and 10mi from the end.
The sun was not up yet at Nachos, but the sky was getting lighter, and I do enjoy running in the dark sans lights. I was ready to run the next section in the dark for a bit, as I did intend to leave my 2nd light here at Nachos. I was about to leave when Joyce arrived with breakfast tacos. She had rushed here after collecting the breakfast tacos to provide a hearty calorie load to the lot of us: Ryan, Richard, January, Julie, and me. It was a surprise that I was here ahead of the others, as none of us knew for certain what the hell was going to happen today. I walked out with an egg & cheese taco, completely surprised, having forgotten Joyce had talked about meeting us here with the food. Thanks gorgeous!
The first 10 miles was easy like that, mostly flat, big groups, lights in the dark, with lots of soft laughter and Charlie Brown voices. The next 15 miles is where the beast waited, in the hills, and rugged terrain. I had been patient with myself and hoped to continue as much. It was easy to do so far, but now it would require more patience. Longer hills would mean more walking, at least on the ups. It had been a long time since I had run well at any distance, so I was curious if I still had any ability to push the downhills as I used to.
Nachos to Equestrian is the longest section on the course between aid, and it includes both, Ice Cream Hill and The Sisters. This route is a completely new layout from years past and I wondered how it would play with the veterans as much as anybody. Ice Cream Hill by itself is more than just a rugged scramble strait up and over a high saddle. It finishes with a roller up and down a few more hills on the other side too, finishing where T6 begins a rugged bit of rocky trail at the Devils Intersection. Its an odd circumstance that Trail number 6 leads off in 3 separate directions from this point. The sign post has three 6s on each side of it. Its also a great landmark for a very rocky route coming up. T6 rolls onto T1, which is akin to a super-highway through this park, leading direct into Equestrian.
At each station, I take the time to pull out the tailwind and put in in my water bottle, which I fill with fresh clean water & ice. I remove my trash and take the available bar and bloks with me and walk out, usually eating. The sun had come up on me somewhere in the previous hills and its funny that being preoccupied, I didn't even notice til I reach Equestrian. I suppose, a good part of that was due to the temps remaining low still. Only thing that made me think of it was I was still running well, which was a lot more than I expected.
The next section is all about Sky Island, going up and around on T6 and then making the nasty climb from the other side to the saddle. The perimeter trail strolls around the top on the lollipop loop and back to the same exact spot I went up, before exiting via Big Nasty down and over into Boyle's. This section rocks you the entire way, but its fun too, and thoroughly entertaining. Go to sleep on this section, stop paying attention for just one moment, and it'll hurt. Pay attention or pay the price! I started sweating for the first time today on this section, and by Boyle's, my shirt & bandana are soaked, so I change them out. I hook up with George Blust coming into Boyle's, but I stop to continue my patient plan while George keeps on.
I can see George well ahead for awhile, but it takes me a long time to close on him. The leaders are just now starting to come back, on their 3rd loop between Lodge & Boyles, so there are 10mi between me and them. Doesn't make much of a difference, but I always seem to keep note on this sort of trivia just for reference. Many of them I know and wish them well. Most are quite generous in return: Scott Rabb & Lorenzo, followed by Kyle & Lise trade smiles and hugs. Everyone seems in high spirits, reveling in the best day we've felt weather-wise in 9 months. Off Boyles and onto Cairn's, I cross paths with Adam. I had just unwrapped another coconut bar, and I knew he likes them, having shared them with him during our training runs in Austin, so I hand it to him as we pass, going in opposite directions. I still have about 2.5mi to the Lodge, so Adam has about 5 miles on me. After Cairn's, its simple and easy, our route becoming a jeep road back to the lodge: the same half mile we started with going out at the beginning.
I'm surrounded by Joyce & friends as I come in, and pass through them to my drop bag and chair behind Pam's store. Loop one is done in 6:32 and a hell of a lot faster than I ever expected. Better yet, I still feel great, and its still cool. But its coming up on noon, and the weather is bound to warm up before long. I dont wish to rush, but I dont wish to dally either, but I do take the time to change everything I'm wearing except my shoes. Again, my shirt, shorts, and bandera were wet from sweat. Up til now, I'd been going with just a single water bottle and it was enough, but Its time for a second bottle. I'll start with TailWind in one and plain water in the other.
Loop two starts good enough. Not that I'm running fast, but I'm running well enough. Going up Cairn's is when I know loop two was going to be a lot more difficult than loop one. I'm only walking the climb up, but it isn't easy at all. Patience was my plan and I resolved to run only what I could get easy and walk the rest. It was on Cairn's where I crossed paths with my training buds, and oddly enough at about the same place I had seen Adam earlier when we passed. I see Julie first, then Ryan, Richard, and January. We exchange greetings and keep on, none of us wanting to waste time when we'll certainly see each other again. Soon after, I cross paths with Rich Mihalik who makes a point of reminding me I'm welcome to the cold drinks in his cooler.
I hook up and disconnected with a number of different people over the next 10 miles, but I suppose, at this point, I'm starting to recognize in myself overheating issues. I make it to Boyle's ok and talk to Chris Russell, who always seems to be in the station when I get there. He points out Rich's cooler and I trade my warm coke with one of his cold ones. This would be a recurring them from here on out. I have a coke in every bag, but Rich has cold ones.
Boyles to Equestrian is ok, with me managing just good enough, but nothing to brag about. I'm actually pretty surprised I'm holding up with 35 miles under my feet at this point. I had seen Joyce at many of the stations on loop one, but not at all since the Lodge. She had informed me the gap between Ryan & me was spreading, and I had told her in advance to let me be, and focus on helping Ryan. I'm in the 50 while he's in the 100 and would need a good bit more support as they day continues. So, I come in alone, take care of what I need, and continue alone. Its not like I dont have company if I want it. There are others around and if I care to hook up, it would be easy enough. I suppose I'm enjoying the moment, the day, the run, just the whole damned thing, good, bad, or whatever. Come what may, it's a hell of a lot better than sitting in a damned cubicle.
With 35mi down, I have just one more section of hills, the longest section, with no shade, and the sun full up and cooking now. Its past 2pm and its time for me to melt. The long and winding jeep road is wide open, and quickly reduces my fast walk and mini-run to a grudging drag-ass. My over-heating problem is getting worse. Both water bottles are now full of water and ice. I'm done with the TailWind for now. I need to do everything I can to keep myself cool, but the only thing I can realistically do is get my ass to Nachos... where I can once again get more ice & cold drinks.
T1 is flat and fast. It is also wide open without shade. It turns onto T6 through Hell at the Devil's xSection which does offer up some shade, with reservations due to the ankle breaking rocks from one end to the other. This spins up onto The Sisters, which I kindly refer to as the Bald Headed Sisters, because there are no trees up there. Nothing but sotol cactus obscures the view, which is why its a great place to be at night. But during the day, especially a hot day, its just hot and open and numbing. This is where I have my first near black out. I start getting dizzy and seeing spots, so I quickly find a shady spot behind a bush and sit down. My breathing's rapid, hyperventilating, so I try a breathing control method I learned in the mountains and get it back under control. It doesn't take long, a few minutes maybe, and I'm up again and climbing. Nancy Marks seems to be around me at this time, before me, behind me, I don't know exactly where, but I kept hearing her voice going and going.
Leaving the sisters is a big moment for me, knowing all I have left that's nasty is Ice Cream Hill. Even the jeep road from Sisters to Ice Cream seems difficult now. The old route was clean and simple, while the new route is awkward and round-a-bout: left through a campsite, left again and up a hill, right down through a culvert, up over a road, and then right over to where I should have been awhile ago. Ice Cream Hill from this side is a roller-coaster: 3 hills and 3 dips, each one significant if you're me right now. I start spinning out 3 or 4 times through here, and I have little choice but to sit and control it. Reaching the base of the final climb in granny gear, I pick up a sotol stick to use as a trekking pole. Without it, the climb would be impossible. I use the stick to pry my ass up the hill one grunt at a time. Its slow and awkward and I feel in danger of passing out more than a few times. On top, I take my final sit down break, taking a bit longer than all the others to take it all in. I know right now that I'll get it done. I can walk the rest of this course. Not sure how long it will take and I dont really care, but I do know, I'm going to get the first 50mi finish I've had in years... and it feels good. I know damn well I just had my butt kicked and I'm far from done, but I know.
I walk slowly the rest of the way to Nachos, watching as a few packs of women run past. Of the 7 or 8 women, there is only 1 who acknowledges I exist as they pass. I'm invisible. I suppose it is partly my fault, being a bit delirious, I'm no doubt, barely even here. Even after pouring all that water in my mouth and on my head, I'm way ot of sorts.
Theres a party going on when I arrive at Nachos. All the girls have entourages and the place is hopping. I get another cold Rich coke, drink my own Gatorade as well, and fill both bottles with cold water and ice. There are only 9mi to the finish and most of that is flat and easy. The hills are behind me and I have survived the hottest part of the day. Approaching evening now, it'll start getting cooler, and with the sun lower, more shade too. I just have to march it in. I'd love to be able to run, but I doubt I'll get that going for a bit, so I just need to get up and go, so I do. I get up and walk out of Nachos.
At first, its not easy. Even with the flats, I'm still ruined. I wilt, balk, drag, and stumble, but I keep it moving. Back in the dry creek again, I come up on another guy who appears to be worse off then me. We start talking, hes going to drop soon, but he hooks on to me and stays with me. We reach the ranger station and cross over to T8. I tell him its only 2mi to YaYa, and he stays on. Not sure he even thinks about it, or just gets caught in the conversation, but we keeps walking, across the creek, past the shithouse, through the field, and drop into YaYa. 45mi in with only 5mi to go is a bad place to give it up. I have my last coke and give some of it to my new friend. It lights him up!
He goes out first while I put away my drop bag and it takes me a mile to catch him. His walk becomes an uber-walk and I have to run to catch up. He keeps walking and I have to intermittently walk/run to stay with him. And so it continues on up to Lucky and over. We see Jake heading out on loop 3 as we pass him on our way to the finish. He never does run, but I do. I have to... just to keep up. And so we dance on down the jeep road and into the finish. The 2nd loop takes me significantly longer at 8:06, but my glorious first loop provide enough cushion to get us home just after dark at 7:38pm or 14:38 runtime.
What did I learn or maybe just remind myself? You never know what you can do, or what you are capable of. If its what you want, its worth trying. I know I'd have never reached the finish line had I never started