Nueces changed her name to J&J and added a 100k, but its still the same drop dead beautiful landscape and setting. I'd run the 25km last year with my wife and daughters. Before that, I'd created the course, laid out the route, cut a few trails, and explored almost every part of this camp, but I had never run the 100k, which included the Elephant in the back closet.
The ground is wet and muddy from four days of continuous heavy rain, the rocks puddled with water, and slick with mud. My hope was that it would continue to rain, for a cooler temp, a more comfortable run. I dread the humidity more than the high temp, so the air filled with humid mist dampens my high hopes of a great run. The double danger of tough course and high humidity leads me to a much more cautions start than I might have done otherwise
The field of runners is quite small, we start in the dark, and the course begins with an uphill, so it's no surprise that I have no idea right off the bat, where I am reference to anyone else in the race, except Joel, who is close behind me, and Ryan as well. The three of us remain near at hand thru the two immediate climbs, but Ryan stops to tie a shoelace and we lose him just as we start the easy part of the trail. So easy such that we pick up pace and move quickly down and around the next few sections.
Sometimes, a passing motivates a bit more speed, and so it does when Joel & I pass Nancy, George, and 5-fingers. But, the mud is sloppy and slippery, and the rocks just as slick, enough to give us pause about sliding, so it's not as if we're full on sprinting as much as maybe we're going just a bit faster than we had been. We're both wearing headlamps, but I've just moved mine into my right hand, water bottle in the other. I believe I see much better, trip much less with my light help low. We make the turn on top, and head down towards the Texas aid station. It's a skinny, muddy, rock filled single-track that requires constant attention, and I am paying attention, but suddenly, both feet slide out and up sideways. Flying off a slick rounded rock surface, I come down hard and heavy on my right elbow. Joel barely stops in time without tripping over me.
I get up and carefully back on my feet, continue to run. I can feel mud all over my arm and side, but I can't see a thing in the dark. Nancy and George caught us while we dallied and the lot of us roll into Texas aid, but they keep on while Joel and I stop for a moment. I reach across the table for a cup, and when I draw my hand back, I realize I've splattered the entire table surface with blood. Wow! Not only am I shocked to have ruined everything on the table, but what I thought was mud... is blood. Joel told me I was bleeding while we ran, but I didn't think much of it. I ask Donna (at the aid station) what she thinks: she says it looks pretty bad. I have a buff wrapped around my wrist, so I slide it down my arm to cover the cut and also to hook on my elbow so it might stay in place. I can't tell how much it's bleeding and don't how much blood I'm slinging on the trail, but Joel does remind me now and again: You're still bleeding a lot, Joe!
"All we have for medical supplies are some gauze pads and bandaids." The band aids aren't going to cut it, so he hands me the gauze pads and goes off to find something else that might work to hold the pads on my injured arm. I pulled off the blood saturated buff and dropped it on the table and watched the blood drain out and streak across the table. Damn! Thats two aid stations I'd polluted now. I picked it up, wring out the blood on the ground, and hang the buff across one of the tent poles being used for the Wall aid station.
I wasn't thinking clearly when I planned my equipment at this point. I already have a flashlight in one hand and a water bottle in the other. How the hell am I supposed to use 2 trekking poles. I need two more hands. As much as I prefer to have my headlight in my hand, I needed to put it on my head so I can use at least 1 trekking pole. I'd put my pack and both poles at the Wall with a desire to use the poles over the next 6 miles of brutal climbs. The pack is for nothing other than to store the poles, so it's light enough. Figure I'd shove a 2nd water bottle in the pack later, when the sun comes up. Anyway, all my thoughts are a jumble for a wide variety of reasons. I have a clean buff in my drop bag, so I use it to wrap my arm and hold down the bloody gauze pads, and leave the Wall with pole in hand, and excited to use it. I pop it out and lock it in place just as I start up from the river. Can't be more than 100 yards when it snaps. Not sure exactly what it broke on. I've been using poles for years and have become quite comfortable and careful with them. I'd never broke a pole over years of Hardrock or months on the Appalachian Trail. This day just isn't starting well for me.
The climb from the Wall begins with the prettiest view of the suspension bridge over the Nueces River. Breathtakingly beautiful is my opinion of this area leading to the Gorilla Trail. This is the section where we begin our punishment in uphills and difficult rock graveyards. The route tracks alongside a perimeter fenceline in what must have once been a jeep road, but now shows no sign of track, trail, tree, or shade. There is some thorny scrub, but mostly its rock and prickly pear. I take full credit for being the designer of this course, all of it, and especially for the back side valley we now call The Elephant, because the outline of the route looks like the legs of an elephant. I have been back here many times, up and down these hills, clearing brush, moving rocks, hanging flags, but I've never run this part of the course. Last year, we were told by the handful of people who attempted the 100k just how brutal it was. The word was out, and so it was told, that this course was a beast, but hearing it and running it are two distinctly different things, akin to describing the Grand Canyon or the Ocean to someone who has not seen either.
Its Joel and me, but with George and Nancy orbiting in and out of our space as we start up the first of the Elephants three legs. In the dark, I struggle to see any course marking flags, but I do know we stay to the fenceline until the backside fence. George, Nancy, and Joel all ran this last year, so they already know as much as I do, and we are evenly matched thru here. It's a deceptive climb thru a wide cut, filled with Texas scrub (cactus, thorn bushes, & loose rock). It's not that big a climb, but the terrain and the dark makes it awkward and uncomfortable. On top, it keeps on going back much further than expected. I keep expecting to hit the back fence, but there is more of the same, until finally we see the arrow turning us right and down. The rough scramble of loose rocks is tough to navigate carefully without sliding out. I've learned to simply run it out, keeping my feet moving quickly on down to the jeep road where we track on an easier path back over to the main big valley. The single steepest climb on the course begins here at the second ascent: up and over to the back fence line for leg two. It's not long, but it's a slow brutal climb regardless. At the back fenceline, we turn and stay up high for a longer distance than we did the last time. Again we descend another rough loose scramble much the same as the previous, to another trace of old jeep road back out to the well worn trans-valley jeep road. Once on road, we see Prospector Aid above us, but its still another leg to do before we get there. Just under it, we turn away for our final beating from the Elephant. This time, we begin with a jeep road to the back fenceline where we begin our uphill scramble over and around more of the same Texas scrub. We lose the flags and get turned around near summit for a few moments until we figure the route leading out. The downhill is another bed of rock landmines which is difficult to avoid tripping or sinking into mud, all much the same from back fenceline to jeep road at the bottom. After all the previous madness, the final climb up to Prospector looks worse than it is. It passes behind us rather quickly before we top out into the aid station.
Somewhere between Texas and Pavilion, on 2 miles of the easiest course, Joel disappears. Not his body so much, but Joel, nevertheless! Never mind, it's still very dark and he mostly remains behind me, I realize he's no longer communicative. Not that we talk a lot, but after a bit, I realize he's no longer responding. Taking the time to study him a bit, he no longer seems capable of running, so we walk, while George and Nancy move on ahead. I'll be in this same state a bit later, but for now, I just need to help get Joel in to the Pavilion so he can reload his nutrition and get going again.
Finishing loop one around 2am in the morning, I roll strait thru the pavilion to my room. On the way, I ask Chris if he can find Becky and send her over to fix my arm. He's already heard about the blood, and goes to find Becky with her medical bag. I'd already pre-staged my room, laying out my gear and supplies for easy use. I'd a change of clothes in the bathroom, so I could shower off the sodium buildup (to avoid a rash), the mud, and even the blood. So, I shower and re-lube with Desiten, and put on a clean set of clothes. Becky comes over to patch my arm while I eat. All in all, the delay cost me 30 minutes before I'm back out again. Ryan comes in as I'm heading out, but I don't see Joel when I go thru the Pavilion. I've been in the room for a while, so he may have already gone
Its around 3am and still pitch black when I walk out, alone, nobody in sight. It's not until I top the second pitch and begin to descend, when I start to run. Boot Trail is easy with a few dips and rises, so I run most of it, but not all. Before I reach Texas Trail, I catch Nancy again at about the same place I caught her on the first loop. Well, I've already figured Nancy for one of those types I can't just run by. She always picks up pace, hooks in, and hangs on. And so I end up running with Nancy again, and so it remains, as we up and over and down into Texas aid, where we find George. Its odd how many times I come into an aid only to find George sitting half asleep in a chair. It doesn't take much to nudge him awake and into our wake. The three of us are once again together, minus Joel, as we cross up and over again. We pass 5-fingers as we enter the Armadillo Trail, and I seem to get my motor going again, but with hiccups. I run and run well for long stretched then feel the urge to sit and rest a moment. Once when I sat down, I hear Nancy say, as she's passing: "Lets hurry. He only sits for a few seconds and then he's up and running again". I catch them again, and lead for a while, then sit again, and repeat. Usually it's the climbs that knock me a bit, but now its just about anything. I've inverted my standard strengths and weaknesses somehow, as I seem to be climbing well. Back to the Wall, I pick up my remaining trekking pole. After last loop's miss (the broken pole) I again have high hopes to effectively use the pole this time. I also take my second water bottle full of water and shove that into my pack too. George starts up Gorilla first, but I quickly catch and pass him, and leave both he and Nancy behind. The trekking pole is obviously a huge success. I keep checking behind as I walk, but I lose track of them both. Can't believe I've climbed faster than George, but I can't know what all he's dealing with. The climbs all come and go quickly, as do the descents and I'm quickly, to my great surprise, into Prospector early in the morning. Sunrise came while on the Elephant.
Sitting at Prospector, I can see a whole lot of the valley and trails behind me, and spy George coming down the trail to the main valley below. I yell and wave at him before I head out and start for home. George must be really moving well, because he catches me well before I make the turn for the long descent down to Texas. Together, we walk/run the long descent and few rises into Texas. George pulls ahead on the final set of loops, but I can see him now and again on some of the switchbacks before coming into the Pavilion. Once again, I go in for a shower and change, get a bit to eat, reload, before heading out again
I began the final loop just the same as I did the first and second, walking. Certainly, there are flat sections, easy enough to run, but mixed in with a climb or two that'll slap any delusion of speed, it never crosses my mind too run. The 50mi, 50k, and 25k have merged with my 100k, such that I don't know who is running what distance. Some I know, most I don't, but many slow to wish me well, and ask if I'm the guy who's marked the trail in blood. Maybe it's my lazy walk, or maybe it's the bright blue surgical wrap on my arm, but they all seem amused I'm still alive and on course. I visit with Chris Russell for a short bit, and then he's up the rock scramble and gone.
My rhythm is a meandering one: a walk or a stumble of sorts, generally in the forward direction, with way too much wasted side to side. The Bear crawl after Texas seems to go forever and as pleased as I am to pop out on top and done with the beast, there's no enlightenment on top. As much as I continue to move at a snail's pace, I do continue to move. A couple who seem to be running the 50mi talk about their own DNF so I can only assume they're still on their second of three loops (seems really odd to me). They're not talking to me at first, but are right next to me, so I hear without really processing. Then they take a look at me and began to offer some unwanted advice: "Are you ok? You need to stay hydrated! You need some calories! You look awful." and so on. Thankfully, they begin to run and go on ahead. At first, I'm relieved, but then it all starts to sink in and I get really worried and confused. I must look really bad. I must be on the edge of timing out! What the hells the matter with me?
I knew I'd run the 1st loop in 6hrs and my time at the end of two loops had been 14hrs, which assumes I'd done loop two in 8hrs. Thats about all I can remember at this point, and all my thinking spins on these minimal amounts of times I recall. Checking my watch and doing the math, I deduce I'd already been on loop three about 5hrs, in a zombie state of stumbling wander-about, and haven't even got to the midway point yet. I need to pull my head out and get myself moving, or I'm on a certain DNF pace. So, I begin to run! Not pretty, for sure, but still, more than I'd been doing. Using my arms, I begin to pump my body forward, and force my legs to come dragging after. It hurts, but I feel better knowing I'm at least trying now. I keep it going, to the downhill, which does help me go faster. Down the steep jeep road hill, onto Armadillo Trail, I keep pushing until I have an honest to goodness run going (at least from my perspective). So it continues through all of Armadillo, to the HILL, and up to the overlook. No, there's no running here, but I do force myself up as good as I can in this dopey state. Once on top, I run again, over the top and down the other side, picking up speed until I catch my un-asked for coaches from earlier at the WALL. George is sitting in a chair taking a break, which really shouldn't surprise me, but it does.
Completely depleted, I run into the Wall. Used up, not thinking correctly, and so far out of my understanding of what's going on with myself, I simply get back up and walk out without eating anything, or taking anything from my drop bag, which I'd put here specifically to assist with this next section for all three loops. George gets up and comes with me, and proceeds to walk me into the ground. It's not so much as he's walking fast as I'm crawling. I struggle to keep up with him from Wall to the suspension bridge, and by the time he starts up the first climb out of the river, I'm losing ground. My legs are fine and so's my stomach, but my energy is null. I get near George at one point and ask him if he'd mind pulling my ball cap out of my pack and handing it to me, which he does. I'm too damned lazy and punched out to do it myself. We pass thru the deep creek cut which climbs a flight of natural rock stairs before it turns and begins the fence line climb (Gorilla Trail) in earnest. I sit on a rock, toasted, and get up in time to see George pass over the big long climb and gone. We're in such opposite states right now, with him moving so well, and me not moving much at all, that it fairly looks like he's flying. The sun is raising the temp a good bit now. I stop a few more times on the climb when Penny hooks up with me as I finally top out on the first big ascent. She appears to be particularly concerned about me, and I agree with her. I'm not doing well, but there is little can be done about it right here and now. My trekking pole saves me so many times as I use it to row myself forward, while Penny talks to me. She tells me about her group she has out here running their first ultra, and her intention of submerging herself in the water tank by the windmill. We both know my route doesn't pass near the water tank, but I'm overheated badly and begin to think I might just as well go and get in the tank as well, because I'm not going to make the cutoff. When we get to the split, she goes right, and I take a few steps to follow. Damn but that water's going to feel good. But, I cant do it! I need to keep on, if for no other reason than to see how this ends. So, I turn and head left, towards the back valley and the Elephant. After a bit, I catch George and it just doesn't make sense - me catching him. He was well ahead and moving fast. After a bit, he tells me he'd stopped for a moment and set his water bottle down, forgot it, had to go back to get it, which is why I'm once again with George. Together we drop into the back valley, and pass Axel, who's sitting in the shade, taking a break.
We start up leg one, and from my misfiring perspective, George sprints up and gone. I sit down, then back up again, and continue slowly, to the back fence, drop down the loose rock chute where I catch George again. I can't quite fathom how it is I keep catching George: he's flying, I'm crawling. We repeat this same process at each leg, with him moving quickly up and me slowly with an occasional sit break, such that I can't understand why I'm anywhere even close to him when we drop down into the valley the final time. He flies up to Prospector and is having a lovely time with the volunteers when I arrive much later. I ask him, "Are you waiting for me?" He says no, but I don't believe him. His rock star is smashing the holy hell out of my falling star.
It's here at Prospector when I finally realize I'm going to finish and have no worries with cutoffs, and have been nowhere close to the cutoffs all night and day. How could I have been so far off? I have no idea why or how my reasoning had gone so far off, but it most assuredly did. I finally relax as George and I walk up and began our final descent. George is certainly at a much better place than I am energy-wise, so I tell him to go ahead and get after his PR. He agrees and takes off and again it surprises me how quickly he disappears down the road. I can see a long way and quickly see how much ground he puts on me rather quickly. I keep walking, try to run, but without much luck. I sit at Texas to visit with Donna one last time and then get up to go as I watch the 10k leaders sprint thru the station. Ed Easton visits with me a few moments from his 10k and then he too is gone. I cut back to do the last short loop alone before rolling into the finish for a surprising finish, at least, for me.
SECTION 1: Pavilion to Texas has two good climbs near the start, but the rest of it is pretty easy and fun to run. The trail leading up to the top is a lot of fun and narrow, but not that bad. The trail leading down to Texas is also skinny and fun, with a few very slick and slippery places.
SECTION 2: Texas to Wall starts with the rugged and nasty Bear but follows with a lot of fast easy trail, up until the climb to the overlook, which is recovered with the awesome descent off the cliff down to the Wall.
SECTION 3: Wall to Prospector is where the Devil lives. Its all nastiness and pain. Numerous nasty rugged rock climbs followed by just as many nasty rugged rock descents. Even the flats are near impossible to run thru a battlefield of rock and cactus.
SECTION 4: Prospector to Texas is all hugs and kisses. A small bit of uphill jeep ascent followed by a very long jeep descent, Minus the 3 short up-bumps coming into Texas.
SECTION 5: Texas to Pavilion is an interesting mix of this and that, but nothing for long as the entire end is very short. Down to the river, Up the zip-line stairs, across the suspension bridge, thru the trees, a bit of single-track loop, down the road, across the field, and it all seems so much longer than it is, and it aint no big deal.