I have no idea where I'm going, on a high desert mountain, in the early morning dark, but I am in the Davis Mountains, and I am running. The Sky Island Trail Race cut us loose at 6:30am, the 50k heading up onto the 7mi Skyline Loop, while our 25k group of 100 are off to run the 12mi Primitive Loop in the opposite direction. We start on a paved road down then up. David starts next to me, surges ahead, which is what I expect, but I didn't expect to pass him soon after, still on the pavement. We turns onto the highway access and quickly over into the grass leading to a concrete drainage. The drainage becomes a low ceiling tunnel under the highway, where we each stoop low and straddle leg to the other side. Pavement to grass to gravel to dirt to water as we wade the first of 3 streams, each one soon after the other.
From the start to the last water crossing, our path is wide and our flight of night owls shifts and changes like oil in water, each with a light that defines the drifting flow of one and all. While the track remains easy, I continue to run, but its easy and unforced. It's a comfortable effort where I can look about and watch the ebb & flow. It's a pretty sight, bright fireflies in the darkness, racing around each other in a surreal stream. My vision, so poor, allows my mind to run away with my imagination, inventing all kinds of realities I know are not true, but I enjoy nonetheless. I know there are course markings, but I don't see any, don't even try, and become a lemming, simply following the light stream.
The 3rd creek crossing is where the climb begins, and the groupings change, The wide flowing stream morphs into broken arcs of curved lines of light that join together and disconnect as we move up the mountain. Pace lines of five and twenty, as far as I can see, before and behind. Early on, I connect with Ashley, and we merge with a group of women, with me on the end. As the hill undulates from flat to steep to steeper, our group drops me off the back over and again as I walk the hills while they run, and run the flats to catch back up. Each time I fall behind the group, I get close to a very long pace line behind us. But, before they swallow me, the path flattens again and I begin to run, escaping back to the group ahead. Its hard to tell in the dark, but it appears all the lights nearby are more consistent in their movements than I am, so I can only assume they're mostly running a slow steady effort up the hills, while I'm out of sync with the lot of them. It’s likely just my imagination again, but in this dark world of moving lights, I'm having fun playing these mind games.
I hold my headlamp low in my hand, to throw a bigger shadow, hoping to trip a little less. But, I'm not looking where I'm going and still trip a good bit, paying more attention to those around me than what I'm doing. I never do fall, but do stumble now and again on the rocky path. My focus is less about the trail than it is to remain laid back and easy, running and resting. At the 3.5mi aid station, the girls all stop for water, while I turn and pass the lot of them. The next 6mi are a fast and easy rocky path filled with land mines. Sunrise renders my light useless at this point so I take it off and wrap it around my hand. Now I can see the course markings. Last nights heavy wind gusts must have knocked some of them over, but I can now see the blue flags here and there. There's enough for me to track on and the course is easy to follow now. Soon after, I catch the guy in front of me as he stumbles and run with him for a few. Trey pulls ahead on a slow rise while I back off and walk. I chase Trey for a while, keeping the same gap when 3 fast moving girls go by. They may be part of the group I was with earlier, but not sure. I hook on and go with them, losing them on the rises and catching back on the flats. One of the girls steps out and then another, so I'm now bouncing back and forth with the remaining tall girl who stops now and again to take pictures. She probably doesn't realize her picture breaks are rest breaks in disguise and its whats keeping her running strong. The tall girl, Trey, and I bounce around each other for the remainder of the 6mi loop, all coming in to the 9mi aid station (same aid station as earlier) one after the other.
I stop for water for the first time and top of my bottle with ice cold water, so cold in fact, I need to keep changing hands. The next 3 miles of downhill are in my main stream of likes: rocky & rugged downhill, so I bust loose and begin running hard again, eventually catching up to the tall girl and passing Trey. The streams end my romp, flattening out and allowing Trey and the girl to go by, while I back way down and run easy again. Back to the concrete highway under waddle, which is much harder to squat and run than it was earlier.
The grassy patch next to the highway is walkable for me while the others run. The next aid is just inside the park entrance gate, but again I need nothing, so pass the tall girl who has stopped for a refill. Across the road and onto the Indian Lodge Loop, I find it flat and fast for about a half mile, before it turns decidedly up. I pull in right behind a big tall blonde dude, who is walking, but so am I now. I find it odd that I'm right on his butt, as his long legged walk is slower than mine. I stay on him as we slowly climb, and every so often, he'll run a few yards to create a gap, but then I'm quickly on him again. He never does offer to let me pass, and I never ask. I suspect he thinks he's going faster, and I have no idea if I'm moving fast enough to move ahead, so we remain just so for a few turns.
One of the many false summits offers me the opportunity to go by, as he steps out wide and I keep on going strait up and over. It quickly rises again, but now I'm ahead and pulling quickly away, walking. I pass by a photographer and see Trey up ahead, moving slower than I am, so I slowly close the gap on the next climb. Its hard for me to believe I'm passing or catching anybody on a climb. I have a long history as a turtle on climbs, but I'm obviously moving better than usual on the ups today: an old dog with a new trick. A few flat and downhill spots allows me to run a bit, but Trey runs these as well, so I don't gain any ground here. I'm catching him on the climbs.
One of the final false summits, a stack of rocks on top, I come across to see Trey standing there. He wishes me well as I pass. I run the next descent and the final climb. The competitive genie who rides my back, and I ignore most all the time, suddenly climbs into my psyche and impels me keep running from here on in. I cant pass Trey now and let him pass me back again, this close to the finish. I suspect we're about 1.5mi out or near to it, but its all rugged nasty fun stuff, so I keep on pushing, running, hopping, skipping across the rocks, and down finally.
I pass a tall young woman who is not enjoying the rocks at all, struggling badly through a rocky graveyard of a descent. As I go by, she hooks on and says something about using me to motivate herself to get the hell out of this awful place. She stays with me for a few moments, and then I'm well ahead and into the Indian Lodge parking lot. I slow for a few, trying to figure where exactly to go in the parking lot and driveway. As I bumble about, the girl I passed, passes me back, full on sprinting and saying: 'This is my stuff' or something of the sort, as she goes by quickly.
I hate road, and I especially dislike a great trail run like this ending on a stinking road. I don't run road much at all anymore, once I realized it was hurting my right hip and back. Not that I don't run it at all, but I do try to avoid it as much as possible. I make myself run, and I can feel the burn creeping into my hip, but I cant stop now. The road section to the finish is further than I expect, and I grit my teeth and grind it out, but now I can hear Trey coming. I feel him getting closer, so I make myself run harder. It's really rather silly, this arbitrary competitive mission to beat this one guy I just met and actually like. Its odd how he's become the driving force of my desire to get in before him, not that it makes one bit of difference if I do or don't. So, I run, past the woman with the sign that says SLOW, then down the dip, and up the rise to the final turn and across the finish, uphill. Trey finishes seconds behind me, and Ben Martinez, who I had no idea was chasing me down also, is right behind Trey.
We arrived at the park Friday evening, I put up my tent, and we drove into town for dinner. A storm was brewing, intermittent wind gusts were blowing, and the sky was a turmoil of clouds. We had previously paid for a star party at the McDonald Observatory and drove out there after dinner, but a storm settled over the exact same mountain just as we arrived at 8pm, so we turned and drove back to our camp instead. For the moment, our site was dry, so we settled in for the night, hoping to get some solid sleep before the race in the morning. The wind came in like a train right at midnight, shoving over and breaking some of the race tents in the process. My exact spot was just under the edge of a tall tree right next to the start/finish, and I only hoped the tree and all her branches would remain in place. Besides that, I laid in tent and enjoyed the show. It rained hard for a bit, then easy, then off, and the wind did the same, changing gust velocity and sound amplitude as the wind plowed thru our site from midnight til 5am. I fell asleep now and again, I suspect when the storm backed off, and woke again as the side of my tent was blown into my face or a thunder boomer bounced off the canyon walls. I drifted in & out of sleep, and may have missed some of the best stuff, but the tent held up well: no broken poles or wet spots within. The race didn’t take all that long, and with the best part of two days to play, we had time to check out Balmorhea (which was closed), Fort Davis, and Alpine. All in all, a great race and a glorious weekend