Michael dropped me off at 2pm and I checked into my room. Chris would not arrive until late and I was tired, but bored, so I changed into running gear, turned on the GPS, and headed out. I'd helped lay out the new course, but this was all done from the comfort of my home, many months ago, but the math done in the computer does not always ad up the same way in reality. Mostly, I just walk, following the first 6-mile section of the new course, using my GPS to cross-check the numbers I used from previous distance measurements. The GPS is nothing to count on, more of a confirmation that I am close to right. I'm not in a hurry, so it takes awhile, and I get done in time to zap myself a pot-pie dinner, read a bit, then bed.
I wake at 7am, shower, and eat breakfast, before Chris is banging on my door. We plan to get going by 8:30, but thats not what happens. We talk a bit, gather what we need, and finally get to it... late. He's borrowed a camp mule loaded with an ice chest full of drinks, marking equipment, and a few other odds & ends. We drive to the new Zip Aid, where I ended my walk yesterday, and start there. We go all day, and get done by dark. Kenton's there waiting for us when we arrive at our rooms.
The next morning, the three of us get going again, and finish much earlier, but it's still a full day. It's only Tuesday and the course is pretty much marked, with the exception of a few odd ins & outs to do, which Kenton deals with, while I back off a bit and rest my feet. I sit up to read a bit, but sleep in on Wednesday morning, and skip out from all the banging about Chris and Kenton are up to. He's sorting out the trailer into piles of equipment and food, but I want none of that, and hate to watch people work while I laze about. I get bored, so I go figure out the 50k split off, and then take some tools out to Prospector to clear the drop down trail over the cliff. I get to bed early that night, and sleep in again, but Thursday is a total chill day for me. All but a short walk-a-bout to get the 50mi split worked out, after which, I hook up my hammock and get some mid-day sleep, or read, when I'm not sleeping.
Race day, Friday, finally comes round and again I sleep in, and remain in bed as long as I can stand it. Must be 9am when I bust out, and decide to go look at the new cut-thru Chris did over on the Gorilla Trail, off Armadillo. Its just a 3-mile out n back, but I'm soaking wet from the humidity and sweat when I return to my room. Since I arrived, Its been comfortably warm and overcast, with the threat of thunderstorms, but no rain. Looks like the thunderstorms and cloud cover may be swapped for light rain and heat. And so, it's going to be warmer than I prefer for a race of this distance. I'm going to have to push the pace early to use the dark to get as far as I can before the melt-down. I figure to stop in my room after each loop, same as last year, with it being right next to the loop end point, it's clean and simple. I put a few changes of clothes in the bathroom pantry, so I can shower off the salt after each loop, and change into clean dry clothes.
Joyce arrives a few hours before start, so we talk about my tentative expectations, and what I've done to set my self up. We both know Heat is my Kryptonite, so we have cold drinks and food in the cooler. Not much else I can do, but get as far as I can before everything goes to hell.
And so I start at 8pm with a small group of 100k runners. Twenty-three of us wander off into the night, while most of the others left behind are in for an early bedtime in preparation for their early starts: 50mi at 5am, 50km at 6:30am, 25km at 7:30am, and 10km at 8:30am. Boot Trail begins with switchbacks and then crosses the powerline onto the down chute. The sounds of voices ahead and behind filter into my thought process, recognizing Nancy and the Bills behind me, while a woman and man are laughing somewhere ahead. Under the suspension bridge, we cross the main road toward the river. With the moon reflecting off the water, the Nueces River is always gorgeous, daylight or dark, and the sound of water going over the falls provides the musical background symphony that soothes and relaxes. The trail we run is one long flat rock ledge overhanging the river some five feet up, with enough undulation to force me to pay attention to the path instead of the river. What a wonderful way to begin a long arduous race. We cross the road at the low water road crossing, up a short steep scramble, cut diagonally across another road and head for the barn. Directional arrows I put here a few days ago lead us between buildings, around others, alongside a fenceline, and into the trees. Its time to go up.
Not only do we loose sight and sound of the river, but our firm footing becomes a nightmare of baby-head rocks. Each of us rolls out awkwardly now and again as we attempt to push our bodies up the short hill. With so few starters, I'm surprised to have a trailer attached by the name of David. I tell him I'm a slow up-hiller, and expect to bounce about with my pace and rhythm, but he says it suits him. He attaches a psychological bungee and then pulls himself right up next to me, over and again. And so we begin to talk in short bits and bites as we wrap around and enter Texas Trail. This must be the easiest and most docile climb of any on this course. We mix running and walking for the length of the climb, but then crossing the top and down the other side, we get to rolling a little quicker. The sky is still a heavy overcast with openings now and again so the moon can peek through to watch our progress. I’ve always liked this skinny down track between rock and tree, even though a few spots of mud and slick-rock keep us from going faster. We track onto Moon Trail and then Boot Trail, a longish rolling traverse, where David and I catch Gilbert, as we all three come into the Zip Aid Station.
From this point, the three of us create a bond for the next 10 miles and longer. Up Zipline Trail, across Antenna Hill, and down a rock and cactus ankle-breaker. Gilbert leads every climb, I lead every descent, and David holds a steady balance between us, as we three change place and distance. Onto Wagon Trail and up a very steep jeep road called Windmill Hill, Gilbert moves ahead on the climb while I relax a bit and enjoy a game of hide & seek with the moon. It's a beautiful night, but a bit humid. The zip-line tower with the ghost-like apparition of a monolith slips behind us, followed by the turnoff before the windmill, and then down towards Bear Trail.
Used to be, we ran UP the Bear, and it's a beast of an UP, but now, not only are we going DOWN, but the tail has been halved. With its tail removed, we drop off the Bear directly to the long perimeter jeep road. We catch Gilbert in the middle of Bear standing still, confused by two trail markers in two different directions. I know we go down, but I take the time go up just to check the other flag first. Its on another trail, the UP Texas trail we were on over an hour ago, so I move it around to the other side of the tree so nobody else will be confused by it. Even though we are going DOWN, the Bear is still a Bear: rugged, twisty, and confusing. It sucks the gumption right out of your soul, but it's short enough to not destroy you.
Once on road, its easy to relax a bit, even though we're going up. Thing is, it's too dark to see the UP or how far UP there is, so we simply march along the road, while we talk. Gilbert, of course, surges ahead. He cant help himself on the ups. I on the other hand, settle into a fast hike, that conveys me up the road in relatively good time, or at least it seems like it. We roll on up with little effort and good spirit to the turn, and then across and down towards the back valley. We start running the down-side and catch Gilbert quickly. While the three us are together, I tell them about all the nastiness waiting for us in the Elephant Legs. A profile of the back valley route traces out like the lower half of an elephant, with each ridge and valley reaching to the back property fenceline, columns of rocky ridges separated by arroyos, each with the trace of an old jeep road. Chris and I hung the confidence flags here a few days ago, through the graveyards of baby-head rocks and cactus, but there is no trail to speak of.
First, we stop at the Prospector Cabin Aid Station to reload and refuel, before dropping over the cliff edge to start down the rocky face hugging the wall. As has been my fate of late, my foot slides out on a slick rock, throwing me on my back where I slide across a rock and scrape one of my elbows in the same damn place I cut myself a year ago. It doesn't start all at once, but the blood does eventually find the offended skin, and begins to flow out of three or four cuts. At the base of the cliff lies the jeep road that bisects the length of the back valley. It's a lovely pastoral grass road, flat and flowing, but the thing is, we don't use much of it. It's more just a landmark to mark the inverse side of the back fenceline. We go to the back fence, then back to the cross-valley jeep road, and repeat for each of the three elephant legs. That's right: our elephant only has three legs.
Gilbert leads us up the first leg, climbing the steep rocky ridge line that keeps on going for much further than it seems it should. Rocks of all size litter the area and they’re hard to dodge, especially in the dark, even with a headlamp, partly because the ground is a riot of obstacles, with seldom an encouraging track or flat space. And even the flat spaces are usually found to be mud. Gilbert's light blinks on and off as he passes ahead between tree and scrub, but we catch him on the descent off the ridge into the arroyo, and together we rush quickly along the slot back to the valley jeep road. We can see the lights from Prospector Cabin over our heads and the voices of people in it. It's the sound of cold drinks, comfortable chairs, and civilization. We turn away from it... running along the flat grassy road, looking for the next slot. This leg begins with the arroyo and jeep road between humps, back to the fence line, where we turn and start UP again. A whole field of baby head rocks tilts upwards and slows David and me, but Gilbert flies up and gone. It's a slow motion affair, but my desire is no more than to keep moving, however slow. Granny-gear with no insult intended for granny. It's a high cadence, short stride, constant spin, and no stopping allowed.
I have my trekking pole out, and use it to assist… to plant, pull, and then push. Just one pole is all I need. I need the other hand for my light, or the water bottle. It is enough. I switch hands every so often. I roll over the top, start down, and then up again, until eventually we summit. I want to stop and rest, but don't wish to lose Gilbert either. He's been a great motivator to keep going until we catch him. And so we do literally roll over the top, turn and head along the ridge. The ridge stays high for a ways, but then turns and drops steep down. I love this kind of stuff, so I slip, slide, and stumble down rather quickly, catching Gilbert near the bottom, but losing David. There's no transition between legs two and three. We simply turn and head along the next arroyo for the third and final leg. It's a grand old march, which I have good rhythm for, and push along. Gilbert surges ahead and up while I dial in my best effort. Midway up, Gilbert's light blinks out as he goes over, and I look down to see David starting up. The rocks are brutal, rolling out form under foot, one of them spinning round and popping me in the shin. I make sad little headway moving up. David is on me by the time I top out, but Gilbert's gone. On the long strait-away leading back into the valley, I can see both their lights, front and behind.
We close ranks along the short connector that leads to the last nasty climb... the one leading out of the valley. This climb, like the others, is not easy. It's steep, full of rocks, and a few dead tree cross bars, which we climb over or around, and like the other climbs, we slowly ascend and escape along the boundary fence. One would think that after suffering the beast in the back valley, it would get easier, but it is not so. Even up here where there's much less elevation change, the terrain remains brutal, reaching out to cut and slash any mis-step. And so I stumble up to and onto the turn leading to the windmill. It's an exhilarating moment for me, knowing I have escaped and that I'll soon be submerged in the cold water tank at the windmill.
All together again, we approach the tank, with me leading by just a few steps. There is no hesitation as I head up the steps, removing shoes and socks as I go, dropping them on the deck and then dropping myself into the water tank. It's hard to describe the feeling, being tired, overheated, scraped, cut, and bloody, to drop down and immense my body in this cold comfortable womb. A sensual satisfaction that touches every pore instantly and all at once. I almost feel embarrassed for the pleasure I don't share with the others, as they look at me, and wonder if I'm insane for doing what I have just done, and I look a them as if they are insane for remaining out there unknowing. Usually, when this extreme a pleasure is shared, it's called sex. But why do they avoid it? There must be many reasons, but for me, this is the crux of my expectations these last few miles... to get here!
I do get out of the tank, and I'm actually amazed they have not taken off yet. I quickly re-sock and re-shoe, and head back down the trail... towards Gorilla and the Wall... dripping a trail of joy behind me. The long fenceline has been called the Gorilla for all the years we've run UP it. But now, we're running DOWN, and the gorilla is a pussycat. Across the dry creek, and up the other side, but not far, then down to the Nueces River. There is something so naturally soothing about coming up onto a river on a hot day or night, especially when coming from Hell.
Across the suspension bridge, different from the one we went under earlier in the loop, and quickly to the Wall Aid Station. Gilbert knows these people and is swapping tales with them as I reload my water and start going again. The next climb has us all three march up rather quickly, maybe because we're near the end loop and we can now match Gilbert's energy going up. Across the top and down the other side into the rock creek bed called the Armadillo Trail. Gilbert and I are matching each other's energy right now, but David falls off when we do the descent. Its at least a mile up the dry rocky creek bed, and our legs fairly hop from rock to rock, following the yellow and white lines... to the sweeping turn at the end, one last short climb before we finish the loop. We're close now, and we know it, so the buzz is on. We turn directly up to the top of Lisa Lane, then roll over the top and down the other side. Left onto an old jeep road leading to the Ski Hut, we slide under it, past the mine, across the road and into the Pavillon, just under 6 hours at 2am.
I head directly to my room, where I leave my muddy shoes, socks, and shirt outside the door, then wake Joyce by simply entering. I move to the bathroom and step into a cold shower to rinse off all the salt coating my body, soak for just a moment, then dry off, apply a fresh coat of Desitin, and re-clothes, before I sit down to the food Joyce has waiting for me: cold coke, egg & biscuit, and a sandwich. I can't consume it all, but a bit of each is what I do, and I'm out the door in ten minutes, and surprised it isn't longer.
All the loops are the same, so I'm back out the same way I did six hours ago. It's the exact same route and same hills, but now, I'm not running as much, walking more, but still walking with effort, pushing my body to be efficient, waste no time, keep moving, even on the ups. I lost both my buds, so I'm solo now. I know Gilbert is ahead of me, but have no idea where David is. I suspect he's come in and gone out while I was in my room, so he's up there somewhere. Boot, Moon, Duck, Texas, Moon, Boot and so into Zip Aid. I hear a few voices now and again, out there somewhere, but never do see a body or even a light. I get some ice and oranges at Zip and go on. Zip, Antenna, Wagon, and Windmill over to the drop down on Bear to the jeep road which once again goes rather well. Way up on the jeep road, where I can see for a long way off, I see nothing. The twenty-three of us in this race are spread way out by now, but its 5am, so the 50-milers have begun, and are now on course. I wonder when I'll see the first, and I wonder about my buds and where they might be? Am I close to either one? My mind spins riddles around times and distances until I shut the thought down, knowing it's foolish to do math while running an ultra.
I stop at Prospector to get more ice and oranges, and look out over the wide expanse of the Elephant. Nothing but darkness. No twinkling of lights anywhere. Down I go, with one thought in my mind: to push myself to get into and out of the back valley before the sun rises. I have one hour. I know I'm going to melt when the sun hits me, and hope not to be climbing one of these nasty climbs with the sun punching me in the head. And so I go, with forced effort, still walking mostly but not a sissy little walk, but one with some punch to it. I power up the first leg, down into the arroyo, up the slot and on into the next. 22 minutes! I get up the next one rapidly, climb the up with some effort, across the ridge and heading down the next, I see a light. I come up on one of the Kansas girls (Theresa) I met yesterday. She was behind me on the first loop but must have gone out ahead of me while I showered. Anyway, here she is, and she's very slow and careful going down the steep drop, which I am not. 20 minutes! Up the next arroyo, over the top, down the other side. 18 minutes. Quickly now to the last nasty climb, the one that pops me out of this hell hole. The sky is getting light now, so I don't dawdle. Over and up the to the top, hell-bent on summiting as soon as possible. I reach the top, but feel the energy suck as I push the effort, scrambling along the fenceline, moving forward, and finally reaching the windmill, where I once again plan to take a dunk. I need to cool myself down. On my way to the windmill, I cross paths with Chris Prairie and then Gilbert, who asks if I'm going swimming again. I reply affirmatively. He goes on, while I ascend the platform, then struggle to remove my shoes and socks. Just doesn't seem to come off easy and I'm stumbling about in the process, but I mange it and drop myself into the water tank once again. The bliss is overwhelming. I close my eyes and soak in the wonderful coolness all over my body. I watch the sunrise encased in water.
Leaving the tank, I cross paths with Kansas coming in, then get on down the trail. Chris and Gilbert are both long gone, no lights, as far as I can see, but when I arrive at the Wall, Gilbert's there. We leave together and recreate an exact duplicate of what we ran the last loop, including coming into the Pavilion side by side once again. Loop two took just under 7 hours, which is still much faster than I expected. I'm back at my room, leaving more filthy clothes on the growing pile outside my door, another shower, dry off, Desitin the bod, clean clothes, and try to eat, but this time, I struggle to get anything into me. It's not good, but its where I'm at. The sun is now up but low and overcast.
Going out for the third and final go round, I'm slower again, less run, less push, and less oomph. One foot at a time, same as usual, but there is no smooth easy glide any longer. It's a struggle, but I understand the struggle and the effort it takes and simply do as best I can with what I have left. The course is all mud, bugs, horseflies, and sweat bees. It starts to rain, a soft mist really, a light dusting of moisture that lasts just long enough to ramp up the humidity to kill-joe level. The river rocks are slick from it and causes even more slowdown. Texas Trail is muddy and I'm careful on the rock ledge where I busted my ass last year. Beyond that, I'm sliding-out and spinning randomly, sometimes in mud, and sometimes on rock. There is simply no safe landing for my feet, regardless the surface. It's an odd conundrum, regardless if I can actually push or not, I want to, but I can't. The excuse to back off becomes a reality of circumstance.
My thoughts tumble about like strobe dream snippets, such that my eyes are backward looking into my ideas rather than the reality of the rocks and cactus I trip over. I seem to be out of body, everywhere but where I am. It may be that my mind has gone on vacation elsewhere to avoid my body's infected discomfort. I reenter the current reality only when I arrive at Zip Aid and probably only because Joyce is there. I can tell from the look in her eyes and my too-slow responses that she is concerned. All I want is some ice cold water and nothing more. I take a second water bottle with me for the first time today, knowing the aid stations will take longer to reach. Chris is in the station, and says something to me before he moves out, and I leave right after he does, hoping some company may make this loop more tolerable. But he's so quickly gone, I can't see him on any of the long look-aheads. Oh hell, and oh well, I keep on trudging.
Each and all of these short sections seem to take forever now. It's forever to the end of this short ascent, then left onto the muddy track over to Antenna Hill. And the drop down on the rocks, as long as it takes, I'm surprised to see that the route is now easy to follow. This is my first time through here in daylight and its easy to see the track that I could not see on either of the other two loops. The half-mile Wagon section feels like 10 miles, and just when I know Chris is long gone, I make the turn onto Windmill Hill and see him up near the top, just 100 yards ahead. He turns to look at me, then hurries off. I'm out of the trees and into the direct sun for now and expect to be in the oven for the duration now. The open climb allows a trace of breeze to scatter the bugs that seem to be attracted to my particular combination of stench. The mix of blood, piss, shit, sweat, salt, sugar, and fear has marked me as old, weak, and slow... an easy kill. For the wildlife, I am an ass dragging cornucopia of delight.
All night, I used my trekking pole as an aid to go faster, but now it has become a crutch of necessity, to keep me upright and arrest my descents. And so I push/drag myself up Windmill Hill, hoping to hang with Chris, for no good reason, other than the thought gets planted in my head. But he is gone! I can see a long way up the jeep road, and even the dust from the route he has run is gone. I keep on walking. I realize I've been hanging my head. My neck aches. I have the trekking pole in one hand, the two water bottles in the other, and maybe its more than just the distance and the heat. Maybe it's the odd balance from the two water bottles. Maybe I'm just looking for reasons, but I have certainly crashed.
I make the turn off the main jeep road, the middle road turn, and now at the top of the Bear Trail, I fairly sprint into the shade of the trees such that I leave all the rocks and cactus standing still. More shade equates to more humidity so there is no advantage that is not counterbalanced. Makes me laugh out loud. The raving lunatic laughing as he slides down off the tree covered ridge to the perimeter road and more sun, along with all his collection of biting flies. I take the bandana from around my head and unroll the corners while leaving it tied, so that I again push it down onto my head with the knot on my forehead and the flaps covering my neck and ears. If nothing else, it drowns out the irritating buzz in my ears.
For the first time, I ascend this long jeep road in the daylight and can now see just how far and high it goes. It aint hardrock, but the sight does my reeling senses severe damage. It's only a two mile climb, with a few dips to keep all of it from being constant up, and it drags on, and on. And when the turn does eventually present itself, even the descent down to Prospector Cabin seems to go on as well. I finish the one water bottle, and open the other only to find it too warm to drink. Go figure? I carried two bottle, but two water bottles is not the answer. I simply need to run the section faster with one. There is not much to say or remember about any of this, my mind being numb, my thoughts transient, but when I arrive, Chris is there. He starts talking about how I'm running him into the ground... chasing him?! He gets up from a stool which I then claim, directly in front of the ice cold water cooler. They give me a tall glass with ice in it, which I fill from the cooler. I try to tell Chris I'd rather just run with him than chase him. I couldn't care less if I catch or pass. Mostly, I'd just like some company to share in the misery. I think I say that, but more than likely I just think it, while I pour, drink, and refill the tall class of ice at least three times. Jonathon is there for aid support, and seems to be humored by what I say, what I do, how I look, and all that. Somebody asks if I want some salt caps. I ask if they're cold? What? Do you want some salt caps? I don't want anything unless its cold, I say! He tries to give me the salt, but Jonathon laughs and tells him Joe doesn't want them. Says they aren't cold, so he doesn't want them. I ask Jonathon to tell Joyce, it's gonna be awhile. Chris gets up and leaves, says he has to put some distance on me. I get up moments later, peek over the edge and can already see him climbing the first leg. My sense of time is jacked up. I could swear he just left. Did he jump off the ledge?
Over I go, down the slip-n-slide. Looks like a herd of elephants has been through here since my last trip. The ribbon route is ripped up and torn down. Trees and rocks are broken, the earth ripped up. I just remembered, all the other runners have been through here since my last trip, The 50-milers thrice, 50km twice, and 25km once. They've created a trail where there was none, dragging their asses through the rocks. We should have run them first. Would not have been near as hard finding our way with all they have done, dragging all their behinds over rock and ridge. To hell with the flags! I can follow their trail of destruction. The first leg up is so slow and methodical, but it comes to me, and the drop down some relief from the sun, dropping into the trees of the arroyo leading out. Leg two has some small amount of shade, but none on the climb, or the descent. Leg three piles on to an already beaten man. This is where I begin to question why, but I stumble on, up, and back down into the valley of the beast. Doesn't matter how bad I feel. I need to drag my own ass out of this valley. Just one more hill. The one that gets me out of the belly of the elephant, and I stop numerous times. There's shade on this climb and I struggle with wanting to sit in it and get out of it, but mostly I just want to lie down and rest. The irritating flying pests are all over me, but mostly when I stop, so they too chase me up and out. Once out, I would like to think it is done, but there's still some distance from the top of this climb to the Windmill and the water tank that I crave so much.
At first, it's a mental chant, but then I realize I'm mumbling it silently: Windmill. Windmill. Windmill! Tripping, stumbling, I weave between the cactus, rocks, and scrub, and I have no idea how far, how long, but I know the landmark will appear to direct me to the tank. I trip on the steps, knees down onto the deck, I roll onto my back and remove my shoes, socks, then roll over to drop into the water, and sink to the bottom. Precious relieving womb of water. I rise up and allow my head to poke out and remain so for a minute, then longer. My senses return slowly. I feel better. I can think clearer. I start to get out and decide to stay longer. I'm badly overheated and need to cool my body core down.
Not sure if its 10 or 20 minutes I remain in the tank, but I get out and head back down the trail, a new man, a back-from-the-dead man. Down the Pussycat Trail and I arrive to find Joyce waiting for me at the Wall. I sit and drink another three full glasses of ice cold water before I head back out... with Joyce. We walk, talk, and move along relatively well compared to what I did back in the Beast's belly. Near the top, I pull up and sit down when a blister pops. I ask for a moment until the pain subsides, then up again, we continue. Down to the dry creek, then up the mile long rock path, the sweeping turn at the end of Armadillo, one last little climb, then over and down into the compound where we come into the finish. The first place 50 miler passes us as we cross the road.
After looking at my splits, I'm surprised to see that each loop was almost an hour slower than the previous. I am not surprised it's slower. I'm surprised it isn't a lot slower, especially the last one. I am happy to have pulled this one off as well as I did, with as bad as I felt. Gilbert had finished an hour in front of me and David an hour after.
lp1: 20.7mi) 5:53:47
lp2: 20.7mi) 6:56:59
lp3: 20.7mi) 7:56:32
100km time: 20:47:18