Last Saturday the GeekGrl and I toed the line at the Bandera endurance trail runs, she the 25K as a final training run for the Ghost Town 38.5 and I the 100K for what I hoped would be my ultrarunning comeback. As I have said the two DNFs I racked up at the end of last season really ended up hitting me pretty hard. The first at the Arkansas Traveler was a calculated decision that I ended up feeling good about but the second at Palo Duro was a huge disappointment and when taken together the whole situation caused me to question my abilities and my future in the sport of ultrarunning. I needed this run, I needed a finish, I needed to feel good and anything short of accomplishing all three was unacceptable.
The readers digest version of this post could be wrapped up by saying veni, vidi, vici! I came, I saw, I conquered!
The race began at 7:30 a.m. with a cold wind blowing and grey clouds hanging low in the sky. One hundred and thirty-five of us stepped up to the challenge of the 100K and quite frankly I don’t remember what was said or done to cause us all to go but we were off and running right on time. The race began on a very easy sort of double-track dirt road and then turned off onto a single track trail to begin the first climb of the day up to Sky Island. The climb up to sky Island is somewhat rocky and a bit on the steep side but nothing too bad. Once on top the trail kind of followed along a ridgeline giving you a panoramic view of miles and miles of Texas hill country, which was absolutely beautiful. The descent off Sky Island wasn’t too bad either and the next climb and descent was Ice Cream hill, which I don’t really remember. The trail at Bandera climbs and drops, curves and rolls so often that I was really only able to specifically identify a few sections.
The first aid station was at about mile 5.7 and is called Nachos. Shortly after departing Nachos I stumbled across the foreleg of a deer laying in the middle of the trail. I wasn’t sure what to make of it but I definitely hoped it wasn’t an omen of things to come.
The Nachos aid station ushers in about 12 miles of easy trail that rolls gently for the most part and to my recollection isn’t particularly rocky. During this long section you hit the second aid station, which is called Chapas. Chapas is at about mile 11.4 and is also the location of your first of three drop bags. I had all my drop bags loaded up with the necessities and at Chapas that included a couple cans of Slimfast, my headlamp and my first round of cold weather gear, a long sleeve shirt, knit cap and gloves. My drop bags also included something I learned about from one of my New Mexico ultrarunner acquaintances, Ian. Ian taught me about what I have come to call my “brain cards.” My brain cards are simple 3x5 cards with written instructions telling me what to do at each aid station. When I come rolling in I get my bag, pull out the card and read what it says and then that’s what I do. Chapas card #1, which covered my first pass through that aid station, simply said “drink slimfast” because it as still very early in the race. Chapas card #2 for my second lap instructed me to “drink 1 slimfast, take 1 slimfast when you leave; change shirts, put on cap, gloves and headlamp. How is your pain? How are your feet?”
The brain card system works great because often times, at least for someone who is inexperienced, you get to a drop bag and just kind of stare at it trying to make decisions on what to do. It’s fine to decide not to do something after reading your card but at least for me to arrive at a bag and try to make all the decisions right then can lead to disaster because inevitably it seems I will forget something crucial like taking care of foot pain or chafing while remembering something fairly trivial like “grab extra gel” when I already have a small pack filled with gels and powerbars.
Anyway, after Chapas the trail really becomes mellow for the next 5 or so miles all the way in to the Crossroads aid station, which you hit twice – once “in” where you depart and hit a kind of 5-mile loop within the larger loop of the race course and once “out’ where you return to the rest of the course. It was at my first run through Crossroads that I was experiencing some discomfort on my right foot that felt like blistering. I removed both shoes just to be sure and noticed that some of my tape job was coming apart. I had used a combination of tape and Vaseline, which I now know doesn’t really work because the moisture of the Vaseline causes the tape job to soften and peel off. Anyway I removed all the tape that was starting to ball up and just slapped on more Vaseline and headed back out on the trail.
The loop out of Crossroads includes a climb up onto the Three Sisters, again something I don’t remember as being particularly tough but it was definitely rockier and it signaled the coming of the hardest parts of the course, which take place in about the last six miles of the 31-mile loop. The Three Sisters was high and open a lot like Sky Island and it contained a section of trail that ran smack through the middle of a Sotal cactus patch. This wasn’t as tough on the legs as you might think, I ran bare legged like most people and barely got a scratch. The Sotal patch was very unusual though and had an almost alien quality. The Three Sisters section was one of my favorites of the race.
After finishing that Three Sisters section you return to the Crossroads aid station and return to about 4 miles of relatively mellow running before hitting what I thought was the hardest climb of the race, Lucky Peak. Lucky Peak can best be described as a giant rockslide that had taken place in a big spike of bedrock. It was steep and covered in fist to turtle sized rocks and under that were either huge boulders or a big up thrust of bedrock. To make matter worse you pretty much start descending at a similar level of steepness and rockiness as soon as you reach the top. I had to take this section very slowly and can’t say that I enjoyed it in any sense of the word; it was purely an exercise in survival.
Shortly after the climb and descent of Lucky Peak you hit the Last Chance aid station and then it is on to the hardest 5 miles of the course, which included Carin’s Climb and Boyle’s Bump. These two climbs aren’t particularly hard but these miles are the most consistently rock strewn of the entire course. There are a lot of rocks all along the Bandera course but it also has many fairly long sections of smooth dirt single track that is very runnable. Not so with these final six miles, they are very rocky and in most places in the absence of loose rocks there was simply exposed bedrock Running through this last section was the only time I wondered if I would be able to finish the race. My feet were starting to feel beaten and bruised and I wasn’t at all sure that a change of shoes at the half-way point would remedy that situation.
I finally mare it to the Lodge, which is the start/finish and half-way point aid station. Once at the Lodge I met up with the GeekGrl and all the other New Mexico ultrarunners who were already finished with their day having run either the 25 or 50K. I did many things at the halfway point including change of shoes and socks, re-lube feet and shoes, repair gaiters and chat a bit with the GeekGrl. I think I had some of my ultrarunning friends worried because I was spending too much time at the aid station. I think they might have thought that I was debating dropping out but nothing could be further from the truth, I was having a good time and was looking forward to my second lap. I just find it weird to call 31 miles a “lap.” Anyway, I was ready to go just at a far slower rate of movement than my friends are used to after all they included people who run Leadville in 22 hours, Ken who won the Bandera 100K outright either last year or the year before and Jean who was the overall female winner of the Bandera 50K this year.
Now I had given a lot of thought to how I needed to approach this race and as an old ultrarunning adage suggests I decided that there is almost nothing that can’t be remedied by simply going slower so slower is what I did. I also knew I had to have a mental strategy to deliver the race I needed and here I enlisted something that I have eschewed my entire running career, the iPod. I decided that I would run the first 31 miles “nude” and the second 31 with tunes. I had the GeekGrl help me build a playlist for my run and it began thusly:
Collective Soul – Run
AC/DC – Hard As A Rock
Cake – The Distance
The list then went on with about 8 hours of additional songs that I had chosen for the occasion. I have to admit, the iPod was an awesome running partner especially running through the night when the runners are spaced further apart. I enjoyed the quiet and the scenery through the day time hours but the night was for singing and music and that is exactly what I did, had myself about a 10 hour sing-along. Run by Collective Soul put me in the mental state to ease in to another 31 miles and then Hard as a Rock and The Distance added the boost of determination that I thought I might need. The funny thing is that I was already motivated to head out for another lap but the music just kind of drove me over the top and before I knew it I was charging up Sky Island singing along with AC/DC and my heart rate was through the roof. I caught myself and scaled back to a reasonable pace and settled in for the night. I wasn’t exactly singing loudly but then again I really didn’t care if anyone heard me so I was just rockin’ and rolling along in my own little world. One song I found particularly satisfying to listen to during the later stages of an ultra was Beast of Burden by the Rolling Stones, especially the part that says “I’ve walked for miles my feet are hurting.”
In any case, I finished off the race and had a GREAT time. I earned my buckle and my way back into the status of ultrarunner. I have really learned some lessons and, well, what can I say except -
Next up…Rocky Raccoon 100-mile ultramarathon!
(By the way, The GG just pointed out that this pic of the buckle makes it look like a child's toy. It is really a good size buckle and is nice and heavy, very solid i just have freakishly large hands)