Monday, November 2, 2009

Halloween Hundred at Cactus Rose

There was drama, suspense, hope, determination, tenacity, triumph, failure, courage, and some plain ole IDGAF all rolled into a span of 36 hours. For some the definition of a life in a day and a half. For others, an expression of life. And for still more, beauty, as defined by the human spirit and human action. If you weren't there, then you can not know, Cactus Rose.

- John Sharp
Warning: this is very long-winded. If you just want the grand summary, here it is: I finished, my feet hurt, I like my new buckle. Sweet.

Otherwise, read on.....

This race has been on my horizon for a while. I signed up in the warm afterglow of the Rocky Raccoon 100 with great plans for a tough training routine that would see me through to the race. Those plans were quickly revised when new baby Dylan came along in July and limited the amount of long runs I was able to do. Sleep deprivation took its toll and over the summer I had a couple of bad races that made me wonder if I still had the passion for ultras. But somewhere along the line I regained my trail mojo and found myself looking forward to the challenge of running 100 miles on the rugged trails of Bandera.

I knew I was undertrained going into this, but if I learned anything this weekend it's that when it comes to running 100 milers guts and determination are much more important attributes to possess.

The last thing I did before driving down to Bandera on Friday afternoon was write down my race prediction and seal it into an envelope for Nancy to open. This was a fun little tradition I started at Rocky Raccoon (where I was within 5 minutes of my actual finishing time) and I wondered how close I would get this time.

For the record, I predicted my time to be right at 28 hours.

Once I got to Bandera I enjoyed catching up with friends at packet pickup, took a peek at the finishers belt buckles, hiked up to the aid stations to drop my bags and then drove into town for my traditional Bandera pizza. Back at the park I taped my feet and wrapped myself up in my sleeping bag in the back of the Yukon.

Once the sun went down it got cold quickly so I cozied myself up in my little nest and slept really well.

The finisher's belt buckle

Almost too well because I overslept. Luckily I was woken up by cars arriving at the park so I threw my stuff together and hurried over to the start line. Ultramarathon start lines are a special place - there is such a buzz of anticipation and energy in the air. The temperature was in the 30s but I wore my shorts and t-shirt because I knew I would warm up once we started running.

The course consisted of four 25 mile loops and we would reverse direction each loop. This was a great idea because we got to see and encourage everyone each time around. The aid stations were roughly 5 miles apart, so I broke each loop down into 5 sections.

So at 5am we were off onto the dark trails. I took a while to find my place in the pack, but then I slotted in behind one of the 50 milers and chatted away the 5 miles to the Equestrian aid station. I hit this in 51 minutes (just over a 10 minute mile pace) which was a little fast but I knew I'd be walking at some stage so I decided to make hay while the sun shone (even though it was still dark, ha ha).

I continued in a similar vein through the next 5 miles to the Nachos aid station, picked up one of my turkey sandwiches and was quickly on my way.

The next section included one of the major climbs up Ice Cream hill, and the sun rose to welcome in a beautiful Halloween morning just as I reached the top. It was an amazing view and I stopped for a minute to enjoy the moment before heading down the back side and back into Equestrian.

The final two sections of the loop included most of the climbs - the Three Sisters, Sky Island, Boyle's Bump and Cairns. It was the toughest part of the course, compounded by the fact that between loops 1-2 and 3-4 we would run them back-to-back in both directions.

Fortunately, along this section I picked up two companions - Brad Quinn and Chris Russell - and we talked and joked the rest of the loop together, finishing up the first 25 miles in around 5:10.

This was a little fast, and although I felt great I knew I needed to ratchet it back quite a bit. I set out a lot more conservatively on loop two and looked forward to the chance to see other friends along the way. In particular I enjoyed seeing Marcia, Cheri, Gordon (who all completed their first 100s), Naresh and Olga (wily veterans).

Joe was handing out a prize for best Halloween costume and some of the ones I remember in particular were Dracula, a naughty nurse, a football referee and a little devil. Various bits of Halloween decor had been hung out around the trail and it all added to the Halloween fun.

I finished out loop 2 at just a shade under 12 hours. I stopped for some chicken soup and set out again, happy in the knowledge that I was halfway there. I picked up my headlamp at Equestrian because I knew it would get dark before I made it back and sailed on through Nachos. Sure enough, by the time I got to Ice Cream hill it was fully dark and I switched into nighttime mode.

I'd seen a light bobbing slowly ahead of me for a while and I assumed it was somebody hanging glowsticks. But when I caught up to him it turned out to be another runner. He said he was having trouble staying awake, and I realized this was not a good place to be sleepy with steep dropoffs at places. I talked to him for a while and recommended he take a 30 minute nap at Equestrian.

I think he dropped at Equestrian.

But I passed through, kept going, and really started to notice how much my feet were hurting. It was probably partly due to the way I'd attacked some of the hills on the first loop, but I'd also missed some spots while taping and they were now rubbed raw. I also had a few blisters forming, my toes felt strange and I had some nasty chafing going on my thighs. But there was nothing I could do about it, so I just tried to ignore it.

Then in the middle of the Three Sisters everything went to hell. I hadn't taken much at the last two aid stations (at Equestrian my bag was blocked by a disconsolate runner who'd dropped and I didn't have the heart to ask them to move) and I realized I was in major calorie deficit - I had some Spiz waiting for me at Boyles but first I had to cross the most difficult portion of the course to get there.

It was a strangely fascinating experience to observe how fast I spiralled downhill, yet I found it perversely challenging. My big strength has always been mental so I kept pushing. Every time I climbed one of those hills (enjoyed that) or scrambled down another rocky downhill (much harder) I yelled out things like "that all you got, Cactus Rose".

It kept my spirits up, but I'm glad nobody was around to hear me vent :-)

I got a timely boost when Olga caught me. She's always a breath of sunshine and has an infectious good humor that can't fail to cheer you up. And that girl also has an awesome powerwalk that soon left me in the dust.

To my road friends who have expressed the opinion that running 100 miles at such a slow pace would be easy, try doing it up and down this and then we'll talk

But I finally made it to Boyles and this was definitely the low point of the race. I downed some Spiz and some pears with heavy syrup and set out for the long tough climbs over Boyles Bump and Cairns to reach the lodge.

I reached the lodge around 1am and my mood had picked up a lot, though my feet had long since turned into hamburger. But on the plus side the chafing had subsided to a dull irritation.

I had seen a lot of people drop here last year and I could understand why - I had been running alone since loop 1, and the idea of going back out for another 8 hours was not very appealing. But I can honestly say I never considered dropping, and I'm really proud of myself for that. I would like to say there was a noble reason behind it - the mystic call of the wild or some such shit - but the reality is that I just wanted the damn buckle.

And I didn't want to have to come back next year to get it.

It had gotten cold - back down into the 30s - and it was a damp kind of cold. The volunteers wanted me to come and sit down for a while and warm up, but I refused. I never sit down at aid stations - that just makes it harder to leave. I just want to get in and out. They also fretted when they discovered I planned on going back out in just my t-shirt and shorts and several volunteered their jackets for me. This was super kind and "above and beyond", and I had to keep insisting that was how I wanted it to be. If I got cold, all the more motivation to run.

I did have some chicken soup though which was delicious.

Heading back out I slogged my way through Cairns, Boyles and through the aid station in a blur. I was mostly power walking, and only a few things stick out in my mind from this portion.

Climbing to the peak of Sky Island I came across three runners coming the other way. The guy was brandishing a large branch and the girls were carrying rocks. They looked so odd I just stopped and grinned quizzically at them. They claimed they'd passed another runner who told them he'd been stalked by an unseen animal (probably a mountain lion) for about two miles. The animal had kept pace with him and kept growling at him so they weren't taking any chances.

I couldn't decide whether there had been some hallucinations going on or if this had really happened, but either way it didn't make much difference to me. If you're a mountain lion and you think a short stocky left-handed Welshman is your ideal midnight snack, then good luck to you.

I didn't see or hear anything so I obviously was not very appetizing. Don't know if I should be offended or not :-)

I also ran into Naresh along with his pacer Jeff F. I think he was having a low moment (probably at just the same place I did) but he pulled through in typical Naresh style and bagged the finish.

Those few miles into Equestrian were never-ending, but I finally got there. It was quiet and dark, but a kind volunteer had set up shop and had some ramen noodles and broth for me. The kindness of the volunteers was the best thing about this race. There was no official aid station food, and he didn't need to be out there in the freezing cold. He just was. And it was very much appreciated.

That's the kind of thing that makes trail running such a marvelous community to be a part of.

The 10 miles through Nachos and back to Equestrian are also a blur, just concentrating on blocking out the pain in my feet. But I remember the uplifting experience of running into my second sunrise coming through the field just before Equestrian. It was outstanding.

Roger greeted me at Equestrian with a delicious swig of black coffee, and the realization that I was at mile 95. Revitalized by the new dawn I continued on.

I got up and over the final climb of Lucky Peak which left me with just over a mile to go. I looked at my watch and it read 27 hours and 49 minutes. Wait a minute, wasn't my race prediction 28 hours? Holy hell, I was about to nail my second 100 mile goal time in a row - 2 for 2.

Then I got another crazy idea - suddenly the most important thing in the world was to see a 27 instead of a 28 on my finish time. I didn't know if I could do it or not, but I sure as hell was going to try so I picked up the pace and blocked out the protests of my feet.

I was convinced the final stretch was around every corner I turned, and when it wasn't I just kicked up the pace a little more. The pain was curiously liberating - I guess the adrenaline from knowing you are only a few minutes away from finishing 100 miles kinda helps too.

When I finally caught a glimpse of the outline of the lodge buildings they seemed a long way away. I had nothing to lose so I gave it everything I had and ran flat out. I came up on the last dip and rise and made the left turn to approach the house. Folks started cheering me in, faces all a blur, and I just wanted to see that finish time. Made the final right turn around the house and saw it. No problem on the time - crossed in 27:56:12. Amazed that I could hit a 7 minute mile at mile 100 - very proud of that.

Do I look a little frazzled???!! With my race shirt, belt buckle and race prediction

I got my buckle, a handshake from Joe and Robert and hugs from Joyce and Diana. Joe was amazed I was able to kneel down, remove my chip and get up again, but other than my feet I feel really good. The feet are pretty mashed though - the skin has shaved away from several toes and I have blisters around toes, on both heels and the bottoms are really bruised and tender. I think several toenails are going to depart and my feet are still pretty swollen today.

I have lots of little cuts on my legs from the sotol cactii, but they don't really bother me. I hiked up to the aid stations to grab my drop bags and hung around with Jeff L at Equestrian for a while. I got my timing just right, got a big hug from Olga (and compared Frankenstein walks) and got to cheer on Marcia and Naresh, then waited for Cheri to come through. I'm glad I hung around because they were all so inspirational - dog tired yet still so completely focused on finishing.

It was humbling and a privilege to share in that energy and determination.

Random Thoughts

I have a new favorite shirt and belt buckle, just because I really had to work hard for them

5 miles doesn't sound like much, but it can be a very long way indeed

100 milers require a very high degree of patience

I enjoyed one of the all-time greatest-ever showers last night. It ranks right up there alongside the one I had after Rocky Raccoon. It's almost worth running a 100 miler just for the shower afterwards. Almost.

I always run fever and have chills after races of 50 miles or more but last night was insane - I was burning up. But as usual it broke overnight and I'm fine today. It's almost as if there's a heat switch that gets stuck on for a while. Very strange.

I wonder why I take my camera to these things when I always forget about it until I'm driving home

And finally, my 100 mile itch has been scratched. Well, for a while at least :-)


brendaontheRun said...

That's fantastic - well done Mark!

Anonymous said...

Well done Marky. We are all so very proud of you. Glad you're home though.

-Nancy, Gavin, & Dylan

johnt said...

You British guys are hardcore! Great finish, you are one badass mambajamba!

Ryan V. said...

Nice work, amigo. I had no doubt you would make it.

DavidH said...

Fantastic report! Way to know thyself. Congrats!

Mike_Is_In_Austin said...

Great write up, and an even greater accomplishment. Congrats!

steve said...

Unbelievable. Great race and write-up Mark. Very impressive...


olga said...

Glad you found my dry sense of humor refreshing. Great job, Mark!

Chris said...


Great job and it was nice getting to know you! I had to drop at mile 85 due to injury but will be back next year. Congrats again!!

Chris Russell