As one of the long runs in the Montrail Ultra Cup series, I decided last summer to enter this winter event. I figured my best chances to repeat the win were to hit all the 100ks, and now I had an excuse to try another race. Later it was announced the race would also serve as the USATF National Championship race which could possibly add to the competitive field.
Up and coming Pam Smith from Salem had run this race last year, and was only minutes from the winners. She entered again this year, and she joined the Sunsweet group of Laura and Jeff Riley, Craig and Laurie Thornley, Dan Olmstead, and I on this trip to the Lone Star state. A wealth of information, she filled us in best she could on the terrain, course, weather, and the town of Bandera. We made it out to the course the day before the race for a sampling. It was all it was cracked up to be. Rocks, rocks, rocks, dirt, sotol cactus, climbs, rocks, descents, rocks. Rocks.
Sotol Cactus – Note the nice teeth!
Race morning arrived and the weather looked promising for the most part. Former Oregonian and good friend Olga Varlamova welcomed us, and was the aid station captain for the start/finish area. The start for the 100k was near the headquarters, and the 25/50k start was about a quarter mile away. All races started at the same time, and the courses were staggered to eliminate as much overlap of athletes as possible. Logistically this was a great plan, but it put a big question mark on how I was going to tell if I could beat Craig in my first lap of the 100k to his JV 50k.
The ever charming Olga Varlamova
My time goal was to break 10 hours, after conferring with Pam and Melanie Fryer (100k Team USA member, and very experienced on this course). Pam started with a goal of 4 minutes faster than last year (10:32?) and I immediately gave her a new goal of 10:15, based on her recent performance at JFK 50 Mile. The other main competitor was Liza Howard
, who I barely met at The NorthFace 50 in SF last month, but had been impressed by her competitiveness and humble spirit. She lives in San Antonio and trains on this course, which I would learn is a pretty nice advantage and a great skill to learn.
The race started at 7:30, and the top men bolted quickly. I was running next to Liza for maybe a half mile, wondering why she was wearing tights. We chatted briefly, then she pulled away on the first climb, seemingly floating away effortlessly. In a matter of moments, the field had thinned and for the rest of the day I would run alone – maybe with someone tailing me for awhile, maybe passing, but the largest number of folks I saw were at each aid station. On the way down the first hill, I started brushing up against the sotol. Ouch. Tights good, Lululemon shorty-shorts – bad. At first I was weaving away from it but that got tiresome and didn’t work anyway.
As Pam said, just because we get a downhill, doesn’t mean we can run it. No kidding! A few long strides, then a bunch of short ones, a few walking steps, then some longs ones, then running, then another climb/hike. It was like running in 5/4 time, always one extra beat per measure that one doesn’t normally expect. I started to hear music from the first aid station, so glanced at my watch. It was in the 40+ minutes range. I predicted that if I could run between each aid station in under one hour that I could reach my time goal. The music was a tease, as it was quite loud and could be heard when still minutes away. When I finally arrived it was so loud that my request for a gel went unnoticed, so I went through without, and my time was 52 minutes. That seemed reasonable to me. I took one of my gels from a pocket and gulped it down. The sotol in this section was much less abundant, and the trail flattened out quite a bit. I came to an opening and road crossing where the RD Joe was hanging out. I asked him “how far is she?” and he said, uh, I think less than a minute. Comforted by that thought I relaxed a bit. The rest of the way to the next aid station was runnable and pretty straight forward. I arrived to a helpful crowd, include Laura Riley, who was worried that I didn’t have a back tag indicating my age group (a USATF requirement in age championship races) pinned one on me. She said the leader was about 8 minutes ahead (!). Wow, that was more than a minute.
The next section was also mostly flat runnable trail. Eventually I made it to the aid station “cross roads in” which we hit twice. Laura was there again, ready to help make sure I had what I wanted. I grabbed gel, heed, and took off. Alone again, I was ambling along at a relaxed pace when I heard footsteps. When I finally turned I saw it was Pam! She said something very cute – about feeling like she was in some parallel universe where she was way ahead of where she thought she would be. I told her all I kept thinking was we had to do this loop again. Worried that maybe I had been too relaxed, I picked up the pace, and through the technical section, she dropped off. After more climbing, getting scratched up again, encountering 50k runners, the trail turned downhill, back into ‘cross roads out’. I was hitting all aid stations in less than an hour. I asked the volunteers where Liza was, and they said about 10 minutes ahead. I forged on, into a section with a lot of climbing. Into the next aid station in 45 minutes, I asked again, and I was seemingly holding my own with Liza.
The next section had two big climbs – Cairns Climb and Boyle’s Bump. I was pretty much reduced to grinding up and gingerly going down. When it flattened out, I reminded myself to save something for the next loop. Coming down from Boyle’s I tripped, fell ALMOST to the ground, but stopped in a full plank. Gingerly getting up, I was relieved to be unhurt. I picked up speed gradually, hit another downhill stretch with a 90 degree turn at the bottom. I caught my toe and crashed HARD, calf cramping slightly. My first thought was “am I done?” but my body allowed me to walk a bit then jog, then run. Entering into the only out and back section before the turn around for the loop, I strained my eyes looking for Liza, but to know avail. At the turn-around I was ahead of my 4:45 projected time, in 4:37. Craig was there, and let me know that he had barely beat me in the JV race with a 4:32. Liza was reportedly 12 minutes ahead now. Olga took over getting me fueled up and focused, and I was on my way to ‘race’ the second half.
It was warming up, so I tossed my beanie, but given the protection from my gloves and arm warmers from the last crash, I kept them on. I got my wheels going, and just before the end of the out and back, Pam was on her way down. I was only about 4 minutes ahead of her here, and she looked in complete control.
Now it was time to race, go harder and try not to have too huge a positive split. However, the hills felt a little steeper, and before long I could hear Pam’s voice. I pushed harder, and when I had the opportunity and could hear the loud music of the aid station, I started to roll pretty fast. I kept checking my watch, thinking I should be well under an hour, but sounds can be deceiving. When I finally arrived, I was over an hour. It felt impossible to be that much slower, especially given how hard I was working. I ate a gel, had my drink filled, and found that Liza was now 13 minutes ahead. Dang, that girl was GOOD! I took off, still trying to maintain some speed. I caught and passed one man, but he stayed fairly close. I kept looking back, expecting Pam to come cruising by at any moment.
I looked about how I felt. Bleah.
I made to the next aid station, and was greeted by Craig and Laura, who both crewed me through. I had actually cut into Liza’s lead, down to 8 minutes, but as I told my crew, I was pretty tired. I jogged out, and really didn’t pick up the pace much above that. I was going SLOW, which was too bad, since it was one of the most runnable sections, hardly a rock, hardly a hill. The man I had passed earlier passed me back, then another. I heard a water bottle full of ice coming behind me, and when I turned to look, saw Pam cruising along quite comfortable. “Alright Pam! You are looking GOOD!” She was gracious and encouraging, and ran by me like I was standing still. Seriously, I was amazed at how quickly she disappeared from sight.
As I slogged along too tired to care about the race momentarily I felt I had entered that zone where people “DNF”. I didn’t want to quit, but I understood why folks do. I came to Bandera to run 62 miles, and I intended to get it done, provided I was not endangering my health. I wasn’t bonking, hungry, or hurt, but I had shot my wad racing hard for 40 miles, and now it was time to pay. I felt like crying (like a baby who needs a nap), but focused on what I needed to do at the next aid station to fix myself up for the rest of the day.
I ambled in, and Laura and Craig came to my aid again. I told them I just need to fix this and get going. I grazed on almonds, asked for some ramen noodles, drank some coke, and finally decided to go. I had stood so long my knees were a bit achy as I left. I got to see Dan come into this aid station at the end of the loop, before he headed into his fourth place finish. This loop is one of the shortest legs of the race, but as the RD had promised, every climb looked a little steeper, every rock a little bigger. I was no longer completely dead, but I didn’t anticipate a huge bounce back.
I finally made it back to the end of the loop. Laura helped me again get plenty to eat and drink, assuring me that I looked much better than last time she saw me. I said I at least felt like I was running. I had 9.5 miles to go, something I had accomplished in 1:30 first time around. I thought I was going slow, but that maybe I could do the same distance in 1:45 and hit the goal of 10:15 I had set for Pam.
There isn’t much to say about the rest. At the last aid station, the volunteers asked me if I wanted to know where the leaders were. I said not really, it didn’t matter anymore. I got through the last two climbs and descents without falling, and was happy that my feet weren’t hurting given the rocky terrain. I had a decent kick at the end, and was swept up in a hug by Olga at the end, where I unwittingly used an expletive to describe the course in a very loud voice, much to the amusement of all those around, including RD Joe Prusaitis. My time was 10:19. Pam and Liza were both there, looking as if they had already showered and napped. Pam ran 9:46 (50 minutes faster than last year?) and Liza, 9:35. All three of us broke the previous course record.
You ran HOW fast?
Frequently when thinking of my goals for a race, I remember a key one is ‘learn something new’. With this race I thought of that at the end, as I indeed learned that I can reach a point that may feel like there is no return, and by trying different things, I may come back.