Monday, October 29, 2012

Cactus Rose - A beauty and a beast

I returned yesterday from Hill Country State Natural Area, just outside Bandera, Texas, where I ran the Cactus Rose 50 miler for the second year in a row.  I probably say this after all of my races, but this one truly was an incredible experience.  You tend to learn a lot about who you are in general at ultra distance races, and Cactus Rose doesn't disappoint in that regard. First, you have to get your s&%t together to get there:

Since this race is self-supported, you have to bring your own supplies to pack into drop boxes at each aid station. You go the day before the race to deliver your boxes so that they will be waiting for you when you get there during the race. All the race supplies is the water, you take care of all of your other needs - snacks, sports drinks you may want, medication, band aids, etc.  The aid stations are  about 5 miles apart, which on this course can be up to an hour and a half, depending on the amount of climbs and descents in that section. I buy these things in bulk, then split them into snack sized baggies for each drop box.

One of my favorite ultra foods -
Animal Crackers!!
Then I take those baggies of snacks, along with salt tabs and any other medication I think I might need, and put them into bigger baggies labeled with which aid station they are going to.

A little fuzzy but you get the point.
I also add into my baggie for the Equestrian aid station, which we would be seeing twice on each loop - lube and extra batteries for my headlamp and handheld.  Two things you would rather not happen out there - getting stuck without proper lighting (very technical trails), and chafing (I passed a guy fairly early into the race who was walking like a cowboy and complaining about his chafing.  His buddy looked like he was about to push him off of a cliff.  Can't say I would have blamed him - this is a race designed for veteran ultra runners, and that was a rookie mistake.)

So, I loaded into the car with two of my ultra running buddies, Bobbi Parker and Brad Delcambre who were also running the 50 miler, and we headed west.  It was great to get to the hill country and start seeing things like this:

This is such a beautiful area.  It is hard to believe it is so close to us, but so vastly different from the terrain we are used to.  

We set up our tent - even with the wind doing its best to blow it away - there was a heck of a front that had moved through that day, and the temps were dropping nicely.  I am a huge cold weather wimp.  Below 75 degrees and I am freezing, but for a race of this difficulty, I'll take it.  Once the tent was set up, it was time to pack our drop boxes.

Coke - works great to settle a funky stomach.

Taped these to the boxes. :)
When you arrive at the first aid station and it is dark,
it is hard to spot your box amid a sea of identical boxes,
and these helped them stand out.
Once we delivered them to the aid stations (just a few miles away from the start/finish via gravel road, but a world away when you are running trails and tired), it was time for the race briefing.

Joe Prusaitis (L) - Race Director
Henry Hobbs (R) - Head Trail Marking Guy
and Color Commentator 
Joe filled us in on the conditions of the trails that we would encounter.  He told us that this was the most messed up and technical (difficult and requiring your full attention) that he had ever seen this trail, and while this is only my fourth time racing on this trail, I have to agree.  Erosion had caused washouts and loose rocks - especially on the side of some of the toughest hills, causing tricky footing on the descents.  It was hard getting up these climbs anyway - very steep - but when you can't get traction and you are kicking rocks back at the runner behind you, then sliding down the backside because there is no solid footing to plant on, and the descent is too steep to walk,  it makes it even more interesting.

My major weakness on this course is descending.  I am a fairly strong climber.  I like the uphills, and I pass many runners there.  I like the burn I feel in my legs and lungs when I get to the top.  If they could figure out how to do a relay where one runner got the climbs and the other got the descents, it would be awesome - I am still working on that. In the meantime, I just suck it up and try not to trip, roll down the rocky hillside and do major damage.  The descents scare me - there is nothing even close to this to train on here.  Yeah, we can find some small hills, but none with loose rock to land on.  If I can ever conquer this fear, I could cut a huge amount of time off of this course, but in the meantime, I just say a little curse word, and plow through.

Don't cross the caution tape, people.
Seems obvious, really.  Something never heard on a
trail run; "Why'd they put this caution tape in my
way? "(Goes under tape, wins Best Blood Award)
Blood Toll - noun - meaning the price you have to pay to run this course, and the earlier you pay it the better.  Henry told us about the sotol grass. Sounds nice, doesn't it?  Picturing Texas prairie land with tall grass blowing in the wind?  Not so much.  Sotol grass was made by the devil to insure that your post race shower is as unpleasant as possible.  It looks an aloe vera plant with an attitude.  It is Texas, of course:
Since I reach the whopping height of 5'2", there were sections where this was at eye level.  It was like running through a car wash of razor blades - no exaggeration - I was wearing long sleeves and long tights, and it cut me through my clothes.  Luckily, these sections were few, and honestly, by the end of the race, you no longer cared, and just plowed right through them.  

The erosion also caused taller "ledges" on the trail.  Since the ground there is mostly rock, or a thin layer of dirt over rock. on the side of the hills, outcroppings of rocks appear.  Last time I ran this course they were about hip high for me, meaning a really high step would usually get over them, and coming down I could hop off of them.  This year, they are even higher, meaning I had to find a way to climb up them by finding something to use as a step or a tree to pull myself up on.  On the way down, I had to sit on the edge of it and hop down - like hopping off of the kitchen counter when you were a kid watching your mom cook.

As you can imagine, all of these little obstacles slowed things down a bit, but they are also what makes these races so much fun for me.  You never know what to expect out there, and you have to be able to adapt and roll with it.
It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change – Charles Darwin
Many people who are much better athletes than I am drop out of these races because things aren't going according to their plan.  That is why I have a very simple plan on this course - try to go faster than I did last year, and finish the race with the same amount of teeth that I start with.  Mission accomplished.

So, after the race briefing we headed back to our tent and chilled out for a bit. We got to visit for a few minutes with one of my favorite couples, Lane and Erica Gremillion from Pineville.  Lane would be attempting the 100 miler the next day.  Before you ask, yes, a certain degree of crazy is required to be my friend. :)
Lane and Erica after his first 100 mile finish -
Sub 24 hours at Rocky Raccoon!!
 When it was about time to climb into the sleeping bag the temps had dropped to 40 degrees with gusty winds.  As I have gotten into the habit of doing at the races where I camp out the night before, I got into my running clothes, taped my toes (just my big toes - I tend to blister on the outside of them, and while it is not a deal breaker, it does tend to hurt when sliding around on rocks), and got all of my race morning stuff lined up.  I trimmed my race number down - most folks pin this to the leg of their shorts or tights for longer races - throughout the course of the day you will put on and take off layers of clothes up top, but rarely will you change your tights or shorts; then I filled up my handheld and waist pack. I started the race carrying my handheld filled with water, and in the zipper pocket of this were the aid station splits so I would have an idea how far I had to go before getting to water and our drop boxes.

High tech, I know.  That's how I roll.
In my waist pack, I had an extra bottle filled with water (that's why I love the Amphipod hydration system that I use - the bottles are interchangeable and so easy to carry.  It fits my hand perfectly so that I don't have to hold it - it is just there and I don't even feel it.  

Also in my waist pack:  Honey Stinger gummies, a gel (which I never had to use - thank goodness), chapstick (crucial in long runs), and salt pills.

It probably sounds strange to sleep in your run clothes, but when we are camping and it is close to freezing, the last thing I want to do in the morning is have to get out of a warm sleeping bag to change into cold clothes.  And, since we sleep on site for the race, I can get up 30 minutes before the race and be ready to walk to the race start when Joe yells out "10 minutes".

Once things were squared away, and my alarm was set, it was time to attempt to sleep.  I never really sleep the night before a big race, and I have learned that this really isn't a big deal.  If I find myself checking my watch every hour, I don't stress about it like I used to.  I don't notice any effect on my race day performance.  Since the race start was at 5 a.m., we were up about 4:15.  This was plenty of time to pin on my number, get my headlamp and handheld flashlight ready, drink an Ensure (I never eat anything solid that early - my stomach won't allow it), get my shoes on, and make one more visit to the porta potty.  Right about then, I hear Joe say "10 minutes" so I walked over to the start where I ran into Teddi, a friend from town, and by far the fastest ultra running female in the area.  When I asked her what her time goal was, she wisely said "My only goal on this course is not to lose any teeth."  Pretty modest goal considering she finished as the second place female with a time of 10:09.  Amazing!!

With the call of "5 minutes", everyone headed to the start, and with one loud "WooHoo" from the crowd, we were off.  For the first couple of miles I almost didn't need my headlamp, there were so many runners around me the ground was pretty well lit. But, that didn't stop me from face planting about 2 miles into the race.  Was it an especially technical spot on the trail?  No.  I have no idea what I tripped on, but I went from running at a pretty good pace to face down on the trail.  I had to get up as quickly as possible to avoid tripping the next runner, so I pulled over to the side of the trail to assess the damage.  I had landed pretty hard on my right elbow, and it was bleeding a bit through my sleeve, but I couldn't see the bone, so that was all good.  I couldn't hold my handheld in that hand for a while since I could not grip my hand at all, but that cleared up after 30 minutes or so.  I had a pain in my lower stomach where I had landed on a rock that was sticking up from the trail, and I have a bruise there.  That ached for quite a while and is still tender to the touch. But, all in all, it was nothing fatal or race ending, so it was time to go.  I had paid my Blood Toll to the trail early, so I should be good for the rest of the day.

We lucked out with the weather.  It was cool in the morning, and overcast most of the day.  The sun came out briefly - just long enough to burn the side of my neck that it was hitting - then it went back to being overcast - perfect!!  I didn't track my time much, except that at every aid station I would estimate how long it might take me to get to the next aid station.  This is just a mental game I play to break the day into shorter sections.  

Bobbi and Brad were running strong  - every time I crossed paths with them, they looked like they were having a great day.  Brad has done this course many times so he knew what to expect, and even though it was Bobbi's second 50 miler, and first time on this course, she is one tough chick so I knew she would be fine.

This race is a two loop course.  The first loop going clockwise on the trail: 
And the second loop going counter clockwise:
For the 100 milers (yes, there are some incredibly brave and hearty souls who cover 100 miles of this terrain), its 4 loops.  Ouch. It did make my day easier knowing these folks were out there too, though.

As always, you see interesting things at these races.  I saw lots of blood at this one.  One girl who was wearing shorts with the front of her thighs shredded by the sotol, the second place guy with blood running down his legs from his knees where it looked like he had bit the dust pretty hard (and was still in second place running hard), the 100 mile finisher who had one heck of a black eye (never got the whole story there - I saw him post race, and he wasn't terribly coherent), and of course, my favorite, the sweet lady who thought it would be fun to run with bells tied onto her shoe laces. After running near her for a few miles and hearing nothing but ching,ching, ching, CHING, CHING, CHING!!!  - I had to let her know as gently as possible that the noise was driving me crazy and ruining the peace and quiet that we look for at these races.  I have enough noise and clutter in my life - these races are my chance to escape from that and be in nature.  The only sounds I wanted that day were occasional polite banter with a fellow runner, the crunch of the rocks under my feet, and my own labored breathing.  I think she got the hint because when we crossed paths later, she no longer sounded like she should be pulling a sleigh behind her.

I tried something different with my nutrition at this race that worked well.  Over the last couple of ultra seasons I have used Vespa in the place of Gu with great luck.  Ever since my last 100, though, I have not been able to look a pack of Vespa in the eye without my stomach revolting. So, here's what I took in for 13 plus hours on Saturday:

Pre-race - 1 Ensure Plus nutrition shake - 350 calories, 13 grams of protein.  It is non-dairy so it doesn't upset my stomach, and it goes down easy.  Sometimes, if I am having trouble keeping food down late in a race, I will have another Ensure then, and I bring extra for post race fueling.  I drink them over the next few days after the race to replenish what was lost and try to make nice with my body for the pounding I have put it through.

During the race: (no exact amounts - I am not very precise about this)
A few handfuls of animal crackers and Pringles
2 lunch box sized packs of those Keebler cookies with M & M's in them :)
2 packs of Honey Stinger Energy Chews (like gummy bears - sooo good!!)
6  salt tabs 
About 20 oz of water every 5 miles or so (remember, on this terrain, 5 miles could be anywhere from 1 hour to 1 1/2 hours)

And that's it.  No gels.  Even in my earlier ultras I did my best to steer away from gels, using 1 at the most in the late stages of a 50 miler when fatigue would set in.  I'm not exactly sure what that means or what lesson to draw from it.  According to an online calculator I found, I would have burned about 4233 calories in 50 miles, not taking into account the terrain, so we'll up it to 5,000 calories to be safe.  You can see from the list above that I didn't take in nearly that many calories, and I felt just fine all day.  No bonk.  No real fatigue.  Any time I thought I might be getting hungry, I would eat a few cookies or animal crackers.  I grazed all day, not just at the aid stations.  Now, that being said, I could not get enough food into my mouth fast enough on the way home Sunday.  I was starving all day, especially for anything high in protein.

Race day went by pretty quickly, as usual.  I never line up at the start and think, "Oh My God, I have to run 50 miles!".  I just start running.  Usually I break the course up into chunks, aid station to aid station, and play mental games to pass the time.  You want to see something funny - ask someone 10 hours or more into a race to do simple math.  But once I get past the marathon distance in a 50 miler, I know I am more than half way there.  When I get to 37 miles, I just have a half marathon left, then once I am in single digits, its all good.  

As usual, this was a first class event put on by Tejas Trails.

Even though it was bare boned as far as aid offered, it was very well marked, the water stops were always well stocked, and you got plenty of encouragement when you pulled into the start/finish area before your second loop.  People cheered some when you came in, but they REALLY cheered when you went back out.  This is such an amazing course.  Tough, painful, beautiful, rugged, peaceful.  Pretty much sums up Texas itself, doesn't it.  I took a few minutes on each loop to stop and soak in the view from the top of some of the peaks (and to catch my breath).  I love that place.  I believe that the pain you choose to put yourself through in such a serene setting is cleansing.  I think you knock a lot of internal cobwebs off, and you clean out a few closets.  The little things aren't so important anymore, and you come out of this race with a better understanding of who you are and who you want to become.  When facing a challenge such as this, I often find myself looking at the other runners as they go by - whether they are smiling and saying "hi", or grimacing and digging deep - and I am overcome with a sense of awe at the strength of the human spirit.  No one is forced to do this.  They choose to.  They choose to push their bodies far beyond the point where most folks would have given up.  They endure pain, whether it be from blisters, aching muscles, or tender feet.  They embrace that pain and use it to fuel their journey.  They exhibit a depth of character that few ever realize for themselves. They stare their fears and self doubts in the eye - and they defeat them over and over again.  This is humanity stripped of all of its window dressing, and down to bare bones - self-preservation and perseverance.  As much as I love people in general, these races truly make me appreciate the triumph of the human spirit.

And THAT is why I do these races.  I don't enjoy pain like a misguided person once suggested.  How simple and frankly, stupid.  I enjoy succeeding despite the pain.  I enjoy pulling the pain down and using it as a step stool to reach my goal.  And I absolutely LOVE standing at the finish line after and watching runner after runner come in.  Some have tons of adoring friends and family there to greet them, and some come across to a smattering of applause, walk over to their vehicle, and drive home.  I imagine these to be the guys with the slight limp at work on Monday where no one has a clue what they did for fun over the weekend.

So, this is me stepping down from my soapbox.  For those that don't read this and ask how the race was, they will get the stock answer, "Tough, but fun".  You guys know the whole story.

I was able to beat my time from last year - 13:42 by 14 minutes and come in at 13:28.  Not a grand PR, but any PR on this course is a reason to celebrate in my book. With this, I had completed my 10th ultramarathon.  Fitting that it should be on this course. Bobbi and Brad also had a strong race, as did Lane who is the first person from this area to finish the 100 miler with a time of 29 hours and change.  AWESOME!!  He is my hero!!

UPDATE - I just heard that Fred Arsement, a dear friend from Duson, also completed the 100 miler in 30 hours and a bit.  Add another name to my list of heroes!!  Great job, Fred!!!

Happy Running Y'all.

PS - Legs feel great - should be running again by the end of the week, getting ready for the Wild Hare 50 miler in 3 weeks!  WooHoo!!!  I love race season!!

Here's a link to a story written by the RD, Joe Prusaitis about the history of Cactus Rose 50 and 100 miler:


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