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January 10th, 2004 – Bandera 100K

June 5, 2009

A quick press of my thumb, and my trusty maglite winks out; I come quickly to a stop and am enveloped in – well, several things at once.  First there’s the amazing stillness – after my feet stop crunching in the rocks and dust, the still cool night yields nary a peep, and my ears become filled with that violent silence that you usually encounter way up on the lee side of a mountain – away from the wind, away from vegetation, just pure visual delight.  But I’m not looking at thousands of feet of exposure – the sudden, dramatic hills around me do have some drop offs, but they’re on the various horizons, and my eyes are drawn upwards, to the millions of stars, and the milky way’s tail hanging like it’s being blown in the breeze. Dozens of emotions wash over me at the same time – I’ve bitten off more than I can chew with this one, and my feet are demanding a stop, and my staggering walk/run combined with the precipitous footing coming on the last fifteen miles – plus my lack of duct tape – makes me certain of the decision I realize I’ve already made, 48 miles into a planned 62.  The next aid station is about two miles away, and I’m going to call it quits there and drop out. But I’m most overcome by a different feeling, a different low than I had been expecting – lonliness.  I wasn’t sharing this wonderful trail with someone – and I felt selfish, and an odd yearning to share this with someone that I wasn’t prepared for. I stand and just look up at the sky, moonless at the moment. There’s no answer up there for me, no cosmic reassurances one way or the other, but I’m almost euphoric gazing up into its beauty.  
But of course, there are stories leading up to this…
I headed down to Bandera, Texas, last Thursday, a small town of about a thousand that bills itself as the Cowboy Capital of Texas – if not the world.  The flight to San Antonio is delayed a little bit, but I hit the night air and head to grab my rental car (have I mentioned how much I love Hertz?  OK, sure, maybe it’s the prima donna in me that loves seeing my name up in lights – that could be it, but mainly I just love their almost ruthless efficiency).  The Pontiac Grand Am, though no frills, will serve me pretty well this weekend, but of course I somehow miss my first turn and wind up driving an extra 20 miles or so around San Antonio before getting on the small highway that will take me to Bandera.
For those of you who have never been to this very pleasant corner of the states, let me assure you it is quite worth the trip. The rolling hills west of San Antonio rise several hundred feet from the surrounding valleys – up to about 2000 feet above sea level.  The topography is beginning to turn to the more arid and scrubby vegetation that one is used to in New Mexico and Arizona, with various cactii mixed in.  There are still plenty of oak and (ugh) cedar, but the trees are spread out enough that hiking any rigid offers splendid views, and makes for a pretty drive as well.  Bandera itself is a quiet but interesting town, and feels like it should be just off an interstate highway in Wyoming – it feels more like Wall Drug than Texas.  The people are downright friendly in that midwest tradition and, although there are plenty of horses and cowboy hats, you feel more welcome than you would think.  The courthouse is one of the prettiest I’ve seen, and reminded me of some of the grand city squares that you see in parts of Iowa that look both new and ancient in a very stately way.  I find my hotel on the west side of town and hit the hay.
Friday morning I sleep in a little bit, then head down to the race site, which is in Hill Country State Park, about ten miles south and a little west of town on a small highway.  Now, I can forgive Texas their odd interstate highways, which always have odd left-hand merge lanes and exits and soar WAY too high in the air, but I really don’t get their minor roads, as their speed limit is inversely proportional to their width.  It’s 55 as I head on the nice, wide two lane – but pretty soon the road narrows, and the speed limit jumps to 70.  It feels about right, though, and I enjoy driving past the various dude ranches (thick as thieves) and high rolling hills.  
Hill Country State Park is an interesting area – it’s an undeveloped state park.  Apparently, the family that owned it deeded it to the state, but asked that it be left wild, save for the few dwellings already in existence.  Thus, there is a huge, stately house for the ranger, a bunch of four wheel roads, and jeep roads that, really, jeeps could no longer negotiate.  The trails are varied, but one word sums them up well: Rocky. I can think of maybe two miles on the entire 31 mile loop that were mostly free of rocks – even the roads in fields were incredibly rocky!
I’m way early, and there are only two people from the race management there.  Members of the Hill Country Trail Runners Association, they’re setting up the huge tent at the start/finish line. I have time, so pitch in and help them get the side panels on this monster – assembled, it’s about 30 feet wide by 200 feet long.  I grab lunch and come back to grab my race bib (18) and schwag – a great big jacket.
Saturday morning, I’m up relatively late (6:00 AM) for the start.  I drive down to the start and meet some of the other ultrarunners as we mill about for the start.  All told, there are maybe 250 of us or so around – about 70 of us in the 100K, another 50 or so in the 100K, and the rest in the 25K (that’s 62, 31 and 15.5 miles).  I super-hydrated the day before, and I’m hanging in line for the port a potties when John Fry bumps into me – he’s from Oak Park, Illinois, and was looking for me.  We hadn’t met previously, but we had run one other ultra together – Le Griz, in Montana, in 2002.  We hear the countdown to the start, and John takes off, but I wait in line, and I’m still waiting in line when Joe Prusaitis, the race director, yells “Go!”  Oh well, I have 24 hours to run this thing, so two minutes to use the john won’t hurt anything.  The clock is already reading 2:31 when I finally start the 100K.
The race is ran in two large loops.  None of the climbs are particularly long (maybe 300 or 400 feet total elevation gain on any one climb), or particularly steep (one section in the latter part of the course notwithstanding, I don’t think I hit any incline over 12 or 15 percent.  The challenge of the course is simple: Rocks. Oh, and did I mention the rocks?  
Starting late, I get to do something I don’t get a chance to too often – I start moving up through the crowd, though this is difficult given the single track in the first couple of miles.  However, it let me talk to a lot of other runners, and I think everyone I talked to running the 100K had multiple 100 mile finishes to their credit.  Eeep.  I’m even a bit shocked when I’m climbing up the second major climb (Ice Cream Hill) when I pass a woman wearing a 2003 Grand Slam Finisher jacket.  (The Grand Slam is completion of the four oldest 100 milers – Vermont, Western States, Leadville and Wasatch – in the same calendar year).  I had thought only three women had completed the slam last year; I had met the husband of one of them at the 2003 Le Grizz (Gerald Batchen, Lisa Smith-Batchen’s husband, who tried to talk me into running the Marathon de Sables this year.  Nice try Gerald, maybe next year)). After running through quite a bit of cactus (windpants were a good choice), the aid station at mile 5.8 is welcome. I shake some small rocks out of my shoes, drink some flat coke, grab a cookie and some gummie bears, a few fritos, and I’m off again.
Best reason to be an ultrarunner:  Food is food, and you really don’t have to worry about fat content, and I certainly never skimp on the carbs.
The next section had looked relatively easy on the topo map, but the rocks make it a bit slower than I had expected.  Still, I reach it and the next aid station earlier than I thought I would, and by the time I start the interior loop (a six mile, hilly section that traverses the prettiest part of the course), I’m about an hour ahead of expected pace and feeling great.  I even videotape some of the climb on one of the hills to give people an idea of the rocks and the beauty of the course.  I decide to break running with two guys that have accompanied me since about the first aid station and slow down a bit.  The next section is short and pretty easy, although the mid-day sun is actually a bit warm – 65 or so under a cloudless sky – and then the fun begins!
The race director – who has, somehow, accomplished the unbelievable feet of not just finishing both the Badwater ultramarathon (135 miles from Death Valley to the portals of Mt. Whitney on the hottest day of the year) and Hardrock (the toughest traditional 100 miler in the US, in Colorado, with something like 33,000 feet of elevation gain and loss) but doing it in the same calendar year. Which is within a span of two weeks.  
But that gives you a sense of why he put this part at the end.  It’s a tough section, to be certain – quite steep, with new trail marked by cairns and involving a little bit of route finding.  I mean, nothing too extreme, but could become pretty easy to get off track if you’re not paying attention.  It’s also in the one section of the park that has a resident mountain lion.  And did I mention it’s the last part of the course?  For the end of the first loop, though, I have the good fortune of having the aforementioned female slammer catch up to me – Letha Cruthirds makes for great company for a few miles, and she gives me a lot of advice about upcoming races, especially Leadville (August, in Colorado). Letha walks like I do – which is insanely fast, and really is the first person I’ve ever met who walks as fast as I do – and I still claim to walk faster than anyone else in Chicago.  The loop ends unceremoniously, coming in for the first 50K in 6:30 – giving me a whopping 17:30 to finish the second loop.  I swap out my belt pack for my camelbak (which has everything I could possibly need in it, which winds up being too much, and lacking one key thing).
The second loop goes slower, and my goal is to get to the third aid station before night fall.  The first aid station I reach without much of a problem, but my feet begin to feel toasted at about this point.  My toes are fine, but my heels hurt like hell – the constant shifting of my footstrike has worn some serious blisters underneath the calluses on both sides of both feet (when I eventually peel off my socks at the hotel room, I find four very bloody, half-dollar size blisters.
I start slowing down, and my running stops.  Night falls on me shortly after the second aid station, and the temperature drops, which is fine with me.  Although the breakfast tacos and encouragement from the last aid station had quickly buoyed my spirits, I hit a huge low about a mile out, and then another, chronicled above.  And so it is a beautiful sky that I abandon at a large tent, amidst a handful of very helpful kind people, where I call it quits.  I’d come about 48 miles of the expected 62 – easily the toughest 48 miles I’d ever ran.  
Dropping out had one definite perk, though – I find a ride back to the starting line from Deb Pero.  Deb and her husband Steve had driven down from friggin’ NEW HAMPSHIRE for the race, and were fleeing even more brutal weather than I had left behind in Chicago.  Deb and I had exchanged a few emails about the race beforehand; she had switched to the 50K and was doing support for Steve, who was coming back into the aid station after the interior loop at about the same time I came in from the other direction.  Steve and Deb both have numerous 100 mile finishes, including Hard Rock, and it was nice to chat with her for a few minutes.
I grab a cup of hot stew and hang out at the start/finish for awhile.  I get an official finish for the 50K, but the belt buckle awarded for the 100K will have to wait for another year.  The race director hands me one and says he’s putting my name on it – if I come back next year and finish, he says, he’ll give me both of them.  It’s actually a great moment, believe it or not – dropping out is always a mental blow, and getting a shot at redemption (and 366 days or so to prepare) lit a fire that not only mostly stopped my disappointment but also caused me to know I would be back.
The awards ceremony the next day is nice, and it’s nice to see all of us 50K/100K runners stumbling around like we’re a thousand years old.  I get a friggin’ flat tire on the way back to town, though – nothing like changing a tire when your quads aren’t working right! The sonic a block away from my hotel helped nurse me back to health quickly (along with my other post-recovery food). Taking a nice hour long hike on Sunday around Bandera invariably helped too – when I headed back home on Monday, I was only a little tender, and by yesterday (Wednesday), I could keep a five-minute mile pace.  Now we’ll see how my long run goes on Saturday.  No rocks, fortunately.
Lessons learned:  Carry duct tape for blisters, and tape feet entirely for rocky courses like this one.  Use an mp3 player if you have it. Pack a knee brace for rocky trails.  Red Bull does you no good if you don’t use it.  Utilize drop bags. Keep people around you to share the experience.
Next race is March 6th, in Sonoita, Arizona (Old Pueblo,  I have it on good authority from people who’ve ran it that the trails are steep but not nearly as rocky.  I plan on running this one fairly hard – especially since there’s a chance that my grandparents will be there!
Other races:  American River 50 (Sacramento, CA, April 3rd); Miwok 100K (Sausalito CA, May 1); Kettle 100 (June 5th/6th); Leadville (Aug. 21/22nd – what better way to celebrate your parents’ anniversary!). And maybes: Great Eastern (Sep. 25th, Charlottesville, VA); Le Grizz #3 (Oct. 9th); Devil’s Backbone (Bozeman, MT, July 17th).  
“The sky, where it ends, does not end
and you will pass its horizons.” – Richard Hugo
“Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so.” – Douglas Adams

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