Thursday, November 27, 2014

Big Cedar Endurance Run-100 miles (November 2014)

Blame it on the rain
-Milli Vanilli

I was so looking forward to this race (when don’t I?). However, as I looked at the weather I saw that there were supposed to be scattered showers all during the day after the race started and then 100% chance of heavy thunderstorms that whole night and they would be dropping about one to three inches of rain. Not the most ideal conditions, but I figured I’ve had cold, hot, wet, and perfect conditions. So it was only fitting that rain should be added to the list.

As we racers all stood around waiting to start, I looked at the competition and noticed a familiar face. I didn’t know her, but I recognized her. Our bibs had our names on them, so I looked at hers and it said ‘Sabrina.’ That’s Sabrina Little! Great! There goes any chances for any of us normal humans to win.

The race started and all 70 of us left. Little did we know what was going to happen in about thirteen hours. I like to start off races nice and slow and just go with that, figuring that the turtle and not the hare wins the race. Talking to people is so much fun and I figure that I’m gonna spend most of the race by myself that I should try to get to know a few people. During the first lap and a half I spent a bunch of time talking with four people that I kinda already knew and very much enjoyed the conversations. I prefer that way more to headphones.

There seemed to be a lot of talk (pre-race) about making sure we didn’t cheat. I never thought this was a big problem, but as the first five miles meandered in what seemed to be lots of circles with numerous switchbacks, I saw how you could easily skip portions of the course (or at least potentially skip). In fact, you could almost constantly see another trail or two with a runner (much easier at night with their lights). However, as I thought about if someone were to attempt to cheat, they would have to know a lot about the course. After twenty hours on the course, I still didn’t think I could just walk over to the adjacent trail (which was usually only 5-10 feet away) and end up going the right way. It just wasn’t worth it. And sometimes if you were to cheat, you would completely miss an aid station (checkpoint) and then it’d be super obvious that you skipped.

The course was well-marked with pink flags, painted fallen branches, painted arrows on the ground, and signs with arrows (which had a reflective outline and were so cool at night). I only had to second guess which way to go twice, and I kinda blame it on having a headlamp that was really low on batteries.

The first eight miles was mostly in a wooded area with tons of dizzying turns (I didn’t really get dizzy). It took me most of the race to figure out how the trails could turn so much without crossing over themselves. But despite being in the woods, there were very few roots to trip over. The trails were incredibly runnable, which was nice compared to the slightly rocky trails at Bandera a month ago.

Arriving at Truth Corner (aid station), I was told that it would be seven miles to the next aid station. I had to make sure that I filled up on food and drinks at this place or I’d end up in trouble. By this point I was in the field section of the course. There were numerous little bridges that traversed streams (or what would be streams if it rained) that were only a few feet below the bridge. One of the bridges actually had a break in it, having a higher and lower section, and I enjoyed doing some stupid looking jump as I crossed it each lap.

I finished my first outside loop (the outside 19-mile loop and inside6-mile loop combined to make 25 miles). I got to see Amy and the kids (which is something I always look forward to). I had been only running in my singlet for most of the race. The rain was a slight drizzle; only a mist at times. I enjoyed the nice weather as I was expecting it to be a lot wetter.

The inside loop, being only six miles, was great. Before you knew it, you were done with an entire lap and another quarter of the race was finished. By this time I was by myself for pretty much the rest of the race. When I got back to Truth Corner (aid station, mile 33), they asked me about a guy (that I had passed about ten minutes earlier). Apparently he was the male leader and they were wondering about him. I told them what I knew/saw as I passed him. They then told me that I was in third place and that second was maybe twenty or so minutes in front of me. Wow, I didn’t realize that I was doing this well. After I left, I pondered what they told me. Was I third overall or third male? I was very certain that Sabrina was in first. About halfway through the seven miles to the next aid station, I passed second place (which put me in second place, not first place as some people might think). I didn’t ask him, but I was sure that he was the guy in front of me. So, I was either second male or second overall (and first male). As I got to the next aid station, I found out that the latter was true. I had never been in such a place before. I didn’t really know what to do but keep the positive thoughts going, keep the fuel coming in at the aid stations, and keep moving at my pace.

Amy knew that I was in first (for males) and was wondering if she should tell me. A good friend texted and told her to tell me, but to also say that there were ‘No points for leading.’ We said this all the time in high school cross country. I left to finish the inside loop. Upon reaching Truth Corner (mile 47), I talked with my new buddies and asked just how far ahead Sabrina was; I just wanted to know how badly she would beat me. ‘Just keep going. You never know what will happen. Just keep running your race.’ Good advice. It’s what I was going to do anyway, but it’s always nice to hear others confirm what you think to be the correct procedure.

I headed out on my third lap. The weather was still wonderful; just misting and some drizzle every now and then. As I got to Copperhead (first aid station on the outside loop, mile 55), I was informed that I was the first person to check in. ‘Wait. I’m not first. What happened to Sabrina?’ ‘She dropped. Something weird happened.’ Holy cow, I’m in first place overall! I could win a race. Granted, I still had 45 miles to go, but I was still feeling great and this news made me even happier and it helped carry me through the rest of the outside loop. When I left for the inside loop, Amy asked if I wanted my jacket. ‘No, I’ll be fine.’ ‘You have about a 20-minute lead. Keep it up.’

As the sun was going down, it didn’t look like the weather was going to change and get all nasty like I had read. It was headlamp time and I was less than a mile from Truth Corner (aid station, mile 72). This was one of the field sections. The drizzling, which had been on and off all day, had started up again. And then the Texas downpour came. It only rained for maybe five minutes, but the damage was done. I wanted to quickly get to the trees, but I was already drenched. Great, now I’m soaked and the super chaffing (and freezing if I stop) can begin. Luckily I would be able to switch shirts in four miles and get a jacket in case it rained again. But four miles wouldn’t be soon enough. The rain poured down again for the second microburst. It was at this time that I was at Truth Corner (mile 72). I didn’t want to stay long. I already knew the trails were wet and muddy and that I still had over a mile to get back to the wooded area. I also knew that second place was close behind me and I didn’t know if I had it in me to race the final 25 miles. So I just took a few drinks and left. Then I saw and heard the lightning and thunder. ‘No lightning! This race cannot be cancelled now. I’m too close to finishing.’ I hadn’t seen any runners coming toward me and was worried that the race had been cancelled. Finally, I saw a couple runners just before I finished my third lap and asked them. ‘No. There’s nothing that could cancel this race.’ RELIEF!

I had to change my clothes because 25 miles in wet apparel was going to chaff me just a bit. I removed my bib number to attach to my dry shorts, but I apparently had them in the bag in the tent. The race director asked me if I was quitting. ‘What? Oh, no. Just putting my number on dry shorts. I can’t quit now. Not this close.’ I didn’t know exactly how close second place was to me, but I wasn’t about to take any chances. Foregoing some gels and food (again), I took a few drinks (after changing) and headed out for my last lap. No bells rang for the start of the final lap. I guess that happens on quarter-mile tracks and not on quarter-century-mile tracks.

After about two miles in, I started to realize that I had skipped any food for the last two aid stations. By the time I would reach the next aid station, it would have been over eleven miles since I ate anything. How could I be so stupid? You can get away with that at the beginning of a race, but not this close to the end. I felt fine (mentally and physically) except that I was running on fumes. My spirits were going low, but mostly because I kept envisioning the next guy passing me as I coasted in to the next aid station. It seemed like forever, but I finally made it and still hadn’t been passed. ‘What can we get for you?’ ‘Food. Lots of food.’ I thanked the volunteers for all the help throughout the day and left. It took awhile for the food to find my muscles, but when it did, I was back in business. Approximately a mile before Truth Corner (aid station, mile 84), the mud began and thus the walking began.

The mud. Many four letter words described everyone’s feelings about it. The mud wasn’t everywhere, but in enough places and for long enough stretches that it really drained one’s spirits. It wasn’t slippery mud. It was the kind that stuck to your shoes and gave you elevator shoes. You couldn’t run in it either. Fifty miles (or however far you happened to be) of previous running/walking had already spent most of your energy. You could try to run, but a few steps were all I was able to manage. I had to hope that everyone behind me was having as much fun as me and would consequently be walking through the mud. The trail was, at times, flat enough on either side so you could walk on the grass/small brush that lined the trail. But too often the brush was too tall or contained a few too many cacti and you had to trudge through the mud. To add injury to insult, this was also where all the bridges were. While they were no problem during the day, the rain (and mud) caused them to be slightly slick. Most were ok to cross. Two of them were picture worthy. I stepped onto it and slipped to the left and almost fell off except that I was able to grab the right edge of the bride. I was able to stand back up and slowly cross it. Now, don’t think that I would’ve died if I had fallen off the bridge. It was only a few feet down to the ground. But I didn’t want to fall off. Another bridge led from another long muddy section to the woody non-muddy section. This bridge was a little rickety. I knew that already. But I still stepped on it and nearly fell off again. Because the bridge was turning/spinning to the left, I would not be able to stand and cross. So I grabbed the right side of the bridge and crossed on my hands and knees. Thankfully I would only have to cross those two bridges on the outside loop and not on the inside loop. Yet another fun spot was a little past Truth Corner on the outside loop. There was a u-turn section, but the inside of the ‘U’ part was a drainage ditch. The other side of the ‘U’ was sloped concrete. Again, while it was dry there was no problem and I ‘flew’ around it with my arms up each time like I was an airplane. But this time was different. The aid station guys warned me about it. I had to figure a way to cross it. I ended up climbing up one side with some help from trees, climbed over a couple blocks, and then slid down to the trail. This part would have to be repeated on the inside loop, and was even harder going that way. A month ago I was swearing at all the rocks that had to be on the course. This night it was the same but directed at mud. I almost think I’d prefer the rocks at Bandera to mud.

There were, however, some cool things that happened at night. At least three times as I was in the happy woods, I got too close and flushed some owls out and they glided ahead along the trail. I don’t ever recall seeing an owl (outside of zoos, pictures, etc.) before that night. And it reminded me of a question posed to Mr. Owl. So I repeated the question: ‘Mr. Owl. How many licks does it take to get to the tootsie roll center of a tootsie roll pop?’ ‘Let me see. Ah one, ah two, (crunch) ah three. Three.’ Back during the day, a squirrel had jumped right onto a little tree that was next to me. I stopped and looked around one way. Knowing that it would go around to the other side, I quickly went to that side and made it go the other way. Screwy Squirrel. There was the bridge with a drop half way through it and I did some crazy jump over it each time I came to it (except after the mud came). I ran by this six-foot tall round cement block that had a manhole on top. And close by there was an open drain that dropped down about thirty feet (I stopped to look because I heard the water down below.). Both of those reminded me of IT. So when I passed by these relics along the course, I had to say ‘Hey Georgie. Wanna balloon? They float. We all float down here.’ On my last loop I said good-bye to Georgie as I passed the drain.
I was back to Truth Corner for the last time (mile 97). Just a little bit more mucky mud and I’d be done. As I pulled up, they recognized me and asked what I wanted. ‘Nothing but a drink and high fives to everyone.’
They were so good to me that I had to stop and thank them for everything throughout the day. They got a picture of me and a couple of the volunteers. I was so happy to be there. But not as happy as I’d be in three more miles.

It started to get lighter outside and I thought, ‘Oh crap. It’s been a whole day and even as fast as I completed the first 70 miles, I’m still gonna be over 24 hours.’ But then I realized that the race hadn’t started until 9 a.m. So surely I still had a couple hours to go. It had been so long since I ran the course in daylight that I started to think I had missed a turn. I kept going, however, and eventually saw the sign (after opening up my eyes). I was really really almost done. I crossed by our tent and was going to start screaming (the finish was only at most a couple hundred meters away as the crow flies), but decided against it. The course wasn’t set up for a speedy sprint finish, and it didn’t really matter. The super happy feeling and almost tears were right there as I was a minute from finishing. People cheered and congratulated me, not because I won but because someone actually completed the course in spite of the mud. Only eleven others would finish the race. 


Monday, November 3, 2014

Cactus Rose 100 (25-26 October 2014)

50-84-60. Not the measurements one typically hopes for. I’d be a lot happier with each of those numbers being about 20-30 lower. Of course, I’m talking about the temperature at the beginning, middle, and end of my race. And it’s not that 84 degrees is really hot, but when you’re running in it literally all day long and you’re exposed to it all day long (because mesquite trees aren’t very tall), it takes its toll on you and it can drain you.

 Grandma was in town to watch the kids while Amy and I had our annual date/birthday party in Bandera, TX. We met up with a friend who had a friend that was running his first 100-miler (and any official race longer than a 5k) and he was going to try his luck at Cactus. Now there’s a brave soul. We all got over to the start/finish and they began separating a lot of food and drinks into coolers to set out at the various aid stations. Amy and I were going to try something different. Instead of having drop bags at each aid station, I just had one bag with clothes and another with food and Amy met me at each station with that bag. Our friends didn’t know how to get to any of the aid stations (and neither did I, unless I took them along the course), but Amy did and we drove with them to show where to go. Stupid me- already having stayed up late (11:30 or later) the last two nights and waking up by at least 5:30 for work had given me very little sleep. And then to do this for the third day in a row was a disaster waiting to happen.

I slept nicely, except that I woke up around 3:30, a full half hour before my alarm was set to ring. And since the feeling of excitement was so immediate, I couldn’t manage to fall back asleep. I ate my typical pizza breakfast, got dressed with my new singlet as a member of TEAM TROT (which has its own story as to how I was able to stave off some pain and survive this race), and almost forgot to strap on my ankle timing chip. I met the other TROT’ers at the start/finish line and we were off.

Taking the first lap easy is one of my specialties. I just go with the flow and typically hang out near the back. And since I don’t get out in front of the crowd, I frequently get trapped in the caterpillar run/walk sessions through the stretches of single trail track. And for this race, as its rockiness will eat you up long before the race is over, I don’t mind taking it easy for as long as possible to hopefully leave me some chance of not dying while on my last 25-mile lap.

The first lap was fairly uneventful. I was alone for most of it, which is how this race usually is, since there aren’t too many that are brave enough (or is it loony enough?) to attempt the course in the first place. I saw a friend (Mel) about seven miles before the first lap ended and we talked for about five to ten minutes. I started counting runners as I got closer (you turn around and run the course in reverse each lap) and no longer remember which place I was in, and it mattered nothing to me since my place didn’t mean anything for at least another lap or two. Lap one was finished in just under five hours (11:47 pace) and I felt pretty good.

Lap two was also uneventful. I was still running by myself and seeing Amy every hour at the next aid station while the sun beat down on me the whole time made the day more bearable. Somewhere around mile 42 I started to have bad feelings, but I was able to get rid of them over the next few miles and ended up in the best of moods. I held onto those positive thoughts for the next 30+ miles.  Races are so much easier to run when you’re feeling good. I don’t know why I don’t just feel good during the whole race so that my races will play out how I plan them out in my head in the days preceding the race.
Lap two was ending and there would be no 50-milers turning around, so the counting of runners re-commenced. There was the leader. There went second place. Where’s Lorenzo? I had seen him earlier and was hoping to run with him again since I hadn’t run with him since our 86-mile stroll in February during Rocky Raccoon. I kept getting closer and closer to the turnaround and soon there was less than a mile, a half mile, and still no Lorenzo. I began cursing his name because I knew he had dropped this race for the second year in a row (and because I wanted some company during the more miserable times later in the race). But there was nobody else. I was in third place. AND I was feeling great (and not just because I was in third). I finished lap two in just over five hours for a total time of ten hours and ten minutes (12:37 pace).

Just like last year, the first half of my race had gone splendidly (finished 50 in 9 hours 15 min). I felt great, finished in about ten hours, and was ready to keep up the feeling and finish in maybe twelve more hours (because I know that keeping the same pace for the second half of this race is nearly impossible). I even started my third lap by running out (until I got to that awful rocky hill that would be the last hill I had to traverse for lap four).

I was in such a good mood when I left. There were some 50-milers that had roughly a half mile remaining, and one asked me how much more she had. “You’re so close. Maybe a half mile. You can push it in and finish in about three minutes.” And everyone I saw for the next ten minutes got a similar encouragement from me. It made me feel even better. I saw Mel again, so I stopped to try to cheer her up. I was just too happy not to say something. “Get a smile on that face. Be happy. You’re in second. Chill out and walk for a while and you’ll do just fine.” But this isn’t a course that you can just trudge through when your feet are killing you. The sheer amount of rocks, and then the rocky hills, and don’t forget about the rocks- you know that you are more than capable of walking a long time still, but then you remember all those rocks and how super sucky it is to just think about walking on them. Then it is very difficult to convince yourself to go back out there. And I will never think badly about anyone who drops this race. I just don’t ever want to be one to drop it.
I still had my water bottle (I had had it for the last fifteen miles and would still have it for the next fifteen) as the heat and exposure required some extra water. I’m glad I could overcome my pride of ‘never carrying a water bottle’ so that I could have a much better chance at finishing.

I came into Equestrian (aid station) at mile 65 at about 6:30. I debated about taking my headlamp, and was glad I took it because I would’ve been in total darkness (the moon was a waxing crescent only a few days after new moon) for about 2.5 miles on some rather rocky terrain. Still by myself, I just kept on jogging/walking. By this point in the race, I could hardly bear to run on anything rocky and tried to take as much advantage of the smooth jeep trails and pushed the pace at those points.

I saw the leader come back toward me and congratulated him. I saw a couple other guys, who I assumed were relay runners, so I said “Good job” to them and continued on. The second-place guy and his pacer came toward me and he said “Hi” and asked how I was doing. I hadn’t seen his name before, but apparently he knew me through Lorenzo. Amy also got to know him as he was right in front of me for the last fifty miles of the race. “Are you volunteering here?” “No, I’m crewing for my husband.” “Who is he?” “Matt.” “Zmolek?” “Yeah.” “How’s he doing?” “He’s feeling great and he’s right behind you.” ‘He’s right behind you’ was what kept Jason going during the dark last lap. We talked for a half hour after I finished. Glad to add another friend to my list.

Despite how good I was feeling, my light started to go dim, and I had to hold it in my hand so I could see enough. But even still, I couldn’t see well enough on the rocky sections, so I had to walk (because I didn’t get this far just to fall down and hurt myself at mile 73 and then not finish).  I crossed the start/finish and got fresh batteries. Wow! What a difference! I was stoked. Jason was not too far in front of me (maybe three miles or so) and I was still feeling good. I was going to catch up to him and say, “Hey, let’s go.” I don’t know what he was going to do with his pacer or if he’d come along. But Amy had told me that Jason knew who I was, and I wanted to get to know him. And, by my count, I was still in third place.
I pushed the pace on every slightly flat section for five miles. Still, no Jason (even though in my head he was always just around the next corner, and I constantly wondered why I wasn’t catching up to him). Only twenty more miles. Now the really hellish section. I was still wearing just my singlet and felt warm. I was on the jeep trails before the Three Sisters and I was pushing pretty hard through the rolling hills. Right before I turned the corner to go up the Three Sisters, I swear I saw a headlamp. IMPOSSIBLE! There can’t possibly be another crazy runner out there who would hold back and let loose more than I was at this point. But as I was going up the hill, it was a runner. I wanted to be third. I knew that some top runners had dropped or were running the 50-miler instead, but I wanted third. Amy wanted the metalwork rose (top three finishers get one). And this was probably the best chance I would ever get. I did not want to get passed. Crowning the top, I quickly made my way down and up the next one, and then down and up the last one. At the top of the last Sister, he caught me. In my head I said, “Good job. You’re amazing. Keep it up. You earned it man.” But aloud I said, “Are you a relay runner?” “Yeah.” And that made me so happy. I was relieved and slowed down my pace.

Still feeling pretty good, I jogged up the jeep trails to the last hilly section. I came into Equestrian feeling so happy that I screamed “Only three more hills!” on my way out. The ecstasy led me to foolishly sprint onto the jeep trails, and I quickly found myself drained. “Stupid! What were you thinking? You still have fifteen more miles, not five!” As I came up to Ice Cream Hill, I was very low in spirit and was walking almost exclusively. I finally made it up and over and when I reached the flat two mile stretch, I had to change my plans from the original ‘let’s push it’ to ‘I hope I can keep walking.’

I came walking as fast as I could into Nachos (aid station; 10 more miles). Amy asked what I wanted. “A nap.” I really needed one. I guess it came out jokingly, and Amy told me that I only had ten more miles and then I could sleep as much as I wanted. I was feeling cold, and turned around right after I left to get a long sleeve shirt and windbreaker (since I wasn’t running anymore).

And thus started the very low part of this race. Miles 85-90. For almost the entire time, I had two thoughts. The first was: Don’t fall asleep, because there is nobody close to you. You will end up falling down, cracking your head open, and bleeding to death, or you will fall asleep and die from hypothermia. The second was: When I get to Equestrian (aid station; 5 remaining miles) I am stopping to sleep. I don’t care what Amy says, I need a nap, even if it’s just ten minutes. These were my thoughts for an hour and a half. I considered cheating at a few spots just so I could get to the van sooner and sleep. I’d have gone back and made up the distance, but I needed to sleep. I considered screaming Amy’s name when I got to the road so she’d come get me (even though I’m sure she’d never have heard me). But I somehow managed to trudge on and made it to the aid station. A runner had just passed me a minute earlier, and I had nothing left in me. And I was certain he was a 100-miler because he was just now catching me.

“Matt?” “I’m taking a nap! Where’s the van?” “You only have five miles.” “I NEED a nap! Where’s the van? I’ll sleep right here on the ground if you don’t take me there.” Amy will remember this as the first time in twelve years of marriage that I yelled at her. But she let me sleep for ten minutes. She came and got me and informed me that the only runners that had come in were relay runners. I was still in third! I couldn’t believe it. My head was so much clearer and I could actually think about something other than sleep.

I made my way out. My muscles were a bit stiff from not moving for ten minutes, but I got into the groove. I jogged a bit, but mostly still walked. As I approached the final rocky hill, I swore that I heard some people behind me. ‘Not now! I’m almost done! I am NOT getting passed here!’ Once I got down the other side, I jogged. Then I walked. And jogged. And back and forth as much as I could push it. I didn’t have my typical hysteria and near-teary eyes that I have at the end of every race. I was happy, but that’s all. I came up to the finish line, and since I wasn’t sprinting or shouting, Amy didn’t know that it was me until I was right in front of her. I saw the timer: 24:11:59. Oh well, I was finished and that was what really mattered. It wasn’t a horrible time, just not what I was hoping for today.

And later as I was talking with Jason, I learned that a runner had somehow passed me on the third lap without me noticing, and then took off on his last lap before Jason left on his. So I guess I wasn’t really third after all. I finished fourth. But more importantly, I finished.

One of these years I’m gonna figure out a better way to run this race and end up with a time that I’m really proud of.