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.

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