Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Cactus Rose 100 Mile

             The Toughest Show On Dirt

I signed up for this year's Cactus Rose 100 with one goal in mind;  To finish.  I am not the type of ultra-runner who likes to sign up for as many races as possible.  I believe in quality over quantity.  I pick a specific race, train like hell for it and expect the most favorable results.  So when I entered into this race, there was never an option of "If I'm not having a good day, I can drop to the 50."  That thought, although constantly lingering over me, was not allowed to enter my mind.  A "DNF" was not in the game plan, and I had to succeed. 

In my opinion, there are three components that are key to running a successful ultra;  #1-Mental Toughness, #2- Iron Stomach, and #3 Strong Legs and Feet.  These three things all fit together to form a successful race.  In most cases, if one fails, the other two components are weakened and eventually can fail as well, leading to a poor performance or in the worst of cases a "DNF".  So in light of that, I knew I had to have all three of these areas sharp as a tack in order to successfully navigate this course.  The odds were stacked against me from day one because, unlike many others in my running circle, I had never been to the Texas Hill Country.  Not for the Cactus Rose 50 or for any of the Bandera races.  I was a "Hill Country Virgin", if you will.  I had heard all of the horror stories from friends of mine who have run either of those courses before; the rocks, the heat, the climbs, the downhills, the sotol, and the agony that all of them put together inflict on your body.  This was no race to be taken lightly.  On top of all of that, I was coming off of two mediocre performances in ultras earlier in the year.  I ran the Mississippi 50 Mile, and both my mind and stomach went haywire, and my legs soon followed, in what was easily the wettest, nastiest and muddiest race I have ever run.  A similar thing happened a few months later at the Big Butts 50K, only this time it was the extreme July, Mississippi heat that did me in.  Which brings me back to my previous statement of having all three components working in lockstep to ensure success.  In my two previous races, one component fell by the wayside, and was quickly followed by the rest.  Although I finished both of these races, they were less than stellar performances.

I began my official training plan for Cactus Rose on April 30, 2012.  I had six months to get into top shape.  All I had to do was survive running through the Louisiana summer.  If you've never run in LA in the summertime, just go to your local gym, get in the sauna and run in place for several hours.  100 degree heat, coupled with 100% humidity, made for some really brutal training.  By the end of July, after completing the Big Butts 50K, I was mentally and physically whipped.  I was very discouraged with my training runs, and the intense heat was really taking it's toll on me.  I remember telling my wife how unenthusiastic I was to even run Cactus Rose because of the difficult time I was having with my training.  Then came the shoe incident...........

I have been running in 4mm drop shoes for a while, on the road and trails.  I used to run in Brooks Cascadias before making the switch.  I ran in Saucony Peregrine 2s and Kinvara TRs during the summer, but the hot, wet conditions of LA broke down these shoes very quickly and I was tearing them up quickly;  sometimes after just a little over 100 miles. 

A doomed pair of Peregrine 2s, after only 250 miles.
I needed a more rugged shoe, with a 4mm drop and a rock plate to withstand the punishment of Cactus Rose.  I searched, and asked questions to different people, and tried on numerous pairs of trail shoes at run stores, but nothing seemed to suit me.  Finally, I thought I had a winner with the Altra Lone Peaks.  But after ordering two different pairs, I just couldn't get them to work for me.  They also helped me to determine that I had a small bunion under the ball of my left, little toe.  They seemed to put just the right kind of pressure on it, to make my foot hurt.  So back they went.  Finally, I relented and went back to the Cascadias.  BIG MISTAKE!!!  Just as you have to transition from a higher heel shoe to a 4mm shoe, you also have to transition back.  This was a transition that my feet could not seem to make and I began to have severe arch, calf and knee pain on one leg.  It was bad enough to get me to see a podiatrist.  I was at my wit's end.  Cactus rose was only 2 months away and I couldn't even find a decent pair of shoes, much less run the course.  After months of searching, I got a post on FB from a guy named John Vaupel who is with "Trail Running Club".  He suggested the Saucony Xodus 3.0.  They had a 4mm drop, a thicker outsole and a rock plate.  I got a pair, and my pains immediately went away.  With a pair of shoes that agreed with me and the oncoming cooler temps, things began to fall into place.  My runs got stronger and faster, and my confidence began to build.  I finally felt like I was getting my mojo back.

As race day approached, I began watching the weather map closely.  Initially, it looked like the temps would be a little warmer than usual for this race, but as the days wound down, the temps kept getting cooler.  By race day we were looking at a low of 39 and high 65;  perfect running weather.

We arrived at The Lodge on Friday afternoon, set up our tent, and attended the race briefing.  The reality had officially set in that I was going to do this race, and I was beginning to get a little nervous.  Joe Prusaitis and Henry Hobbs, the race coordinators talked about the tough terrain, and how the course was natsier than ever, with more erosion than ever before and extra-tall sotol plants that now could not only cut up your legs, but your face as well.  After the briefing, Erica, my wife and crew, fixed me some spaghetti and it was off to bed.  I didn't expect to sleep much due to pre-race jitters, but Erica's one condition to us camping was that we buy an air mattress.  Thanks to that very mattress, I slept like a baby that night.

Erica at our Texas ranch house.

Race morning seemed to come quickly, and I awoke before my alarm clock went off, to the shuffling of other runners getting themselves together for the day's event.  I got myself together, ate a quick breakfast, and before I knew it, it was 10 minutes to race time.  I could hear the sounds of Joe yelling "10 minutes", then "5 minutes", then "2 minutes".  Shit began to get real, awfully quick.  Next thing you know, it was 5 a.m., and we were off.  Also in attendance were Edie Reidel, Brad Delcambre and Bobbi Parker, all from Lafatyette, LA.  They were all doing the 50.  I was the only one in our group dumb enough to go for 100.  I didn't know how it would turn out.  I had Erica to crew and cook for me during the race, and Dave Silvestro as my pacer for my final 25 miles.  I started out with 2 pacers but my other pacer, Antonio Alvarado, injured his back the week before the race.  That meant the first 75 were on me.  As if I needed my race to be any tougher.

Lap #1

This lap was all about feeling out the course.  Since I had never run this course, I really wanted to pay attention to every section, so I could sort of judge what kind of race I would have.  As always, in a race that is mostly single track, everyone was bunched up for the first few miles until we hit Lucky Peak, the first climb of the day.  It was rocky and steep, but I managed.  Up and over and on the next  big climb of Ice Cream Hill.  It was a little steeper and higher, but I handled it fine.  By this time, the crowd had thinned, and I was already running by myself.  I knew this would be a lonely course, but I didn't think this soon.  Then at mile 19 came Sky Island.  When I approached it, I was in awe.  It was what seemed like a near vertical climb on a very rocky surface.  The runners on top looked like ants, as I'm sure I looked to them down at the bottom.  This was my first real taste of Cactus Rose.  After Sky Island came Boyles Bump and Cairn's Climb.  All hills of great elevation and tough climbing.  The crazy thing was that I had to climb all of them 4 times during this race.  I would be in for a long day.  I completed my first lap a little sooner than expected, in 5 hrs 28 min.  I survived my first test at Cactus Rose and still felt really good.  I even thought for a brief moment, "This isn't so bad.  I got this."  HA!!!!!  What a naive idiot I am.

Lap #2   

I was still full of "piss and vinegar" at the start of this lap.  I had all the food I needed in my drop boxes, and Erica was keeping me energized with hot quesadillas and chicken noodle soup.  Things were going pretty well for me.  Another lap, only in reverse this time.  The big hills came in the first 13 miles, followed by what seemed like a much easier 12 at the end of this lap.  I was still feeling great, my nutrition was good and I was running well.  I finished my second lap in 6 hrs, 35 mins, giving me a 50 mile time of a little over 12 hours.  I was pleasantly surprised with my time, and again, thought to myself that this course was not living up to all the hype.  Remember that "naive idiot" comment earlier????

Lap #3

I've run enough of these races to know that my 3rd lap would be considerably slower.  I told Erica it would probably be a 7+ hour lap.  My pacer Dave made to the start and I told him to be ready to go around midnight.  Going clockwise again this time, I was able to capitalize a little on flatter, first 10 miles of the lap.  I wanted to cover as much ground as possible before dark.  I was also trying something new by charging my Garmin 310 XT with a portable charger as I ran.  I wanted to run my Garmin the entire race without it going dead.  This was my first time trying this, so I wasn't sure how it would work out.  Well, it actually did quite well.  My Garmin was charged after about 2 hours and I was at 100% battery life by mile 60.  Darkness fell around 7:30 p.m. and as I entered the Nachos aid station, I hooked up with Bob Brooks, who I met on the course earlier.  He asked if I was interested in the two of us running together over the nastiest part of the trail.  I was happy to oblige him, since I figured by now most of the 50 milers were done and it would be really lonely out there.  I hate running in the dark, and not being able to see anyone ahead or behind me.  It always gives me the impression that I am off course.  Having some company was just what I needed.  Plus, it was almost like having a pacer again.  Bob and I ran together for quite a while, but with about 5 miles remaining in the lap, his pace got a little to fast for me and I backed off and told him to go on without me.  I knew if I tried to keep up with him, I'd have nothing left for my last lap.  Those last 5 miles were tough.  My thoughts of the course not being so bad quickly faded, as my calves burned more with every climb and my quads burned more with every descent.  Also, the sotol had finally worn me down.  I had calf sleeves on, by my quads were cut up and very tender.  It seemed everytime I touched a sotol plant, it was agony.  I had also worked up a pretty large blister on the outside of my left heel.  All that combined slowed my pace considerably, but my stomach was in good shape and my mental game was still sharp.  My third lap took 7 hrs, 47 mins.  I had two things to celebrate at this point; #1- I had just completed mile 75 of Cactus Rose, and #2- I had just met my yearly mileage goal of running 2,012 miles in 2012.  With 25 miles left to go, the clock was at 19:50:00 and counting.  I did a little doctoring and taping of my blisters and told Dave it was time to go to work.

My "blood toll" to the sotol.

Myself and Dave prior to Lap #4. One of us has a lot of energy!

Lap #4

I told Erica that I expected this to be an 8.5 hour lap at best.  I still felt good mentally, but my body was pretty tired and my feet were extremely tender from pounding rocks all day, and from the blister I acquired.  I told Dave it would be a "comical" pace.  He said when he saw my first lap time that he thought he'd have trouble keeping up with me.  I told him not to worry b/c I wasn't moving very fast anymore.  This lap involved about 90% walking.  I tried to take advantage of the flat, rock-free portions of the trail b/c they were the only sections I could do the "100 mile shuffle" on.  My movements could no longer be considered running.  Although, I appeared to put a lot of effort into my "so-called" runs on this lap, in reality, I think I was actually moving faster by power walking.  But, making some running motions made me feel like I still had a little strenth in me.  As time wore on, my blister continued to hurt and I could feel another on coming on at the arch of my left foot.  The climbs became very slow and the descents even slower.  I took great care in coming down, so I wouldn't make my tender feet hurt anymore than necessary.  Although my legs and feet were shot, I never got a sick stomach and mentally, I was in a good place.  I knew that I was going to finish this race.  Dave was a good pacer/companion during this lap.  He kept me awake with plenty of conversation.  At a couple of points, I had to appologize to him for not responding to him, but I was so tired, my mind and my mouth were not really connected anymore.  As the lap wore on, my exhaustion kind of put me in that "walking dead" state of mind.  I would just focus on the trail and move forward as best I could.  Dave didn't mind.  He just kept on moving with me and keeping me aware of my surroundings and my calorie intake.  He kept me on point, even as I started to hallucinate seeing the raccoon in the middle of the trail, that turned out to be a patch of grass, the little girl sitting near a tent, that turned out to be a rock, and the man in the woods, which was only a tree.  I guess being up for 30+ hours will do that to you.  As we crossed over mile 90, and into Nachos aid station for the last time, I witnessed my second Texas sunrise during this race.  It would be good to have some sun on my face after nearly 12 hours of running in the dark.  When we got to Equestrian, I dumped my lights and camelback, and anything else not absolutely necessary, picked up an amphipod of water and told Dave, "Let's get the hell outta hear and go get a buckle."  And just like that, we were off.

The last 5 miles were as tough as any, and even when I ran, I seemed to be moving no faster than a walk.  There was only one obstacle between me and victory, and that was Lucky Peak.  Everything else in this section was flat.  When we hit Lucky Peak, it nearly knocked the wind out of me.  I had no more climbing ability left in me.  And at this point, it seemed higher, rockier and steeper than ever before.  Very slowly and carefully, we made it over.  With 1 mile left to go, I radioed to Erica that we were almost there.  When we made it too the junction where the trails merged, I could feel that buckle in my hands.  As we made it around the final turn, I could see the finish line.  When we got within sight, Dave let out his rebel yell, which he did everytime we got on top of a hill (The first time he did it scared the hell out of me!), so that everyone knew we were coming.  The crowd was small so late in the race, but the important people were there.  I crossed the finish line in 29:32:31, and Erica was there to congratulate me and give me some love.  I got my buckle, shook hands with Joe, and told him how his course kicked my ass.  And just like that, it was over.  I came out to Bandera not knowing how I would fare on this course, but with a single attempt, I had conquered it.  I thanked Dave again for the great job of pacing me and started to collect my stuff.  Even though it was a long, long, long race for me (The longest amount of time I have ever run.), I still was not nauseas or really feeling bad.  Usually after a race, my stomach is sick, but not today.  My nutrition was perfect, and for the most part, my mind stayed sharp.  I never go broken down mentally or hit any real low points during this race.  My training had really paid off in the end.  I finished 25th place overall.  There were 80 who started the 100 and 47 to finish; a completion rate of 59%.  The drop rate is usally around 50%.  I think the perfect temps contributed to a higher finish percentage.  I think had my feet not been so tender at the end, my time could have been a little better, but, a finish is a finish.  I will take my buckle with pride.  Edie, Brad and Bobbi also all finished their 50 miles.

Dave and I making the final turn.
Final steps.

I have to give some major thanks to my very supportive wife/crew, Erica, for helping me out with all of my needs during this race.  She is my ultimate supporter and has never missed a race, with the exception of the Dallas Whiterock Marathon in 2010, which she still kicks herself for.  Her love and dedication does not go overlooked.

Too Dave Silvestro for the great pacing job, and for keeping on point during my final lap.  To Antonio Alvarado, who trained to pace me, but got injured at the last minute.  And to all of my fellow ultra-runners, who are always kind, giving and supportive throughout the race.  No matter how bad you look during an ultra, there is always someone just a few steps away telling you how strong you look.  It is just the "ultra" way.  No other races compare to these.

When I had initally signed up for this race, I had intended to do the Rouge Orleans 126.2 in February 2013.  Now..........I don't think I will.  With this finish, I am in a place of great satisfaction with myself, and I don't think I have anything left to prove right now.  Rouge Orleans is still on my list, and it's time will come.  But for now, I am happy where I am at. 

Run on friends.


My beat up feet.

My Garmin experiment post-race.  I think the extreme hills made it register long.

"The Crash" post-race.

The weapons and the prize.