My running of the 2014 Bandera 100K was taking care of some unfinished business. But to tell that story I must go back to the very beginning, the beginning of my ultra running. As often happens in life, some of our best experiences happen by accident, or perhaps by fate depending upon your philosophical bent. But this is how I started running ultras. I started running them by accident.
Coming off my best road marathon performance at the Chicago Marathon in October of 2012, I decided that I would run the California International Marathon (CIM) in December of that year. CIM is probably the fastest road marathon course that exists. It is very flat with a slight descent over the course of the race. My goal was to set a new PR (Personal Record) beating the time that I had run in Chicago a couple of months earlier.
The week before CIM it became apparent that the weather was not going to be good for a PR attempt. Runningweatherman.com gave the forecast a “D” rating, calling for several inches of rain and strong winds. Since my only purpose for running CIM was to attempt a PR I decided that a trip to the west coast would be a waste of time and I started to look for a local race to run.
There aren’t very many marathons in December in the midwest and for obvious reason. But I found one, a trail marathon in southern Indiana. I wasn’t really sure what a “trail” marathon would be like but from the race description it sounded beautiful. I had done zero hill training but I figured I would just slow down for the hills to keep my heart rate in check. How bad could it be? So I signed up for the Tecumseh Trail Marathon.
As it turns out, it can be very bad. It took me an hour longer to complete than the Chicago Marathon just two months earlier. The exact same distance just placed on a wooded trail with rolling hills. I was happily walking around after the Chicago Marathon but after Tecumseh Trail I could literally not move. I laid shaking on the ground. The combination of technical trail, steep ascents, and fast descents had turned what I thought were well trained legs to mush. I was hooked.
The challenge of the brutal trail being partially masked by the anesthetic of its rugged beauty made me feel completely alive and at the same time fully aware of what an infinitesimal speck I was in place and time. I wanted more of this adventure and as soon as possible. So I talked Amy into traveling to Texas in January 2013 to run a 50K trail race… an ultra! However while researching the event I found out that there was also a 100K race and that if you finished it you would receive a belt buckle instead of a medal. The scene from Urban Cowboy of John Travolta standing with his back to the bar, large belt buckle in the center of his lithe body flashed in my mind. I wanted a belt buckle. So we signed up for our first ultras, the Bandera 50K for Amy and the Bandera 100K for me.
Tecumseh Trail had about 3,500 feet of ascent and another 3,500 feet of descent. The Bandera 100K had around 8,000 feet of each and on a much more technical, rocky trail. We had about a month to get ready. We both finished our races but we were very unprepared for the difficulty of the terrain and we vowed to come back in 2014 to improve upon our times.
So this was the unfinished business. What kind of difference would a year of proper training make? How would the experience of running two more 100Ks (one in the course of my 2013 Chimera 100 Mile DNF), a 56 mile effort, and a 40 mile effort along with several marathon to 50K efforts impact my performance one year later?
One of the lessons we learned from the year before was that a narrow road, which is the only way to the start line of a large ultra, can get really backed up with traffic before the start of a race. The previous year we were in the car conga line when most of the runners began the race. So this year we camped at the start. Bandera has a great setup for camping at the start with a large field of grass.
On race morning we reluctantly climbed out of our down sleeping bags and climbed into the rental car which we started and then quickly turned the heat all the way up. Sitting in the front seats pushed all the way back, we changed into our running clothes. If you have ever undressed and then dressed again in a car (no need to raise your hand), you will know that this activity also checked the box on any pre-race stretching, yoga, or other contortions that might have otherwise been required. My headlamp has a low red light setting and I enjoyed using this setting while glancing over at Amy periodically during this process. I did have the good sense to avoid the strobe setting lest I draw too much attention from the van full of male runners camping to our right.
We kissed each other good luck and went to our respective starting line on time. Although it was quite cool in the morning the forecast called for low 70s by early afternoon so my strategy was to run the first 50k lap hard, suffer through the heat on the first half of the second loop, and then survive darkness and the difficult technical descent the last 10 miles of the second loop.
For those not familiar with the Bandera 50k and 100k course, it is a technical, rocky nightmare in Texas hill country. Although each loop only has about 3,500 to 4,000 feet of gain, the gains and descents occur on “barely runnable” to “only runnable by non humans” (think cougars, deer, coyotes, goats, and elites) sections of the trail. No single climb or descent is over 300 feet so it is a nearly constant up and down assault on the body.
After a year of trying to run ultras I have learned that my best hope at running fast is is to hitch my wagon to some top 10 female (race position) or uber-young (under 35) non elite male and try to hold on for dear life. So after getting dropped by three ladies in the first 10 miles I glommed onto a 28 year old red head guy. So while telling him about my entire running history and just as I was getting to the good part, I tripped and fell hard on my knee. I barely avoided a face plant by catching myself with my hands. I jumped up as fast as I could and continued mid sentence with my story to try and looked un-phased.
But I was phased. Barely over halfway through the first loop my knee and hands were gushing blood and my knee felt like it was on the verge of seizing. I felt excruciating pain shooting up my leg and my instinct was to stop and walk. I took a quick inventory and concluded that nothing was broken. I knew that stopping or walking would allow my leg to tighten up so I decided to do the only logical thing. I sped up. And as luck would have it, I was entering one of the few flat sections of the course. After two miles of fast, flat running I had forgotten all about my fall.
I finished the first loop strong but I was definitely starting to feel the heat. I had forgotten to bring a hat so the sun was starting to do a number on my fair complexion. I pulled a fresh pair of socks, my light, and some sunscreen from my drop-bag and started out on loop two. The first half of the second loop was the hottest part of the day. I ran from aid station to aid station completely refilling my two bottles with water and electrolyte drink at each stop. I also guzzled two to three cups of Coke or Mountain Dew for “nutrition”.
The last ten miles of each loop are the most technical and difficult for me. I had managed to conserve enough light with my pace to only have to run the last seven miles in the dark. This was a significant improvement over the prior year when I had to run the last 20 miles in the dark; the first five with no light as I had too optimistically placed my light in a forward drop-bag. I knew I would be walking large sections of the last miles due to the dark and the technical descents but I managed to run more than I thought I would.
I finished three hours faster than the previous year. I ran the race in 13 hours and 18 minutes completing the first 50K loop in 5:28. The heat, darkness, and fatigue led to about 2 hours longer for the second loop. I think running the first loop in closer to 5:50 would have been optimal.
The combination of better training, better course conditions, and starting at first light had led to quite an improvement. I was very happy with my flat and uphill performance but I am still not happy with my ability to descend technical trail. If I can improve my descending it will allow a significant overall reduction in my finishing times. Amy took 90 minutes off of her 50K time from the previous year so we both had a similar improvement versus race distance.
I wasn’t walking too well after finishing. Amy babied me. She helped me to a nice seat by the heater and went back to the tent and brought me a beer. She drove the car closer so I didn’t have to walk to the tent and then helped me into my sleeping bag. We woke up early, packed our camp and drove to Jim’s Restaurant in San Antonio for a giant breakfast. We then went to the airport and flew home. I didn’t forget to mention showering and changing clothes. We didn’t. We pulled our wool hats low on our heads. Keeping our down jackets zipped up tight to contain any offensive odors, we tried not to make eye contact with the normal people.
We can’t wait to do it again.