I hardly slept at all before I got up at 12:30am to make the 4 hour trip from Dallas to Smithville, TX for the Hells Hills 50K Ultra-Marathon Trail Run. I was a bit afraid of falling asleep behind the wheel during the drive there (I have never driven that far either), but I was wide awake as soon as I made it to Rocky Hill Ranch where the race was being held. I made it just in time to see the 50 milers start the race, nearly 150 runners bobbing up and down the trail with headlamps makes for a pretty awesome visual, I can only hope to be that crazy come next year. An hour later would be my start for the 50K portion; a mixture of dread and excitement in competing in my first 50K trail run was washing over me while waiting at the gate counting down to the start.
After completing the Cross Timbers Marathon Trail run a month and half before, I was not very thrilled with my results there. Cross Timbers was only my second Marathon ever and first Marathon trail run, and coming back from a knee injury that had held my running back to limited miles for as late as July last year, I was severely under-trained for what is described as the “Toughest little Trail in Texas”. Trail running is something I’ve always wanted to get into after reading “Born to Run” several years back though (R.I.P. Micah True), and when I found out about the race only a month before it was being held, I signed up immediately before fully realizing what I was getting into. Cross Timbers was definitely an eye-opener for me, it took me over 6 hours to complete a 26.2 mile trail with several thousand feet of seriously steep hill climbs and the extremely muddy situation didn’t make things any easier. I was amazed, given the less than ideal situation, that the top 4 Marathon finishers completed that same course in under 4 hours!!! I vowed to do better on my next Marathon trail run, and with Hells Hills a month and half away, I would have my first test.
For Cross Timbers, I ran just over 30 miles a week and practically did no hill training whatsoever (in hindsight, that wasn’t a very good idea); for Hells Hills I bumped up my training to 50 miles per week and added several thousand feet worth of hill training to the mix. It’s not so easy to automatically bump up your weekly mileage and hill elevation training so dramatically though, and even with all the additional supplements I was taking to cope with it, I was extremely exhausted by the time I started my two weeks of taper before Hells Hills. Even though I was ratcheting down my mileage significantly during the last two weeks before the race, my legs felt lethargic until just a few days before Hells Hills was to start.
So, while waiting at the gate for the race at Hells Hills to start, taking into mind all my additional training, I was a lot more confident than I was waiting at the start for Cross Timbers; it was, however, my first 50K Trail run and running in temperatures approaching the mid 80s turning the woods into a sauna on the second loop, presented whole new anxieties to worry about. All my worries and anxieties vanished once the race started though, and it was pretty exciting running in complete darkness for the first hour being surrounded by bobbing headlamps all around me. I finished my first 25K loop in under 3 hours and at a solid 11 minute pace; two weeks of tapering and cool early morning weather had me breezing through the the first loop. I was trying to pace myself, but just couldn’t help it, I was navigating the rocks and roots of the rough terrain like a jungle cat with my Vibram Five-Finger Spyridon trail shoes, and all the up and down hills presented little challenge as I finished the first loop...all that changed for the second half.
Given my strong first half performance, I was hoping to beat my Cross Timbers finishing time of 6:17 hrs...I didn’t come close. The first loop was just a warm-up, the second loop is where the race really begins; the temperature started climbing turning the woods into a sauna and all the energy I felt at the start of the race increasingly melted away at every little hill climb thrown my way. Suddenly, I was no longer the agile jungle cat making my way through the woods with deadly efficiency, more like a weary deer stumbling over rocks and roots once fatigue started settling in. Those Vibram Spyridon’s that I love so much for the awesome control and connection to the ground it gives you on the trail, well, I wanted to trade that all away not to feel so much of the rocks anymore after 20 miles or so. The last five miles past the Tunnel of Pines (loved this aid station the most and thanks for the car wash!) was especially tortuous given all the frequent hill climbs (The Wall and the Grind wasn’t as intimidating as they sounded though), I was walking (and stumbling) more often than not and any hopes of beating my Cross Timbers finish time vanished with all those energy sapping hills at the end; no amount of Roctanes, Endurolytes, or Salt caps (I took 8, 18, and 8 respectively) would have helped, my gas was just spent. That's when I started repeating the Mantra "Relentless Forward Progress" in my head over and over, and also had that Lord of The Rings theme song "Requiem for a Dream" playing in my head non-stop; it certainly helped push aside the doubts and fatigue for the last few miles and kept me moving forward to a respectable finish.
I passed a handful of 50 milers on their second loop near the end, and just couldn’t help but feel sorry for the poor, weary, and Mas Locos souls that they were. I know I would have seriously questioned myself even attempting a third loop in that heat, but amazingly I saw some of those same folks I passed earlier at the finish line making their way back for what must have surely been a gauntlet of a third loop (something that I'll surely keep in mind if I ever found myself in their position). All in all, I’m proud of my finish time of 6:36 hrs at Hells Hills, it was my first 50K and I didn’t have as much time as I would have liked to train for it after Cross Timbers; I gave the race my all and in the end, that’s all that really matters. Thanks to Joe, the wonderful Volunteers manning those remote aid stations, and all the runners I met along the trail; I vow to be back next year, and maybe this time it would be for the 50 miler...or not.