I’m amazed at the torrid schedule of Ultras some people pursue, or new runners to Ultras propensity to tackle ever greater distances as quickly as they can...I’m not one of them or try not to be, in any case. I tend to be cautious and methodical in my pursuits, as cautious as one can be throwing themselves at punishing Ultras anyway, my plan was to build a base of smaller Ultras in the 50K-60K range till I felt confident enough that I can handle a 50 mile distance injury free. Besides being cautious by nature, I had a past lengthy knee injury, where I’ve mention in my previous blog entries, that I constantly worried would flare up again stopping my running cold. With pursuing Ultras becoming such an obsession of mine all year, it seemed all my confidence in life was held hostage to a gimpy left knee. So with all these worries in mind, instead of jumping to the 50 mile distance as soon as I could after completing my first 50K, I gave myself enough time to pursue the 50 mile goal gradually, but not too much time in order to keep me on my toes training wise.
It would take me 5 months of toiling mile after mile over the dreadful Summer months in Texas (Texas summers pretty much last from March to September these days), before I felt ready to even sign up for Wild Hare 50 Mile. The biggest difference for me was adopting a 5 day running schedule back in July that emphasized back to back long runs over the weekends; I had impulsively signed up for the Rocky Raccoon 100 Mile endurance run out of fear that the race would sell out (it sold out two weeks later), and quickly looked up a 100-Mile training schedule at the UltraLadies Running Club website. The back to back long runs helped to combat fatigue in the later stages of an Ultra, and I first felt it’s effect at Reveille Ranch 60K. Reveille Ranch, a Capt’n Karl’s Night-Time Trail running event, was a defining run for me; I emerged from 10 hours of making my way through 37.2 miles of rough and very technical terrain feeling almost like an actual Ultra-Runner for the first time. Most importantly, during the last 5 miles or so of RR60K my legs weren’t completely dying of fatigue, I probably could have gone on for another half dozen miles after the race. I finally felt ready for a 50 Miler...now just don’t get cocky.
The Cactus Rose 100 & 50 Mile Race in October was fast approaching, many of my friends were attending, and I was eager to get a 50 Miler done and focus on Rocky Raccoon 100 exclusively. After many weeks of wavering, Cactus Rose’s brutally tough reputation was enough to scare me off in the end...it’s important for new trail runners to note that not all Ultra’s are made equal, pick and choose your battles wisely. I had enough of technical races over the summer anyway, and wanted races with more forgiving terrain to give my feet a break from the pounding. So I signed up for Whispering Pines 50K instead, a quite pleasant romp through the gorgeous Pine-needle forest of Tyler State Park was exactly what I needed; after doing quite well at WP50K, I may have gotten a bit too cocky and signed up for Rocky Raccoon 50K (or as it is unofficially known as “Lil’ Rocky”) held just two weeks before Wild Hare. In between Whispering Pines and Rocky Raccoon, I was logging 50+ mile weeks with little rest, my 100 mile training schedule was ramping up quickly, and I couldn’t afford to take time off to taper. Rocky Raccoon 50K was just going to be training run, take it easy and have fun I told myself...with that said, I set a PR at the 50K distance at Rocky Raccoon of 6:12 Hrs.
I was personally thrilled at the strong performance at Rocky Raccoon 50K, I have never ran so effortlessly during the last 3 miles of an Ultra; I managed to run down a dozen other runners at the end, instead of being the one who gets passed up, which is a nice ego booster. For that brief moment of glory, I would worry terribly over the next two weeks that I may have over-extended myself and jeopardize my chances at Wild Hare. I tapered for the last two weeks before Wild Hare, but my legs never felt loose and remained pretty stiff. There’s no backing out now though, Wild Hare 50 Mile has been my goal for nearly 9 months, I would just have to trust in myself that all the training and experience at running Ultras I’ve gained up until now would carry me through 50 miles...now if only I could get to the race in the first place.
I got up at 12:30 AM that Saturday morning on race day (I somehow managed 5 hours of sleep the night before) and started the normally 4 hour drive from Dallas to Warda, Tx where Wild Hare was being held. For a guy that’s quite interested in reading up about technology, I’m quite the luddite, with no Smartphone (I refuse to buy into phone companies monopoly I tell myself) or a standalone GPS device, I resorted to printing out the directions to the race using Google Maps. The driving directions turned out to be horribly wrong, sending me speeding every which direction to find Route US-77 and making frantic phone calls to my friend, who was also running that day, for directions on how to get there. I planned to arrive over an hour early to the race, being able to meet new people and socialize with friends I only get to see in person at these races is something I highly look forward to; instead I arrived over half an hour late, immediately jumped out of my car and started racing as soon as I picked up my Bib number and racing chip.
I burst out of the gate pretty hard, all thoughts of conserving myself for later in the race went out the window after arriving over half an hour late. For the first 6 and half miles I was clocking in 9-10 minute miles over rocky terrain in a twisty-turny section through the woods known as “the Intestines”; I was being reckless in my pace and quickly payed for it when I awkwardly stepped on a rock and sustained a painful foot bruise I would have to deal with for the rest of the 43 miles or so I had to go. As always, I was wearing my pair of Vibram Five-Finger Spyridon trail shoes, while providing decent rock protection for being slipper thin “foot gloves”, you still have to be very cautious about rocky terrain; flying down a trail and stepping on a giant pointy rock is not advisable wearing Vibrams. I didn’t think Wild Hare would be too technical, compared to some of my previous Ultras it’s not, but there are a fair amount of loose rocks through the Intestines part; not thinking it would be too technical I left my heavy Altra Lone Peaks at home, in hindsight, it’s better to be safe than sorry...aching foot or not, it’ll be Vibrams all the way for 50 miles.
The Wild Hare course is divided into two sections the Intestines part, 50 milers do this part twice only on the first of 6 laps, and the second half, which is mercifully a lot less technical, but is where the majority of the climbs will take place. After the first two trips through the Intestines I settled down quickly to conserve my energy for the long run, as well as to rest my aching bruised foot. The second half of the course is definitely a lot more diverse and enjoyable than the first, here you’ll run through open fields, past grazing Livestock (cattle, longhorns, and horses), through and up steep switchback trails carved from sheer cliffs, up one long and creeky bridge over a stream that for some reason reminded me of Indiana Jones, through the camping area where you’ll get cheers from people relaxing with beers in hand, and finally straight through a Barn on your way to the finishing area. A very memorable section the first couple times through, but you’ll be dreading the steep climbs on your 4th, 5th, and 6th trips.
Things were not going well for me at the start of the race to say the least, first was not arriving to the race on time to warm-up properly, then starting out way too quickly and recklessly, after the 2nd loop I started to question myself repeatedly if my legs were strong enough for 50 miles because of racing Rocky Raccoon 50K only two weeks earlier, and I didn’t properly plan out my Gel intake throughout the race. For gels I just relied on taking one every time I hit an aid station, which was not enough to last me between the 4 and half miles apart from the remote and main aid station at the finishing area (there are only these two aid stations). After the fourth loop and 34 and half miles later, I started feeling depleted, my quads were getting absolutely trashed and stiff, and while my foot wasn’t aching as much from the earlier bruise they were getting numb all over. Someone asked me how I was doing after the 4th loop and I may have gotten a bit hysterical rambling about all the problems I encountered that day. This is where the thoughts of dropping from the race started creeping in louder and louder, and it would be so easy to quit at Wild Hare too. The way the aid stations are set up between the two sections of the course, the remote aid station is just literally a few hundred feet away from the main aid station. Each infuriating trip through the ridiculously twisty Intestines after the 4th loop will make you want to drop when you can see the finishing area right across from you. The five times you cross the finish line before actually finishing the 50 mile race will wear down your resolve to keep going. Wild Hare may not be the most punishing Ultra in terms of elevation gain and rough and technical terrain, but it is by far the most punishing race mentally that I’ve done so far.
The two things I hadn’t encountered all day was cramping or knee pain; I was taking Endurolytes regularly and S-Caps when it got hotter in the day, so no matter how beat up I felt, as long as if I weren’t cramping or having serious knee pain (what I’m most paranoid about), I resolved to keep going forward. No matter how miserable I felt at times, I would be even more miserable afterwards if I hadn’t achieved the goal I set out to accomplish 9 months earlier. So, I started getting the hell out of the aid stations as quickly as possible (the aid station volunteers were also great at encouraging you to keep going as well), the chairs lying around were like siren songs inviting me to their warm embrace. I started taking Gels between aid stations that provided a noticeable effect on my energy levels. My feet were still killing me, the larger rocks became like minefields to step on after 40 miles, but after multiple trips through the same course, you can practically name all the rocks that have given you trouble before (Damn you George, you snuck up on me for the last time!) and avoid them; I’ve also learned to block out pain from all the previous technical Ultras I’ve done up till now. While I was going nowhere near the 9-10 min/mile pace I started out, I was rocking a steady 14-15 min/mile pace for the last three loops.
By the time I got to the last loop, I may have been running on fumes by that point, but that familiar determination to finish an Ultra took hold and powered me through. Even though I started over half an hour late, a Sub-12 Hr finish was still within reach, I just needed to stick my pace on auto-pilot and keep going. It was 4pm by the time I started the last loop, the temperature was beginning to drop from a high in the 70s so that certainly helped as well. Also, some guys I had met on the trail were on my tail for most of the last loop, and I was determined to keep ahead of them. Knowing you’re only a few miles to the finish frees you from all the doubts and second guessing that occurs in an Ultra, of whether you’ll have enough left in the tank at the end; it liberates you from the nagging pain that you’ve been carrying for the last dozen miles or so, because you feel like you can put up with anything for just a few miles longer. Leave everything on the trail on the finishing push, if your body is not completely broken down the day after, you hadn’t tried hard enough.
I pushed ahead to a Sub-12 Hr finish with an official time of 11:49 Hrs, correcting for my late start, my actual running time is probably around 11:18 Hrs though; the thought crossed my mind that I could take it easy for 30 minutes and still “finish” under 12 hours, but after such a rough start and incredibly long day, I wanted the official recognition badly enough to fight for it with every last step. I crossed the finish line triumphantly with a loud “whoooo”, then collapsed on the nearest chair I could find. I’m very thankful for all the help I received at the end of my race from the Volunteers there; almost immediately after finishing my body became very numb and I was shivering uncontrollably, a lady there gave me her jacket, grabbed me a hot Vege-burger, and was very attendant...which is kinda embarrassing for me since I’m not too use to that, so a special thanks to her.
Some would say you’re not a real Ultra-Runner until you have completed your first 50 miler, and I kinda have to agree with that notion, though I would not in any way disparage a proud first time 50K finisher of that title. I felt more like a Marathon+ runner up until this point, there is just a world of difference in terms of dedication and suffering one has to go through, leaping from a 50K to a 50M distance race, it’s not even close. I absolutely dread what it is going to take, physically, mentally, and emotionally the toll to pay to go even further to a 100K, 100M, and eventually onto Mountain Ultras, but after experiencing my first 50 miler...I want more.
On a side observation, I saw so many Hoka One One’s on the trail that day, they are steadily taking over the Ultra-Running scene, it seemed like every other person I met had a pair of Hokas on. The sense of envy of watching runners in Hoka’s flying past me and stomping on rocks without a care in the world, while I had to dance, side-step, and carefully make my way through the rockier sections, grew agonizingly worse with each trip through the Intestines. My Kingdom for a pair of Hokas I wanted to cry out at one point...*shrug* Yes, I still love my Vibrams and can be stubborn as a mule insisting on running with them. Here’s looking forward to conquering all 100 miles of Rocky Raccoon in my trusty pair of Vibrams!