Monday, September 16, 2013

2013 Rough Creek Trail Marathon Race Report

After surviving the gauntlet of running all four Capt’n Karl 60K Ultra trail races, that just ended 3 weeks prior to my race at Rough Creek 40 Mile at Glen Rose, Tx, I thought I could’ve handled the steep hills I would be facing that day, I thought I could’ve handled the extreme Texas summer heat after running through it all summer long, and finally I thought I could’ve have gotten away with not tapering much for this race...I thought wrong.  When coming up with my racing schedule leading up to Cactus Rose back in March I had originally left Rough Creek off the calendar, my reasons being, is that the Capt’n Karl races would have probably left me wasted if I managed to survive all four of them and 3 weeks was just not enough time to recover from them; also the course at Rough Creek, quite frankly, still scared the hell out of me and was the main reason why I didn’t run the race last year either.  The main imposing feature of Rough Creek, is the infamous “Rusty Crown”, a series of around a dozen sharply steep hills, measuring around 60-100 feet each (though climbing up the first one is a 200 footer) and packed close together to ensure your quads will be destroyed when you finally make it out of there.  The course was changed from last year, where it was mainly flat with the Rusty Crown in the middle, now the Rusty Crown section was split into two, where you’re now diverted into new section of the trail called, “The Bowl”, a series of three plateau’s with about a hundred feet climb each.  With the new section added, it makes for a pretty imposing course profile, and I may have scared some people away from posting it on my Facebook well attracted a few others who wanted to take on this beast.  

Rough Creek now scared me even more with the new course changes, but not nearly as much as running a 100 miles at Cactus Rose did, so I figured, what the hell, and signed up a month before the race.  By then I had already worked out a recovery routine that was working well for me in between the Capt’n Karl races (which I wrote about in my Colorado Bend 60K race report), so I figured I could handle another hilly 40 miler 3 weeks after Reveille Peak Ranch 60K, but with Cactus Rose now less than 2 months away, I didn’t quite stick to that plan.  Over at Cedar Ridge Nature Preserve in Dallas is a great little trail system where I have practically lived at over the summer in between races, and is also the host of a 36K/18K trail race that’s organized by Endurance Buzz Adventures, the same group that directs the Rough Creek Trail race.  Cedar Ridge is fairly short at around 5 and half miles for a full circumnavigation of the trail, but it more than makes up for it in the various steep and long hills you’ll encounter, packing in around 650 ft elevation gain per loop.  There is one particularly steep and technical hill there that reminded me of what I encountered at Bandera 50K, and I always considered doing hill repeats on it as a way to simulate the hills at Cactus Rose, but I’ve only been doing a limited number of these steep hill repeats over the summer because I needed to recover in between the Capt’n Karl races.  Well, now with less than two months to go before Cactus, my manic training mode took over, and the weekend before Rough Creek I put in 24 miles of training on hilly trails, with 10 miles of it on what I call the Bandera Hill repeats at Cedar Ridge.

Bandera Hill repeats at Cedar Ridge Nature Preserve

I packed in over +2K ft gain/loss in under 7 and half miles on that Bandera Hill, power-hiking most of the way up, and then bombing the punishing technical quads were trashed by the end of it.  I thought I would be okay before the race by taking it easy for the rest of the week, but I could hardly run 3 miles on the Thursday before the race without my legs feeling completely dead (delayed onset muscle soreness, perhaps), not a good sign before a hilly and hot 40 miler.  Things would only get worse the morning of the race, I always find it hard to fall asleep the night before a morning race and barely got more than 2 hours of sleep, before waking up at 2:45am in the morning to get ready to make the drive from Dallas to Glen Rose, TX.  I couldn’t shake the grogginess from the lack of sleep for most of the race, and almost fell asleep while running a few times during the first 3 miles of the race where it was mainly flat jeep roads.  I quickly woke up when I finally encountered the first section of the Rusty Crown, the base of which sat the first Aid Station, giving you plenty of time to ponder going up that steep 200 ft hill while you refill your water bottles.  

I use to get annoyed with switchbacks, especially overly long switchbacks snaking up a hill that barely seems to take you up a hundred feet, a race like Muleshoe Bend 60K or Whispering Pines 50K were especially guilty of this; after trying to go up the various steep, slanted (no stair steps for stable footing), and loose trails of dirt and rocks of the Rusty Crown, I’ll never complain about a switchback again.  The Rusty Crown was pretty much un-runnable for the most part, I can handle steep hills, but the one’s I normally train on are well groomed stair-step type hills with none of the loose dirt and rocks like the Rusty Crown; your feet and leg muscles have to work over-time hauling you up and down those hills, while you’re trying to keep yourself stabilized on the loose and slanted surface.  Going up the Crown is one thing, coming down can be quite an adventure, I mainly came down with short and choppy steps with my feet turned sideways for maximum braking surface, but there were several sections where you pretty much had to use your butt and one hand on the trail behind you to slide down.  The first section of the Crown is over pretty quick, giving you just a taste for what’s to come on the extended second half of the Crown five miles later.

Once you make it past the first Rusty Crown section, the trail becomes remarkably flat again, The Bowl section wasn’t too terrible to run up and down, and the plateaus are long and flat to run across.  A lot of long and beautiful sweeping views of the landscape can be taken in during this stretch, it was quite idyllic and fast to run through this section, before you get rudely awakened again on the back half of the Rusty Crown.  The first half of the Crown is less than a mile long, while the second half is just a bit over 2 miles of constant ups and downs over steep and loose terrain.  My quads were absolutely destroyed afterwards (I averaged just under a 20 min/mile through this section), the hills were relentless and seemed like it would go on forever, and in the middle of it stood “The Beast”, a ridiculous and nearly vertical +100ft hill of loose rocks and dirt.  It was quite comical looking upon the spectacle of people crawling on all fours up that hill, sliding down a foot for every 2-3 feet of progress, I couldn’t imagine doing this hill three times during the 40 miler when I finally reached the top, gasping for air.  

Photo of the Race Director on "The Beast"

The heat index was quickly rising into the 90s by this point just past 9am, with the trail almost completely exposed to the sun, it further compounded the difficulty of the Rusty Crown section even more.  My legs felt like lead weights now, and I dumped so much water on my head to keep cool, I ran out half a mile away from the next aid station, even though I had 40oz of carrying capacity with me (waist belt and handheld).  I thought I would’ve been more adapted to the heat by now, but running in 90+ degree temperatures at night during the Capt’n Karl races was much easier than running on the Sun drenched trails at Rough Creek, where the heat was magnified greatly.  When I finally made it out of the Rusty Crown, I was pretty much resigned into quitting, dead legs and the extreme heat was becoming too much to put up with for what is a glorified training run.  I had already given myself “permission” to DNF at the 40 miler well before the race started, I had nothing to prove to myself after having just ran all four Capt’n Karl races, the only decision now, is whether to quit after one loop for the half marathon, or death march my way through a second loop to make it a Marathon finish.

I finished the first loop with a decent time of around 3:05 hrs, still contemplating hard about dropping out, I sat down to slather sunscreen all over my legs and arms; my legs started to recover a bit from the brief rest and since I already applied the Sunscreen, I may as well go out for the second loop...I grabbed my Outdoor Research Sun Runner Cap (the one with the neck flaps), which kinda made me feel like a badass Badwater runner, admittedly, and started off on what turned out to be one of the world’s slowest Marathon finishes ever.  My legs gave me a false sense of hope, a mile or so into the second loop, they were as dead as ever again...I could only manage a shuffle on the flat trails leading up to the Rusty Crown, how in the world was I supposed to go through that nightmarish section all over again?  I wanted to drop again at the first Aid station, but was ever so gently pushed out by the Volunteers, thanks...I suppose.

Taken by the professional race photographers sometime during the first loop.  I didn't quite always looked like this during the race, more like hunched over, and death marching through the heat... 

I would often hear tales of runners, much more stronger and experienced trail runners than I am, going up a mountain trail at high altitude where they can manage no more than a 48 min/mile pace; I couldn’t even picture going up that slow...until now, where I found myself painfully inching my way up the Rusty Crown once more.  Halfway through the first crown section, I sat on the side of the trail for several minutes just wanting to turn back to the aid station and beg for a ride back to the starting area, but I’m a stubborn fool and finally got up and continued forward and out of the crown.  I shuffled for about a mile and stopped for 5 minutes or so to rest, then shuffled again for another mile and stopped, and continued this all the way to the next aid station 4 miles from the first aid station.  There at the aid station I plopped down on the nearest seat I could find, and started downing ice cold coke as if they were whiskey shots.  I never drink soda, in fact, I could go on a multi-page rant about the dangers of these sugary concoctions and their damage to the overall health of society and the drain in resources we all collectively pay in astronomical healthcare cost to treat diabetes, obesity, and heart disease related to the over-consumption of sugar; this is trail race report though, and during a tough Ultra, Coca-cola is the God Damn elixir of life (apologies for the profanity), able to bring even the most weary Ultra runner back from near death.  

Recharged after several cups of cola, and filling all my water bottles with ice water, I headed off for the next four miles and one last go at the Rusty Crown.  The first two miles out of the second Aid Station is fairly flat, and I was finally managing a decent running pace, but I knew what lied ahead shortly and was girding myself for the challenge; it’s only two miles I kept reminding to myself, only two miles to get through the crown...just about the hardest two miles of life.  I slowly and methodically made my way up and down the Crown, saving my strength for the Beast that lies ahead.  When I finally made it to the Beast, it looked like a freaking mountain now, I stood at its base for a while, dejected and wanting to cry, I let out a loud sigh and made the slowest climb of my life; I was so tired at that point, my arms and legs were trembling a bit climbing up the Beast, afraid that I might slip and drop half way down the hill at any moment.  In what seemed like ages, I finally made it up the hill, and let out a triumphant “whoo”; the worst of the worst was over, but there was still about a mile of worse left to go, luckily I ran into a recent friend shortly after climbing the Beast, and while it was dreadfully hot and achingly slow, misery loves company and we eventually made it out of the crown together in one piece.

Stopping at the aid station at the base of the Rusty Crown for a while for more Coke and an ice bag around my neck, I was ready to put an end to this death march, my friend stayed behind to cool herself down a little more.  Feeling good again on the flats, I shortly contemplated heading back out for the third loop to finish the 40 miler, but a mile or so out from the finish my knees started barking loudly at me...I guess they’re not quite recovered from the pummeling they received over the granite domes at Reveille Peak Ranch 60K after all.  This had been quite an experience I was thinking to myself as I was trotting back to the finish; this race showed me of just how astronomically far I still had to go before I can even think of signing up for those Mountain 100 milers I dream of running someday.  If I couldn’t handle the extreme heat and the mole hills down here in Texas, just how the hell am I supposed to tackle Mountainous 100 milers with +20K ft gain/loss, running at high altitude, and in similar torturous summer heat?!  My experience at Rough Creek has certainly been an eye opener for me, it may have even set my expectations on signing up for my first Mountain Ultra back even further; even after all the Ultras I’ve been running, I’m rudely reminded that I'm still very much a work in progress.

I finished the Marathon distance at Rough Creek in about 7:48 hrs, a new slowest personal record for me...and I’m okay with it, I learned a lot about myself trudging through that second loop, making the experience all the more worthwhile.  My friend arrived shortly afterwards, and to my surprise, she headed out for her third loop and eventually finished the 40 mile race, in which over half the field had dropped from; I shouldn’t have been surprised though, Ultra runners are a stubborn and proud breed.  With 6 more weeks to go till Cactus Rose 100, I just hope that same stubborn and proud beast inside of me, that saw me through a 100 miles at Rocky Raccoon, is well rested and ready for another 100 mile round, I'm going to need all the help I can get.