Sunday, November 3, 2013

2013 Cactus Rose 100 Mile Race Report

I dream of running through the mountains and taking part in the epic and storied 100 milers that hold such reverence amongst Ultra Runners; reading, hearing about, and looking through gorgeous photo’s of Mountainous trails of other runner’s experiences there is awe-inspiring and is enough to make any trail runner want to quit their jobs and move into the Mountains so they can spend every day running and hiking these trails.  As beautiful and majestic as these races are, they are satanically cruel in their difficulty, some with +20K ft of elevation gain/loss, running at high altitude, and most of them are held in the searing summer months; Mother Nature exacts a huge toll to be able to drink in her beauty, and the more gorgeous the views, the higher the price of entry in wrecked bodies, shattered egos, and plenty of tears.  When you’re still being challenged by the mole hills down here in Texas, it can seem impossible to even begin to fathom the magnitude of a Mountain Ultra.  Before I go kill myself on the Mountains I needed to test myself on the most ferocious ass-kicking of a race in Texas, the Cactus Rose 100 Mile Endurance run; Rocky Raccoon 100 that I ran earlier in the year may have had the miles, but not the punishing rocks and steep hill climbs of Cactus Rose.

After completing Rocky Raccoon 100, I immediately set my sights on Cactus Rose, but I had no idea on how to train for a race that is on orders of magnitude more difficult than the relatively flat Rocky.  It didn’t help that it took me 3 months to fully heal from the ITB problems incurred during and exacerbated by Rocky, by then it was late spring and getting exceedingly hot down here in Texas, making it difficult and demoralizing to train for high mileage volume weeks.  So just to get through the hot Spring and Summer months, I hatched a plan to run as much smaller Ultra’s as I could, while keeping my weekly mileage low in the 30s; this way I could maintain my fitness up to the Autumn months where I can start hammering out higher mileage weeks leading up to Cactus Rose.  A sound theory at the time, but finishing all four Capt’n Karl 60K races took every last ounce of strength I had, it probably didn’t help that I had already ran another 3 Ultra’s the couple months before them.

On paper, Cactus Rose may not seem like that difficult of a race, the elevation gain (which I have been thoroughly assured of the measurements, despite the wildly different Garmin readings in the 12-13K ft ranges) is only 7,300ft of gain for the entire 100 miles, around 2-3K ft of gain more from Rocky Raccoon, it seems very doable with only moderate hill training.  However, the climbs are not the only thing that makes Cactus Rose difficult, it’s the rock strewn debris field you’ll be tripping over for miles on end and praying to your respective gods that the large rock you’re stepping on doesn’t give way, causing you to slide down a steep and rocky 400ft hillside.  Your quads are constantly working overtime to compensate for the very imbalanced terrain, making it seem like the race is harder than it should be; amazingly enough the site Real Endurance list Cactus Rose as taking longer to complete than Western States, a course with over twice the elevation gain/loss!  So back to the Capt’n Karl 60K races, think of them as mini Cactus Roses, they can be just as technical (if not more) with similarly steep hill climbs (some more than others, especially Colorado Bend and Reveille Ranch), while being held in the sweltering summer nights of Texas.  The Capt’n Karl races were not your ordinary 60Ks, they’re tougher than some 50 milers like Hells Hills, Wild Hare, or Rocky Raccoon, and I did all four of them, with just 3 weeks in the end of Reveille Peak Ranch (the last in the CK series), my legs and knees were pounded into jelly by the relentless granite domes of the course.  I was a thoroughly spent shell of a Runner by the end and needed several weeks to recover, but I just had to push my luck and do one more race.

I should have skipped the Rough Creek 40 Mile Trail Run (my race report), but Endurance Buzz Adventures puts on fun races and I didn’t want to miss out on a local North Texas trail race; so after 3 weeks of barely running to recover from the punishing Capt’n Karl series, I ran Rough Creek anyway.  I felt the overwhelming fatigue from the CK races almost immediately from the start of Rough Creek, my legs were pretty much dead after the first half marathon loop, but I stubbornly kept going for another loop to complete the Marathon distance.  Rough Creek prolonged a lot issues I was already dealing with, like a several months old tweaked ankle pain that refuses to go away, forefoot pain (Morton’s Neuroma I think, for wearing my shoes too tightly around the forefoot area), and sore knees that haven’t recovered yet from the jack-hammering at Reveille.  I rested a week afterwards, but with Cactus Rose so frighteningly close, I forced myself to eck out a mid 40 mile week and then barely a 50 mile week (my first 50 mile week since May), before beginning the long taper period where I only ran 22 miles, not per week, but total for the entire 3 weeks of tapering.

That entire taper period felt like a dark cloud of impending doom hanging over me, I did not feel ready for Cactus Rose in the slightest, my training miles were pathetically low leading up to a tough 100 miler and my hill training was almost non existent the last 6 weeks as I tried to recover from nagging pain and injuries.  I didn’t know whether I was helping or hurting myself from running so few miles during the taper period, but I was determined to at least come into Cactus Rose healthy.  I tried psyching myself up for the race through a series of post on my Facebook page, reminding myself that I’ve gone the distance before, why I feel compelled to take on these extreme challenges, how I couldn’t wait to run amongst the beautiful and rugged landscapes of Hill Country State Natural Area Park in Bandera again, and curiously enough, adopting the Donkey as my spirit animal.  I may not be ready for Cactus Rose, but I am, if nothing else, stubborn as a Donkey...slow, steady, surefooted, and stubborn, all qualities of that noble animal, and a mantra I carried into Cactus Rose.

The week before Cactus Rose felt like the calm before the storm, I spent the prior two weeks being a nervous wreck and by then I got all the jitteriness out of my system, waiting till the last week to pack my drop bags also helped to keep myself busy; come what may, I was resigned to accept whatever fate the Trail Gods intends for me at Cactus Rose.  I arrived to the race site the Friday before the race to attend the trail briefing, chat with some friends, set up drop bags at the Lodge and Equestrian (didn’t bother using Nacho’s or Boyles, since you hit Equestrian twice per loop), and made camp for the night at the park; it was my first time camping out, so I was a bit worried about getting any sleep that night (I usually never sleep well before a race), but I had such an eerie and serene calm going into Cactus that I never slept better before a major Ultra.  For a 100 mile race, the start seemed like such a low key affair (it does have less than a third of the participants of Rocky Raccoon), as people stumbled out of their tents at 4am and everyone was barely lined up just before the 5am start time.

I started the race near the back of the pack, not wanting to tempt myself into going out too quickly, which would have been pretty hard to do anyway, considering the first 2 and half miles or so is a congo line of runners as you hit the first of the course’s handful of extremely technical and steep hills early on at Lucky’s Peak.  Afterwards, the herd spreads out quickly as the course flattens out dramatically with only a couple of modest hill climbs till you reach the Nacho’s Aid Station 10 and half miles in.  I was targeting a sub 30 hour finish, so was planning to stick to a strict 8min Run/ 4min Walk interval on the flats and walk the hills, but was a little bit surprised by how flat it was during this section and ran more than I would have liked, especially as I was chatting with people periodically through this section.  Starting at 5am, it was mainly dark throughout this whole flat section, racing within an hour of just waking up, it almost seemed like I was still asleep and was just in another one of my trail running dreams; the Sun coming up perfectly coincided with what I consider to be the official start of Cactus Rose, Ice Cream Hill.  

Course profile at the start, you reverse direction after each loop.

Lucky’s Peak at the start of the race was just a preview of what’s to come, Ice Cream Hill is the rude awakening, sending you up a steep and rocky 300 ft climb; going up is one thing on the hills of Cactus Rose, while going down a dangerously steep and rocky hill is a test of nerves and concentration, and praying you don’t fall hundreds of feet and breaking your it can be just as slow going down the hills as it is going up sometimes, which is murder on your quads because of the constant braking and balancing you have to do on the downhills.  After you make it past Ice Cream Hill, the trail flattens out for a couple miles lulling you back into a bit of complacency until you hit the Equestrian Aid Station again just before the last 10 mile roller coaster of hills where hearts are broken, quad’s trashed, and doubts start creeping in whether you’re going to finish or not.  The first 15 miles had quite a lot of smooth and flat single track trails and jeep roads, with the occasional giant wall of loose rocks to climb over, which come as quite a relief to break up the monotony of running so much.  The last ten miles almost seemed like a different course altogether, not only in the relentlessness of it’s steep hills and the painful rocks that mate and multiply like bunnies out there, but all the beautiful and sharp Sotol that inhabit these hills, with it’s blooming tentacle like stalks hovering over you, making it seem like you’re running through an Alien world out there at times.

Pic is a bit blurry, forgot to bring my digital camera, had to make due with my cellphone...I think this was taken at the Three Sisters hill climb.

Things pretty much slow to a crawl during the last ten miles, expect them to take just as long, if not longer, than your first 15 miles.  While cloudy for most of the race, it was unbearably humid that day with the temperatures quickly rising into the 80s, in addition to the 50oz Nathan Minimist Hydration Vest I was wearing I brought along my 20oz handheld bottle just to dump ice cold water over my head.  I never wear my hydration vest to races, because they can be a hassle to deal with, but the aid stations at Cactus Rose are anywhere from 4 to 6 miles apart, and considering the heat and humidity, I was glad I made the cautious decision to wear the vest and utilize the handheld.  Equestrian to Boyles Aid Station is the 6 mile section, with the treacherously steep and rocky near 400 ft climb up Sky Island in your way, the longest climb of Cactus Rose; none of the trails I train at in the Dallas area comes close to that monster, and with a quick descent to Boyles Aid Station, I’m sent climbing again over Boyles Bump and Cairn’s Climb, both with 200-300 ft of gain/loss. 

My quads were already on fire after descending Cairn’s Climb, and I pretty much walked it in on the last half mile of the first loop, all the while reeling at the thought that I’m just going to have to turn right around and do that section over again in reverse (after every loop in Cactus Rose, you turn around and do that section in reverse); I would be lying if I said wasn’t already thinking of dropping to the 50 mile by this point.  When I finally made it to Lodge Aid Station (Start/Finish area) this is where I would begin my sitting tour of Cactus Rose, a habit I started doing to get me through the Capt’n Karl races, past the mid 20s or so, I would try to do everything I need at an Aid Station, like refilling water bottles, eat some gels and trail food, and take my endurolytes and salt pills, all while sitting on my’s best to do this directly in front of the water jug.  With the Capt’n Karl races so close together, I was being hit with terrible fatigue in my legs around the mid 20s, so as a survival strategy to get through them, I’ve found that getting completely off my feet for several minutes at the aid stations helps to relieve a lot of fatigue, usually enough to get me to the next aid station where I do it all over again; the toughest part is getting back up. 

I spent a good 10-15 minutes taking my time at the Lodge, where I ate way too much of a deliciously large tortilla overstuffed with seasoned potatoes that a friend gave me; your stomach tends not to be able to process food very well during races, but I’m going to be walking the next few miles anyway while I digest.  Starting loop 2, going up Cairn’s Climb again was the toughest part, but doing the whole dreaded 10 mile section I was just dying on, is a bit easier in reverse, where the downhills are much longer than the uphills.  I took it easy the first few miles over the major climbs, and letting my stomach digest, when I finally made it over the top of Boyles Bump, I screamed down that hill pretty hard, one of the few runnable downhills at Cactus, and locked up my quads in the process when I got back to the Boyles Aid Station.  After sitting down for awhile to massage out the tightness in my quads, I passed a woman who already looked beat for the day; she said she had been sitting for a while when I asked if she was ok, then I remarked, “One of these times, I’m just going to sit down, and won’t be able to get back up”, words that were proven prophetic later on.

Up Ice Cream Hill
I ran the first 10 miles on the second loop pretty easy, trying to recover my legs a bit and preserve them for a harder effort on the flats to make up time.  When I finally made it through the past twenty mile gauntlet of hills and rocks, I was able to cut loose and run a bit on the flats after a brief rest at  Equestrian 1; it was just unfortunate that Ice Cream Hill stands in the way just before Nacho’s A/S.  Trudging up that hill again, I managed to catch up with a handful of friends out there, all walking slowly in the heat, and all looking extremely beat up and wary; the hills had defeated us all and now the Sun was adding insult to injury.  I was walking too much though, and tried to encourage this normally gung-ho bunch to push the pace till Nachos, but I eventually had to leave them behind; all but one of them ended up dropping from the race.  I felt like a runner again on the flats from Nacho’s to Equestrian 2, sure I may have felt like death on those monster hill climbs a few miles back, but if my legs can bounce back on the flats like they’re feeling now, maybe I could pull off this race afterall; and then came Lucky’s Peak.  I was eager to make it to Lucky’s Peak before Sundown in order to get in a few good shots, this is the section I remember most vividly from Bandera 50K that I ran early this year.  It was the last long climb for Bandera as it was for the second loop of Cactus Rose, making it a particularly tough slog after your legs have been used to running flats for the past few miles, especially since the way up Lucky’s Peak is a lot harder going in reverse, but your reward is nice perch up the peak overlooking the vast and rugged landscapes of Hill Country Natural State Area.

The view from Lucky's Peak, taken with cellphone camera again.

It was all downhill and flat after Lucky’s Peak, and I was going to run it in to try and beat the dark, but ran into a friend on the last half mile who walking his way to finishing up his 50 miler, so I opted to walk it in with him instead.  At the Lodge, the dichotomy on the joyful faces of 50 milers finishing up and the look of weariness and stone faced dread on the faces of those 100 Milers contemplating whether or not they wanted to continue, couldn’t be more stark.  I sat for a long time at the Lodge slowly eating a bowl of soup and crackers, while a parade of friends either having finished up their 50 milers or 100 milers throwing in their towels and settling for the 50 mile medal, came by and wished me luck.  At that point, I could’ve flipped a coin to decide whether or not I wanted to continue on, my legs felt badly fatigued, but amazingly enough, I was injury and pain free for the most part and couldn’t justify quitting to myself; it’s just the thought of 50 more miles on that course, in the condition that I was in, was too daunting to contemplate…I also didn’t want to look in the faces of my friends and announce that I’m calling it a night.  So after nearly half an hour at the Lodge, eating, chatting with friends, and taking care of other business, I set off for my third and final loop.

Just before the end of loop two, sun was already setting.

I felt surprisingly great starting the third loop, it was almost as if I was given a new set of legs, the long walk to finish the second loop and the half hour I spent resting at the Lodge had dramatically recovered my legs; I felt like a racehorse again.  Even though my legs were given a brand new lease on life, I didn’t want to push my luck, and was planning to stick to my Run/Walk intervals to preserve my legs for the steep hill climbs on the latter half, but ended up pushing myself way too hard on the flats and probably doomed myself in the process.  Up until this point, I had been mainly running by myself, with sporadic spurts spent with friends and strangers I met on the course, but I preferred to go it alone so I wouldn’t feel any pressure to go at a pace I wasn’t comfortable with; however, I briefly got lost early into the third loop.

Feeling great with my new set of legs, I zoomed right past a turn and ran maybe a quarter mile before I realized I was lost when I ran into two ladies stopped dead in their tracks looking around for a trail marker.  It was a bit of an eerie moment...the trail vanished and all of a sudden a cabin showed up on our headlamps.  With the race being held close to Halloween, a scenario where you’re lost in the woods at night and find a dark and abandoned cabin, kinda makes you a bit nervous.  The two ladies were 25 mile relay runners, so they had no idea where they were going, and I clearly did not remember seeing a cabin during the start of the race when we ran this loop in the same direction; we turned back together and eventually found the right turn towards Lucky’s Peak.  The two ladies were good company, with delightful Scottish accents (having watched a lot of British television, I admit, I’m a sucker for it), being the experienced trail runner that I am, of course I had to impart my wisdom and advice onto fairly new trail runners out on this course *cough*.  Before I knew it, it had been 3 miles (plus the half mile when I got lost) into the third loop, and I started to worry about going out too fast when my legs were tightening up again, so I bid the ladies good luck on their relay and tried to stick to my intervals. 

Some point past the first trip to Equestrian, I ran into a friend that I had been playing hop-scotch with throughout the race, but I always had trouble keeping up with her for long.  With my legs in better shape, we ran the next 8 miles or so together, with me leading most of the way.  As I said before I prefer running by myself for the most part, and I’m not really comfortable being in the lead or following someone else's pace for that matter; with a good conversation going though and my legs still feeling decent, I ignored my interval watch beeping at me, and ran most of the way with her till we made it to the second trip to Equestrian.  The moment I sat down, my legs immediately tightened up after having pushed it too hard on the flats for the past 15 miles, I stalled a bit at Equestrian by eating more soup and crackers, but the tightness wouldn’t go away.  My friend was waiting for me, so I decided maybe walking for a bit would bring some life back into them, I was moving so slowly though, that she eventually had to go on ahead; thus begun my two and half hour death march to Boyles Aid Station.

With my legs badly fatigued, and not being able to see the peak of the hills in the dark of night, these hills all of a sudden became mountains of loose rocks that were never-ending.  With it being dark, I was going slower sometimes on the downhills than on the climbs when the rocks were at its worst and I feared tripping down the steep hillsides due to low visibility; so my quads were being pounded even further due to the frequent braking and balancing on loose rocks. Sky Island was my undoing, the nearly 400 ft climb just wouldn’t end, every time I came to a brief flat section or make a turn, it would just keep on going up and up, and more and more my quads ached and my will to continue on with the race would shatter into a thousand more pieces.  The mile long trek up Sky Island alone must have taken me close to 45 minutes, I had to sit, rest, and massage my quads and knees 3 times just to make the ascent.  I stumbled into Boyles Aid Station, sat down and couldn't get back up the very same aid station I mentioned earlier to a lady that was what I feared was going to happen to me later on.

There I sat at Boyles for 15 minutes or so debating on whether to continue, if I could just finish up the third loop, and maybe rest for half an hour to get my legs back, I would still have 12 hours to death march it in for the fourth loop…  The feelings in my legs and feet just wouldn’t return though, and when I overheard a runner was going to drive back to the Lodge with their crew to seek some medical attention, I immediately asked to hitch a ride with them.  The runner who was being driven back needed medical attention because his Achilles were terribly painful to run on, and he feared it might rupture on the hill climbs if he didn’t get it taped up.  All through the short ride from Boyles to the Lodge, his crew (Parents, I’m assuming) were asking if he was going to continue, and he was adamant that he long as he could walk.  This, admittedly, made me feel like a bit of a coward for choosing to bail on my race, when I was in nowhere near as bad a shape as he was.  They drove to the medical site near the Lodge, where I got out and thanked them for the ride, and then made the longest, shortest, walk of the day to the racing area to announce my DNF to the officials and turn in my racing chip...a huge weight was lifted from my shoulders handing over that chip, I was officially done after the hardest 70 miles of my life.  

A week has passed since Cactus Rose, and I’m still going over in my mind whether dropping out was the right decision, especially when I saw that a handful of my friends gutted out 34 or 35+ hour finishes, perhaps I could’ve done the same.  After all, didn’t I manage to drag a bummed ITB 77 miles across Rocky Raccoon earlier in the year, even though it felt like my leg was about to fall off during the last 20 miles?  Or maybe it was because of that terribly painful experience, and not wanting to go through that all over again so soon, not to mention the months and months of recovery from such an ordeal, that I just couldn’t muster the heart to continue on any further this time around?  Cactus Rose is no Rocky Raccoon either, one is relatively flat with no rocks in sight, while the other was anything but, I feared stopping halfway up Sky Island and no longer being able to move again if I did that fourth loop.   Having to death march a significant portion of a tough 100 miler is demoralizing, and is probably a sign you weren’t as ready for the challenge as you thought you were.  

I came into Cactus Rose worn out from running so much Ultras this year, and under trained for the ridiculous hills I would face that was a feat just making it to 70 miles I suppose, but that’s no consolation in falling short of my goal to finish.  Cactus was, if nothing else, a butt-kicking learning experience that I needed in order to grow from, as I continue on this crazy path of being an Ultra Runner.  My dreams of someday running in a Mountain Ultra was predicated on how well I would do at Cactus, needless to say, they’re being put on hold while I reanalyze where I went wrong and how best I could improve.  I believe it mainly had to do with racing so much throughout year, while I had a blast this year doing one Ultra after another, I never had the time to do much dedicated and specialized training for Cactus, since I spent so much time recovering in between Ultras.  Going forward, I plan to race less often, and dedicate more time to build up the training base I need to tackle a race like Cactus Rose; you can’t half ass your way into Cactus, it will hand it back to you and leave you in tears if don’t pay the race the proper respect it deserves.  I’m already planning on my redemption for Cactus Rose next year, having drawn up a rough plan on how best to do so in my mind...and it starts with Bandera 100K in January 2014, the place is too gorgeous not to want to go back whenever you can...painful rocks notwithstanding.

Bandera...I'll be back.