Thursday, January 16, 2014

2014 Bandera 100K Race Report

Hills have always been a weakness for me when it comes to running trails, and when you’re starting out running Ultras for the first time and just trying to survive the ever increasing distances, it’s easy to justify to yourself in not putting as much effort into hill training, opting instead to just walk any hill or incline you come across.  That cautious approach to tackling hills has paid me well over the past couple of years, as I rapidly increased the distances I could cover in an Ultra, as well as the frequency of races that I could attempt, but the strategy has essentially plateaued my finishing times (consistently around the 60-70% mark) and left me vulnerable to a real quad-busting course like Bandera.   My first attempt at Bandera 50K last year brutally drove home that message, when I could hardly climb the steep 200-300 ft hills there without my heart feeling like it was about to explode and my quads painfully locking up in protest of each hill summit.  I vowed to make 2013 the year I would take hill training seriously on my Bandera 50K recap, but early injuries and frequent racing schedule left me worn out and woefully under-trained for Cactus Rose 100 Mile; the hills and rocks of Bandera had destroyed me yet again.

Almost immediately upon DNF’ing at Cactus Rose I sought to redeem myself, and what better way to do that, than a strong finish at Bandera 100K two and half months later?  Also, I needed to build a solid base of hill work for my race after Bandera, a 100K monster with nearly 13K ft of climbing in Arkansas at Run LOViT; time to start tackling hills with abandon.  After 3-4 weeks of light running to recover from Cactus Rose, I essentially moved into Cedar Ridge Nature Preserve over the weekends and grinded it out on the same hills, over and over and over again, racking up as much elevation gain/loss that I could manage; producing EKG charts such as these:

I was finally willing to embrace the suck of monotonous hill training; while I did sporadic hill repeats in the past, with so much Ultras to schedule around though, it was hard to get into the routine of sustained hill training, but with no races scheduled in between Cactus Rose and Bandera, I had all those weeks to slowly build up my confidence in running and power-hiking hills.  The awful weather in late November and early December also helped, because no matter how muddy the trails can get at Cedar Ridge, there is always this one long gradual hill climb (135 ft in about .375 miles) of mainly gravel and rocks that can be ran on; I spent 4 muddy weekends primarily running up and down that same hill dozens of repeats at a time, I can probably do that hill blind by this point.  My last major training week (2 weeks before the race) had me cramming in 80 miles in 8 days and over 12K ft of elevation gain/loss, trashing my quads in the process...I would soon find out if I was going overboard on the hills.

It was a cool morning at the start of the race, couldn’t have asked for better weather, especially after everyone was fearing the race was going to turn into another mudfest again like last year with threats of rain close to race day.  My legs felt great after a drastic taper off period (22 miles in 2 weeks, with the longest run being only 6 miles), and with the cool weather, the first 16 miles almost seemed effortless.  All my hill training had paid off, as I seemingly floated over the first major two climbs of Sky Island and Ice Cream Hill, after that the trails relatively flattens out for the next dozen miles, which had me clocking in 10-12 min/mile paces as I tried to keep up with a handful of normally faster friends that I ran into.  I was going out entirely way too fast, and with the cool weather for the first couple of hours of the race, I wasn’t exactly on top of my nutrition and electrolyte intake either; the warmer temperature (mid 70s) came quickly in the afternoon and with the big hill climbs of the Three Sisters around miles 18-19, they were like a one-two punch, slowing me down dramatically...I knew I was in trouble.  

A random pic of Three Sisters

The last 10 miles of the course is pretty much an endless gauntlet of hills and rocks, as you face Lucky’s Peak, Cairn’s Climb, and Boyle’s Bump, all 200-300 footers.  With the warm temps beating down on me, and quads threatening to cramp up from the steep climbs and lack of electrolyte intake for the first couple of hours, I muddled through the rest of the way (15-20 min/miles) to finish the first 50K loop; surprisingly enough, I still hit my target of finishing it in about 7 hours due to the quick start.  I spent around 20 minutes at the Lodge (beginning Aid Station) resting and taking care of some business before heading out for my 2nd 50K loop, which seemed to quiet down the bit of fatigue and cramps that was plaguing me.  However, a rematch of Sky Island and Ice Cream Hill was coming up soon, and with the hottest temps of the day to go with it; it was going to be a slog, but like Olga reminded me at the Last Chance Aid Station (mile 25), I just have to muddle through a few hours more before the sun and temps starts dropping and I’ll be able to make up time afterwards on the flats.

During the sunnier portions of the day.

I came into this race with a goal of finishing in under 16 hours, not only to qualify for Western States, but to build some momentum heading into Run LOViT, which has quite an aggressive cutoff of 18 hours that I’ve been very nervous about hitting.  With roughly 8 and half hours left to complete the second loop to make it in under 16 hours, I figured I had this in the bag, I just didn’t anticipate an old phantom coming back to haunt me so soon.  I didn’t notice the phantom lurking behind the shadows until it was too late, maybe it was the busted quads and slight cramps that was masking it away while I was making another climb up Sky Island and Ice Cream Hill in the heat, but soon after I trudged up and down those two hills and was ready to make up time on the flats, my Iliotibial Band flared up again...throwing the whole race into disarray.

I needed to reach my dropbag at the Crossroads A/S to fetch my knee strap to hopefully relieve some of my ITB pain, it was 10 miles away though…instead of picking up the pace on the flats as planned, I had to alternate between running for about 5 minutes before my ITB acted up painfully, and walking for several minutes to settle it back down till I could was Rocky Raccoon all over again.  I was getting very nervous at this point about finishing Sub-16hr, I was only managing 14-15 min/miles, whereas I was routinely doing 10-12 min/mile paces through the flat sections on the first loop.  I ran into a friend, Steve, at the summit of Ice Cream Hill a few miles back and had been running with him since; he was trying to push me to meet this goal, but my ITB continued to deteriorate further, even after wearing my knee strap when we finally made it to Crossroads.

Not only would I have to deal with a bum ITB, but the final 14-15 miles of monster hills as well, by the time we made it over the Mean Three Step-Sisters and the Anything but Lucky’s Peak, my quads were shot along with my ITB.  At the Last Chance A/S, five miles from the finish, I stayed for awhile trying to get my legs back while Steve went on ahead, but my legs were too far gone by this point to recover.  I had already thrown a Sub-16hr finish out the window several miles back, the only goal left now is just to finish; I couldn’t run, but I could still walk at a brisk pace and surprisingly enough climb at a steady clip, it still took me 2 hours to cover those 5 miles though, mainly because it hurt going down the steep and rocky hills at the end...I walked it in to finish in 17:50hrs, I was glad to be done.

Mile for mile, I believe the course for Bandera to be much more difficult than that of Cactus Rose, and all through the run I found it remarkable just how different the two courses seemed to be, even though they run in the same park and over the same major hills. For starters, Bandera is mainly all single track trails compared to some of the endless stretches of flat jeep roads that’s in the middle of a Cactus Rose loop, and the single track at Bandera was, for the most part, a mine-field of jutted and loose rocks; it was exhausting having to always pick up my feet and not be able to relax my stride late into the race.  Also, while Cactus and Bandera summits all the same major hills, a few of them like Sky Island, Cairn’s Climb and Boyles seemed like they used different routes to climb up and down them.  All these course changes made the two races seem refreshingly different from one another, which is helpful if you're planning to run both races to make you forget a bit of the trauma of Cactus Rose just two and half months earlier.

While it would have been great to hit my goal of finishing in under 16 hours and get that Western States qualifier (there's always Bryce 100 for that...), those were ultimately just side goals; signing up for Bandera was a way to light a fire in me to manically train for hills that I too often put off, and running the race was meant to be a springboard into my next race that I fear even more…the Run LOViT 100K in late February.  If my ITB hadn’t acted up, and if I would have paid more attention to my early pace and nutritional needs, I believe I could have easily gone well under Sub-16 at Bandera...these woulda, coulda, shoulda’s are something I’m going to be obsessing over in my mind for the next 6 weeks, as well as doing all that I can to rehab and strengthen this stubborn IT Band of mine (I don't think I fully aggravated it, hopefully); which I have been regretfully slacking in doing lately.  Regardless of how well I did or didn’t do at Bandera, finishing that painful and tough course is an accomplishment all of it’s own, and is a hell of a way to start the new year of 2014.  I want to thank Tejas Trails for putting on another quality race, and for the Volunteers cooking up delicious Ramen and Mash Potato soup and Cheese Quesadillas all throughout the cold night; nothing taste better after 50 miles, and at times I was convincing myself I was suffering out there between aid stations just for more soup.  Hopefully I can make it back to Bandera 100K for 2015 and turn it into an annual start of the year butt-whooping.

A well earned, and quite awesome, Buckle

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