I hadn't felt such a feeling of profound aimlessness in quite some time; just the day before I had completed the most difficult challenge of my life, the Bryce Canyon 100 Mile Ultra Trail Run, a goal I had been working on for the past 7 months, but the concept of which had been conceived over 3 years ago since I read "Born to Run" and started running Ultras, and now a day later I was back in my apartment in flat, hot, and muggy Dallas, as if it had never happened. Where do you go after completing something that’s considered one of the pinnacle achievements in the world of Ultras, that of finishing a Mountain Hundred, a goal that can seem so mythical and impossible when first hearing about them, and even more so when “easy” 50K to 50Milers are so utterly destroying you while you’re repeatedly questioning yourself on just why you’re going down this path in the first place. After spending years in pursuit of dedicated and life consuming training, the repeated process of destroying your body in progressively difficult and longer Ultra’s to build up it’s resilience for even tougher challenges down the road, and the mental anguish of dealing with injuries that never seem to go away and the self doubt that’s always in the back of your mind of whether you’ll ever be strong enough to do this; if by some miracle you’re not a crippled mess after all of that, successively put yourself in contention with just the hopes of finishing, and somehow fought through the hardest 100 miles of your life with a Buckle to show for it at the end…well, now you have to ask yourself, what next?
What next indeed, the moment I got back from that majestic trip in
Southern Utah, the last thing on my
mind was running another race anytime soon…not that I could have anyway, my
body was left completely broken and I couldn’t run a step for nearly a month
afterwards, even if I had wanted to.
After all those years of training and races under my legs, and over half
a year spent doing almost nothing but power-hiking repeats on the weekends to
prepare for Bryce, all that effort turned out to be just barely enough to
survive that Monster of a race. I should
be proud of myself for completing such a difficult goal, and believe me, I am,
but I’m more frightened of myself for having the stubbornness to push my body
to its absolute breaking point in pursuit of a glorified “hobby”. I had risked serious injuries to my left leg and
knee at Bryce, injuries that are still nagging me four months after the race,
and hopefully not another four months from now; it was a calculated risk on my
part to complete that race under such conditions (I was willing to put up with
a long recovery period from injuries afterwards, if that’s what it took), a
risk, in hindsight, I’m not sure I would have taken again.
I have dreams of running all the other fabled Mountain Hundreds out there, but I now realize, with open eyes, just how much training, sacrifices, and pain goes into completing one; trail running and races is a passion I’m certainly not going to stop pursuing, but it was time to step off the roller coaster ride of pursuing all those grand dreams in my head for a bit, and drastically scale back my ambitions while my body recovers and I have time to figure things out. So I spent my free time in the following months catching up on books and TV shows I missed, thought more about all those things that are so easily pushed aside in blind pursuit of a difficult goal, you know, like where your Career and personal life is heading and all that, but after a couple months and just barely being able to run again, I started getting antsy.
I wasn't running well at this point, just capable of short single digit miles to keep myself sane, and I certainly had no big races on my schedule approaching anywhere near 50 Miles, but Lost Loop 50K, held at Lake Texoma, was coming up on the horizon, and the more I thought of that race, the more I was intrigued with going back to where it all started for me with Trail running. Back in early February of 2012, my first Trail Marathon was at Cross Timbers (held on mostly the same trails at Lake Texoma), the oldest and still one of the toughest trail races in Texas, and it was possibly one of the rudest introductions one can get to this sport. It rained heavily the night before, and drizzled all through the day producing slippery and ankle deep mud all throughout the trails, so the conditions alone would have made for a difficult race day, but throw in complete naivety of what a course with some 3.5K to 5K ft worth of climbing is like for the Marathon (elevation gain varies, 5K is probably a high estimation, but it sure felt like it back then), and by mile 20 my quads were so busted that I thought I may have had to be airlifted over some of those steep hills because they just wouldn’t work anymore. I somehow managed to finish that race respectably in the mid-pack, even if it felt like I came in last with how much I walked the last 10 miles; a sane person would have probably been terrified of trail races after that experience, but I was hooked on the challenge they presented and desperately wanted to get better.
I fell in love with Trail running because of Cross Timbers, and was set on finally racing on those trails again after several years absence (just too many great races held around February to come back); also when I read that they needed Volunteers to help clean up the trail to get ready for Lost Loop 50K, it gave me the opportunity to give back to the trail community and help maintain an old and respected trail system. Volunteering, whether it be manning an aid station on race day or pitching in for trail maintenance duty, has always been something I’ve been meaning to do more of, but a heavy training and frequent racing schedule didn’t leave much time to pursue those obligations which I feel every trail runner should do a few times a year. Now that I was injured and couldn’t run much anyway, I no longer had any excuse not to put on work gloves and go to work on the trails.
I didn't quite appreciate all the hard work it took to maintain even just a few miles of trails until I spent three Saturday’s working at
On the first Saturday I went, I got paired up with a guy named Larry
(while another group worked on a different section of the trail), who has been
maintaining these trails for over 20 years.
There were heavy storms recently and a lot of downed trees on the
trails, Larry chopped them up with his chainsaw, while I cleared them off to
the side of the trails and trimmed tree branches in between; around 3 hours and
over half a dozen dead trees later, we had only covered about a mile. I went back to volunteer every other Saturday
for two more times, and it was similar slow going; the second Saturday only me,
Teresa (the Race Director), and another lady named Linda showed up, with no
chainsaw this time, we still had managed to clear several dead trees and
trimmed about a mile of trails, again in about 3 hours, all while working in the sauna
that is August in Texas. Finally, on
the last Saturday of trail maintenance, a bigger group showed up this time
(split into two again), but we were tackling one of the hilliest, overgrown,
and throw in a few more dead trees for good measure, sections of the Lost Loop
course; I carried Larry’s (heavy) chainsaw for most of the way until he needed
to chop up a dead tree, and once again, it took over 3 hours just to cover ONE
freakin mile! Lake Texoma
|Group shot on day 3.|
|No chainsaw on Day 2, lots of heavy tree lifting|
|My favorite photo from Day 1 with Larry|
There were a few more work days planned, but my legs were finally getting strong enough to push a little harder on the training for Lost Loop, and for “just” a 50K, I was getting worried if I could have finished that race without re-aggravating the injuries I sustained at Bryce. In between the Trail maintenance at Lake Texoma, I did enter a 30K race at Colorado Bend State Park to test out my legs, and to return to one of my favorite summer races of the Capt’n Karl Night-Time Trail Racing Series, it didn’t quite go very well…I ran pretty well for nearly half the race before my left leg and knees got extremely sore and I had to pretty much walk it in for the rest of the race. I finished last year’s Colorado Bend 60K race in just over 10 hours, but it ended up taking me 6 and half hours to trudge through the 30K race this year; I was, perhaps, a bit dismayed that just a couple months earlier I had conquered a Mountain Hundred, but was so easily dismantled by a 30K run in the Hill Country of Texas. I thanked Teresa, and all the others I had met, for a great time working on the trails, but I sorta had to get some training done now.
One could argue that did a lot of “time on feet” training with all my trail work and I certainly convinced myself that was the case, but bumping up my mileage after nearly two months of little to no running after Bryce was difficult to manage. It was very much a process of taking two steps forward only to take a step back when my left quads and knees started barking at me with every increase in mileage. I only managed to hit a high of 40 miles for the week (with 13/12 back to back weekend miles on the trails), before I had to back off several weeks before Lost Loop 50K to taper and let my knees cool down. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t just a bit nervous about finishing a 50K for the first time in years with so little training and nagging injuries, especially a brutal one like Lost Loop, but whatever, the trails at Lake Texoma are gorgeous and I couldn't think of a better way to spend my Saturday than covering a 50K distance there that day.
After having not really raced for almost four months, what I don’t miss is the early wake up times and the inability to get much sleep the night before; what I did miss was seeing all the familiar faces again that I usually only see at these local race, which I haven’t been doing much of this year, with my focus on big races out of state in Arkansas and Utah, and lonely weekends spent power hiking, it was a good chance to catch up a bit. The start time was at 6:30am, and I’d figured Dawn would be approaching soon, but it was still pitch black and me without a headlamp, an uncharacteristically trail newbie mistake on my part, but luckily someone let me borrow their backup one. I started off rather fast in the front pack, not where I normally like to be, but the long taper helped and running in the cool morning temperatures was a breeze…I’ll worry about blowing up later in the race for the fast start.
A lot has changed since my first go around on these trails over 2 and half years ago, what once seemed liked impossibly steep mountains back then, became short and only occasionally steep hills, the most challenging ones barely rose above a hundred feet and was over before I knew it; your perspective of what’s a long hill changes drastically after doing a Mountain race. It’s an almost bittersweet feeling coming back to an old favorite trail, and finding out it’s no longer the epic slogfest you remembered it to be; the Stairway to Heaven hill should have been renamed to the Stepladder to Heaven. What the hills here lack in height though, they make up for in volume, the first and last 10-11 miles of the out and back race course is an endless roller coaster of hills, I knew I was going to regret the last third of the race after taking for granted how “easy” those hills seemed on fresh legs.
|Some early photos of this section|
|On the Stairway to Heaven|
The flat middle sections came as a relief, as it took me nearly three hours to slog through the first 11 miles of hilly trails, but the feeling of relief didn't last too long. The trails here had some beautiful open field sections with sweeping views of the lake and running through fields of wildflowers, but it was more exposed coming out of the hilly wooded sections and the Sun was starting to beat down on me with Noon fast approaching. By the time I reached the turnaround point in about 4 hours, I had ran more than I ever had before since Bryce, and my feet and legs were starting to feel it; combined with the Sun beating down on me in the more exposed open field sections, I found myself walking the flats more than I should have. I didn't mind the slower pace too much, I was just relieved that I could still be running for this long again after such a tortuous period of trying to rebuild my legs from injury, and I ran into a lot of friends coming back from the turnaround or approaching it once I passed it myself to make it fun; I also needed to preserve my legs for the endless hills again during the last third of the race.
|Photo's have some smudges from the lens.|
|Robin, with her Ultra Dog Dylan, who ran all 31 Miles together|
On approaching the dreaded roller coaster of hills section, I ran into a guy around my age out there doing his first Ultra, let alone his first run of any kind over 15 miles. As I got to talking to him, I couldn't help but being reminded of myself running these same trails as my first Trail Marathon at Cross Timbers a couple years back. I remembered being awed by other runners talking about their achievements, especially at the 100 Miler, but it just felt kind of awkward and even embarrassing to see his reactions while I was talking about all the races that I've done while we were walking together. Running Ultras has become so normalized to me at this point, that anytime I’m reminded that what I’m doing is probably the exact opposite of normal (seriously, just look at the statistics of just how little the number of people are out there running any Ultras, much less 100 Milers), I get a bit sheepish and defensive about it; it’s something I rarely ever talk about to casual acquaintances and strangers. Anyway after a mile or so of walking, I bid him goodluck and ran on ahead, I had to make up some time while I still could on the remaining flats before I hit the hills for the final 10-11 miles.
|A pleasant section to take it a bit easy before the hills get you.|
After 20+ Miles of tough trails my left knee area was getting extremely sore again, combine that with overall leg fatigue, and endless repeating hills, I was lucky to be averaging 20 min/miles during this section. The Hills are also much steeper and challenging on the way back, compared to the more gradual climbs of the beginning direction; one hill in particular, S.O.B Hill, definitely earned its nickname, after 20+ miles you’re forced to climb this long and very steep hill with big rocks and monster roots in your way that you have to hurl yourself over. With the race becoming more of a hiking expedition at this point, I spent most of this time taking pictures since I couldn’t run much anyway, my inner Geologist is a sucker for some of the more interesting rock formations at Lake Texoma; it’s also a reason why I wanted to do Bryce Canyon as my first Mountain Hundred, to tour alongside all those alien looking Hoodoo rock formations on the race course.
|Not sure how this one stays upright like that...|
|Beginning the climb up S.O.B Hill|
|The roots become monsters...|
It was tough hiking through this section, especially with my left leg being sore, but the clouds started rolling in and being under the trees for the majority the time when the Sun did break through, was actually pretty pleasant. I also got the opportunity to see all the sections I missed while running the first half hour of the race in the dark, such as Fern Gully Hill (I think that’s what the sign said), which funneled you through walls of beautiful fern growing from the sides. Before I knew it, I just had one major hill left to climb, named Monkey’s Butt Hill, which I believe is called that because after 30 miles of tough and hilly trails, you feel like a Monkey is taunting you every step up this hill by mooning and throwing it’s poo at you. Once I hit the short quarter mile road section to the finish, I ran it in, completing the race in 8:37 Hrs; just a tad bit surprised that that was good enough to finish squarely in the mid pack (hiking races are pretty much my specialty these days), while being my slowest 50K ever.
|Loved this Fern covered section|
|Some final shots on the way back to the finish|
When I’m injured and can’t run very well, I have a tendency to be withdrawn from the racing scene in general, and after completing Bryce, a goal I had been chasing for so long, I especially needed to just hide in my cave, like the Giant Pacific Octopus, while I figured out what I wanted to do next. Being able to go back and do a race on the same trails as my first Trail Marathon was like hitting a mental reset button that I needed (legs, on the other hand, are a work in progress), time to start over and work on new and more ambitious goals for next year…of which I have several options, but not quite ready to commit, at least publicly. There was also a bit of satisfaction of running on trails that I've worked hard to help maintain; since I've been racing and training so much, I've always felt guilty for not doing enough to help keep the trails in good condition. Dead trees don’t clear themselves, people, so consider pitching in every once in awhile to help maintain your local trails, or at the very least donate money and thank the volunteers who do go out there and do the hard work to keep your favorite trails clear and enjoyable. The trails at Lake Texoma is a beautiful gem in North Texas, Teresa puts together quality races, and Lost Loop is great option for those looking for a tough local race around late September that's mostly shaded (running in Texas is still tough this time of the year); I’m a bit disappointed that the races don’t attract as much runners as they should (the field for the 50K only drew about 30 something runners), perhaps the location is just too far out of the way for most people to consider, or they’re just intimidated by this tough little trail, but I can assure you it’s worth the trip sometime, already can’t wait for next year.