Prior to registering for Cactus Rose (CR, and 50 mile and 100 mile endurance race) I knew little of Ultra Marathons other than what I read in Born to Run and what I heard from Josue Stevens and Gordon Montgomery, the first ultra runners I ever met. But, it didn’t take long for me to want to complete my first Ultra. My company Bearded Brothers had been supplying samples for Joe’s races, so it only made sense that I start training with him too.
I picked CR based on the calendar date, not the difficulty of the course. I soon found out that was not the best race I could have chosen for my first ultra marathon. The comments I heard about how difficult the course was sort of just rolled off my back, until I kept hearing them over and over, again. I kept hearing things like, “oh you picked a nasty one for your first ultra” and “wow, I can’t believe you’re doing that one for your first 50.” Again, I just rolled with it.
Cactus Rose Elevation Profile
Going into the race I felt prepared. I had done several runs over 25 miles and two over 30. The only worry in the back of my mind was how fatigued I felt at the end of those runs. Mentally I knew I would finish, I just didn’t know how well I was going to finish.
Once race morning finally came I arose from my tent at 4:15 a.m., threw on my cloths and darted off to the starting line, only to realized I left my timing chip and bib number in the tent. After a quick trip back to the tent I had just enough time to fill my Nathan bladder with coconut water, lemon juice, and water (my electrolyte beverage of choice), and line up at the starting line just in time for the start.
Fifty feet from the starting line my right shoe came untied, I quickly stopped and tied it, but to my frustration my LEFT shoe ended up coming untied at least 10 times during the next 25 miles. I quickly jumped back into the pack of 300 runners, though and found myself going out too fast! I continued to pass runners until we hit the first bottleneck going up Lucky Peak.
This trend continued until about mile 14, despite the bit of flat ground going into the Equestrian aid station I couldn’t keep up a run. I alternated running and walking until another fellow Tejas Trails runner caught up to me and we ran the final bit into the aid station (also the first aid station I stopped at). I was still making GREAT time, though. I had run 15 miles in 2:50. Not bad considering Lucky Peak was un-runable on the up-slope. It also meant I was well on my way of achieving my rough goal time of 12 hours. At that point I was also on pace to qualify for Western States, but knew I couldn’t keep up that pace for another 35 miles, but it was a fun thought to entertain.
I was still feeling pretty good at this point and began to wonder what the big deal was. This course wasn’t so bad. I was pacing faster than I did at Colorado Bend (during the night trail series) and only slightly slower than some short 12 mile runs I did at elevation in the mountains earlier in the Summer. But, shortly after I passed the Nachos aid station I heard a runner behind me say that it was about to get nasty in another mile, and man was he right. The next twenty miles of the course were what I deemed pure hell. Sure there were runnable parts of the trail, but there was LOTS of climbing over large loose rocks and eroded ledges. As a rock climber I have encountered some trails I only thought were nasty, but these Bandera trails are the beast of all beasts when it comes to gnarly trails.
Sky Island was perhaps my favorite climb despite how steep and tall it was (but HATED this peak going down on the second loop). Looking on this crazy steep peak from a distance put some fear in me, but I managed to plow through the sotol-covered peak over nasty rotten ledges and was only passed by one other runner. It just happened to be a female runner, and I am convinced after this race that women are great hill climbers.
After Sky Island I started losing a bit of steam. My pace to The Lodge (Start/Finish) was pretty broken. I began getting a bit discouraged at this point too, especially when other runners began to pass me. Joe’s advice at the start of the race was becoming a reality… Slow and steady will win over anybody that goes out too fast. I was paying the price for starting the race faster than I should have. I will say I enjoyed the pace of the first 15 miles, though.
Despite the past few miles being highly frustrating and crushing in many ways I managed to make it to The Lodge in just less than six hours. Since my ideal finish time was 12 hours I knew that goal wasn’t going to be attainable, so I remember another runner’s advice of, “race the sun.” At that point I needed a new goal, and that was it. Beat the sun, and get back here before sunset.
I was feeling very sluggish though, so I started going through a mental checklist of what could be wrong other than starting the race too fast. I was eating almost every hour, plus extra food at Equestrian and Lodge aid stations. I was drinking plenty of fluids and urinating frequently. Everything seemed fine, but for some reason my legs felt like lead and I could barely move.
For the next ten miles I was back in the big hills and cursing the steep downhill’s, especially Sky Island, I had an easier time going uphill than down. I think the only thing that kept me moving at even a remotely forward pace was that my wife and daughter were waiting for me at Equestrian to provide encouragement, and I could also ditch my long sleeve shirt and gloves that were causing me to be warmer than needed.
The running between Lodge and Equestrian were the must frustrating miles of the course. I began getting passed by people I saw heading to the Lodge aid station after I had already left it (some runners I was at least a mile or two ahead of). My legs were also feeling like lead, I could barely lift them. I kept telling myself it was all mental, and that I should just keep moving. I started trying to have the slow and steady mindset, but it only seemed to work 25-50 feet at a time before frustration set in again. I was losing the mental battle.
Upon arriving at Equestrian I was greeted by my wife and newborn daughter. It was refreshing to see them, and my wife offered encouragement to move on. At this point I was at 35 miles, 3 miles further than I had ever run before and I only had 15 miles left. I jus told myself it’s just a romp around Town Lake with a little bit of Greenbelt added on, only Town Lake is completely flat and isn’t littered with giant lose boulders.
Kristy, Abigail, and I at Equestrian aid station.
Me, coming into Equestrian aid station at mile 35.
I managed to press on though. I spent the first few minutes walking while I ate some food and drank more fluids. Pretty soon after finishing my food I was able to increase my running distance and decrease my time walking, but this didn’t last too long. I kept it up until I got to Ice Cream hill. On the first loop I felt like I floated over this peak, this time (on the shorter side of the peak) I felt like the hill would never end, it was relentless. I also kept thinking the next aid station was closer than it was, which added to my frustration. But, I just kept one foot in front of the other and before too long I was at the Nacho’s aid station and only had 10 miles left.
I asked the individuals monitoring the course at Nacho’s how far it was to Equestrian and was told 4.8 miles, so I thought it would be a good idea to just focus on walking this stretch really fast. I thought if I could do that I could still make it to Equestrian in 1.5 hours, tops. I was misinformed on the distance though, it was 5.16 miles, but I did not know that at the time and ended up making it in about on hour and forty-five minutes, which only added to my frustration. I was even tempted at one point to call it quits once I got to Equestrian, but thankfully the thought was short lived. I told myself I would walk the last five miles if I had to. It just goes to show how nasty this course is if you are tempted to call it quits after 45 miles.
When I arrived at Equestrian I had only planned on signing in and going out, but I was concerned about the sun setting so I decided to grab my headlamp that I had left there earlier that morning. It’s a really good thing I didn’t accidently carry it to The Lodge and leave it there. I also did something at Equestrian I normally never do, especially as part of my race nutrition. I grabbed two cups of coke and two cups of Gatorade that Olga had left out along with a hand full of pretzels and started my journey back to The Lodge… the final sub five mile stretch (which I thought was 5+ miles at the time).
I don’t know what it was…. maybe it as the prayers, or the walking I did from Nachos to Equestrian, or maybe it was the coke and Gatorade I guzzled down, but for the FIRST time this entire 50 mile course I felt like I had a second wind and ran almost the entire stretch back to The Lodge, with the exception of the down side of Lucky’s Peak and a short stretch after that. I played mental games with myself the whole way… just run five minutes then walk one. I would find myself running eight minutes and walking 40 seconds.
I was also motivated to see my wife again, eat a warm pizza she had brought me, and drink a cold beer. I also didn’t want her to worry too much, as I had told her I would be there by 7pm via text message earlier in the course before the battery died. It kept me moving, despite the enumerable frustrations I had throughout the course. I managed to finish the last stretch of the course in one hour and ten minutes. That was just 15 minutes slower than my morning run from Lodge to Equestrian. Not bad for having 45 miles under my feet.
My unofficial finish time was about 14:40. My mental goal going in was 12 hours, but considering only 50% of the people that enter this race finish, the fact that this is my first ultra, and that I have never run this course before I will take that time and be mighty proud!
Overall I really loved this race. I especially enjoyed the hell out of the first 15 miles, mostly because you are running with so many other people, it really gets you moving. I also like the self supported aspect of the race since I don’t do products like GU, I like to keep my nutrition all-natural, which has challenges of it’s own. I loved the planning that went into what was going to be in my drop bags, where I would place them and what aid stations I would skip, vs which ones I had to stop at.
Several times throughout the course I thought to myself I will never run another ultra again. But I often cursed the trails in my training as well. Whether or not I run CR again is yet to be determined, but you will definitely still find me on the trails. Who knows, by this time next year I just might want to come back to Bandera and capture my goal.