Two days before the race I was feeling fairly confident, but at the same time undertrained. I hadn’t run as many trails during this training season due to having Abby last September, just one month before my first go at Cactus Rose. But, after reviewing my training from last year I noticed that my long runs had significantly improved by about two minutes per mile. So, this caused me to re-adjust my goal of finishing before sunset to finishing in 13 hours. (note for those not familiar with this course, you can use the elevation profile picture above for reference throughout my recap)
A few things I learned before going into the detailed race report.
- Don’t eat a black bean burger the night before the race
- It really is 99% mental when it all comes down to it
- The theory of spending the least amount of time in the aid station as possible only applies when you are feeling good
- Always check your water levels, even when you think you don’t need to
The race started at 5am, with warmer temperatures than I was expecting. Last year I wore long sleeves and gloves for the firs 35 miles, I was wearing short and a t-shirt at the start of the race this year. Humidity was also an unwelcomed guest during the race this year. Throughout the run, many runners suffered from cramps and various other issues, myself included.
The first 4.5 miles into the first Equestrian aid station went by fast, even the slog up Lucky’s Peak seemed easy. I played it smart though and made it a point not to pass too many people, as to not go out too fast. After reaching Equestrian I continued on without stopping, as I was not planning on stopping until mile 15, I had also made it in to the aid station in just under an hour, so continued running for a few more minutes before walking and eating some food.
It was about this time that the humidity really started to become apparent, but I managed to make it to the mile 15 Equestrian aid station in three hours and ten minutes, just 10 minutes over my goal time. This put me at a 12:40 minute pace, about 20 seconds per mile faster than last year. I was also feeling stronger going into this aid station than the year before. I ran the entire flat section from the bottom of Ice Cream Hill, and had even run a good portion of the up-hill section during that stretch.
It was also about this time I started feeling the effects of the black bean burger I had eaten the night before. Everything in me wanted to stop for a bathroom break, but the only restroom had a line three people deep, so I decided to wait until I got to the Lodge at mile 25 to relieve myself of the pressure.
I continued to feel pretty good going up the sotol covered hill just after the Equestrian aid station, and also managed a steady trot up most of Sky Island, but something snapped mentally after reaching the summit. Up until the summit I had been leading a steady trot of about 5 runners up the hill, but after reaching the top I let them pass, looking back on it I realized that was probably a huge mistake. The next two climbs after that were a complete slog fest for me.
I was also being attacked mentally. I kept thinking I would drop after I got to The Lodge and take the DNF, after all I had family 40 minutes away. It would be nice to spend the rest of the day with them. I also kept thinking, this ultra thing is ridiculous, why am I doing this…. I will never run another ultra again; I’m done with this whole ultra running crap. Those were the thoughts I battled for over six miles.
I did however tell myself I would take some time to rest at the Lodge aid station, take that restroom break I had been needing, and allow myself to recover mentally. Thankfully I saw Joe at the aid station too, he was encouraging and told me I could do it, to take some time to eat and rest and then keep going. I knew he wasn’t going to let me quit, there would be no way he was going to let me turn in my timing chip, so I took time to rest, ate some food and was feeling better after about 40 minutes, which was way more time than I ever wanted to spend there.
I had also left myself an iPod at this aid station, knowing that the music might motivate me to run stronger and forget about my heavy legs. Well, that worked great for the next 7 miles. The music amped me up (a long with a surge from a coke, something I rarely do, even in races) and I soared to the Boyles aid station 5 miles away. It felt like I floated up Cairne’s Climb and Boyle’s Bump, I made it to the Boyle’s aid station in an hour flat, the same pace I had been running earlier in the race, and over steeper more difficult terrain.
However, I was feeling so good and confident I left the aid station without checking the water levels in my bladder. I realized this after running out of water a mile or two outside the aid station. By then it was too late to turn back, I had to keep moving forward, but I forced myself to walk, or was it that I used not having water as an excuse to walk? Either way I was slowed significantly back into the Equestrian aid station, walking 3-4 miles. Looking back on this I really do think running out of water was a mental excuse not to run.
Upon reaching Equestrian I realized I was fully capable of finishing and still had plenty of time to beat my time from last year. So again, I spent a little extra time than normal in the aid station, resting, eating and recharging mentally. I was feeling quite a bit better again and ran a good stretch of the way up to Ice Cream Hill, but again the up hill sections become a bit of a slog, which also made the down hills mentally challenging.
Upon reaching the Nacho’s aid station (with 10 miles to go) I re-charged with a Hammer Gel (something I also rarely do, even with races) to change things up from the other foods I had been eating all day, and to get a bit of a mental boost from something other runners seem to heavily rely on. From Nacho’s to Equestrian I had several mental challenges. Even though I felt fully capable of running more than I did, I would see another runner in front of me and say to myself, I don’t feel like passing him. So would just stay behind and keep their pace. Thinking it would be a good idea so I could finish strong, even though I had less than 10 miles left at this point.
After reaching Equestrian for the final time I was feeling pretty good, or at least I told others that when asked. I quickly grabbed another gel, some salt tabs, and some Honey Stinger bites and was on my way out. I ran the entire flat section out of the aid station until I got back into the wooded section heading up to Lucky’s Peak. The FINAL slog of the day.
Again, I played mental tricks with myself, saying I didn’t want to pass the runners in front of me, even though I had been leading these two particular runners for the past 10-12 miles. I alternated between a steady trot and walking the entire uphill section leading to the meat of Lucky’s Peak. Upon reaching the top and starting the decent I ran into a couple of other Tejas Trails friends that were running the 100 in the same spot I ran into friends the year before… only this time I was watching the sun start to set, the previous year I was using my headlamp to make it home. This got me really excited as I knew my alternate goal of finishing before the sunset was well in reach. I only had about 1.5 miles to go.
The remainder of the decent down Lucky’s was actually pretty rough, I could feel my muscles being fatigued, dropping down the big ledges was a challenge. But upon reaching the base of the steep peak I was able to get my mojo back, especially after reaching the main road, a gradual flat section taking me back to the finish line. Once I was here I knew I had just under a mile to go, so refused to let myself walk anymore. I would tell myself to run to the end of the song currently playing, then did the same thing again until I could see the flags at the finish line.
Upon having the finish line in sight I removed my headphones and let the sounds of the crow serve as my motivation to cross the finish line. I was excited, I finished before sunset, and there was till light in the sky several minutes after crossing the line, on top of that I finished when every bit of me wanted to drop out before I even reaching the 25 mile mark.
Once again, I can really say 99% of running ultra marathons is mental. This having been my second ultra, I realized that even more. Especially knowing that I was in better shape this year. The fact that I can walk without waddling the day after the race is an even bigger testament to my physical condition, just going to show even more how much of this ultra running thing is mental.
I will also say I really love how supportive the ultra running community is of each other. Even the fastest guy out there can be found at the finish line socializing and encouraging other runners as they cross paths on the reverse loop of a course. Had there not been other encouraging runners out there that day, I don’t know if I would have finished. I can’t tell you how many times I heard “good job”. Although many times I hated hearing it because of how out of it I was mentally, I realize hearing that over and over really does help, no matter how you are feeling at the time.
And now that the race is over, and I’m out of my dark cloud of mental anguish, I definitely think I will be running more ultra marathons. I don’t know what the next one will be, but I’m fairly certain there will be more. This sport is addicting, and part of me can’t believe I’m even saying, “I want more!”
Strava data from the first loop of the course, before my battery was drained. Funny thing is, last year with my iPhone 3g I made it 35 miles before the battery ran low.