After failing to complete the Arkansas Traveller last October, I had to take a long look at my goals and priorities. Did I want to attempt another 100 miler and take a chance on my IT band giving out or getting worse? Should I even attempt it? Most of all I had to search myself and decide if I still had the confidence to attempt 100 miles again.
In the end, I realized why I was so down about it. It was because I had 2 goals in 2017 and had let both of them slip away. First, it was Bandera 100k (you can read about it here). Then there was the Arkansas Traveller. While my times had improved and I had done well at a couple of races, my goal was not to get faster, the goal was to have those 2 finishers buckles.
So, it was decided that 2018 would be my year of redemption. I would make a go at those races again. First up-Bandera, TX on January 6th. The timeline for training would be tight, but doable. I spent the last few months working on my hip and glute strength hoping to correct and rehab my IT band. I put in my long runs, but didn’t feel like it was enough. I had 24 hours to complete the race and was afraid that I would use it all.
Its fitting that the finishers medals and buckles for Bandera have a rattlesnake on them, because the race will bite you. It is a fierce course, so when I stood there at the starting line, I told myself that no matter how bad it got, how miserable the conditions, this would be a “no fail mission”.
With a sellout race, the first few miles were stop and go. This section can get a little technical and had some climbs, but it has one of my favorite climbs, Sky Island. You climb to the top and circle the hill, taking in views of the canyons below. The crowd had started to thin, the elites had started to pull away.
I knew that we would thin out even more around the first aid station (mile 4.7) and it did. It was around this time that I ended up behind a lady. She offered to let me by. I declined, letting her know that she was keeping a good pace for me. I knew that if I got out on my own this early, I might try to keep up with the faster runners and burn out. My goal was to finish, not place.
The second aid station was nearly 7 miles from the first. It was a fairly runnable section, but it still took awhile to get there. Once there, my new running buddy (who I had learned was named Liz) got out of there before me.
Somehow, I caught back up to her before we got to the third aid station, Chapas, at mile 16.28. We were halfway through the first loop and knew it was about to get technical again. Liz and I agreed to stick together as long as we could. Her friend, Christian, had been feeling good and she sent him ahead, so she welcomed the company.
Over the next few miles, we talked books, TV, politics, family and whatever else passed the time. All the while I knew what was coming, the 3 hills that I have a love/hate thing for. I hate going over them, but love the fact that I tackled them – Lucky’s Peak, Cairns Climb and Boyle’s Bump. I tried not to think about the fact that I would have to do them again-in the dark. In fact, with each step, I kept asking myself how I would feel in 31 miles.
We hit each one and I handled them better than I had thought. I guess I have improved my uphill more than I realized. My legs felt good and my mind was strong. I had not experienced any major lows, no thoughts of quitting.
The next big obstacle would be the loop. This is where I dropped last year, so it had been on my mind for 12 months. I had opted to leave my drop bag in my camper, which was within eye sight of the start/finish line. My reasoning was that I could get to my stuff without dealing with other runners and I could also change clothes much easier if that was needed. This can be a double edged sword. When I went in, I could see my own bed and pillow, a full fridge and my heater.
However, I was mentally prepared for this. I knew that I needed to get in and out before I got comfortable. My focus all along was on starting the next loop. I had been training myself to think about the next aid station and when I got there I was able to mentally rest and focus on the next one, so leaving was easy.
I met back up with Liz and off we went. I told myself that once at the next aid station, we would be committed to finishing. A little way up the trail, Liz asked if I had left a note for my wife, who was doing the 50k. I was so focused on getting in and out that it hadn’t occurred to me. I said that I didn’t but I left my dirty socks in the floor, so in a way I had.
We needed to get as many miles done as possible before sunset. The trail is very technical. Loose rocks, cactus and sotol bush are tough in the daylight, but limited light makes it all the worse.
It was somewhere along here that I heard some runners behind us, I turned to see Gordy Ainsleigh coming up. He caught up and ran with us for a mile or so, talking and smiling the whole time.
After the first aid station, the next section would be tough mentally, this is the stretch that was nearly 7 miles. We were loosing light fast so the headlamps came out, but not before we were treated to a Texas Hill Country sunset.
Much of the next 20 or so miles seem like a blur. I just kept moving. The advantage to the darkness is that you don’t see the hills ahead. The downside is that you can’t see to get your footing as well. We started hearing the coyote and feral hogs. There is a lot of wild life, but I only heard it.
By this point, I had mastered not counting the total miles, just how many to the next aid station. I never wanted to run 62 miles, I wanted to do a bunch of 5-6 mile runs, back to back.
Around the YaYa aid station, it hit me, I was really going to do it. We were at mile 53.5 and I felt good. Not great, but I knew that I could push through. There was only one aid station left, the 3 hills are all that lay between me and the finish line. Off to challenge Lucky’s Peak, Cairns Climb and Boyle’s Bump for a second time today.
If you had asked me before the race, I would have said that the low point would be somewhere around Lucky’s. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t the best mentally, but I was ready for the lows and I was able to push up the hill. Then into the aid station called Last Chance.
This would be a big mental boost. Yes, there were still 2 good climbs to go, but knowing that you are that close to the end caused an adrenaline rush. It was at Last Chance that Liz saw a familiar face, her friend Christian. He had stopped there to rest and relax for a few minutes. He got up and joined us for the last 4.5 miles.
The thing about ultra running is that when you get to this late in a race, its rare to have company, unless you have a pacer. Here we were, 3 runners and several more had shown up around us. For 2-3 miles, we had a line of people. One by one they dropped back, until it was the 3 of us again. All the new company had distracted me from the climbs, all were in good spirits, especially after so many hours on the course.
We tackled Cairns then Boyle’s and knew we were close. We cold hear the noise drifting up the mountain. I thought at one point I heard my wife cheering runners in. As much as I love downhills, this last one went on forever. Maybe it seemed longer because I knew that at the bottom there was a nice flat road leading up to the finish.
Suddenly, I saw an old, abandoned barn. I knew this barn sat just a few yards from the point where the trail hit the flat road. All would be okay. Liz would get her PR and Christian and I would earn our first 100k buckles. That last half a mile or so seemed surreal.
We rounded the corner and there were just a couple of people, my wife and some volunteers. Not a huge crowd like a road race. I remember a man came up to me and asked for the timing chip on my ankle. The edited version of my thought is “how does this dude expect me to bend over to get it off?” My wife was there, but she was focused on taking pictures and for some reason, I couldn’t articulate to get her to help me. (She actually got a blurry picture of me pointing at my leg.)
Finally, Mr Timing Chip figures out that I am in no condition or mood to do a yoga move to get this stupid chip off, he reaches down to help me. As he does, another man taps me on the arm, trying to hand me something. “What’s this,” I asked. He said “It’s your buckle.”
After spending the last 2 years thinking about that snake adorned buckle, somehow in the last 19+ hours, I had stopped thinking about the prize and started focusing on the journey. The effort and commitment are now my prize and the buckle is merely a souvenir.