One question I have been asked over the past several months is Why are you going to Texas to run Cactus Rose? There are other races closer to South Carolina. There are other races over more forgiving terrain. I have two reasons. One, those races are for punks and phonies. (lol, just kidding) Two, my good friend and "sister" Melissa asked me to come out. She is an extremely generous person and offered her time and services to get me through and earn my first one hundred mile finish. Without her insistence this weekend would not have been possible.
Cactus Rose is held in the Hill Country State Park ten miles west of Bandera, Texas. While not in a remote area, it certainly gives the impression of being on the edge of nowhere. The ground is extremely rocky and sandy. Little grass grows in the region. South Texas is bone dry due to a long drought and the air felt devoid of any humidity. Believe me, after living in the coastal southeastern United States my entire life, I relished a brief respite from humidity.
There is lots of scrub oak, mesquite trees and sotol palms. These squatty little bastards with slice you to pieces if not careful. I was fortunate to suffer only minor cuts; I hear they can go pretty deep.
|Entrance to the Hill Country State Park, ten miles west of Bandera, Texas.|
|Equestrian Aid Station with a double stop. Only hot food available other than at the start/finish area. This was the site of our crew HQ.|
|Discussing race strategy, logistics and who should be "the boss". I lost on all fronts.|
|Cactus Rose race director Joe Prusaitis preparing the finishing area on Thursday before the race.|
|At The Lodge aid station. Served at the race start/finish area, packet pick up, race HQ and source of a volunteer staffed grill. Wonderful people gave of their time and energies to see the races through to Sunday morning.|
Loop One/ Lulled into delusional considerations
At 5am we were off the starting line and charging forward. As I hit the fork to take the clockwise heading I thought that the run was just beginning. Quickly I reminded myself the race would probably not start till the first hill, or the fiftieth mile, or even the first bounce off the proverbial wall. All I could do was stay on course, not trip over any rocks - holy crap there were rocks - and remain as calm and focused as possible.
|The red line is the course. The flat map is no indication of how sadistic the topography is laid out.|
Course layout and aid stations - the course was a twenty five mile loop, with aid stations approximately every five miles. Loops One and Three were run in a clockwise heading while Loops Two and Four were completed in a counter clockwise direction. That meant we only went in one direction twice. You had to deal with a really shitty incline or decline twice. That would prove important later on.
The aid stations in clockwise order were named The Lodge (start/finish area), Equestrian (our crew HQ), Nachos (unmanned), Equestrian (two passes through on each loop), Boyles (unmanned) and back to The Lodge. We chose to establish our base camp at Equestrian as it would afford two opportunities to comfortably meet with the crew and handle whatever needs arose. On the counter clockwise loops the runners hit the aid stations in reverse order (obviously).
It is impossible to run the complete circuit at Cactus Rose. Unless you are a fricking mountain goat. The constantly changing grade and footing forced one be vigilant for loose rocks, gravel or other hazards that may cause trips, rolls, sprains or breaks. I only fell once - slipped onto my ass on a step down in the dark - but I saw a few other folks fall on the trail.
On the first morning dawn finally broke around 7:30. While I was happy to no longer need my headlamp it meant I was forced to acknowledge the beast underneath me. Rather than only being able to see whatever was illuminated by my headlamp I could now see the expanse of the Hill Country State Park and all that it had to throw at me.
A cool aspect of a long slow trail ultra (relative to road racing at any distance) is the opportunity to talk with other competitors. I had the pleasure over the first fifty miles of running/shuffling/walking with some really strong runners and exceedingly amazing individuals. Spent a good amount of time with Reece Catron and Jeremy Day. We shared observations on the course, races in general, expectations for the weekend and a plethora of topics I promised would stay on the trail. It was interesting hearing the different people discussing other races, strategy, nutrition and motivation. On occasion these talks were a welcome distraction from the hellish nature of the course layout. Other times it was nice to commiserate with others over just how ridiculous such an endeavor truly is.
During the course of the weekend I ate a few peanut butter and honey sandwiches, a handful of Hammer Gel (chocolate and orange flavors), hot ramen, grilled cheese, bananas and gallons of water with Banana Nuun. I also recommend Boost. It went down well when solid food sounded awful.
I finished the first loop in a very solid five hours and twenty-two minutes.
Like an ass I began to toy with the idea of a sub twenty-four hour finish.
Loop Two/ Slogging through
FINISH was the only goal I brought to the weekend.
I hoped to finish healthy as well. I still had to walk through the airports, on and off the planes. Life would begin again Monday and I could not afford to be in the gutter physically. I have no immediate plans for future races so the ability to run post CR was not considered; I just hoped to avoid being carted off the course or being laid up for an extended period.
The final ten miles of Loop One are probably the most difficult of that circuit. There are some monster climbs with few runnable sections. Overall I felt really optimistic. That when out the window on Loop Two. The first ten miles of the counter clockwise return were fairly navigable. There was at least one climb in each leg of the course on this heading that were just plain stupid. I don't know if I could find anything comparable in South Carolina. Hopping over the rocks began to take a toll.
I continued ahead with Reece and Jeremy. Separate from our conversations I began to focus on the tightening in my right knee. The IT strain that knocked me out of Lumberjack was coming back. Slowly at first, but it was there. I never mentioned it. I preferred to show a brave face. I didn't worry about giving anything away to my cohorts - beating another runner was not the point. I didn't want somebody else to worry about me.
My memory is pretty fuzzy but I think I called Andria at Mile 35 to say everything was going fine. I lied. I may have told Melissa about the knee at this point. Figured I needed to be honest with my crew leader. Andria was one thousand miles away and unable to do anything but worry. Andria confessed she could hear the worry in my voice. That woman knows me too well.
At this point I decided to have fun and threw on the kilt. Guess how I wore it? Seriously, I felt ten degrees cooler when I shucked the compression shorts.
|I'm a wild and crazy guy!|
I started the Loop One in the dark and finished Loop Two in the daylight covering the same ground, though in reverse order. I have to say that the darkness cloaked the ridiculous nature of the final 2.5 miles back to the The Lodge. There are two long steep climbs and equally steep drops. In the dark they were okay. When I could see beyond thirty feet in any direction I realized that this place is serious shit. Lose your focus for even a second and your day is over.
I finished the second loop in approximately seven hours, with a total of 12:22 elapsed since the race started.
Loop Three/ This is how it's gonna end?
At some point near the end of the second loop and the start of the third I acquired a stabbing pain in my left patella and a growing stiffness in the front of my left ankle. I was moving solo at this point - Jeremy and Reece had there own races to run. I would lose them at aid stations. Since they have more trail experience (again, I have zero Texas trail experience) I assumed they would eventually pull away. I'm glad they worked well together and appreciate the time we shared.
This new pairing of pains scared me. I began to doubt my prospects for finishing. I never panicked though. Rather than lose my shit I applied logic to the situation and developed three or four points to present to my crew as to why I should drop. When I returned to Equestrian at Mile 65 I arrived fully intending to end my run at Cactus Rose right there. I was not afraid of the pain or a DNF so much as being half way between aid stations and unable to move forward or back. Any downward motion activated a sharp pain in my knee like a knife and at some point I slipped on a step down and busted my ass. I lay there for a moment in the dark wondering what the hell I had walked into.
Was I a moron for attempting this course with what I have to train? People certainly questioned my mental capacity for jumping into such a notorious locale.
I typed a few lines above that I was not scared of the pain.... That's a lie. I was terrified of what may come. I over think and anticipate and worry beyond anything that may be reasonable. I began to project what may come. I was too fearful of what might happen to ever consider what would happen. Fortunately I focused so much on building my argument to DNF that I never broke emotionally. I simply figured it was how it would go. Getting out before I was completely broken seemed like a good idea.
Remember what I said about deciding who the boss was of our little team? I obviously lost that vote. When I presented my case to Melissa she looked me straight in the eye and said NO. I was sixty-five miles into the race. It was only 11:30pm. We still had eighteen hours or so before the end of the race. More urgently I needed only to cover the next ten miles by seven o'clock in the morning to beat the cut off to start the final loop.
I really thought I had nothing left to give. I was not tired though I had been moving for eighteen hours. This was Melissa's time to shine. Her experience crewing at other races came though in this moment. She, Grenade and Diana got me food - hot ramen and grilled cheese. They covered me in blankets. Melissa and Diana rubbed out my legs to get me warmed up again.
Melissa asked me to give five more miles. Just five. They could reach that station by car and she promised to haul me back to our campsite for a brief nap and return me to the same station so I could resume after a rest.
She gave me 600mg Ibuprofen*. Once I was a ways down the trail I realized my knee no longer hurt. I did not run yet due to fears of damaging my knee/ankle, but I moved deliberately. My biggest fear was a steep gravelly drop into a hike-in campsite that I nearly skidded down Saturday morning. In the dark and with my gimpy knee I anticipated it with dread.
Then I discovered I was at the bottom of the drop. I didn't realize I had come down. The Ibuprofen worked. The dark and limited field of vision due to the headlamp shielded me in the moment from worry. Fuck yeah! This was a break I needed. If you ever watch Bear Grylls and see him start a fire, all he needs is a tiny spark. I may have just had my spark. Of course there was still a long way to go.
Melissa and Diana met me at Boyles aid station, Mile 70. A nap was still on the table, but I was fearful of losing time I may need later in the day. Also I was worried about clearing The Lodge for my final circuit before 7am. Joe, the race director, was serious about that deadline and I was not willing to test it. So Melissa asked me to give five more miles.
The Ibuprofen held just short of Mile 75 and the IT in my right knee was completely silent. It would never be an issue for the remainder of the race. Even the usual calf pain and Achilles tenderness never troubled me.
Several people advised me to take the race station to station. Five mile chunks. Easy bites. These bites could choke an elephant, but it's what I had.
|Sign on the trail.|
I rolled into The Lodge at 4:10am for a nearly eleven hour loop and total time at 23:10. See how foolish I was considering a sub 24.
Melissa and Grenade were waiting at The Lodge when I completed my third loop. Someone asked if I had finished the race. I could only hope.
A couple of carport style tents were set up with three and one half sides walled and a gas heater going. My crew brought me hot food off the grill - more ramen and grilled cheese. I popped another 600mg of Ibuprofen. They cleaned my feet and helped get my socks and shoes back on. Melissa said that since I had made it thus far, 2.5 hours ahead of the Loop Four cut off, I may as well keep going and bank time for later on. I think she was reading my mind. I did not want to stop. Whereas I was fearful for continuing on earlier in the night, now I was afraid of stopping.
Time to give five more miles and start the final loop.
Loop Four/ A runner possessed
As I made my way out of The Lodge heading back to Boyles I passed several people finishing their third loops. I wondered how many would make it in before 7am. Several asked how far out they were and I gave my best estimate of distance. It was their job to judge the pace needed to cover the distance. Once I neared the midpoint of this leg I stopped giving distance and merely offered encouragement to continue on. I was afraid of discouraging anyone. Then I realized I passed the last straggler. Maybe this is when my race truly began.
It was still dark. No moon. The stairs were brilliant, but did not help light my way. I was using one lamp on my head and a second affixed to one handheld.
Melissa anticipated me needing two hours to reach Boyles. She only had one mile to drive from the previous stop to reach Boyles, so she would be on site 15 minutes before I arrived. The only problem was I beat her there.
I ran - RAN - as much of the flats as possible and reached Mile 80 in 1:45 at 6:27am. The station was empty, except for race gear, and dark. I sat on a cot to await Melissa. The stations each had a table and clock we were required to sign in on arrival so had I simply run through Melissa would have known. But I am still anticipating her pulling me off the trail for a nap. They refill my handhelds and feed me. I keep asking what's the plan. I want to her what she has to say. The fire is burning and my confidence is bolstered by the leg just completed. I want to run.
After the race Melissa told me the offer of a nap was a lie. She never planned to allow that. Her boyfriend Grenade was take aback somewhat by the tactic but she was right. Coaxing back on the course repeatedly for five more miles gave me time to work back into the flow and regain confidence I needed to believe I could finish.
Slipping into Boyles as I did would become a theme through Mile 95.
Coming off the hill into Equestrian at Mile 85 I chugged across the timing mat and caught my crew off guard. Olga, the volunteer cook assumed I was a pacer and asked were the runner was. When I informed her I was in fact the runner and running alone she quickly provided me with fresh ramen.
Melissa got me in a chair and assessed my condition.
STRONG. I popped another 600mg and noted that the back of my left knee was stiffening. But that would not stop me now. Diana had been to Bandera for some coffee and hot food. You might ask what do you eat now to fuel the final fifteen miles of this hell run. A Sonic breakfast sausage, egg & cheese toaster sandwich with half an order of tater tots and half a large coffee. I also think they laced it with gun powder. I would roll out in thirty minutes after my initial arrival.
I saw Jeremy and Reece come into Equestrian from the other side. They were at Mile 95 and almost home. Jeremy's parents came to Bandera with him and his mom gave me a sweet motherly hug before the start on Saturday. I saw her now and thanked her for that hug, saying my mom would appreciate it. She asked if I wanted another hug now. To know I was 85 miles in and covered in dust and sweat I was touched by the offer and gratefully accepted. With that I was out.
Again I ran as much as I could in the flats. I hiked the grades with as much determination as I could muster. And when I felt winded and needed to rest my hands on my knees I did. I played hopscotch with a few other guys walking the trail toward Nachos.
I am not describing how difficult the terrain is at Hill Country because I feel I cannot do it justice. Pictures cannot even tell the full story. You have to experience for yourself. This leg of the counter clockwise loop featured the longest climb on the entire course. I was thankful for the ball cap which shielded my eyes from the top of the climb. This way I could only focus on the ten or twenty feet ahead of me. I looked up on occasion to check my line then quickly returned my gaze to my immediate footing.
I reached Nachos in good time and better spirits. Apparently I was ahead of expectations because my groupies were sitting on some rocks reviewing the course maps. I was making a habit of announcing my arrival at the stations with a loud WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!! when I knew my crew was there. I sat for a few minutes to adjust my laces while they filled my handhelds again. I was out in seven minutes.
When I rolled into Nachos I was with a couple of other guys. One messaged me after I got home to congratulate me and say he was suffering a sinus infection during the race. He eventually finished. I'm glad to know he made it through. The other guy didn't look so good and admitted to sleeping on the trail for "seventeen minutes". As I stepped back onto the trail I committed to putting as much ground between me and these guys. Not out of spite. I just needed a motivator to get my ass moving with grim determination. The leg from Nachos to the final pass through Equestrian saw me run a great deal. And I ran hard. Hill Country has horse trails and occasionally I met riders on the hoof. As I came through the main parking area for day riders I met a crowd whom may have had a runner in the race; they were horse people as well. Thankfully they shouted encouragement and applauded my efforts.
This leg was largely alone. My mind was all over the place. How would I finish? What would I feel? How would it look? How soon could I get to speak with my family? I also focused on running hard enough to maintain energy for any remaining climbs and not bust my ass (or face) on a rock.
I slipped into Equestrian with my approach shielded by trees. One guy was standing by the check-in table. When he saw me I put one finger to my lips to mime SHHHHHH then let out another loud yelp. I think my crew as taken aback by how strong I was becoming. The walking over night, when all I could do was walk, was certainly paying off now.
|Five miles to go. You'd be smiling too. Or not.|
There was time to refill both bottles and a quick picture. Four minutes later I was back to work. The first half would be fairly easy. I moved with pace but walked more often as the final two miles would present nasty obstacles to navigate. I would not let this journey end within earshot of finish. Actually the trail does pass within a few hundred yards of the The Lodge with about forty minutes to go. [On Saturday ] I was hard approaching Mile 50 when I could hear the crowd and have another couple of miles to go. Soon I exited the loop and onto the final straight away. At one point in the distance I thought I saw my parents. I knew it wasn't possible. Bushes and trees can play tricks on the mind.
With a few more twists and turns I was almost there. I jumped the iPod to Kid Cudi's Heart of a Lion and launch my final assault on the finish line.
Suddenly a long straight away revealed one of the buildings at The Lodge site. I could see Melissa in distance as she scrambled back the line.
I pressed the pace even harder. Through the gully of a dry creek bed. The lyrics were pounding in my ears as I crossed final rocky yards. Then up and onto the grass. I launched my handhelds to other side of the path and leaned in. Here is the video of my finish.
Final circuit completed in 8:40.
Total time from start to finish - 32:22:49
Post Cactus Rose thoughts
I ran through the finish because I did not know how I would react to finishing. I anticipated a flood of emotion. When I finally stopped I was hyperventilating, nauseous and nearly spasmodic with tears. Then I realized Grenade was recording me and I settled down. The next thing I knew I heard a race official call out to come get my buckle. MY BUCKLE!!! Oh yeah. I have to get my buckle.
After I collected myself and sucked down a Guinness I told the race director I loved everything about the weekend, but there was NO CHANCE IN HELL I would ever come back. The buckle had been earned. I proved I could hang on the sickest terrain and survive in spite of zero hill training. There would be nothing else to prove in Hill Country State Park. I relayed this conversation to Melissa. Confidently she said I'd reconsider and get the itch to cut my time on a second attempt. And dammit if she wasn't right. On the flight from Atlanta to Myrtle Beach I caught myself replaying moments in the race and how I might have shortened aid stops. Guess it means I want another crack at Cactus Rose. I definitely see another ultra in my future.
|A good man caring for a dirty foot.|
|Congratulating my new friend on a race well run.|
|I tried to chug it before it was replaced with Guinness.|
|Nothing says Mission Accomplished quite like a sheet cake. Damn tasty too.|
|Best crew in the world.|
The combination of Altra Instincts, Injinji toe socks and gaiters really helped prevent blisters. I had a couple of hot spots which were treated with moleskin. I applied Bodyglide Saturday morning, never again and suffered only one small blister. My socks and shoes reek like sewage but stayed dry.
I cannot say enough about Melissa, Grenade and Diana. They gave up their weekends, sleep and general comfort to help me see the end as a one hundred mile finisher. They are forever on The Good List.
|Don't call it a skirt.|
*My use of Ibuprofen - While at The Lodge at Mile 75 one of the other runners overheard me saying I was using Ibuprofen. He cautioned that I urinate as often as possible to flush out my kidneys. Renal failure is a definite possible with the overuse of NSAIDS and dehydration. My protocol was 600mg every ten miles from Mile 65. At most I consumed 2400mg total. I drank 80 ounces of water with Nuun between each does and stopped to pee even when I did not feel an urge to do so. I surprised myself by holding urine even when I felt no urge. By Sunday night normal bodily functions has resumed and there appears to be no long term ill effects. I don't use OTC pain killers often and used what my crew believed to be the bare minimum to get through the final 35 miles. I may have taken only another 2000mg since the race ended (I am writing this on the following Wednesday).
One difference between my first chase for a buckle and this past weekend is that I never felt the emotional break that is expected with these events. Even a marathon can crush one's spirit. It nearly happened at my first marathon. It certainly did happen at Lumberjack. The potential for a DNF collapsed on upon me like a house of bricks and I carried those scars into this race. Though I said all the right things and felt good both physically and emotionally, that concern was tucked away waiting for the right moment to pounce. When I sensed the tide turning against me I tried to be logical. I tried to think the situation through. I thought I knew what I did or did not want to do. Having Melissa refuse to listen to me was the difference between coming home empty handed and coming home to this picture.
|Not sure I'll ever wash this off my car. I know it's a minivan. Don't laugh. You know I can chase your ass down.|
I have sometimes written about running with an audience. This race was for me alone. No dedicated miles. No ideas I intended to consider on the run. Hell, I had no go-to thoughts to manage the potential emotional hurdles if and when they came. Like most things I just went. However, I always approach my training and racing as if someone were watching me, judging me, observing me to see how genuine I am in these pursuits. Last night I received this note from Diana, a member of my crew, and think it most appropriate to include here. I have not asked permission but feel it sums up any sort of race, whether it is a marathon or ultra, no matter how one is involved in the event:
What inspired me, with you, is that were ready to go down. I think you were okay with being done with where you were. You weren't convinced, but you were testing the waters and had a good defense behind you. And out of thin-air, you let something else guide you. Melissa wouldn't give you the out. She made it known that every person that was there was standing with you and would go with you, regardless. And we would have. You just got up and went. After that, there was no stopping you. Your glory was in those final thirty miles or so.
That made me know that when the darkest hours are upon me in my own endeavors, I don't have to rely on myself as long as I have my support group, the people that believe in me, to carry me through.
The brightest hours are often directly on the coattails of the darkest. You have proven that. I will never forget that, and I thank you for the experience.
When a person walks in faith, there isn't a thing to stop him.
I did not get up to satisfy some need that was in my crew, to please them or make them happy. I got up because I knew they would do whatever they could to see me through. The only condition I made was to go alone. I had no pacer, having committed to covering the distance alone unless in the company of other racers. But I always had their welcome arms as I arrived at the aid stations. We reflected the joy in each others eyes, knowing that each of us would leave Bandera as something more than when we arrived. I do not how that will translate to my real life, but I know it is a life worth living.
My final advice to anyone considering an ultra, as I relayed to a friend making her first attempt this weekend, goes like this:
Be strong. Rely on the team you have to help you. Do not forget - whether it is going good or bad, it will go the other way before you are done. Unless you break something keep moving forward. I had people tell me those things and believed them, only to forget at the worst time, when I was most vulnerable to my fears. Then I was tricked into going back into the darkness and battling the demon of fear, for I was more scared of potential regret [in not finishing].
Remember, no matter what happens, to run for you. Your family and friends believe in you. I believe in you. But run for yourself. You may discover a strength and conviction you never dreamt possible.
I think this sentiment holds true regardless of the discipline, the event or the distance. You have to train, prepare and go. Forever moving forward.
With that, I bid you Hasta Luego.
Post script - if you have any questions regarding topics you feel were omitted or left untouched, please ask. I will either respond in the comments second or privately, depending on the nature of the question.
Also, it has been pointed out that I made a grave omission in not crediting my wife for her support during the build up to this weekend. I think such praise requires its own attention. I shall rectify that soon enough.