Thursday, November 1, 2012

Under a Blood Red Sunrise

I am awake.  I don’t know how, but I am…

One hour into the final loop, nearly out and dead to the world, here I am striding as fast as I can, across the top of this damn rock.  No running.  Not yet, not for another few miles.  Not for any measurable distance for several more hours…

The weekend started out great and without the slightest sense of apprehension.  Friday morning greeted us with rain and chilly temperatures.  A cold front was rolling through and promised cloudy and moderate temperatures on Saturday.  As the Cactus Rose course is very exposed, cloud cover would be welcome.  And if the clouds remained overnight, the lows would be fairly mild as well.

At the starting line I did not recognize anyone, other than a few faces I remembered from last year.  Andria and I did meet up with Melissa and we went over last minute thoughts.  With a few minutes till the start I moved to the rear of the assembled masses and took a deep breath.

In the dark the first mile or so was basically a walk.  It would be several miles before the trail opened up and allowed for running without crawling up someone’s ass.

The first loop (twenty-five miles) plus ten miles went as expected.  I ran when the course was run-able.  I walked when it was not.  The only surprise of the first loop was that I completely missed the descent from Ice Cream Hill.  It is long and steep and requires careful footing.  The limestone is flakey and any lapse in attention would easily result in landing on one’s ass – hard.

Andria was waiting for me at Equestrian on both passes and at The Lodge. 

Loop One:  5:33
Elapsed Time:  5:33

When I returned to Equestrian at mile 35 I made the bold request for Andria and Melissa to calculate the necessary splits to break twenty-four hours.

That proved to be wasted breath.  I was still feeling good physically and mentally.  However, the twenty miles through the meat grinder of Equestrian-to-Boyles-to-Lodge (miles 15 through 35 and miles 65 through 85) and back again was about to a catch up with me as I headed for Nachos and mile 40.

My quads began to bark and running turned to walking.  When I arrived back at The Lodge to complete the second loop both thighs were cramping deeply.  Andria and Melissa were slow coming driving up from Equestrian (I wanted to curse then and did till they arrived, and eventually I let it pass and turned my head back to the now.) so I laid on the cold ground and waited.  A few people asked if I was okay.  I may have lied but I don’t remember.
A few minutes later the girls showed up and Andria tried to roll out the cramps with a Stick.  Oops.  The Stick on my right quad ignited a violent spasm up the right side of my spine through my shoulder blade and into my deltoid.  Next she rolled an inflamed hip flexor, which caused my right groin to flare up.

I may have screamed at some point.  I don’t remember.

I may have asked out of the event at that point.  No was the long answer.

Loop Two:  8:37
Elapsed Time:  14:10

The next loop was a slow long slog.  No running.  Night was settling over Hill Country and I resigned myself to accept the original goal I brought to Cactus Rose – just finish.  There was no joy in that acceptance.

Allow me a moment to reflect on the past year…  I am codependent.  Codependency is marked by particular patterns of behavior that lead to soul crushing negative self-talk.  Most people struggle with the Big Picture of completing an ultra, but my codependency makes the struggle even deeper.  So my mission was to pull back and focus on each five mile segment.  Each turn on the trail.  Each solitary step.  Just for today is a common refrain of the Codependent.  I had to repeat that refrain and reflect on the Serenity Prayer to just get through the loop.

While at mile 65 I thought back to last year when I wanted out.  I was way behind that pace but was still going.

I need to point that that other than muscle fatigue I felt pretty well physically.  No joint pain.  My ankles and knees felt great.  I was popping ibuprofen and my team asked questions to monitor my urine rate, flow, and color to avoid any bit of nastiness from over-medicating.

After mile 65 I dove back into the meat grinder and shit was about to get real deep, real fast.  Coming through the final segment from Boyles back to The Lodge I felt as though I would fall asleep on my feet.  The fear began to rise that I would succumb and fall, probably bashing my skull on a rock.  I was in the grip of Fear and Doubt and all the voices that tell me to get the fuck off this course and off my feet.

As I stumbled toward the timing mat to close out 75 miles I considered handing Joe, the race director, my timing chip and walking away.  If I would quit I did not want to give Andria or Melissa a chance to talk me out of it.

Fortunately for them I forgot to hand in my chip.

Loop Three:  10:58
Elapsed Time:  25:08

I made my way to the heated tent step up by the race organizers and slumped into a camp chair.  To say I was dead would not begin to capture just how exhausted I was that morning.  It was five o’clock on Sunday morning and the only thing I wanted was to sleep.  My crew shoved food into my mouth.  I rolled my head from side to side to get away for anything they wanted me to eat. 

Barely under my breath, I begged to quit.  I wanted out desperately. 

I did eat a bit.  No clue what, other than some Ramen.  Maybe some Pringles and banana chips.

Andria did tell me later than I slept for about thirty minutes.  I did stir to see her putting on additional clothes.  My immediate response was “What the fuck are you doing?”  She said she was getting ready to go out with me.  She and Melissa were going to get me up and out and she was going with me.  “No the fuck you aren’t!”  I told her that I could barely care for myself out there on the trail and with the worst ten miles ahead I did not think she would be able.   I don’t for a minute doubt Andria’s heart – she was willing – but I knew she was not ready physically for what lay ahead.  “If you get hurt I can’t carry both of us out.”

So up I stood, turned on my iPod to Marc Maron’s WTF podcast with Bryan Cranston (conversations with Henry Rollins and Steven Wright would follow), and back into the dark I stumble.  It was shortly after six o’clock.

I knew that if I made it through the next ten miles I would finish the race, barring injury.  The climbs, even at a slow walking pace, were lung searing.  As I crossed from Cairn’s Climb to Boyles Bump I looked over my left shoulder to see a blood red sunrise sandwiched in the break between the horizon and low clouds.  Then I realized how determined my walking pace was.  I felt how awake I was.  I was at a polar opposite from how I was at The Lodge.

Coming down the final approach to Boyles aid station I tried to run it in.  Andria was waiting and filled my handhelds to help me get out as soon as possible.  I sprinted (it felt like sprinting) out and down the trail till I hit the first climb toward Sky Island

Sky Island is the highest point on the course.  The ascent and descent, whether going clockwise or counterclockwise, is ball busting brutality at its worst.  Not to mention the crawl over Three Sisters and all the damn stool palms that continued slicing my quads and shins.

My arrival at Equestrian allowed me to shed clothing, my head lamp, and shovel more food down my throat.  The #DoEpicShit tee finally came out.

From here I would loop ten miles through Nachos before coming back to Equestrian, then the final five miles to the finish.

I could smell the finish.

The trail to Nachos is fairly flat in comparison to the stretch from The Lodge-to-Boyles-to-Equestrian, with one exception – Ice Cream Hill.  I clocked the climb at three and a half minutes to cover one tenth of a mile.  I’ve run a half mile on a high school track faster than that.  The Ice Cream Hill ascent is no high school track.

On this segment I caught of with a few runners also struggling to find some reserve strength.  As I pulled away from Nachos a runner and his pacer caught and passed me.  The pacer urged me to join them.  I did my best but continued to walk when I needed to, though I ran more as the quads allowed.  During a gentle rise along a power line I really began to hike a hard pace to keep my head in the game.  I did manage to jog most the final mile into Equestrian.

Once out of Equestrian I had 4.5 miles to go.  I wanted to run as much as possible, but the climb over Lucky Peak within the final 1.5 miles was looming.  I had to save something in the quads.  With two miles remaining I could hear the crowd at The Lodge through the trees.  On I pressed, still walking hard.

I saw the top of Lucky Peak in the distance.  Once over it and another shorter down-and- up it was be flat all the way back.  The climb up Lucky was clocked on my Garmin at under 400 feet.  That steady climb took almost three minutes.  You have to earn this finish, and you know it’s coming all weekend.

Once on the jeep trail I tried to open my stride and push the pace.  I wanted this over as quickly as possible.

There is one final straight away, where you can spy a few of the buildings at The Lodge, before turning back in to the trees for a few hundred yards.  At the top of my lungs I shouted “Honey, I’m almost home!!!” and really hammered the pace.  Glancing at my Garmin I may have seen 7:30/mi.

Down and through the little gully and twenty yards in.  I passed Andria to my right. 

As I crossed the timing mat I came to a stop and meet Joe to collect my buckle.

I was done.

Fourth Loop:  8:14
Race Total:  33:24 (Writer's note - I did not account for seconds in my splits, so if you add up the individual loop times you will note that they come up two minutes short.  Bite me.)

Andria was there to hug me – the one time she has not refused a nasty post-run hug.  Then I collapsed under a shade tree for a Guinness and a rest.

There were a few tears.  There were a few sighs of relief.  But more so there was an overwhelming sense of satisfaction at completing this goal.  In spite of all the walking I finished only one hour behind last year’s time.

Fuck yeah.

Post script #1 – There are far too many details to recall, most of which are lost to me already, to provide a thorough and accurate accounting of my most recent encounter with the Cactus Rose.  And quite frankly, I cannot expect anyone to read through the reams of prose I could spit out regarding the physical, mental, and emotional toll of the event.  Most of it is gone, faded into the dark corners of my mind and body.  Surely some has settled into my bones.  Should you have any specific questions, feel free to ask at your leisure.

Post script #2 - I gave the buckle to Andria.  We will probably get it boxed as a display, but it is hers. I may have covered the course alone, but she was with me at all the aid stations and each step of the way in spirit.  Having her support made this weekend possible and without her, I may not have gotten out of that chair to start the final lap.  I may have said "thank you" to her at least five times a day since I finished.  There are not enough thank yous, really.

Post script #3 - While on the trail and as we drove out of the park, I figured I was leaving Bandera for the last time.  There was a real sense that never again would I run Cactus Rose or any stretch of the Hill Country trail network.  I even assumed that I would never attempt another 100 miler.  There is a real physical and mental toll to pay.  Then a funny thing happened over the next twenty hours.  Though I had a lot of pain in my legs, and my stomach was ripped after too much post-race food and Gatorade, I realized I was not hurt as badly as after last year’s race.  Then in a text exchange with another Cactus Rose veteran I suddenly realized I was planning how to train smarter for next year.  Andria also revealed that to pass the time between aid stations she began making a list of gear she needs for The Next Race.  So I guess there will be a Next Race.

I resume training shortly.