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Once a padawan, now a freaking Jedi. I run really far, I write a bunch, and have super powers that allow me to grow amazing facial hair.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Race Report: 2012 Nothin's Easy 50K

They say everything's bigger in Texas and if my training since moving to San Antonio is the measure, I'd say that's true. This year, in contrast to the last, has been very low key for me... only a handful of races compared to the dozen from 2011. I had hoped moving to Texas would mean I would have more opportunities and increased motivation for training and racing, but I really wasn't sure that would actually be the case until I actually got down here. After all...  between school, impending fatherhood, and the Wounded Warrior Project's TRACK program, I'm a pretty busy guy. As it has turned out, Texas has been nothing short of an electrifying jolt to my running. It seems that I discover a new park with new trails every few weeks, I have more people that are willing to put in miles with me, and the weather makes it easy to want to be outside kicking the dirt. With my training becoming more consistent and of a better quality than ever before I started looking for races around my new residence. I couldn't do all this trail running and training just for the sake of a single road marathon.

After a few visits to Government Canyon State Natural Area, one of my favorite parks in San Antonio so far, I discovered that there was to be a race held there... the inaugural Nothin's Easy 50K. Government Canyon is a beautiful park and it's HUGE. Over 40 miles of technical trail, zig-zagging through cacti, dry creek beds, and over more rocks than you'll find in a quarry. With about two months to train I was completely sold on the race.

Carefully Conducting Reconnaissance

With Mikayla only getting more pregnant and me not knowing any other runners in San Antonio, I began pitching the race to a few of my fellow wounded warriors, hoping to grow some friendships and introduce someone new to ultrarunning. Trying to convince anyone to do anything is a tough business, but when it comes to getting people to sign up for a 30+ mile run that for all they know could kill them... well that's almost an impossible business. There is however a special breed of people... inherently adventurous, having deep rooted masochistic tendencies, and being a little bit psycho. I found one such man among my peers, and though having never even run a marathon, he agreed to train and race with me.

My first run with anyone who I'm not completely sure of in regards to ability, is always a bit cautious. There's a lot that can get lost in translation between talking about something and actually doing it. What I think is long, fast, or hard is not something objective or universal. I avoided interrogating Gabe to see where he was at, he looked fit, was not completely unfamiliar with running, and I was fairly certain 45 minutes of trail running would show us both what we were getting into without too much damage.

The first run started off okay, I led the way... just around 2-miles, flat to a sharp descent before coming to a decision. Go right and have a fast, flat, conservatively technical run or go left with steep climbs, ankle breaking terrain, and a short but very accurate view of what trail running can be like? I asked, I explained, he said, "It's up to you." Up to me? Of course we went left. I instantly regretted exposing my rookie trail runner to this kind of punishment. What looked at first like the promise of a good training partner now looked more like I just inadvertently swayed him out of ever running again. Whoops. When we got back to the cars I was surprised and grateful that he was still on board and was now aware of just how much he needed to dive into this training.

We decided that we were going to train together every Tuesday and Thursday for a mid-distance run, and then doing long runs on Saturday on the actual course. Over the following two months out from that first 45-minute run that broke Gabe off, I saw him work up his endurance to being able to run for hours on end at distances upwards of 20-miles. Perhaps not as fast as me or as experienced, but I now had a training partner without fear of the training that it takes to run an ultra distance. We ran in flood conditions, we ran in 100 degree heat, we attacked the hills of Friedrich Wilderness, explored that maze of trails at OP Schnabel, did repeats of technical trails at Eisenhower Park, and saw all there was in store for us at Government Canyon. I had never trained so specifically for a race or so hard and Gabe had more than enough training that I had no doubt he would kill his first 50K.

Our consistency fell off the last few weeks leading up to the actual race, but I chalked it up as tapering, however unintentional. Gabe, as expected for a rookie, had low expectations and high anxiety going into the race. His goal was to finish and for his first, that's exactly what it should have been. For me, I had never dropped from anything less than 50 miles, so I wasn't nervous about finishing but rather bettering my PR and holding onto the hope of breaking 5 hours and subsequently keeping my pace under 10-min miles.

The conditions were perfect for me to reach my goals. I knew the course, I had the nutrition, I had the training, the weather predictions were perfect. On top of all of that I had my experience, this being my 6th 50K in the 4-years I have been running.

 Saturday morning I was up early, ate a light breakfast of oatmeal and fruit, pounded some water, and taped my nipples. I was ready to rock and roll! Gabe, Mikayla, and I headed to the park listening to Bon Iver and going over last minute details. Once we arrived at the park we were glad to run into our friend Orlando who I had met a month or so prior and Gabe and I had both done some training with.

The field was much lighter than I had expected, with only about 80 or so participants. I did some short strides across the parking lot before we joined the rest of our fellow runners at the trail entrance under the still dark Texas sky. The briefing began and with it confusion. The map I had studied and the routes we had run were brought into some question but we were assured that the course was well marked. Already a few minutes past the scheduled start and anxious to get to it, no one offered too much debate, we just wanted to run. I said goodbye to Mikayla, wished Gabe and Orlando luck, then moved toward the front.

So what you want to do here is take a left, but before that
you need to make two rights. Once you see the third big hill stop, jump twice,
spin counter-clockwise a half turn and then go left again. Got it? No? Well
in any case the entire route is marked with pink glitter. Make sure
you don't follow the purple glitter though or you're totally fucked.

I was a bit thankful for the late start, with every minute bringing just a little more visibility. I broke out into a pretty good clip, but wishing that I had been closer to the front to avoid the initial congestion. It wasn't more than a couple minutes before I was in the open, two runners to my immediate front, two others in the distance. My tendency around other runners is to race in the moment, which was what I felt myself doing with the two guys in front of me. With every run I go on, in racing or training, it takes me about 3-5 miles to really level out my stride and my breathing. I knew running with these guys was probably going to extend that process and I would have persisted despite that until I began to eavesdrop. Both men in front of me had never run an ultra before and it was also revealed that they had never been to the canyon and had limited experience on trails. These were not people I should be piggy backing off of and I knew it. I backed off and settled in. They spread the gap. I had a strong feeling I would see them again. Once they had ran out of my sight, I looked back and saw that for all things considered, I was running alone. I could focus now and run my own race.

The first leg of the course on the Joe Johnston Trail was wide, fairly flat, and in relation to the rest of the course, the least technical terrain I'd be seeing. My pace was good, if not, then just a bit fast as I hit Caroline's Loop. This loop is supposedly around 2 and a half miles, but for some reason it always seems much longer. It's a step up in difficulty from Joe Johnston, but I think the closed in feeling from the surrounding vegetation tricks you into believing you are going faster than reality. I knew this ahead of time and it was still early on, so it didn't dampen my spirits too much.

About half way through the loop I caught up to a woman who by appearance I knew wasn't new to this sport and at the pace she was running and knowing only a few people were ahead of me, I pegged her as the female leader. I stayed behind her for a few minutes, partially because her pace was plenty fast enough that I didn't mind going a few notches slower than what I was doing before I caught her and partially because the loop was very much single track. From being on the other side of the fence before, I knew she didn't like where I was, so I took her up on her offer to pass just towards the end of the loop. As I passed up the first aid station, at the end of the loop, I asked what place I was in and made some jokes to the volunteers. They told me I was the 4th runner through and I was only two minutes or so out of 3rd. To me this meant that the two runners I let go earlier were already slowing down, or at the very least not going any faster. Good news. I continued up Joe Johnston, which turned into Sendero Balcones, making my way towards the Protected Habitat.

As the trail curved around I was looking down at my feet, which generally is something I try not to do, but the rocks in this area are covered by grass making your footing hard to anticipate. I looked up narrowly in time to see my turn onto the Black Hills Loop. As soon as I turned I knew that runners behind me were going to miss the turn. Even having run the course before I had almost missed it. I thought about Gabe and Orlando, hoping they would remember what we had run a few weeks prior. As I worked my my way around to Cave Creek I thought I could hear runners ahead of me, which though this turned out to be noisy hikers, quickened my pace. In training runs this is precisely the point where I had run out of water and this morning was no exception, so I switched to my chia gel.

When I arrived at the aid station at the intersection I saw runners coming down from the other way. As the volunteer filled my bottle and I chowed down on some PB&J, I became nervous that somehow I had gone the wrong way. I asked the other volunteer and she told me that I was good to go and that the runners I had seen had missed their turn and that they had already seen a handful come through on the wrong trail. I let them know that it wasn't marked well and that I had almost missed it too, and then headed on out towards La Subina on my way to the Far Reaches. Just a short distance from the aid station I saw the two guys I had been running behind at the start coming down the other way. They had missed the turn, realized it and headed back to the aid station. This put me in 2nd place, albeit in a less than fair way. Less than a minute later I saw more runners ahead of me, one was Orlando. I had hoped I would see him and Gabe, but on my return loop, not now. He had missed the turn onto the Black Hills Loop, not realizing it until I told him and another runner whom he was with. They were both pretty upset over the news. The other runner kept asking me for my GPS reading from my $8 watch I got at Target. She didn't seem to understand that I didn't have GPS or my assertion that she and Orlando had missed a turn. Orlando, God bless him, realized I was getting irritated by the hold up and told me to run on, and so I did.

Even though I hadn't got lost, the frustration of the other runners permeated into my psyche. I began to lose the grip on my mojo and began questioning every turn I came to despite it being well marked outside of that single turn onto the Black Hills Loop. I was alone again, not seeing anyone until the next aid station that I blew through, only slowing down to make sure I was still going the right way. I kept on keeping on, eventually running into a volunteer who was walking the course on Sendero Balcones. He gave me some affirmation... yes I was going the right way, Far Reaches was just ahead, and I was in 3rd place. I ran... wait a second... wasn't I just in 2nd place? Hmm. How could that have happened? I have three thoughts:

1. A runner who I never saw was ahead of me the whole time and I never saw him.
2. If #1 is true, then the volunteers misspoke or miscounted too.
3. A runner cut the course, probably on accident, but nonetheless was ahead of me by fortune of something else besides his legs.

Kristen Stewart took a day off from making shitty movies and cheating
on RPattz to run the Nothin's Easy 50K and cut the course.

These thoughts were in my head, but honestly I wasn't bothered by it too much. I was grateful to be in the position I was in and for the performance I was putting out. I conceded that if someone did cut the course, the volunteers would catch it anyways. I had my own race to run.

I hit Far Reaches, checking my watch for the time, being very familiar with how long it should take to get to the turn-around on the Recharge Trail. I was well within the range I predicted I would be in at this point, still confident that I could break 5 hours. As I came to the closing stretch en route to the 4th aid station I passed a runner coming the other way, presumably the 2nd place runner, with the leader having already started up Sendero Balcones. I again refilled my handheld, grabbed a handful of trail mix, and slowly retraced my steps, taking a short break to eat. When I began to see other runners coming in I hastened my refuel, not wanting to be hunted, and began running again.

The trek up Sendero Balcones was probably the most taxing section of the course, not steep, but it was still sustained elevation gain for tired legs to climb. Not long into it and well before hitting up the next aid station I was caught by the eventual 3rd place finisher. He seemed to be going at a pretty good clip, one that I could not maintain to stop him from passing. Knowing this, I stepped to the side, let him pass, and continued at my own pace. At this point I was pounding water and by the time I reached the next aid station I needed a refill. The aid station was crowded with runners coming through the other way who seemed more intent on conversing with the volunteers than running. It took what seemed like a long time, but in actuality was probably less than a minute, to discover that the aid station was completely out of water. This was pretty disconcerting considering that I was only the 3rd errr, I mean 4th place runner, especially accounting for the fact that this station was planned on being utilized twice, once on each loop and I had 80 runners behind me. I ran on, frustrated, but hoping that the next aid station would be stocked with some water.

Coming into the next station I was the only runner in sight. I hoped to make up some ground on the fast Cave Creek/Black Hills section, but first had to get some water and some information, both of which were available. As my bottle was being filled I found out that the leader was well over 20-minutes ahead of me, in other words, he wasn't going to be caught. I also found out that the volunteers shared my suspicion about the course cutting. One of the runners ahead of me had not been seen coming through their aid station on the first loop. I pressed on with the mindset that I was in the placed position of 3rd, imagining that the course cutter would eventually be DQ'ed, if not sooner, then later.

My legs grew tired as I ran and the temptation to walk came with it. I started playing my mind games, distracting myself, motivating myself, still running. I knew my pace had fallen off a bit since Sendero Balcones, but now it was as if I could actually feel the lactic acid pumping through my legs. I had reached the point where I had gone further than I had ever gone in training, probably further than anything since April when I ran the Tie-Dye 50K. I was looking down at my watch, knowing that I was falling dangerously close to a pace that might not get me under 5-hours. As I came onto Joe Johnston I knew the end was in sight, but I would have to haul ass on Caroline's Loop to reach my goal.

I stopped very briefly at the aid station to get a quick refill for the homestretch and then bolted onto the loop. I started pushing through some of the tightness in my legs and added a little pep to my step. As I hit the first slight incline my right hamstring twinged with sharp pain as if it were going to sabotage me at this late stage of the race. I slowed down to work it out. I picked up the pace again and the pain came back. I slowed again, but this pain was to stay with me to the end. I worked the loop as hard as I could, and this time the deception of it's length mattered. The loop seemed monotonous and never ending. I kept telling myself that the turn was just around the next corner, just through that opening, just past that tree line. This was, of course, all bullshit, but it got me to the end.

I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.
I was back on Joe Johnston, around 3 miles give or take from the finish. I stopped running, splashed some water on my face, massaging my hamstring as I walked. I looked down at my wrist... I only had about 6 or 7 minutes until I hit the 5-hour mark. I wasn't going to make it. I started running again, but the break had tightened me up even more than I already was. I began to worry about being caught and about whether or not I could still set a personal record. I had no idea how close anyone behind me was but I knew how close I would be to my existing PR, the question was whether I would be over or under. I ran on, counting down the numbered trail markers which were inexplicably spaced apart at varying distances. I began to see more and more hikers, some with children, which was a welcomed sight as I supposed that they wouldn't hike too far in with kids to worry about. When I hit marker #5 I decided to leave everything I had on the course, hamstring be damned. I picked up the pace to as fast as I could muster, each foot fall sending violence into my body. I could hear people and I could see the banner.

Done Sir, DONE!
 I crossed the finish line in 5:17:45, bettering my personal record  by just six minutes, with Mikayla (and Connor) there to congratulate me on my run.
We breed success!
 Gabe and Orlando ended up finishing together in 7:44:53, a hard fought finish and with all the sweat and pain, an all around success.
This picture wasn't from the race, but from my days as a coyote. I helped Gabe and Orlando cross the border back in '06.

Next up... Rock n' Roll San Antonio followed by my first attempt at the 100K distance in Bandera!