You plan. You hope. You expect. And yet most races are just as unpredictable as if you had suddenly found yourself at the start line and the gun had gone off and you began running even though you weren’t ready.
I registered for this race, Spectrum Racing’s Sky Island 50k, very early because I ran the inaugural race last year, 2016, and even though it left me beat up and humbled, I had to do it again. Races are like that. The worse you feel at the end, the more you want a do-over! So when given the opportunity, I reserved a room a year in advance at the Indian Lodge. Well, as life would have it, the park where the race is held, Davis Mountains State Park, decided to renovate the Lodge. So I got an email advising me of this and saying I could use the money towards race registration or get a refund. I sat on it for awhile because some time had passed and I was no longer as eager to run this race again. The location alone is a bit daunting, over 500 miles from my house. Plus, the course is hilly and rocky, two features I don’t have nearby. Finally I decided to register and also paid for a campsite, figuring I’d have time to iron out lodging details later if my family decided to come with me.
After this race in September 2016, I ran the Wild Hare 50 miler, my first; Bandera 100k in freezing weather, and Rocky 50 miler in February 2017. Then the North Face Endurance Challenge 50k at Bear Mountain,NY in cold rain. I was exhausted and a bit burned out. I had a good case of Adrenal Fatigue and wallet fatigue. I no longer had a part-time job to pay for races, so I decided to cut back for 2017. So, from May to September, the longest race I ran was Tejas Trails/Captn Karls Colorado Bend 30k night race in early August, and the rocks beat me up pretty good.
It dawned on me close to the taper time for Sky Island that I had not had the same training this year. Yes, I had been running daily since I am a run streaker [Day 875 as of 9/21/17] and I had been running a lot of hills on the road in town, and doing some time on the Stairmaster. But I had not run multiple ultra distance races like last year. I started to get nervous that my training was not enough for the almost 5,000 ft of elevation gain on very rocky terrain of this race. Too late now, I thought !
The lodging plan also took a turn when I was invited to stay with a few people in a house in the nearby town of Fort Davis instead of camping and I gratefully accepted the offer. However, the week before the race, my friend had a death in the family and plans changed again. Now I was going to be picking up a guy in Austin that I had never met, and she only knew from a few group runs, and giving him a ride for 6+ hours to the race, and my friend was not coming at all. I wasn’t too nervous, but I was hopeful that he would be a good traveling companion, be willing to listen to music we both liked, and not be too anal about me having to stop for bathroom breaks.
The week of the race I worked hard to get everything possible done at home so my family would not feel my absence too much, including cleaning, laundry, and grocery shopping , as well as my usual schedule of homeschooling, Bible Study class, and daily routine. I am more than willing to do this if it means I get a chance to go off and run in the mountains and/or woods with other ultra crazies!
Friday morning I loaded up my camping gear thinking that the weather was going to be nice so I was going to use the campsite that I had paid for in advance . I headed to Austin about 8:20 a.m. to pick up my soon-to-be new running friend, Gordon. No traffic so I got there in less than two hours and Ms. G, my name for Google Maps, took me straight to Gordon’s house in the hip Travis Heights neighborhood. Picked him up , noting that he traveled much lighter than I , with only a few small bags, was very fit like a fast runner, and his yard could use a landscape crew. 😀 Knowing that he did not own a car, I considered the various reasons and being the nosy/curious person that I am , I asked him why. Answer, he preferred to ride his bicycle everywhere and basically bummed rides to other places and had not owned a car for 15 years !
The first hour or so was spent navigating through Austin and the surrounding small towns while getting to know each other a bit. Eventually we made it out a little further west and both of us began to relax. In fact, we relaxed so much that the first unexpected event happened: neither of us thought to BUY GAS! Yes, the LOW FUEL light came on when we were out in the middle of nowhere! This was indeed a LOW for me as I felt like an idiot for forgetting and was pretty sure that we were going to run out of gas and need assistance , possibly causing us a long delay , and hitting me with an unplanned expense when I had been doing so well at being cheap. Long story short, God granted me mercy and a miracle and we made it, coasting down some steep hills and rolling in on fumes to the tiny town of Iraan, 14 miles off the interstate, 25 miles after the fuel light first came on. I have never been so thankful to see a gas station!
Well, now that Gordon and I had experienced this crisis together, I figured he was either going to blame me and it would be uncomfortable or we’d bond and laugh about it and thankfully it was the latter. We still had a few more hours of driving to do and we continued our non-stop chatting about running related topics that would drive normal people crazy. The hills got bigger and more scenic the closer we got to our turnoff. Most people never drive far enough west to see this beautiful part of Texas, but it’s worth the gas. Finally we were almost to Fort Davis and it started to rain. It had also rained the night before the race in 2016. We had a little trouble, but pretty quickly found our rental house and were the first arrivals in our group. Upon entering the house, I instantly felt a good vibe. Wood floors, comfy furniture, a fireplace, piano, and fantastic vintage oven/stove made me feel right at home. With lightning and thunder outside, I made the fairly easy decision to stay there instead of camping at the the state park. It wasn’t long until the other guests arrived, 4 women, two sisters and the daughters of one of them. Two were running the race and two were visiting, and all were easy to like. Any concerns I’d had about staying in a house with 5 people I’d never met evaporated. Gordon slept in the casita outside, a small building with two twin beds and a bathroom. The other ladies took the two bedrooms since they had actually paid to stay there, and I slept on a couch in the living room.
Soon came the second unexpected event, a big storm with thunder, lightning, possibly hail, and wind which kept me awake most of the night. There were two skylights right over the couch that were very noisy when it was raining/hailing. However , I don’t normally sleep much the night before a race , so it wasn’t that big of a deal. My big worry was whether the storm was going to stop in time for the race start at 6:30 am. Thankfully the house had WIFI and I was able to check the weather often. The storm appeared to be moving away from us and sure enough, it was gone just in time.
Everyone woke up to their alarms, made their coffee, did their pre-race preparations and left the house to drive the 3.5 miles to the state park. For me, I ate a banana and a Larabar and got my hydration pack and was ready. Upon arrival we were directed to a distant parking place and then headed to the check-in area. It was still dark and I immediately lost Gordon, but I found some other friends from Houston that were running the race. And then it was time to start ! The 25k runners went in the opposite direction across the same starting line.
The race course includes climbing and descending three different mountains and the first mountain you repeat again after finishing the first three. The first year , the temperatures were higher than expected so this year they moved the start time back a bit and this meant we climbed the first mountain in the dark. If you are from any state other than Texas, you might laugh at our use of the term mountain, but the first climb was over 400 ft which is way more, and steeper and rockier, than any hills I had available to train on near me. Doing this in the dark just made it seem more difficult. Also I was wearing different shoes than last year and they were slipping on the rocks! I was not feeling confident during the first mile. But we slowly made it up and began to run a little.
After a short time I saw that I was going to be running with a group of other ladies, and I was the leader. I was paying close attention to the reflective flags while also trying not to trip over the endless rocks. We made it to the first aid station which was at about mile 3, then climbed up a hill, passed through a small gate-like fence and into the Fort Davis Historic Site trail. From there we had to run through some huge boulders, down a steep rocky trail with steps, through the Fort, and back up a steep climb. We arrived at the top of that climb to a race sign pointing the opposite direction! We got very confused, tried to backtrack, wasted some time, and then two of of us went one way and two went the other. This caused me great consternation. I felt like since I had been talking so much that maybe somehow I had missed a sign but I was pretty sure I had run the same route as last year, so I was really confused. This really messed with my mind for the next few hours.
But I kept going. After awhile I left the other lady behind after she started to slow down , which I felt kinda bad about , although we had not made any previous plans to stay together. I was just running my own race and trying to shake off the negative feelings. The last couple of miles were downhill back to the Start/Finish aid station where I shed my headlamp and handheld light and grabbed my hat and sunglasses and more water. I felt a bit dejected as I was pretty sure we were at the back of the pack and I was passing the fast 25k runners as they were heading to the finish line. The volunteers were encouraging me, but that just made me feel worse. I had started to doubt that I could finish the race by the 10:00 cutoff time because the first mountain loop had taken so long and I knew I had to do that one again and wasn’t even sure which way to go. I had long accepted the fact that my road miles and lack of trail time had not prepared me for this difficult race.
The second mountain loop ,called the Primitive Loop, included running down the road a bit, going underneath a bridge that went over the same road, and then back over to the trails. We crossed a couple of shallow streams of refreshingly cold water. There was a lot of sand on these trails at the bottom of the mountain. Then the trail went up. After climbing about 400 feet there was an aid station before starting a loop around the top of this mountain. Alone on this easier, more runnable loop, I was feeling somewhat better and regaining hope that I might finish. Then I saw an animal. It was a javelina! I stopped and crouched behind a small scrubby tree and watched as it ran and hid under a tree with low branches. All the trees were desert trees, nothing tall. Picking up two good sized rocks and took off running past the hiding javelina. It did not pursue me. After a while I dropped the rocks. This had helped my pace a little. About ten minutes later, another runner, one of the ladies I was rooming with , came up behind me. She had also had the same experience with the javelina and had picked up two big rocks. We both laughed at ourselves. She was cruising along well and so I told her to go on. That loop ended and I ran down the road to the mountain I had been nervously dreading, the Indian Lodge loop.
Indian Lodge loop includes a very steep climb on a tiny single track trail with a scary drop off on one side. I have a fear of falling so this was a big challenge for me, but since I had survived it last year, I knew I could do it. There were a few hikers on that section so it gave me a bit of comfort not being alone. I was so happy when I got to the top and away from the edges! I also had a cell signal up there so I called and checked with my husband to give him an update and get some encouragement. I had many friends and family wondering how I was doing and praying for me. I had a difficult trail to descend off that loop but I made it. Then I had to run down the park road about 1/2 a mile or so. I was so tired, but there was cutoff to make so I had to run it.
I made the cutoff so I grabbed a cup of Red Bull then headed back out exhausted but determined to do the final loop, a repeat of loop one. There were a few people behind me I was told. I just had to move as fast as I could and I’d make the 10:00 with plenty of time. It was funny because the RD told me to take my time. He didn’t know how slow I was going to go! As soon as I started up the last climb my legs started to cramp up! This made running impossible. I had been taking salt but I took more. I also had to rub my legs and just wait for the cramps to pass until I could walk stiff legged again. I made it slowly back down into the Fort Davis area and then the steep climb back up , along the ridge, and finally back to the last aid station. I knew I would make it then. My cramps were better so I could do some slow running on the last 2 miles down to the finish. I was SO excited to finish, but not thrilled that my time was even worse than last year. I collapsed into a chair at the finish and was given my medal and a trucker hat by the RD. My friend Gordon had been hanging out and waiting on me all day and was there at the finish line. After gathering my strength, I got out of the chair, then went to chat with some fellow Houston runners before leaving.
The rest of the story is less exciting. I ate mashed potatoes and several other things I had brought with me. Neither Gordon nor I wanted to go out to eat. We sat around at the house , him drinking beer, and me , hard cider, until we got tired at our usual early runner bedtimes. The next day I got up and ran a mile through the town of Fort Davis for my streak mile, not too terribly painful. I knew the pain would be coming in the next few days, and it did, ouch! Quads were shredded. We drove home with no Low Fuel light or any other problems, stopping every couple hours to stretch . It was not the race I had hoped for in my mind, having wanted to improve my time, but I have the satisfaction of knowing that I finished a race that for me is very difficult. I plan to try again next year and train better!