Disclaimer: If this of sounds overly dramatic it’s because it was my second trail race in two years and my first trail race over 6 miles. Up until now I’ve been a road guy. Road running and trail running are entirely different sports. I knew going into this that I was unprepared for the situation. The winter conditions in Rochester made training properly impossible. As did my recent ankle issues. Lingering between repair and prepare is something we all do though. So by no means does this qualify as an asterisk next to my time.
Oh Bandera, how I love thee.
I have been unable to mash words together that would constitute a race report. I want this to be better. I want these words to be different. I want you stuck in my shoes as I try to come to grips with the fact that each one of them is caked with 2-4 lbs of mud (not an exaggerated figure if you ask anyone that ran that day). I want you to breathe deep with me as I brace for another 20 sotol bushes to lacerate my exposed flesh. Feel the earth punch through my heels, up through my femurs and hips and organs, jarring my soul with every cautiously reckless step. I am a human. I run. This is nature. It sits still. Every inch of it sprawling under the mist awaiting my arrival.
In a tent, I spend the night listening to the painfully loud drone of several generators about twenty feet away. I’d manage three hours of sleep that night. Those hours would come to a slow, crawling halt at 6 am as I realized that I was drowning in ice cold sweat. Without ever having been in a comfort zone, there is no reason to pity oneself for wandering alone into the forthcoming hell.
- Priority 1: Put Ipod, shot blocks and gels in vest
- Priority 2: Pound the nearest energy drink and eat two clif bars
- Priority 3: Get in line at the porta-potty section
- Priority 4: Remove as much waste from the body as possible
- Priority 5: Figure out where the hell this thing starts and try to not miss it
I was rolling through my checklist, right up until 5. Unbeknownst to my blank frame of existence at that hour, 50k and 25k runners all started at a different line than the 100k group. Drowning in my own anxiety about the impending day, I must have missed the explanation as it came over the PA. The consequences of my stupidity landed me running up the backside of a 265ish person pack that wouldn’t thin for what seemed like 20 minutes.
When one thinks about humidity they think about discomfort. This is enhanced exponentially by the prospect of running a jagged and razor sharp 31 mile trail in visibly dense, oxygen deprived air…twice. When one thinks of humidity thick enough to short out and render worthless the source of the day’s ultra-inspirational, meticulously planned playlist before the first mile has elapsed they think about…’fuck.’
So, with chronic tendinitis ravaging both ankles, three hours of jackhammer laden sleep, soaking wet clothes and not a single note of music in my ear, I set off into the rubble.
It would be beneficial if I could illustrate the dramatic absurdity of the course. It makes this race what it is. I’m afraid that there are no words for it. Videos and photos also do it no justice. It needs to be felt under foot to be believed. Even then it is completely unbelievable. I would say that to create a comparable course, one would take 31 miles of high powered explosives, drape them over a series of small mountains, like Christmas lights on the bushes in your front yard, and detonate them. After some of the smoke clears and the endless sea of jagged and variably sized rocks settles, take thousands of needle wielding, psychoplants and position them in the most inconvenient places possible all over the course. Then carve out an endless sea of deceptively intense climbs with utterly death defying descents (unless you’re one of the elite descent runners that seems superhuman when it comes to tap dancing a 5 minute mile down a jagged mess of inconsistency.) No two foot falls are the same in this race. Only after it ended, would I understand why this made it so perfect.
For twenty minutes I sauntered over narrow, technical climbs, going at the pace of the hundreds of people in front of me. Aside from affording me the opportunity to observe the quiet morning beauty, I was certain I’d never start at the back of a pack again. The feeling that I’d lost my strongest minutes never quite left me. The negativity of my thoughts weighed me down as much as my already drenched clothes and my lungs felt heavy under the dense humidity. I noticed very early that the gentle rainfall had left the rocks extremely slick. This would make descents even more brutal than they already are. Aid stations were stocked with typical fare; gels, soda, heed, pb&j, quesadillas, red bull, peanut butter covered apple slices, and orange slices; which i subsisted on for the better portion of the race, only eating bread at 31 miles to soak up some gel in my gut. Most importantly the aid stations were stocked full of beautiful personalities that eagerly treated every runner with the utmost concern before assuring them that they were kicking ass, and sending them on their way. There truly is no way to thank volunteers enough. I’m always left in awe by their compassion and caring. Bandera had the best I’ve ever encountered.
For 17 miles I talked myself into dropping out of the race. I had essentially made up my mind to bail as soon as the next aid station was in my sight. I’d broken free of all clusters and was logging 9 minute miles in my concrete shoes all alone and completely miserable since mile ten or so. I’d hit a particularly nasty hill full of more of those sotol things; unavoidable ninja plants that somehow managed to annihilate me through my DIY compression sleeves/shin guards. I even stopped after one particularly painful cut and just stood with my hands on my hips, muttering swear words and sighing breaths of defeat, like I would if I were in a Hollywood feature demonstrating what it looks like when one simply gives up. Like life though, I prefer to believe that I’m not done unless I’m dead in the literal sense. Figurative death is small. It is humbling but surmountable. So I finished the climb, navigated the descent, landing on as many hard rocks as possible in an effort to break free of some mud, and began running again; telling myself, “If you can walk you can run.” (I think Scott Jurek said that. But I might be wrong. I think Scott Jurek said half the stuff I tell myself when I feel like I’m plummeting straight to hell.)
“How’s it goin?” said the confident voice that was blowing by me on the right.
“Good,” I lied through a gasping cough, not looking at first. Then noticing as the man passed me that it was Timothy Olson. (Timothy Olson is one of the best runners in the country, and my personal hero. He started the race some five miles behind the 100k group, just to give you an idea of the speed at which he was moving). Promptly realizing that one of my dreams was coming true, I increased my turnover by about 2 million percent and like the little star struck fanboy we all have in us somewhere, said, “I’m gonna run with you for a minute, because it’s a dream of mine.”
“Okay,” he chuckled, willing to converse for a second.
This meant the world to me. Having someone that’s deadlocked with another runner for first place in an extremely important race take time to exchange words with a mere mortal is something that oozes positivity. It’s what makes this sport sustainable and unique. We bantered for a minute and I stuck with him for maybe a mile or so before I got a grip on the situation and parted ways with him so that I had enough energy to get to the next aid station. I didn’t think about quitting again til mile 31.
The thing about double loops on a course like Bandera is this: You’ve just completed the most difficult task of your life. Nothing else has even come close. Brain death set in 3 hours ago and muscle failure set in shortly after. You’ve reached the end, but its only the start. You have to do this again. Right now. You have to take all the unfathomable agony that you just subjected yourself to, and make it happen again, basking in the complete awareness that you have nothing left to give. So, I sat down for a minute. I said to myself, “yea, I’m just gonna change my shoes.” Which was code for ‘it’s over, I’m not doing this again.’
“Hey Mike!!!” said the familiar voice from over my shoulder.
It was Timothy again. I knew immediately that I wasn’t dropping out of shit. He told me excitedly that he won and I tried to conjure up enough energy to convey how happy I was for him. We talked briefly again and I hobbled back into the tent to put different shoes on. The dumbest thing I’ve ever done.
When changing shoes during a race, be certain not to put on smaller shoes. Your feet are swollen after 30 miles. I switched from my Brooks PureGrit, with about 50 miles on them, which were doing very well aside from holding too much mud, to my ancient New Balance MT 100’s that barely have soles on them anymore. Why? I don’t really know. But I knew before I got back onto the course that it was going to make every step feel like I was being stabbed in the foot. I feared that if I sat back down to change them back, I wouldn’t get up again. So I set back out. Whatever though. What’s 31 miles of agony?
The only easy thing about a double loop trail course is writing the race report. It makes the second half of the article a breeze. The second half of the race was not so simple. It went slow. But hurt fast, like this: Blisters on four toes, bloody discharge from under three nails, puncture wounds in both shoes, thus in both feet, muscles running on bone movement alone, not even burning protein or muscle tissue; just existing in a perpetual state of agonizing forward motion. Bone hinges swing involuntarily, much the way a pendulum swings without knowing why, but just knowing how. Descents are impossible to run under these conditions. You take them fast anyways, hoping that you’ll misstep and your DNF will be due to skull fractures and grievous bodily harm inflicted by Ma’ Nature and her army of jagged rocks. But, as in your training run fantasyland, the DNF never comes. The DNF is just a finish line that you perpetually bypass until the race is actually over. The idea kicks your heels all day. It lays hurdles at shoulder height and compels you to climb over them because you can no longer jump over them. When you know how it feels to have walking hurt more than running, then you know what this is all about.
So there are ten more miles in the pitch black, with fog so thick that partnered running with several headlamps is borderline necessity. Or maybe I’ve just sunken into this logic as a means of pretending that I have a pacer. Or because I’m sick of laying lonely footprints in the mud. And my ears have spent 51 miles growing tired of my voice. And I’ve finally learned to abandon the idea of placing above any given runner. And that the experience that almost kills us IS the adventure. I’ve finally learned that adventures shared are so much more valuable than experiences that pass through me as quickly as I pass through them, never to be uttered again, because words can never do justice the things that shake our bones and rupture our flesh and force us bury our pride under a rock in the middle of the wilderness so we can accept how frail we are; and how strong we will be when its over.
I finished 32nd out of 256 starters. It was the USATF national championship 100k trail race. This placing makes me happy. This was the best field I’ve ever run against and my giddiness to have been on the same trail as Sage Canaday and Karl Meltzer and Dave Mackey and Timothy Olson and countless other incredible runners has yet to subside. Ill be back for it next year with the intent of being healthy and shaving 2 hours off of my finish.