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LBJ National Grasslands
March 24, 2007
by Bill (The Trailgeeze) Rumbaugh
It was my second running of the Grasslands Run, the Dallas area's only 50-mile event, though shorter options are available, the Marathon and Half-marathon. As some of you know, this was my first 50-mile event, finished last year. My report from last year (one of my better efforts, if I do say) is available for your perusal at:
A description of the course and other information about the race is available there. I am especially proud of the closing paragraph containing remarks about the overall site. What follows is a shorter version, which is more to the point about what took place this year.
I drove the ~70 miles to the site the morning of the race which required an early start to the day. The last few miles are on gravel roads, the main turns of which were thoughtfully marked by temporary signs pointing to the Grasslands Run. Directions to the site were clear enough, but a little reassurance is welcome. Unfamiliar gravel roads tend to look pretty much the same in the dark, y'know. And there was no stream of cars heading that way, at that hour. The 50-milers started in the dark at 7:00, just as the shorter distance runners were showing up for their start an hour later. Weather forecasts earlier in the week raised concerns about this race being another in the epic series of "Mudlands" which punctuates this event every few years. But the rain fizzled, and course conditions were quite dry most places, with just a hint of mud here and there.
RD, Suzi Cope mentioned via email a few weeks before the event that the original established course (actually a permanent equestrian trail) has been found to be somewhat shy of 50 miles. This, courtesy of GPS equipment which it seems everybody owns these days (what Suzi referred to as 'Geek Personal Stimulators'). So the course this year had some amendments designed to add the requisite amount of distance to bring it up to a full regulation 50 miles. There was some speculation after the race that perhaps the fine folks laying out the additional distance may have overdone it somewhat. The new sections were adequately marked by plastic surveyor's tape streamers. Suzi pointed out in the pre-race briefing that the winners (male and female) would be setting course records, since this was in essence, a "new" course.
Starting in the dark, with flashlights needed for the first mile or two, we headed out. I fell in at my rightful place near the back of the pack. We handed in the tear-off portion of our race number bibs to a race official about a mile into the race, a method of "positive I.D." for those who actually started the race, so all the bodies could be accounted for later. The sun was hidden by clouds but with the coming of daylight, we settled in for the day of running.
Here in the back, people were moving with purpose but did not seem to be in a tremendous hurry. No elbowing for the course record among us, fer sure. As we spaced ourselves out, there were two other gents running about my speed on average, and we kept swapping positions. It occurred to me that two of us were like cars of different makes moving down the interstate on cruise control set to the same speed. On hills, one car might hold the speed better, on level ground or slight downhills the other might go slightly faster. So cars keep changing position over the course of many miles. The third guy was a faster runner who was doing the run/walk routine espoused by marathon trainer Jeff Galloway. So we would pass him and he would pass us. He was the driver controlling his speed manually. Like a driver blabbing on a cell phone speeding up when the conversation was going good, but slowing way down when he had to choose his words carefully. Both types are irritating on the road, but on the trail, merely a curiosity. Running trails. An opportunity to ponder the oddball.
Purple blossoms on trees were in evidence many places on the trail. I noticed similar trees in the Waco Five-0 a couple of weeks ago and mentioned it to my Sweet Wife, a Texas Native (I'm not a native species, but got here as fast as I could). She informed me that they be reyud bhuud trees. So why are they purple? Well, maybe the buds are red, but the blossoms purple. A rational explanation for everything I suppose. The bright green of new vegetation emerging was in evidence everywhere trailside. Numerous yellow wildflowers (which we would probably destroy with a vengeance in our lawns at home) and an occasional orange Indian Paintbrush could be seen. I was passed by a smallish runner at one point. He had on a gray and orange shirt, green trunks and a fuelbelt with yellow bottles. His ensemble was topped off with a dapper white hat and the traditional drab grey of trail running shoes. A colorful fellow. I think I'm doing good when my shirt is the same general color as my trunks. And if I can find a bandana in the same color group too, well, look out GQ magazine.
I did manage to recognize quite a few things from my run here last year. Some things surprised me that should not have, however. For one thing, I did not remember there being so many hills, since the course is generally flat. There were some, however, and all were runnable for those so inclined. I did not recall there being so much loose sand. It was like a beach in many places and the going was tough. I was also struck by the number of windmills near the course, and how did I miss the large number of ponds? Seems like a large percentage of the trail was alongside such ponds (here in Texas we call them "stock tanks") or crossing the dam at the foot of them. Some dried up, most still viable. No complaints in any of this, merely observations about the character of this unique course.
The blue loop (~14 miles) was over with in good shape, the temperatures were not bad (upper 60's) and it was early. The yellow loop (~10 miles) followed, I had forgotten that a significant part of it was through coniferous trees. You could smell the pine air and hear the breeze rustling through them. Needles underfoot were also comforting to the tiring runner. A pleasant interlude. Toward the end of the yellow loop, the sun started making an appearance.
Then came the white loop. Hmmm. The sun was fully out at this point in the run, with few scattered clouds and a lot of blue between them. Temps were in the 80's by then, a warm Spring day. This was the loop where I believe most of the correctional mileage was added. It certainly seemed that way to me. As I came through the S/F area at the end of the yellow loop, I grabbed my sundrape which attaches to my hat. I had bought it for this possibility, an acquisition from an REI sale where I fished it out of the picked-over merchandise bin. It was an Outdoor Research model, for which I would never had paid the original price, but it was my size and what the hey, it might come in handy. I call it my T.O. commemorative sundrape, if you recall Lynn Ballard's picture of Thomas Okazaki at Grasslands on the cover of UltraRrunning magazine last year. (It's also on the NTTR website home page). My intent was to keep the sun off my neck and ears. I'm not a big fan of the greasy feel and smell of sunblock. Anyway, a lesson I keep having to re-learn is that you never try anything new on race day. This was low risk, of course, but even at that it did not really work very well. More suited to fishing or other outdoor activity where you are not moving much. The wind, which never let up much during the day, kept blowing it around, but the worst thing was the noise it made. I could not hear runners coming up behind me nor the other noises of the trail such as birdcalls. I wore it most of the white loop and it probably did some good, but it was something else to have to mess with and I finally handed it off to Carol Bradshaw at one of the aid stations. She was the "cheering section" for Paige Henderson who was running her first 50 miler and would leapfrog ahead of her to make sure she was doing OK.
Last year, as I completed the white loop I had a significant bout of stomach problems and "visited Ralph" for a time. I was unable to run any of the red loop (~10 miles) without Ralph reappearing. Since that lesson, I had made adjustments in my fluids and fueling and had hoped to avoid a repeat of that episode. A combination of the heat and who knows what else served to bring it on again, however, this time at about mile 28 rather than mile 40. I took a couple of papaya enzyme pills from Letha's aid station, thinking that it might quiet the queasiness. About 200 yards down the trail from there, it became more than queasiness. Same as last year, I immediately felt better. Rather than go back to Letha's A/S to refuel, I decided to press on. I took another electrolyte capsule immediately and washed it down because I knew I would need sodium. The next A/S was Red Spicer's (who again made the trip down from Amarillo). Nothing looked very appetizing, but I knew I needed calories for the remaining 18 - 20 miles of the race, so I took a packet of peanut-butter and cracker sandwiches, thanked the crew and headed out. They have carbs, protein and salt, things I knew I needed. But my mouth was so dry that I could not swallow the crackers and had to get out my water bottle to wash down each mouthful. "Dry mouth? You got yerseff a case of dehydration going, buddy." I tells massef. After all the liquid that I drank so far (left on the trail a few miles back) it seemed inconceivable that I could be dehydrated. But I dutifully obeyed my muse and redoubled my efforts to rehydrate. Got to the next A/S, the one where they had a boom box on the trail playing an eclectic mix of music for the runner's enjoyment. There was Carol Bradshaw again, and she asked me how I was doing. Not too well, actually. I asked her if she would mind taking custody of my sundrape, since there were a few more clouds out now and I was tired of messing with it. She agreed, and set a chair off in the scant shade for me to rest for a few minutes. I had read of runners doing this during ultras. I was hoping that I would feel better after taking a load off, and drinking some more liquid. I was fully aware that such chairs contain "butt magnets" which make getting loose from them difficult.
As I got up a few minutes later to refill my bottle, my old buddy Ralph returned. I had been drinking a sports drink up until that point but it was not working, so I changed to water instead, from then on. Took a couple of electrolyte capsules and walked out at the briskest pace I could muster. There was genuine concern on the part of the A/S volunteer. Carol charitably informed him that I was a good runner and would be OK. I did not feel that bad, there was the usual dull pain that goes with distance running, but my heart rate had settled down with the coming of the intermittent clouds and I was not breathing hard. So I tentatively started running short sections at first and then longer. At the last A/S, on the white loop, I took two ibuprofen, something I had shied away from in over a year. I felt I needed something and, in moderation, thought it might help. Barbara Hitzfield caught up to me on her final loop about then (which shares this same A/S) and, since she was lead female, looked like she would set the "new" course record for women, which she did. Good job, Barbara. By the end of the white loop, which seemed to go on forever, the meds had kicked in, I was out of my funk and was actually feeling pretty good.
As I came into the S/F area, Carol was there waiting for Paige and I told her I was 'getting it back.' I downed a bottle of tonic water from my drop bag. It contains quinine, a substance known to dilate blood vessels. I had felt my quads and calves tightening up and thought this might help, which it did. This happens to dehydrated runners and/or those who let their electrolytes get depleted. I had been trying to get back in balance on both but felt the tonic water might help, too. Tasted refreshing (even without the gin!). Fred Thompson refilled my bottle and urged me to eat something. I took a homemade cookie from the A/S table knowing that it was not enough but it was the only thing that looked at all appetizing and was probably high in the calories I knew I needed.
10 miles to go. As I disappeared into the trees, someone in the supportive crowd at the S/F area called out that I looked strong. Appreciate that, bless you guys. I ate the cookie and, fresh from the brief rest, started running. Felt pretty good. At this point in the race I took on the strategy of running as long as I felt like it. When I got tired and needed a breather, I would walk until the heavy breathing abated, would power walk for a time and then run again until I felt I needed another breather. I would keep my heart rate under 155, and tried not to let it get below 140 when walking. These numbers seem to work for me late in a long race. I would also walk in sections that I knew would sap my limited stores of energy, deep sand, steep uphills or especially either of those which had a lot of sun exposure. I surprised myself by how strong I felt. My strides tend to get short and choppy late in a race. This time, when I noticed that I was slipping into the old pattern, I made a conscious effort to lengthen out my stride and cover more ground. I guess all the time spent on treadmills at the company fitness center paid off, it felt comfortable and natural and did not seem to be much more effort than my short, choppy stride. So I covered the ground. Came into Red Spicer's A/S from the different direction that the red loop has. The volunteer refilling my bottle said I looked strong, which helped my needy morale. The next A/S was where I had gotten sick, this time I came into it at a run. (I thought about using the term "stormed into" but that would be pushing reality more than just a little.) The guy who was concerned about me last time recognized me immediately and was pretty surprised, validating Carol's earlier assessment. I headed out at a decent pace knowing that I had a little over 5 miles to go, still feeling good. I intended to get a couple of gels at that A/S, as well as at Red's. Still nothing looked good to eat, and with no calories to speak of coming in, I was afraid of "bonking" at some point. Gels would do the trick of getting me going, but they don't last. At this stage I did not need them to last, I just needed them to get me back to the barn.
Got to Julie Bryant's (I do hope I have your name right!) A/S and took one more "vitamin I." She had put on a red dress over her regular clothes, having run one of the other events earlier in the day. I had heard of the notorious skimpy red dress she wore while manning an aid station at another race. A morale-boosting stratagem for the guys late in that race, I can well imagine. For some reason, it did not "click" that the dress was making another appearance, I thought that well, she must have put that garment on to stay warm. I had never seen such a warmup, but women have more tricks up their sleeves in that department than men ever will have. And it looked like, if made of some miracle fabric, it could maybe do the job of keeping her warm. At least it would not restrict her movements. Certainly beat loose-fitting sweats, sez I. Such were the lame musings of a glycogen-depleted brain. Despite all this, I did manage to remember to get a couple of gels from the table, just in case.
I had Julie top off my bottle and downed a cup or two of water as I waited. I mentioned that it was going to be a long haul to the end, thinking that hers was the last station. She said that there was another station about two miles farther and that it was 4 miles to the end, adding that she hoped it was right, it's what she had been telling people. As I left, I thought that right or wrong, the only thing I really want to see about then is the sign that sez "RED LOOP AND FINISH" and an arrow pointing to the right. I held the thought for awhile and then, there it was. Not a trivial distance to the end, but I knew I had it in the bag at that point. Not much farther, I caught up to a young runner who was running his first 50-miler. He wore a singlet which indicated that he was on the Texas A&M Corps of Cadets Marathon Team. A serious athlete. As I caught up, I introduced myself as being a member of the class of '74. He was class of '07, a few years after mine. He asked if I had been in the Corps. Nope, I was a veteran then and had my share of the military at that point in my life. He had passed me miles ago during one of my visits with Ralph. Carol asked me then if I felt bad about being passed by an Aggie, and I told her truthfully that I could not think of anyone I'd rather be passed by than another Aggie. I took the lead and told him that he was welcome to take it back if he got tired of all the walking I was doing at that point. We came into Kari's A/S to top off the tank and she informed us that we had 1.7 miles to go. Noooo problem, we got this thing now. There is a section of trail approaching the S/F area that reminds me of the closing distance to the finish line at Huntsville where you cross a road and the trail follows a clear cut for a few hundred yards and then you are nearly there. A welcome sight to be sure. The Grasslands version is slightly uphill so I powerwalked most of it and ran it in the rest of the way after cresting the slope. There was a lot of applause as I turned the corner and ran up the remaining yards to the finish. It means a lot to be applauded and called by name as you finish a tough race. Thanks to you guys who stayed around and cheered me on. Fred Thompson hollered out my "nom de plume" of Trailgeeze as I crossed the line, thanks Fred. The other Aggie finished less than a minute later.
After a change into dry, clean clothing, I joined the hardy souls at the finish line cheering in the remaining runners, and ate my barbecue sandwich and some brownies (food suddenly sounded good). Paige, paced by Carol on the last loop, arrived soon after I got comfortable. Though she looked like she was hurting, she finished gamely. Welcome to the 50-miler club, Paige, good goin'.
I hung around awhile chatting with others and enjoying the afterglow, if you want to call it that, cheering in many of the remaining runners. As darkness began to fall, it was time to head home.
Another 50 miler done. Many thanks to all the volunteers who manned the plentiful aid stations, contributed ham radio communications and swept the course in the dark after the last runner. And especially to Suzi who made it all happen. I had grandiose plans to beat my last year's time of 10:06 and finish under the golden time of 10 hours. It was still within the realm of possibility by the end of the second loop, but the infamous white loop did me in, along with I might add, quite a few others. I felt lucky to survive and collect my durable and distinctive finisher's prize of a belt buckle at the end. And this year's unofficial time of 11:19:25 is something I will definitely take. It was, after all, a longer course! Not too much different from my Sunmart time, actually, where there were no visits from my buddy.