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It's damn flat for a little ways, I can still see the lead pack of four quickly pulling ahead before we cross the road and enter the narrow track parallel the river. There is one woman between the lead pack and us: Fagan, Mark, Stuart, and I. A high vertical wall rises directly on our left, a low reeking Brazos River on the right, and the dirt trail remains fairly strait and flat between the two. The three of us yuk it up as we run comfortably, until the first climb, a left turn that curls quickly up onto a flat grassy area. This is just a teaser though as we're quickly back down to the narrow riverside dirt lane again. The flat doesn't last much longer now as we roll though a shallow cut and over to the start of the real hills.
This left turn isn't as tame as the last one. We've caught the lead woman, but she continues to run up the hills that we're reduced to walking. And this gives us something to talk about too: She's either a HOSS or she's gonna crash. No way to tell yet, but we will eventually know. At least we're wise enough to let her go. We have our own game to figure out. So now we're in it: ups and downs slinging at us quickly with sharp turns, tight lanes, rollers, switchbacks, and no way of knowing what's coming next because I can't see round the next bend. Transitioning from walk to run becomes a large part of the game. I'll run for a a few minutes as the trail rolls downhill, and then quickly transition into a power walk as it turns decidedly up. Mark, Fagan, and Stuart roll with me, with each of us in turn leading, and just behind the lead woman.
The aid station at the ball field is barely a blur and then we're making all kinds of turns through a mess of crossed trails. Up a narrow chute of leaves and then above the chute and down another rapid weaving descent with high walls. We near a road when we hear two people come in from our side, having found our route from who know's where. They come in behind us, clearly having skipped part of the course.
This section is so confusing with multiple road crossings and twisting about, that I have no idea exactly where I am. It also has a healthy heaping dose of hills to walk up and sprint down, but even these are never in a strait line and even have trail intersections and rapid fire changes from one trail to another in an endless progression of flags leading us in an odd assortment of directions. George Hitzfeld comes up from behind in here, surprising me. Says he & Barbara started late, as usual, and she'll be along. We visit for only a few minutes and then I walk a hill that George runs and he's as quickly gone as he arrived. Only a matter of time before Barbara does the same. During the George transition, I've also lost Mark & Fagan. I realize by the burn on my chest that I've forgotten my band aid nipple protectors. No way to fix it now but to remove the shirt.
Malissa's aid station is in a wonderfully shaded area on a road crossing. No need for now so I simply buzz through. Stuart & I are doing well and continue on par, walking the ups and rolling the downs. The surreal bamboo jungle reminds me that we're near the end of loop one. As we walk up, we're passed by the guy who got lost earlier and came in next to us. Down the last bit of road to the end of loop one and my truck, I stop to get a fresh bottle if Spiz, dump the shirt, and attach my race number to my pants.
I start the second loop with George. Stuart's busy with his transition. We visit until the first hill, which again separates us instantly. By the time I start the real hills, Stuart is back with me again and George is long gone. Its odd, the comings and goings of everybody. The flats and the hills and the heat mixed in with desires and expectations tend to sort us all out in rather odd pairings and passings. I still feel pretty good but wonder how long it will last. Stuart and I team up again with me leading, but I can't see or hear anyone else nearby. The HOSS has cruised ahead and moved well ahead, with George also going well. The lead pack has lost one fellow who has fallen behind us.
I stop at the ball field aid just to pour water on my head and again at Malissa's aid for more of the same. In between the two, my energy starts to fade a bit and Stuart moves ahead. For awhile he leads, but then I fall off, just barely keeping him in sight. It becomes a sort of game I use to keep me moving. I strive to hang on for no other reason that to help motivate me forward. We start to pass a few groups of people in the 20 miler and this too gives me more games to play. Barbara blows through and keeps going after bestowing me with a hug and a kiss. Stuart leads us through the bamboo and into the end of loop two.
We both stop at my truck. I grab another bottle of Spiz while Stuart is still there when I walk out. I tell him I'll wait but I have to keep moving, so I simply walk out. He catches me before we cross the road, which is where we start again to run. Last year I walked much of this section, so I decide to run the entire flat as best I can. The pace is comfortable and even, with Stuart right behind. Our conversation is as dead as the fish on the riverbank, but we keep moving, and well too. Stuart stops once to stretch his back, and then again maybe as he is gone behind me before the first hill teaser. The lead pack guy who had fallen off is again back and running well. He goes by without his water bottle.
Alone for the first time, I decide to push myself to hang on. I cannot run the uphills, but I continue to stretch my legs out on every downhill and even the slightly flat and rolling trails. The ball field aid provide cold water to dump on my head and mountain dew to provide a kick. I pass thru mile five at roughly the same time I ran the last loop and begin to wonder if I might possibly pop under six hours on this beast. A far cry from the seven hour time I took home last year. I doubt I could go faster, but if I eliminate any wasted seconds standing still or walking too slowly up hill, I might still do it.
I struggle with the uphills a bit more this time around as my energy is flagging, but I try to make up for it by sprinting faster on the downhills. My perspective is skewed up now not only by my own exhaustion, but also by lack of reference to anyone else. I start to question some of the turns, and even back up once to check, only to find that I had almost blown past a turn I had to take. And finally it becomes a quest for the holy bamboo. If I can only get to the bamboo, then I'd know I'd be very close. But it seems to take forever to find it. And then finally I do, and I still have time, but just barley. I run up, or maybe it just felt like I ran up, the last hill and made the turn. I hauled down the road and into the finish to capture the sub-six I had hoped for. Wow. that was almost as hard as it was last year. What a beast!
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