January 10, 2009
This was my first Bandera race, and it was awesome. I consider this to be one of my best races ever. I can't wait to do it again next year.
Bandera is considered by many to be the toughest ultra in Texas (except for the Cactus Rose 100 miler which is on much of the same course as Bandera and is a largely self-supported race, meaning no aid is provided except water). I was nervous coming into the race because of its reputation, especially because of the elevation gain. Below is an elevation profile of the race - the profile below is only for 50k (the race is two 50k loops) so I climbed each of those hills twice. The three worst climbs (and the most rugged descent) are all grouped in the last 12 miles so it is a brutal finish.
I used my Garmin 405 GPS watch to record the first loop (the batteries won't last for two loops) so you can see the course and elevation gain here. You can even replay the race to see how much I slowed down on the hills, and how fast I ran some of the downhills. It's very cool! Here is the elevation profile from my Garmin and it matches the above profile almost exactly:
According to Garmin I climbed 7,615 feet on the first loop, so 15,230 feet overall! For contrast, the Empire State Building is 1,250 feet tall; the Sears Tower in Chicago is 1,450 feet tall; the current world record holder, the Taipei 101 Tower, is 1,670 feet tall.
If you really want to see what the course is like you can check out this photo tour. There is a lot of really nasty trail - lots of rocks (big and small), sotol cactus everywhere that leave little nicks on your legs and arms (and that really sting when you sweat). But it's also very beautiful, one of the most beautiful places in Texas (on a par with Palo Duro Canyon).
But enough about the race, here is my report:
I drove down Friday, stopping in Waco to pick up my good friend and running buddy Susan who ran the 50k. We headed right to the race headquarters at Hill Country State Natural Area to pick up our packets (we missed the trail briefing). We then headed into town for dinner at the Old Spanish Trail (which was delicious and cheap - I had a bean and cheese burrito, chips and salsa, and french fries - salt and carbs!). After that we checked into the hotel and I got my gear ready for the next day.
We left for the race around 6:00 AM after finding some coffee in town. We got to the start around 6:30 and it was already packed. We dropped off our drop bags and then headed to the port-a-potties before heading back to the car because it was REALLY cold. I didn't expect it to be that cold, and I was wearing a short sleeve shirt and no gloves. I didn't want to go find my drop bags to get warmer clothes, and luckily I didn't have to. Susan had brought me my goodie bag from SunMart (which I missed because I was sick) and it had a long sleeve SunMart shirt and a pair of gloves, so I was all set. About 7:20 we headed to the start area - we started in different directions so we wished each other luck and then went our separate ways.
At 7:30 we got started. We headed off into the hills and up to our first climb, toward Sky Island. It wasn't too bad and the views from the top were incredible. I fell in with a small group and we talked a bit while running, but eventually I separated from them; I prefer the silence and solitude of running more than constant chatter.
I was feeling good, wasn't pushing hard on the ups or the downs, taking it nice and slow on the flats, just trying to remember that I had a long day ahead of me.
Next climb is Ice Cream hill, a really nice climb with a fun (and sotol-filled) downhill section that was fun to run. I tried to pay attention to the trail as much as possible because I knew I would see it all again, and some of it in the dark. After Ice Cream Hill we hit the first aid station, called Nachos, at mile 5.6. I ate some crackers, 1/4 PB&J and drank some coke. At this point I was about 15 minutes ahead of "plan." I should explain that for Bandera I did not set any time goals - I just wanted to finish. But in order to plan for my race (drop bags, when do I need lights, when do I need warm clothes, etc.) I had to establish some sort of plan or schedule. So I created two estimates - a "best case" plan and a "worst case" plan. At this point in the race I was 15 minutes ahead of my "best case" plan so I knew I should slow down a bit to avoid going out too fast and not being able to finish strong.
The next section of trail is very runnable with minor climbs and lots of nice dirt trail with the occasional rocky sections. My toes were a little sore from the downhill running (the ends of my toes were not hitting my shoes - it was the rubbing on the bottom of my toes that was bothering me) so I decided to stop at the next aid station to wrap my feet with duct tape. I was also going to eat more and rest a bit - this would help me to slow down my pace.
The next aid station, Cross Roads, is large and very well organized. There were lots of chairs available and volunteers who would get you your drop bag, food and drinks, etc. I got 1/2 a PB&J and coke, then got my drop bag and wrapped my big toes, my little toes and the balls of my feet. Then I had some hot Ramen Noodles and headed out. The next section is about half nice, runnable trail and then a couple of good climbs with some very tricky downhill sections. This would be a challenge at night!
Here is a picture of the landscape from the Three Sisters hill:
And here is a picture of some of the rugged downhill sections. This is easy compared to some of the later downhills!
I came back into Cross Roads feeling good, still ahead of the "best case" plan and enjoying the day. I had run into several friends and acquaintances on the trail and in the aid stations which I always enjoy. I was thinking that this race is not as bad as everyone says. I was a little ahead of myself!
The next section includes a climb up Lucky Peak, a climb so steep I had to stop part way up to catch my breath. There were several people climbing above and below me, and we were all using some language that I won't repeat here! After coming off Lucky we ran into the last aid station before the end of the loop, Last Chance. I again had PB&J, coke and some ramen noodles. The warm, salty soup really made me feel great!
This last section has two more really difficult climbs, Cairn's Climb and Boyle's Bump. I ran into a friend from Dallas, Fred L., and we met a third runner, Greg from San Antonio, and we ran this section together. The hills were slow and tough, but the downhills were almost worse. The footing was terrible, lots of loose rocks, large drops, etc. I knew I'd be doing this trail in the dark later and was not looking forward to it!
The three of us ran into the Lodge together to cheers. Halfway done in about 7 hours and 20 minutes, 25 minutes ahead of my "best case" plan. I grabbed my drop bag and got my flashlight and headlamp, grabbed some coke and soup again, then took a seat and rested a while. I had plenty of time (the race has a 24 hour cutoff so I had 16.5 hours to finish the second loop) and wanted to make sure I maintained my energy level. In many of my ultras I run out of energy too early either due to going out too fast or not eating and drinking enough, so I was really focusing on my eating and drinking. In addition to the aid station food and drink I was finishing a water bottle in between every aid station and I was eating a couple of PowerBar Gel Blasts every mile or so.
I sent a text message to Susan to let her know how I was doing. She was planning to crew for me for the rest of my race and had promised to bring me a cheeseburger and fries later that night. Susan finished her race in about 7:42, about an hour or so ahead of her plan, so she had a great race!
Fred, Greg and I left the aid station together, and as I was heading out I heard Dave Elliott call my name. Dave and I had never met but we are both members of North Texas Trail Runners and had chatted via email about the race. Dave ran the 50k and had a great race! It was good to finally meet him in person.
As we started climbing again I lost track of Fred, and Greg and I passed each other several times for the next few miles. I was still running alone most of the time and enjoying the day. Since I had already seen the trail once the element of surprise was gone and I could plan for the rest of the race. I knew those final climbs were going to be tough! I still wasn't trying to hit any specific goal so I wasn't concerned about sticking with my "best case" time - I was just using it as a guide.
Here's a great view from that section of the course:
Things went well into Nachos and I entered the very runnable section. I was really pleased that I was still running since at this point in many races I'm walking, not running. I ran into Chapas and the aid station volunteer offered me Jambalaya or Beans and Rice. Mmmmm, jambalaya sounded good, so I asked for that. He said, "Do you want Louisiana Jambalaya or Kentucky Jambalaya?" I said, "What the hell is Kentucky Jambalaya??" He said, "There's no such thing, I'm just trying to confuse you!" I had the jambalaya and it was really good. But it was spicy, and this would come back to haunt me. In my opinion this is the only mistake I made during this race.
After leaving Chapas (42 miles) I had to turn on my lights. I was still running well and enjoying the relatively easy trail. I also ran my 45th mile or the race. This is significant because before starting the race I had run and walked 9,955 miles since I started racewalking back in May, 2003. That means that mile 45 of Bandera represented my 10,000th mile! Very exciting.
Then, I fell. This was my only fall during the race, and I'm lucky it happened on flat, dirt trail. I don't know what happened, but all of the sudden I was pitching forward. My right shoulder hit the ground and stopped my forward motion, but the lower part of my body kept rolling forward so that I actually rolled up in a ball and almost rolled all of the way over; I actually had dirt on my HAT from rolling on the ground. It knocked the wind out of me and resulted in a little more inappropriate language, but I got up and got going. My gloves were dirty and my right side was covered in dirt but I felt OK.
I ran into Cross Roads (mile 49) and Susan was there waiting with my cheeseburger. I took a seat and started eating. I wasn't too hungry (jambalaya issues) so I didn't think I would eat the whole thing. While I was eating there was a woman looking at me like a sad dog that hadn't eaten in days. She and I had been passing each other off and on throughout the day. I offered her some of my burger and she refused, but she looked so longingly at it that I knew she needed it so I ripped off about half and gave it to her. I never saw her again - I hope she made it.
I headed out of the aid station with some rumbling and churning in my stomach, and it was difficult to run comfortably. I tried a few times but it didn't feel good at all. Finally, I knew what was coming, so I stopped on the side of the road and threw up. After that I felt all better and was able to run again! I climbed Three Sisters and #6 Trail before heading back into Cross Roads. My stomach didn't feel great so I didn't eat much (a little grilled cheese). I was disappointed that they didn't have coke or ramen noodles. I think that would have been better than grilled cheese. Susan was still there to help me, get me a sandwich and drink, etc. She was a great crew!
Now it was time to wrap up the last 9-10 miles of the race and the three final, brutal climbs. This time I had to stop about four times on Lucky Peak to catch my breath and rest my legs. The climbs were getting harder and harder, but I was still climbing. I could tell that I hadn't eaten or drank as much as I should have after the "Jambalaya Malfunction." But I didn't have much farther to go and just pushed forward. One thing hard about this section is that you can see the lights of the people ahead of you, and sometimes you look up and see a light WAY UP the hill and you realize how far you have to climb. I could occasionally see the lights bouncing up ahead.
As I was coming off the last long climb, Boyle's Bump, I was gaining on a light ahead of me. As I got closer I saw that it was a different Fred, another member of the North Texas Trail Runners. He's in his 60s and was finishing his third Bandera 100k - really inspiring. I stayed behind Fred most of the rest of the way until we got to the final flat half mile. We walked for a bit together talking about the race until we were within earshot of the finish. Then we both picked it up and ran into the finish! Success! And I quickly grabbed a seat while the volunteer removed my timing chip, then I picked up my belt buckle and headed into the tent to sit down and warm up (it had gotten pretty cold and VERY windy). Susan was there again and I also saw Greg from earlier in the race. My unofficial finish time was 16 hours and 42 minutes - 11 minutes slower than my "best case" plan and almost three hours faster than my "worst case" plan. I don't think I could have asked for a better result!
I was in no mood to sit around and talk - all I wanted was to shower and sleep, and I wanted some Sweet Ice Tea from Sonic. Unfortunately Sonic was closed so I had a coke from the gas station, then showered and went straight to bed. My stomach still felt a little touchy so I didn't eat anything. I slept fitfully because my ribs were killing me (a result of my fall). My legs didn't feel bad, just my arm and ribs where I fell.
The next morning we went back to the Old Spanish Trail for breakfast. I had the Cowboy Breakfast: Country Fried Steak, Two Eggs over Easy, Biscuit, Grits, Coffee, Two Orange Juices. I dropped Susan off at her house in Waco, then later I had another big meal at lunch and wrapped up the day with some Mac & Cheese and Twiced Baked Potatoes from Central Market.
Two days later I'm feeling pretty good. My left knee is a little sore but nothing unusual. My ribs really hurt but they are starting to feel better. Other than that I feel great. I didn't get any blisters at all so the taping really did the trick. As I said at the beginning of this post I feel like this was one of my best races ever. I stuck to my plan and ate and drank well (up until the Jambalaya Malfunction). From now on I'll stick to blander foods and make sure not to repeat that mistake.
If you are still reading, thanks for following my progress and reading about my race. Special thanks to all my friends from Twitter, Facebook, Team in Training, and especially my family for the supportive and encouraging messages during the race. I updated Twitter throughout the run and it was incredible to receive so many messages and emails of support. I've really got some great friends!
Below is my race plan with my actual splits for the two loops:
And finally, I'll leave you with this. Last year after Bandera Lynn Ballard, a great trail runner and fellow member of NTTR, the North Texas Trail Runners, modified famous lines from Shakespeare to capture the fun and spirit of the event. To many of you this may be meaningless but in its own way it really captures the Bandera experience (most of those named are members of NTTR):
Then will he strip his sleeve and show SOTOL scars,
And say 'These wounds I had on race day.'
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember, with the help of NTTR members,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words-
Boudreaux the Cajun, Eppelman and Thompson,
Roper and Ballard, Nictakis, Sexton and the Last Chance rowdies-
Be in their gaiters freshly rememb'red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And MLK weekend shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we Bandera brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so muddy,
This day shall durn'sure gentle his condition;
And gentlemen and women who did not toe the line, now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their scraggly manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That ran with us upon Bandera day.
I would also like to add that this is a really well organized race. The aid stations were well stocked and well run and the volunteers were friendly and helpful, and the trail markings were great - even at night I never felt lost or worried. Great race that I highly recommend!
NOTE: Turns out I fractured a rib when I fell. It was a minor fracture and I can still run. In fact, the following weekend I ran the Houston Half!