by Bill (The Geeze) Rumbaugh
LBJ National Grasslands
March 25, 2006
Fer them what don’t know, Grasslands is laid out in loops. The blue loop is 14.4 miles in length, yellow 10.4 miles, white 14.5 miles and the red is 10.7 miles, and you run them in that order for an event of 50 miles. Shorter courses are available, using the blue and yellow loops, for marathon and half-marathon runners, both popular options.
I like the format of the different loops, so you don’t see the same course over and over. Some of the trails overlap, so you do see relatively small segments more than once. There are, after all, only so many ways into and out of the S/F area. The trails are quite spacious in most places, as they are designed for and used by horses. Markings are quite plain. (Which did not keep me from taking the wrong turn a couple of times, thankfully folks were around to point out my mistakes.) Just not paying attention. The terrain is rolling hills for the most part, though there were a small number of challenging climbs on the course. Probably the worst obstacle this year was the sand. It was quite deep in many places, making going tough and running difficult. A little rain a few days prior helped to firm things up many places. RD Suzi Cope assured us at the start that the course was in excellent shape, the best in fact, of any of the 8 Grasslands Runs. And the temperature was close to ideal (starting at 32, pushing 70 at the end). A better venue and conditions could not have been hoped for, for my first attempt at a 50 miler and I feel fate has smiled on me again.
Aid stations were abundant, I think the longest distance between them was just over 3 miles. Because of the trail overlap, we saw several of them more than once. Volunteers were attentive, encouraging, helpful and mindful of what runners need, especially in the late going when we tend to be a little whacked out or have other issues. The aid stations on the last two loops had a few additional goodies that the first two loops did not have, boiled potatoes, home-made brownies for example. These were intended for the more specialized needs of the longer distance runner and much appreciated. Many thanks to the large number of folks who came out and gave up their Saturday so we could go play in the dirt.
As the trails wound around and about, there were numerous places where the ubiquitous hoof prints sunk pretty deeply into the trail. Normally, the reaction would be “Uh-oh, better steer clear of there – deep shoe-sucking mud ahead!” We soon learned that these apparently muddy areas were more than solid enough to support a runner’s weight, and it was no big deal to run right through them. Other areas were more muddy than sandy and the mud that had been squished out from under the hooves had dried and solidified like adobe, making footing a little tricky. Speaking of hoof prints, there were numerous deer prints pressed into the trail at many places. So there must be quite a few deer in the area. Also saw lots of large paw prints, but they were from big dogs (belonging presumably to the horse riders), not big cats. I do know the difference (Scout Leaders’ training pays off again). Generally, there were few rocks or roots and footing was easy. Under the conditions, this venue could have turned out a lot of PR’s, at least I hope so. It took little imagination to hark back to last year’s “Mudlands II” where it was a far different story. A couple of deep gully crossings toward the end of the Blue and Yellow loops would have been just so much fun, plus a number of other areas at various places throughout the course. Not to mention all the puddles. A salute to those who toughed it out and finished last year, and at Mudlands I. I’m certain it was a cakewalk by comparison this year.
On the personal side, the run was a foray into new territory for me, my first “real” ultra, as they say. Having run the Waco 50k two weeks before, and turning in a decent showing, I did not know if I would be ready for this event or not. So I rested and cross-trained during the ensuing interval, allowing my joints to recover as much as possible. Sometimes there just is not enough time to accumulate the training miles and then a decent taper to the event.
Quoting Dot Helm, an ultrarunner of Palmer, Alaska:
“My primary goals are 1) make it to the starting line uninjured, and 2) finish in an upright position.”
I adopted her goals and managed to complete them.
The first three loops went pretty well. As usual, I began to walk a significant amount after the halfway point, it was tough to get the old bod going again after an interlude of walking. Late in the third loop, I began to sense some queasiness in the old tum-tum. This was something new for me, the only time I had run this far was during the Ultracentric and I had a different fueling strategy for that event and had no problems. I had been running pretty strong (for me at least) up until that point. When I thought about what I would get for fuel at the next rest stop, I noticed the feeling, and thought, “You know, if I thought about it, I could probably make myself sick right here.” So I took a shot of water from my handheld and thought of other things. Coming into the S/F area, I was doing OK until actually confronting the choice of fuel. Tom Crull came by about then and asked how I was doing. Not so good, my stomach is upset, he asked what I had been taking for it. I replied that I had a coke and was going to drink another one. He said, to forget that, what I needed was some Tums and proceeded to get some from the Aid Station volunteer. Right about then I had a sudden uncontrollable urge to ralph. With all the people milling around, I knew I would not be able to make it to an out of the way place, so a nearby trash can had to do. I remember being surprised that nobody really seemed to notice, either in disgust that I chose that place, or out of concern for the sick person. I apologized to the aid station staff, one of whom brought me a paper towel, a very considerate gesture. Well, that was round one. There was a similar round two which happened very soon thereafter. Round three was unproductive, enough of the details already. I can’t remember a time when the onset was so abrupt. Then I took two Tums, washed it down with water and immediately felt worlds better. Tom said I needed to sit down for a few minutes or at least walk it for awhile and told me to take some Tums with me, which I did. I decided that I would walk, rather than let the few guys I had managed to pass get ahead of me again. Never mind that if I’m walking and they are running, they are going to pass me anyway. I really did feel a lot better, as if the “reset” button had been pushed somewhere. A few miles later when I started to run a short distance, the feeling returned and I took my additional Tums which did the trick so long as I was walking. Thanks to you Tom for the sound advice, good buddy. I knew with the contents of my stomach now mostly water that there was likely to be an electrolyte and a fuel deficiency soon. I had been taking E-caps every hour on the hour. I took one a few minutes past the hour, probably hour #8, and intended to take another one at about the half hour to try and regain some ground. As for fuel, I did not know what to do, but thought it was probably secondary, since there was less than 10 miles to go at that point. At the next aid station I described my situation and inquired about what they recommended. One of the volunteers immediately took charge and grabbed a boiled potato, moistened it with water from the cooler and sprinkled salt on it for me. It’s times like this where experienced volunteers are really appreciated. I made it to the next aid station plus about a hundred yards before ralph paid me another visit. I had just taken some more Tums. Fortunately I still had some from a previous aid station. Took them and moseyed on. One aid station to go at that point and the sun was still comfortably above the horizon. My original plan had been to drink an Ensure and/or a Red Bull and get my flashlight as I passed through the S/F area. I was miles away when I remembered and thought, “My, how things do change in the late going.” Neither liquid would have been an option and it was still early enough that I would beat sundown comfortably. I had tried running a few times during the last loop and each time, various leg muscles started to cramp. Plus my abdominals. When the abs cramp, it’s bad news as I have learned over the years. So once again, I hoofed it in. Felt strong enough to run, but the prospect of cramping is nothing I wanted to deal with, with several miles to go. Seemed to aggravate my stomach, too. I can walk pretty fast, and at one point it looked like if I hustled, I could break 10 hours, not a bad showing for a first 50 miler. Reality eventually set in, however, and the actual time was 10:08. But I was happy with it, especially given the situation. I did save some for the last hundred yards or so, so I could run up the concourse of flags and cross the finish line running. There were still a lot of folks hanging around waiting for the last of the 50 mile finishers. It meant a lot to me have a cheering crowd call me by name as I finished what was to me a significant event. Thanks so much, guys.
After a change of clothes, I brought my lawn chair and joined the crowd as I addressed my “chromium deficiency,” stomach problems but a distant memory. My sweet wife had been one of the timekeepers for the race. As the finishers dwindled down to a handful, she turned the honors over to Paul Tidmore and we headed back to Dallas as the sun set pinkly in the West.
This was a really well-run race, a tribute to Suzi’s ultrarunning background. She knows what the runners need because she has been there, many times. Add to this her organizational skills, and you have winner of an event. Well done, Suzi. I’ll be back.
In conclusion, I just wanna know one dang thing. This here’s the LBJ National Grasslands, right? Well, where wuz the freakin’ grass? I have camped in the Grasslands with the Scouts on several occasions and did not see any grass of significance. But then I figured they did not want us camping in any of the prime areas, so gave us the not so great spots. During the run, we traversed what has to be a substantial portion of the Grasslands and never once did I see broad expanses of tall prairie grass, high as a horse’s belly, waving under the Texas sun. Such is the image evoked by the name, at least to yer humble scribe. Perhaps it was too early in the growing season, or mebbe that’s how it used to be and under the USDA’s management it is coming back, I dunno. What I saw was vegetation which was well-adapted to the semi-arid climate and the alkaline sandy soil. It has its own beauty, though it takes some getting used to, and you have to look for it. A truly unique venue for a trail run, one that is definitely Texas.