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The Big Bend 50 race report

January 19, 2015

We’re driving back from the southwestern tip of Texas, and don’t have big reliable internet. So, I’ll add pictures and formatting later. -JM

It’s later, and we’re home! Picture time… -JM

Here’s the story. If you want the SHORT version, you have to skip all the way down to the bottom. But, why bother with the short version? It’s a freaking ultramarathon, and it deserves more than a cursory glance, so say we all.

Waking at 4am wasn’t hard. Staying asleep until 4am posed its own challenges, but I prevailed. Half our party intended to sleep in – while the start of a race isn’t a completely blah affair, neither is it required attendance, as far as I’m concerned. But, Sean’s and my early day preparations kind of woke the other two in the small place we’d rented. Ah, well.

 

The small place we rented

The small place we rented

We loaded up and headed down. Now, we’re in Big Bend country, so you should basically just imagine a New Mexico landscape – lots of dirt and rocks, big-big hills that are the bones of the land, lots of scrubby and pointy and stabby growth. That also describes Mexican landscapes. And, come to think of it, large parts of Arizona. Either which way, that’s Big Bend country. We couldn’t actually SEE much of this at 5 in the morning, but it was there, and I was about to run into it, in the dark, with something like 50 other people all wearing headlamps as BRIGHT AS THE ALMIGHTY SUN. I didn’t engage in much conversation at the starting line, as everyone already had their lights on, and you don’t really want to do a face to face under these circumstances.

The Big Bend landscape, but with daylight

The Big Bend landscape, but with daylight

On your mark…

My team hugged me and saw me off for the countdown. 3-2-1, and 50 (or so) highly spandexed and hydrated people jogged across highway 170 to the East Contrabando Trailhead, going into Big Bend Ranch State Park (Big Bend National’s little sister to the west).

I started at the back, and stayed at the back. I knew it would be a small miracle if I finished the race; that I was likely to be slower than anyone else; and that last place suited me perfectly fine. The night-morning was perfectly, loverly dark, and the sky was bright, and I couldn’t look at it much because apparently the entire ground was out to kill me. Seriously, it’s all scree and rock on top of rocks on top of scree, and more rocks of sizes all the way from gravel to boulder and everything in between. Even on the trail, there was an awful lot of “OH HOLY SHIT I DIDN’T PICK MY FOOT UP HIGH ENOUGH oh I’m okay” going on. And, one fall in the dark. Not bad.

If you could see, this is how the murderous trail would look

If you could see, this is how the murderous trail would look

 

You can only see by your headlamp though, so it looks like this.

You can only see by your headlamp though, so it looks like this.

2 Miles In

Nearly everone passed me. About 2 miles in, two volunteers directed everybody down the righthand path at a diverging of ways. I took the offered path, which 300 yards later opened up on to a dry river bed. Aaaand I couldn’t find the continuing trail, which is generally marked with rock carins and little orange or pink flags. I looked all over. I saw nothing. I looked some more. Nothing. I looked up and down stream. I figured I’d try what would have been up stream for a while. After a bit I noticed two women behind me. We eventually figured out that was NOT the way to go – I brought maps of the trail along as photos on my iPhone – and retraced our steps. We still couldn’t find the path. We tried something that LOOKED like a path. Nope.

After casting around a LOT (and gathering up another lost runner), we finally found a path with a flag, and followed it joyously. Right back into the waiting, friendly volunteers who’d directed us up that path in the first place. Back where we started, 2 miles from the starting line.

Shit.

The other runners and I parted, and I went back to casting about for the lost trail, led by the volunteers’ assurances that they had, just the previous night, followed that very trail without problem. Still nothing. After a very thorough try, I went back to the volunteers AGAIN and was directed up the lefthand part of the trail, which cut out the half loop I’d been searching for. It’s not the official route, and I could get disqualified for it, but I’d been dicking around for at least 30 minutes, and I’d definitely done the equivalent loop distance.

I fucking got lost on the fucking shortcut trail.

I swear to you, I had the maps, I had a very clear Big Dipper pointing out a very clear Polaris, and what should have been a very clear path simply wasn’t…it was another washout – no, TWO washouts, and I explored both, began backtracking, got lost AGAIN… It was foot stompingly infuriating. It was maddening. It was wasting time and energy I really, REALLY couldn’t afford to waste. I was never in any kind of danger – I mean, I was two bloody miles north of the bloody highway that runs along the south edge of the entire bloody park. It wouldn’t have been difficult to get back to start. BUT I WANTED TO FINISH.

Through some weird miracle, I wound up back at the same place I’d lost my way before – at the dry river bed without the damn carins or flags. And, now that the sun was well up and the visual world was larger than the beam of my headlamp, I found the damn flag. The tiny, 2 inch pink flag, tied to an 8 inch bush, hidden behind ANOTHER bush.

2015-01-18 07.59.38

Oh thank the heavans, literally: the sun!

I can see! I can see!

I can see! I can see!

Nevermind, I have the route again. And I am well established in my favored position: last place.

Getting to Aid Station 1 – no really, we’re still working on the first aid station – and 2

*sigh* So, tired and demoralized, I headed toward aid station 1. If you’re not a runner, you might not have much of a concept for how run time goes. It’s very like The Oatmeal’s portrayal: he looks at his GPS watch: 4.7 miles. He runs down the street, up a hill, past many building, around a thing, up another hill, and on and on and on, and then he looks at his watch. 4.9 miles. “Really?” he says. “Yes really, F.U.!” says his watch. That’s the jog to Aid Station 1.

The people there are surprised but pleased to see me, and they offer me cold potatoes (an excellent and mild way to get needed salt into your system), Coca-Cola, water, and other munchies. I refill and nosh a little, and move on to some lovely supportive notions from the volunteers there.

More beautiful, murderous trail

More beautiful, murderous trail

I am tired already. Maybe it’s the early waking. Maybe I’m not fully over that stomach bug. Maybe the early morning waste of time was REALLY that demoralizing. In any case, parts of the trail are uphill, and I’m not feeling energetic, so I walk some, and run. I’m planning to make up that lost hour as much as possible on my way to aid station 5, because I have to arrive there by the 1pm cutoff, or I won’t be allowed to continue*.

My plan goes pretty well, and I make up 15 or 20 minutes on the way to a.s.2. An aid station in this race is generally 2-4 people hanging around a table that has snacks/water/hydration drink, a truck or two, and a camp toilet (a 5 gallon bucket with a bag and chemicals, inside a special little tent with personal cleanup supplies). I stop to use the facilities, and don’t bother filling up on water. I’m only 8.5 miles in, and the next stop is in 5 miles. This does not turn out to bite me in the ass.

The volunteers there warn me that the path ahead gets a little rough. At some point slightly further along, I think, “Hah, I had rough for breakfast!” Sometime later, I reflect that I was also having rough for brunch, then elevensies and lunch.

*Some races have lesser cutoffs. It’s a race, they can run it the way they like. I’m the one who chose to sign up. Besides, the cutoff time may well have a safety aspect to it…I didn’t know, I never took the opportunity to ask.

A 2,000 foot climb is actually quite significant

See that mountainy thing? Let's go run up i!

See that mountainy thing? No, past the cliff. Let’s run up it!

The path to a.s.3 really is rather rough. Up till now we’ve mostly been on single track dirt (read: dirt under asstons of loose rock that is plotting in various ways to kill you) and on 4wd track (also mostly dirt, with just enough rocks to be in real danger of being geologically murdered) lined by various desert plants, 50% of which are desperately sharp to the touch. And, the way has been reasonably level and mildly uphill. Not so here. We’re getting super back country, we’re getting our elevation on. This slows me down somewhat, and later slows me quit a bit.

But in the meantime, I unexpectedly find myself catching up to two women on the trail. When I get closer, I see that the trailing figure is limping. She is a coach for several other runners in the race, and said “a rock got through to my foot”. I understand immediately. Ever step on a sharp rock with your bare heel? Like that, and expanded to actual injury proportions. We’re back country, and she can get by, so she’s making her way to the next aid station, where she can be driven out.

The other runner is one of the women I initially got lost with in the dark (though I wouldn’t have known; I never looked at anyone’s faces, for fear of being permanently blinded by 1kajillion lumen headlamps. Seriously, those fucking things should be used to keep oceangoing ships safe from rocky outcroppings). She appears to be staying with the injured runner for safety, which is awesome. I do not, which might not be awesome, but I need to make up time, and I want to alert the medics ahead that there’s an injured runner coming.

Shortly before being  demoralized by medics

Shortly before being demoralized by medics

I run the few downhills. I walk the many uphills. Miles pass. I eventually wind up climing around on top of those huge hills you see in the distance of old westerns, following a WELL MARKED TRAIL of little red flags positioned at eye level (looks pointedly at whoever marked the first 3 damn miles of the race, here). I think it’s somewhere in here that the rocks triumph a second time, and I fall a second time. “Two,” I say, and make a face at the scrubby, pointy cacti nearby that tried and failed to catch me. Suck it, cacti.

I pass two different men in biking gear – these are the bicycle medics, hanging out around the dangerous areas to see to injured runners – and I tell them about the injured woman. They radio it in, and do whatever bicycle medics do in a case like this. I am told by the first guy that I’ve got a hard climb and maybe a mile to go, and I’d better hurry to make the cutoff time (wait, what?); and by the second guy, many hundreds of yards later, that I have 2 3/4 miles to go and not much time. At some point along this stretch, another one of these bike medics tells me that I still – STILL – have a jillion miles to go, and the cutoff time at aid station 3 is at 8:12am, which is about now. What? Cutoff time at a.s.3? First I’ve heard of it; the website only had cutoff times posted for aid stations 5-9. I decided to ignore him on the off chance that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and I have to keep moving forward anyway.

The views are stunning, and nearly Grand Canyonesque.

Top o the world, ma

Top o’ the world, ma

After a time, I recognize the early symptoms of altitude sickness. Really? How high up am I? So I sit, eat a salt pill, and dump the grit out of my shoes and socks for the fourth time. And see, to my surprise, the injured runner and her companion sort of catching up to me. I’ll be damned, seriously, if I’m going to get caught by a runner limping along with an injured foot. I get up and plod on. The non-injured runner – #66, I think – catches me up some time later, and we make our way up what appears to be a nearly vertical slope (it’s not, quite) to aid station 3, manned by a man and his 8 year old son.

A bit of uncertainty

We ask about cut off times. The volunteer doesn’t know. I waffle a bit, refilling my water bag. The kid at the snack table pops a handful of M&Ms and says, “We encourage you to continue.” It’s adorable, but I still think, “Easy for you to say, kid.” #66 is gathering her things up to make a try, and since the volunteer doesn’t have a definitive answer on cutoff times, I decide to head out with her. It’s 11:00am. We have 2 hours to make about 10 miles, which would be perfectly doable in a road race with 12 minute miles, but presents quite a challenge here…even if we are nearly on the top of the mini mountain.

We set off walking and running, which I know isn’t going to to the trick. I power walk at about 17 minutes per mile, and jog downhill faster than 12min/mile, but there aren’t enough downhills, and I’m having some GI distress. It takes me forver to remember the Pepto Bismol tablets I have with me, but I eventually do, and almost instantly feel better. Still tired, but better. At this point I’m at a race-official distance of maybe 15 miles, plus 3-4 tacked on in that hour of wandering. Tired tired tired. Hard to eat. Probably not drinking enough. #66 and I troop along within 20 yards of one another for a couple miles, then she leaves me in the dust.

At least the views are lovely

At least the views are lovely

It’s not going to happen. I literally can’t make the 1pm cutoff time at mile 25. I can blame the getting lost – obviously it’s a huge part of the problem here, as I could’ve used that hour – but it’s not the only thing. There are definitely lessons to be learned from all of this, and I’m going to write them down below for next time, whenever that may be. For now, I still need to get me to aid station 4, where I will collapse in a chair and happily eat cheez-its and drink orange-grapefruit juice and talk with the volunteers about race things, until something better comes along.

Intermission

I want you to know I’m in my rented room, drinking hard cider out of a fluted glass, and I thought “fancy” and then dribbled it down my shirt.

Aid station 4, the end of the road

I walked. Once you give up, you can relax, and stop gasping the slightly thinner air, and coddling your complaining right foot on every run. There’s not much honor in actually giving up – #66 kind of kicked all kinds of ass by continuing to mile 25 even though she knew for a fact she couldn’t make the time, and she has all kinds of respect from me. But me? This time, I gave up. People were waiting for me. I was tired, and a little down on myself for my mistakes. And frankly, I don’t think I’ve developed enough freaking fortitude yet. It’ll come if I work at it, but I don’t have it yet.

A final look at ankle killing rocks and stabby things

A final look at ankle killing rocks and stabby things

I walked down rough double track, and down little scree hills that also attempted runnercide, and fell again (“Three.”) and still wasn’t really hurt, and continued to almost turn my ankle every 7th step. And I finally put on music, and enjoyed the scenery.

The people at aid station 4 were very hostpitable – I mean, it’s their job of course, but outdoorsy people always seem so NICE. I walked up at 12:30, still 5 miles away from a.s.5, and said “Guys, somehow I think I may not make the cutoff time.” They laughed, and then I said “I quit,” and two people immediately leapt out of their chairs and offered me seats and drinks and all kinds of good things. Mostly cheez-its.

They’d camped there overnight, and had set up a tower to aid in communication. I assume it’s for ham radio, but I know absolutely nothing about such things, so it could just as easily have been a transponder for a sonar communications system. Somebody knows these things.

We talked races and kids and so on, and eventually a very nice geologist and his wife Amelie and two kids drove by, and made room for me in the back seat.

And…

And that, kids, is how I tried to run my first ultra marathon, and DNF’d. I truly and seriously can’t blame the race organizers completely. I’m tempted, because that one flag early one was totally bullshit, but it should not have had quite THAT big an impact on my race. So, lessons learned:

  • Do not go off on random, path-looking things. Trust that they DID mark the path, and you just can’t find it. Sit down and wait for daylight if that’s what it takes.
  • Seriously, you need more practice running trails.
  • And you need trail running shoes. The more-or-less road running shoes you have now could be complicit in aiding and abetting attempted murder, for all the good they did you in ankle-turn protection.
  • Do not underestimate the course. Yes, it turns out, it would have been a good idea to come out and run on the course beforehand. This also includes, btw, taking a much closer look at overall altitude.
  • Work on your hydration. I actually got rather dehydrated in the last stretch of the run, even though I thought I was drinking enough. When I hit the car, I downed a bottle of water, a bottle of coconut water, and most of a 20 ounce Coke.
  • Remember to pack WAY more gels than you did, in your actual pack. It’s nice that there are like 30 of them in your drop bag. Didn’t do your upper GI any damn good around mile 17.
  • Don’t get sick right before the race. I have no idea if this had any impact on the race itself, but it seems likely. Just, try.
  • Sunscreen. Seriously woman, you know better. You had it. You knew you needed it. You even emphasized to your crew that they should make you reapply at a.s.5. So why on this greenish-brown earth would you neglect it? Future You is angry with past You.

Things I did right:

  • Got a great crew. Supportive, loving, willing to help in any way.
  • Overpacked food and gels and drink in general, at least in the car. Gotta love a good, varied food supply.
  • Packed salt pills and Pepto. Saved me a world of hurt and misery.
  • Good headlamp, extra batteries. Good gear in general, except for the shoes.
  • Ate well the day before. There was no junk food, no sirree. And nothing weird.
  • Put detailed screenshots of maps on my iPhone. While this didn’t save me from getting totally lost, they were very useful in pointing out that I REALLY WAS totally lost. Also, I was never truly, in-troube lost, in part because of these maps.

Notes from my crew:

  • I ran too soon, vis-a-vis my my skill level. Don’t overreach. (Sure.)
  • Underestimated the terrain. (Totally.)
  • I had the right equipment – pack, knife, foods.
  • Different shoes, for rocky terrain.
  • Don’t let my kids get sick while I’m gone. (#1 son apparently has the flu.)
  • Maybe take a different kind of sock with you as a spare. (I forgot to mention that my favorite, never-gave-me-a-second’s-trouble socks irrirated the shit out of my big toes, and the spare pair I had was of the same style and brand).

Happy days,
Jen

 

P.S. Will I do it again? Yes, but not this year. And most likely not this race. I loved the experience as a whole, but I really do hate the complete instability of the ground. Call me a mud-and-dirt-and-grass kind of girl, those desert rocks really could have done me an awful turn.  As for me, I’m better aware of my inexperience, but not too awfully down on myself. It’s already a good memory.

 

The short version: I got lost in the dark early on, ran (officially) 20 miles, and was unable to make the cut off time, so I stopped and was driven out by a nice geologist and his family and met the team and drove home, slightly dehydrated and sunburned and disappointed. But it was lovely anyway.

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13 Comments leave one →
  1. Melody permalink
    January 19, 2015 8:31 pm

    Well Done! Sounds like you learned some very helpful things, I am sure the altitude was a huge factor. Thanks for the inspiration and I am happy to hear you will do another!

  2. January 19, 2015 9:05 pm

    Running 20 miles in that terrain is IMHO still pretty danged awesome. You didn’t say if you were going to do it again but I assume a rematch is coming in the future!!

    • January 20, 2015 3:25 pm

      Another ultra someday, yes. Not before 2016 at the earliest. But I may not do Big Bend again. Lovely as it was, the terrain was really killer. Apparently people do learn to run on that, but I kept thinking how lovely nice a carpeted pine forest would’ve been…

  3. January 19, 2015 10:53 pm

    Soooo many people DNF their first. The key is to realize you’re not alone and not get discouraged. Good luck for the NEXT one.

    • January 20, 2015 3:25 pm

      Disappointed, but not really discouraged. Thanks.

  4. Jes Schultz Borland permalink
    January 20, 2015 1:14 am

    You made it to the start line. That is a feat most people will never accomplish. You put one foot in front of the other for many, many miles on crazy terrain. Another thing most people will never try. You listened to yourself and didn’t try to push and hurt yourself. That was smart.

    I give you so much credit for what you *did* do! I can’t wait to see some pictures!

    • January 20, 2015 3:25 pm

      Thanks! Pix are up. I didn’t used to like that sort of terrain, visually, but it really grew on me over the run.

  5. January 20, 2015 4:36 am

    The “short version” is that you completed 20 miles in your first off-road race. Getting to the start line is the “win”. Everything after that is a bonus!

  6. Mike Lawell permalink
    January 20, 2015 3:30 pm

    Wow, so totally impressed. 20 miles on flat ground is near impossible for me to even dream about.

    • January 21, 2015 3:21 pm

      It takes a while to build up to, certainly. But if you don’t have major medical issues and you take your time, you certainly CAN do 20 miles on flat ground. It’s not a dream, and I’m no superwoman, not even close.

  7. Jerry Nelson permalink
    January 20, 2015 7:30 pm

    What a great write-up! Article for a runner’s magazine? We’re glad you weren’t hurt. You obviously enjoyed the whole experience, though maybe not every minute. And, if you want to do some altitude training, you know where to come. Love, Dad~~~

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