Cactus Rose is a special kind of hell. Evil rocks go there to die. They torment runners’ feet and toes. Evil plants also join in. Some itch, others scratch. The Sotol crowd the trail like they own it and scrape cuts into runners’ legs. The evil rocks line up on one side of the trail, and the evil plants on the other. While unavoidable, which particular torment you suffer is your choice. The choice of torments is itself another form of torment. Altogether it’s a rather brutal place.
We lucked out early in the day. Cloud cover, a nice breeze, and an occasional light shower were welcome comforts. Mid afternoon, however, brought direct sun and soaring temps: the demon that tormented me most.
I’ve lost my stomach in two other races before: Pikes Peak marathon and Palo Duro 50 miler. Elevation was the main issue at Pikes. The circumstances at Palo Duro were more similar to Cactus Rose. I think it was the heat that caused my problems. Of course, at Cactus Rose I had to run twice the distance which makes fighting through the barfs that much harder.
Cactus Rose was my 3rd 100-mile race. My goal for the first one was to finish. I accomplished that goal. My goal for the second was to not want to quit. While I did cross the finish line, I did not achieve my goal. I wanted to quit for many, many miles. In the first two 100’s the middle of the night brought terrible times for me. I was sleepy, tired, cold, and full of quit. So I chose a different primary goal for Cactus Rose. I just wanted to make it till morning. I figured if I could just make it through the night and see the dawn of a new day, I could find the resolve to push through whatever miles remained. Little did I know, I would face my darkest hour while the sun was still high in the sky.
Mile 38 is where it struck first. My stomach was crawling into my throat. I felt so bad I lay down right on the rocky trail. It was awful. After I barfed, it helped some. But it was still uncomfortable even when walking. When I finally made it to the aid station I thought I was done. It’s not that I ever explicitly decided to quit. I just thought it would eventually be impossible to go on. The gracious woman helping me asked which distance I was doing. I replied “theoretically a hundred.” She retorted, “You’re going finish the hundred.” She gave me some papaya chews and told me to drink a whole bottle of water. Another woman gave me coke so I could try to drink some calories. I was a mess, but after about 20 minutes I felt much better and carried on.
At the mile 45 aid station, I was thrilled to see my pacers Jon and Tina’s smiling faces. I wanted to take it easy on my stomach, so I just ate an orange wedge. That went ok, so then I ate two Gu chomps. 15 minutes later I was in trouble again. Another runner on the course graciously gave me some ginger, and I sat down for 10 minutes resting and eating it slowly. That ended up being all for not. Half way up the next big climb I was hunched over on the side of the trail. This time it was different than before. I emptied the tank. This time was different, because I felt much better afterward. When I finished out the loop I was halfway done and felt pretty good. But I knew I had to find a way to keep calories down, or I’d never make it another 50 miles. It just seemed impossible.
3rd Loop, 50 – 75 mi
Tina really pulled me through the third loop. I couldn’t be more blessed to have her as a friend and a pacer. At mile 58 I started feeling sick again. It was her idea that Ensure might settle my stomach. Serendipitously, we found someone who offered me his last two bottles at the mile 65 aid station. Tina didn’t even hear the guy say he had Ensure. A different form of calories distracted her: pizza…. What a great aid station! What great people! I didn’t have any more stomach problems. It was all downhill from there. If not literally, metaphorically speaking.
4th Loop, 75 – 100 mi
On the last loop Jon and I kept track of how much time we were banking in front of the rolling cut offs. I was never worried I wouldn’t make it. It was fun to see how much time we could bank on each section. Only on the hardest section did I dip in to the bank for about 7 minutes. Most sections we added 25-30 minutes cushion. Again, the clouds offered much appreciated protection from the sun in the early hours. It was my first time running through a second sunrise. I wish I could have sat down and savored that sunrise. It’s hard to soak it in when you have to constantly focus on not tripping over or bashing your feet on rocks.
I felt a new sensation I hadn’t felt in a long time in the race. I was hungry. I took this as a good sign and kept eating. Then at mile 90 Greg had a bacon egg cheese croissant. It was amazing. That was definitely a high point in the race. I was done with the really difficult climbs. Greg did so much for me that weekend, but that one breakfast sandwich was by far the simplest most amazing thing he did.
I tried to avoid thinking about it, but I knew I was going to have to run in the heat again. Then in the midst of the heat of the day I had my fastest, most enjoyable running pick up of the whole race. We were on an exposed section with no tree shade. A cloud blocked the sun and the breeze picked up. I took the opportunity to run quickly. I wanted to be done with the exposed section. It felt so good to recover my normal stride. It felt like I was floating. My quads even felt fresh. It was an amazing feeling to run like that at mile 93. I hoped I could finish the rest of the race running hard like that. However, I ran out of energy and the shade clouds didn’t hang around.
Crossing the finish line was a bit surreal. For that matter the whole race seems like a blur, like a dream. I really don’t know how I finished. It seemed so very impossible for so very long. I was very blessed to have the support and prayers of so many people. I know I would never have made it on my own. I have no doubt I would have quit at 50 without my pacers there to keep me moving. Even though this one was harder than the previous two 100-milers, I did much better dealing with the mental challenges. I’m proud I achieved some other firsts: 1) I never wanted to quit. And 2) I didn’t whine to my pacers. Some of you know too well how huge those mental victories are. My mental recovery has also gone better than before. I signed up less than a week later for Bandera 100k on the same course. Jon teased me that I was back in love with ultras. I replied, “each time I fall less out of love with them.”
The running community is full of amazing people: especially in the ultra community, especially the spectators. Everyone is so generous, ready to serve one another and literally do whatever it takes to keep people moving towards the finish line. The beauty of these people never ceases to amaze me. I’ve been told before that my ultra running exploits are an inspiration for some people. The real heroes are the crew, pacers, and spectators. So many of us wouldn’t make it to the finish line without them. But they don’t get the spotlight. That’s my definition of a hero. You know who you are.