2011 Cactus Rose 50 Miler Race Report

The website advertises it “No Whiners, Wimps, or Wusses : A nasty rugged trail run Bonus Points for Blood, Cuts, Scrapes, & Puke.” “It” is the Cactus Rose 50 mile / 100 mile trail race, and I thought having run the similar course at the Bandera 50k I would understand what I was getting myself into.  While I fortunately did not need to puke, I now have a more profound understanding the Cactus Rose race is indeed not for whiners, wimps, or wusses, and is indeed quite nasty.  The course is a 25 mile loop filled with steep hills, rocks, cactus, and more rocks and cactus separated about every 5 miles by an aid station/oasis.  You run one loop one direction, then when reaching the start/finish area return in the way you came for 25 miles back to the start/finish.  A novel idea—however this feature adds to the challenge (for those of us that “only” are doing the 50 mile race) since the hills are back loaded at the end of the odd numbered loops.  Thus when beginning the second loop, you run back over all the hills you just finished, so the middle twenty miles or so are just plain nasty and brutal.

I’ve “only” run one 50 miler before which is comparatively MUCH easier at Rocky Raccoon, and given that I had been training pretty hard for it, thought this would be a good challenge for a second.  The only other major detail with this race is that it is self-supported.  So you need to bring your own food (except for ice and water which is provided).  I packed way too much food but I figured to be on the cautious side and have more options available to me.  The night before, I honestly wasn’t nervous at all but just wanted to get finally get started.  My mental strategy was to break it into 10 five mile sections: counting to 10 is easier than counting to 50 and running 5 miles at a time isn’t that hard, right?  I guess I’ve used running as an outlet the past few years, but personal things have not been very much fun lately so while it may not accurate to call running 50 miles at Bandera a “vacation”, it would be nice to get lost in park and enjoy what turned out to be a beautiful day.  330 am came way too early on race morning and soon enough it was time to start on a cool, crisp morning at 5 am.

The first section has only one big hill, Lucky’s Peak.  At this point, your legs are still fresh and the runners are all bunched up, so it was no big deal other than the rocks going down made for some curious footing in the darkness.  The rest of the section to the first aid station at Equestrian was pretty easy, a few little rollers on a dry creek bed until hitting a flat section and an open field.  Had to stop to enjoy the stars, seeing the Milky Way above, and the skyline of the hills against a night sky – almost makes you feel sorry for those still asleep in bed.  Made it to the equestrian aid station in about an hour and felt great.  The 2nd section was by far the easiest.  No real hills and it wasn’t very technical.  The first couple hours I felt pretty good and was enjoying the wonderfully cool temperature and night running, right before sunrise.  Made it to the second aid station at Nachos and refilled my supplies before heading out on the 3rd section which has one big hill, Ice Cream Hill.  By this time, sunrise was approaching which looked beautiful against the hills.  Going up Ice Cream didn’t seem that bad, but the sotoll cactus in the 3rd section really were taking exception to me being there.  Before too long, I looked down and noticed my knee and ankle were already bleeding from the serrated cactus plants, with many more scratches, much more than I recall at previous Bandera experiences.  And while I received quite a few scratches and cuts, with the evidence still visible several days later, it doesn’t compare to the tall guy who looked like he face planted in a rock garden.  It looked like he got in a fight and lost, and I’m told he had to drop after coming in for one loop, that sucks, hope he turned out OK.

I was still feeling great and rolled back into Equestrian to begin the 4th section, which was the nastiest section by far, with the 3 Sisters, Sky Island, and probably some other hills which I don’t know the names of.  I remembered the Three Sisters from this year’s Bandera, lets just say I don’t have very fond memories of them; scorned lovers, perhaps.  I tagged along with 3 other guys who were running the 100 and I liked the pace so I tried to keep up with them.  The 4th section was pretty nasty and I remember coming down one trail, and you can see in the near distance the next hill “Whoa!” – Only I used much more colorful language to describe the sight of it.   I like running downhills but I am just not skilled at running downhills in this technical of terrain, so that part is still challenging for me.  On the plus side, at this point my legs felt OK from all the hills – just as I felt like I needed to take a break from hiking up them, the hills were over and the climbing muscles could get some relief.    Thankfully the 4th section ended, and I tried not to think about the fact I’d have to be back here soon.  The 5th section had two big hills, Boyle’s Bump and Cairn’s Climb.  They were big, but honestly I enjoyed this more than the previous section.  Instead of going straight up and back down, you had a break where you ran around the top of the hill, giving you a little bit to recover and you know, actually run some, although there was some sections with some nasty footing in areas.  I have never really danced but I suspect that the skills acquired from running here would be transferrable – maybe time will tell.  As I reached the end I started seeing more runners and a few friends who had already reached the halfway point and started back.  I really like out-and-back parts of races where you can say a brief hi to other runners – as much to cheer them on as myself, I think.

Well I reached the halfway point in about 5:40 and other than a few minor aches, I felt pretty dang good about my time and my prospects for finishing.  I ate kind of a lot and set back out on the second loop, only 25 miles more to go with the toughest 10 directly in front of me.  Going back up Cairn’s and Boyle’s, I started sweating big time.  The starting temperature was somewhere around 35 degrees, but now it was at least in the 50’s or maybe even 60 degrees.  Not warm or hot by any standards, but when you’re out there busting your tail and climbing a steep 300 foot hill, it can be kind of taxing.   Going up Cairns, I took a moment to look off to the right for a fantastic view of the park.  Another woman going the opposite direction also looked and lamented that we weren’t using all the flat trails we could see down below, but where’s the fun in that?  After the a few miles in, my body started to go downhill and I was running real low on energy.  I’m not sure why but I suspect I was drinking too much water and not enough salt or maybe I didn’t eat enough early on.  My fingers looked slightly puffy and I was drinking a lot, since I did not want to run out of water on all the super nasty sections.  I eventually recovered before hitting the aid station but the recovery was somewhat hollow since I knew the next section was going to be brutal.  I refueled and headed back out to the 4th section where I started noticing my right knee was complaining at me, most likely my IT band.  Mostly was bugging me on downhills, which this section had a lot of super-technical downhills.  With this discomfort, my running was basically reduced to almost nothing the rest of the race.  It wasn’t that painful, but worse on the downhills (which there were plenty), and bad enough on the flats that made me not want to run.  I don’t remember a whole lot of details other than the steep climb up the first sister – man that was tough!  And I knew at this point my time goals were probably gone out the window, so I just tried to enjoy the beautiful weather and gorgeous views, the kind you just can’t find in Houston.  Despite the views, I was quite happy to finally kiss the Three Sisters goodbye.

Getting through the 4th section was pretty hard the 2nd time, but I eventually made it back to Equestrian to reload with some soup and other food.  I set back out and jogged a little bit better after stretching my IT band, but my running was rather short-lived before going back up Ice Cream hill.  I don’t remember too much about the 3rd section this time, other than it seemed much rockier than before (if that is possible).  More hiking ensued before I made it to Nachos and ate some more food while sitting briefly before heading back out, 40 miles down and 10 left.  The next section was pretty easy but I couldn’t run much.  This section was probably a low point – don’t know if I didn’t eat enough food throughout the race but my energy level dropped like crazy.  I seriously felt like I could have laid down on the side of the trail and gone to sleep.  My disposition was poor but all I wanted was to make it to the next aid station and eat… something… anything! The GU chomps I had on me were just not cutting it.  Around this time some of the 100 miler leaders were passing by as I was staggering along – watching them zoom past me I had great respect for them, true athletes.  Eventually, (maybe days later?) I made it to the next aid station and sat down next to my cooler.  I must have looked pretty crappy because a guy came and helped refuel my bottles and brought me some ginger ale while I ate as much as was comfortable.  At this point it was 530 pm and sunset was soon after 7, so I brought my flashlight along just in case I was having a REALLY tough time the last 5 miles.  I brought the flashlight in my pocket, but I was carrying a water bottle in both hands and soon realized I had just failed basic math since I would be one hand short if I needed to use my light.  I decided I’d just deal with that should the sun go too fast and hope I can crawl in before sunset.

The food helped restore my disposition and energy level (didn’t feel like a cranky toddler anymore) and I jogged a bit better here.  I couldn’t stand any more than 30 seconds to a minute, but at least was moving a bit faster on this nice little flat single track.  Soon it was time to go up Lucky’s Peak where I still had a few expletives left in my vocabulary before going back down it, which was challenging.  Had to sit on my rear end a few times, but eventually that hill was over.  Kept walking until the start/finish was on top of me, since you have to run the finish.  Enjoyed some soup and hot chocolate at the end which was fantastic, before being fortunate to see the stars and Milky Way again, just as it was before, some 14 + hours earlier.

It was nice to finish another 50 miler, but I was a little disappointed by the outcome in that I couldn’t see how well I could have ran it, but I guess sometimes things are out of your control and you just have to do your best, hopefully I tried my best.  I never felt like quitting but just goes to show you can finish if you keep moving forward.  I have much respect for those who finished the 50 and even more so for those who went for 100, this is not a course for whiners, wimps, or wusses.  I think I’ve gotten my fill of rocks and cactus for a while!

XTERRA Bluff Creek Ranch Trail Run

I signed up this race initially hoping it would be good speed work for the Cactus Rose 50 miler.  And if I planned on doing the Wild Hare again, I could check out the course again.  I had run the “Warda Cardiac” in 2009 (now the Wild Hare), which was my first ultra or marathon, so it was a bit fun to go back again.  In 2009, it had rained for a couple days and was pretty muddy, which was an interesting way to be broken in to 50k’s.  Well sure enough, returning to Bluff Creek Ranch this year, we get another deluge of rain.  It has barely rained at all the past few months, so the one day it decides to rain is the day I do a trail run.  Well, it is what it is, and it makes it that much more epic.

So as I said I was hoping this race would be good speed work training, but the Fates had other ideas.  I had tossed around the idea of finishing in 2:30 for 24k.  This goal was certainly reasonable for me if I had a good day or good weather; unfortunately I had neither!  I had probably 3-4 hours of sleep, felt sick the day before, and additionally I had run more the previous 4 weeks than I ever have.  And of course the rain which makes even easy courses such as these challenging.  In fact, I almost didn’t go since I felt kind of crappy, but decided to tough it out, since that what I normally do.

Arrived at the park where the monsoon quickly started, and was quite cold.  Initially had one tech shirt one, but that soon changed to two.  Brought in my umbrella to check in where another runner joked if I would be bringing that along? Actually not a bad idea but that made me realize I had a parka, which I have never used for 4 years, in my trunk.  So I tossed that on, which definitely helped keep the rain off. However after the first 2-3 miles, I was overheating so I dropped it off at the first chance (didn’t get it back… but can’t say I’m too upset since that’s the only time I’ve used it).  Oh yea, not even a half mile in, I went to lift up my left foot… but my shoe got stuck in the mud! Think that was a first for me but that gave me a good lesson to make sure your shoes are REAL tight in muddy conditions as these.

Well the miles trudged on but my heart rate was just gettin’ too high and I wasn’t even running hard.  Probably just a combination of all the events, but any chance of speedwork was out the window, so I just tried to sit back and enjoy the 15 miles.

The course seemed easier than I remember — not sure if that’s because I was only doing 2 laps, or I had gotten stronger or what.  But afterwards one of the race organizers told me they took out a section or two that was “too tough” due to the rain.  So, maybe that helped, but some extra matting/carpet in some areas definitely helped, along with my Asics Trail Sensors which seemed to give me much better traction than my Gel Nimbus, since I just finally got a pair of trail shoes.  Only a few spots that were bad, but mostly just alot of splashing around in puddles and mud for 15 miles., and actually one of the spots where I almost bit it a couple times was on concrete and not mud.

The rest of the race was rather unremarkable for me… I finally started getting warmed up and felt good around mile 12 or so but nevertheless I got 2nd in my age group finishing in a shade over 3 hours… but that loses some luster since there were only 2 of us! Hardly an impressive time but OK considering how crappy I felt most of the race.  Lots of hardware considering a small amount of runners, and a lot of people got a BOX of Gu and multiple t shirts; so it was well organized and nice swag. Well that concludes what may be an over-detailed report for only 24k… next race is cactus.