Truly, this is one of the best race experiences I’ve ever had. You are doing yourself a favor by participating in this race, as it’s possibly the best time I’ve had racing to date. The volunteers are the best! Also, aid station snacks were awesome!
I’d never been to Huntsville State Park, which is a surprise right off of I-45. No, really, it was a surprise when I’d run up to the gate to the access road and the noise and sights of the freeway. But this is a great little park. When I pictured what trail running might be like, this park is just about a perfect match to that vision. I got a campsite right on the lake, and the view couldn’t be beat.
The only thing in the minus category is that the campsites are very close together, so you’d better enjoy your neighbors, and not mind when someone arrives at 9pm and takes an hour to back their giant trailer into their tiny spot. Try a tent. It goes anywhere and doesn’t make noise.
Other than that, I enjoyed the sunset. The only thing I minded (more than the impossible to park trailer that kept me up), was that I was alone. I knew this would be a huge factor in the mental aspects of the race, but I had questions that needed answering. I wasn’t nervous or stressed about the race – I was very much looking forward to it. So I prepared everything the evening before, and timed how long it would take me to walk to the start (just under 10 minutes). And then I slept, not well, unfortunately, and I’m sure that played a role in the outcome of race day.
I arrived in the cold morning exactly when I intended, amidst the great energy of the dark start, with 10 minutes to go. As much as I hate running in the dark (I just can’t see very well and it’s exhausting), it does keep my pace in check. I felt good, considering the lack of sleep, and I met a very nice doctor from San Antonio who was doing his first 50 – we ran the first few miles together. Not long after the first aid station, I met Robert, who’s run numerous 50’s, and made the first loop go by in happy times. We talked at length about what makes a good race, and many other things related to our mutual workplace (small world). One of the aid stations gave him a hard time about collecting a harem, and good for them. But giant hugs to Robert, because there is not a lot of company beyond the back of the pack in the tail.
All the aid station volunteers were phenomenal, and I want to hug them all. Dam Nation has a special place for me, though, for having those bacon soaked magic pancakes, and inspirational Will Farrell movie quotes. The pancake was one of the best things I’ve ever eaten. There were also sausages, and a breakfast spread. I was doing a good job snacking, and focusing on moving that walking pace. I’d struggled with this recently, as I had the flu as part of my taper, and I was just starting to feel like I was getting back to my normal level of activity on the Wednesday before race day.
I had a good first split of 4:12, and felt like I was ready to work that second loop (I think I PR’d 25k, 30k, and 50k distances). I’d lost Robert, who had an excellent walking pace, but I’d known going in that this was going to be hard mentally, and I had to find out what I really wanted. And I learned that yes, I love running, and racing, but I still hate running alone. No, really, I’ve come to hate it. (This is one of the reasons why I mostly stopped going in to town for group runs – I end up running alone anyway, so why spend an hour and 20 minutes driving? Well that and the mountain bikes.) I don’t mean for every minute, but when you’re as slow as I am, that’s a lot of alone time, and I’ve found after about hour 6, I’m really done.
Why and how did I come this far? Well, I’ve also lost my “why.” The things that made running alone/running in the dark worthwhile prices to pay are no longer with me. My life is substantially different than it was in 2012, and it’s changed for the better. My priorities have shifted; I’m starting to think I might actually live for more than a few years. So I’m hitting a wall of time. I could do better racing, I could be faster, but I just don’t want to spend every free second I have dedicated to this pursuit. That’s a lot of alone time, just in training, and I have other things that are important to me right now. All this kind of hit me as I approached mile 30. This is one of the things I do love about trail racing, and the long run – you can’t escape the truth of yourself, which emerges with great clarity.
The other thing that happened at about mile 30 was a great big ball of fatigue, unlike anything I’ve felt in some time. I was hallucinating throughout the second loop – the floating Pepsi can was kind of entertaining, but the upside down trees were disconcerting. The ground started spinning, and I had to slow down to below my race walking pace. Every injury over the past year came back to visit me, plus it brought its friend the psoas knotting up. In the second half of the second loop I’d had trouble eating and swallowing, and I started to feel like I was chocking. I put my hands on my psoas and immediately felt like I might pass out and puke. Yep, that was the problem. I made it to the end of loop 2 in 9:05, still ahead of where I thought I might be, but I was limping across the gate.
The volunteers were really looking out for me though, and from then on, my standard line was “spirits are high! but the rest, eh, I don’t know……” The only reason I went out for a third loop was because I got the last mashed potatoes and gravy, and I was able to eat it. Unlike other hill country trails, Rocky is a low risk for injury if I actually did pass out, so I figured, what the hell, this is what I’m here for. Other runners encouraging me also helped my motivation (thank you Anna, Susan, and Gloria!). I did try to run a few more times, but every time I did, the ground would spin violently. Every so often I had to stop completely and lean against a tree, breathe deeply, and get the ground back from going sideways. I still kept making time cutoffs, until I missed the second pass at Dam Nation by 6 minutes. (I will say that I’m super proud of Anna the Annamal here for trucking on and finishing this thing – she rocks!) I will say that the view from the dam at night is quite peaceful and beautiful.
Tom and Amanda(?) gave me pie (!!!!), and packed me in to Tom’s car and we started back to the lodge area. Everyone at the last bit at Dam Nation was incredibly kind and supportive. I really hated being a bother to them. And then, something happened I’ll never forget. The last person to leave the aid station had a walking stick (he was bent to the side, and really struggling). We caught up to him on the dirt road. The love and caring that the aid station volunteers showed as everyone jumped out of their cars to help him make it the last half mile to the next aid station will live forever in my memory. They got him a snack, some gloves, filled his water bottle, put a headlamp on him so he wouldn’t have to carry a flashlight, wrapped a buff around his neck for warmth, and sent him forward with all the love and encouragement – it was a privilege to watch that.
When I turned in my chip everyone was still floating the love and warmth, even though I didn’t make it past mile 42 or so. One of the other Dam Nation volunteers told me that I’d better come back next year, and you know what, after that display, I will. If I’m not running, I’ll volunteer. Because it would be an honor to be in the company of these people again.