happy running

Bandera 50k 2012 race report.

I'd done the Bandera 25k twice in the past. It was hilly, it was rocky, it was hard, and I'd never finished it thinking, "Man, I'd love to go out there and do another loop!"

And yet when Matt decided to do the Bandera 100k, somehow it seemed really logical for me to do the 50k. So I signed up, told my coach, and then mostly just kinda forgot about it. I did the workouts I was assigned and fretted basically not at all about the actual race. I didn't even feel a twinge of concern about it until maybe two days before the race, and even then I shrugged it off.

When I did my first (and only other) 50k, I wasn't sure I could do it. I fretted. I overthought it. It was A Thing. This time Matt's race was the big race and I was just running to kill time. I knew this would be much harder than my other 50k, a much tougher course, much hillier, much more technical, so I wasn't concerned about a PR, and I knew that I only had to be done before Matt, who was doing twice the distance, so I wasn't very worried about that either. I was just.. pretty relaxed.

That was my plan!

And then came race morning. I woke up to the sound of rain. Rain is NOT what you want at Bandera. All the rock turns ice-slippery and all the dirt turns into a bog. So my plan to take it easy turned into a plan to take it REALLY easy and be excessively cautious.

We normally stay in Kerrville, roughly an hour drive from the park, but we'd decided to try out a bed & breakfast this year, which was only about a half hour away. And we normally do packet pickup race morning, but had driven in earlier on Friday to get that out of the way. So we left at the blissfully late hour of 6am, headed straight into the fog. Heavy fog, light rain. Messy. And when we got to the park, the cars were backed up more than we'd ever seen them. Turns out, we're normally those dorks who show up hours early and completely avoid the traffic. This time we were in the thick of it, and it wasn't moving. We arrived with an hour to spare, and ended up parking about 15 minutes before the race started. And we'd driven right past the portapotty lines, so knew exactly how long they were, and how impossible it would be to get through them before the race started.

We jumped out of the car, I raced off into the woods and took care of business there, and then we wished each other luck and health and parted ways to find our respective race starts. The 100k and 25k both started right there at the Lodge (though at different spots, going different directions), but the 50k start required a hike. And a preview of what was to come. Our first taste of the mud. By the time we were done with our 5 minute walk to the start site, the bottoms of our shoes were completely coated in mud. Thick, sticky mud. People were using sticks to scrape the mud off, but that really seemed so pointless, since our first step would just reapply it. So I just chatted with Jess and Leah and enjoyed my lack of nerves.

And then it was go time.

And sure enough, the road we ran out on was deep, sticky mud. Again people were stopping to try to remove the mud, even 2 minutes into the race. I watched the folks ahead of me and realized the best plan of action was to run in the middle, where there was some meager grass growing. At least the mud wasn't.. quite as bad there. Of course, that's where everyone wanted to be, so there was a lot of dodging and weaving.

But eventually we transitioned from mud to rock, and we were all thrilled to not have our every step stick our feet to the ground. Until we realized that rock+mud is scary stuff. Often it felt like skating, but not fun skating.. skating where you don't know where your feet are going to end up.

Actually basically I can sum up the remainder of the 49k or so like so:
- Steep, rocky uphills
- Steep, rocky, muddy, treacherous downhills
- Muddy flats
- 2-3 sections of about 50 yards that were flat and relatively dry and wonderful

The rocky uphills and downhills were expected; they're always there. But the killer was the mud. Trying to navigate those rocky downhills with all the rocks coated in slick mud was scary. You could see the shoe marks through the mud where others had slid down ahead of you. I had my one and only fall on a muddy, rocky downhill, fortunately just having my foot slide out in front of me and catching myself on my elbows on the rock I slipped off of. Bruised and scraped up my right elbow, but it could have been a LOT worse. And at least it was in the whitish mud. There was one particularly notable section of brown mud on a steep downhill that was just.. well, I wished I'd had a camera, it was so nasty and ridiculous to navigate.

Of course, the only pictures are of the runnable downhills..

But even with all of those, it would have almost been tolerable if not for the temperature and humidity. A few years ago, a year I didn't do it, the temperatures during Bandera were in the single digits. Peoples' water was freezing in their handhelds. This year was the complete opposite; 65 degrees at the start, and 100% humidity. It never really "rained", per se, but it was so humid that it felt like rain, and the warmth plus rain made it nearly impossible to breathe. Which you really need to do going up some of those hills. There were several times where I thought, "What was I thinking, doing a 50k? I feel so out of shape and ill-prepared." But then I realized I WAS prepared, and well-trained, the conditions really were just That Bad. (And this was later reinforced when I saw how many other people suffered and/or DNFed.)

And the saddest part was.. normally your reward for running/hiking/crawling up those hills is a magnificent view for miles of the Texas hill country. Unfortunately the humidity and fog were so thick, once you got to the top, all you could see was fog. It was impressively thick in the morning, obscuring all views, and then slowly, slowly burnt off over the course of the day. But I was sad to miss some of my favorite views (which technically I usually only see out of the corner of my eye, because I'm trying not to kill myself on a rocky downhill).

Normally you can see for miles here..
Stolen from Charles Radi on facebook.

So that about sums up the general conditions. I know the people at the front, the eventual winners, were moving fast, but I have no idea how, because those of us back in Realistic People Land were walking the steep uphills, walking most slippery downhills, and frustratingly walking some of the FLATS because the mud was so sticky that running was hard, or the only way to keep your shoes out of the shoe-stealing deep mud was to run on the ice-slick rocks, and risk falling. On the flats! So sad.

Fog obscuring the hilltops.
Stolen from Ben Martinez on facebook.

The good news is, I was so busy just navigating the course, time went by pretty quickly. Sort of. The first time someone told me how far we'd gone (my Garmin's battery only lasts about 3 hours, so I was wearing a normal watch), we were at mile 8. That was a little depressing, given how tired I was already. But then there was a long stretch where I had no idea, and then I was at mile 20ish!

The bad news is, I was so busy just navigating the course, I had a really hard time watching my watch to tell me when I was supposed to eat. One of my goals for this race was to try taking in more calories. I normally have one gu (100 calories) every 40 minutes, and I suspect that this isn't enough for events this long, and was probably why my last loop was so much slower for the Palo Duro 50 miler. So I was going to stick to my gu schedule, but also add in some pj&b at the aid stations. Except I'd look down and find 55 minutes had passed instead of 40. So that whole plan went out the window after a few misses, and I basically just ate whenever I could remember. I ended up doing okay.. I relied heavily on Coke at the aid stations, which is delicious and caffeinated. I also managed quarter pb&js at 2 aid stations, and had 4 pickles my second time through Crossroads, because .. they sounded good at the time.

Uhh. Let's see. Other random notables:

- I'm not sure why, but my quads were DEAD really early in the race. Like maybe by mile 10. I guess it's a combination of being too aggressive on the early downhills (some of those rock ledges are tall, and I jumped off a few I probably shouldn't have and didn't land incredibly well), and dealing with the sticky mud. Having to pull your shoes up and out of the mud on every step is both shoe-sucking and soul-sucking. But my quads were trashed, which made all the downhills for the remainder of the run extra challenging, and I walked a lot more of the downhills than I'm used to.

- There's a section of the race I love, that winds through the trees and is pretty and flat and a nice dirt trail. I looked forward to that part again. Instead all I got was endless slogging through the mud.

- Though that mud slog couldn't even compare to the big road of incredibly, intensely sticky mud. That part was so bad, all you could do was either laugh or cry. The people around me were all stopping and scraping their shoes on the barbed wire fence just to feel like they were doing SOMEthing, but the mud immediately just caked itself back on. I felt like I was 2 inches taller. Normally a thing I crave, but not if it meant each of my shoes was 5lbs heavier. Completely demoralizing and neverending.

This may have been that road, or one like it. It doesn't look like much. It was awful.
Stolen from Marlon Onco on facebook.

- The one thought that ran through my mind the whole time was how glad I was I wasn't doing the 100k, and didn't have to do all of this a second time, in the dark.

Eventually I managed to slog and slide my way back to Crossroads a second time, and knew I only had 4 or 5 miles to go. That seemed doable, probably. Except then I remembered that I still had to go up, and then unfortunately down, Lucky Peak. That's one I always struggled with in the 25k, mostly on the descent. I'm not a strong descender on a good day, and this was not a good day, with trashed quads and slippery mud.

Dirty and tired.

As I came out of Crossroads, I fell in behind another lady, and we started chatting on and off. She was faster than I was in general, on the flats and even the muddy flats, but she was walking the uphills, and being very cautious on the downhills. Understandable, since she was doing the 100k. So she'd pull ahead of me, then I'd catch up going up a hill and we'd chat as we hiked up, then picked our way down the other side. She'd heard about Lucky, and I assured her that, while it was a challenge, all we had to do was be very cautious and we'd survive it.

And survive it we did. We let a few people go around us as we very slowly made our way down, but at that point I had let go of all time goals and my main goals were just to get to the finish line in one piece, and also to help my new 100k friend Caroline finish her first loop. I could have ascended and descended the hills faster if I'd struck off on my own, but I kept imagining it was me, knowing I had another loop of this ahead of me, and with many less people out on the course, and wanted her to have whatever company she could have for as long as she could. Those night hours were going to be lonely and scary.

So we hiked when we needed and ran when we could, and survived Lucky, and then pulled into the Last Chance aid station. I knew that I only had half a mile left to the finish line, but I'd thought that it was also half a mile to the halfway point for the 100k folks, too. Turns out, 100k people still had 5 miles left. Caroline got wrapped up in dealing with the aid station, and I didn't need anything since I was almost done, so I had to leave her to finish on her own.

But I was almost done! And I knew this last half mile was just easy jeep trail! Except.. y'know.. all easy jeep trail had become sticky mud hell. But it wasn't as bad as some parts had been, and knowing I was so close to the end got me through.

Another few turns, and then the finish line, and I was very, very, VERY happy to be done.

SO happy to be done.

7:10:42, almost an hour slower than my Palo Duro 50k, but also maybe ultimately harder than my Palo Duro 50 miler. It was just rough conditions, and I'm happy to have finished as uninjured and upright as I did. That was definitely a Just Happy To Finish sort of race.

I immediately went to check the up-to-the-minute race results to see if Matt had gone through, and he had gone through around 6:30 (race time), so about 40 minutes earlier. I was thrilled to see he was doing so well. I sought out post-race food and completely failed to find any, and decided to (after consulting with Gabe, who knows way more about the course than I do) just head to the Crossroads, as we'd planned, and wait to see him there.

I threw some compression socks on over my muddy, bloody, sore legs (they were bloody from the sotol cactus.. normally the sotol are one of the main things I'd complain about in Bandera, and, in fact, they were the worst I'd ever experienced, but they weren't even on the radar this year of things to complain about; in fact, they were almost comforting; they were a friendly, expected hazard slicing your legs to ribbons constantly!), hopped in the car, and drove to Crossroads to set up camp. I had expected to eat a post-race burger at the finish line, but with no food there, I instead at the food I had in my bag, which was 1.5 pb&js and a banana, and drank the Diet Coke reward I'd wisely stashed in my bag.

Muddy and bloody.

And then I waited. And waited. And waited. I began to regret not having driven to the aid station before Crossroads, because it was 20 miles from the finish line to Crossroads, and a lot can happen in that much time.

The aid station and drop bags at Crossroads, as seen from my chair.

And it was getting darker. And colder. I threw more clothes on. I began to regret that I hadn't packed myself more food. I had planned on Best Case Scenario, and completely failed to respect the fact that maybe that wouldn't happen.

Meanwhile I chatted with a lady with an Italian greyhound and a guy in a wheelchair with a really nice dog, I helped out other runners by stashing things in bags for them, or putting batteries in their headlamps, I went to check and see if Leah had gone through her second Crossroads yet, and just happened to see her going through right at that moment! I kept myself busy.

Leah heading back out into the hills and mud..

And it was getting darker. It was dark. People were starting to come through with headlamps. Matt's headlamp was sitting right next to me. Not with him. I fretted. I put on more clothes, because it was getting even colder. At one point I actually put on my headlamp, grabbed Matt's headlamp, and hiked back up the trail in the dark, hoping to find him and give him his light. I did this in sandals and pajama pants, mind you. And it hadn't gotten any less muddy out there. Then I got paranoid that somehow I'd miss him and he'd end up at his stuff and want his headlamp and it wouldn't be there. Or he'd have pulled out of the race and gotten a ride to Crossroads and I wouldn't be there. So I headed back and sat to wait more.

Sun going down at the Crossroads.

And eventually I saw him running up in the dark, and ran his headlamp out to him. He was, as I predicted from how long it had taken him to get there, not doing great. He'd had a bone vs rock collision, and was having a severe energy deficit, and wasn't sure if he should continue or not. I had no idea if he should or not, but he needed advice and I was the only person around to offer it, so I tried to kinda feel out how he was doing and what he wanted to do, and what he would least regret later. So since the next place you go after Crossroads is.. Crossroads again, I asked if he thought he could do another 5 miles, end up back here, and THEN decide, and he seemed happy with that plan. So we refilled his water, swapped his wet, sleeveless shirt for a dry long-sleeved shirt (the cold front had definitely moved in at this point), and off he went into the darkness, this time at least with a headlamp. He said he'd probably be about an hour and a half.

Did I mention the cold front? I immediately headed back to the car, after grabbing one of his Bonk Breaker bars that he didn't want and devouring that hungrily. I was now wearing a tshirt, a warm long-sleeved shirt and a hoodie, as well as a warm hat, pajama pants and gloves, and I hunkered down in my hoodie, set my watch alarm for an hour from then, and attempted (and mostly failed) to sleep. After an hour, I put on Matt's hoodie over all of my clothes, and headed back out to the aid station to wait. I was afraid if Matt felt great, he could bust out some 12 minute miles and be there before me, which I didn't want.

I grabbed Matt's stuff and hauled it over to the place he'd be coming through, then kinda hovered at the edge of the aid station, using it to block the cold wind, and helped however I could, and chatted with other crew and aid station workers. As I was waiting, my 100k friend Caroline came through! In tears. Fortunately her friend was working the aid station, and came and talked her down. Turns out, she had gotten turned around out there, gotten lost, and ended up adding on some miles, not knowing where she was going. She was understandably very freaked out about it. But after sitting a second and getting some warm food in her, she calmed down and agreed to finish the race. I went up and gave her a hug (after reminding her who I was, because I now looked like a person suited up to weather a snowstorm), and told her she was amazing, and that this was the very point where we'd begun running together her last loop, and that she knew she could do this, because we'd done it before, and she just needed to be cautious and purposeful. She squeezed my hand as she headed out and thanked me, and I closed my eyes as she ran out and wished her well (and results show she finished, in just over 16 hours, which makes me very happy).

And then a few minutes later.. Matt ran in! He was smiling. Volunteers started asking him what he wanted, and he said nothing, because he was done. During that 5 miles, he realized that it would unwise and unhealthy to keep going, and that he'd heal up and find another race in the near future. I was really glad to hear that, mostly for his sake, because I know how hard it is to DNF, even if you know it's the right thing to do, but also admittedly, selfishly, for my own sake, because he still had 9 miles to go, and that would have been several hours, in the dark, already hurt, in the mud, and getting ever colder. I would have worried the whole time. And frozen. And starved.

So we packed up stuff, went back to the finish line to get his stuff from there and officially turn in his timing chip, and then headed back out to eat some delicious recovery hamburgers.

So overall, Bandera 2013 was a bit of a mixed bag. Very hard. Physically, of course, but also emotionally especially for Matt. I've been more sore from this race, mostly my quads, than I was after my 50 miler in Palo Duro. Sore on the level of post-marathon where I ran as hard as I could the whole time.

Would I do the Bandera 50k again? Totally. It will never be easy, but I'd like to go try it out when the odds aren't stacked against me quite so high. And when I can see the views, and enjoy the flats.

But now I can say I survived Bandera 2013!

Edited to add: This video is 9 minutes long, and perhaps not interesting to anyone who hasn't run Bandera, but this is video of a guy climbing the Three Sisters hills at Bandera. It shows some rocky uphills and downhills, and some of the unavoidable sotol that eats your legs as you run through it. A must-watch if you've never done Bandera before and plan to!