As I packed my belongings for my quick weekend trip to Texas last Thursday, I decided to bring an old favorite book along for the ride. It’s probably been close to ten years since I last read John Krakauer’s classic Into Thin Air, and I’ve had a hard time putting it down since my flight left Aspen on Friday morning. Reading about other people intentionally subjecting themselves to extreme discomfort in the hours before and after a race of such intimidating distance, I think, lends credibility to the activity itself and quiets the inevitable mid-race question of “Why the hell am I doing this?” My race on Saturday was a heartbreaker in a lot of ways but the experience only served to further deepen my love for our sport and our community.
Upon landing in San Antonio on Friday I met up with teammate and Ultra celebrity Nick Clark, and made the quick trip to Bandera to catch the tail end of the race briefing. Yassine Diboun joined us for a quick 20 minute leg stretcher on the opening miles of the course before we retired to the fine accommodations Nick had secured nearby with some incredibly kind and generous Texans.
At 7:30am on Saturday we were dispatched out into the rocky hill country of Central Texas, where 100 kilometers of trails waited to abuse us. Immediately the pace felt fast but comfortable. Timothy Olson and Dave James built a bit of separation on myself and Nick, while a train of solid runners followed very close behind. It felt like summer in Texas and I relished the warm sunshine and dirt I’ve missed over the last couple months in the high mountains. I ran the entire first half with Nick and felt pretty good save some crampy quads that started acting up on the last climbs of the first lap.
We came into the turnaround a couple minutes under 4 hours with Olson, James, and Mackey just out front. I left a bit before Nick and wasn’t surprised to see the stampede of talented runners heading towards me during the short out and back to start the second loop. RD Joe Prusaitis said the next morning that 9 of us in the 100k field beat the eventual 50k winner. It was shaping up to be quite a race.
The second lap started in a vary discouraging way for me. It had become increasingly apparent that I was woefully underprepared for 70 degree temperatures and the cramps in my legs progressively became violent leg seizures like I’ve never experienced. On the second downhill of the second lap, in my state of crampy clumsiness, I caught a toe on a rock and took took one of the best superman diggers of my Ultra career in what probably looked like a headfirst slide into home plate. Surprisingly the damage was minimal and still nobody had caught me, so I soldiered on. Thankfully, with the help of several hand fulls of salt pills, I was able to turn it around somewhere around mile 45 after enduring a grueling 3 hour low point.
It is absolutely amazing to observe oneself rally through tough race circumstances and find a miraculous second wind. Slowly my stride came back and my spirits were lifted. My electrolyte levels must have been closer to equilibrium because I loosened up and my legs felt great. With my new found energy I soon caught Dave James and moved into third place as we left the Crossroads aid station. My spirits were further lifted when I came back through Crossroads 5 miles later to learn Dave Mackey had just left looking beat, meaning I was making up serious time.
I gave chase but stayed patient in my pursuit over the next few miles. Eventually, I made it to the Last Chance aid station at about mile 57 to learn Dave had an 80 second lead. I could see Dave hiking near the top of the climb so I hiked too hoping to bide my energy for a final push in the last couple miles. Just then I looked over my shoulder for the first time in hours and saw Joe Uhan maybe 30 seconds behind and looking very strong. I was immediately deflated and instinctively hit the gas hard. I kamikazed the ensuing downhill and charged up the last climb sucking on a gel. I probably got to within 20 seconds of Dave on the flat section before the rocky downhill finish but knew I just had nothing left. The wheels came off and suddenly Joe was on top of me coming downhill. I stepped off the trail and congratulated him on a perfectly executed race and coasted in for fourth place, disappointed but proud. So solid Joe! Good on you for having the heart to chase so late.
Over the past year I’ve been very determined to avoid bitterness when it comes to getting into certain races. Going into Bandera I was fully resigned to the fact that, if I ever have the opportunity to race Western States, I’ll have to earn the spot myself. That’s the most honorable way to do it and hopefully someday I’ll earn my shot. I gave it everything I had and came up just short on Saturday. I’m okay with that. I’ll be dealing with the shoulda, woulda, couldas for a little while but I’ll be better for the experience and will have an even hotter competitive fire next time I’m on a start line. I really am happy to have been apart of the drama this weekend albeit on the losing end.
Huge respect and admiration to Timothy Olson for a signature wire to wire victory! Dude’s got a great attitude to compliment his stupefying talent. He’ll be a force at any race he tackles in the coming years. Nick Clark came in a few minutes behind me for fifth place so it was a solid showing for the PI team. Not quite the sweep we would have preferred but 3 out of top 5 ain’t half bad. It was a pleasure to spend the weekend, including the entire first half of the race, with Nick and look forward to more of the same in the future. Unfortunately Darcy Africa had to drop halfway with some nagging problems with her hammies and feet. In the absence of my mother, Darcy became a great cheer leader for me in the second half and helped accelerate me through the aid stations. No doubt, after a little rest she’ll be up to the challenge her hefty race schedule presents.
After the race, our gracious hosts filled Nick and I up with some deliciously greasy pizza before we retired to our double wide trailer for some rest. Of course, I could not sleep for a while so I busted out my book to keep my mind occupied. Again, it was comforting to hear a similar perspective on the merits of physical challenges in the context of mountaineering. The suffering of Himalayan alpinists made the pain of my post-race body seem significantly less intense. On the plane ride home on Sunday, I came across this passage in the book which I think any serious ultrarunner can relate to.
“Above the comforts of Base Camp, the expedition in fact became an almost Calvinistic undertaking. The ratio of misery to pleasure was greater by an order of magnitude than any mountain I’d been on; I quickly came to understand that climbing Everest was primarily about enduring pain. And in subjecting ourselves to week after week of toil, tedium and suffering, it struck me that most of us were probably seeking above all else, something like a state of grace.” – John Krakauer, Into Thin Air