The plan was flawed from the beginning, but that was by design.
The 50K course for the Big Bend Ultra at Big Bend National Park was designed to be fast, meaning a personal record time was doable. Given that knowledge, the brain started churning and whipping up creative strategies. Take it easy, run smart, and collect a nice PR? Go slow and steady for the first 20 miles and conserve energy for a fast final third of the race? Nah.
Big Bend looked like PR central – not by a few minutes, but by leaps and bounds if approached aggressively.
Unlike many trail ultra marathon courses, Big Bend presented a unique opportunity to able to look around at the stunning mountain peaks, rock faces and hoodoos during the race and savor the visual pleasantries that the park offers, and still take a lot of risks that the course design might help recover from.
That was it; the plan was set. Time to live in the moment, put conservatism aside and find out what this body can do.
I headed to Big Bend with a race plan designed to go out fast, push, and hang on for as long as possible while tiptoeing on the edge of disaster in the desert. The expectation was to either run my perfect race or have the biggest race-day blowup of my trail running career.
No matter what, I wanted to live this race; feel this race; endure this race.
Current 50K PR: 6:22. Goal time: sub-5:30.
RISE AND SHINE
I woke up Sunday morning at 5 a.m. sharp, downed a cup of coffee and a bowl of oatmeal, and got dressed for the race. Another of the 50K runners, Beli, and his friend, Raj, offered to give me a ride to the starting line for the 7:30 a.m. start, which worked out perfectly so Katie and Erin could get an extra hour of sleep before Erin dropped off Katie for the 25K start at 8:30 a.m. It was pitch black on the drive to the start; stars still twinkled in the cloudless sky. The sun began to peek over the mountains in the distance five minutes before the race began.
After a few words from the race director and a welcome from a National Park Service ranger, we were given final instructions.
Then … we were off.
I went out fast, exactly as I’d planned. The first mile was smooth with a mixture of flat and downhill. My legs felt fresh, so I relaxed and went with the flow. I’d planned to run a 9:00 or 9:30 pace, but instead knocked it out in 8:31 and claimed an early position in the top 10.
With the race underway and mile two mostly uphill, I shortened my stride, slowed the pace a bit and clocked a 9:44 mile. Mile three had a bit more uphill and then the start of a long downhill section. That’s when the race ramped up. After an 8:59 third mile, I committed to bombing down hills. My legs churned faster and faster while I focused on keeping my balance and my breathing under control. Mile four flew by in 7:53 – way too fast, I was well aware. I spent much of miles five, six, and seven looking around, admiring the stunning scenery and soaking in the moment. Those miles passed in 8:39, 8:21, and 8:19.
Mile eight – my fastest of the day – took just 7:51 as I cruised into the aid station where the 25K and 50K courses split.
I knew I was going faster than I’d intended to, but was fine with it. The plan was to push the limit, and I was determined to keep pushing.
After refilling a water bottle and grabbing a handful of peanut butter-filled pretzels, I followed the branch in the trail to the right and was greeted by the most technical sections. I bombed a few more downhills, leaping over ruts, pushing off slanted rocks on the side, and bounding over the spots that offered the trickiest footing.
It dawned on me as I eclipsed the 10-mile mark that I’d never run 10 miles so fast in my life. It took just an hour and 22 minutes. Again, this was way too fast. I was on pace for roughly a 4:15 finish – more than an hour ahead of my goal time.
My legs felt great, though. So did everything else. I wasn’t too hot, my stomach was fine and I was breathing with relative ease. Disaster was lurking. It had to be. This pace wasn’t sustainable. It was only a matter of time.
TICK, TICK, TICK…
A few gradual climbs dotted the next three miles, so I hiked a bit to conserve energy and do some extra hydrating. I hoped it would allow my body enough of a break so that the engines would rev back up when I wanted them to.
After my 10-mile PR fell, I started eyeballing my time for the half-marathon mark. I snacked quickly at the aid station at mile 12.75 and then headed back down the trail with my legs still feeling good. I crossed the 13.1-mile mark in 1:55, a full six minutes ahead of my half marathon personal best.
The next three miles were a blur. I settled into an easy rhythm as Springsteen serenaded me on my iPod. “Born to Run” was playing, and I was living it.
Before I knew it, I’d reached the halfway point and clocked a 25K PR of 2:24.
I couldn’t believe it. I’d never run so fast in a trail race. I’d never pushed so hard without serious suffering. It all seemed so easy.
That’s when it happened … the first pinch.
It was faint; just a minor twitch. But I instantly knew what was about to happen.
The ease with which the first 16.5 miles had passed was over. The final 14.3 miles were going to more than make up for it.
I hadn’t managed my nutrition well. I’d taken in fluids and downed a few gels, but I hadn’t taken any salt. This race was in a desert, so my salt reserves were pretty much gone by the time I started popping S-caps to reload.
The brief pinch of my right calf cramping was followed promptly by a pinch in the left calf. I immediately stopped running and went into hiking mode for a few minutes. I hoped I could ward off the cramps with a few minutes of hiking. It was hopeless, however. Each time I started to run, cramps would return within a minute.
I grabbed a banana at the 19-mile aid station, but it didn’t help.
A few minutes later, a few runners passed me and I fell out of the top 10.
For a while I was able to run about a tenth of a mile before the calves would cramp and I’d go back to hiking. Eventually the spurts of running fell to intervals of .05 or .03 of a mile.
My quads were starting to go, too. They never cramped, but they were close.
While my legs were in bad shape, everything else seemed fine. My vision was clear, as was my brain, so I never doubted I could continue putting one foot in front of the other.
That’s how it played out the rest of the way. Put one foot in front of the other. Run a few steps, and then hike some more.
As much as my pace had slowed, another personal record was in sight. I kept marching on, and soon my marathon PR fell as I reached the 26.2-mile mark in 4:17:27, a 38-minute improvement on my 4:55 marathon at the 2011 Pilgrim Pacer that I ran with the stomach flu.
The final miles were more of the same, other than that the stretches of running continued to drop to .02 or .01 of a mile; sometimes only two or three strides. There were a couple of gradual climbs during the late miles, which also contributed to the slower pace.
Finally, the finish line was in sight. You could see it from a mile out as it was at the top of an 80-foot climb. I gritted my teeth and pushed the legs one last time, not wanting to walk the final tenth of a mile up to the finish. Ironically, it was the longest continuous stretch my legs were able to run since the cramps started more than 14 miles earlier. Even with my iPod in my ears, I could hear Erin and Katie cheering me through to the finish line as they snapped photos.
As I crossed the line, I was greeted with a high-five from another of the runners who’d already finished (The camaraderie of runners in this race was fantastic from start to finish. Lots of spirit and support on the trail!). Katie and Erin welcomed me with hugs and helped me stay upright. A medal was draped around my neck.
I was done.
RISK AND REWARD
My friend Coleen has a saying that is now common slang in the Kansas City-area trail running community. The saying is “Don’t go out like an asshole.” Simply put, it means don’t go out too fast and blow your race.
At Big Bend, I planned to break that rule and deal with the consequences. It had nothing to do with racing or placing compared to other runners. I wanted to learn more about my limits and find out how far and for how long I could push my legs. There’s only one way to find out those answers: push.
On this day, I pushed like I never have before.
There were some disastrous consequences, but that was at least partially because I followed my plan. Still, many of the results were beautiful: personal best times for 10 miles, half marathon, 25K and marathon. I also set a 50K PR by finishing in 5:14:20 – good for 18th place overall.
Mile 1: 8:31
Mile 2: 9:45
Mile 3: 8:59
Mile 4: 7:53
Mile 5: 8:39
Mile 6: 8:21
Mile 7: 8:19
Mile 8: 7:51
Mile 9: 8:57
Mile 10: 8:15
Mile 11: 8:34
Mile 12: 10:01
Mile 13: 10:09
Mile 14: 8:37
Mile 15: 9:37
Mile 16: 8:45
Mile 17: 10:59
Mile 18: 11:00
Mile 19: 10:22
Mile 20: 12:56
Mile 21: 11:26
Mile 22: 10:01
Mile 23: 10:27
Mile 24: 12:12
Mile 25: 12:27
Mile 26: 12:35
Mile 27: 13:49 (included bathroom break)
Mile 28: 11:52
Mile 29: 12:27
Mile 30: 11:39
Mile 31: 10:47