by Lynn Ballard
Hill Country SNA, Bandera Texas
1 Nov 2008
5am Sat – 4pm Sun (36hr limit)
50 starters – 20 finishers
Three. Let’s see, there was Mike Dobies, then there were those two guys that have been together all day (Bill Patience and Michael Wood), there there was… There was… nobody? Well, a wad of folks in the aid station, but nobody else on the trail. I’m in 4th place??? Well, with Buddy, Matt and the Hitzfields still at the 50 mile aid station, ain’t no way this is gonna last, but I might as well hang on and enjoy it while it does…(thoughts from the dark side, going over Lucky Peak for the third time today…)
The 5 am start came early, the 4 am alarm even earlier. None of that mattered, for I was throwing the covers back at 3:50, getting ready for Cactus Rose, my third one hundred mile race in five months. It doesn’t seem to matter that I finished two tough mountain races (Bighorn and Cascade Crest) already this year, I still wake up with all the same doubts, all the same questions…am I just a poser?
The Cactus Rose 100 is the brainchild of Joe Prusaitis, 100 of the toughest miles I can find in Texas…you know, run the Bandera 100K course without the flat stuff. It is run in the Hill Country State Natural Area, just outside of Bandera, Texas. It’s a beautiful representation of the Texas Hill Country, lots of Live Oak trees, sotol cactus, prickly pear cactus, armadillo, deer, rocks (both kinds…those that move and those that don’t), and, uh, horse poop! The course is a 25 mile loop, which will be run starting counter-clockwise, and then reversed each consecutive loop.
At the starting line, Joe gives some last minute direction…”we marked the intersections, but didn’t put out any confidence markers”, “don’t forget to sign the book each time you enter an aid station”, “good luck” and “go”. The 50-odd runners are off with a yawn, I jump in behind Melissa Heggen and Henry Hobbs, way too fast. They pulled away from me coming down Lucky Peak and I am virtually alone in the dark. It would stay dark for the first 2 ½ hours of running. I guess I like running alone, not sure why. It is comforting to know there are runners ahead and runners behind, but for now, alone is good. Melissa, Henry and I would play tag off and on for the first 50 miles. At the end of the first loop, I vaguely remember telling Buzz, my one man crew, saying (to no one in particular) “this is going to hurt a lot more than I thought”!
My preparation for this race was basically high weekly mileage with very little actual trail running. The lack of hours on a technical trail was telling on me, my hip flexors and lower leg muscles were beginning to scream. Nevertheless, I had an appointment with “The Sisters”, three appointments (and three sisters) in fact! I knew the first loop was waaaaaay to fast, but was glad to get the miles in early…it was warming up fast and I planned on slowing down a lot for the second loop! By reversing the loop, “Evil Joe” had managed to put the absolute roughest terrain in miles 65 through 85, the last 10 miles of the third and the first 10 of the fourth loops. This was on my mind as I settled into a comfortable and slow pace for loop 2.
The low key format of this race provided an opportunity for the runners to place supplies at each of the aid stations, basically every 5 miles. I didn’t anticipate the benefits of this, but I dutifully placed ice chests and drop bags at each aid stop. I prepared some solid food, tortillas with turkey and avocado slices, tortillas with peanut butter and jelly…canned chicken noodle soup. My routine was simple, enter the aid station, find the check-in book and think up some insult I could write to Joe, grab a Dew or a Pepsi and/or Ensure and a tortilla roll, maintain efficiency in eating/drinking, review the contents of the drop bag to see what changes needed to be made, if any. That’s it! That, and, well, …just run! I’m reminded of some virtual friends I have who proclaim…runners run…so, that’s what I do. I changed shirts two times and made no other changes for the entire event.
Back to the actual running, I had no good way to judge my pace for this race. I have run the 100K at Bandera on these trails two times before, but had never felt I ran my best there. All I could go by was my last 100 mile race, Cascade Crest in August. I was sure I could run Cactus Rose faster than Cascade Crest, but how much faster? I decided to target 27 hours, two hours faster than Cascade Crest (run in the mountains in the Pacific Northwest). That should be good for a solid mid-pack performance. The first loop went well, but I started way too fast. It seems everyone was in the same rut as me, with lots of fast times for the first 25 mile circuit. Crossing the mat at 5:38, I knew I would need to slow way down or this course would send me home early!
cactus_rose_lballard1The sun and the temperature rose and I worked carefully throughout the loop to hydrate and fuel well. I felt I was engaged in a delicate dance…drink, eat, move… backtracking over the steps I made in the first counter-clockwise loop, as we were moving in a clockwise direction for the second. I managed this loop in 6:55, much better on pace. I dropped down off Lucky Peak into the Lodge area, which serves as the start/finish for each loop. It’s the usual routine in the aid station, drink, eat, run…I managed to move into and out of the station with no other runners leaving…putting me in fourth place. Up and over Lucky, Allen Wrinkle catches me explaining that he had a bad spell, but he is back from the dead! He moves away quickly, but once we reach the flats I catch and pass him and move into the Equestrian Camp aid station. Even though the race promised no volunteers at the aid stations, Gabe Ayson set up camp here and was “handling” runners right and left and gave me a good lift each pass through. I continue into the night and run alone until the finish. Moving through the night, I find little relief from the heat other than a slight breeze on the ridge tops and the occasional cool low spot. It is beautiful on top of Ice Cream Hill and all the other high spots. The quarter moon rises over the sisters and is burnt orange, breath taking!
It seems to be the absolute bottom of the night as I drop down off the Island, down the Big Nasty and approach the aid station called Boyles. I am really surprised to find Julianna Crownover and her beautiful sleeping baby girl (Miriam) in the dark. I help them find the lights in the tent and we enjoy a brief exchange while I go through my aid station routine… I was really glad to see a friendly face and hear some encouraging words at that point in the night. Julianna surprises me with the news that I am only about a half hour behind Bill Patience and Michael Wood, the two guys that are running in 2nd and 3rd place. Based on the log books in the previous aid stations, they had been ahead of me by about an hour. I pull out and halfway up the backside of Boyles, I hear a pack of coyotes let loose, seemingly right back down in the aid station. I contemplate backtracking to make sure everything’s OK, but check my bearings and decide the ruckus the pack is making is not all that close to Julianna and Miriam. I am still moving well and am ready for the final climb up Cairn’s. Soon, I see Mike Dobies coming my way…he’s moving well too, I’m guessing two hours ahead of me. I don’t see Bill and Michael until about a half mile away from the Lodge. I check in for the end of loop three and go through my aid station routine quickly. I have managed to complete the third loop in 6:55, exactly the same as the second. I’ve been running for 19 ½ hours at this point. It’s about 12:30 am and there’s not a lot going on here. I check out and am headed back up Carin’s for the last time when I begin to see lights coming at me.
First, it’s Allen Wrinkle, then Buddy Teaster, who asks “how much longer to the lodge?”. “I left 30 minutes ago”, I answer. Next I see Matt Crownover and his pacer, only about five minutes behind Buddy. George and Barbara Hitzfield are next, explaining that I am very close behind the runners I am chasing. As I drop down the backside of Cairn’s, I begin to see lights ahead and realize that I am closing in on Bill and Michael. I catch up to them shortly after the climb up Boyles, slipping into 2nd place. In and out of Boyles, then up Big Nasty…still beautiful on the Island and the sky is absolutely endless from the Sisters! I arrive at Equestrian and go through the routine, but am a bit confused as to which way I am supposed to go next. It’s got to be after three AM, but there are still a few folks up and around, so I ask if anyone has a course map and consult it for confidence before I head out for my final trip over Ice Cream Hill. Seems to take forever to reach the famous climb, but finally I get there and am up and over quickly. Nachos is vacant, but I manage to get a bite to eat, refill my bottles and move out headed back toward Equestrian for the last time. Gabe is up and waiting there with more good support. I sit down and ask Gabe if he knows how far behind me Allen was. He pointed right over my shoulder and said Allen’s right there. I turn and see Allen under a blanket, Michael Wood is also wrapped up in a chair. Gabe tells me George is nearest runner to me, probably about an hour behind. I know that if I keep moving well, I can be finished in about an hour and a half.
cactus_rose_lballard2Pulling out of Equestrian for the last time, I finally dial it back a bit. As the sky begins to get lighter, it is obvious we won’t be seeing the sun for quite sometime. It is quite overcast and even a little foggy. Really eerie going over Lucky Peak for the last trip, but I am glad to get that final climb over with. Tricky footing on the damp rocks sliding down the back, but I make it safely and am finally on the flats leading back to the Lodge. I am about a hundred yards out from the Lodge and can’t help but let out the loudest yeeeeeeeee-hawwwwwwww I can manage. I round the corner and my buddy Buzz (crew) snaps a picture of me in my second sunrise glory. I move into the Lodge area to find Joe waiting, congratulating me on another 100 mile finish. I am absolutely astonished that my 27 hour, 10 minute finish would land second place at Cactus Rose. I am quite pleased with running the race I planned, thrilled, in fact.
Joe has put together the perfect combination for a great 100 mile race on tough trails in the heart of Texas. My heartfelt thanks go out to him and Joyce for their dedication to the sport. Joe, I know you’ve probably been planning Cactus Rose for a long time and hopefully, I’ll be running it for a long time!