This past weekend, I ran my first 50 mile ultramarathon. There were plenty of lessons learned, mistakes made, and laughs at the aid stations. Despite a very different experience from traditional trail races (due to COVID-19), I’m so thankful I had the opportunity to dive into the madness of running for a really long time. Here’s some reflections on how the race went (trigger warning, there’s a lot of discussion about poop; it’s really unavoidable, so apologies in advance).
What Made This Race Different
Before we get into the details of my experience with this race, it’s important to know that there are two things that made this race somewhat unique from other ultra marathons I’ve run in the past.
- Waved Start Time – This was part of the COVID-19 precautions. In order to spread runners out over the course, every runner was assigned a 30 minute window to complete packet pickup and get started. My window was 8:30-9am, and I started completely by myself at about 8:50.
- Self-Supported – This race is typically considered a more self-supported adventure. There are a couple of aid stations that typically offer some cooked food and water, but they do not have the huge variety of fueling options like traditional races. Runners are able to leave drop bags about every 4-6 miles, but they are also responsible for placing and retrieving them. It’s a race that is designed for the tough racers who just want to spend a lot of time on the trail, without a lot of frills. Because of COVID, the frills were even fewer this year. There were two manned aid station over 25 miles that offered water and soda and….well, that’s about it really. Everything else was a BYOB situation.
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Cactus Rose takes place in the middle of the hill country in small town, Texas. It’s held in the same state park as the Bandera ultramarathon series, and has a fairly similar route with multiple 25 mile loops. There’s no mountains to climb, but there are some really challenging uphill sections. While the overall elevation isn’t too challenging (my Garmin clocked just under 5.5k of gain), the uphill sections are steep and rocky. And the rocks are about as secure as a 12 year old’s’ sense of self-esteem. So while there’s lots of smooth, runable dirt trails, the climbs feel a lot like moving up a sand dune. With very sharp edges.
Oh, and speaking of sharp edges there’s lots of very aggressive plant life throughout the course. Didn’t think plants had personalities, or the capacity to be violent? Well then, you haven’t been to Texas. The course has tons of sotol cactus, which have long, slender spines that reach out horizontally. Across the trail. And the spines have tiny sharp points, and tiny serrated teeth. On several sections, there are large sotols on both sides of the trail, which means runners get the unique experience of running through the plant equivalent of steak knives. There’s no getting around them, and after a while, they will tear up your legs. It’s not a trail race in Texas if there isn’t some blood!
Since my starting window was fairly late, and we only live about an hour away, we decided to drive in to the park that morning. The drive was beautiful, and even though I was nervous, I really enjoyed getting out to Bandera. We got to the park around 8am, got a little lost, kept figuring things out, and finally got to the start right about 8:20. I got my pack situated, told my husband which bags were going to which aid stations, got my bib and chip, and was set to go about 8:50.
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I started off for my first 25 mile loop completely solo, which is a weird race experience. I was carrying my 1.6L bladder, about 7 gels and chews, and a front bottle with 20oz water and tailwind. It was cloudy, chilly, and really the perfect weather to start a race.
I started off feeling strong, and really enjoyed the first 15 miles of mostly smooth, runable trails. There were a few uphill sections, but the miles seemed to click by pretty quickly. I started off my nutrition plan; drinking tailwind every 3 miles, and taking a gel/chew every 5 miles starting at mile 10. As much as I was loving the trails, I did not love the sotol cacti that started appearing a few miles in. I moved through the first two aid stations without stopping, and got to Henry at the mile 15 station.
My legs were bloody (from the damn vampire plants), but I was still feeling strong. I grabbed a couple of gels, refilled the tailwind bottle, and got out pretty quickly (with a fist full of pretzels). The next 10 mile section had substantially more uphill sections, which were steep and covered in loose rocks. These sections were a power hike situation for me, which broke up the miles nicely. Around mile 22, though, I started to feel like I needed to go to the bathroom.
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Typically, on the trails, if you gotta go, you gotta go. Unfortunately, with all the cactus, clear views, and lack of toilet paper, I just hadn’t sunk to the point of desperation of going to the bathroom on the trail (kinda rude, too). So I just kept moving (too scared to stop), and finally got back to the start, where I ran past Henry, straight to the port-a-potties. Gratitude and relief rushed over me instantaneously. After that situation had passed, we changed my socks, refilled my hydration bladder, tailwind, and gels. I headed back out with a handful of Pringles feeling pretty great.
The second loop started off strong (Pringles help), but I did notice the flats didn’t feel quite as flat. The uphill sections were starting to feeling a little more difficult, but I was still moving pretty efficiently. Until that familiar bathroom feeling returned around mile 30. Now, I am not someone who normally has lower GI issues, but Saturday was quite the notable exception. Once again, there were plenty of sharp, angry plants, but a distinct lack of bathrooms. After a few minutes, I also started to feel nauseous. Nausea isn’t all that uncommon for me, and I wasn’t surprised when I threw up twice on the trail.
I wasn’t having the typical feeling of GI distress, but it seemed like my body was very disgruntled at the fact that I wasn’t immediately finding a bathroom. Despite the tummy troubles, I was able to keep up with my nutrition, and my energy felt really good. Unfortunately, I was starting to feel like I might poop my pants anytime I ran more than about half a mile or so. I’m not above many things in life, but shitting my shorts in a race makes the list, so I slowed down substantially. I kept moving, since walking didn’t seem to cause me any problems, and I tried to run between waves of stomach cramps.
I finally got back to Henry and two amazing friends who drove in just to cheer me on at mile 40. It was a relief to see them and spend a couple of minutes complaining about my angry organs. I took a Pepto chewable and refilled my bottle with Liquid IV, hoping that maybe the extra electrolytes would help my stomach. I grabbed some gels, Pringles, and half a role of TP (just in case). I started to feel like my stomach was getting its act together, and was able to run a little more, but then the sun started setting. Which was gorgeous, but definitely made that 10 mile section of steep uphill and the descents really difficult to navigate.
I’ve never run on the trails at night, and I had initially planned to turn off my podcast so I could hear around me a little clearer. Within a couple of minutes, I heard something moving around in the plants not too far from me. I panicked, thinking it might be mountain lion, and then remembered that if a wild cat were stalking me, I probably wouldn’t hear anything at all! And with that realization, I decided to calm myself with a soothing true crime podcast. No point in freaking myself out with every movement, if what I was hearing was probably just racoons, armadillos, or deer.
I did continue to slow down during the night section. The last 10 miles of the course are significantly rockier than the first 15, and I just don’t trust my big toes enough to believe that they won’t betray me and not catch a rock in the dark. The ups and downs felt really unstable, and I’m just not willing to risk breaking my face to get that extra 30 minutes. If I were anywhere near placing or a PR, I might have made a different decision, but for this race, I really just wanted to finish without any stitches.
I did manage to get off trail about 3 times, but the course was really well marked so I didn’t have too much difficulty finding it again. I will say that the sudden realization that I could get turned around and be lost in the middle of the hill country at night with no cell service was way scarier than any unsolved crime I’ve ever heard of. I tried not to dwell on that thought and just kept looking for the reflective flags.
About a mile from the finish, I saw a light moving towards me. I thought it must be some poor idiot running the 100 or 150 mile race, going back out for yet another loop. But it was my husband! I was moving so damn slow, he had started to panic, and decided to come look for me. Geared up in blue jeans and a cell phone flash light. It definitely put a smile on my face, and we talked about the course while I finished out the last mile. We finally heard the finish line music, and he turned off his cell phone and told me to go finish. I ran over the last timing mat, and grabbed by hard-earned medal.
I revisited the port-a-potties for a final time, and changed into some drier clothes. The girls and I talked, while Henry made a couple of gear runs. We met up with a couple of girls who had run the 25 mile race, and God bless these angels, they had cold pizza, Oreos, and Reese’s. Suddenly my stomach came back to life. It wasn’t a perfect race, but I had finished my first 50 miler without needing a rescue mission (unless you count the cell phone clad husband).
Running 50 miles was incredibly hard, but honestly I knew that I would finish as long as I didn’t need a trip to urgent care. Quitting was just never an option, because the race was about finishing the experience. I am so appreciative of the fact that I had the opportunity to run an actual race, even if it was adjusted and impacted by COVID-19.
The course was very, very well marked, which saved me on several occasions, especially at night. I’ve run a few other races that had fewer markings, and I would have been in a full panic on those trails at night. There were lots of sneaky uphills, but I would say there were more runable trails than not; though the sections that are steep are REALLY steep. It was hard, it was exhausting, it was dirty, there was blood and poop, and I had more than one close call.
For all of those reasons, it was everything that an ultramarathon should be. I could not have finished without the unwavering support from my husband and my incredible friends (all the Pringles helped too). Even though my stomach didn’t give me a perfect day, I am so happy that I didn’t give up on myself, and that I can finally say I’ve finished my first 50 miler. In fact, the accomplishment was just so fulfilling that I did something way out of character for me.
In the hours (literally hours) following my finish, from the comfort of my bed, and in a sleep-deprived and slightly delirious state, I hit the “register” button for the Bandera 100k. Ultraracing does some weird things to the brain and body, and I’m so excited to continue to share this journey.
So, now I guess it’s 100k or bust!