10:00pm, December 13, 2014
The darkness was all around me yet still somehow continued closing in. My breathing was short and labored. Multiple voices were screaming at me, but no one was around. Finally, around the corner of the path the aid station light came into view. Stumbling into the aid station, full of commotion, I heard, “What can I get you?” “Chair. Chair please.” There, alone in the chair, head in hands, elbows on knees I gasped, “I’m done. Done“. Brazos Bend 100: 1, The 100 Mile Mark: 0.
That was December 2014; a scene that I have played in my mind thousands of times since. Even completing Kettle Moraine 100 in June did not take away the raw disappointment I felt from my first and only DNF. I trained all of 2015, many times wearing on my right wrist the Brazos Bend Trail Races buff received at that race. A reminder I had unfinished business. On December 12, 2015 it was race-demption time. (Last year’s race review here)
5:00 pm, Friday, December 11, 2015
I arrived at Brazos Bend State Park shortly after the race briefing on Friday night. I missed Race Director Rob’s Santa outfit, but luckily saw the pictures. Packet pickup was buzzing with runners grabbing their ugly sweater inspired race t-shirt, visiting with the product rep from Orange Mud, or conversing with the special guests, Tarahumara runners of Born to Run fame. Patrick Sweeney and Alex Ramsey (of running across the US fame) were also there visiting and selling their wares. Alex was a real trip with his dreadlocks and tie-dye t-shirt business.
Race Day, December 12, 2015
After picking up my packet as well as my fresh-from-the-printer Trail Racing Over Texas (TROT) Ambassador race singlet, I was off to the RV for final drop box preparations and my customary meal of angel hair pasta and tomato sauce. Each of my four drop boxes contained a container of SkratchLabs hydration mix (raspberry, pineapple, orange or matcha-Lime), changes of socks and buffs, and SkratchLab portables (sweet potato-bacon rice balls, sweet potato muffins, grits brules, and apple-cinnamon quick bites). TROT Brand Manager, Edward Sanchez, was running errands for TROT, but eventually made his way to the RV for the last sleep we each would have until Sunday afternoon.
My alarm went off at 4:40 am. Of course I was awake at 4:38 trying to soak in any last minute relaxation possible. Edward and I got ready, and then carried my drop boxes and gear bag to the start, just as Jeremy Handsome Hanson was loading them on vehicles headed to the various aid stations. On our walk there, we noticed a campsite had one of those million points of light projectors blasting a huge, leafless tree. It was beautiful.
Right on time, 6:00 pm, the start was called. The 100 mile runners, a
crowd of 96, ventured down the dark path on our first of 6 loops. The atmosphere was joyous. Runners where joking and laughing. They passed me with that adrenaline boosted pace. I, on the other hand, was all business. My pace was controlled, trying to warm up the legs without spiking my heart rate. I would not chase the pack, or even engage in their joyous muse. This day was about business. It was about work. It was about exercising the ghost of Brazos Bend past. It was my mission.
The air was warm and very comfortable. Post-race I read a lot of runners talk about the humidity, but I had not noticed it. Training in Houston, humidity was normal. I was just thankful it was not cold. My gear consisted of the TROT singlet, compression shorts with 3” running shorts for coverage, Altra Olympus 1.0 shoes, Wright Socks and Pro Compression snowflake calf sleeves. I donned my Real Deal trucker hat and the new grey TROT buff. I started with my lightweight Petzl Tikka torch as morning darkness would last about 45 minutes.
The first relatively light muddy section was discovered 2 miles in. It would stick to the bottom of my shoes, but not really slow down my pace. Once back on the gravel covered trail, the mud came off and we were off.
Just pass the 40-ac lake birding tower, running along the levee with water on both sides, Alex Ramsey passed me just after the sun arose. He was playing classical music through a speaker and running with a most heavenly peaceful smile on his face. While in front of me, he looked from side to side and opened his arms as if to be saying, “Thank you” to the nature and living things all around. I was taken with this scene before me. I looked up to see what could have been millions of black birds flying in ever-shape-changing clouds. They flew over me and I followed Alex’s lead and raised my hands towards the birds, thanking God above for this day, the health and opportunity to compete in this event, surrounded by such beauty. Alex went on to run a great race, lapping me somewhere along the way to a 3rd place finish.
The looped course eventually took us across Big Creek Bridge. We ran past the right hand turn that the course took us last year. A turn that lead to Hale Lake, the location where I threw in the towel a year ago. I was so glad we did not have to run by that site.
We crossed the road and the trail continued pass a blow up alligator strategically placed to scare the #@%! out of some unsuspecting runner. The clanging of a cowbell by a young boy brought me into Windmill Aid Station a mile later. A voice called out from behind the buffet table, “Its 100 Mile Mark!” I was a bit surprised to hear that! Fellow TROT Ambassador Marc Henn was working the aid station and was a friendly face for sure. I restocked my fest by grabbing a SkratchLab hydration refill and Skratch portables from my drop box and headed down the dreaded lonesome stretch to Sawmill Aid Station. This stretch consisted of a nearly straight jeep road then a nearly straight fence line trail that each seemed to go on for a thousand miles. I remembered loathingly this stretch of trail from both the BB100 and BB50 the year before. This year, I was mentally prepared to battle this monotony. The fence line trail footing was a bit uneven with leaves covering the terrain. The soil was damp and tacky, but in future loops would change for the worse.
After Sawmill, I was on my way back to the start for the first loop completion. I was met by many, many runners competing in the 50 mile, marathon or half marathon events. I was amused by their trail running noviceness, much like I was just two short years ago. One sight not amusing, but more powerful than any that day was coming upon an RWB runner, carrying Old Glory, and then shortly later seeing Bennie, a combat vet propelling his trail wheel chair along the trail. Both sights choked me up.
I passed the start in 2 hour 58 minues for the 16.7 mile loop and was feeling great. Edward, Daniel, Rob, Jeremy and others celebrated my first lap and I was stoked to have so many friends on my side. I restocked my fuel and left knowing I had 5 more laps, but I put my mind back in mission mode. I did a condition check and decided to take my first dose of Tylenol feeling discomfort in my right hip joint. The hip joints were problematic during June’s race and I wanted to stay on top of that.
It was at the start of the second loop that I decided to listen to my iPod that was wrapped away in water proofing plastic. It was not easy to change the songs. Having not taking the time to create a playlist, I simply played the songs alphabetically. I came upon a couple realizations. 1. Some artists were loaded twice on the iPod so I would have to listen to the same song twice in a row. Not really a problem regarding Michael Jackson songs, but the Darius Rucker songs, it was. 2. There are a lot of songs that start with the letter “B.” A lot as in, I don’t think I ever got into the C’s by the 5th loop when the iPod went back in the dropbox.
The next 15 miles went by uneventfully. I ran a lot, only slowing to walk through the isolated muddy spots. The weather stayed cloudy and I never needed sunglasses and it kept the heat down. Again, the humidity was not even on my radar, but I routinely took Succeed! salt pills as precaution. Leaving Windmill I established motivation for the dreaded stretch by planning to call my mom in Wisconsin if I ran continuously through it all. It worked and I chit-chatted with her as I walked on the away side of Sawmill. It was a nice diversion and I don’t remember the trail conditions being a problem in that stretch yet. I was now just past 30 miles in.
Another side note, it was at this time I checked my Facebook messages and found a random comment from a high school friend telling me to never forget the drink: Zima. I laughingly responded to him to remember that ceiling tiles were not strong enough to hold Zima when hiding them from the cops…. This lifted my spirits for some time!
Darkness fell around 6:00 approximately mile 57. I was on my final solo lap and knew that if I could just push to lap 5, my pacers would lead me to a finish. A late route change meant my first pacer would join me at mile 66. Although, I could have started my pacer at mile 50, I embraced the challenge to wait until mile 66. I wanted to pass mile 62, the distance of last year’s DNF, on my own. I wanted to prove to myself I was stronger and better prepared and that could do it myself. However, when darkness fell, I hit my first real low of the race. I had hoped to see my family at the 50 mile mark, but they were not there. Finally at mile 53 I texted my wife and said I missed her and the kids. To my surprise I got a return text immediately. They were at the 40 Acre aid station only 2 miles ahead. They had missed me at the turn by 30 seconds! I was so happy, I continued on, pressing those two miles for wonderful embraces. Leaving 40 Acre, my confidence was boosted and my mind was back in the game.
Mental and physical fatigue crept back by the time I got to the very next aid station, Windmill. Luckily, my dear friend and all around upstanding guy, Mark Kenney was there volunteering. He accompanied me out of the aid station and we walked together quite a while down the trail. He told me what I needed to hear and he helped lift the burdens I had placed upon myself. Unfortunately for him, he realized as he turned around to go back to Windmill, he did not have a headlamp!
Earlier in the afternoon, a light rain had fallen across the course. The isolated muddy areas became larger muddy areas. Great tacky dirt trails where I could earlier grip and rip had turned into long muddy stretches. The course just before and just after Sawmill became most miserable. As I forged through, I yelled out, “Get me out of this mud!” I looked on down the trail only to see more mud and a sign. The sign was a picture of Christopher Walken with the words, “No time for Walken.” I laughed hysterically not knowing because it was funny or whether I had just been pushed over the edge and had gone mad.
I pulled into the start/finish around 9:00 and 67 miles complete. My first pacer, Mark Wilburn was waiting and ready. After restocking, Mark and I ran out of the aid station and into the darkness. Mark was a trail racer newbie. He was not new to running having done many marathons. He was not a newbie to running in mud either, as he was Tough Mudder vet. He was a newbie to running at night, but his Tough Mudder experience came into play greatly as the rain continued to slowly grow the dreaded muddy areas. Mark had a brand new head lamp his wife purchased for him. He put on a shower cap to protect his head (I’m really not sure why, but it kept me smiling throughout the lap).
We were walking through the mud and running where we could, then suddenly at mile 71, I stopped dead in my tracks and whispered, “Mark, look at that!” A gator, easily 12 feet long, maybe 20, was standing, not laying, halfway on the trail. It was looking at us as we looked at him. The trail had lake on both sides so there was no way around the gator. The guidance given regarding gators was to pass behind them and never pass between them and the water. In this case both rules were unavoidable. We stood there, frozen. I, in fact, was grabbing Mark like a shield. Mark calmly proposed, like he had experience or something, to keep our bright lights shinning at the gators eyes and we slowly walked by. The gator started to back up and I knew we were gonna make it. As soon as we got sufficiently past, Mark and I took off like I hadn’t run a mile that day. We didn’t look back. He may not have been 20 feet long. I just know I could have fit inside him.
A few miles down the trail, the pain at the bottom of my feet had become unbearable. The slow creep of wet, muddy conditions had crept up on my feet and caused blistering. I had changed my socks at mile 32 and 66, but the condition remained. Each running stride hurt, so our effort became one of aggressive walking. The pace was good when not slip sliding through the greasy mud.
Mark was a great pacer as he would ask specific questions about drinking, eating and when we could push the pace. He told me stories to keep my mind occupied and paced like a veteran! I am thankful for his help and I think he enjoyed the muddy, late night mess.
Mile 84 brought us back to the start for the last time. It was about 2:30am. Mark went off to travel home for a shower and shut eye and Edward joined me for the final trek. Edward quickly learned that my pace had become a meaningful walk and began asking about the mud as he had been hearing horror stories. I said they were true and we’d be in it soon enough.
At mile 85 we were indeed back in it. The mud had expanded in width and previously grassed trail fringe had been trampled to become just as muddy and slippery. I made comment to Edward that I had yet to fall so things were well, when all of sudden I did just that. My feet slipped out in front of me and I landed on my right side, planting my forearm in the mud. For a split second I honestly thought, “Maybe I’ll break my arm and this race will be over.” I got up and was fine.
We continued out of the mud and onto the gravel trail. We passed the spot where Mark and I encountered the gator. He was nowhere to be seen. Thank goodness. But where WAS he? We continued and just before the wooden bridge at mile 87 we saw two eyes bounding along the shoreline. Edward was scared, and I was simply too tired to be scared. The eyes belonged to the largest raccoon I had ever seen!
Edward was an equally great pacer. He constantly looked around for wild animals which was funny to me. His head was on a swivel for the first part of loop before settling in. Edward would constantly check his watch ensure I was drinking and eating timely. He kept giving me praise and saying to just focus on making it to the next aid station.
The stretch from 40 Acre Lake to Windmill was my favorite stretch since there was no mud and the trail was varied between dirt, gravel and pavement. It twisted and turned and a portion included two-way traffic which allowed personal comparison to other runner’s conditions. “I look better than that guy” became my mental mantra. However, fatigue was setting in. Through this stretch, more than once, I found myself stager to the side. Edward noticed. We would find a park bench and I would sit down and close my eyes. It might have lasted only a minute, but I would pop up feeling 1000% better.
Upon reaching Windmill, I called for a chair. I closed my eyes again, but last year’s memory woke me up. I swallowed mash potatoes, ramen noodles and Coca-Cola. Suddenly I awoke from my grogginess. I got up and we headed towards Sawmill. One more aid station!
The mud became soul sucking to the point I didn’t care anymore. I walked through the deepest water puddles simply to take the shortest route. Oddly the water areas were less slippery than the muddy areas. The wetness was soaking into my shoes and further destroying the skin on my feet. I could feel blisters tear open and at one point was convinced I would simply have to sacrifice a toe or two.
Reaching Sawmill, my spirits were high as I knew we were almost done. Under 4 miles to go. The sun had risen behind the clouds which also helped the mood. I killed a grilled cheese sandwich, the best on the course was as Sawmill and we were off. A mile of slip sliding through the last of the soul sucking mud brought us to the jeep road. All of a sudden, a sound coming across the forest garnered our attention. We could hear screams from runners far off and then a wind came rushing. The temperature must have dropped immediately 20 degrees. I had on only a very light windbreaker and the rain came down. This was not the mist or light rain from earlier, it was downright ice cold monsoon. We began running for the first time in hours and thankfully we did as a tree blew down just 10 feet behind us across the trail!
Our run eventually fell back to a purposeful walk and closer to the end we got. As we approached the asphalt trail section near Creekfield Lake, I saw a boy standing with a sign. I thought, “Wow. That boy is waiting for his dad in this pouring, freezing rain. I wondered what the sign said and as I got closer I realized it was not a boy at all, but a bush and a post. Almost made it to the end without a hallucination.
Edward and I pushed on as the rain continued. We again began to jog. The cold was bone chilling, yet exhilarating at the same time. As we approached the finish line, I could see the crowd huddled under the picnic shelter and then individuals began to pour out into the rain towards the finish. Everyone was jumping around, shouting, and joking, “Hurry, its cold!” Smiles were on every face. At 25 hours 57 minutes, I crossed the finished and was mobbed by so many of my TROT friends. Rob handed me my buckle. The buckle I had been thinking about for over a year. It was in my hands and I had beaten Brazos Bend 100. It had tried to keep me from finishing, but I won! Race-demption.
Brazos Bend 100: 1, The 100 Mile Mark: 1. I will accept a draw with this formable opponent! I placed 16th overall with nearly 2/3 of the field DNF-ing. The next TROT race is the Horseshoe Trail Run on January 23, 2016. I’m hoping for more grip and rip and less slip and splash! See you there!