Last year at the Bandera 100k trail race, I took 1.5 hours off my PR (finishing in 14:13) and I was really happy with that. The Hill Country State Natural Area trails are rocky and technical, with women's winning times of around 12 hours. I enjoy the variety of terrain - short, steep hills, weaving singletrack, smooth roads, open field, plus rocks, rocks, and more rocks. I went back to run it again this year, figuring it would be a good start to Leadville 100 training. I kept last year's splits in my waistbelt, just in case I had a shot at another PR.
For the first time, I decided to start in the first third of the pack instead of near the back, and it was great being able to run the whole first section to Nachos without bottlenecks on the downhills. Somehow I made it up the climbs without feeling like I was slowing anyone down - because I was keeping up with the guys in front of me. Cool!
A couple other women and I went back and forth for a while. One was Melissa Heggen who remembered me from Silverton last summer. The three of us together passed two guys who were running a decent-but-not-quite-fast-enough pace. I heard them comment that we were flying, but one said "we'll see them later". At the awards ceremony, maybe, was my thought! Is that wrong?
I lost track of both woman while filling my bottle and SPIZ baggie at Nachos, no idea if they were ahead of me or behind me, so I decided not to worry about it. I guessed there were at least 5 women in front of me.
After the aid station, the field spread out and the trail eventually widened. Everyone was now free to run whatever pace they wanted - and my legs were still doing good, so I let them sail on the downhills and flats. I was careful to listen to them on the uphills, knowing that the key was to keep the legs happy as long as possible. "Power walking" is a skill I'm developing for this purpose.
I also focused on posture. In the GTA, my poles helped me stay upright - without the poles I have to think about it more. Whenever I reached the top of a rise, I'd pick up my knees and imagine that I was running like Buffy (of vampire slaying fame), and this helped me run without too much forward lean.
Through the flatter sections past Chapas and over to the field, I really enjoyed the fast pace and how that made the scenery fly by. It was a super windy day - but otherwise AWESOME weather (sunny and chilly). Only a couple times did I really feel like I was running into a headwind. Luckily one of those times was on a downhill into the field. Then the course turned back the other way, for some sweet tailwind for a long stretch. The main effect from the wind was that I decided not to use my iPod at all, because I didn't want to deal with the earbud cables blowing around.
Past Crossroads aid station, we ran a loop that included the Three Sisters climbs. I enjoy that part - three quick little hills with great views. My legs readjusted to the rocky terrain and I was still moving quite a bit faster than I had expected to. One major lesson I had learned from the GTA is that it's OK to breathe hard for long periods of time (like climbing a mountain) - as long as I take care of my legs, the rest of me will take care of itself.
After running that loop mostly alone, I returned to Crossroads. While pulling out an Ensure from my drop bag, I glanced over to the other half of the tent where runners were just about to start the Sisters loop. There were a bunch of people over there - one guy who I think I should recognize looked across at me and asked, "What are you doing over there?" Huh. Oh well, lots more course to cover, time to get moving.
The next section of trail kind of kicked me a bit in the butt. I didn't realize until later that it's actually a gradual climb - even though it looks mostly flat while running on it. I tried to run fast, but ended up alternating running with speed walking, and it seemed like I must be slowing down. I passed several 25k runners (Hi Becky!!) and it didn't feel like I was flying by them.
But when I got around to Last Chance, my split of 48 minutes totally shocked me. That's when I figured out that I WASN'T slowing down, that the trail back there had a gradual uphill slope to it. Cool.
I made the mistake of overfilling my SPIZ baggie with too much water. By the time I got to the top of Cairn's Climb, following a woman in pink shorts, I knew I needed to take it easy and let everything digest. Luckily my stomach was still functioning just fine, and after a bit of time and some helpful burps I was back on track.
Pink shorts reappeared on the last downhill of the loop. I love that downhill - it actually has switchbacks and is more runnable than most of the downhills out there. She was picking her way over rocks, so I ran on by.
I prepared for "the psychology of the loop change" - i.e. the one out-and-back spot on the course where you see the people closest to you. As I turned onto it, I saw two women heading out onto loop 2, then no other women at all (although I'm sure pink shorts followed me into the aid station where I lost track of her). It was nice to not have someone immediately chasing me with so much distance left to run.
I surprised John by arriving in 5:33 instead of the 6:35 from last year... he tried to help but ended up with the wrong drop bag. He ran to get the right one while I cheered him on. A quick Ensure drink and I was back on the course. Always nice to see the husband while racing :)
My next goal was to beat last year's split to Nachos. My legs were starting to lose their good nature, and it's a hilly section, so I didn't push up the hills but tried to maintain speed otherwise. Somehow I caught up with last year's winner, Melanie Fryer, which seemed strange but I guess she was having a slower day than normal. She moved aside on a downhill to let me pass.
I made it to Nachos in a split that was only 9 minutes slower than the first loop - that's interesting. I had started with a goal of a PR, then sub-14 seemed reachable, now I was thinking I could match last year's loop 2 time for sub-13. It all depended on my legs holding out. And they were starting to talk to me, like "hey, this is longer than a typical GTA day, what's up?"
My thighs occasionally twitched, working toward cramping up, which reminded me to keep drinking. I took in plenty of calories (250-300 per hour), but the Ensures are more concentrated than the SPIZ and I knew I was running slightly dehydrated (which I prefer to overhydration). Aid station volunteers started offering a wet cloth to wipe the salt off my face and drilling me on taking in enough salt.
OK legs, here are a couple flatter sections - what's it gonna be? Can we still run? Apparently yes, running was still an option. Speed walking uphill was becoming my favorite alternative method of locomotion. I focused on relaxing, breathing, drinking Gatorade, and running as much as I could. My split into Chapas was 12 minutes slower than loop 1, no problem.
A woman working the Chapas aid station (whose name I really should know) talked with me briefly, so I asked if she knew how many women were ahead of me? She guessed there were two, so I was in third. Excellent. On the other hand, I'm ahead of last year's winner, so who the heck else is here?
Through the flat section, in the woods, along the power line, across the field - still running, still moving OK, legs handling this part fine. I looked across the field and saw absolutely no one anywhere near ahead of me. Ah well, third place is good. I certainly can't ask more of my legs in terms of speed at this point. Even though, when I looked back behind me, I saw a couple runners and one of them looked like Melissa... I squinted to try to see, but couldn't tell for certain. Well, if she passes me, she will have worked for it.
I was in and out of the Crossroads aid station quickly. It was really exciting not having to take my headlamp yet - and not having to carry it either, since I'd return to the same drop bag in an hour. Plus, my split was less than 7 minutes slower than loop 1 - sweet!
Running out of the aid station, I spotted what looked like a woman runner just ahead - really?? Yes, it turned out to be Bridget DeLaRosa Herrejon, 2005 100k winner, along with a pacer. They were all bundled up, which must have taken some time since I obviously gained quite a few minutes on them at the aid station. They were talking about the lead woman, something about her being only 4 minutes ahead, and not ever having run in the dark before. But they apparently knew she had a good finishing kick.
I passed them as they were walking and they barely acknowledged me, but then they started running and I let them go on ahead. They had more speed along this section, moving well over the rocks and up/down the Sisters. I kept them in sight but didn't feel the need to chase. There were two more aid stations for them to spend time in, after all... and besides, I wasn't really excited about killing myself over second place.
Meanwhile, my legs were hurting. I could feel all the hills and no longer could take it easy on my legs while still maintaining any semblance of speed. On the bright side, this was the last quarter of the race, so I decided it was a good time to just ignore the legs and see what happens.
John was at Crossroads when I arrived for the last time, and he helped me with my drop bag (yes, the right one!). He had thought he might pace me from there to the finish, but wasn't ready to start running. Instead, he offered to meet me at Last Chance. Great! I asked him to bring my spare clothes there so I wouldn't have to carry them yet. It was getting on towards dark, and I wasn't cold yet, but I still had a couple hours to go.
I followed Bridget + pacer out of Crossroads, and they remarked that I must be freezing. Not yet, but who knows! They took off running again, while I followed at my normal slower pace. Then a strange thing happened - Bridget decided to walk for a bit, so she let me go by. "Are you sure?" I asked - she was. Darn, now I have to run up this gradual, long hill.
But somehow it felt super easy this time - like the adrenaline from passing someone kicked in, like I was closing in on the finish line and my legs were still with me. I decided I better keep running as long as I could, until Bridget decided to start running again, because she has the speed to catch me.
The big climb up Lucky's went OK, only two more big climbs to go. Some nice singletrack, a bit of road, then there was Last Chance. Last aid station, last SPIZ, last leg! My split into Last Chance was only 1.5 minutes slower than loop 1 - what the heck is going on? No questions, just go.
John was there, ready to run - sweet! I filled my bottle, filled my SPIZ baggie (not too much!), then the aid station volunteer told me that the lead woman had just left. OMG, I did not need to know that.
John asked me what my goal was now. I was mixing SPIZ and contemplating Cairn's Climb in front of us, so I answered "Just to finish" - which he didn't accept, but I told him I had to get up that hill first, and my legs are really tired. We watched the woman, who I believe is named Eliza, up ahead of us and listened to her chat with her pacer.
John gave me the scoop on the 25k race, how our friends did (congrats, y'all!), how he ran it 15 minutes faster than last year - but came in 6th place AGAIN (dang!). I turned my headlamp on and tried to focus on staying upright and missing the rocks with my toes.
I'd prefer to track someone from just behind them for as long as possible, but when we started a gnarly downhill section, there was Eliza right in front of me. She stepped aside, so what was I to do but go past? John and another guy were right behind me. We all said "Doing good!" and then there it was - I was in front. This is so bizarre.
John looked back to see that I was gaining quite a bit of ground on the technical downhill. That's great and all, but then there's a flat section and one more big uphill. I pushed along the flat and steeled myself for a difficult climb, one that I couldn't dream of relaxing on. Come on legs, stay with me! Oh, this is painful. John kept chattering away to try to give me something else to think about, and that helped. I was breathing so hard up the hill, trying to focus on getting through this.
Across the last ridge, a section I know well in the dark, all I could do was keep on running. Somebody's light was 50 meters behind us, then 30 meters. John kept looking back and giving me reports, but he couldn't tell if it was Eliza or a random male runner. I joked it could be some other stealth woman - which I decided wasn't actually funny. Regardless, that spurred me on to run just as hard as I could.
I bounded through the darkness, over rocks, trying to see the obstacles hurtling toward me while trying to find the best path, running partly on memory of having done this section so many times and partly on instinct. I almost went down a couple times, catching myself and then leaping forward. The word "pell-mell" came to mind.
The light behind us didn't catch up, perhaps because we were now on a really rocky section and I was getting a bit crazy with it. If it was Eliza right behind us (which we thought would be strange because that would mean her chatty pacer had gone completely quiet) at least the rocks might slow her down.
Then there was a slight uphill that meant that the downhill was just ahead - hallelujah! I barreled down, aiming for that finish line just ahead. John and I passed one guy, while I tried my best to stay on the trail instead of falling into the bushes like my body threatened to do.
We reached the bottom and turned onto the road - there were two lights behind us, so John dropped back to try to determine if one of them was attached to a female. One person came up to pass me, and I asked John if I should run? He said no, it was a guy, thank goodness! I have no idea if I could have actually sprinted, but I REALLY wasn't in the mood to find out.
We ran on in, I crossed the mat, and Race Director Joe seemed pretty surprised to see me. He asked if he could rub my head :) I love head rubs, so I obliged. Then I finally decided I had to ask - what place am I in, Joe? "You are... the first female" - WOO HOO!! Final time = 11:44, third fastest female in the 8 years of Bandera 100k's. How did that happen???
Eliza ran in a couple minutes later, then Melissa (the woman from the very start of the race) followed soon after, which shocked the heck out of me - any closer, and she would have been the "stealth woman" I was worried about.
Well, I'm still in shock, my legs are in shock, and it's great to be sitting down. I think I'll take tomorrow off from working out.